The Oster conspiracy

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The Oster Conspiracy of 1938. The Unknown Story of the Military Plot to Kill Hitler, by Terry Parssinen, Pimlico Press, 2004

Jenny Haines

I came across this book in a sale at Sydney’s Co-Op Bookshop, and it is a gem, with more than passing relevance to the present time. Reading it, I was left wondering what may be going on in the minds of the leaders of the British and US military, particularly given recent pronouncements against the Iraq War by military chiefs in both of these countries.

The book is testimony to the sanity of the military when the state, in particular its dictator, Adolf Hitler, had gone insane. That is not to say the Bush and Blair and their regimes are insane in the way Hitler was, but when the state embarks on an extremist course the role of the military cannot be taken for granted.

It is often assumed that the military, with its disciplinary code, maintains loyalty to the regime of the day no matter what. In Hitler’s Germany, that was far from the case. In fact, leaders of the military opposed Hitler all the way, from well before the Second World War through to its end.

This book is about the military plot in 1938 to overthrow Hitler if he went to war with Czechoslovakia over the Sudentenland. The book was written by Professor Parssinen after doing some research to answer a university student’s question in class: “Professor, when was the last chance that the Second World War could have been stopped?”

His initial answer had been: “Well I suppose just before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, although it may have been as late as September 3 if Hitler had agreed to the British demand that …” His student responded: “Excuse me Professor, that’s not what I meant. I mean, when was the last chance that other people could have stopped Hitler going to war?” To answer his student’s question, Professor Parssinen researched the little-known military plot of 1938.

The plot was organised and developed by Lieutenant Colonel Hans Oster, of the Abwehr (the German Armed Forces Intelligence). He drew in leaders of the armed forces such as Ludwig Beck, a former Chief of Army General Staff, Colonel General Walther Brauschitch, Commander in Chief of the Army, Franz Halder, Chief of the Army General Staff, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the Abwehr and Erwin von Witzelben, Commander of Wehkreis (Home Army, Berlin).

But the plot was not limited to the leaders of the military. They had contacts in the most surprising of places, including Ernst Von Weizsacker, State Secretary, German Foreign Ministry, and adviser to Von Ribbentrop and the Kordt brothers, Erich, the Chief of the Ministerial Office, German Foreign Ministry and Theo, Counsellor, German Embassy, London.

Theo Kordt was a vital contact with the British, on whom the fate of the plot defended. The German plotters needed a strong British opposition to Hitler’s takeover of the Sudentenland and eventually the whole of Czechoslovakia. Neville Chamberlain, haunted by the horrors of the First World War and unable to bear the responsibility for a second, negotiated interminably and immorally with Hitler.

Chamberlain’s actions are instructive for students of politics in all ages. Faced with a dictator intent on domination of Europe by violence, Chamberlain and the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, lived in a world of denial. Lord Halifax changed his position after he had what we would call these days a brain snap, talking one evening with Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Undersecretary, British Foreign Office. Halifax then realised that appeasement was the wrong road with Hitler.

The best friend in England of the German plotters was Winston Churchill, but in 1938 he was a mere backbencher, his hour yet to come. Churchill emerges from this book as one of those rare people in politics: the prophet whose prophecies turned out to be correct.

One of his finest moments was during the debate in the House of Commons on whether the House should ratify the appeasing agreement with Hitler in Munich, an almost total capitulation to Hitler’s demands. Churchill rose after three days of gloomy silence and said: “All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechosloavkia recedes into darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies.”

Also receding into the darkness was the German military plot. The plotters could not launch a coup against Hitler at a moment when he was seen by in Germany as the “greatest statesman of all times at the moment of his greatest triumph.”

However, the plotters lived for another day, and went on to be leaders of the German Resistance to Hitler and Nazism throughout the Second World War. Oster himself, remarkably, survived until April 1945, when he was slowly hanged to death, after Hitler discovered in diaries kept by Canaris that the plotters had opposed him since before the war.

As he mounted the gallows, Oster would have been able to hear the thunder of the guns of the approaching US forces.
The last chapter of the book starts with the following sentence: “Cataclysmic changes in history are often the result of seemingly minor decisions taken by individuals.”

What if Hitler, the British and the German plotters had behaved differently? The Second World War may not have taken place; 50 million people may not have lost their lives and the 20th century would have been very different.

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