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The German Overture

The German Overture

The untold story of how in 1943 — a year before the Walkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler — the German High Command offered to turn Wehrmacht forces against the Waffen-SS Nazi troops and help America win the war. An RJ exclusive interview with Charles Fenyvesi.

A former staff writer for The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Ha’aretz, and The Jerusalem Post, as well as editor of The National Jewish Monthly, Charles Fenyvesi now files a weekly electronic newsletter, Bigotry Monitor, on human rights and is also the author, most recently, of When the Angels Fooled the World, on rescuers of Jews in wartime Budapest (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).

The attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944 is well known and the subject of the recent movie Valkyrie. How is it that you discovered evidence of an earlier plot to turn German forces against the Nazis that has escaped detection, even by historians?

I was lucky. In 2002 I was combing through box after box of newly declassified wartime documents at the U.S. National Archives, looking for information on assets expropriated by the Nazis, when I came across a series of communications that astonished me. In early July 1943, Count Helmuth James von Moltke, an emissary of the German High Command—the equivalent of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff—made a secret visit to the Office of Special Services (the OSS was the forerunner to the CIA) in Istanbul, Turkey, offering to turn Wehrmacht forces against the Waffen-SS Nazi troops loyal to Hitler and make a separate peace with the Americans. [“Dogwood Project, Istanbul Mission,” submitted by Arch F. Coleman, second in command of the OSS Istanbul station, December 5, 1944]

Moltke, the German military intelligence service (Abwehr) representative at the German High Command and a lifelong anti-Nazi, told the OSS he would reveal the purpose of his mission only to one person: Alexander Kirk, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo. Kirk had been a friend of Moltke’s from the time the American diplomat served as the chargé d’affaires in Berlin in the 1930s. Moltke trusted him.

How did the OSS operatives in Istanbul respond to Moltke’s request?

They were interested, as their mission statement called for encouraging anti-Nazi resistance. But they couldn’t arrange a meeting with Kirk.

Why not?

According to John Waller, then an OSS officer in Cairo, Kirk was afraid of getting involved on behalf of a German officer, likely because he himself, an independently wealthy man, employed a German man as his personal secretary/physician who everyone at the legation knew was his lover. Wartime regulations strictly forbade embassies from employing an enemy alien, even if a U.S. official paid his salary. Waller suggests that Kirk probably reckoned that taking up Moltke’s cause would have turned attention to his illegal hire. The diplomat and historian George F. Kennan offers a different explanation in his Memoirs 1925-1950: Kirk, a cautious opportunist, was unwilling to get involved in “causes,” reluctant to write reports, and “afraid of being held responsible.”

What, then, did Moltke decide to do?

He confided in another old friend, Dr. Hans Wilbrandt, an anti-Nazi German émigré professor of philosophy at the University of Istanbul who had been recruited by the OSS. Wilbrandt, highly regarded by OSS-Istanbul, reacted enthusiastically to the generals’ initiative, vouched for Moltke’s anti-Nazi bona fides, and reported to his OSS bosses the details of Moltke’s message: the anti-Nazi Wehrmacht generals he represented proposed to “withdraw key troops from the French coast” to allow for the Anglo-American “invasion to enter France with the least possible trouble.” Wehrmacht resistance would be only “token.” Further, the withdrawal of “SS and pro-Nazi troops would permit the Anglo-Americans to march in from the west and occupy Germany.” At the same time, the “Wehrmacht would muster its strongest forces against the Russians….” [“Dogwood Project, Istanbul Mission” report]

Moltke also presented to the OSS a list of the highest ranking Germans involved in the conspiracy. Among them were some of the Wehrmacht’s most capable commanders: Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Germany’s titular “First Soldier” regarded as the war’s most brilliant strategist; Field Marshal Wilhelm List, who had been removed from a prestigious command position by Hitler because of his refusal to sanction harsh retaliations against guerrillas on the Russian front; Colonel General Ludwig Beck, Hitler’s first chief of the general staff; Colonel General Franz Halder, chief of the general staff from 1938 to 1942; and “possibly” Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, who was opposed to Nazism but was known as chronically indecisive. Also included on the list was a civilian: former Leipzig mayor Carl Gördeler. [“Dogwood Project, Istanbul Mission” report] Naming the conspirators was a dramatic gesture, probably designed to underscore the seriousness of the offer.

Whose idea was this plot?

According to the same OSS document [“Dogwood Project, Istanbul Mission” report], signed by Arch F. Coleman, the plot appears to be headed by Rundstedt. On the list of the German conspirators the first name is Rundstedt, indicating that Rundstedt was the leader. (The list is not alphabetical, and it does not follow rank.) Most importantly, in the hierarchical structure of the German military, which OSS respected, the first person mentioned in a group was the leader.

Rundstedt’s leadership also makes sense from a military perspective. The oldest and most respected member of the High Command, he was the one general that other officers and the troops were most likely to obey in the event that he issued an order to confront the Waffen-SS.

What was Moltke’s next move?

He left for Berlin, promised to return, and in the meantime maintained contact with Wilbrandt. In mid-December 1943 he flew back to Istanbul, again in the hope of meeting with and encouraging Ambassador Kirk to back the High Command offer. But Kirk still did not want to get involved, so Moltke met instead with the U.S. military attaché in Ankara, Major General Richard Tindall. A standard-issue U.S. army officer, Tindall was put off by the German aristocrat’s highfalutin intellectual stance and Moltke’s reluctance to hand over intelligence information to him. Instead, Moltke penned a letter—which he asked Tindall to forward to Kirk—calling for joint military action by the Western Allies and the Wehr­macht units commanded by anti-Nazi generals to make use of “effective military power on a very considerable scale” that “will undoubtedly prove overwhelming once our assistance is added.” [National Archives and Records Administration Record Group 226, Entry 190, Microfilm 1462, Roll 52]

Did OSS-Istanbul notify Washington of these developments?

Yes. Relying on Professor Wilbrandt’s assessment, the second in command at OSS-Istanbul, Arch F. Coleman, vouched for Moltke’s anti-Nazi bona fides, and between August and December 1943 sent a series of memoranda promoting the conspirators’ plan to OSS headquarters in Washington. Alfred Schwarz, co-director of the OSS North European Operation, and Lanning Macfarland, OSS-Istanbul station chief, did the same, pointing out that the anti-Nazi group went as far as favoring “an understanding with the Allies even on the basis of unconditional surrender,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most stringent demand to end the war. [NARA RG 226, Entry 211, Box 20]

How did OSS-Washington respond?

John Waller told me that Coleman sent memoranda to OSS-Washington director William Donovan in July 1943, but Donovan was reluctant to pass them on to the Joint Chiefs of Staff or to President Roosevelt, even though Donovan had direct access to both.


According to Waller, Donovan’s subordinates persuaded him that FDR would object to any contacts with German officials for fear of angering America’s Soviet ally. Any hint of such an arrangement was bound to enrage Stalin and play into his fears of an Anglo-American scheme to enlist Germany in an anti-Bolshevik crusade. [The Unseen War in Europe by John Waller, Random House, 1996, and personal interviews] Moreover, Donovan himself was well aware of FDR’s hatred of Germans, whom he saw as congenitally aggressive and imperialistic. Widely quoted among the OSS and U.S. diplomats at the time was a remark Roosevelt was said to have uttered: “An anti-Nazi German is only a shade better than a Nazi German.”

What, then, did Donovan do?

He referred the question of the credibility of Moltke’s offer to two German affairs experts, one within and one outside the OSS. The outside consultant, Professor Karl Brandt of Stanford University, welcomed the German High Command offer, warning the OSS that more than half a million American boys would die battling Germany on the French coast “before the fortress will fall by military assault only” and praising Moltke and his co-conspirators as “the most respectable revolutionary group inside Germany, lodged in vital strategic positions” capable of assuring Anglo-American occupation and keeping the Russians out of Central Europe in a “practicable and politically permissible [way].” Dismissing the possibility of a “slick ruse” by the High Command, Brandt gave “full credence” to the “sincerity” of the conspirators’ efforts, and proposed that the U.S. military establish a formal liaison group with the conspirators. [NARA RG 226, Entry 190, Microfilm 1462, Roll 52, February 28, 1944]

The second consultant, William Langer, head of the OSS Research and Analysis Branch and a history professor at Harvard in civilian life, took the opposite position. He disputed the existence of a “fairly large, well-organized, and influential” opposition group in Germany that was “in a position to have its orders carried out.” In Langer’s opinion, “nothing can be done in Germany until the Nazi regime collapses, and no such collapse is probable in the immediate future unless the armies are defeated decisively.” Langer did allow that certain elements “must be thinking of surrender to the Anglo-Americans to avoid being overrun by Bolshevik armies,” but he characterized as “hackneyed” the German idea of enlisting Anglo-American help against the Bolsheviks. He further warned that considering the German generals’ plan without Russian “knowledge and agreement” would be a “grave mistake” and contended that the Russians were “prepared to play ball but equally prepared and determined to execute a volte-face if the British and the Americans do not play fair.” His recommendation, issued on March 15, 1944, was to “keep the wires open” and find out more about Moltke’s group in the High Command, but “lay all military plans as though this group [does] not exist.” [NARA RG 226, Entry 110, Box 47]

Whose opinion did headquarters embrace?

Langer’s. On April 3, 1944, almost nine months after Moltke first contacted the OSS in Istanbul, the OSS Planning Group in Washington formally rejected the offer and decided not to transmit it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on a technicality: it required no military action. OSS-Istanbul was instructed to explore the possibilities raised by the proposition and to make use of any of Moltke’s connections who might be helpful to the invasion of the continent “without any regard whatsoever for any further consideration such as the future of Europe or the future of Germany.” Then came two stern final warnings: “But consider the possibility that the group is a possible instrument of double agents and have no regard whatsoever for the German individuals involved.” [NARA RG 226, Entry 110, Box 47]

Nine months was a long period of indecision.

Yes. And by that time all the men on Moltke’s list were involved in or at least had some advance knowledge of the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler in the operation code-named Walkyrie. Moltke himself was already in prison for having organized a circle of anti-Nazi clergy, intellectuals, labor leaders, and government officials, and for drafting a blueprint for a democratic, post-Nazi German state. The Gestapo arrested him on January 19, 1944. He, along with dozens of others, were tried and found guilty of plotting against the Nazi state. He was executed on January 23, 1945.

What was the fate of the others on “Moltke’s List”?

Colonel General Beck, among the first of the Walkyrie conspirators to be arrested, shot himself in the head but survived and was reduced to pleading with a sergeant to finish the job. He died on July 20, 1944.

Field Marshal Kluge, commander-in-chief of the German forces in France, tried on August 15 to contact U.S. Army General George Patton to sue for an armistice but could not get a phone connection. [Hitler’s Generals, edited by Correlli Barnett, Grove Weidenfeld Publishers, 1989] Hitler caught the whiff of treason and fired him, prompting Kluge to swallow a cyanide capsule on August 19, 1944.

Field Marshal List, fired by Hitler in 1942 because of his reluctance to comply with orders to get tough with partisans on the Russian front and suspected by the Gestapo of involvement in Walkyrie, disappeared, thus avoiding a Nazi trial. He was later tried by the Nuremberg International Tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes. In 1952 he was released on the grounds of declining health and lived in peace and comfort for another nineteen years.

Colonel General Franz Halder was arrested by the Gestapo the day after the Walkyrie plot in which he was implicated, but somehow evaded the death sentence and spent the rest of the war in the VIP prison within the Dachau concentration camp run by the SS. Afterwards, Halder served for the rest of his life as director of the German section of the historical division of the United States military government in occupied Germany. He contributed greatly to America’s understanding of Germany at the time, topping the list of William Shirer’s sources for The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Simon & Schuster, 1959). In 1961 he received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the highest American civilian medal for services to the United States.

The former Leipzig mayor, Carl Gördeler, was brought before the “people’s court” set up by the SS, found guilty of treason, and executed on February 2, 1945.

Field Marshal Rundstedt knew of Walkyrie, but did not take part because, as he told his colleagues, it was not right to assassinate the head of state to whom he had sworn “unconditional obedience.” [interview with CIA officer James Critchfield, who knew Rundstedt, and the consensus of historians] Still, ever faithful to his pledge of obedience to the Führer, Rundstedt later accepted Hitler’s invitation to preside over a makeshift “court of honor” that transferred officers accused of complicity in Walkyrie from the jurisdiction of a traditional Wehrmacht court to a merciless SS kangaroo court.

So Hitler never suspected Rundstedt of treason.

That’s right. In fact, in early September 1944, as the Allies closed in on Germany, the Führer asked Rundstedt, by then no longer in active service, to command a counteroffensive designed to push back the invading Anglo-American armies to the sea. According to documents cited by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, the general replied: “My Führer, whatever you order, I shall do to my last breath.”

Did he live up to this promise?

He did. Ironically, the last German counteroffensive in the war, the Battle of the Bulge, was initially successful largely because Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s troops looked up to him and trusted his battlefield expertise. Familiar with the Ardennes woods, the site of his earlier victorious campaign in 1940, he commanded up to twenty-eight divisions—some half a million men—including several of the toughest Waffen-SS units as well as large numbers of teenagers and grandfathers ordered into uniforms a few weeks earlier. Up to the last moments of his army’s disintegration in the midst of a total collapse of German forces, Rundstedt applied smart military tactics and added the inventive touches for which he was admired. In the end, his troops were defeated—about 120,000 killed, wounded, or captured—but not before inflicting a heavy death toll on Allied forces, an estimated 16,000–19,000.

Was Rundstedt’s role in the 1943 plot ever revealed?

No. It was not brought up at the Nuremberg tribunal, where the prosecution charged Rundstedt with war crimes in Poland, the Soviet Union, and on the Western front. He was detained until 1949, but not tried because of ill health. Following his death in 1953, a handful of Wehrmacht officers in civilian clothes and top hats followed the horse-drawn hearse to the grave.

So the top men on “Moltke’s List” took action on or knew of the plot to kill Hitler.

Yes. This gives great credence to Moltke and the others’ intentions to support U.S. military operations to end the war.

What united these conspirators?

I agree with the historian Joachim Fest, who wrote in Plotting Hitler’s Death (Henry Holt and Company, 1996) that they were united by their dislike of Hitler and the belief that the war he had begun recklessly and micromanaged disastrously would end in Germany’s destruction.

What happened to the OSS operatives in Istanbul who had championed the plotters’ cause?

Arch Coleman and Lanning Macfarland were sent home by headquarters, a punishment for hiring double agents and allowing Nazi penetration of the station—charges advanced by OSS officer Frank Wisner, who was sent to Istanbul to investigate. On July 31, 1944, Wisner fired Alfred Schwarz, a Czech Jew, accusing him of being a German agent—an absurd charge that was never investigated or proved.

What happened to Alexander Kirk?

John Waller told me that Kirk, along with his German partner, stayed in place until the end of the war. In 1946 Kirk was reassigned to Rome as ambassador, his last assignment before retirement.

What happened to the OSS’s chief in Washington, William Donovan?

After President Truman abruptly shut down the OSS in 1945, Donovan was named assistant to Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

The world might have looked quite different had the anti-Nazi generals taken out Hitler in 1943.

Very different. With German forces split between Hitler diehards and anti-Nazis, the Western Allies could have won the war by early 1944 or mid-1944 at the latest. [interview with CIA sources] It is safe to say that more than 700,000 Jewish lives could have been saved. Of Hungary’s 725,000 Jews—the last intact Jewish community in Hitler-controlled Europe—600,000 were sent to Ausch­witzfrom May to December 1944, and at least 460,000 of them were killed. Most of the French and Dutch Jewish victims—100,000 each—perished in 1944, along with more than half of the 50,000 Jews in Greece. The extermination of nearly all the remaining Jews in Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, and Italy was also completed in 1944. Tens of thousands were tracked down and shot, or gassed in Ausch­witz—which was not liberated until January 1945. Among them was Anne Frank, deported along with 1,018 others on the last Dutch transport to Auschwitz on September 2, 1944. She died in Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.

Tens of thousands of Roma and Polish gentiles were also killed in 1944.

On the battlefield, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. U.S. casualties (killed and wounded) in the Battle of the Bulge alone are estimated at between 81,000 and 104,000. And in the Normandy invasion, 36,976 American soldiers lost their lives.

How is it possible that the 1943 conspiracy almost ended up in the dustbin of history?

The OSS documents referring to it were originally stamped “TOP SECRET.” Declassification could have come sooner, but according to my CIA sources, people concerned with protecting FDR’s reputation probably objected. In the early postwar years Americans were in no mood to debate such a potentially controversial and embarrassing issue as the victorious president’s refusal to deal with anti-Nazi German generals. It was only after the U.S. Congress adopted the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act in 1998 that declassification began, and the pages themselves were not fully released until 2002, when I began my search. Going through more than eight million pages—remember, there’s no computerization of records here—is extremely time consuming, which explains why so few researchers have made the effort.

It is clear to me that revealing this truth will please very few, with the possible exception of those wishing to ease the burden of German guilt. The 1943 plot is one of history’s inconvenient facts.


Union for Reform Judaism.