The Plots Against Hitler – Danny Orbach

You know the saying “The devil takes care of his own”? My deeply Catholic mother reminds me of that one a lot when I complain about the way God arranges things; there is, she says, another power at work in the world as well. Whatever your theological outlook, you have to admit, the history this book discusses feels like proof. I mean, I suppose it’s like the thing that circulates now and then about Lincoln having a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy having a secretary named Lincoln, etc; probably any world leader has, knowingly or not, dodged an assassination attempt or three through sheer luck.

But I don’t think it can be denied that at the very least Hitler was a lucky bastard. He ascribed it to divine protection. I certainly hope not. He is a major argument for me against predestination – because if it turns out that Hitler was in some way kept alive in order to create all the circumstances that surrounded him, for the people who died to die and for those who lived to live … I am going to complain to the management. Loudly.

The seeds of the war were something I didn’t know as much about as I thought. I’ve never known much about Neville Chamberlain; I know a bit about the War, not so much about the buildup. I knew enough to associate him with appeasement. I didn’t expect to simultaneously sympathize with and revile him. I’m always left baffled by the kind of mindset which wants to rule the world – I wouldn’t take it if you handed it to me on a tea tray covered in chocolate. (I say things like “When I am queen, I will change the name of ‘common sense’, for it is not” – but not even to implement my own such plots would I actually accept a throne.) Maybe the poor bugger took power never dreaming a war would be necessary in his term – else he had no business seeking power with the outlook he had. I have to say as one who has been branded a bleeding heart, I sympathize with his pacifism, with his loathing for war and the waste and chaos and pain it inevitably brings. But … Hitler. “Peace in our time? Let us put it a bit more realistically. Chamberlain saved Hitler.” That is a powerful condemnation.

There really are just a handful of things that can be considered incontestable facts in this world of gray areas: fire is hot, water is wet, space is vast, and Hitler was evil. What amazes me right now, what I had never really seen clearly before (not having read the book in question), is that he wrote it all down and published it for all the world to read. He laid out “his master plan” in Mein Kampf. And, apparently, most of the world went “Huh”. Even some of the people who later tried to kill him apparently didn’t take him very seriously. At first. It was only later that they began, some of them, to realize he was a serious threat – and some began to be very concerned about how they were going to get out of this. Stauffenberg, the most famous of the plotters, told a fellow officer, “We are sowing hatred that will visit our children one day” – the scars Nazism was leaving on Germany would shape how the country, the people, would be perceived for generations. If nothing else, they wanted to make it clear that the country wasn’t homogenous, that there were attempts to put a stop to it. That didn’t really work, either, really. “Notwithstanding all of their efforts and sacrifice, most Germans still followed Hitler to the bitter end.”

One of my earliest memories – and I wonder now how this has shaped my psyche – is of looking through the railing of the upstairs hall into the living room where my father was watching a documentary about the Holocaust, and seeing people being put into ovens. (It’s a wonder that Hansel and Gretel doesn’t send me screaming into the night.) I remember my complete and utter shock when we finally got around to learning something in history class – six million people were killed? But – how – surely not – six million?? And – wait – what? The US turned away shipsful of refugees, sent them back to what was very likely their deaths? Impossible. Not my country. Disillusionment, thy name is high school.

I’ve come a long way in terms of what I know since that day in tenth grade, but my heart hasn’t changed much. It seems like every time I read or watch anything on World War II I learn some new horrifying tidbit I’d never heard of before. This book follows the pattern: “fifteen hundred [Polish] Jews, including women and children, had been intentionally frozen to death while being transported in open trucks”. That apparently was not uncommon.

And, fortunately, there were those within WWII Germany to whom this was as unacceptable as it is to me, here, now. There were those who … like an American electorate I could name … thought that the worst couldn’t possibly happen, that a megalomaniac fool could never get control of everything, who were baffled and stunned by the megalomaniacal fool’s victories … “The masses are ruled by idiotic indifference” is an extraordinarily relevant quote. There were those within WWII Germany who were horrified at the atrocities being committed daily – and there were those whose point of view was more along the lines of if this country continues to allow, and to commit, such acts, when this war is over we will never be allowed to lift our heads again.

Something that puzzles me – kind of random, entirely apart from “how did Trump Hitler gain power and how did he keep it” (which was addressed by the author: “As a soldier, Stauffenberg could not vote, but even a year before, in 1932, he preferred Hitler for president over Hindenburg. Just like many other German conservatives, he believed that the new leader would moderate his views after taking power”. Sound familiar?) – is … whenever conspirators were caught and interrogated, I wonder why they didn’t try throwing someone like Goebbels or Himmler under the bus.

The through-line of the book, of course, is summed up by the title: the plots against Hitler. Whatever might be said or conjectured about the characters or steadfastness of the plotters, there were certainly plots – and, obviously, since he survived to take his own life, all of the plots failed. This could easily have swerved off into something like the way I started this review – there must have been some supernatural thing or power making each plot fail when, on paper, it should have succeeded.

The writing is solidly written, obviously well-researched and scholarly while still maintaining an almost conversational tone at times. The main thing that made it hard to read was the obviously dreadful subject matter; I had to take a break for a while. The even temporary triumph of evil is hard to stomach. But, perhaps, there are lessons that can be taken from it. Even evil which seems to overcome all obstacles does not last forever. And there are always people, even in amongst those at the heart of it, who see it for what it is. And even if attempts to destroy it don’t work, even if it oozes out from under all attempts to crush it, it will implode.

There’s always hope. Even when it really, really doesn’t seem like it, there is hope.

I hope.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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