Wednesday, 8 November 2017




Head of Zeus, 2017, 406 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


Nazi Germany is a test case in historical counterfactuals.  If the assassination-plotters and coup-conspirators in the German military had succeeded in their many attempts from 1938 to 1944 to remove Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime, then entirely different options to years of mass military deaths, civilian slaughter and horrendous concentration camps would have come into play.


The German military Resistance almost pulled it off but were dogged by continual bad luck, including faulty bomb technology, last-minute changes to Hitler’s schedule, and a mounting frustration which frayed the discipline necessary to the resistance network’s clandestinity.  Nevertheless, they came agonisingly close to saving the lives of millions.


Yet, as Danny Orbach (University of Jerusalem historian) discusses in The Plots Against Hitler, the military resisters’ entitlement to moral approbation has been challenged by revisionist historians.  These critics rightly point out that the German military rebels were, with few exceptions, conservative authoritarians.  Some had cooperated for many years with the Nazi regime.  Some had been mass murderers and war criminals responsible for directing the slaughter of Russians, Poles and Jews.  Some were anti-Semites who supported ‘legal and non-violent’ discrimination against Jews in Germany or their expulsion to a Jewish ‘homeland’.


It is a lengthy charge sheet, from which the critics conclude that, had the military Resistance toppled Hitler, although Europe may have been spared the vicious worst of Nazism, little would have fundamentally changed in fascist vision and practice in Europe.


Orbach is dissatisfied with both the romanticisation of the military Resistance as moral heroes of the anti-Nazi struggle and with the heated indictment against them as insufficiently anti-Nazi.


One of the loyalties of the German military officer caste was to their political leaders.  This included the Nazi regime but, for some officers, these early bonds began to weaken because of their professional disagreements with Hitler’s security bodies (the SS and the Gestapo), personal grievances and career marginalisation, or strategic policy differences over the scope and timing, but not the aims, of a war drive for territorial expansion which they supported in principle.


There was usually a major trigger which turned growing dissent into a dramatic break with the regime.  This could be one violent Nazi outrage too many such as anti-Jewish pogroms or the persecution of non-conformist clergy (all the conspirators held deeply religious beliefs) in Germany, or SS atrocities against Jews, civilians and Russian POWs on the eastern front (which the resisters-in-waiting saw as bringing dishonour on the Wehrmacht).


For example, the best known of the military rebels, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the aristocratic officer and Nazi loyalist who organised Operation Valkyrie, the resisters’ final, and fateful, assassination and coup attempt, had his Damascene anti-Nazi conversion in response to the SS mobile death squads (Einsatzgruppen) which slaughtered eastern front civilian Jews wholesale.


The resisters might have at one stage agreed with many Nazi principles but their opposition to their violent implementation eventually revealed the inseparability of the conception and execution of Nazi philosophy, and a network of military dissidents cohered around their opposition to Hitler’s war crimes and military follies. 


The resisters came from the top levels of the army (including Generals), military intelligence, even the Gestapo itself.  These closet anti-Nazis led a nerve-wracking double life inside Hitler’s war machine, plotting to arrest or kill Hitler and his top political lieutenants.  Some were able to save prominent individual Jews from the Holocaust.


Their civilian wing came from the domestic civil service bureaucracy and the foreign ministry, whilst they also reached out to a broader popular support base for post-coup legitimacy.  They planned a Nazi-free Germany in concert with the centre-left politicians and trade union leaders of the SDP, who they slated for top posts in a post-coup government installed by the military.  Despite the resisters, in nearly all cases, being strongly anti-communist, they even made overtures to the political and paramilitary underground of what was left of the German Communist Party.


The failure of Stauffenberg’s Operation Valkyrie resulted in the crushing of the military resistance.   Almost every member was arrested, tortured and executed (unless they beat the Gestapo to it through suicide).  The most prominent leaders were hanged with piano wire from meat-hooks to maximise their humiliation and degradation.


The resisters paid with their lives in an attempt to save millions of others.  This, says Orbach, qualifies them as heroes.  Their anti-Nazi moral integrity, however, is heavy with enough caveats to not rule out that, had they succeeded, they may have had recidivist relapses into quasi-authoritarian rule-by-elites with overtones of a Nazism they had been supportive of in their early careers.   Their self-sacrificing, and profoundly tragic, fate, however, indicates that an anti-Nazi moral redemption is at least as likely a legacy for those German military rebels who took up arms against Hitler.

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