The Oster Conspiracy of 1938: The Unknown Story of the Military Plot to Kill Hitler and Avert World War II

by Terry Parssinen

Published by HarperCollins

232 pages, 2003








The Day Hitler Dodged the Bullet

Reviewed by David Abrams


What if, by firing a bullet into the brain of one man, you could save the lives of 50 million others? If, by killing that one man, there's a good chance that everything from World War Two to the Cold War would never have taken place (or at least would have had radically different outcomes), would you pull the trigger?

What if that man was Adolf Hitler?

In 1938, the world was just a trigger-squeeze away from having its history altered in unimaginable ways. In September of that year, as Hitler egomaniacally drove his country toward war with Czechoslovakia and the rest of the world sat passively on the sidelines, a group of men were stationed in apartments throughout Berlin, waiting for the signal to launch a commando attack on the Reich Chancellery where, in the ensuing hail of gunfire, a well-aimed bullet would end the life of the führer.

The assassination plot against Hitler might not be too surprising -- after all, there were several attempts on his life during the war -- but what's startling about this particular plot is the fact that it was conceived, planned and due to be carried out by Germans -- Army officers in Hitler's own Wehrmacht.

While a few books (most notably William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) have mentioned the conspiracy, the pre-war plot has largely been forgotten or dismissed by those who think the would-be killers were cowards. Now, thanks to historian Terry Parssinen, the whole story is given fresh scrutiny.

In his book The Oster Conspiracy of 1938, Parssinen describes the assassination plot in tense, gripping detail, turning what was heretofore a footnote in history into a knuckle-whitening narrative straight out of something by Ken Follett or Tom Clancy.

In the preface, Parssinen writes: "Until now documents about the 1938 conspiracy have been scarce. Germans conspiring to overthrow Hitler put as little in writing as possible, knowing that if their plot was uncovered they would pay with their lives."

Most of the major players in the conspiracy eventually did pay that price, including Lieutenant Colonel Hans Oster of the German Office of Military Intelligence, author and instigator of what was the first attempt to remove from power a man Oster thought clearly posed a threat to world stability (though he could never have predicted the extent of Hitler's dreams for Europe -- domination or the horrors of the Final Solution).

Parssinen says he started looking into the Oster plot after a student in one of his classes at the University of Tampa asked the question "When was the last chance that the Second World War could have been stopped?" Spurred on by the desire to learn more about the events of September 1938, he started reading as much as he could about the subject (which was little more than scattered bits here and there). Eventually, he found himself sitting in a reading room at the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, staring at stacks of about 20 boxes.

These were the papers of the late Professor Harold Deutsch, a historian who taught at the University of Minnesota and, in his last years, at the Army War College. As it turns out, Deutsch lived in Germany in the 1930s, and had actually met some men of the Third Reich. At war's end, he worked for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services as an interrogator and questioned some of the conspirators who had survived Hitler's tyranny. Deutsch recorded interviews and exchanged letters with the men and relatives of plotters who'd been killed by Hitler. For years, all those untouched, unorganized notes were just sitting there waiting to be discovered by someone like Parssinen. The author admits he got lucky with this treasure trove (but then, when isn't historical research nine-tenths sweat and one-tenth luck?).

As he combed through the Deutsch papers, Parssinen started getting a better understanding of the plot to kill Hitler by his own generals. "The evidence from the Deutsch Papers and other sources shows that the 1938 conspiracy was well planned and had reasonably good prospects for success," Parssinen writes.

Using a series of vignettes, arranged chronologically, Parssinen unfolds the series of events with the nerve-jangling suspense of a ticking time bomb. He begins by placing the plot in context, showing Hitler's designs for expanding the German empire across Europe, starting with Czechoslovakia, a country for which he seemed to have a single-minded, insatiable appetite. As he beat the drums of war, some of his top military officers, already shell-shocked from the previous world war, tried to dissuade him from a conflict they felt they couldn't win at that point. The officers, especially Oster, noted with alarm that the führer's policies and actions didn't just seem to inch the country toward war, they positively shoved Germany's military machine into conflict -- along the way, sparing no expense to the lives and reputations of the military officers themselves.

Hitler denounced them for cowardice: "What kind of generals are those that I have to drive to war! Is it right that I should have to drag the generals into war?… I do not require that my generals understand my orders; only that they obey them."

Oster's epiphany had come years earlier, Parssinen notes:

It was not until Hitler's massacre of hundreds of SA [storm troopers] leaders on June 30, 1934, "the Night of the Long Knives," when two senior army generals were killed, that Oster became convinced that the regime was evil and must be overthrown.

Oster sent out "missionaries" to try and convince provincial commanders that Hitler must be stopped. But Hitler seized control of the armed forces and humiliated the leadership.

Oster was despondent. He could see that Hitler had seized control of the army through a series of maneuvers based on deception and lies. Yet he was unable to organize the military strength to counter it. His missionary journeys seemed to have come to nothing, and he would have to fan the flames of conspiracy in another way.

At the same time, Hitler's "prestige within Germany and power within Europe had never been greater," Parssinen notes. Most of the world's powers were blind to Hitler's true motives and determination to conquer Europe. Great Britain, in particular, continued to believe "Hitler was a passive character." Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the architect of appeasement, comes off looking the worst out of the book's cast of characters (of which there are as many as your average Cecil B. DeMille movie; if the book has one fault, it's the fact that Parssinen only makes a few of them interesting enough to stand out in the crowd -- the rest go by in a blur of names). Chamberlain is portrayed as weak-willed, naive and, consequently, one of the biggest reasons for the plot's failure. He capitulated to Hitler's (false) promises to hold off the invasion of Czechoslovakia at the eleventh hour, thus destroying the chance for the conspirators to make a justified killing.

Chamberlain's tragic miscalculation of Hitler's intentions, flawed military intelligence, and deep abhorrence of war brought him to a position that can only be called abject defeatism.

One of the few outside supporters of the conspiracy was Winston Churchill who predicted Oster's planned coup would bring "a new system of government within 48 hours." Unfortunately, Churchill was, at the time, relatively toothless politically speaking as a "parliamentary backbencher." He makes several appearances in Parssinen's book -- mainly glowering in the background and wringing his hands like a one-man Greek chorus.

Some conspirators wanted to take Hitler alive and try him in court, others wanted to declare him insane, still others favored a "fatal accident" by blowing up his train. Oster always held firm to the belief that Hitler should be killed. Incarceration in jail or an asylum wouldn't stop him from spreading his influence or even plotting an escape. A fellow officer told Oster, "A Hitler alive is stronger than all of our divisions." So, Oster plotted a "conspiracy within the conspiracy." When Hitler is arrested, the raiders are to begin shooting and in the resulting confusion of gunfire, the führer is to be "accidentally" killed.

Of course, we know that bullet never reached the target. Consequently, we read most of the book looking through history's telescope of irony. "What if…" and "if only…" kept echoing in my mind as I turned the pages. To his credit, Parssinen writes with a novelist's gleam in his eye so that even as the clocks tick toward September 28, 1938, history melts away and we start to think, "Well, maybe it could happen… Maybe they'll actually pull it off." One could only hope. | June 2003


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.