Did you know that on 28 September 1938 a group of heavily armed storm troopers were holed up in apartments in Central Berlin waiting for the order to seize the Reich Chancellery and arrest Adolf Hitler? That the Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht was prepared to issue the order to army units surrounding Berlin to occupy the city and disarm the SS? That the British Prime Minister knew about these plans and yet chose to ignore them? And finally that the coup, due to be launched at 2pm, was called off at noon when Hitler finally agreed to Chamberlain’s suggestion that a conference be called to transfer the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany?
No? Neither did I. But when I was searching for a story for a spy novel set around the Second World War, and I stumbled across this extraordinary plot, I knew I had my subject.
I began reading, and unearthed more extraordinary facts that had somehow been omitted by the historians of the Second World War. Perhaps the strangest of these was the firm belief of the German General Staff that if Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, the French could just drive their tanks across the Rhine almost unopposed and win the resulting war. That’s the chief reason why the German generals planned to overthrow Hitler if he insisted on ignoring their advice and ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Indeed, the Germans had the same fear during the real war that broke out in 1939 when they invaded Poland. But such a bold but simple strategy didn’t occur to the French generals at the time, nor, it seems, to British and French historians after the war.
So, I had my story. I wrote a first draft, in which lots of interesting things happened to interesting people. The problem was, I knew the ending. More importantly, the reader knew the ending: Hitler didn’t die.
Naively, I thought this wouldn’t necessarily matter, reminding myself of Day of the Jackal. But it turned out it did, at least in the first draft. And the second. And the third.
Oh, dear. Fortunately, I have a friend, a playwright who has won an Oscar, and he was kind enough to read the novel. He put his finger on the problem, but he also suggested a solution. A letter at the beginning. I could see what he meant, and here it is:
27 September 1938
By the time you receive this letter he will be dead. The newspapers will say that his assassin was an unknown German officer. It wasn’t. It was me.
It is quite likely that I will also be dead. So I want to explain to you why I killed him.
When I was a boy you taught me that war is wrong. I listened to you then, but it was only when I had lived through eight months of hell in Spain that I knew what you meant. War is coming, and we have both seen how horrific modern war can be. Millions will die: this time it won’t be just the young men, it will be the children, the women, the old, the innocent. I am an historian, trained to analyse economic and social causes for everything, but if ever in history there has lived an individual who through the force of his own will can destroy a continent, it is he. He is evil and he must be stopped: I am fortunate to be able to stop him.
I remember once we were on Yarmer Hill, overlooking Chilton Coombe, I was perhaps fourteen. You told me that my life would be a success if I left the world a better place than I found it. Well, I’ve tried to make a small difference over the last few years in Oxford, in Spain and now in Germany, and most of the time you and I have disagreed over my methods. But I hope, I pray, that in this last act I will have succeeded.
For all kinds of political reasons it is best that my identity be kept secret; I can trust you to do that. But I need you of all people to know what I have done.
Please give my love to Mamma and to Millie, I am sure they will understand. And to Charlotte and Reggie, of course.
It’s very strange, but for some reason this page 1 makes pages 412-423 fairly zip along. I can see why my friend won an Oscar. And why he deserved the bottle of good malt I sent him.
Photgrpah credit to The German Bundestag
TRAITOR'S GATE is based around the first plot to kill Hitler. Read more about Michael Ridpath's nerve-shredding thriller here.