Looking Back

Hitler’s Survival

August 11, 2017

Multiple Pages
Hitler’s Survival

Robert Harris’ new novel, Munich, will be published in September. It’s too early to review it, but I’ve read a proof copy and can say it’s as intelligent and gripping as one has come to expect from Harris, while the depictions of Chamberlain and Hitler are brilliant. The novel also raises the question of army resistance to Hitler, something that critics of the Munich Agreement and elements in the German Foreign Office made much of after the war.

Was there indeed an army plot to arrest or even murder Hitler, and was this thwarted by the Munich Agreement?

Certainly some in the upper ranks of the army were very nervous in the autumn of 1938. They feared that Britain and France would stand by the Czechs; that this would make war inevitable (which was probably what Hitler wanted then); and that Germany would be defeated. So, the theory goes, they were ready to act against Hitler, but then the agreement made in Munich cut the ground from their feet by averting war that autumn.

It’s a tenable theory, but is it persuasive?

“Suppose there was indeed a plot, and Hitler had been arrested—even shot. What then?”

The Army commander-in chief, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, interrogated after the war when he was being held in a British internment camp in Wales, would have none of it. “Why do people go on about this?” he said. “I knew nothing about it. Hitler was hugely popular. There is no way the Army would have acted against him.”

The field marshal was already a sick man; he would die a few months later. He was awaiting his trial on charges of war crimes. It might have been in his interest to claim there had been a plot, which the “success” of Munich and the avoidance of war that year rendered unnecessary. But “there is no way the army would have acted against him” sounds pretty conclusive.

There were reasons for not doing so, the first being the likely consequences if any plot misfired. Second, all the officers in the High Command had taken an oath of loyalty to the Führer, and this oath mattered to them. Third, “Prussian generals don’t mutiny.”

One can’t be certain, but there is one interesting scenario that, to my knowledge, has been insufficiently explored.

Suppose there was indeed a plot, and Hitler had been arrested—even shot. What then? The Nazi penetration of the state, the army, and society had gone deep, very deep, by 1938. There would surely have been resistance to any army coup—for a coup is what it would have been – resistance from the party and from the SS. Moreover, given that Hitler was indeed “hugely popular,” the public reaction would have been shock, disapproval, and the denunciation of the leaders of the coup as traitors. One should remember that even in 1944, when Germany was doomed to lose the war, those engaged in the July Plot were seen as traitors and continued to be branded as such by millions for years after the war. Hitler, if shot in 1938, would have been a martyr; if held in prison, there would have been a counterplot to free him and restore him to power.

Would the rank and file of the Army, the sergeants and the junior officers, have supported the coup? The SS, powerful, disciplined, and feared, would have sought revenge. Hitler’s designated successor, Goering, was still a powerful figure, a ruthless man of action. I suspect that any initial success that the coup might have had would not have lasted long. There might even have been civil war. Such considerations must have been a deterrent to many officers who feared that Germany would lose any war in 1938–39, and were inclined to wish to be rid of Hitler. What is clear is that the number of senior officers who were so opposed to Hitler’s military adventurism, so afraid that this would lead Germany into a disastrous war, was quite small; and that they were aware that they didn’t have popular support. Only a handful were prepared to act, and many opponents of the regime would do so only if they had secured the approval and support of the Army High Command, which equally clearly wasn’t on offer. It’s also the case that right-wing nationalist anti-Nazis agreed with Hitler’s determination to upset the settlement imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. They approved of the Anschluss with Austria and, like Hitler, wished to regain lost German land in Czechoslovakia and Poland. They hated the Nazis, but not their foreign policy—so long as it was successful. And, as it turned out, the generals and senior officers remained loyal, bound by their oath, long after Hitler’s war was evidently being lost.

Indeed the German mystery of the war is not why Hitler wasn’t overthrown or assassinated, but why the army continued fighting so bravely and obstinately to the end.

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