As a professor of history, Terry Parssinen was asked by a student, "Professor, what was the last time that Hitler could have been stopped from starting the Second World War?" He could only speculate; he had heard about a 1938 German military plot to bring Hitler down, but he had to spend time in the library to find out more about it. Most historians had neglected or scorned the little-known plot. Eventually Parssinen was lucky enough to find the papers of Harold Deutsch, a historian who had interviewed participants in the plot and their family members, but had died before writing up his results. Parssinen took over, and has produced _The Oster Conspiracy of 1938: The Unknown Story of the Military Plot to Kill Hitler and Avert World War II_ (HarperCollins). It was a failed conspiracy, just as was the much more famous bomb that failed to kill Hitler in 1944 (there were other failed plots as well), but it is worth examining as a check against the picture of Hitler as universally popular among Germans at the time, and as a point of reflection. How might the world be different now if Hitler had been killed before starting hostilities? After all, Parssinen writes that the evidence "... shows that the 1938 conspiracy was well planned and had reasonably good prospects for success."
Parssinen has built up the drama concerning the conspiracy by a meticulous, sometimes hour-by-hour, reconstruction of events in London and Berlin. Except for the ending of the plot, the tension is considerable even though we know the outcome. The chief conspirator, Lieutenant Colonel Hans Oster, was second-in-command at Abwehr, the intelligence division for the German military. He was shocked by the imprisonment of religious figures and political dissidents, and by the first concentration camps. It was not until the "Czech Crisis" of 1938, however, that significantly more officials began to agree with him. The generals knew that Russia and France were pledged to defend Czechoslovakia, and that if Germany tried to take it, the British would probably come in as well. They despaired that they would be deployed in a war they could not win. The conspirators knew that they could only rely on popular support if Hitler were about to start a war for which the German people had no enthusiasm, and they tried to have their contacts in England keep up the pressure so that no appeasement happened. Eventually Chamberlain accepted Hitler's pledge that no further European territories would be demanded; in the words of a conspirator at the Department of the Interior, "Chamberlain has saved Hitler." The conspirators could not act. They made several later assassination attempts, foiled by bad luck. In 1943 the Gestapo discovered Oster's scheme to smuggle Jews into neutral Switzerland; he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. In 1945, a few days before the American troops liberated his camp, Oster was hanged.
_The Oster Conspiracy of 1938_ is a detailed examination of a particular period and chain of events that led up to the war. It is exciting at times, and of course sad. Parssinen indulges in some speculation about what might have happened. The conspirators were interested in setting up a government based on Britain's; it might have been conservative, but it would have been broadly representative of German popular opinion. No war, no Holocaust, no Cold War are among the contingencies that might have occurred (although of course some other horrors would have erupted). But above all, fifty million people died in the war, and they would not have. "It might have been" has never been sadder.