Contrary to popular opinion, the coup of 20 July 1944 was not the first
attempt by Germans to bring down the Nazi regime. The first conspiracy
against the Hitler and his criminally aggressive policies pre-dated the
out-break of the Second World War. Furthermore, it was
arguably the conspiracy with the greatest objective chances of
success. It was headed by the Chief of the German General
Staff at the time, Franz Halder, and supported by many senior army
generals including the later Field Marshal Erwin v. Witzleben and
General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel. The
intellectual and moral guidance of this first conspiracy came, however,
from the same man who would inspire and mentor all the latter coup
attempts against Hitler: Generaloberst Ludwig Beck.
Beck had succeeded General Adam as Chief of the General Staff on 1
October 1933. At the time of his appointment, he still hoped
that Hitler's government would be a positive force for change,
restoring Germany to its place as a European Great Power with an army
commensurate to its legitimate defensive needs. Beck
supported the policies of the Nazi government to dismantle the
repressive measures of the Versailles Treaty, but at no time did he
share Hitler's aggressive goals. Beck firmly believed that any attempt
to obtain territory by force would lead to a two front war, which
Germany would inevitably lose. Beck, furthermore, was
horrified by the methods employed by the Nazis to suppress opposition
domestically. Yet despite increasing unease over Hitler's
domestic and international policies, Beck's crisis of conscience did
not come until 1938.
In March 1938, Beck was given orders to prepare the invasion of
Hitler's homeland, Austria. Beck believed that the Austrian
army would offer resistance. Although there was little doubt
that the German Army would win this war with Austria, Beck was appalled
by the idea of Germans killing other ethnic Germans. Beck
therefore initially refused to prepare the invasion, but he capitulated
when told that if he did not, the task of invading Austria would be
turned over to the Nazi paramilitary organisation, the Sturmabteilung,
or SA. In the event, the German army was met not with
resistance but with flowers and swooning maidens – a
spectacular success for Adolf Hitler.
Beck, however, was not taken in by the success, and when only a few
months later Hilter announced his intention to seize the ethnically
German parts of Czechoslovakia, Beck immediately started protesting.
Strange as it may seem today, as Chief of the German General
Staff Beck did not have direct access to Hitler. His only
means of protesting the proposed military action (which he would be
expected to prepare and plan) was to write memorandum to the
Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, General von Brauchitsch, in
which he drew attention to the risks associated with the proposed
operation. When staff exercises suggested that the German
Wehrmacht might indeed be able to crush the resistance of the Czech
armed forces in just five days, Beck's protests only became more
passionate. Beck was not opposed to the tactics or timing of
such an invasion: he opposed the very act of aggression against a
by mid-July 1938, Beck despaired of convincing Hitler to change
his mind, he appealed to the conscience of his fellow generals.
In a memo dated 16 July 1938 Beck wrote:
existence of the nation is at stake. History will attribute a
blood-guilt to leaders that do not act in accordance with their
professional expertise and political conscience. Your military duty to
obey [orders] ends where your knowledge, your conscience and your
responsibility forbids the execution of an order. If in such
situation, your advice and warnings are ignored, then it is your right
and your duty before the Nation and History to resign from your
What Beck hoped was that the commanding generals of the German Army
could be moved to resign in a collective, simultaneous gesture.
he hoped, would prevent Hitler from pursuing his aggressive plans.
did not believe that Hitler would back down in the face of this
collective refusal to engage in an aggressive war. On the
expected a domestic confrontation between the Army and the Nazis,
including the SA and SS. Beck's aim was not merely to stop
aggressive war planned by Hitler, but rather to bring down the entire
Nazi regime. He urged the Commander-in-Chief of the Army to
inevitable confrontation "to restore the rule of law" in
even recommended the slogans the Army should use to explain their
actions to the population. Significantly, he suggested not just "Stop
the War!" but also "Peace with the Church!" "Free Expression of
Opinion!" and "Down with the Secret Police!"
Not all of Germany's generals shared Beck's abhorrence of the Nazis and
their polices, however, and so not all were willing to risk a
confrontation. In the absence of unanimity among the Army's leadership,
Beck could not hope to win a confrontation with the Nazis, but he was
still not willing to accept the "blood guilt" of acting against his
better judgement and his conscience. He resigned.
While not all generals in the Army supported Beck, by no means did all
oppose him. Generals von Witzleben and von
supported by Hans Oster in the Counter Intelligence Agency, were just
as opposed to the Nazis as Beck. These men, under the
Beck's immediate successor, Franz Halder, chose to pursue Beck's goal of
bringing down the Nazi regime by employing conspiratorial –
rather than confrontational – means. The first
were established to civilian leaders equally outraged by the Nazis, and
a plan was forged to arrest Hitler and try him either as a
traitor or have him committed to a mental institution.
The entire action, which included detailed orders down to divisional
level for the seizure of key installations and the effective disarming
of the Nazi paramilitary organisations, was to be triggered by orders
to invade Czechoslovakia. The reasoning was simple.
The German people
were terrified of a new world war. They had suffered bitterly
First World War and they adored Hitler because he had reversed many of
the humiliations of the defeat suffered in 1918 without war.
leaders of this military conspiracy firmly believed that if the German
people saw Hitler was risking a new world war merely for the sake of
annexing the ethnically German portions of Czechoslovakia, than they
would stop supporting him.
Unfortunately, the French and the British had also suffered bitterly in
the "Great War" and despite being the victors they were reluctant to
risk a new war. So at the last moment, the British and French
They allowed themselves to be talked into a "peace
Hitler and signed away the territorial integrity of a sovereign state
(Czechoslovakia) they had helped create in 1919 and guaranteed.
accepted Hitler's word that the Sudetenland was his "last" territorial
ambition, and called the agreement "Peace in our Time." So
Wehrmacht marched triumphantly into the Sudetenland without a shot
being fired. Under the circumstances it was impossible to
successful dictator on the grounds that he was mad. The coup with the
best chances of success did not take place, and the conspirators went
their separate ways.