WORLD WAR II FROM A TO Z
The Schwarze Kapelle (German for Black Orchestra) was a term used by the Gestapo to refer to a group of conspirators within the German military who plotted to overthrow Adolf Hitler. It included many senior officers within the Wehrmacht (Unified Armed Forces of Germany).
The Schwarze Kapelle were patriotic Germans, including many in the higher echelons of the Wehrmacht and Abwehr (German Intelligence), who feared Hitler’s policies would ruin the country; by overthrowing the Nazi Party they hoped to preserve German sovereignty. Through Admiral Canaris’ Abwehr they were in touch with their counterparts in Britain and other Allied and neutral nations.
Elements of the Schwarze Kapelle began making overtures to Britain before war broke out and while Hitler could have been easily ousted or killed. British officials said they would not interfere with German internal affairs at that time. (Wow if only! Why is understandable.) Unfortunately for the British, many hard feelings remained from the First World War, and Hitler made it worse with his invasion of Czechoslovakia six months after the Munich Agreement. The British felt they’d been taken for fools and had also been burned in the Venlo Incident, losing two SIS officers including Sigismund Payne Best who had extensive knowledge of British espionage on the continent. For these reasons, the British weren’t going to listen to supposed “discontented conservatives” who were in fact Sicherheitsdienst counter-intelligence operatives.
Time for a few definitions or explanations:
Munich Agreement was a settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country’s borders mainly inhabited by German speakers, for which a new territorial designation “Sudetenland” was coined. The agreement was negotiated at a conference held in Munich, Germany, among the major powers of Europe, excluding the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Today, it is widely regarded as a failed act of appeasement toward Germany.
The Venlo Incident was a covert German Sicherheitsdienst (SD-Security Service) operation where two British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agents were abducted on the outskirts of the town of Venlo, the Netherlands, on 9 November 1939. They were yards yards inside Dutch territory and spirited across into Germany, where they remained in captivity until the last week of the war. The agents had gone there to meet what they thought were German military plotters against Hitler, but the Germans were actually members of the Gestapo.
The conspirators were not necessarily seeking to reintegrate Germany into the family of peaceful and democratic nations. If anything, they sought to consolidate the gains Germany had already made under Hitler. Although Hitler had built Germany into the world’s most dominant power, the conspirators were afraid his extreme self confidence would eventually destroy that dominance. Allied officials recognized, more than the conspirators themselves, that the conspirators’ goals were not necessarily those of the Allies. They were also reluctant to accept the credibility of the organization, believing it to be a front for the Gestapo. Thus the Allies encouraged the Schwarze Kapelle to act, but were not willing to promise anything in return. This reticence was to hamper the German opposition throughout the entire war.
By September 1938 the Schwarze Kapelle had drawn up plans for a provisional government, based on the British Constitutional Monarchy. A coup was all ready to take place, when Munich failed, as they thought it would. A very detailed plan was to go into effect, to quell any opposition by the Gestapo or SS. The plotters thought Britain would deny Hitler the Sudetenland, and they were certain that Hitler was not just rattling his sabers, that he would then give the order to invade the Sudetenland. The order for the coup depended on Hitler’s order to invade. The conspirators were convinced such an invasion would result in a war that Germany was sure to lose, and they were bound and determined to avoid such a war. It was one moment in history in which the military of an aggressive country was specifically against starting a war. When Chamberlain caved in, the invasion was unnecessary, and the coup was aborted.
During the coup Captain Friedrich Heinz was to have arranged for Hitler to be shot “resisting arrest.” This was not to be the last time Heinz had such an assignment. With the Munich Agreement Hitler rose to his highest esteem yet; no coup under those circumstances could possibly hope to win the support of the German people, or even the military. Chief of Staff Franz Halder called off all coup plans.
The plans for a provisional government were brought out of mothballs a year later, in October–November 1939, when Hitler planned a November 12 autumn attack through the neutral low countries into France. Many on the General Staff thought it would be a military disaster at that time of year. At least as many high-ranking officers were also outraged at the barbarities being reported out of Poland, fearing what it would do to German prestige. The two motivations pushed events to within hours of staging the coup. A very detailed plan was to go into effect, to quell any opposition by the Gestapo or SS. Captain Heinz was again tasked with capturing and shooting Hitler, attempting to “resist arrest.” It all revolved around the Wehrmacht – if Halder, again the man needed to give the go-ahead – would set things in motion. After a meeting between Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch and Hitler on the very day – at the very hour – of the planned coup, 1:30 pm on November 5, 1939, Halder utterly panicked after hearing von Brauchitch’s account of the meeting, in which Hitler spoke of the “spirit of Zossen,” meaning OKH headquarters. Halder (wrongly, it turned out) took it to mean Hitler had found them all out and thought the worst. He ordered everything shut down and all documents burned.
There was enough support from high-level military commanders (including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel) during both the 1938 and the 1939 plots that the chief conspirator, Abwehr head Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, was able to offer to the British end the war, if either coup took place. Ending or preventing war was, in fact, the reason for both coups. Unfortunately, the British were never really on board; the plotters never had enough confidence that Germany would be treated fairly, as opposed to 1919 and Versailles. This, plus the Stab-in-the-back legend, made it difficult for the Wehrmacht conspirators in particular (and they were central to any coup attempt) to be convinced they would not be seen as traitors; it was absolutely necessary they pick a moment when Hitler was not popular, not a genius. In their minds, a coup in Germany could only take place against Hitler when he could be successfully claimed to be taking Germany down a disastrous path. With Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich, and after the delays on attacking in the West by Hitler, the opposition’s momentum never quite came in 1938 or 1939.
An attack in the spring of 1940 (six months after the original planned attack) was actually seen as the correct military move. The season was right, plus the military had been given all that time to prepare further. Many generals who had earlier seen disaster on the horizon then saw victory ahead and climbed on board with Hitler. In both September 1938 and November 1938 events evolved to make Hitler look like a genius; the plotters did not feel they could capture or kill a popular Hitler, and events conspired against them. Not until September 1941 and the stalled Operation Barbarossa was Hitler’s winning streak to falter. By then, the early plots’ supporters had almost all given up. Few remained actively opposed to Hitler, but enough remained to seed the Stauffenberg attempt in 1944. I wrote about the Stauffenberg (part 1 and part 2) attempt previously.
When Roosevelt announced at the Casablanca Conference, in January 1943, that the Allies would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender, Churchill and others realized this would force the Germans to fight “like rats.” Canaris also realized this demand would probably doom his efforts to recruit supporters among the German generals.
The Schwarze Kapelle was prepared to move against Hitler during the Munich crisis, but Chamberlain’s acquiescence made it impossible for them to recruit the Army generals whose support they needed. According to Bodyguard of Lies on March 13, 1943, Colonel Henning von Tresckow had his adjutant Fabian von Schlabrendorff place a time bomb aboard Hitler’s plane on March 13, 1943, right after Stalingrad, but it failed to go off, despite their testing and re-testing the fuses.
The July plot and aftermath
After the July 20 Plot failed, the Schwarze Kapelle and many, many more people were rounded up by the Gestapo and 5,000 people were put to death (the Gestapo’s records showed over 7,000). Stauffenberg and three others were summarily shot that night. Most of the conspirators were put on trial, in the People’s Court of Roland Freisler, a “vile, vituperative maniac” over a period from August 1944 to February 1945. Most of the others were executed the day after their convictions by hanging from meat hooks at Plötzensee Prison.
Schlabrendorff only escaped death because an Allied bomb was dropped on the court, killing Freisler and destroying most of the court and investigation records, just as Schlabrendorff was being led into the court building. Canaris and Oster were not tried until February 1945, and were not executed until April 9, 1945; their deaths were particularly grisly, by slow strangulation. Rommel was forced to commit suicide. Because of his popularity with the German people, Rommel was given the choice between suicide (thus preserving his reputation as a war hero), and the persecution of his entire family and the arrest of his staff. To save his family, Rommel chose the former.