Germany this week is honoring the people who attempted to assassinate Adolph Hitler 75 years ago, in July 1945. But why? Because to this day the Germans cling to this failed coups as a symbol of the resistance to Nazism in their country. Unfortunately, it was no such thing.
It is surely understandable that the German people so desperately wish to find something, anything, which shows that they did not all support Hitler and to “save the honor” of Germany. The problem is people such as the would be assassin himself, Claus von Stauffenberg, and the popular German general Irwin Rommel who was implicated in the coups, were not motivated by any sense of regret or opposition to basic Nazi dogma.
As for the failed coups itself, I will not review its details here. It is enough to remember that a number of generals and some of the old Guard Prussian Elite conspired to assassinate Hitler and take over the German government. They intended to either arrest or kill the senior Nazi leadership – people like Goering and Himmler – and to shut down the SS and the Gestapo. They failed.
The question we must ask is, “why did they do it?” To answer that we need only look at what they planned. They were not interested in ending the war, ending the German occupations of various European nations, nor ending German racist/anti-Semitic and belligerent policies. Their plans were to offer the Americans and British some sort of deal in the West so that Germany could continue the fight against Communism in the East. They believed that with Hitler out of the way the Americans would see the light and agree to fight the common enemy.
However, they did not intend to give up all of Germany’s gains. They wanted Germany to return to its full 1914 borders and to keep Austria, the Sudetenland and parts of Poland. Even had the plotters unilaterally withdrawn from all of the occupied areas in the West, the Allies would have not done business with them. America would have insisted that they also withdraw from all territories in the East and return to Germany’s pre-war borders. The Allies would also have insisted on a post-war occupation of Germany.
These people may have never liked Hitler. None of the Prussian or German military elite ever liked him. However, they had no problem with his victories. When the German economy boomed before World War II, when Germany annexed Austria, Half of Czechoslovakia and all parts of Poland that had been in greater Germany before the First World War, and when France, Belgium, Holland, Norway and Denmark were overrun in a matter of weeks, the coups plotters were not so displeased with Hitler. They were also happy with the invasion of the Soviet Union, if only at first.
There is also no evidence to suggest that they opposed Hitler’s racist policies, which declared Germans the master race and East Europeans inferior to them. What evidence is there that they opposed the use of slave labor in the occupied lands or the mass murder of Jews?
These senior military officers could have simply resigned their commissions at any time. However, they did not. Rommel was even credited with moving forward the war effort with victories against the Allies in North Africa.
So what happened? They soured on Hitler and his leadership only after it was clear that he had bungled the invasion of Russia. Hitler refused to listen to his generals and insisted on wasted sieges of cities like Leningrad and Moscow, which had no strategic importance. The siege and eventual capture of Stalingrad was equally as useless and led to a military disaster for the German army. Hitler also insisted on wasting Germany’s limited resources building new and ridiculously huge weapons, such as the Tiger tank, which proved too hard to build and ineffective.
(You can find more examples of Hitler’s military stupidity probably costing Germany the War in Russia just about everywhere.)
The last straw in their minds was the successful Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Hitler failed to see the urgency and continued to think that further landings would come elsewhere. This is why he did not release reserve forces in a counter attack in Normandy. Ironically, if General Rommel had had his way the German tanks would have sat uselessly along the beaches of Calais where no landings occurred.
In fact, Rommel was not even at his command post in France at the time of the Normandy landings. He had gone home for a visit.
Rommel never really opposed Nazism and he was an early supporter of Hitler. He only played a passive part in the plot, knowing about it but not participating. He was a fence sitter. Because Hitler so adored Rommel, when the time came he was allowed to commit suicide with a heart attack inducing pill and then given a state funeral, instead of arrest and execution which was the fate of the other conspirators.
However, because of his involvement in the plot and his earlier successes in Africa, Rommel was lionized by the Allies and remembered as the “Good German.” It makes sense that Germans want to hold him up as a martyr for what was a non-existent resistance to Hitler. They need to believe that there were some “Good Germans.”
But why did people in the West fall for this? Rommel was no anti-Nazi, nor was he even such a great general. Yes, he did have some quick early successes against the British in Libya. However, Rommel blundered badly at El Alamein, after which the British pushed him westward, back into Tunisia and eventually out of Africa.
As for Claus von Stauffenberg, he bears just as much guilt as all of the rest for the early German victories that allowed the Holocaust to occur. He fought in both France and Russia. He fought in North Africa where he was badly wounded losing an eye, his left hand and two fingers on his right hand. As with the rest, it took the failures of Stalingrad, Kursk, the deposition of Mussolini in Italy, and the Normandy landings to convince him to take action.
If you want to learn more about true acts of heroism by ordinary Germans who resisted Nazism then read the book “Every Man Dies Alone.” You can also see the movie “Alone in Berlin” with Emma Thompson and Brendon Gleeson, which is based on the book. (Read my great review here.) It tells the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a working class middle-aged married couple who committed various acts of civil disobedience during World War II and who were caught and executed for their activities.
As for Germans today, I would say to them that it is time to stop lionizing a few people who acted largely out of self-interest and personal disdain for the man Hitler, and not against the barbarities on Nazism. They also believed in a “Greater Germany” and the lesser status of other peoples. This is evident in what Stauffenberg reportedly shouted just before his execution by firing squad: “Long live great Germany.”