Johannes Popitz

The Defence of the Realm

Johannes Popitz, the son of a pharmacist, was born in Liepzig, on 2nd December 1884. A brilliant scholar, he studied law, economics and political science and embarked on a highly successful career in legal administration. In 1907 he acted as a junior government lawyer. (1)

In 1918, he married Cornalia Slot with whom he had three children. In 1919, after the election for the Weimar National Assembly, he became a Geheimrat in the finance ministry. In 1922 he became professor of tax law and financial science at the University of Berlin. He held very conservative views and in one article he wondered whether a legislative structure based on universal suffrage could provide adequate representation for those taxpayers who must bear the heaviest burden. (2)

From 1925 to 1929, Popitz acted as State Secretary in the German Ministry of Finance, where he worked under Finance Minister Rudolf Hilferding, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), but resigned in 1929, owing to political differences with the government. He was also a member of the Wednesday Club, a small group of right-wing conservatives, composed of academics, industrialists and civil servants. They met every Wednesday in Berlin to discuss, history, economics and politics. At one meeting Popitz expressed the view that it was necessary to establish a governing class. (3)

Johannes Popitz and the Corporate State

On 21st April 1933, Adolf Hitler appointed Popitz as Minister without Portfolio and Reich Commissioner for the Prussian Ministry of Finance. He welcomed Hitler's dictatorship because Germany's economic problems had been caused by the "parliamentary democratic method". This meant first of all that the dominant influence molding economic development originated in "the interests of the parties" in "compromises made by parliamentary coalitions". Popitz was therefore the main proponent of the corporate state. (4) Hitler had so much respect for Popitz that he awarded him the Nazi Party award of the Golden Badge of Honor. (5)

Popitz shared views on the problems caused by the Jews: "As somebody who was very familiar with conditions in the Weimar Republic, my view of the Jewish question was that the Jews ought to disappear from the life of the state and the economy. However, as far as the methods were concerned, I repeatedly advocated a somewhat more gradual approach, particularly in light of diplomatic considerations." (6) After Kristallnacht on 9th November 1938, Popitz protested the mass persecution of Jews by offering his resignation, which was refused. Although he despised the barbarism of the Nazi Regime, he wanted to see the Reich dominating central and eastern Europe. (7)

Although he remained in the government he did make contact with the German Resistance. This included Helmuth von Moltke, Peter von Wartenburg, Hans Oster and Carl Goerdeler. He also helped his old boss, Rudolf Hilferding, to escape from Nazi Germany. (8) Over a period of time he secretly traveled the road from opposition to resistance to conspiracy. A monarchist, he attempted unsuccessfully to persuade his fellow conspirators to support the Hohenzollern Crown Prince as successor to Hitler. (9)

Operation Valkyrie

In January, 1942, a group of men that included Johannes Popitz, Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, General Friedrich Olbricht, Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, Colonel-General Erich Hoepner, Colonel Albrecht Metz von Quirnheim, General-Major Henning von Tresckow, General-Major Hans Oster, General-Major Helmuth Stieff, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Wilhelm Leuschner, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Dohnanyi, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Carl Langbehn, Helmuth von Moltke, Peter von Wartenburg and Jakob Kaiser, decided to overthrow Adolf Hitler. The conspiracy was called Operation Valkyrie. (10)

Johannes Popitz
Johannes Popitz

Popitz believed that he could exploit the differences inside the Nazi leadership and bring about a split by persuading Heinrich Himmler to lead a coup against Hitler. In August 1943, Popitz had a meeting with two senior figures in the resistance: General Friedrich Olbricht and General-Major Henning von Tresckow. They gave their approval to the strategy. So also did Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, who "believed a putsch carried out by generals was bound to fail" and he was only willing to participate "on the condition" that the putsch had the support of Himmler." (11)

Carl Langbehn, Himmler's lawyer, was also a member of the resistance. He approached Himmler and managed to persuade him to meet Popitz. On 26th August, Popitz had an interview with Himmler in the Reich Ministry of the Interior. According to Peter Hoffmann: "Adroitly he suggested that Himmler assume the role of guardian of the true Holy Grail of Nazism; someone was required to re-establish order, both at home and abroad, after all the corruption and the unhappy conduct of the war by a single overloaded man. The war could no longer be won, he said, but it would only be lost if it continued to be conducted on these lines." Popitz pointed out that because of their fear of communism, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were still willing to negotiate, but not with Hitler or Joachim von Ribbentrop. (12)

Popitz and Himmler agreed to further talks but these never took place because in September 1943 Langbehn was arrested by the Gestapo. It seems that they had intercepted an Allied message that had been sent to Langbehn. It was shown to Himmler and he had to choice but to act, though he contrived to avoid ordering a trial. Popitz retained his freedom but now his fellow conspirators tended to keep their distance as it was feared that he was being closely observed by the authorities. (13)

July Plot

In October 1943, Lieutenant-Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, joined Operation Valkyrie. While serving in Africa, Stauffenberg was wounded in the face, in both hands, and in the knee by fire from a low-flying Allied plane. According to one source: "He feared that he might lose his eyesight completely, but he kept one eye and lost his right hand, half the left hand, and part of his leg." After he recovered it was decided that it would be impossible to serve on the front line and in October, 1943, he was appointed as Chief of Staff in the General Army Office. (14)

The group was pleased by the arrival of Stauffenberg who brought new dynamism to the attempt to remove Hitler. Stauffenberg volunteered to be the man who would assassinate Hitler: "With the help of men on whom he could rely at the Führer's headquarters, in Berlin and in the German Army in the west, Stauffenberg hoped to push the reluctant Army leaders into action once Hitler had been killed. To make sure that this essential preliminary should not be lacking, Stauffenberg allotted the task of assassination to himself despite the handicap of his injuries. Stauffenberg's energy had put new life into the conspiracy, but the leading role he was playing also roused jealousies." (15)

Claus von Stauffenberg now decided to carry out the assassination himself. But before he took action he wanted to make sure he agreed with the type of government that would come into being. Conservatives such as Johannes Popitz and Carl Goerdeler and wanted Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben to become the new Chancellor. However, socialists in the group, such as Julius Leber and Wilhelm Leuschner, argued this would therefore become a military dictatorship. At a meeting on 15th May 1944, they had a strong disagreement over the future of a post-Hitler Germany. (16)

Stauffenberg was highly critical of the conservatives led by Carl Goerdeler and was much closer to the socialist wing of the conspiracy around Julius Leber. Goerdeler later recalled: "Stauffenberg revealed himself as a cranky, obstinate fellow who wanted to play politics. I had many a row with him, but greatly esteemed him. He wanted to steer a dubious political course with the left-wing Socialists and the Communists, and gave me a bad time with his overwhelming egotism." (17)

Claus von Stauffenberg
Claus von Stauffenberg

On 20th July, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg and Werner von Haeften left Berlin to meet with Hitler at the Wolf' Lair. After a two-hour flight from Berlin, they landed at Rastenburg at 10.15. Stauffenberg had a briefing with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of Armed Forces High Commandat, at 11.30, with the meeting with Hitler due to take place at 12.30. As soon as the meeting was over, Stauffenberg, met up with Haeften, who was carrying the two bombs in his briefcase. They then went into the toilet to set the time-fuses in the bombs. They only had time to prepare one bomb when they were interrupted by a junior officer who told them that the meeting with Hitler was about to start. Stauffenberg then made the fatal decision to place one of the bombs in his briefcase. "Had the second device, even without the charge being set, been placed in Stauffenberg's bag alone with the first, it would have been detonated by the explosion, more than doubling the effect. Almost certainly, in such an event, no one would have survived." (18)

When he entered the wooden briefing hut, twenty-four senior officers were in assembled around a huge map table on two heavy oak supports. Stauffenberg had to elbow his way forward a little in order to get near enough to the table and he had to place the briefcase so that it was in no one's way. Despite all his efforts, however, he could only get to the right-hand corner of the table. After a few minutes, Stauffenberg excused himself, saying that he had to take a telephone call from Berlin. There was continual coming and going during the briefing conferences and this did not raise any suspicions. (19)

Stauffenberg and Haeften went straight to a building about 200 hundred yards away consisting of bunkers and reinforced huts. Shortly afterwards, according to eyewitnesses: "A deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... and 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." (20)

General Friedrich Fromm arrested Lieutenant-Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, Colonel-General Erich Hoepner, General Friedrich Olbricht, Colonel Albrecht Metz von Quirnheim and Lieutenant Werner von Haeften. Fromm decided that he would hold an immediate court-martial. Stauffenberg spoke out, claiming in a few clipped sentences sole responsibility for everything and stating that the others had acted purely as soldiers and his subordinates. (21)

All the conspirators were found guilty and sentenced to death. Hoepner, an old friend, was spared to stand further trial. Beck requested the right to commit suicide. According to the testimony of Hoepner, Beck was given back his own pistol and he shot himself in the temple, but only managed to give himself a slight head wound. "In a state of extreme stress, Beck asked for another gun, and an attendant staff officer offered him a Mauser. But the second shot also failed to kill him, and a sergeant then gave Beck the coup de grâce. He was given Beck's leather overcoat as a reward." (22)

The condemned men were taken to the courtyard. Drivers of vehicles parked in the courtyard were instructed to position them so that their headlight would illuminate the scene. General Olbricht was shot first and then it was Stauffenberg's turn. He shouted "Long live holy Germany." The salvo rang out but Haeften had thrown himself in front of Stauffenberg and was shot first. Only the next salvo killed Stauffenberg and was shot first. Only the next salvo killed Stauffenberg. Quirnheim was the last man shot. It was 12.30 a.m. (23)

Arrest and Execution

Heinrich Himmler gave order for the arrest of Popitz the day after the failure of the July Plot. Other members of the group were also taken into custody. This included Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, General-Major Hans Oster, General-Major Helmuth Stieff, Helmuth von Moltke, Peter von Wartenburg, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Ulrich Hassell and Hjalmar Schacht. Others such as General-Major Henning von Tresckow committed suicide rather than be arrested and tortured. (24)

Popitz told the Gestapo: "The Jewish question had to be dealt with, their removal from state and economy was unavoidable. But the use of force which led to the destruction of property, to arbitrary arrests and to the destruction of life could not be reconciled with law and morality, and, in addition, seemed to me to have dangerous implications for people's attitudes to property and human life. At the same time, I saw in the treatment of the Jewish Question a great danger of increasing international hostility to Germany and its regime".(25)

Popitz was condemned to death by Roland Freisler before the People's Court on 3rd October, 1944. His execution was delayed for four months, primarily through the intercession of Himmler, who thought that Popitz might be useful to him as a possible intermediary with the Western Allies through Sweden and Switzerland. However, as it became clear that the Allies were unwilling to negotiate, it was decided to have him executed. (26)

Johannes Popitz was hanged on 2nd February 1945 at Plötzensee Prison, in Berlin.


Primary Sources

(1) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003)

The group around Popitz and Hassell had no doubt about the mission of the old upper class, from which this group came; and even Goerdeler, who thought on less aristocratic lines, joined in Hassell's repeated complaints that Nazi propaganda pursued the nobility and the upper class with downright hatred. In 1934 Popitz gave an address to the Wednesday Club, in which he expressed the view that it was necessary to establish a governing class.

(2) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977)

On 26 August Popitz had an interview with Himmler in the Reich Ministry of the Interior, which Himmler had just taken over. Adroitly he suggested that Himmler assume the role of guardian of the true Holy Grail of Nazism; someone was required to re-establish order, both at home and abroad, after all the corruption and the unhappy conduct of the war by a single overloaded man. The war could no longer be won, he said, but it would only be lost if it continued to be conducted on these lines. In view of the bolshevist menace Great Britain and the United States were still ready to negotiate, but not with Ribbentrop...

In September 1943 Langbehn was arrested by the Gestapo. Some Allied message (Dulles insists that it was neither British nor American) was deciphered by the Germans and gave away Langbehn's Swiss contacts. It was shown to Himmler and he had to choice but to act, though he contrived to avoid ordering a trial.

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References

(1) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 271

(2) Theodore S. Hamerow, On the Road to the Wolf's Lair - German Resistance to Hitler (1997) page 29

(3) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003) page 83

(4) Theodore S. Hamerow, On the Road to the Wolf's Lair - German Resistance to Hitler (1997) pages 29-30

(5) Völkischer Beobachter (1st February, 1937)

(6) Jeremy Noakes, Nazism 1919-1945: Volume 4 (1998) page 632

(7) Ian Kershaw, Luck of the Devil: The Story of Operation Valkyrie (2009) page 27

(8) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 228

(9) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 271

(10) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 270

(11) Allen Dulles, Germany's Underground (1947) pages 148-149

(12) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 296

(13) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 229

(14) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 332

(15) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 738

(16) Elfriede Nebgen, Jakob Kaiser (1967) page 184

(17) Roger Manvell, The July Plot: The Attempt in 1944 on Hitler's Life and the Men Behind It (1964) page 77

(18) Ian Kershaw, Luck of the Devil: The Story of Operation Valkyrie (2009) page 39

(19) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 400

(20) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 258

(21) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 278

(22) Susan Ottaway, Hitler's Traitors, German Resistance to the Nazis (2003) page 250

(23) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 508

(24) Ian Kershaw, Luck of the Devil: The Story of Operation Valkyrie (2009) page 65

(25) Jeremy Noakes, Nazism 1919-1945: Volume 4 (1998) page 633

(26) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 271