How were Hitler's generals killed

National Socialism and World War II

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Benz

To person

Born in 1941, studied history, political science and art history. Since 1990 professor at the Technical University of Berlin and head of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism. Chairman of the Society for Exile Research. Co-editor of the historical journal.

The unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944 is probably the best-known resistance against National Socialism from the military today. Claus Graf Stauffenberg and others hoped to end the Second World War with a bomb. The coup attempt ended with her execution that same night.

Wreaths for the victims of the Hitler dictatorship at the Plötzensee memorial: Between 1933 and 1945, 2891 death sentences were carried out in Plötzensee prison, including those involved in the attempted coup on July 20, 1944. (& copy AP)


The majority of the Reichswehr welcomed Hitler's takeover. The military hoped to overcome the obstacles of the Versailles Treaty, to reintroduce compulsory military service and to have better career opportunities through the expansion of the armed forces. Many welcomed the elimination of parliamentary democracy and were overwhelmingly expectant of the announced authoritarian state order. The military had nothing against the Hitler government eliminating and persecuting the political left and the NSDAP establishing a one-party regime. The Reichswehr supported the murder action of June 30, 1934 ("Röhmputsch"), in which the top of the SA was liquidated because it eliminated dangerous and at the same time despised competition. In August 1934 there was no objection on the part of the military leadership to the fact that Hitler, after the death of Reich President von Hindenburg, combined the offices of Reich Chancellor and Head of State and thus also became Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Reichswehr Minister von Blomberg even introduced a new form of oath with which the soldiers personally pledged allegiance to Hitler.

Outrage over the murders of June 30, 1934, which also killed two former generals (including Kurt von Schleicher, Hitler's predecessor as Reich Chancellor), was a matter for fewer officers. Among them was the then Major Hans Oster from the Defense Department of the Reich Defense Ministry. He and some like-minded people disapproved of the destruction of the rule of law and abhorred the methods of the Nazi regime, its anti-Semitism and hostility to the church.

But opposition in the military did not stir until the turn of 1937/38, when some officers began to recognize the dangers of Hitler's aggressive foreign policy. Among them was the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Colonel General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, who was critical of Hitler's plans to annex Czechoslovakia and Austria. An intrigue instigated by the SS to get rid of him and other conservative generals drove him out of office in early 1938. This intrigue, which also brought down War Minister von Blomberg, made it possible for Hitler to rebuild the top of the military organization in such a way that he was not only formally but also actually Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht. The army was now practically aligned and no longer able to influence the political decision-making process.

In November 1937 Hitler had informed the armed forces leaders that he wanted to annex Austria and Czechoslovakia, as the first stages in the expansion of the German "living space" through war. The Chief of the General Staff of the Army, Colonel General Ludwig Beck, tried to counteract this development. After the annexation of Austria in March 1938, Beck first hoped to influence the course of events with memoranda and then tried in vain to persuade the generals to refuse to obey. In August 1938 he resigned.

Other high-ranking officers, such as the head of military defense, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and his chief of staff Oster and Beck's successor Franz Halder, thought similarly to Beck. The commanding general of III. Army Corps, Erwin von Witzleben, was one of the military who considered how Hitler could be prevented from continuing his aggressive policy. Two currents opposed one another in the officers preparing for the coup. One, represented by the Abwehr men, aimed to arrest and kill Hitler; the other only intended to force the "Führer" to give up his war plans. The latter included the Army Chief of Staff Halder and Commander-in-Chief Walther von Brauchitsch.

The postponed coup

When Hitler tried to force Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten area by threat of war in September 1938, the group around Lieutenant Colonel Hans Oster was determined to take violent action against the Reich Chancellery. Hitler should be killed to save the peace. The intention of the opposition officers around Beck and the Goerdeler circle, however, was, immediately after the declaration of war, with which Hitler would begin the destruction of Czechoslovakia, to overthrow him by a coup d'état. This intention was also known in London. Goerdeler had put the Foreign Office in the picture through an intermediary. The landowner Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin had traveled to London in August 1938 at Oster's request and with Beck's approval, where he was even able to present the plans to Winston Churchill. With the "Munich Agreement", which came about with British and French approval, in which on 29./30. September 1938 Prague had to agree to the annexation of the Sudeten areas by the German Reich, the conditions for the planned putsch no longer existed.

The military opposition resigned for a long time and remained passive even after the attack on Poland on September 1, 1939. The leaders of the Wehrmacht were skeptical about the outcome of the war against France and Great Britain, because the Wehrmacht was not yet adequately armed and trained. Many disapproved of the disregard for the neutrality of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. The news of the terror regiment in Poland did the rest to take the officer corps on the western front against Hitler. However, all preparations for a coup d'état were broken off by General Halder at the beginning of November 1939, because he believed that Hitler had been informed of these activities. Oster, one of the most committed opponents of the regime, had no choice but to try to warn Holland, Denmark and Norway of the German attack.

With the "Blitzkrieg" against France and the occupation of large parts of Western Europe in 1940, Hitler's reputation grew again. The enthusiasm gripped soldiers and civilians alike. The attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 also met with approval and lasted at least until the defeat in Stalingrad in early 1943. The majority of Germans were blinded by Hitler's successes and believed for too long that they were fighting for a good cause, for a bigger and better Germany and against Bolshevism. As propagated by Goebbels, many high-ranking military officials saw the attack on the Soviet Union as a justified and necessary "crusade" against Bolshevism.

Contacts with civil circles

A bronze statue of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer created by the artist Fritz Fleer at the St. Petri Church in Hamburg. Bonhoeffer, who was involved in the assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, was executed on April 9, 1945 in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. (& copy AP)
The men of the military opposition kept their distance from the Nazi regime. Ludwig Beck was in contact with Goerdeler even before his resignation. Officers such as Generals Halder, von Witzleben and Georg Thomas had also made contact with the civil resistance group around the former mayor of Leipzig. The most committed opponents of Hitler in the military field were still the men in the "Foreign Office / Defense" of the High Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW) under Admiral Canaris. Until April 1943, the office was a center of resistance with close contacts to the Kreisau district. Attempts to work for peace abroad (including through contacts with the Vatican) and to break the Western offensive in the spring were unsuccessful. In 1943, after the arrest of some employees (Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer) and Osters' cold-weathering, the "Abwehr Office" was paralyzed as a place of resistance. Canaris was also relieved in February 1944, placed under house arrest a little later, then sent to the concentration camp and executed in April 1945.

From the end of 1941 opposition groups emerged in three important military offices, which also established contact with one another: In the "General Heeresamt at the Commander of the Substitute Army", headed by General Friedrich Olbricht, at the Military Commander in France (General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel) and on the Eastern Front in the Army Group Center, whose First General Staff Officer Henning von Tresckow was the focus of a group of opponents of the regime. The atrocities of the German occupation policy in the east and the mass murder of the Jews by the SS Einsatzgruppen and from the end of 1941 in the extermination camps did not go unnoticed by the soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Officers who placed a sense of justice and morality above the fulfillment of military and military duties were in the minority; but there were, like Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who, after being seriously wounded in Africa, became Chief of Staff in 1944 at the Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army in Berlin. Count Stauffenberg had been pushing for a coup d'état since the spring of 1942 to eliminate Hitler and end the crimes of the regime.

It was difficult to find a popular front general to head the insurrection. In the meantime, all assassination attempts against Hitler failed in an almost grotesque way. After several plans had failed, Hitler was supposed to be shot while visiting Army Group Center in Smolensk. Out of consideration for uninvolved officers, however, the attack did not take place; Colonel Tresckow then had a bomb hidden in Hitler's plane, which was to blow him up on the return flight. But the detonator failed.

In March 1944, the Abwehr officer Colonel Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff smuggled a bomb into the Berlin Zeughaus, where Hitler wanted to inspect captured war material, but - as in Georg Elser's civic brew attack in 1939 - Hitler left the exhibition unexpectedly early. Two young officers, Axel von dem Bussche and Ewald von Kleist, wanted to get rid of Hitler at the beginning of 1944 on the occasion of the demonstration of new uniforms. Since he did not appear, this plan had also failed. The intention of Rittmeister Breitenbuch, as an orderly officer of Field Marshal Busch, to gain access to Hitler and to shoot him at a meeting on March 11, 1944, failed because the SS guards refused entry to the orderly.

In the summer of 1944 the military situation had long since been hopeless. The Allies had landed in Normandy, the Eastern Front had collapsed in the middle, and the German defeat was only a matter of time. The opposition officers were faced with the question of whether a violent overthrow still made sense, since it was foreseeable that the fate of the Germans after the end of the war would be determined by the victors.