271 WWII Perspectives

Though not deeply immersed in WWII histories, I’ve always been interested in that era and recurrently read things that interested me, for I know how the two great wars (WWI and WWII) significantly shaped the 20th century.  In Germany’s Underground:  The Anti-Nazi Resistance (New York:  Da Capo Press, c. 2000; 1st ed. c. 1947) Allen W. Dulles focuses on the oft-unknown and unheralded but heroic effort by conscientious Germans to stop (or at least minimize) the devastation unleashed by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi devotees.  At mid-century the Dulles family was among the most distinguished and influential in America—his brother John Foster became President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State; another brother, Avery, was a significant Catholic theologian and Cardinal; Allen himself, following the war, became the head of America’s Secret Service agency.  During WWII Allen was stationed to Switzerland to make contact with and coordinate activities with anti-Nazi Germans.  He subsequently published this illuminating account.

Dulles begins by describing “the evolution of a police state” whereby Adolph Hitler shrewdly took control of Germany.  He was certainly no “mountebank” or “fool.”  In fact “he was one of the smartest tyrants who ever hypnotized a people” (p. 17), successfully persuading millions of Germans that he would triumphantly lead the nation to the “national and moral rebirth” they craved.  Effectively manipulated by propaganda and deceit, many of them awakened much too late to the brutal dictatorship (carefully following the Bolshevik model) that Hitler had established.  They then discovered, as Count Helmuth von Moltke lamented, that efforts to oppose the Nazis were incredibly difficult; indeed, what could be done “‘when you cannot use the telephone, when you are unable to post letters, when you cannot tell the names of your closest friends to your other friends for fear that one of them might be caught and might divulge the names under pressure?’” (p. 20).     

Nevertheless, once the war commenced, conspirators such as Moltke launched plots to overthrow Hitler.  Eminent military leaders included:  Colonel General Ludwig Beck, Chief of Staff of the German army until the summer of 1938; General (later Field Marshal) Erwin von Witzleben; Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (the celebrated “desert fox” widely lauded by Hitler in the early years of the war); and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (heading the Abwehr—the military intelligence agency), represented the honorable esprit de corps of their martial tradition.  “Immer true und redlickheit—always loyal and honest,” they vowed!  Notable politicians, including Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, formerly the mayor of Leipzig, and Johannes Popitz, the Prussian Finance Minister, were equally involved in underground activities.  Professional men (numerous lawyers), diplomats, labor leaders, and churchmen (such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer) played vital roles.  Probably the best known of the conspirators, Mayor Goerdeler, was “the proverbial German official—conscientious but romantic, intellectual but devoted to the state and every concept of law and order.  He was a devout Protestant and a public servant par excellence.  It took a Hitler to make such a man a revolutionary” (p. 30).  

Without doubt the military officers posed the most serious threat to Der Fuehrer.   During the war there were several daring efforts, beginning in 1939, to assassinate him, but he seemed to live a charmed life.  The most significant underground conspiracy, known as “the Kreisau Circle,” was led by Count Helmuth von Moltke” and brought together a significant number of anti-Nazis inspired by Christian convictions.  Dulles sketches biographical portraits of several of these men, highlighting their character and courage, and reminds us of the “other Germany” Hitler despised and trampled.  Of the dozens involved in various plots, virtually none survived, but their heroic efforts deserve memorializing.  Their final effort took place in 1944 when Colonel Count Claus Schenk von Staffenberg placed a bomb in a briefcase under a table near Hitler while he was holding a meeting.  Inadvertently one of the attending officers moved the briefcase away from Hitler simply because it was in his way.  The bomb exploded and four officers were killed.  Hitler was seriously injured and never fully recovered—but he walked away from the scene.  The Gestapo quickly identified Stauffenberg as the culprit and his fellow conspirators were rounded up and executed.   

Since Dulles had personal contact with some of the important anti-Nazi Germans, this treatise gives us valuable insight into some of the significant efforts made to save their country.  That they failed does not tarnish their image—rather it reminds us that even under brutal tyrannies there is often a courageous few who risk their all to combat them.  

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Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was one of the most prominent Germans involved in conspiracies to overthrow Adolf Hitler.  In significant ways he surreptitiously helped the Allies—and had his maneuvers to get England to join Germany in an alliance against Russia succeeded, the world might have been vastly different.  Ian Colvins told his story in Master Spy:  The Incredible Story of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Who, While Hitler’s Chief of Intelligence, Was a Secret Ally of the British (London:  McGraw-Hill Book Company, c. 1952; republished by Uncommon Valor Press, c. 2014).  Though written 60 years ago, Master Spy has the advantage of being written while many of the best sources were still alive.  “Colvin’s ‘contacts with German generals’ and his relentless, if undercover, investigation of the attitudes of the German General Staff toward Hitler ultimately led him to an encouraging conclusion:  admirals and generals high in the Nazi hierarchy were searching desperately for ways of ridding themselves of Der Fuehrer and reaching an accord with Great Britain and France.  First among them was Admiral Canaris, Hitler’s Chief of Intelligence” (Kindle, #28).  

Canaris “had reached the height of his professional ambition when he took over the appointment of Chief of Intelligence” (#177).  He served with distinction in U-boats during WWI and commanded a battleship between the wars, but he had always been interested in military intelligence and moved into that arena during the 1930s.  His love of adventure and intrigue, his intellectual shrewdness, and his quiet, confident demeanor appealed to Hitler, who treated military officers deferentially before committing them to aggressive actions against Austria and Czechoslovakia in the windup to actual war in 1939.  When the dictator began taking some powers away from the General Staff, assuming for himself the post of War Minister, Canaris began to soften his allegiance his commander-in-chief.   

So by the time hostilities began in 1939 Hitler’s Chief of Intelligence had already begun working to undermine his endeavors.  Canaris had wide-ranging contacts with conspirators such as Count Helmuth von Moltke and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and effectively cultivated diplomatic contacts abroad, especially in England and Switzerland.  Before the invasion of Poland, some of the anti-Nazi conspirators proposed arresting Hitler and establishing a military rule—something Winston Churchill noted in The Gathering Storm.  Unfortunately, Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister and thought he could work with Hitler.  Since the German officers thought they needed England’s support if a coup d’etat could be staged, this early plot (one that could have saved the world incredible anguish) dissipated.  

When Hitler notified his military that he would invade Poland, Canaris told his staff “that the defeat of Germany would be terrible, but that a victory of Hitler would be more terrible still!  He considered that nothing should be omitted that would shorten the war” (#1455) and thenceforth committed himself maintaining his position while working surreptitiously to foil Hitler’s agenda.  Through his agents abroad he was able to supply the Allies with important information regarding political and military developments within Germany.  He sought (unsuccessfully) to persuade the British to help the Norwegians resist the Nazi invaders, persuaded that an all-out battle there might transform public opinion in Germany and bring the war to an end.  He secretly admired Winston Churchill (reading his speeches to his wife at home) and rejoiced in the “English bulldog’s” resolve to resist the Nazis.  He used misinformation and diplomatic contacts (including frequent personal visits) to keep Generalissimo Franco from opening Spain to Hitler, who wanted to establish bases in that country.   In Spain Canaris “achieved something lasting.  He had saved this mysterious land from prolonged torture” and obviously helped the Allies thereby (#2344).  He subtly subverted Hitler’s order that Churchill be assassinated when he attended a conference in Casablanca conference.  Whenever and wherever he could—as Colvins shows through many fascinating details—he schemed to thwart the Nazi agenda.  

Hitler at times noted Canaris’ apparent “pessimism” but never doubted his loyalty as the German  armies were conquering most of Europe.  But as the Third Reich began collapsing—and as conspiracies against Hitler proliferated—Admiral Canaris began to be suspected of treason,  Arrests of leading conspirators such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer led to information that led to more arrests.  “Canaris men” in foreign posts had, it seemed, all too often failed to deliver the information needed by the Nazis.  In February, 1944, he was removed from his position as Chief of Military Intelligence—nine years after being appointed to that post.  While technically still free, he knew his days were numbered, though he had covered his tracks with consummate skill.  “‘Canaris was unprotected,’ said Willy Jenke.  ‘He was afraid for his life, and yet he would not budge.  We urged him to flee to Spain with his wife and family.  General Franco would have seen to his safety.  The Military Intelligence could have put an aircraft at his disposal; but he would not go.’”  Asked to explain, Canaris said:  “‘I will never flee.  I want to share the fate of the German people” (#3468).  

When the Kreisel Circle’s plot to kill Hitler dramatically failed in 1944, Canaris was one of the scores of eminent Germans rounded up, implicated in anti-Nazi efforts, and sent to Flossenburg (joining General Oster and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others).  Given a summary trial, he was executed a mere 20 days before Hitler himself would kill himself.  But shortly before dying, Canaris tapped out a message to a fellow prisoner, declaring:  “‘I die for my Fatherland.  I have a clear conscience.  I only did my duty to my country when I tried to oppose the criminal folly of Hitler leading Germany to destruction’” (#3727).  

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In Victims of Yalta:  The Secret Betrayal of the Allies, 1944-1947 (New York:  Pegasus Books, c. 2012, first published in 1977) Nikolai Tolstoy (a distant relative of the famous novelist) compiled and analyzed evidence—much of it first-hand oral testimonies taken from survivors—regarding one of the truly tragic results of WWII.   He documents the fact that  “well over two million Russians were handed over to Stalin in the years 1944-7 by the Western Allies, and that the fate accorded to almost all of them was terrible, has been known to an increasingly large public for a number of years” (p. 19).  How and why it was done—and why the story was so studiously withheld from the public in the West—provides the structure for this book.  Amazingly, though many German “war criminals” were brought to justice following WWII, no Russians were held accountable for “the herding of millions of ordinary Russians into cattle-trucks to certain death, torture or unbearable privation” (p. 24).  

During the course of WWII, millions of Russian civilians were, at least briefly, forced to live under Nazi rule.  Nearly three million of them were sent to work camps.  (When Allied troops “liberated” Russian slave laborers who were working on German farms, many of them would beg to be left in their servitude rather than sent “home.”  Incredibly, “life as slave-laborers in Nazi Germany had been better than life in Russia” (p. 315)).   Nearly six million Russian soldiers were captured by the Germans; 1,150,000 survived the war.  Nearly a million Russians voluntarily joined the Germans, determined to help overthrow Stalin’s brutal tyranny.  As the Red Army swept across Eastern Europe, of course, many of these Russians were “repatriated”—which generally meant being sent to the Soviet Gulag!  As the war ended some of the Russians in German camps were handed over to Allied forces, who then returned them to their “motherland.”  To Stalin, all these Russians were in some way “traitors” and he demanded their return to the Soviet Union.  

When it became apparent the Allies would triumph in battle, politicians and diplomats began to discuss how to deal with the POWs and refugees dislodged by the conflict.  Some English officials, in particular, were distressed at the prospect of returning Russians to the Soviet Union, though they also had to consider how negotiate the return of Allied POWS now under Russian control.  Leading the negotiations in 1944, Sir Anthony Eden visited Moscow and discussed the issue with Stalin, whose “wit, humour, and gentle wisdom” rekindled Eden’s “admiration” for the tyrant.  The two men “laughed, drank and gossiped around the festive table until the early hours of the morning” (p. 74) and it was agreed to quickly “repatriate” the Russians held in England.  Similarly, at Yalta, Stalin imposed his will on the confreres, ultimately resulting in the “repatriation” of virtually all his subjects.  George Kennan, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, witnessed this process with concern, knowing that the NKVD was in charge of handling the returning Russians; he had “‘no illusions as to the fate that awaited these people on arrival in the Soviet Union.  I was full of horror and mortification over what the Western governments were doing’” (p. 87).  

Nevertheless, following through commitments made to Stalin, the repatriation process proceeded rapidly.  The fate of the Cossacks who had joined the German army was especially “remarkable,” Tolstoy says.  During the prior century, they had been loyal supporters of the Tsar and had stoutly opposed the Bolsheviks.  The German soldiers who occupied their territories treated them rather benevolently, and many of the men actively assisted Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  Following the Russian triumph at Stalingrad, these Cossacks (often accompanied by entire families) retreated along with the German forces and were ultimately assigned a region in northern Italy.  As Allied troops moved into this area, the Cossacks (numbering in the thousands) peacefully surrendered to Britain’s Brigader Geoffrey Musson of the 36th Infantry Brigade, having “no quarrel with the Western Allies;” they were interested only in sustaining “their struggle against Bolshevism” (p. 158). 

British soldiers were most impressed by the Cossacks, with their fur caps, knee-high riding boots, and skilled horsemanship.  Led by some famous White Russian officers (many of them émigrés who had lived in the West since the Bolshevik victory in the civil war), they were well-organized, orderly, and fully willing to cooperate with their captors.  They believed (since Winston Churchill and other Western leaders had earlier supported the White Russians in their struggle against the Bolsheviks) that they would escape Stalin’s dragnet.  Under no circumstances did they want to go back to their “homeland” in the USSR.  Some even volunteered to join Allied troops in the Far East battling the Japanese!  English officers on the ground promised the Cossacks they would be protected.  They’d not yet learned of the promises made by Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta!  Shortly ly thereafter Brigader Musson faced the Cossack’s leader, Ataman Domanov, and informed him “‘that I have received strict orders to hand over the whole of the Cossack Division to the Soviet authorities.  I regret to have to tell you this, but the order is categorical.  Good day’” (p. 175).  

To the Cossacks, “it was the lying that was perhaps the most repulsive aspect of the whole grim business unfolding” (p. 178).  Their leaders, still operating in accord with the noblesse oblige of their culture, had taken the British officers at their word—and now that word had been broken!  They’d surrendered and been betrayed.  Rounded up, by force when necessary, and packed into trucks, they were delivered to the Soviets in Judenberg, Austria.  Local residents were shocked to see the British orchestrating this process, and the soldiers involved understood they were sending the Cossacks to certain death.  Many of them were almost immediately executed—distant gunfire was heard in Judenberg.  The rest of them were packed into trains sent to slave labor camps in Siberia.    Virtually none of them survived.  

Though British army officers certainly deserve some blame for following orders—first to deceive and then to force the Cossacks to return to Russia—Tolstoy tries to put their behavior in context.  They did, in fact, look the other way when some of the people fled to the woods and in time settled in the West.  Some of the wives of Cossack leaders were helped to escape.  But in general they followed orders to deport the Russians.  To a degree, they did so “because they genuinely believed the Cossack’s fears to be illusory.  For three years British wartime propaganda had represented the USSR [in the words of Dr. John Pinching] ‘as a kind of utopian socialist state.  One rather believed this . . . [and] this echoed the Stephen Spender, Bernard Shaw kind of intellectual Left with which I was associated in Oxford, and which I swallowed hook, like and sinker . . .  Really, I think I was brainwashed by the Psychological Warfare Branch into thinking that Russia was a socialist state, and that they would behave compassionately towards these people whom we were deputed to send back’” (p. 218).  The big lie that sustained the USSR prompted all too many Westerners to help Stalin liquidate millions of his subjects.  

The Cossacks simply represent one of many groups of “Russians” forced to return to the USSR.  At Yalta, Stalin demanded “that all SOVIET nationals found in territories occupied by ALLIES should be returned to the USSR” (p. 254).  For whatever reason, and for however long they’d lived outside the borders of the Soviet Union, they were be “repatriated”!  At Potsdam, Stalin intensified his demands and Churchill promised to cooperate, though he seems to have been personally unaware of many details known to Stalin.  He would soon be replaced as Prime Minister by Clement Atlee, who was far more pliable in Stalin’s hands.  The Soviet dictator was especially determined to round up those White Russians (mostly Ukrainian) who had fled to the West to escape Bolshevik rule.  

Allied soldiers—Americans like Eisenhower and Patten more frequently than British—found the repatriation process abhorrent and occasionally worked  clandestinely to help Russians escape—quietly ignoring the edicts by leaders such as  Secretary of State Stettinius, who declared that “it was United States policy to return all Soviet citizens ‘irrespective of whether they wish to be so released’” (p. 337).  American GIs would register some Russians (especially old émigrés) as non-Soviet citizens—Ukrainians were often registered as Poles—and provide false papers enabling them to flee to freedom.  They simply looked the other way when many “refugees” escaped the camps.  “The plain fact was that almost no soldier, British or American, approved of forcible repatriation.”  At Nuremberg German soldiers were being tried for precisely those “war crimes” Stalin insisted his “allies” commit!  “That soldiers should not maltreat prisoners or war, nor harm women and children, had been a maxim of warriors since the Middle Ages” (p. 348), and many military men were truer to their tradition than their superior’s commands.  

Unfortunately, these soldiers could have only minimal impact upon the forced repatriation (and rapid demise) of millions of Russians.  That only tiny Liechtenstein valiantly refused to cooperate in any way with Stalin is a worthy testament to that nation’s character.  Unfortunately, she did so alone!