What Might Have Been
'The Oster Conspiracy of 1938: The Unknown Story of the Military Plot to Kill Hitler and Avert World War II' by Terry Parssinen
Reviewed by David Stafford
Sunday, August 10, 2003; Page BW06
THE OSTER CONSPIRACY OF 1938
The Unknown Story of the Military Plot to Kill Hitler and Avert World War II
By Terry Parssinen
HarperCollins. 232 pp. $27.95
What if Hitler had been killed or overthrown in 1938? World War II would never have happened, the lives of millions would have been saved, and the 20th-century world would have been radically different.
It almost happened. In September 1938, Europe stood on the brink of war. For months, Hitler had been demanding the cession of the Sudetenland, the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia. Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had dramatically taken his first-ever trip by air for a personal summit to resolve the crisis with Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Here the two men agreed on a timetable for the peaceful transfer of the disputed lands to the Reich. Then, a week later, Hitler abruptly upped his demands. The British Cabinet balked, the fleet was mobilized, and in London trenches were dug in public parks, gas masks distributed and anti-aircraft guns erected. "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is," lamented Chamberlain in a legendary radio broadcast, that such preparations were necessary "because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing."
Even as Chamberlain spoke, a small group of men was being secretly sequestered in various apartments close to Hitler's Chancellery on the Wilhelmstrasse. At dawn the next morning -- Sept. 28 -- the conspirators assembled at Army headquarters and were given arms, ammunition and hand grenades. War was expected at any moment. When it happened, their mission was to attack the Chancellery, overpower Hitler's SS bodyguard and arrest the Führer. They were also to provoke an incident and make sure that Hitler was killed. Top army leaders had arranged for troops outside the capital to march into the city in support of the coup.
All was ready when sensational news arrived. Hitler had backed down and agreed to a four-power conference in Munich proposed by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. In London, the House of Commons cheered, and the nation breathed a sigh of relief. It was a stunning victory for diplomacy -- although not for the Czechs -- but within a year, it had proven to be the hollow sham that such fierce critics as Churchill predicted.
To the conspirators in Berlin, news of the Munich conference came as a crushing blow. The war they were convinced would bring disaster to Germany and thus justify their coup had dissolved like the snow in spring. There was nothing to do but stand down and wait for the next chance for action. The rest is the history we all know: Hitler was to survive all future efforts to overthrow or kill him.
The story of this would-be coup is told dramatically by Terry Parssinen, a professor of history at the University of Tampa. Written in episodic form, it crackles with page-turning energy that brings events vividly to life. The hero is Lt.-Col. Hans Oster, second-in-command to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, German military intelligence. Appalled by Hitler's regime, Oster worked furiously to alert the West to Hitler's plans for war, and after it broke out, he was a key player in further plots against the Führer. He was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and hanged in the cruelest way possible at Flossenburg concentration camp just days before Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. Oster undoubtedly merits a place in the pantheon of heroes of the German resistance.
Whether his plot of 1938 came as close to overthrowing Hitler as the author claims is another matter. This is not a book that highlights doubts or explores ambiguities. Yet plenty exist. Nor is the story quite as untold as its subtitle suggests, and enough has been written about the German resistance to raise some important questions. One of the most crucial is the depth of commitment to Oster's plan by top army leaders, and in particular two generals -- Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander-in-chief, and Franz Halder, chief of staff. Without their support, nothing was possible. Halder seemed keen, but it is revealing that, on the crucial day of Sept. 28, Brauchitsch refused to issue the order authorizing the coup until he had first talked to Hitler. News of the Munich conference reached him as he was on his way to the Chancellery.
The coup, argues Parssinen, was "meticulously" planned. But was it? Not everyone agreed about having Hitler killed, exactly when to strike was never really clarified, and exactly what would happen after a coup took place was far from obvious. This is not to doubt the motives or courage of the hardcore conspirators, nor to argue that they shouldn't have tried. It is, however, to wonder how well they had thought it through. In tying their plans so closely to the crisis over the Sudetenland, the conspirators made themselves hostage to the actions of Chamberlain and the British government, over whom they had no control. Indeed, Chamberlain disparagingly compared their bold promises of action to the romantic rhetoric of the Jacobites of 18th-century Britain.
That the world came to within hours of an upheaval that would have rid Germany of Hitler and Nazism is a tantalizing vision, seductively argued. If only it were true. Yet the conclusion to be reached on the evidence must be that old Scottish verdict: not proven.
David Stafford, who specializes in the history of intelligence and espionage at the Centre for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh, is the author of "Spies Beneath Berlin."