You might not have heard of Hans Oster. He was a decorated German soldier who served during the First World War and later found a position of some power in the Nazi regime. His biographer, Mark M. Boatner III, described him as “brash, cynical” and “volatile.” But there’s much more to Oster’s story than that.
During the Second World War, Oster was part of a resistance movement within the Nazi Party. While the Allies struggled against the German army, Oster worked from inside the Abwehr – a branch of the German military intelligence. The Abwehr gave Oster a platform from which he could attempt to alter the course of the war.
Using his position of influence, Oster took a number of steps during the conflict to try and curtail the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Some of these measures worked, while others didn’t. But to better understand the reasons behind Oster’s resistance, we need to go back to the beginning of his story – before the start of Adolf Hitler’s tyranny.
Oster was born in 1887 in the city of Dresden. He was a pastor’s son and joined the German military at the age of 20 in 1907. In the First World War he performed military service with distinction on the Western Front. Indeed, in 1916 he was promoted to captain in the German General Staff. Then, after Germany’s defeat, he was one of a limited number of officers allowed to keep their jobs within the reduced army.
In 1932, however, Oster’s personality caught up with him. He ended up embroiled in a scandal involving an extra-marital affair. By the end of the year, then, he was forced to resign from his post. Yet in a way this change of circumstances set the scene for Oster’s actions during the Second World War.
To begin with, like many Germans, Oster was supportive of the Nazi Party’s rise to power. But that all changed in 1934. By that time, Oster had secured a position in the Abwehr. And it was here that Oster’s feelings about the regime began to dramatically change.
It was the event that came to be known as the Night of the Long Knives – or Kristallnacht – that started Oster’s move towards resistance. From June 30 to July 2 in 1934, the Nazi Party performed a purge. Opponents of the regime, both within and without, were murdered. It was a move to consolidate Hitler’s power, and it worked almost perfectly.
A year later, Oster was permitted to re-enlist in the German army, although he was never allowed to become a member of the General Staff again. Now during his time at the Abwehr, Oster had begun to make contacts with other leading Nazis who were opposed to the extremity that the Nazi Party was becoming renowned for.
Then came Kristallnacht. This was the beginning of the Nazis’ state-approved move against the Jews of Germany, and it was more than Oster could stand. Where before he had disliked the regime that he was part of, now he and his fellow conspirators in the Abwehr started to actively plot against it.
Oster made connections with Ludwig Beck, the Chief of the General Staff, in 1938. And through conversations with Beck, Oster shed doubt on his superior’s own position on the Nazi regime. In August 1938 this came to the fore when, at a gathering of a group of generals, Beck spoke out publicly against Hitler’s proposed invasion of Czechoslovakia.
When Hitler found out, he called for Beck’s resignation – and this was duly handed in, much to the shock of many officers in the German army. His replacement was a man named Franz Halder. Halder would stay in contact with both Oster and Beck, however, and privately spoke out against Hitler.
In 1939 Oster was then promoted to the Chief of Staff of the Abwehr under Wilhelm Canaris. Canaris was a fellow conspirator, too, and ensured that Oster’s department was full of others who were sympathetic to their cause. And thanks to Oster’s position, the Abwehr’s resources were put to good use to aid other resistance movements within Nazi Germany.
Oster was able to provide papers to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to get them. He could also use his position to distribute dangerous materials while hiding resistance activities as counter-espionage. The Abwehr additionally acted as a hub for connections between different groups within the conspiracy.
But Oster took his resistance much further than that. Before the invasion of the Netherlands, he made multiple attempts to warn one of his contacts in the country that it was about to happen. Unfortunately, though, while the information was presented to the Dutch government, officials didn’t believe that it was true.
Meanwhile, the conspirators didn’t always see eye to eye. Oster was part of a group that believed an assassination of Hitler would lead to his martyrdom. Instead, Oster suggested, Hitler should be tried in the German court system as well as being put in front of a group of physicians and declared insane.
But all of that changed in 1943. On April 5 and 6 of that year, two of Oster’s friends and co-conspirators, Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were arrested. They were furthermore tortured by the Gestapo, Germany’s secret police, and under duress, they gave up information that implicated Oster. This was the beginning of the end for him.
Hitler pushed Canaris to suspend Oster, and there was nothing that Canaris could do – which meant Oster was put under house arrest. Yet while Oster spent the next two years in Leipzig, this wasn’t the end for the conspiracy. With the war turning, the remaining conspirators moved ahead with a plan to assassinate Hitler.
This operation, known as Valkyrie, involved planting a briefcase bomb to kill Hitler. Unfortunately, though, despite the bomb exploding as planned, Hitler survived. Hermann Fegelein, who was also caught up in the blast, was then given the job of hunting down the men who had been embroiled in the plot.
Oster and Canaris were both arrested. And as the Red Army pushed into Germany, they were moved to concentration camps to ensure that they weren’t killed in bombing raids by the Soviets. Then, on April 4, 1945, Canaris’ secret diaries were discovered. What’s more, they showed the extent of the conspiracy and implicated Oster. He therefore gave up thoughts of survival and confessed to everything at a hastily organized trial.
On April 9, less than a month before the Germans’ unconditional surrender, Oster was executed. A memorial to him and the other men involved in the conspiracy now stands at Flossenburg concentration camp. It reads, “In resistance against dictatorship and terror, they gave their lives for freedom, justice, and human dignity.”