In addition to this year marking the sesquicentennial of the events surrounding the end of the American Civil War, it also marks the 70th anniversary of the last year’s events in World War II. I’ve already blogged the destruction of Dresden.
On this day in 1945, at Flossenbürg prison in Germany, a small group of people were stripped naked and hanged. For those who are unfamiliar with continental practices, I’ll point out that the trap door was never popular with the Nazi regime. When they hanged you, they put a short noose about your neck then kicked the stool out from under you. So you strangled. A few years ago I read a book, My Father’s Country, written by a woman whose father was a major in the Wehrmacht. Before the war he’d been a successful businessman. Although not directly involved in the July 20 plot, it had been mentioned to him shortly before by a cousin of his or something, and because he didn’t rat them out, he too was tried and hanged. I recall the scene in the execution chamber, where a group was gathered to be hanged together. One of them — I think it was the major — went from one man to the next, saying, “Brace yourself. It takes about 20 minutes.”
In pondering over the events at Flossenbürg I realized today that I have biographies of the three most prominent victims: Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Major General Hans Oster, and Oster’s former boss at the Abwehr (the Wehrmacht’s counter-intelligence organization), Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Alarmingly I can’t seem to find the Oster biography online anywhere any more, not even on Amazon.
This is unfortunate because of the three, Oster is the least known and the one who was by a wide margin the most fearless of the group. Oster came to despise the Nazis very early in the game, and on religious grounds. He was almost foolhardy in his opposition, openly discussing his desire to rid Germany of the pestilence. He was also willing, after much soul-searching, to go so far as to commit what was undeniably treason in an effort to sabotage the German war effort, repeatedly warning a Dutch acquaintance who worked at the embassy in Berlin of the exact date and time of the planned invasion. He wasn’t believed.
Oster’s opposition to the Nazi regime was, if not as inextricably so as with his fellow victim, Bonhoeffer, an outgrowth of religious conviction. Nonetheless he had initially supported the national socialist movement.
How could that be? The Nazis never made any secret of their anti-Jewish sentiments (their 25-point program adopted in 1920 already in Point 4 states right out that a Jew can never be a German and therefore can never be a citizen) and, even if you are not willing to charge individuals with foreknowledge of the Nuremberg Laws, or the Einsatzkommando operations, or the Operation Reinhardt facilities, or the slave labor or death camps, still: How difficult could it have been to see what direction they were facing? You’ve got an organization which (i) readily turns violent (although in fairness to the Nazis, their most active opponents were equally as violent towards them, when they could manage to be), (ii) has aspirations about the ordering of society which, if not explicitly totalitarian, were easily recognizable as laying down the marker of a claim to be the central organizing structure in the lives of everyone (the Nazis very much meant it when they described themselves as “socialist”), and (iii) defines its other central tenet — “national” — in such exclusionary terms, and with reference to such unabashedly identified not-our-kind-dear groups.
I’m not impressed by the proposition that these otherwise-decent people simply chose to overlook the warning signs of what the Nazi party could become given a chance to because of desperation to do something, anything, to restore the political integrity of the German state relative to its international pariah status. By the late 1920s the Weimar Republic had largely managed to put Germany back on an equal footing as a player in international affairs. Yes, they still had to pay reparations, but then so did France in 1871. Yes, they were still prohibited from setting up any but a minuscule military apparatus . . . but then other nations, e.g., the United States, also drastically curtailed their militaries, and voluntarily so. By the late 1920s Germany was a country with whom other countries did business as an equal, and no longer as a conquered territory. So I can’t accept that things were just so awful for Germany that a reasonable person could have concluded that the Nazis for all their faults were the lesser of any two sets of evils.
At least Oster opened his eyes in fairly short order after the Nazis took power. The doings of June 30, 1934, when several hundred people, including the last chancellor of the republic, were slaughtered in an orgy of retribution, finally seem to have rung his bell. Others, like Canaris, it seems, never did tumble to the fact that the wickedness was inherent in the philosophy and the system, and was not just an aberration of Hitler’s character. Canaris towards the end even specifically affirmed his faith in national socialism, repeating that his objection was to Hitler. In this respect he was indistinguishable from the communists who want to draw a distinction between “communism” and Stalin’s bloody reign.
However different were their paths towards opposition, both came to that place well before the war. This was in contrast to the numerous officers who only turned against Hitler when it became apparent he was losing their war for them. Both Oster and Canaris were at the heart of the plot that, were it not for Neville Chamberlain’s craven knuckling under at Munich, would have spared the world a war. Very briefly, there were a number of officers who were terrified of a war in September, 1938. They knew that Germany wasn’t ready for it and yet Hitler was giving every indication of being intent on provoking exactly that. So they decided to take him out if it came to armed confrontation with the Western powers. It really did come down to the last hours, apparently. Hitler had his troops on the Czechoslovak border, and the plotters had stationed armed men in apartments in and near the government quarter of Berlin, weapons and the ready and waiting only for the signal to seize Hitler, Himmler, Goering, and the rest of the leadership, as well as key facilities. And then Chamberlain flies to Munich and caves; from that point it became obvious that there was to be no war, and the senior officers in involved withdrew their support.
The plot’s existence remained hidden until 1945, when Canaris’s diary was discovered, detailing the events. He was already under arrest, as was Oster, on other grounds — Himmler had long since pegged both as traitors although they’d been kept alive in the hopes of further implicating others. When Hitler found out that they’d been at it since 1938 he ordered them all hanged.
Bonhoeffer, Oster, Canaris, and several others at Flossenbürg were hanged, 70 years ago today. Whatever may be said about their support for the regime at any point, they did finally oppose it, backing their actions and their words with their lives. Let him who is without sin, I suppose.