Alternate History

Oster plot (Munich Goes Sour)

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Oster plot
Part of World War II
Date 14 January 1939 (coup attempt)
1939-1940 (arrests / executions of plot's supporters)
Place Reichkanzlei, Berlin, Germany
Result Military coup d'état against the Nazi government fails. Nazi government victory.
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)
Flag of the German Empire.svg Franz-Maria Liedig †
(Leader of raiding party)
Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler
(Führer and Reich Chancellor)
Nazi Germany Wilhelm Keitel
(Chief of OKW)
Nazi Germany Josef "Sepp" Dietrich
(CO of SS-Inf.Regt. “L.A.H.”)
Nazi Germany Wilhelm Hunold von Stockhausen
(CO of Wach-Regiment Berlin)
Casualties and losses
Coup attempt
17 dead, 13 wounded
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.


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 crash 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. 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.

They planned to overthrow Hitler and the Nazi regime through a storming of the Reich Chancellery by a raiding party led by Captain Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz and Lieutenant Commander Franz-Maria Liedig, who would either arrest or assassinate Hitler, and most of the members involved agreed that they would support the restoration of the Hohenzollern monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and that had been residing in exile in the Netherlands since 1918. This was changed on 20 September when the closest conspirators (Oster, Witzleben, Gisevius, Dohnanyi, Heinz and Liedig) in Oster apartment to the September 20, 1938 changed the conspirators after Witzleben had left the meeting, the agreement on one essential point: Hitler should during a staged scuffle be shot in the Reich Chancellery, as even an accused Hitler, as argued in particular Heinz, still poses a threat. As war approached, preparations were revived and finalised. All that was required was the signal from Halder.

On 28 September, however, Chamberlain backed down and agreed to a meeting in Munich, at which he accepted the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. This plunged the resistance into demoralisation and division. Halder said he would no longer support a coup.

Developments after the outbreak of war

After the outbreak of World War II, resistance in the army became more problematic since it could lead to defeat of Germany. However, when Hitler decided to attack France soon after the Czechoslovak campaign, Halder along with other ranking generals thought it to be hopelessly unrealistic and again entertained the idea of a coup, urged by Oster and Canaris. However, when Hitler vowed to destroy the "spirit of Zossen" (Zossen was where headquarters of the Army High Command was located), by which he meant defeatism, Halder feared that their conspiracy was about to be discovered and destroyed all incriminating documents.

Hitler first proposed beginning the invasion of France on 25 November 1938, but accepted that the date was probably unrealistic. On 3 December he proposed attacking on 11 December to Commander-in-chief of the Army Walther von Brauchitsch. The general replied that the military had not recovered from the Polish campaign; the motorised units had to recover, repairing the damage to their vehicles, and ammunition stocks were largely depleted. Von Brauchitsch offered to resign if Hitler did not change his mind; his resignation was refused but two days later Hitler postponed the attack, giving poor weather as the official reason for the delay.

Planning the coup

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 conspirators

The plot


Storming the Reich Chancellery

The coup fails


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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