Study Guide

Honorable Military Conspirators in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

Honorable Military Conspirators

General Ludwig Beck

Beck makes a brief appearance early on, where he appears as a colonel in the German Army. By the time he reappears, he's been promoted to the rank of general, and has also been named Chief of the Army General Staff—a post he eventually resigned because of his disagreements with Hitler.

Beck, who never joined the Nazi party, grew more and more opposed to Hitler and his foreign policies. He was the leading German Army general who conspired to overthrow Hitler, and Shirer discusses his role in various conspiracies, including the July Plot (otherwise known as Operation Valkyrie), throughout the course of the book.

Although he does characterize Beck in positive terms as a "sensitive, intelligent," and "decent" man (3.12.56), he also describes the general's general indecisiveness as his fatal flaw.

In the spring of 1942, Beck became the leader of the band of military and civilian conspirators who, for some years, had been plotting to overthrow Hitler. The others respected his intelligence and character, but some doubted his will power and ability to act. This proved to be his undoing.

In some ways, Shirer's depiction of Beck's personal character is representative of his view of Germany's officer corps on the whole: confused, indecisive, at times misguided and often unwilling to act. Beck himself met his tragic end in July 1944, executed after taking part in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler and stage an armed coup in Berlin.

Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch

Brauchitsch was Commander in Chief of the German Army when he stepped down from his position in December 1942, in the midst of the heavy losses that Germany was sustaining in the first winter months of its war against Russia. He was the last German Army general to hold the title of Commander in Chief of the Army before Hitler snatched it up for himself. You could say that his retirement led, in one small way, to what Shirer calls Hitler's final "triumph over the Prussian officer corps" (4.24.78).

Throughout his service under Hitler's command, Brauchitsch was occasionally approached by the Army officers who were conspiring to overthrow the Nazi Fuehrer. Shirer describes Brauchitsch as being noncommittal in his early contacts with the conspirators, but after the Nazi invasion of Poland, when Germany was faced with the very real threat of suddenly finding itself at war with England and France, he became more involved. Even so, says Shirer, he remained "wishy-washy," and in the end did very little (4.19.116).

Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg

Blomberg was Hitler's Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Reich Minister of War until 1938, when he became embroiled in a TMZ-worthy public scandal.

In January 1933, Blomberg was sworn in as Defense Minister by President Paul von Hindenburg, who was just about to appoint Hitler as the new Chancellor of the German Reich. Blomberg was already a Nazi sympathizer, and his new role as Defense Minister gave him the power to make sure that the military cooperated with the new government. As such, he helped to ensure that when Hitler was declared Chancellor just a few hours later, the appointment stuck.

In May 1935, Hitler promoted Blomberg to the dual position of Minister of War and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and by 1938 he'd been promoted to the rank of field marshal. But when Hitler heard about the scandal in his private life, Blomberg soon found himself out of a job.

The scandal resulted from his marriage to a young woman named Fräulein Erna Gruhn, who'd previously worked as his secretary. Just days after they were married, it came to light that Fräulein Gruhn had a criminal record: she'd been arrested for prostitution and had also been convicted of posing for pornographic pix.

Hitler was furious when he heard the news, and just two weeks after the wedding, he dismissed Blomberg from his official positions. Blomberg returned to his honeymoon in Italy, then later returned to Germany with his wife, where they lived until the end of the war.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris

When Hitler was planning the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938, Canaris was the head of the Intelligence Bureau (Abwehr) of the OKW (the High Command of the Armed Forces, or Oberkommando der Wehrmacht). He was also one of the key figures in the anti-Nazi conspiracy group that plotted—on and off again, and never with much success—to overthrow Hitler and free Germany from Nazi control.

Shirer says that Canaris, "was so shadowy a figure that no two writers agree as to what kind of man he was, or what he believed in, if anything much" (5.29.68). Shirer does describe him as "[a] cynic and a fatalist" who "had hated the Weimar Republic and worked secretly against it and then turned similarly on the Third Reich" (5.29.68). Shirer considers Canaris to have been as ineffectual and confused as many others who claimed to want to overthrow the Fuehrer.

Canaris lent a hand in one of the conspirators' early attempts to kill Hitler—the one involving a bomb concealed to look like two bottles of brandy—and he'd helped to lay the groundwork for the July Plot. When it came time for the plot to be carried out, he wasn't actively involved.

All the same, he was rounded up by the Gestapo in the violent fallout of the conspirators' failed assassination attempt and coup, and was executed by the Nazis in the spring of 1945.

General Friedrich (Fritz) Fromm

Fromm was the commander of the German "Home Army" in 1939, when Germany seemed to be on the brink of another world war. His role in the conspiracies was a kind of "good cop/bad cop" thing. He was both.

As a group of German Army officers, guided by men such as General Ludwig Beck and General Franz Halder, tried to plan a coup that would remove Hitler from power, Fromm became vaguely involved. As Shirer records, when Halder approached him to ask if they could count on the Home Army's support, Fromm's response was that, "'as a soldier' he would execute any order from General Brauchitsch (4.19.109).

In the end, nothing ever came of that shabbily-planned coup. Five years later, Fromm became vaguely involved in plans for the July Plot. Fromm had known about the plot as it developed throughout 1943, but hadn't fully committed himself to it. The conspirators had "finally concluded that this guy could be definitely counted upon only after he saw that the revolt had succeeded" (5.29.113).

Unfortunately for them, this proved to be true. The July Plot was a two-stage plan: the first stage was a planned assassination of Hitler; the second stage was an armed coup in Berlin, which would be carried out by the Home Army that Fromm commanded. When the first part of the plan—the assassination of Hitler—failed, Fromm refused to lend his support to the coup, even though the conspirators had already gotten it underway.

The conspirators arrested Fromm, but later that night, when the coup had been put down with the same Home Army that had nearly carried it out, Fromm oversaw their executions. As Shirer writes, "[h]e had quickly made up his mind to eliminate these men and not only to cover up the traces—for though he had refused to engage actively in the plot, he had known of it for months, sheltering the assassins and not reporting their plans—but to curry favor with Hitler as the man who put down the revolt" (5.29.274).

It didn't work. The very next day, Himmler arrested him and hauled him and before the People's Court in February 1945. He was executed by firing squad in March 1945.

General Franz Halder

Halder was another ambivalent conspirator. Hitler named Halder as Ludwig Beck's successor as Chief of the Army General Staff, and he held that title until the autumn of 1942, when Hitler dismissed him for questioning the Fuehrer's strategy in the war against Russia.

Throughout his years of service, Halder was one of the men in the group of German Army officers and German civilians who plotted, on various occasions, to overthrow Hitler. Before the German invasion of Austria, Halder worked with the group on a plan to arrest Hitler before he provoked a war.

Despite the fact that Halder was a "key conspirator" against Hitler, Shirer's narrative emphasizes the long duration of time that Halder continued to serve under Hitler's command. Unlike General Beck, he never resigned in opposition to any of Hitler's plans, and, as Shirer argues, he chose not to intervene as Hitler led Germany steadily towards another world war.

And why did not General Halder, who had been the ringleader in the plot eleven months before to remove Hitler, speak up on August 14 to oppose the Fuehrer's determination to go to war? Or, if he thought that useless, why did he not renew plans to get rid of the dictator on the same grounds as just before Munich: that a war now would be disastrous for Germany? (3.15.24)

Why was Halder so inconsistent in his willingness to go against Hitler? During his interrogation during the Nuremberg trials, Halder explained there that even as late as August of 1939 he still didn't believe that Hitler would actually risk going to war.

Halder seemed enthusiastic about invading Poland, but afterwards he became involved in another plot to overthrow Hitler. But in Shirer's words, he "blew hot and cold," and "was hesitant and confused" (4.19.109). By the end of November, 1939, he was once again willing to go along with Hitler's plans. In Shirer's account, this same pattern would be repeated at least one more time.

Although he wasn't involved in the famous July Plot, Halder was arrested by the Gestapo in its bloody wake, and interned in a concentration camp where he was kept in solitary confinement for months. He was freed by American troops in May 1945.

General Friedrich Olbright

Olbright is a late addition to the story: he enters Shirer's narrative in the final 150 pages, when plans for the July Plot (aka Operation Valkyrie) were heating up among the German anti-Nazi conspirators. He met a grisly death by execution on the night of June 20, 1944 when Operation Valkyrie failed.

For Shirer, Olbright is another good example of the defeatism that ran rampant in Germany's officer corps—even among the men who had the courage to present some opposition to Hitler.

Count von Stauffenberg

Count von Stauffenberg was the handsomest and best man who ever lived, or so you might gather from reading Shirer's glowing introduction of him in the twenty-ninth chapter of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

This was a man of astonishing gifts for a professional Army officer. […] Possessed of a fine physique and, according to all who knew him, of a striking handsomeness, he developed a brilliant, inquisitive, splendidly balanced mind. (5.29.76-77)

Who but Tom Cruise could be tapped to play this dashing young man? Shmoop welcomes your votes for other nominees.

After he gets through a few more descriptions of Stauffenberg's "all around brilliance" (5.29.78), Shirer explains how this tall, dark, and handsome man became the key figure in the German conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, as well as the unofficial leader of the doomed July Plot, aka Operation Valkyrie.

According to Shirer, Stauffenberg seems to have lacked the hesitance, indecision, and all-around wishy-washiness that plagued so many of his predecessors and colleagues, and he stands out among them like Tom Cruise's accent in a room full of Brits.

Like the others who had a hand in anti-Nazi conspirators' attempt to assassinate Hitler and stage an armed coup in Berlin, Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad on the night of July 20, 1944—the very day of the failed coup.