Adolf Hitler was opposed by many within Germany. Below is a good article about that…

Schwarze Kapelle (Black Orchestra) from The Oxford Companion to World War II Gestapo name for the informal group of aristocrats, senior officers, and diplomats in Germany who opposed Hitler and talked about bringing him down, but were unable to do so.

Himmler and Heydrich between them had organized a system of terror and espionage so effective that even within this group there were tell-tales. Moreover, none of the group had had any clandestine training; they tended to keep diaries, in which they recorded conversations, wrote down names and addresses they would have done far better to memorize, made appointments by telephone in clear, and committed other elementary indiscretions against personal security.

The figurehead of the group was General Beck, chief of the general staff (CGS) from 1935 till he resigned in August 1938 in protest against Hitler’s plans to overawe Czechoslovakia; no one resigned with him, as he had hoped they would. He was to have been head of state after Hitler’s overthrow. A regular Prussian officer with a keen moral sense, he detested Nazi methods of violence and trickery but did not understand how to combat them. Most of his companions were in the same boat.

Their diplomatic adviser, Ulrich von Hassell (1881–1944), married to the daughter of Tirpitz the founder of the imperial German Navy, was German ambassador in Rome 1932–8. He was a diplomat of the old school, and favoured Germany’s retention of Austria and of the Polish corridor when peace terms were discussed, never realizing how wholly unacceptable such terms would be to the Allies. All of them were devout Christians.

Carl Goerdeler (1884–1945), mayor of Leipzig 1930–7, resigned his post when a bust of the composer Felix Mendelssohn was removed by the Nazis from his town hall. He was even more active than von Hassell in travelling round Germany and Europe, trying to organize opposition to Nazism, though he shared von Hassell’s views about what post-war frontiers would be acceptable. Goerdeler was the putative new regime’s probable chancellor.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian, also took a leading part in conversations and planning, and travelled to Stockholm in 1942 with a set of peace terms, which he tried to submit to the British through Bishop George Bell: they were turned down. Indeed the British foreign office, like MI6, having burned their fingers so badly at Venlo in 1939, were hostile to every approach made from Germany, believing all of them to be Gestapo fronts.

More serious help seemed to be available from Halder, Beck’s successor as CGS, who pronounced himself ready to lead a coup against Hitler in the autumn of 1938, from Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, and from Canaris’s deputy Hans Oster, who was given the task of finding a group of young officers who would storm Hitler’s chancellery. Nothing came of these arrangements because of the Munich agreement; and Halder went on to win Hitler’s principal victories for him.

Oster remained available to help what was left of the conspiracy; which could do nothing in 1940–2, the years when the Nazi tide was rising high. As it rose so those plotting Hitler’s overthrow became convinced that he would have to be assassinated, not just deposed. One of the most active conspirators in the attempt was Maj-General Henning von Tresckow, chief of operations at the HQ of Kluge’s Army Group Centre. His first attempt, known as the Smolensk Attentat, took place in March 1943.

On another occasion a bomb was placed in the pocket of a new style of officers’ greatcoat, which Hitler was to inspect; at the very last moment, the Führer changed his programme, and the would-be hero wearing the coat just had time to retire to a men’s room and remove the fuze from his bomb before it went off.

Tresckow made several other attempts to kill Hitler and after the abortive July 1944 bomb plot (see below) he committed suicide. With the Office of Strategic Services, once it had been formed, Beck and Goerdeler communicated through the German vice-consul in Zurich, Hans Bernd Gisevius (1904–74), who carried messages to Dulles in Berne. Nothing more than polite talk resulted.

A group centred on Helmut von Moltke (1907–45), great-grand-nephew of the hero of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, was called the Kreisau circle after his estate in Silesia where it met. Its members sympathized with the conspirators, though most of them—like Moltke himself—did not want actually to get involved in assassinations or coups d’état. They combined nobility of thought with practical incapacity; they did not spot the Gestapo informer planted on them.

In January 1944 Moltke was arrested and was hanged the following year. Ernst von Weizsacker (1882–1950), permanent head of the German foreign office from 1938 to 1943, when he moved to be minister in the Vatican, had (it turned out afterwards) anti-Nazi sympathies, but was not directly involved with the conspirators. However, he did encourage two junior diplomats, the Kordt brothers, Erich and Theo, who had approached the British foreign office in the summer of 1938, trying to get them interested in the plot; they were received with stony indifference.

Another diplomat, Adam von Trott zu Solz (1909–44), a descendant on his mother’s side of the first chief justice of the USA, had been a Rhodes scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, in the early 1930s and had many English friends; he also belonged to the Kreisau circle. He was so well placed socially that he was able to meet both Chamberlain and Halifax in the summer of 1939, and to try to draw them into negotiations about the future of eastern Europe, attempts that were frustrated by the Nazi–Soviet Pact.

With Weizsacker’s backing, he continued to travel in and out of Germany a good deal during the war, but was viewed with suspicion by the British, who suspected him of being an undercover Nazi agent.

In the summer of 1944 the conspirators at last found a competent saboteur to do their work for them: Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg (1907–44), a great-grandson of Count Gneisenau, a devout Roman Catholic, an officer in a cavalry regiment in peacetime and a distinguished staff officer in war. He was revolted by what he saw of SS and Wehrmacht brutality on the Eastern Front. Serving in Tunisia during the North African campaign, he was severely wounded in April 1943, losing his right hand, part of his left hand, and the sight of his left eye.

While he recovered from his wounds, he devised a plan called “Valkyrie”, which was to set up a military government in Berlin the moment that Hitler was assassinated, neutralize the Gestapo and SS, and sue for peace. Having met Beck and the other principal leaders of the conspiracy, he determined to commit the assassination himself. He was the better placed to do this, because his wounds would make him less likely than usual to be searched on approaching Hitler’s presence; and he had a staff post, as chief of staff of the Replacement Army, which gave him frequent access to Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg in east Prussia.

There, at the fourth attempt, on 20 July 1944 he placed a briefcase containing a kilogram of SOE’s plastic explosive, with a ten-minute time pencil working inside it, beneath the table at which Hitler was holding his morning conference. He then slipped out of the room “to make a telephone call”. By a stroke of bad luck, he had been summoned to his Führer’s presence before he had time to put a second kilogram of explosive into the briefcase; and by another, the conference that day was held in a hut out of doors, instead of the usual underground concrete bunker, which was being redecorated.

Stauffenberg saw the hut explode, was confident Hitler was dead, relied on General Erich von Fellgiebel—another conspirator—to cut all communications between the headquarters and the outside world, bluffed his way out of the enclosure, and took an aircraft to Berlin to set the rest of “Valkyrie” in train.

Several things went wrong. Hitler was severely shaken, debagged, and only lightly wounded, but not killed. Three of his staff died, but most of the bomb’s force was dissipated through the hut’s thin walls. Fellgiebel was not able to cut off all the telephone, teleprinter, and wireless channels out of the Führer’s headquarters at once.

By the time Stauffenberg got to Berlin, he found most of the leading conspirators gathered in the war ministry in the Bendlerstrasse, wondering what to do. Teleprinted orders to execute “Valkyrie” went all over the Wehrmacht; only in Paris were they taken seriously. There, the principal SS leaders were put in prison; they hesitated to come out next day, when the plot was over, because they knew so well the technique of reporting their victims as “shot while attempting to escape”.

Otto-Ernst Remer, the major commanding the Grossdeutschland guard battalion in Berlin, was sent to arrest Goebbels. That arch-conspirator outwitted “Valkyrie”: he put Remer in direct telephone touch with Hitler (who promoted him from major to colonel on the spot), and Remer took his battalion back to the Bendlerstrasse where he arrested all the conspirators he could find.

One of those on the fringe of the conspiracy was General Friedrich Fromm (1888–1945), the commander of the German Replacement Army, who attempted to cover his tracks by ordering the immediate execution of those involved. (It did him no good. He was arrested the next day, tortured, tried, and executed the following March.) Stauffenberg was shot in the courtyard that night; he was lucky.

Most of his co-conspirators, undone by their personal lack of security, came to horrible ends, hanged on hooks by piano wire. Hitler is said to have had their final agonies filmed, and to have enjoyed watching them squirm, as they died. Two officers, Kluge and Rommel, who still held high commands at the time of the plot, were incriminated, too, and chose suicide to the alternatives that awaited them. Germans continue to debate whether Stauffenberg did right or wrong.

M.R.D.Foot Balfour, M., Withstanding Hitler (London, 1988).

Hoffmann, P., The History of the German Resistance 1933–1945 (2nd edn., London, 1977).

Klemperer, K. von, German Resistance against Hitler (Oxford, 1992).

From The Oxford Companion to World War II