The Schwarze Kapelle (German for Black Orchestra) was a term used by the Gestapo to refer to a group of conspirators within the German military who plotted to overthrow Adolf Hitler. It included many senior officers within the Wehrmacht. Unlike the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), the name given by the Gestapo to the Soviet spy network within the Third Reich, the members of the Black Orchestra were of aristocratic background, felt contempt for the ideological fervor of the Nazi Party and were politically closer to the Western Allies.
Schwarze Kapelle claimed members throughout all the strategic operations of the German military and government. Those believed to have been active with the organisation included:
- Ulrich von Hassell (1881–1944), German ambassador in Rome 1932–1938
- Carl Friedrich Goerdeler (1884–1945), mayor of Leipzig 1930–1937
- Generaloberst Ludwig Beck (1880–1944), the Chief of the General Staff, the OKH 1934–1938
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), Lutheran pastor and author
- Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (1887–1945), the head of the Abwehr
- Generalmajor Hans Oster 1887–1945, deputy head of the Abwehr
- Generaloberst Franz Halder (1884–1972), the Chief of the Army General Staff (part of OKH) 1938–1942
- Josef Müller (1898–1979), CSU politician and Munich attorney, confidante of Pope Pius XII
- Hans von Dohnanyi (1902–1945), German Jurist, head of Abwehr's Office of Political Affairs 1939–1943
- Hans Bernd Gisevius (1904–1974), a diplomat and intelligence officer
- Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Groscurth (1899–1943), Chief of Abwehr Department II 1938–1940
- Generalmajor Erwin von Lahousen (1897–1955), Chief of Abwehr Section II
- Generalmajor Henning von Tresckow (1901–1944), chief of operations at the HQ of Kluge's Army Group Centre.
- Helmuth James Graf von Moltke (1907–1945), great-grand-nephew of a hero of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870
- Peter Yorck von Wartenburg 1904–1944, lawyer, founding member of the Kreisau Circle
- Adam von Trott zu Solz 1909–1944, a descendant on his mother's side of the first chief justice of the USA
- Ernst von Weizsäcker 1882–1950, permanent head of the German foreign office from 1938 to 1943
- Erich Kordt 1903–1969, head of German Foreign Office's Ministerial Bureau
- Hasso von Etzdorf Foreign Office Liaison to the OKH 1939–1944
- Fabian von Schlabrendorff (1907–1980), Adjutant to General Tresckow
- Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (1907–1944), a great-grandson of August von Gneisenau, a devout Roman Catholic, an officer in a cavalry regiment in peacetime and a distinguished staff officer in war
- General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel (1886–1944), Military commander of the Wehrmacht in Paris.
- General Erich Fellgiebel (1886–1944), General of the Communications Troops
- Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben (1881–1944)
- General Erich Hoepner (1886–1944)
- General Friedrich Olbricht (1888–1944), Chief of the Armed Forces Replacement Office
The members of Schwarze Kapelle were patriotic Germans, including many in the higher echelons of the Wehrmacht and Abwehr, who feared Hitler's policies would ruin the country. By overthrowing the Nazi Party they hoped to preserve German sovereignty. Through Admiral Canaris' Abwehr they were in touch with their counterparts in Britain, in other Allied nations, and in various neutral nations. Elements of the Schwarze Kapelle began making overtures to Britain before war broke out and while Hitler could have been easily ousted or killed. British officials said they would not interfere with German internal affairs at that time. Many hard feelings remained from the First World War, exacerbated by Hitler's treacherous invasion of "Rump" Czechoslovakia six months after the Munich Agreement, which made the British feel they'd been taken for fools. Moreover, Britain had been burned in the Venlo Incident, losing two SIS officers—including Sigismund Payne Best, who had extensive knowledge of British espionage on the continent—to supposed "discontented conservatives" who were actully Sicherheitsdienst counterintelligence operatives.
The conspirators were not necessarily seeking to reintegrate Germany into the family of peaceful and democratic nations. If anything, they sought to consolidate the gains Germany had already made under Hitler. Admiral Canaris, for example, had a very aggressive war record from the previous war. Thus, although Hitler had built Germany into the world's most dominant power, the conspirators were afraid his hubris would eventually destroy that dominance. Allied officials recognized, more than the conspirators themselves, that the conspirators' goals were not necessarily those of the Allies. They were also reluctant to accept the credibility of the organisation, believing it to be a front for the Gestapo. During the Venlo Incident in late 1939, two British agents were kidnapped yards inside Dutch territory and spirited across into Germany, where they remained in captivity until the last week of the war. The agents had gone there to meet what they thought were German military plotters against Hitler, but the Germans were actually members of the Gestapo. Thus the Allies encouraged the Schwarze Kapelle to act but were not willing to promise anything in return. This reticence was to hamper the German opposition throughout the entire war.
By September 1938 the Schwarze Kapelle had drawn up plans for a provisional government, based on the British Constitutional Monarchy. A coup was all ready to take place, when the Munich Agreement failed, as they thought it would. The plotters thought Britain would deny Hitler the Sudetenland, and they were certain that Hitler was not just rattling his saber, that he would then give the order to invade the Sudetenland. The order for the coup depended on Hitler's order to invade. The conspirators were convinced such an invasion would result in a war that Germany was sure to lose, and they were bound and determined to avoid such a war. It was one moment in history in which the military of an aggressive country was specifically against starting a war. When Chamberlain caved in, the invasion was unnecessary, and the coup was aborted. During the coup Captain Friedrich Heinz was to have arranged for Hitler to be shot "resisting arrest." This was not to be the last time Heinz had such an assignment. With the Munich Agreement Hitler rose to his highest esteem yet; under those circumstances, no coup could possibly hope to win the support of the German people, or even the military. Chief of Staff Franz Halder called off all coup plans.
The plans for a provisional government were brought out of mothballs a year later, in October–November 1939, when Hitler planned a November 12 autumn attack through the neutral low countries into France. Many on the General Staff thought it would be a military disaster at that time of year. At least as many high-ranking officers were also outraged at the barbarities being reported out of Poland, fearing what it would do to German prestige. The two motivations pushed events to within hours of launching the coup, which included a very detailed plan to quell any opposition from the Gestapo or SS. Captain Heinz was again tasked with capturing and shooting Hitler for attempting to "resist arrest." It all revolved around the Wehrmacht—if Halder, again the man needed to give the go-ahead, would set things in motion. After a meeting between Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch and Hitler—on the very day, at the very hour, of the planned coup, 1:30 p.m. on November 5, 1939—Halder utterly panicked after hearing von Brauchitch's account of the meeting, in which Hitler spoke of the "spirit of Zossen," meaning OKH headquarters. Halder (wrongly, it turned out) took it to mean Hitler had found them all out and thought the worst. He ordered everything shut down and all documents burned.
There was enough support from high-level military commanders during both the 1938 and the 1939 plots that the chief conspirator, Abwehr head Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, was able to offer the British the end the war, if either coup had succeeded. Ending or preventing war was, in fact, the reason for both coups. Unfortunately, the British were never really on board; the plotters never had enough confidence that Germany would be treated fairly, as opposed to 1919 and Versailles. This, plus the Stab-in-the-back legend, made it difficult for the Wehrmacht conspirators in particular (and they were central to any coup attempt) to be convinced they would not be seen as traitors. It was absolutely necessary that they pick a moment when Hitler was not popular, rather than viewed as a genius. In their minds, a coup in Germany could only take place against Hitler when they could claim successfully that he was taking Germany down a disastrous path. With Chamberlain's capitulation at Munich, and after the Hitler's delays on attacking in the West, the opposition's momentum never quite came in 1938 or 1939.
An attack in the spring of 1940 (six months after the original planned attack) was actually seen as the correct military move. The season was right, plus the military had been given all that time to prepare further. Many generals who had earlier seen disaster on the horizon then saw victory ahead and climbed on board with Hitler. In both September 1938 and November 1938, events evolved to make Hitler look like a genius; the plotters did not feel they could capture or kill a popular Hitler, and events conspired against them. Hitler's winning streak did not begin to falter until September 1941 with the stalled Operation Barbarossa. By then, supporters of the earlier plots had almost all given up. Few remained actively opposed to Hitler, but enough remained to seed the Stauffenberg attempt in 1944.
When Roosevelt announced at the Casablanca Conference, in January 1943, that the Allies would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender, Churchill and others realized this would force the Germans to fight "like rats." Canaris also realized this demand would probably doom his efforts to recruit supporters among the German generals.
The Schwarze Kapelle was prepared to move against Hitler during the Munich crisis, but Chamberlain's acquiescence made it impossible for them to recruit the Army generals whose support they needed. According to Bodyguard of Lies, on March 13, 1943, Colonel Henning von Tresckow had his adjutant, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, place a time bomb aboard Hitler's plane on March 13, 1943, right after Stalingrad, but it failed to go off, despite their testing and retesting the fuses.
The July plot and aftermath
After the July 20 Plot failed, the Gestapo rounded up the members of the Schwarze Kapelle and many, many more people, and put some 5,000 people to death (the Gestapo's records showed more than 7,000). Stauffenberg and three others were summarily shot that night. Most of the conspirators were put on trial, in the People's Court of Roland Freisler, describd as a "vile, vituperative maniac," between August 1944 to February 1945. Most of the others were executed the day after their convictions by hanging from meat hooks at Plötzensee Prison.
Schlabrendorff only escaped death because an Allied bomb fell on the court, killing Freisler and destroying most of the court and investigation records, just as Schlabrendorff was being led into the court building. Canaris and Oster were not tried until February 1945, and were not executed until April 9, 1945; their deaths were particularly grisly, by slow strangulation. Erwin Rommel was forced to commit suicide. Because of his popularity with the German people, Rommel was given the choice between suicide (thus preserving his reputation as a war hero) and the persecution of his entire family and the arrest of his staff. To save his family, Rommel chose the former.
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- Brown, p.239
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- Brown, p.268
- Shirer, page 1072
- Shirer, page 1070
- Shirer, page 1073