Adolf Hitler won victory after victory in the late 1930s: the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the incorporation of Austria into the Reich in 1938, the acquisition of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in 1938 followed by the control over much of the remainder of Czechoslovakia six months later, and then the conquest of Poland in September 1939. These astonishing successes glorified him in the eyes of millions of Germans and humbled the generals of the German Army, a number of whom thought his recklessness would lead to a crushing German military defeat.
Soon after the victory in Poland, when some Army generals believed Hitler would be satisfied with territorial possessions and come to some accommodation with Poland’s latecomer allies France and Britain, the Führer summoned the cream of the high commanders. Not a few of them believed he would call for a demobilization. Instead, what they got was a shock: Hitler told them he was determined to launch an offensive against France and Britain, and the sooner the better.
German Opposition to the Nazi Regime
Some of these Army generals—Commander in Chief of the Army Walther von Brauchitsch and Chief of the Army General Staff Franz Halder among them—as well as men of lesser rank in military intelligence, plus civilians and politicians, had long opposed or came to oppose the Nazi regime that controlled Germany. They had conspired to overthrow the Nazi leadership, most notably as the Sudetenland issue rose to a crisis. They believed their best chance at overthrowing the Nazi leaders was when the Nazis recklessly hurled Germany into a general European war.
Hitler was willing to risk such a war by invading Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland, and the conspirators were waiting for the right moment when Hitler seemed mad enough to do it. But it was precisely then that Neville Chamberlain engineered an appeasement granting the Sudetenland to Germany. The conspiracy collapsed. The buildup to the invasion of Poland offered another opportunity for revolt, but movement to a coup d’etat never got far, in part because the generals believed that a war against Poland would be brief and contained.
Colonel Hans Oster
Now, suddenly there was another opportunity. Some of the highest ranking Army generals believed an attack on the West (that is, against France and Britain, although also likely involving Holland and Belgium) would only end in a crushing defeat of their country. When Colonel Hans Oster of the Abwehr (military intelligence for the armed services) sounded out generals whom he considered sympathetic to a revolt, he discovered lukewarm support at best. Unlike the opportunity during the Sudetenland crisis, key German troops were not in Berlin where they might be used in a coup, but rather in battle zones or potential battle zones. Moreover, Germany was now at war; a general’s—and every soldier’s—duty lay to his country, no matter how offensive the civilian leadership.
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Oster, however, did not give up. He felt that if the invasion of the West—Case Yellow—met with disaster for Germany, then military men as well as the German people would welcome a coup that would throw the mad Nazis out of power. A new German government could negotiate with the country’s enemies and a catastrophic war would be avoided. In Oster’s view, the way to make an invasion fail was to give the invasion plans to the Western Allies.
A Later Change of Heart
Oster had long loathed the Nazi regime. He was a career Army officer, son of a Saxon parson, born in 1887. An artillerist, he won the Iron Cross First and Second Class and the Knight’s Cross with Swords during World War I. He joined the Imperial General Staff in 1917 and, like many of the officer class, was devastated by the German defeat of 1918, which he believed was undeserved. He considered the Weimar Republic decadent and weak, but, having survived as an officer in the much-reduced Army after the armistice, served it loyally. He is said to have at first welcomed the Nazi government because it reinstated some of the principles of the old imperial rule and made the Army and Germany again a source of pride. In his private time, Oster loved riding and playing the ‘cello (oddly, a good many of the Nazi resistors were musically gifted).
In 1933, Oster accepted a job with the Abwehr. In 1934, he turned against the Nazis when the SS murdered his good friend and former Abwehr chief Maj. Gen. Ferdinand von Bredow during the purges of the SS’s rival organization, the SA. In the years that followed, Oster helped to recruit to the coup d’etat cause General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the Army General Staff until he resigned in 1938, turning over his position to Halder.
Originally Published in 2018.