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from issue no. 04 - 2003

Interview with Giovanni Sala, a historian of Civiltà Cattolica

Those “criminals” who wished to put an end to the war

The failed attempt on Hitler in 1944 was described by US newspapers as a criminal act carried out by traitors. Churchill also dismissed it as a power struggle between rival generals. Giovanni Sala, a historian of Civiltà Cattolica, explains how this was possible. Interview

by David Malacaria

The inspection by Hitler and Mussolini at the headquarters of the Fuhrer after the attempt of 20 July 1944

The inspection by Hitler and Mussolini at the headquarters of the Fuhrer after the attempt of 20 July 1944

A gang of criminals makes an attempt on the life of the Führer. Fortunately uninjured, the German chief of State succeeds in thwarting the criminal coup d’état organized by the miserable gang of criminals who had attempted to assassinate him. The traitors to the country, promptly arrested, will be executed. Thus the news stories of the period recounted yet another attempt to eliminate Adolf Hitler, on the 20 July 1944. An attempt which was indeed intended to be a prelude to a coup d’état which would probably have ended the Second World War a year ahead of time. Up to here the story of one of the many tragic events that center on the ruthless Nazi leader. Which perhaps would not merit more attention than other tragic events which happened in those years. Were it not that it was not Nazi propaganda that dismissed the attempted coup d’état of 20 July in this manner, but authoritative American newspapers. This is one of the revelations contained in two articles, which appeared recently in Civiltà Cattolica, under the signature of Father Giovanni Sale, the authoritative Jesuit historian who has written for the review for years.

You explain that the attempt of 1944 was perhaps one of the most serious efforts to put an end to the Nazi dictatorship.
GIOVANNI SALE: Effectively that’s how it was. Not that there weren’t other attempts to eliminate the Führer who, indeed, survived about sixty attempts, among them the one, almost successful, of 1938, in a beer house in Munich. Attempts that were all nullified, not only by the precautions taken by the Führer (who changed appointments and schedules at the last minute), but also by a series of truly incredible fortuitous circumstances .... as if an evil spirit watched over him .... But, that apart, it is beyond doubt that the attempt made in 1944 had the marks of a real and proper coup d’état, planned with care and with the participation of a large number of people.
So this attempt reveals the existence of a resistance to the Nazi regime inside Germany?
SALE: To speak of resistance is perhaps excessive. In Germany single opponents of the regime certainly weren’t lacking, there were also some organized groups, one thinks of the young Catholics of the “White Rose” who paid dearly for their heroic leafleting at the university .... But these were phenomena of little importance for the regime. In the case at issue I believe that one can speak more of a true and real resistance, of a clear refusal of the ideas and doings of the regime. A refusal which was amalgamating essentially in two spheres, civil and military.
In your articles you allude on several occasions to attempts by exponents of this resistance to contact the allies ....
SALE: A sort of clandestine diplomacy was organized. One of the heads of the civil resistance, Karl Friedrich Goerdeler, established contact with the allies in March 1938. But he was received with coldness. In London, the first adviser to the Foreign Minister, Robert Vansittart, actually accused him of treason .... The same holds true for Lieutenant Colonel Ulrich von Schwerin, sent to London before the invasion of Poland to try to convince the English that the invasion would be thwarted if the English gave Hitler to understand that they were ready to defend the Slavic nation. “Only the danger of a war on two fronts can restrain Hitler”, was the message brought by the colonel. But his message, also on this occasion, was not taken into consideration. Years later, from 1942 on, it was emissaries of the cultural circle of Kreisau, also through men of the church, who tried to explain to the allies that there was an opposition that hated the Nazis and that the allies should immediately reject any too hasty identification between Nazism and the German people. But this distinction was not accepted by the allies. Then, when in January of 1943, the inter-allied Conference of Casablanca demanded the total and unconditional surrender not only of the dictator but also of the German nation, the distinction was not even in discussion anymore. This stance left the pockets of resistance without any recourse.
Was Pius XII aware of these attempts to contact the allies?
SALE: He was personally involved in at least one when, between 1939 and 1940, the lawyer Josif Muller, sent by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of counter espionage and the soul of the military resistance, requested him to intercede with the English ambassador accredited to the Vatican to have a message sent to London asking that peace terms be negotiated with a new German government after the overthrow of Hitler. The Pope consented to put the German opposition and the English government in contact. But this attempt also failed. The allies feared that there were traps involved, but they were also blinded by the imperial nationalism of the time which viewed these figures as traitors to their own country. And certainly that identification between Nazis and the German people, which was indeed disastrous, weighed on these events.
You were saying before about the civil opposition ....
SALE: This formed around the Kreisau circle, which one could also describe as a cultural circle to which leading figures from various backgrounds in German civil society belonged. The main core was formed of aristocrats, of Catholic trade unionists and exponents of the dissolved Zentrum, a party of Christian inspiration, by representatives of the Lutheran church and by intellectuals and trade unionists of the left. Priests and religious also belonged to it. But, apart from the effective members, different personalities, among them the Bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing, as well as other prominent German Catholics, had contacts the circle.
What did they do?
SALE: Obviously they didn’t have much freedom of movement ....they met for private conferences, where the future of Germany was debated and planned, a future without Hitler, obviously .... The founder of this circle was Count Helmuth James von Moltke, a figure of high moral and spiritual standing. As other aristocratic adherents of the circle, he saw in the overthrow of the regime not only the sole possibility of salvation for Germany, the redemption of the nation from Nazi degradation, but also, at a personal level, a way of saving his soul. A possibility of seriously striking a blow at the heart of the regime was given by the converging of the Kreisau circle and the military opposition. The conspirators were joined by Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, who belonged to the select group of collaborators of the Führer. It was the first time that a plot had the advantage of such a close contact. The planning, done within the circle, speeded up when von Stauffenberg, for reasons connected with his work, learnedof an order which decreed “the ‘special treatment’ of Auschwitz for 40 or 42 thousand Hungarian Jews”.
Were the ecclesiastical hierarchies aware of this attempt at a coup d’état ?
SALE: From Moltke’s diaries we know that “authoritative bishops were close to the resistance”. We know that in January 1943 von Moltke, in Munich to meet Fathers Augustinus Rosch, Lothar Konig and Alfred Delp (Jesuits belonging to the Kreisau circle, the last of whom was killed after the failed attempt) and the lawyer Muller, the man who was the contact with the Vatican, spoke of the plan with Cardinal Michael Faulhaber who tacitly agreed. We don’t know whether von Preysing also knew about it, but it is very probable, given that they frequented each other a great deal.
How was the plan carried out?
SALE: On 20 July of 1944 von Stauffenberg succeeded in bringing a case containing two explosive charges into “the wolf’s den” in Rastenburg, where Hitler was to meet with his officers. But, once inside, perhaps because of a hitch, Stauffenberg only succeeded in priming one of the two charges. The case was then placed near Hitler, but next to a column which deadened the explosive force. In short, yet again, a series of fortunate circumstances preserved the life of Hitler who escaped unscathed from the attempt. At the same time operations to implement the coup d’état were set in motion. But Hitler’s orders preceded those of the conspirators, and his loyal followers soon succeeded in foiling it. The same night, the leaders of the conspiracy, meeting in the Oberkommando of the Wehrmacht in Berlin, were arrested. In the speech which Hitler made to the nation on the evening of the failed attempt, he explained that a small group of ambitious officers had tried to eliminate him, but that “providence” had prevented it.
Father Alfred Delp, one of the Jesuit fathers belonging to the Kreisau cultural circle and killed after the failed attempt on the Führer

Father Alfred Delp, one of the Jesuit fathers belonging to the Kreisau cultural circle and killed after the failed attempt on the Führer

Were they killed?
SALE: All the stages of the trial and of the sentencing to death were filmed, by the express will of Hitler who, among other things, wanted them killed “like pigs”. They were executed, suspended from butcher’s hooks, and the films were sent to the dictator who watched and re-watched them with his officials.
What was the international reaction?
SALE: In the outside world the interpretation which Hitler himself gave of the conspiracy was widely accepted. Recounting the events, the New York Times said that the attempt “made one think more of the atmosphere of a miserable criminal world” than what one would expect from “a normal body of officers of a civilized state”, and they were scandalized by the fact that for a year these officers had plotted “against the commander in chief of the armed forces”, resorting, among other things, to “a bomb, a weapon typical of the underworld”. Another important US newspaper, the Herald Tribune, commented: “In general it will not displease Americans that the bomb spared Hitler and that now he is personally freed of his generals. On the other hand Americans have nothing in common with aristocrats, and especially not with those who resort to stabbing”. Winston Churchill, in a message sent to the House of Commons on 2 August 1944, commented on the episode as “a struggle for power between the generals of the Third Reich”.
Did the allies at the time already know of the final solution against the Jews ....
SALE: Yes, for more than a year .... But here I think we are faced with another blunder dictated by exasperated nationalism and by miscalculation of the event ....
What was the extent of the repression following the attempt of 20 July?
SALE: The Gestapo soon discovered that it was not just a handful of conspirators. Thousands of people were arrested, many of whom were killed. Among these there were many Catholics. The Archbishop of Freiburg, Monsignor Konrad Grober, in a note sent in those days to the apostolic nuncio in Berlin, writes about fifty arrests in his city alone, specifying that there were “personalities known both to the Holy Father and to you” ....
You write that after the 20 July the repression against Catholics became crueler.
SALE: It’s not that previously there had been no persecution. Father Delp in a note preserved in the archives of the OSS ( the Anglo-American secret service), wrote that from 1940 Jesuits were obliged to wear the initials “nzv”, unreliable as the Jews. And that, from 1942, they began to be sent to the concentration camps. But after the 20 July the determination to get rid of the Church increased. The priests and religious who encountered the horrors of the extermination camps were many. A fact ignored by official publications. On the basis of unpublished documents, I have been able to make out that when the Americans liberated Dachau they found 326 Catholic priests ....
If the coup d’état had succeeded, perhaps the war would have finished earlier ....
SALE: Indeed, hundreds of thousands of human lives would have been saved. It was only from 1944 that Germany began to undergo saturation bombing from the Anglo-American forces. Perhaps we would not have known the devastation of Dresden and the fire storms which decimated the German population. And the lives of Allied and Russian soldiers would also have been saved whereas in 1944 they continued to die on the various war fronts .... without taking into account the gas chambers, which continued their horrific work until the end of the war.
Why did the events of the 20 July remain in oblivion for so long?
SALE: After the war it was convenient for the Allies to sustain the interpretation which viewed the events of 20 July as the outcome of a conspiracy by a few ambitious officers. And this because it served to confirm the thesis (sustained especially by Nazi propaganda) that there was no form of opposition or resistance to the regime in Germany under Nazism, whereby all Germans were to be considered Nazis and therefore to be treated in the same way. An error. Which history has corrected.

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