Books: The luck of the Devil

Frank McLynn reads a tale of chronic ineptitude in time of war
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Plotting Hitler's Death. German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945 by Joachim Fest, Weidenfeld, pounds 20

According to David Hume, rebellion against tyranny is only justified if the tyranny is "egregious". But, it seems, this is exactly the sort of despotism one cannot successfully revolt against. And, as Joachim Fest shows in this brilliant study, the odds on would-be rebels against the Third Reich were very long. The so-called "German resistance" was in fact a number of uncoordinated groups irresolute in action, bedevilled by Hitler's uncanny luck, and shamefully let down by the Allies.

Horrified by the evil of the Nazis, the persecution of the Jews and the prospect of catastrophe for Germany, a core of dissident Army officers provided the cutting edge of this fissiparous and heterogeneous "resistance". There were major plots against Hitler's life in 1938, 1940 and again in 1942, all of which fizzled out. Then there was the one everybody remembers: the Stauffenberg bomb plot of 20 July, 1944. Hitler seemed to have an animal instinct for danger, often upsetting conspirators' plans by suddenly leaving a venue early on a hunch.

But Hitler's good luck was not the only factor in the failure of the Resistance to make any impact before the Stauffenberg plot. His enemies in the armed forces were riddled with moral and philosophical doubts about the meaning of the oaths of personal loyalty they had sworn and, after Stalingrad, by the conviction that Hitler was doomed anyway. They consistently made the mistake of basing the initiation of a coup on events they could neither control, nor accurately predict. Nor was there ever a central figure of authority who could unite the different groups. It is in this context that Stauffenberg gains in heroic stature. As Fest remarks: "If Stauffenberg had not appeared, the conspirators would have spent the rest of the war discussing the insurmountable problems impeding them."

The errors made in Stauffenberg's July plot are indicative. Singularly revealing is this comment by one of the leading conspirators on the morning of 20 July: "What are we going to do if the assassination really is today?" This is of a piece with the amateurism of the plotters. They urgently needed to achieve two aims: to cut all communications to the "Wolf's Lair" in eastern Prussia where Stauffenberg was to explode his bomb, and to make sure that Hitler was assassinated.

They did neither. Stauffenberg's bomb blew up the conference room, wounding dozens, but Hitler escaped with scratches. Because the pusillanimous conspirators had palmed off the actual assassination attempt on the physically handicapped and amateurish Stauffenberg, disaster ensued. Stauffenberg carried two bombs with him but did not know that he should have placed the second bomb in his briefcase alongside the one whose timer had already been activated. The detonation of one would have set off the other and a two-bomb explosion would have wiped out everyone in the room. A coup was supposed to follow the assassination, but the plotters were so inept that they did not cut the communications from the Wolf's lair.

Yet the most grievous blows to those who resisted Hitler were dealt by the Allies. Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, was on the point of staging a putsch when Chamberlain pulled the plug by acceding to Hitler at Munich. Chamberlain's contempt for the German opposition to Hitler set the tone for things to come. The Allied call for unconditional surrender at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 cut the ground from under the German Resistance, as there was now no incentive to oppose the Fuhrer; to the general charge of treasonable lack of patriotism could be added the accusation that the Resistance proposed abandoning German homes and families to the dubious mercy of the Red Army. Not even the July plot shook the Allies from their dogmatism. Churchill described the Stauffenberg bomb as faction- fighting within the Nazi party and the BBC broadcast the names of the conspirators, in what Fest calls ironically "one last favour for Hitler." After the war it was the same story. As Fest comments: "Those who had risked everything in their struggle against the Nazis were held prisoners by the Allies for years, in many cases even longer than their Nazi foes."

Fest's findings are depressing and nowhere more so than when he concludes that even if Stauffenberg had blown the Fuhrer to eternity, the coup would not have succeeded. Most of the Army showed no inclination to join the rebels, and not a single officer spontaneously joined the rising on 20 July, even though for much of that day it was widely believed that Hitler was dead. Those who have admired Joachim Fest's previous studies of the Third Reich will find this meticulously documented study well up to his superlative standard; but it is a depressing read nonetheless.