In a Spectator article, Matthew Olex-Szczytowski argued that the German officers who tried to kill Hitler, did so only to save Germany from defeat, and were themselves Nazi war criminals.
The first argument is blatantly wrong. In fact, the conspirators tried to overthrow Hitler long before defeat was imminent. The first attempt to assassinate the Führer took place in 1938, one year before the war. The conspirators tried again in 1939 and 1940, when the Nazi regime was still triumphant. Many of them joined the movement in order to oppose Hitler’s genocidal policies. Their resistance to the Holocaust and the crimes against Poles and Russians is documented in wartime diaries, postwar testimonies, Gestapo documents and Soviet interrogation transcripts. Claus von Stauffenberg, the would-be assassin of Hitler, said in 1942 that “they are shooting Jews in masses. These crimes must not be allowed to continue.” Germany could not and should not win the war, because that would allow Hitler to continue murdering Jews and committing other horrors.
Olex-Szczytowski justly argues that the Wehrmacht was deeply complicit in war crimes. Fighting in the Eastern Front was accompanied by mass atrocities against Russians, Poles and other populations, starvation of POWs and above all, unprecedented genocide of Jews. Commanders on this front were all involved, in different degrees. All were obliged to fight partisans, according to an extremely cruel protocol of counterinsurgency. All gave military cover and logistical support to the murder units. Many did so enthusiastically, and with great viciousness.
Even the conspirators could not dissociate themselves from this murderous reality. As clandestine underground fighters, exposing themselves by disobeying orders was sheer folly. In addition, as commanders, they felt responsible to their troops, and had to fight both enemy soldiers and partisans. The only way to keep one’s conscious clean was to resign, but that would be selfish. Their ability to kill Hitler, from the first attempts in 1938 to the final one in July 1944, depended on access to bombs, troops and approach to the Führer. Resignation from their posts precluded effective resistance.
Given the difficult circumstances, the military conspirators did all they could. Tresckow, Stauffenberg and many others protested against the war crimes in their sectors. Other conspirators, such as Admiral Canaris and General Oster, used their military positions to save numerous Jews in rescue operations codenamed Aquilar and U7. Most importantly, they risked their lives in order to kill Hitler, the only move that could have saved all victims – Polish, Soviet and Jewish alike. On July 20, 1944, during their abortive coup d’état, the conspirators ordered the district commanders to occupy all concentration camps, disarm the guards and prepare the prisoners for liberation.
The conspirators were indeed patriotic Germans, and planned to save German honor, soil and military power by overthrowing Hitler and the Nazi regime. And yet, in 1944, they knew that the allies refused any concessions. After the coup, their own anti-Nazi government would have to unconditionally surrender. Germany will be occupied, probably divided. And yet, even when they knew that Germany will gain nothing from the coup d’état, the conspirators decided to go ahead. General von Tresckow famously said that “The assassination of Hitler must take place coûte que coûte [cost what it may]. Even if it does not succeed, the coup d’état must be attempted. The point now is not the practical purpose, but to prove to the world and before history that the German resistance have staked their all and put their lives on the line. Beside that, nothing has any weight.” General Ludwig Beck, the commander-in-chief of the movement, said that “The decisive question is not even the consequences for the nation. The decisive, intolerable fact is that for years crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, and we have to put an end to it using all the means at our disposal.”
The conspirators of July 20 were certainly not knights in shining armour. In the real world, armours are not shining but rather tarnished and scratched. Tresckow himself admitted that in such a criminal war, there were no innocent German officers, not even the conspirators. The important question is not one of moral purity, a sheer impossibility under the circumstances. As Beck said, it was also not the practical question of success. The only important question was: did the conspirators try to stop the most horrific war in human history? The answer is yes – they did try. For that reason alone, we should cherish their memory.
Dr. Danny Orbach is a military historian from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of The Plots against Hitler