The Lesson Turkey’s Putschists Didn’t Learn From the Plot Against Hitler

Coup conspirators need to be flexible, spontaneous and aware that speed is more important than secrecy, Israeli historian Danny Orbach says.

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Turkish solders stay at Taksim square as people protest against the military coup in Istanbul on July 16, 2016.
Turkish solders stay at Taksim square as people protest against the military coup in Istanbul on July 16, 2016.Credit: Ozan Kose, AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In July, a few days before the 72nd anniversary of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the Turkish army attempted a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “In both the technique and its mistakes, the Turkish officers’ revolt bore a surprising similarity to the German resistance movement,” the Israeli historian Danny Orbach told Haaretz.

Between 1938 and 1944, the German resistance movement at the top of the Nazi political and military hierarchies tried to kill Hitler 12 times. The military branch was willing to try anything, whether sniper fire, hand grenades, exploding liquor bottles, booby-trapped briefcases and even suicide bombers.

But Hitler always escaped. Technical glitches, schedule changes or an officer who randomly moved an explosive-packed suitcase were among the causes. “Historians tend to ignore luck and randomness, but they are crucial influences whenever we reach a junction or historical contingency,” Orbach writes in his English-language book “The Plots Against Hitler.”

But Hitler was saved by more than luck. By comparing the failed coups in Nazi Germany and Turkey, Orbach uncovered additional reasons for both leaders' survivial. In both cases, Orbach points to errors by the conspirators, who, he says, acted as if they were in a military campaign, not a mutiny, and didn’t recognize that revolutions require flexibility and spontaneity.

Orbach notes in his book that in both cases the conspirators failed to comprehend that “in the staging (as opposed to the planning) phase of revolts, coups d’etat and revolutionary conspiracies of all kinds, secrecy becomes inconsequential. Speed is everything.”

In Turkey’s case, the plot was exposed prematurely, letting Erdogan’s people react quickly. “As soon as the leader’s security guards hear that something happened, the first thing they do is to remove him from the area,” Orbach says. “In the case of Turkey, the assassination squad was 25 minutes late getting to the hotel where Erdogan was staying.”

But even after that, when the conspirators’ planes had Erdogan’s plane in their sights, they didn’t fire. They thus failed in the most important component of every revolt the elimination of the leaders.

In the German case, the conspirators managed to plant a bomb under a table where Hitler was sitting, but like the Turks they didn’t act with the necessary speed. After Hitler was wounded in the explosion, the revolt in the German army was supposed to take off. But according to Orbach, “the German officers continued to behave as if it were a military operation, not a revolt.”

Hitler gives a radio address near Rastenburg, East Prussia, after the failed assassination attempt against him, July 20, 1944.Credit: Ullstein Bild vis Getty Images

Sticking to the manual

As seasoned military men, they insisted on sticking to their plan months in the making, and on following accepted procedures of command. Most of the officers were incapable of adjusting to changing circumstances. As a result, Orbach says, the chain of command in the military resistance remained slow and hierarchical, making rapid action on the ground impossible.

Orbach, 35, holds a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and this year he began teaching military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He notes that in recent decades historians have largely focused on daily life and ordinary people. “I’m on the opposite extreme: My interest is in special individuals who make dramatic decisions in extreme situations,” he says.

The Hebrew first edition of his book was published in 2009 and became a best-seller. The English edition and the revised Hebrew edition contain insights from additional documents that Orbach collected during research in German, American and Russian archives.

Meanwhile, world events after 2009 converged on his area of research. “Anyone following the Arab Spring carefully could see that no dictatorial regime fell, no revolution succeeded and no state fell apart without a rebellion, a conspiracy or mass desertion from the army,” Orbach says. “The moment the army, the main foundation stone of every modern dictatorship, revolts or falls apart, the government is incapable of governing effectively.”

Orbach researched a topic that waited years for serious attention. Early on, he says, he discovered that the existing studies of the German resistance were full of partial and incorrect information, sometimes a result of ignorance but sometimes of ideology. “In Israel, for example, the German resistance to the Nazis greatly bothered some of the researchers, who preferred the monolithic idea of Jews versus Germans,” he says.

Still frame taken from video shows Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan speaking via a Facetime video connection to address the nation during an attempted coup, in Marmais, Turkey, on July 16, 2016.Credit: Reuters

It was hard, he adds, for these scholars to recognize that there were also “good Germans” on the right and even in the Nazi Party like most members of the resistance movement. These good Germans were like a bone in the throat to Israeli historians, so they found it very comfortable to present them as amateurs, as pathetic and as opportunists,” Orbach says.

One of these good Germans led Orbach to cross the border from theoretical research to action. It happened when he decided to try to “right an injustice,” as he put it, that had been done to a few members of the German resistance movement who had rescued Jews during the war but were never recognized by Yad Vashem as members of the Righteous Among the Nations.

One of these was Hans von Dohnanyi, a German Justice Ministry official and military intelligence analyst who in 1943 was involved in the planting of a bomb on Hitler’s plane. The bomb never went off and Dohnanyi was eventually executed. Orbach argues that Dohnanyi was also involved in Operation 7 in which 14 Jews were smuggled out of Germany in the guise of spies for the Reich.

Dohnanyi’s “record was spotless. He was anti-Nazi and he also initiated rescue operations,” Orbach says. Orbach’s efforts to have Yad Vashem recognize Dohnanyi as a member of the Righteous Among the Nations bore fruit in 2003.

Controversial German MI chief

But Dohnanyi’s commander, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, the chief of German military intelligence and one of the leaders of the resistance movement, did not earn this recognition. Orbach says he has “abundant evidence” that Canaris was directly responsible for smuggling hundreds of Jews out of Nazi Germany. The best known of these was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Chabad Lubavitch rebbe.

“There are very few Righteous Among the Nations who reached this level of rescue. To my mind, [Canaris] is one of the greatest heroes of the Holocaust, and it’s a shame he isn’t recognized as such,” Orbach says.

Yad Vashem remains unconvinced. The fact that Canaris also served at the top of Nazi Germany’s army is a strike against him. “At the very least, he holds ministerial responsibility for killing Jews,” says the director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, Irena Steinfeldt.

“We have German officers on our Righteous Among the Nations List. We have people who are not models of morality. We even have anti-Semites. But someone who was involved in war crimes – not that.”

Orbach disagrees. “There would be a certain logic to that position had [Canaris] been a commander at Auschwitz. But he wasn’t. When I ask myself what a person in his position could have done to help, there are four ways and he did them all,” Orbach says, listing them: protest, rescuing people, providing intelligence to the Allies and acting to down the regime. “He even paid for it with his life.”

In his research, Orbach stresses that not all members of the German resistance movement were saints. “They had human weaknesses, and they often tended to be aggressive, manipulative and even cruel,” he says.

But he adds: “The fact that some of the conspirators against Hitler held prejudiced ideas about Jews and in some cases were truly anti-Semitic only highlights the nobility of their actions. Someone who loves a persecuted minority and helps it deserves recognition. But someone who is hostile to that minority but overcomes his feelings and helps it while putting his own life in danger deserves recognition many times over.”

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