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Regime Change, 1938: Did Chamberlain “Miss the Bus”?

Finest Hour 162, Spring 2014

Page 22

By Michael McMenamin


“It was to the interest of the parties concerned after they were the prisoners of the Allies to dwell upon their efforts for peace. There can be no doubt however of the existence of the plot at this moment, and of serious measures taken to make it effective.”
—Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 1948

“I myself still believe that Hitler missed the bus last September and that his generals won’t let him risk a major war now.”
—Neville Chamberlain to his sister, May 1939

“A mind sequestered in its own delusions is to reason invincible.”  —Dante

In the early morning hours of 28 September 1938, a fifty-man Stosstrupp, a commando raiding party, assembled at Army headquarters of the Berlin Military District, home to General Erwin von Witzleben’s Third Army Corps. Commanded by Captain Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz of the Abwehr (Military Intelligence) the group comprised young, hand-picked anti-Nazis, half of whom were serving officers. The men were issued automatic weapons, ammunition and hand grenades furnished by Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Groscurth of the Abwehr, who had been ordered to do so by Abwehr chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.1

The Stosstrupp was to serve as an armed escort for General Witzleben when he went to the Chancellery to arrest Adolf Hitler the moment the Führer ordered an attack on Czechosolvakia. The plotters had every reason to believe this would occur later that day, since Hitler, meeting Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, had reneged on his previous agreement to accept a plebiscite in the Sudetenland, the German-speaking area of Czechoslovakia. Hitler now said the Czechs had until 2pm on the 28th to accept German occupation of the Sudetenland, with a plebiscite to be conducted later. Otherwise, Hitler vowed to “march into the Sudeten territory on October 1st with the German army.” Inasmuch as Hitler had promised the German General Staff that he would give them two days’ notice of his intent to invade, the Stosstrupp believed it would be swinging into action by mid-afternoon, after the 2pm deadline expired.2

Hitler’s Chancellery was surprisingly vulnerable, with only thirty-nine SS guards working three shifts. At most, fifteen men were on duty at any given time.3 Witzleben and the other plotters planned to take Hitler to a secure location where he would await trial for trying to take Germany into an unwanted war that senior military leaders, including Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering, opposed.4

Heinz and Lieutenant Colonel Hans Oster, the conspiracy’s mastermind and Abwehr second-in-command, had a different fate in mind for the dictator. Convinced that Hitler alive posed a continuing danger, they planned to have the raiding party open fire even if his SS guards offered no resistance, killing Hitler in the mêlée.5

Simultaneously, the Berlin police would arrest other top Nazis, while General Graf Walter von Brockdorf, commander of the 23rd Infantry Division in nearby Potsdam, would neutralize the SS in Berlin.6

Only one man could prevent Hitler’s assassination and the forcible overthrow of his regime. That man was Neville Chamberlain.

A Serious Conspiracy

“There can be no doubt,” Churchill wrote in 1948, “of the existence of a plot” among the highest levels of the German army and Berlin police to depose Hitler if he ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia: “…serious measures [had been] taken to make it effective.”7

The goal was to supplant the Nazi regime with a provisional government that Reichsbank President Hjalmar Schacht had agreed to lead. Oster’s principal co-conspirator and chief recruiter was his close friend Hans Gisevius, then with the Interior Ministry and later in the Abwehr. Both would be involved in the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.8

We now know that the 1938 plot reached very high levels. In addition to those already named, conspirators included Chief of the German General Staff Franz Halder; former Chief Ludwig Beck; Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief General Walther von Brauchitsch; Berlin Police President and Vice-President Graf Wolf von Helldorf and Graf Fritz von der Schulenburg; Chief of Berlin Criminal Police Arthur Nebe; the Foreign Ministry’s State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker and Chief of Ministerial Office Erich Kordt; Erich’s brother Theo, of the German Embassy in London; Hans von Dohnanyi of the Ministry of Justice; Prussian aristocrat Ewald von Kleist; and Hitler’s interpreter, Paul Otto Schmidt.9

Missing the Bus

Repeatedly in 1938-39, Neville Chamberlain remarked that Hitler “missed the bus.” Two such occasions were September 1938, when Hitler “could have dealt France and ourselves a terrible, perhaps a mortal, blow”;10 and September 1939, when he had failed to attack the Anglo-French “before we had time to make good our deficiencies.”11 The phrase came back to haunt him. “Missed the bus, missed the bus!” his colleagues chanted, as he arrived in Parliament for the debate on Hitler’s conquest of Norway in May 1940.12

What about the bus Chamberlain thought Hitler had missed in 1938? As noted in the foregoing article, Hitler was in no position then to deal the Anglo-French a mortal blow. The German opposition, and Churchill,13 believed there were alternatives to war or surrender, provided Britain and France stood firm. Historians, Churchill wrote, “should probe…this internal crisis in Berlin.” Should it “eventually be accepted as historical truth, it will be another example of the very small accidents upon which the fortunes of mankind turn.”14

“Small accident” is too charitable a term. Today there is no historical doubt that the German resistance repeatedly warned the British of Hitler’s intention to invade Czechoslovakia in September 1938, and that, if he did, they would depose him—provided France honored her obligation to the Czechs and Britain stood by France.

In response, however, the Chamberlain government took every diplomatic step it could—often against the advice of Foreign Minister Lord Halifax—to undermine Hitler’s opposition. It is fair to say that Chamberlain, not Hitler, missed the bus in 1938: the opportunity to rid Germany of a lawless government whose economic and rearmament policies made its very survival dependent upon going to war.15 Churchill to the contrary, this was no accident. It was British policy, recognized as such at the highest levels during and after Munich.

Mr. Chamberlain, a rational man, had two reasons for failing to capitalize on the warnings of Hitler’s opposition. Both turned out to be tragically wrong.

First, the Prime Minister considered the German opposition traitorous, not to be taken seriously. In August 1938, Foreign Minister Lord Halifax reported to Chamberlain a meeting between Sir Robert Vansittart, Permanent Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs and Ewald von Kleist, a conservative anti-Nazi, sent to London by Oster, Canaris and Beck. Kleist, Chamberlain wrote Halifax, “reminds me of the Jacobites at the Court of France in King William’s time and I think that we must discount a good deal of what he says.”16

Kleist had told Vansittart that high-level Army officers were prepared to act, so long as the Anglo-French held fast. If they did, Kleist added, “there would be a new system of government [in Germany] within forty-eight hours.”17 Kleist said the same to Churchill, who at Kleist’s request wrote him a letter to show his fellow conspirators: “I am sure that the crossing of the frontier of Czecho-Slovakia by German armies or aviation in force will bring about a renewal of the world war.”18

Kleist’s was not an isolated message. The British government had been receiving information of a coup against Hitler from multiple sources since July. As late as 7 September, Theo Kordt, at the German Embassy in London, delivered the same message to Halifax, expecting him to issue a public statement that Britain would support France.19 Halifax wished to do so, but Chamberlain stopped him. Chamberlain’s rationale was his personal plan—his second reason for shunning the Hitler opposition.

Chamberlain’s “Plan Z”

By the time Halifax met with Kordt, Chamberlain had already secretly conceived a strategy whereby he would save the day, bringing peace to Europe while keeping the Nazis in power. “Plan Z,” conceived solely by the Prime Minister, was the ultimate undoing of Hitler’s 1938 German opposition.

While Britain had no obligation to come to the defense of Czechoslovakia, France did. Plan Z—known only to a few intimates including Halifax—called for Chamberlain to announce, at the last minute before Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia, that he would fly to Germany to discuss the crisis. The announcement would be made without prior notice to the French.20

The Czechs at that time were still naively negotiating with Konrad Henlein of the Sudeten Germans for more Sudeten autonomy, unaware that Hitler had told Henlein to insist upon terms no Czech government could possibly accept, giving Hitler a pretext to use force. The Czechs were taken by surprise when, on 14 September, Chamberlain duly announced he would fly to meet Hitler, who by now was demanding “the free right of self-determination” for Sudeten Germans.21

talks with Britain? Still they did not believe Chamberlain would yield to Hitler’s demands. “In all seriousness,” Gisevius wrote, “we imagined the chief danger for us lay in the possibility that not Chamberlain but Hitler might back down.” After learning from Hitler’s translator Paul Schmidt that Chamberlain had given in, Gisevius added, “we bowed our heads in despair. To all appearances it was all up with our revolt.”22

Then the Führer gave the conspirators renewed hope. He wanted his little war. After Chamberlain had departed to consult his Cabinet and the French, Schmidt informed the plotters, Hitler said he would now escalate his demands and propose new, humiliating terms that, if rejected, would give him a pretext to  invade.23 Afforded fresh life, the plotters resumed their activities.24

Hitler was as good as his word. At Bad Godesberg on 22-23 September, when Chamberlain proudly announced that he had persuaded the French and Czechs to accept a Sudeten plebiscite, Hitler coolly said this was no longer acceptable. He then delivered the conditions Schmidt had forecast—immediate Czech withdrawal and German occupation of the Sudetenland on 26 September followed by a plebiscite later. The only concession Hitler would make to a shocked Chamberlain was to postpone occupation until 1 October, so long as the Czechs accepted his new demands by the 28th.25 The German conspirators were certain Chamberlain would never accept “such monstrous demands.”26 They were wrong. Again.

Bumps in the Road

Chamberlain, determined to cut a deal despite Hitler’s new terms, informed the Cabinet on 24 September, expecting to be supported. Channeling his inner Churchill, Halifax objected: “Herr Hitler has given us nothing [and is] dictating terms as if he had won a war without having to fight,” Halifax told the Cabinet. “Can you trust a man who negotiates like he is dictating a Carthaginian peace to keep his promises he has made about the future?”

Chamberlain could, perhaps, but Halifax wouldn’t have it. The only “ultimate end,” he replied, was “the destruction of Nazism,” because as long as Hitler lasted, “peace would be uncertain.” Like Churchill, Halifax was willing to contemplate regime change instead of swallowing whatever the Führer chose to dish out. Aware of the many messages from the German resistance, he added that if Hitler were driven to war, “the result might be to help bring down the regime.”27 Appalled, Chamberlain passed Halifax a note: “Your complete change of view…is a horrible blow to me.”28

Meanwhile, France and Czechoslovakia had rejected Hitler’s ultimatum. The Cabinet seemed more persuaded by Halifax than Chamberlain, so on the 26th the Prime Minister’s trusted adviser, Sir Horace Wilson, was sent to Germany with a letter conveying their rejections, warning that if France became involved in hostilities with Germany, Britain would support France. Wilson flew home the next day; in a speech that night, an enraged Hitler promised to invade Czechoslovakia if his Godesberg ultimatum was not accepted.

So encouraged, Heinz’s raiding party assembled in Berlin and was issued arms in the early morning hours of September 28th. Since on the 27th the British Cabinet had rejected Chamberlain’s renewed plea for a telegram urging the Czechs to accept, war seemed inevitable. But nothing happened. Why?

Despite increasing isolation within his Cabinet, the Prime Minister’s mind remained sequestered in its own delusions that Plan Z made sense; that “he had now established an influence” over Hitler; that they could negotiate in good faith because “he was sure” he had the Führer’s respect.29 Without consulting the Cabinet, he wrote to Hitler through British Ambassador Nevile Henderson, giving no indication of the Cabinet’s hardening attitude. Instead he proposed a five-power conference between Britain, Germany, Czechoslovakia, France and Italy, where, Chamberlain assured Hitler, Germany could “get all essentials without war and without delay.” He then cabled Lord Perth, his ambassador in Rome, directing Perth to seek the support of Benito Mussolini.30

When Mussolini urged Hitler to accept, the Führer himself was having second thoughts about invasion. Duff Cooper’s mobilization of the Royal Navy, announced late on the 27th, had shaken him. “I think,” he said to Goering, “the English fleet might shoot after all.”31 Chamberlain’s proposal was Hitler’s life-line. Acceding to Mussolini, Hitler told Henderson, “I have postponed mobilizing my troops for twenty-four hours.” A few minutes before his 2pm deadline on September 28th he sent invitations to the leaders of Britain, France and Italy (but not Czechoslovakia) to meet him the next day in Munich.32

The Fatal Step

Chamberlain’s invitation arrived at 3pm as he spoke on the floor of the House of Commons. He accepted on the spot, ignoring Hitler’s exclusion of the Czechs. Notwithstanding his Cabinet’s earlier refusal to pressure the Czechs, he was certain that the conference would agree to the key demand at Godesberg: Czech withdrawal and German occupation of the Sudetenland before any plebiscite. In Munich on 30 September, the four powers agreed to just that, then coerced the Czechs to go along. Hitler’s only concession was that, while the Czechs must leave at once, German occupation would commence on October 10th rather than the 1st.

Afterward, in the euphoria of what he was sure had kept Europe out of war, Chamberlain got Hitler to sign the crown jewel of Plan Z—a one-page, three-paragraph document stating the desire of Great Britain and Germany never to go to war with each other again. Back in Great Britain, Chamberlain held the sheet in the air and assured the British that it meant “peace for our time.”

In the event, as we now know, no plebiscite in the Sudeten was ever held. Six months later, Hitler and several other greedy countries occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, left defenseless by the loss of its fortress line—a bonanza which would enable the formidable German onslaught in the West, including Czech tanks and war materiel, that swept to victory in 1940. (See Williamson Murray’s previous article.)

It was all over. In Parliament on 3 October, Duff Cooper announced his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty. On the 5th, Churchill spoke: “Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness,” and “terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the western democracies: ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’”

In Berlin on October 3rd Witzleben, Oster, Schacht and Gisevius gathered around the fireplace in the Witzleben’s Berlin mansion where, as Gisevius recalled, “we tossed our lovely plans and projects into the fire.”33

The conspirators were bitter. Erich Kordt wrote after the war that swallowing Hitler’s terms “prevented the coup d’etat in Berlin.“ Gisevius in his memoirs was less kind: “Peace in our time? Let us put it a bit more realistically. Chamberlain saved Hitler.”34

Post hoc sour grapes? Perhaps. But the highest levels of the British government knew at the time precisely what they had done at Munich. They had intentionally sabotaged a coup d’etat in Germany, of which they had been forewarned, so that Plan Z could be fulfilled. As Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson lamented to Halifax in an October 6th letter which foreshadowed Gisevius: “by keeping the peace, we have saved Hitler and his regime.”34

Chamberlain had missed the bus—and now it was being driven by Hitler on a highway to hell.


Mr. McMenamin is co-author of Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor, and several Churchill novels; he also writes “Action This Day,” FH’s quarterly summary of Churchill’s activities one hundred twenty-five, one hundred, seventy-five and fifty years ago.

Endnotes:

1. Terry Parssinen, The Oster Conspiracy of 1938 (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 133, 160-61; James Duffy and Vincent Ricci, Target Hitler: The Plots to Kill Adolf Hitler (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992), 70.

2. Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s Interpreter (London: Macmillan, 1951), 104-05; Patricia Meehan, The Unnecessary War: Whitehall and the German Resistance to Hitler (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992), passim; Parssinen, 153.

3. Hjalmar Schacht, Account Settled (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1949), 125; Peter Hoffman, Hitler’s Personal Security, 2nd ed. (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000), 160; Parssinen, 134.

4. Meehan, 150.

5. Parssinen, 133-34; Meehan, 150.

6. Parssinen, 108.

7. Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), 280.

8. Schacht, 119-25; Meehan, 149-50; Parssinen, 98-100.

9. Hans Bernd Gisevius, To the Bitter End: An Insider’s Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler 1933-1945 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1947), 296-304; Parssinen, xix-xx.

10. Chamberlain to his sister Hilda, 30 December 1939, in Robert Self, Neville Chamberlain: A Biography (London: Ashgate, 2006), 412.

11. Chamberlain to a Conservative Party rally, 4 April 1940, in Self, 415.

12. Harold Nicolson diary, 7 May 1940, in Nigel Nicolson, ed., Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 3 vols. (London: Collins, 1966-68), II 76.

13. Churchill, “Defence of Freedom and Peace,” broadcast, London, 16 October 1938, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VI 6015.

14. Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 281.

15. Stephen Roberts, The House That Hitler Built (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938), 359-62.

16. Andrew Roberts, The Holy Fox: Biography of Lord Halifax (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991), 108; Meehan, 144; Parssinen, 74.    

17. Meehan, 141-42; Parssinen, 71-72, 76.

18. Meehan, 173; Parssinen, 76. Churchill’s letter was headed, “My dear sir,” to protect von Kleist’s identity. The letter was delivered to Kleist in London on 20 August; Churchill sent copies to Chamberlain and Halifax, along with notes of his meeting. Unfortunately, Kleist kept his copy in his desk and its discovery by the Gestapo following the failed 1944 assassination attempt resulted in his execution.

19. Meehan, 152-54.

20. Meehan, 147-48; A. Roberts, 110; Parssinen, 91.

21. A. Roberts, 110-11; Parssinen, 122-23.

22. Gisevius, 322.

23. Meehan, 172.

24. Ibid.

25. A. Roberts, 112-13; Parssinen, 140-41; Meehan, 173.

26. Gisevius, 323; Parssinen, 139.

27. A. Roberts, 115-17; Parssinen, 143-45.

28. Parssinen, 146; A. Roberts, 117.

29. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: The Prophet of Truth 1922-1939 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 981; Graham Stewart, Burying Caesar: Churchill, Chamberlain and the Battle for the Tory Party (New York: Overlook Press, 1999), 303; Parssinen, 142.

30. Meehan, 178-79; Parssinen, 163.

31. Meehan, 178. Cooper and Churchill had unsuccessfully urged Chamberlain to move the Fleet to its war station at Scapa Flow four weeks earlier.

32. Meehan, 179; Parssinen, 163.

33. Gisevius, 326.

34. Parssinen, 219-20.

Further Reading

Churchill briefly discusses the 1938 conspiracy in The Gathering Storm (1948), based on his involvement and testimony at Nuremberg. He did not have the benefit of postwar memoirs by conspirators like Gisevius, Erich Kordt, Schacht and Schmidt, nor of later-released British Foreign Office documents. Two books telling the story in more detail from both the British and German sides are Patricia Meehan, The Unnecessary War, Whitehall and the German Resistance to Hitler (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992); and Terry Parssinen, The Oster Conspiracy of 1938 (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), which are relied upon in this account. From the German side, see also Peter Hoffman, German Resistance to Hitler (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); and Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance (New York: Metropolitan, 1996). Fest considered the 1938 conspiracy “probably the most promising of all the plots against Hitler.”

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