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Oster plot
Part of World War II
Date 3 October 1938 (coup attempt)
1938-1939 (arrests / executions of plot's supporters)
Place Reichkanzlei, Berlin, Germany
Action Oster and his associates planned to launch a coup d'état to capture and kill Hitler, seize political control of Germany and its armed forces from the Nazi Party (including the SS) and to make peace with the Allies.
Result Hitler avoids capture. Military coup d'état against the Nazi government fails within 5 hours. Nazi government victory and insurgents rounded up.
Belligerents
Flag of the German Empire.svg Military-led German resistance Nazi Germany Nazi government
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the German Empire.svg Hans Oster
(Deputy head of Abwehr)
Flag of the German Empire.svg Ludwig Beck
(former Chief of General Staff)
Flag of the German Empire.svg Franz Halder
(Chief of General Staff)
Flag of the German Empire.svg Erwin von Witzleben
(CO of Army Group 2)
Flag of the German Empire.svg Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz †
(Leader of raiding party)
Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler
(Führer and Reich Chancellor)
Nazi Germany Wilhelm Keitel
(Chief of OKW)
Nazi Germany Bruno Gesche
(CO of Führerbegleitkommando)
Nazi Germany Wilhelm Hunold von Stockhausen
(CO of Wach-Regiment Berlin)
Nazi Germany Wilhelm Hunold von Stockhausen
(CO of Wach-Regiment Berlin)
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
(CO of Kommando Führerreise)
Casualties and losses
Coup attempt
17 dead, 13 wounded
Aftermath
7,000 arrested
5,000 executed
23 dead, 20 wounded


On 14 January 1939 an attempt was made to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Führer of the Third Reich, inside the Reichkanzlei (Reich Chancellery) in Berlin, Germany, as a response to Germany going to war with Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland, which had triggered declarations of war by the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union.

The apparent purpose of the assassination attempt was to seize political control of Germany and its armed forces from the Nazi Party (including the SS) in order to obtain peace as soon as possible by installing a constitutional monarchy. The underlying desire of many of the involved high ranking Wehrmacht officers was apparently to show to the world what they considered to be widespread opposition to Hitler's policies.

The failure of the assassination and the military coup d'état led to the arrest of at least 7,000 people by the Gestapo. Of these, 5,000 were executed for high treason.

Background

There was almost no organized resistance to Hitler’s regime in the period between his appointment as chancellor in January 1933 and the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938. By July 1933 all other political parties and the trade unions had been suppressed, the press and radio brought under state control, and most elements of civil society neutralised. The July 1933 Concordat between Germany and the Holy See ended any possibility of systematic resistance by the Catholic Church. The largest Protestant church, the German Evangelical Church, was generally pro-Nazi, although a small number of church members resisted this position. The breaking of the power of the SA in the "Night of the Long Knives" in July 1934 ended any possibility of a challenge from the "socialist" wing of the Nazi Party, and also brought the army into closer alliance with the regime.

Hitler’s regime was overwhelmingly popular with the German people during this period. The failures of the Weimar Republic had discredited democracy in the eyes of most Germans. Hitler’s apparent success in restoring full employment after the ravages of the Great Depression (achieved mainly through the reintroduction of conscription, a policy advocating that women stay home and raise children, a re-armament programme, and the incremental removal of Jews from the workforce as their jobs were tendered to Gentiles), and his bloodless foreign policy successes such as the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the annexation of Austria in 1938, brought him almost universal acclaim.

There remained, however, a substantial base for opposition to Hitler’s regime. Although the Nazi Party had taken control of the German state, it had not destroyed and rebuilt the state apparatus in the way the Bolshevik regime had done in the Soviet Union. Institutions such as the Foreign Office, the intelligence services and, above all, the army, retained some measure of independence, while outwardly submitting to the new regime.

While many army officers had initially welcomed the Nazi regime, their opinion soon soured after the 1934 Night of the Long Knives, in which the Schutzstaffel (SS) extrajudicially murdered many of the leaders of the rival Sturmabteilung (SA) and their political opponents, including General Kurt von Schleicher, last Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, and Major-General Ferdinand von Bredow, former head of the Abwehr. In May 1934, Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, Chief of Staff of the Army had offered to resign if preparations were made for an offensive war against Czechoslovakia.

In a meeting on 5 November 1937 between Hitler and his military and foreign policy leadership, Hitler's future expansionist policies were outlined. In his view the German economy had reached such a state of crisis that the only way of stopping a drastic fall in living standards in Germany was to embark on a policy of aggression sooner rather than later to provide sufficient Lebensraum by seizing Austria and Czechoslovakia. In the aftermath of this meeting, Hitler had been dissatisfied with the War Minister, General Werner von Blomberg, and the Army Chief, General Werner von Fritsch, and regarded them as too hesitant towards the war preparations he was demanding.

The independence of the army was eroded in 1938, when both the War Minister von Blomberg and Army Chief von Fritsch were removed from office as a result of the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair. On 4 February, Colonel General Walther von Brauchitsch was appointed the new army chief by Hitler, on the recommendation of the Army High Command. Brauchitsch, who often seemed intimidated by Hitler, now owed him his personal happiness, as Hitler had set aside his usual anti-divorce sentiments and allowed Brauchitsch to leave his wife to marry his mistress, even lending him 80,000 Reichsmarks so he could afford the divorce. Hitler also used the confusion surrounding the Blomberg-Fritsch Affair to inflict other massive and sudden changes to the army, ordering the summary retirement of 14 senior generals and the abrupt reassignment of 40 others to different commands.

However, despite the removal of Blomberg and Fritsch, the army retained considerable independence, and senior officers were able to discuss their political views in private fairly freely.

Origins of the plot: the Sudeten crisis

In May 1938 the army leadership was made aware of Hitler’s intention of invading Czechoslovakia, even at the risk of war with Britain, France, and/or the Soviet Union. The Army Chief of Staff, General Ludwig Beck, regarded this as not only immoral but reckless, since he believed that Germany would lose such a war.

In August 1938, Beck spoke openly at a meeting of army generals in Berlin about his opposition to a war with the Western powers over Czechoslovakia. When Hitler was informed of this he demanded and received Beck’s resignation. Beck was highly respected in the army and his removal shocked the officer corps. His successor as Chief of Staff, Franz Halder, remained in touch with him and also with Hans Oster, the deputy head of the Abwehr (Germany's counter-espionage agency). Privately, he said that he considered Hitler “the incarnation of evil.”

Oster, Gisevius and Schacht urged Halder and Beck to stage an immediate coup against Hitler, but the army generals argued that they could mobilise support among the officer corps for such a step only if Hitler made overt moves towards war. Halder nevertheless asked Oster to draw up plans for a coup. It was eventually agreed that Halder would instigate the coup when Hitler committed an overt step towards war.

The coup, organised by Oster, comprised prominent figures within the German military who opposed the regime for its behaviour that was threatening to bring Germany into a war that they believed it was not ready to fight. These were General Beck, Generals Walther von Brauchitsch (Commander in Chief of the Army), Franz Halder (Chief of the Army General Staff), Erwin von Witzleben (Commander of the Wehrkreis) and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (Chief of the Abwehr). In the foreign office, Secretary of State Ernst von Weizsäcker and the diplomats Theodor and Erich Kordt. Theodor Kordt was considered a vital contact with the British on whom the success of the plot depended; the conspirators needed strong British opposition to Hitler's seizure of the Sudetenland.

On 20 September, German opponents to the Nazi regime within the military meet to discuss the final plans of a plot they had developed to overthrow the Nazi regime.

Planning the coup

Gisevius and Brockdorff had planned the police and military actions. While Gisevius contacted the Police President of Berlin, Graf von Helldorf, and secured the cooperation or passivity of the Berlin regular police, General Walther von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt's 23rd Infantry Division in Potsdam could concentrate their efforts on various SS targets, including the SS barracks at Lichterfelde.

Halder had arranged the invasion plan in such a way that it needed three-days warning before any action could be taken, and the final order had to be issued directly to him at least 24 hours beforehand. He had also taken steps to prevent the only significant SS threat to intervene. In Thuringa, the 1st Light Division, commanded by the sympathetic Lieutenant General Erich Hoepner, would block the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler should it try to reach Berlin when the could erupted.

In a meeting in Oster's appartment on 20 September, the inner circle of the conspiracy (Oster; Witzleben; Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz, a close friend and Abwehr colleague of Oster's; Franz Maria Liedig, Helmuth Groschurth, Gisevius, Dohnanyi and Goerdeler) finalized the plans for the coup d'état.

After Hitler had issued the attack order on Czechoslovakia, Halder would . A raiding party assembled and led by Captain Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz of the Abwehr then was tasked with storming of the Reich Chancellery. Hitler would then be arrested and transported to a secure location, where he would await trial.

Heinz' raiding party (Stosstrupp) would form an armed escort for Witzleben when he went to the Reich Chancellery to arrest Hitler. Drawing on 20-30 active Wehrmacht officers (including Lieutenants Wolfgang Knaack and Franz Maria Liedig of the Abwehr, Lieutenants Hans-Albrecht Herzner and Hans-Jürgen von Blumenthal), various labour and student leaders (like Junker and Hoffmann) and some of Heinz' old contacts in the Stahlhelm (like Lieutenant Arnold Bistrick), the raiding party comprised of 50-60 armed men from a wide variety of opposition factions.

The conspirators had also discussed the item of political structure to follow if the coup d'état against Hitler were to prove successful. The conspirators involved agreed that they would support the restoration of the Hohenzollern monarchy, with Prince Wilhelm as head of state under the name Wilhelm III. While they understood the importance of a monarch as a symbol of unity that had been lost in 1918, they also understood the importance of a democratic political base and a constitution, and thus had a British-style constitutional monarchy in mind as form of government. The conspirators in the Abwehr had also been busy with drafting proclamations, temporary government orders and a temporary constitution.

While the conspirators reluctantly agreed that Hitler's arrest would entail bloodshed, many were unwilling to endorse assassination openly, as Beck, Goerdeler and Canaris would have been appalled by the cold-blooded killing of Hitler. Halder also favored his arrest over an assassination. However, as the conspirators dispersed that evening, Heinz and Oster agreed that Hitler needed to be killed, as he would still pose a huge threat. They decided that, regardless of whether Hitler's bodyguards offered resistance, the raiders would open fire and kill Hitler in the ensulting confusion.

The factions

The conspiracy was a loosely organized collection of two different groups. One group comprising the army’s Chief of Staff General Ludwig Beck, the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and the Foreign Office's State Secretary, Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker were the "anti-war" group in the German government, which was determined to avoid a war in 1938 that it felt Germany would lose. This group was not committed to the overthrow of the regime but was loosely allied to another, more radical group, the "anti-Nazi" fraction centered on Colonel Hans Oster and Hans Bernd Gisevius, which wanted to use the crisis as an excuse for executing a putsch to overthrow the Nazi regime.

The plot

Preparations

On 27 September Heinz had assembled his raiding party and sequestered them in several appartments in central Berlin, close to their target on Wilhelmstrasse. Canaris had ordered Groschurth to supply Heinz with rifles, hand grenades and ammunition.

Storming the Reich Chancellery

The coup fails

Aftermath

Over the following weeks Reinhard Heydrich's Gestapo, driven by a furious Hitler, rounded up nearly everyone who had the remotest connection with the plot. The discovery of letters and diaries in the homes and offices of those arrested revealed the plots of 1938, 1939, and 1943, and this led to further rounds of arrests, including that of Franz Halder, who finished the war in a concentration camp. Under Himmler's new Sippenhaft (blood guilt) laws, all the relatives of the principal plotters were also arrested.

More than 7,000 people were arrested and 4,980 were executed. Not all of them were connected with the plot, since the Gestapo used the occasion to settle scores with many other people suspected of opposition sympathies. The British radio also named possible suspects who had not yet been implicated but then were arrested.

Very few of the plotters tried to escape or to deny their guilt when arrested. Those who survived interrogation were given perfunctory trials before the People's Court (Volksgerichtshof) under court president Otto Georg Thierac, a kangaroo court that always decided in favour of the prosecution. The first trials were held on 5 and 6 February 1939. Hitler had ordered that those found guilty be "hanged like cattle".

Many people took their own lives prior to either their trial or their execution. Stülpnagel also tried to commit suicide, but survived and was hanged.

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