Hans Oster, the son of a Protestant clergyman, was born in Dresden on 9th August, 1904. He joined the German Army and during the First World War as a lieutenant he won several decorations for bravery.
Oster remained in the army serving under Colonel Franz Halder. According to Oster's biographer, Mark M. Boatner III: "Oster was a brash, cynical, volatile, and a womanizer whom many peers and superiors regarded as unfit for general staff duties. One of his personal traits, 'irresponsible carelessness', led to an adulterous affair in 1932 for which he was brought before a court of honor and compelled to resign on 31 December 1932."
After Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 Oster went to work for Herman Goering who had set-up a Research Department as cover for a phone-tapping operation. Later that year he joined Abwehr as a civilian employee in counter-intelligence work. He worked under General Ferdinand von Bredow but came under the influence of Hans Gisevius and Hans Dohnanyi. After the murder of Bredow during the Night of the Long Knives Oster became a strong opponent of Adolf Hitler.
As Joachim Fest, the author of Plotting Hitler's Death (1997), has pointed out: "Though not particularly politically minded at first, he nevertheless possessed sufficiently strong values and clarity of vision to understand the devastating defeat that the Reichswehr had inflicted on itself. The despotism in the land, daily growing more palpable in countless ways, the curtailment of the rule of law, and the emerging struggle against the churches prompted this parson's son from Dresden to progress from mere reservations about the regime to fundamental hostility toward it. This inspired him to use the resources of Military Intelligence to build a far-flung network of conspirators... Decisive, quick-witted, and diplomatically imaginative, Oster was an unusual blend of moral rectitude, cunning, and recklessness. During many long discussions with Beck, he pointed out all the inconsistencies in the chief of the general staffs position and sowed doubt about the formalistic concept of loyalty to which Beck always hewed when Hitler repeatedly forced tests of conscience on him. Constantly on the move, Oster cultivated contacts on all sides and forged connections between the civilian and military opponents of the regime that would later become very important."
In 1938 Colonel Osler became head of the Military Intelligence Office's central division, who turned it into a centre of activity for opponents of the regime. The following year Osler became Chief of Staff to Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Abwehr. Canaris made sure that Abwehr was stocked with anti-Nazis. As Alan Bullock has pointed out: "The Abwehr provided admirable cover and unique facilities for a conspiracy." The German historian, Heinz Höhne, has argued that Canaris was worried that Osler "was so engrossed in his preparations for a coup d'état that he barely discerned the dangers that threatened his work."
Osler joined a group of conspirators that included Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Wilhelm Canaris, Claus von Stauffenberg, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Hans Dohnanyi, Franz Halder, Hans Gisevius, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben. Initially the group was divided over the issue of Hitler. Gisevius and a small group of predominantly younger conspirators felt that he should be killed immediately. Canaris, Witzleben, Beck, and most of the other conspirators believed that Hitler should be arrested and put on trial. By using the legal system to expose the crimes of the regime, they hoped to avoid making a martyr of Hitler. Oster and Dohnanyi argued that after Hitler was arrested he should be brought before a panel of physicians chaired by Dohnanyi's father-in-law, the psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer, and declared mentally ill.
On 5th April 1943 Hans Dohnanyi was arrested. The following day Oster's friend, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was arrested. After the two suspects were tortured by the Gestapo they revealed information that implicated Osler. Under pressure from Adolf Hitler, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Abwehr, was forced to suspend Osler from duty and he was placed under house arrest in Leipzig.
General Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler's chief adjutant, met Claus von Stauffenberg and arranged for him to become chief of staff to General Erich Fromm. According to Albert Speer, "Schmundt explained to me, Stauffenberg was considered one of the most dynamic and competent officers in the German army. Hitler himself would occasionally urge me to work closely and confidentially with Stauffenberg. In spite of his war injuries (he had lost an eye, his right hand, and two fingers of his left hand), Stauffenberg had preserved a youthful charm; he was curiously poetic and at the same time precise, thus showing the marks of the two major and seemingly incompatible educational influences upon him: the circle around the poet Stefan George and the General Staff. He and I would have hit it off even without Schmundt's recommendation."
Stauffenberg was now in a position where he would have regular meetings with Adolf Hitler. Fellow conspirator, Henning von Tresckow sent a message to Stauffenberg: "The assassination must be attempted, at any cost. Even should that fail, the attempt to seize power in the capital must be undertaken. We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German Resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it. Compared with this, nothing else matters."
On 20th July, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg attended a conference with Hitler on 20th July, 1944. It was decided to drop plans to kill Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler at the same time as Hitler. Alan Bullock later explained: "He (Stauffenberg) brought his papers with him in a brief-case in which he had concealed the bomb fitted with a device for exploding it ten minutes after the mechanism had been started. The conference was already proceeding with a report on the East Front when Keitel took Stauffenberg in and presented him to Hitler. Twenty-four men were grouped round a large, heavy oak table on which were spread out a number of maps. Neither Himmler nor Goring was present. The Fuhrer himself was standing towards the middle of one of the long sides of the table, constantly leaning over the table to look at the maps, with Keitel and Jodl on his left. Stauffenberg took up a place near Hitler on his right, next to a Colonel Brandt. He placed his brief-case under the table, having started the fuse before he came in, and then left the room unobtrusively on the excuse of a telephone call to Berlin. He had been gone only a minute or two when, at 12.42 p.m., a loud explosion shattered the room, blowing out the walls and the roof, and setting fire to the debris which crashed down on those inside."
Joachim Fest, the author of Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) has pointed out: "Suddenly, as witnesses later recounted, a deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... A dark plume of smoke rose and hung in the air over the wreckage of the briefing barracks. Shards of glass, wood, and fiberboard swirled about, and scorched pieces of paper and insulation rained down... When the bomb exploded, twenty-four people were in the conference room. All were hurled to the ground, some with their hair in flames." The bomb killed four men in the hut: General Rudolf Schmundt, General Günther Korten, Colonel Heinz Brandt and stenographer Heinz Berger. Hitler's right arm was badly injured but he survived what became known as the July Plot.
The plan was for Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Erich Fromm to take control of the German Army. This idea was abandoned when it became known that Adolf Hitler had survived the assassination attempt. In an attempt to protect himself, Fromm organized the execution of Stauffenberg along with three other conspirators, Friedrich Olbricht and Werner von Haeften, in the courtyard of the War Ministry. It was later reported the Stauffenberg died shouting "Long live free Germany".
According to Traudl Junge Hitler selected Hermann Fegelein to investigate the conspiracy: "Fegelein had been detailed to investigate the assassination attempt and track down the guilty men. He was personally indignant to think of anyone wanting to blow up such a splendid fellow as himself. I think he thought that was more criminal than any plan to get rid of Hitler, and he flung himself into the investigation with the zeal of his desire for revenge. Finally it became obvious even to Hitler that the resistance movement had spread more widely in the army than he had supposed. Distinguished names of men holding high rank were mentioned. He raged and shouted and said a great deal about traitors and scoundrels." It is claimed that Fegelein often showed around the photographs of the hanged men who had been executed as a result of this failed assassination attempt."
Oster and Wilhelm Canaris were among the many arrested. During the investigation Fegelein discovered Osler's three-page study on how the coup d'état was to be conducted. On 6th February 1945, with the Red Army now in Germany, the conspirators were moved to concentration camps where they were in less danger of being killed by bombs or liberated by advancing enemy troops. Oster was taken to Flossenburg Concentration Camp.
On 4th April 1945 they discovered Canaris's secret diaries. This information was used in the trial of Oster, Canaris, Hans Dohnanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ludwig Gehre and Karl Sack. Oster appeared first and having abandoned hope, admitted everything. Canaris also confessed and the others followed. That evening the court pronounced the death sentence on all the men.
Hans Oster was executed on 9th April, 1945.
(1) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997)
The most prominent figure in these opposition groups was indisputably Hans Oster, who became chief of the central division of the OKW Military Intelligence Office in the autumn of 1938. He had been skeptical of the Nazis prior to 1933 but, like most of his fellow officers, initially approved of Hitler's foreign policy and therefore hesitated for a time once the new regime came to power. The Rohm affair served to clear his mind. Though not particularly politically minded at first, he nevertheless possessed sufficiently strong values and clarity of vision to understand the devastating defeat that the Reichswehr had inflicted on itself. The despotism in the land, daily growing more palpable in countless ways, the curtailment of the rule of law, and the emerging struggle against the churches prompted this parson's son from Dresden to progress from mere reservations about the regime to fundamental hostility toward it. This inspired him to use the resources of Military Intelligence to build a far-flung network of conspirators. The disgraceful farce leading to Fritsch's dismissal fired Oster with a determination to resist, though he recognized that it was Fritsch's own weakness that had made his downfall inevitable. Nevertheless, Fritsch had been Oster's regimental commander for a number of years and Oster continued to hold him in the highest regard, almost revering him. Decisive, quick-witted, and diplomatically imaginative, Oster was an unusual blend of moral rectitude, cunning, and recklessness. During many long discussions with Beck, he pointed out all the inconsistencies in the chief of the general staffs position and sowed doubt about the formalistic concept of loyalty to which Beck always hewed when Hitler repeatedly forced tests of conscience on him. Constantly on the move, Oster cultivated contacts on all sides and forged connections between the civilian and military opponents of the regime that would later become very important.
(2) Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Philby Affair (1968)
Late in 1942 my office had come to certain conclusions - which time proved to be correct - about the struggle between the Nazi Party and the German General Staff, as it was being fought out in the field of secret intelligence. The German Secret Service (the Abwehr) and its leader. Admiral Canaris, were suspected by the Party not only of inefficiency but of disloyalty, and attempts were being made by Himmler to oust the Admiral and to take over his whole organization. Admiral Canaris himself, at that time, was making repeated journeys to Spain and indicated a willingness to treat with us: he would even welcome a meeting with his opposite number, "C". These conclusions were duly formulated and the final document was submitted for security clearance to Philby. Philby absolutely forbade its circulation, insisting that it was "mere speculation".
He afterwards similarly suppressed, as "unreliable", a report from an important German defector. Otto John, who informed us, in Lisbon, that a conspiracy was being hatched against Hitler. This also was perfectly true. The conspiracy was the Plot of 20 July 1944, and Canaris, for his contribution to it, afterwards suffered a traitor's death in Germany.
At the time we were baffled by Philby's intransigence, which would yield to no argument and which no argument was used to defend. From some members of Section Five, mere mindless blocking of intelligence was to be expected. But Philby, we said to ourselves, was an intelligent man: how could he behave thus in a matter so important? Had he too yielded to the genius of the place?