I haven’t yet seen “Valkyrie,” but I’m pretty familiar with the relevant history, and will be interested to see how accurately it is reflected in the film.
It appears that–as is the case with almost all writing/video dealing with the German military conspiracy against Hitler–the film is strongly focused on the activities of Colonel Count Stauffenberg. It’s easy to see why filmmakers would want to emphasize Stauffenberg’s role and story–with his aristocratic lineage, his good looks, his attractive wife, and his love of poetry (he was a devotee of Stefan George), the man makes a fine dramatic hero. Stauffenberg was a complex individual and a man of many quirks, some of them likeable–like his habit of lying on the rug with his wife and reading English novels together, each waiting for the other to finish the page–and some not so likeable, like his tendency to lose his temper if his boots weren’t lined up precisely by his adjutant. One can see why he would be attractive to writers and movie-makers.
There were quite a few German officers involved in the plot against Hitler, and some of them committed themselves much earlier than Stauffenberg did. Hans Oster, in particular, could reasonably be considered as the driving force behind the whole enterprise. It’s interesting to note that no one playing the Oster role shows up in the cast list for “Valkyrie”–there may be legitimate dramatic reasons for this, but I hope that the movie at least gives credit in some form to Oster’s very important role.
Hans Oster was born in 1887, the son of a Protestant pastor and a highly cultivated mother (who had a great influence on him but who died when he was seventeen.) He grew up as an excellent horseman and a good cellist. Joining the army in 1907, he fought with distinction in the First World War. After the peace was signed, Oster was one of those chosen for retention in the army, which was reduced to 100,000 men by the provisions of the Versailles Treaty.
After his promotion to major, his career suffered a serious blow when he was found to be conducting a flirtation–perhaps an actual affair–with the wife of a senior officer. Oster offered the man a duel “to save honor,” but this was declined, and he was thrown out of the army. In 1933, he accepted a new job in the Abwehr (military intelligence) and his opposition to Hitler quickly solidified as he learned more about what was going on in the new concentration camps and about Hitler’s plans for war. He began to recruit others to the cause. One of his most important targets for conversion was General Ludwig Beck, the Army chief of staff. Like Oster, Beck was a devoted horseman, and on their long rides together, Oster worked to persuade Beck of the evil of Naziism, the absolute catastrophe that would be represented by a new war, and the moral necessity of taking direct action.
Some of those officers who began to consider resistance to the Nazis were motivated–like Oster–by their revulsion at Hitler’s tyrannical and barbarous policies; others were motivated more by practical concerns: they didn’t believe Germany could win a major war. Even among those in the first category, many were opposed–on “moral” grounds or based on their expectations of public reaction–to killing Hitler: one idea was to arrest him and have him declared insane. Oster, though, came very early to the concusion that Hitler must be killed if a coup was to have any chance of success.
In 1938, as the crisis over Czechoslovakia deepened, there was great concern among the German populace and military over the dangers of a new war. Beck, the chief of staff, was not necessarily opposed to German expansionism, but did not believe that Germany was militarily strong enough to take on Britain and France combined, and moreover, he did not believe that the issue of Czechoslovakia was worth a world war. He attempted to organize a “general’s strike,” under which the senior officers would refuse to participate in the planning and execution of an invasion of Czechoslovakia. In a memo to Walther von Brauchitsch, the CinC of the army, he wrote:
Now at stake are final decisions regarding the fate of the nation. History will burden those leaders with blood guilt if they do not act according to their professional and statesmanly principles and knowledge. Their soldierly loyalty must end at the boundary where their knowledge, conscience, and sense of responsibility forbid the execution of an order. In case their advice and warnings fall on deaf ears in such circumstances, then they have the right and the duty, before the people and history, to resign their offices. If they all act together, then it will be impossible to carry out military action.
However, Beck was unable to convince a critical mass of officers to participate in his plan, and he resigned alone in July 1938.
Oster and his circle believed that if Hitler moved to invade Czechoslovakia, and if France and Britain were resolute in their committment to defend that country, the time would be right for a coup. Erwin von Witzleben, a general commanding substantial troops in the Berlin area, agreed to support the forceable removable of Hitler, and Wolf Helldorf, the police president of Berlin, promised neutrality on the part of his police. Another army unit, under the command of Erich Hoepner, was assigned to neutralize the large SS garrison in Munich, The intention was to arrest Hitler and have him declared insane: Oster officially went along with the majority of his co-conspirators on this but secretly planned to have the fuehrer killed “by accident” in the course of the arrest.
The conspirators sent emissaries to Britain, to inform the British government about the strength of the anti-Hitler movement and to emphasize the importance of a strong stand re Czechoslovakia–however, they were unable to overcome the appeasement orientation of the Chamberlain government. The Munich agreement, signed in late September, caused much of the support for an immediate coup to disintegrate. Oster, though, remained resolute in his intention to destroy Naziism.
In the fall of 1939, the diplomat Erich Kordt–who had frequent access to Hitler–came to Oster and offered his services as an assassin. It was decided that a bomb would offer a better chance of success than would a pistol, and Oster undertook to procure explosives and a detonator. Unbeknownst to the military conspirators, a man named Georg Elser–a clockmaker and a socialist–was pursuing his own independent plan to kill Hitler. Elser’s bomb did go off, but owing to a change in plans Hitler was not among those killed. The incident led to greatly increased security around Hiter, making it impossible for Kordt’s plan to be carried out.
In late 1939, Oster began to pass military information about Germany’s plans for an invasion of Western Europe to his friend Bert Sas, who was the Dutch military attache. Sas assured him that this information would be passed to his Belgian opposite number, and Oster surely expected that the information would also reach the French and the British.
The decision to pass detailed military information to an enemy state was extremely painful to Oster, despite his loathing of Naziism–he knew that if the Allies acted effectively on the information he was giving them, it would likely mean the deaths of tens of thousands of German soldiers, among them many of his friends. Nevertheless, he did it. After one session with Sas, Oster unburdened himself to a friend:
It’s much easier to take a pistol and shoot someone down, it’s much easier to storm a machine-gun emplacement, than to do what I have decided to do. And if I should die, I beg you to remain my friend after my death–a friend who knew the circumstances under which I took this decision, and what drove me to do things which perhaps others will never understand, or at least would never have done themselves.
On May 9, 1940, Oster provided Sas with a final update: a massive German attack was about to begin. Using a prearranged code, Sas notified his superiors. An hour and a half later, he was called back by the Dutch chief of intelligence who said, doubtingly: “I have just received the very bad news about the operation on your wife. Have you now spoken to all the doctors?” Sas, irritated at the unbelieving attitude that was being taken toward his information, snapped back: “I don’t understand why you bother me now under these circumstances. You know now. Nothing can be done any more about this operation. I have spoken to all the doctors. Tomorrow morning, at dawn, it takes place.” It wasn’t until 3:00 AM the next day that the Dutch blew up the first of their frontier bridges, and it appears that the Oster/Sas intelligence never reached the French or British commanders.
Throughout the war years, Oster (who was promoted to Major General in 1941) did what he could to assist Jews in getting out of Nazi Germany. In some instances, Abwehr funds were used to pay for the escape of Jews under cover of intelligence operations. These activities led to a detection of financial irregularities on Oster’s part, and he was removed from office in April 1943. The Gestapo does not seem to have been aware that he was helping Jews escape–they believed the financial manipulations were about personal enrichment–and were certainly unaware of his deep involvement in an anti-Hitler conspiracy. Nevertheless, he fell under enough suspicion and surveillance that it became impossible for him to continue is central role in the conspiracy. It was at about this time that Stauffenberg became heavily involved in the affair: to a substantial extent, he took on what had previously been Oster’s role.
In his book To The Bitter End, Hans Bernd Gisevius (a close friend of Oster’s) gives his own view of the characters of Oster and Stauffenberg:
Oster was the officer who had fought most clear-headedly, most resolutely, most indomitaby against the Brown tyranny–and fought it longest. There was a vast gulf between his mentality and that of Stauffenberg, who had shifted to the rebel side only after Stalingrad. These two army men were representative of two different worlds.
I don’t think the above is entirely fair to Stauffenberg—but it certainly is true that that Oster took resolute action againt the Nazis earlier than Stauffenberg and most of the other conspirators, and that his motivations were broader and deeper than those of many.
Following the unsuccessful bomb plot and coup attempt of July 1949, Oster was arrested along with dozens of others. He was executed on April 9, 1945, in the Flossenburg concentration camp. The camp was liberated a few days later by American forces.
Oster’s friend Fabian von Schlabrendorff described him as a man such as God meant men to be, lucid and serene in mind, imperturbable in danger.
There were many in the senior German military ranks who understood what Hitler was and what Naziism was doing to the world, but were unwilling to wholeheartedly commit themselves to doing what needed to be done. Hans Oster stands in strong contrast to such individuals.
In attempting to persuade Halder (his replacement as chief of staff) to take action against Hitler, Ludwig Beck used an equestrian metaphor: as an experienced horseman, Halder should know that he had to throw his heart over the fence.
Hans Oster threw his heart over the fence and he never looked back.