Montesclaros on Orbach, 'The Plots against Hitler'

Author: 
Danny Orbach
Reviewer: 
Mark Montesclaros

Danny Orbach. The Plots against Hitler. Boston: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. xvi + 406 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-544-71443-4.

Reviewed by Mark Montesclaros (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Gordon Satellite Campus) Published on H-War (April, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52554

"We Have Done the Right Thing”

Academic interest in resistance movements that defied Hitler’s Third Reich seems to continue unabated. In popular culture, cinematic treatments such as Valkyrie (2008) and 13 Minutes (2015) introduced broader audiences to those that tried to eliminate Hitler, and in particular to the respective assassins portrayed in each film, Claus von Stauffenberg and Georg Elser. Both attempts figure prominently in Danny Orbach’s The Plots against Hitler, an effective new study on resisters, primarily in the German military organizations, that tried to defy, depose, or assassinate the infamous leader of the Third Reich. Orbach’s book encompasses the period 1938-44 and is a fascinating analysis that makes a solid contribution to the current literature on resistance movements within Nazi Germany.

Using a variety of primary sources, including many in foreign languages, Orbach uses an effective structural approach to underpin his analysis. This aids the reader in placing the resistance movements, particularly those within the German army, in proper context. Additionally, the author examines the strengths and weaknesses of each of the army configurations, which helps to explain why some were more successful than others. Of course, in the end, none achieved the ultimate goal of eliminating the leader of the Third Reich; each failed attempt merely reinforced Hitler’s belief that divine providence protected him in his quest to fulfill his vision for Germany. Thus, Orbach’s summary is necessarily a melancholy one: “So ended the story of the German resistance movement; honorably, perhaps, but in utter failure” (p. 266).

The Plots against Hitler is organized logically, chronologically as well as thematically. The book begins not with a direct attempt to depose Hitler but with the well-known burning of the Reichstagthe German parliament building—by the ill-fated Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe in February 1933. Orbach explains that Hitler used this attempt as an excuse to eliminate all possible competition to the Nazis—especially the Communists and Social Democrats. It thus fell to the Wehrmacht—the German armed forces—and especially the army, to form the basis for resistance to the Third Reich. While seemingly an unlikely source for opposition to Hitler, the army eventually developed into the organization most capable of opposing him based on its organization, leadership, and access to arms, intelligence, and the Fuhrer himself.

Most of the author’s work focuses on the evolution of the resistance within the army, beginning with the formation of the initial group of conspirators in 1938 and culminating in the famous Stauffenberg assassination and coup attempt (“Valkyrie II”) in July 1944. Using network analysis, Orbach categorizes the phases of the army resistance, using terms such as “cliques,” “connected cliques,” and “wheel conspiracy,” arguing that over time the movement grew in sophistication and effectiveness. While each phase had its advantages and disadvantages, Orbach argues that Claus von Stauffenberg’s personal charisma and leadership as the “hub” of the wheel conspiracy represented the movement’s most mature stage in 1944 and came closest to achieving its ultimate goal of eliminating Hitler and replacing his with a regime drawn from the resistance leadership. Stauffenberg was able to energize and mobilize the various elements of the conspiracy, to include its intellectual circles, its nerve center within army headquarters in Berlin, as well as resisters at the proposed killing site—Hitler’s operational headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia. Orbach’s excellent analysis of the evolution of the army resistance movement—with it multiple personalities, schemes, and coup/assassination attempts—comprises the core of The Plots against Hitler.     

Ironically, it was a non-army attempt that came closest to killing Hitler, according to the author. Georg Elser, a civilian working alone, became radicalized against the Third Reich prior to the onset of war. Determined that eliminating the leadership was the only way to save Germany from a destructive war, Elser executed a bomb plot without the benefit of any assistance from an outside organization. Skilled in watch-making and handy with explosives, Elser planned to assassinate the Nazi leader at a Berlin beer hall in November 1938 during his appearance at an anniversary celebration of his own “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923. Elser planned the attempt to perfection; the bomb went off precisely on time. Unfortunately, Hitler did not cooperate; he uncharacteristically cut his remarks short on the night of November 8 and left the venue after less than a ten-minute appearance. Had he been present, Hitler would have surely been killed by the two tons of rubble caused by the bomb’s detonation at 9:20 p.m. Luck and chance favored Hitler, as they did time and time again.

There are some noteworthy aspects of The Plots against Hitler. First, the author’s narrative ability is exceptional; the book reads like a novel and readily holds the reader’s interest. A second is its complete lack of hagiography. Orbach never lionizes his subject resisters; in fact, he brings out the humanity in each of them, particularly those with flawed or less than admirable motivations for getting rid of Hitler. Indeed, some resisters were known to have committed mass atrocities or had connections with the notorious SS, even as they decided to join movements aimed at deposing Hitler. It is thus difficult for the reader to place resisters such as the notorious SS general Arthur Nebe into their proper context. Nebe, complicit in heinous crimes on the eastern front as commander of one of the murderous Einsatzgruppen task forces, nonetheless was a long-time opponent of Hitler. Finally, as mentioned previously, Orbach’s use of network analysis is particularly effective in helping the reader make sense of the continually evolving nature of the resistance movement within the army.

The book would benefit from some very minor improvements. The first is a general chronology or tabular listing of all resistance movement events such as planned coups or assassination attempts during the period examined by Orbach. In this way, the reader could place each event in the context of what was happening more broadly in the Third Reich during the course of the war. A second recommendation is for the author to comment briefly on how today’s Germany regards the army’s resistance movement in its historical memory; this would complement Orbach’s excellent concluding sections on what motivated resisters to action, as well as his personal ruminations on the meaning of “heroism.”       

It is the tragedy of history that all attempts to end Hitler’s reign, and perhaps end the war in Europe earlier than it did, failed. Still, The Plots against Hitler serves as an excellent primer on resistance movements that attempted to remove Hitler by force, particularly those rooted in the German army. Orbach’s structural analysis will interest scholars of the period while the book’s clear prose and riveting narrative will appeal to the general reader as well. All told, Orbach makes an impressive and invaluable contribution to the burgeoning literature on movements that opposed the Third Reich.

Citation: Mark Montesclaros. Review of Orbach, Danny, The Plots against Hitler. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52554

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