The men and women who resisted Hitler have been cast as heroes and villains of both the left and right. The conspirators and their actions have been remembered in black and white, with the viewer choosing the colours with which to paint them. In Danny Orbach’s new history of the resistance, The Plots Against Hitler, he very convincingly shows us that rather than pure saints or sinners, the complexity and contradictions of the conspirators makes them that most difficult of things to digest, human.
Orbach starts his look at the resistance by describing how utterly Hitler and the Nazi Party destroyed all political resistance to his rule after coming to power in 1933. The leaders of the Communist, liberal, left and right wing elements of the German political spectrum were marginalised and removed so effectively, and brutally, that there really was no political system left until the fall in 1945. In this vacuum, Hitler pushed his limits continuously. The Night of the Long Knives removed Rohm and SA, the moves into the Sudetenland, Austria and Czechoslovakia showed the western powers impotent and also that no one in Germany spoke up against him. The Jews and other undesirables (Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals to name but a very few) were rounded up and sent to the newly established concentration camps around Germany.
In this febrile atmosphere of elation of Germany reestablishing herself, a few people started gathering together and discussing the situation. In what Orbach calls the “Berlin Clique” the two major attempts in 1938 and 1944 had their genesis. Men like Hans Oster from military intelligence, his boss, the head of the Abwehr, Wilhelm Canaris, a former Gestapo agent who turned against the Nazis, Hans Bernd Gisevius and the former mayor of Leipzig, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler would be the heart of the resistance until its death. These men would gather, discuss and plot. Into their circle came high ranking officers of the Wehrmacht who were worried about the increasing military expansionism and the fear of the fate of Germany should they confront Britain and France. The most important of these officers was the chief of the General Staff, Ludwig Beck. Beck would become the figurehead of the resistance. Throughout the abortive attempt at a coup in 1938, when the conspirators waited for a military setback that never came, the attempts by General Henning von Tresckow and his exploding bottle of Cointreau, to the infamous 20th July Plot planned and executed by von Tresckow and Claus von Stauffenberg, this clique was at the centre of them all.
And yet, the man who came closest to killing Hitler, was a carpenter and watchmaker named Georg Elser. Elser, with no network or outside help, figured out where Hitler would be on the 8th November 1939, in The Bürgerbräukeller in Munich remembering the attempted putsch in 1923. He built himself a bomb, hollowed a pillar in the beer hall, set his bomb that had a full redundancy timer and left. He missed Hitler by 15 minutes after Hitler cut his speech short and left early. The explosion killed eight people and injured sixty-two, he was deeply upset that his attempt clamed other lives than Hitler’s. Elser was caught at the border and spent the next five years in Sachsenhausen, before being moved to Dachau and executed on 9th April 1945.
The psychology of each of these attempts and the mutations of the conspiratorial cells themselves is taken in turn. It is this element of the book that Orbach excels at. The men involved, almost to a man, had dark elements to their pasts. Most were as anti-semitic as any Nazi, such as Arthur Nebe, a member of the 20th July Plot who was the commander of Einsatzgruppe B in 1941 and responsible for the murder of over 41,000 people. My own “hero” of the resistance, Henning von Tresckow, had command responsibility for the abduction of thousands of children from the Eastern Front.
The chapter on the 20th July Plot opens with a caveat I don’t think I have ever read before. Orbach explains that there is next to no writings by von Stauffenberg that have survived. His legacy is painted by those who survived and almost all have painted him as a saint. Which was not the case, he was an uncompromising man. Hard on his troops and his family. A Prussian officer to the core.
This depth that Orbach gives us showers the scene in a myriad shades of grey. They had dreams and ideas that German would be able to keep much of what they had taken (the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia for example), they wanted to close the camps, but not overly happy to let the Jews remain in Germany. To turn on Hitler, these men were offering up not only their lives, but those of their families and friends, to kill Hitler.
What Orbach does so well in his book is that he paints as full a portrait as possible of each of the conspirators and then, to a certain extent, lets you make up your own mind. The complexity of each of their choices is laid bare and this can leave you conflicted and uncomfortable. These contradictions are what make these men real and Orbach paints them with a fine brush.
The Plots Against Hitler is an utterly fascinating read. Orbach rightly puts the emphasis on the men and women involved in the conspiracies, rather on the attempts themselves. As we know they didn’t work out, the actors are more important than the action. If one was to pick a very few holes, Orbach does follow the current trend to “westernise” the ranks of the Wehrmacht, which do I feel does a disservice to the reader. If you are going to pick up a book about German officers trying to kill Hitler, at least let them keep their proper rank. Understanding the differences in the structures of competing armies adds depth to one’s understanding overall. Also, the nature of the narrative means that there is some repetition of events and explanations. While not a huge issue, this can drag you from the narrative momentarily. But these are small points in a very impressive work. That Orbach tries, and in my opinion succeeds, in letting the conspirators and their actions, where possible, speak for themselves allows you to draw your own conclusions about these people who tried to change history. Danny Orbach has written a powerful and very timely history of a complex and complicated series of events. To kill you need killers, against Hitler arose some of his best. While they were able to wipe some of the blood from their hands for their attempts, they are forever stained by it too, very much “Knights in Dirty Armour”.
The Plots Against Hitler by Danny Orbach is published by Head of Zeus (who kindly provided this review copy) and is published in the UK on the 13th July 2017.