Berlin, Germany · May 28, 1938

On this date in 1938 Adolf Hitler informed his senior mili­tary com­manders of his plans to march into neigh­boring Czecho­slo­va­kia and erase that coun­try from the map. No serious objec­tions were raised by those who heard Hitler ring the death knell for Czecho­slo­va­kia and for the Euro­pean order that had been in place since 1919.

Six months earlier Hitler had called his gen­erals together to spell out his plans for war on Ger­many’s south­eastern door­step, and one of the two nations in his cross­hairs, his native Aus­tria, had in fact ended its carto­graphi­cal exis­tence following the An­schluss (union) with Ger­many in March 1938—its new name was Ost­mark (East­ern March). The second nation targeted by Hitler was Czecho­slo­va­kia, a 1919 creation. Hitler had already hacked off a chunk of that coun­try when his army marched into Ger­man-speaking Czech Sude­ten­land on October 1, 1938, following the signing of the Munich Agree­ment by the leaders of England, France, Germany, and Italy the day before.

Earlier, in August, German lawyer and conserva­tive poli­ti­cian Ewald von Kleist-Schmen­zin left Ger­many for Eng­land as a sec­ret emis­sary of Chief of the Gen­eral Staff Gen. Ludwig Beck and Adm. Wil­helm Canaris, head of the Ab­wehr (Ger­man mili­tary intel­li­gence). Kleist-Schmen­zin had two main issues to discuss with Win­ston Chur­chill, then simply a mem­ber of the Brit­ish Parlia­ment. The first was to beg Eng­land to stop appeasing Hitler on the diplo­matic front, and the second, more critical issue, was to gauge whether Eng­land would be interested in helping those in Ger­many who were trying to topple the Nazi govern­ment. Chur­chill allegedly told Kleist-Schmen­zin to “first bring us Hitler’s head.” After the head was delivered the con­spir­a­tors would supposedly get the help they wanted.

Actu­ally, it was Kleist-Schmen­zin, Cana­ris, and Beck who lost their heads in the after­math of the failed July 20, 1944, bomb plot against Hitler. By then Chur­chill, who for the past four years as British prime minis­ter had been leading his nation in a fight to the death with Nazi Ger­many, had turned a remark­ably cold shoul­der to plotters like Beck and Claus von Stauffen­berg who had nearly suc­ceeded in killing Hitler. To Churchill there was little dif­ference between a Nazi and a good Ger­man. In­deed, he heaped scorn on the very peo­ple whose actions might have ended the war a year early, saying that the 1944 assas­si­na­tion bid was a case of “the highest person­al­ities in the German Reich murdering one another.” Chur­chill even threw water on Oper­a­tion Fox­ley, a plan drafted by two British intel­li­gence services, the Special Oper­a­tions Exec­u­tive and the Secret Intel­li­gence Service, to assas­si­nate Hitler at his Bava­rian vaca­tion home, the Berg­hof on the Ober­salz­burg Moun­tain. Chur­chill was reluc­tant to make Hitler a martyr to many Germans by imple­menting Fox­ley. In the end it was up to the Fuehrer him­self, in his Berlin bunker in April 1945, to do what all the plotters had hitherto failed to do: kill Hitler.

German Stamps Commemorating the Heroes on the 20th Anni­ver­sary of the Attempt to Assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944

German resistance to Hitler: Claus von Stauffenberg, 1907–1944German resistance to Hitler: Ludwig Beck, 1880–1944

Left: Claus von Stauffenberg (b. 1907) was a colonel in the Ersatz­heer (Replace­ment Army) and the driving force behind the July 20, 1944, plot to assas­si­nate Hitler and take con­trol of Ger­many. For his involve­ment in the failed bomb plot known as Oper­a­tion Valkyrie, he was exe­cuted in the court­yard of the Bendler­block (Head­quarters of the Army) in the early morning hours of July 21, 1944. Staffen­berg’s role in the bomb plot and his exe­cution is vividly retold in the 2008 Tom Cruise film, Valkyrie.

Right: Ludwig Beck (b. 1880) was a German gen­eral and Chief of the German General Staff during the early years of the Nazi regime. He became a major leader with­in the con­spir­acy against Hitler and would have been pro­vi­sional head of state (Reichs­verweser) had the July 20, 1944, plot succeeded. Beck committed suicide on July 21, 1944, thus escaping a humil­i­ating trea­son trial before the noto­rious People’s Court (Volks­gerichtshof) in Berlin. The People’s Court, presided over by Judge Roland Freisler, was the Nazi regime’s highest judicial body for political crimes (politische Strafsachen).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, member, German resistance, 1906–1945Karl Friedrich Goerdeler, member, German resistance, 1884–1945

Left: Lutheran pastor, theologian, and Nazi dis­si­dent, Diet­rich Bon­hoef­fer (b. 1906) was involved in plans by mem­bers of Adm. Wil­helm Cana­ris’ Ab­wehr (Ger­man Mili­tary Intel­li­gence) to assas­si­nate Adolf Hitler. He was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1943 and exe­cuted by hanging in April 1945, along with Cana­ris, while they were impri­soned at Flossenbuerg concentration camp in Northeastern Bavaria.

Right: A politician, economist, civil ser­vant, and oppo­nent of the Nazi regime, Karl Friedrich Goer­de­ler (b. 1884) would have served as chan­cel­lor of the new govern­ment had the July 20, 1944 coup suc­ceeded. After a trial in the noto­rious People’s Court (Volks­gerichts­hof), pre­sided over by Judge Roland Freis­ler, Goer­de­ler was sen­tenced to death and exe­cuted by hanging on Febru­ary 2, 1945 at Ploetzen­see Prison in Berlin. His exe­cu­tion was post­poned time and again in the hope that, under torture, he would reveal the names of his co-conspirators.

Wilhelm Leuschner, member, German resistance, 1890–1944Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, member, German resistance, 1907–1945

Left: In contact with the resis­tance group around Karl Friedrich Goer­de­ler, Wilhelm Leusch­ner (b. 1890) would most likely have become Germany’s vice-chan­cel­lor after the July 1944 coup d’état. Arrested in mid-August 1944 and brought before Freis­ler’s People’s Court, Leusch­ner was sen­tenced to death and exe­cuted at the end of Septem­ber 1944 at Ploetzensee Prison in Berlin.

Right: Helmuth James Graf von Moltke (b. 1907) was a leading human rights advo­cate in Nazi Ger­many and a founding mem­ber of the Krei­sau Circle resis­tance group. In Janu­ary 1945, Moltke found himself in Freis­ler’s People’s Court, along with sev­eral of his fellow regime oppo­nents. Moltke was sen­tenced to death for trea­son on Janu­ary 11, 1945, and exe­cuted twelve days later at Ploetzen­see Prison in Berlin.

Excellent Discussion of Resistance to Nazism in Germany’s Civilian and Military Circles, 1933–1940