Hitler’s Last Plot
The 139 VIP Hostages Selected for Death in the Final Days of World War II
Ian Sayer and Jeremy Dronfield
Da Capo Press, New York, 2019, 352 pages
Book Review published on: October 18, 2019
During the last months of the Third Reich, among the myriad problems facing the Nazi leadership was how to dispose of the so-called Prominenten—important prisoners—held captive for use as possible leverage in future negotiations with the Allies to end the war in Europe. The Prominenten were an eclectic mix of VIPs and ordinary citizens ranging from members of royal families and former heads of state to prisoners of war and relatives of those who plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. They all had one thing in common—opposition to Nazi Germany—and represented seventeen different countries, mostly those conquered by the Reich. Hitler originally intended to feature members of the Prominenten in show trials after the war to demonstrate the futility of opposing the Reich; however, as Germany’s defeat became imminent, the problem became one of their elimination.
Hitler’s Last Plot thus details the plight of the 139 Prominenten and their tortuous path from captivity to freedom during the months of April and May 1945 while the Third Reich was in its death throes. Using both primary and secondary sources, authors Ian Sayer and Jeremy Dronfield painstakingly detail their odyssey in a clear, highly accessible style that reads much like a detective story. The book has two major lines of effort—the first, to describe whom exactly comprised the Prominenten and why they were important to the Reich; the second, to document Nazi plans to rid themselves of the Prominenten altogether, especially as the war drew to its conclusion. The latter plan is what gives the book its title.
Unfortunately, for the prisoners, the Shutzstaffel, or SS, the heinous police and security apparatus of the Nazi Party, was in charge of the “last plot.” The SS housed members of the Prominenten, some for more than five years, in some of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps to include Sachsenhausen, Flossenburg, Buchenwald, and Dachau. And while some of the VIPs (such as former Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg and Leon Blum, former French prime minister) were treated better than others within the SS system, all of the Prominenten were under the threat of immediate torture or execution by their Nazi captors. The dreaded order—“Come with us”—was a ubiquitous feature of the SS system and meant almost certain death to its recipients. This order, unfortunately, was given to the famous Christian resister Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the Reich’s most valuable prisoners. The SS executed Bonhoeffer on 9 April 1945 at Flossenburg, and his death sent shock waves through the ranks of the Prominenten.
The book’s strongest feature is its description of a Dantean scenario as the Prominenten are shuttled from camp to camp, consolidated at Dachau, and sent southward under SS guard to an unknown fate and destination. The authors paint an apocalyptic picture of a chaotic, burning landscape with its roads choked by refugees and the flotsam of war, as Allied armies closed in on Germany. Eventually, the authors reveal that the SS planned to execute all of the prisoners rather than let them fall into enemy hands. This sets into motion an epic climax wherein the SS, the conventional Germany army, and American forces all converge to find and secure the Prominenten, who by May 1945 are consolidated at the Pragser Wildsee Hotel in Niederdorf, northern Italy. While the prisoners are euphoric at the prospect of near liberation, they are unaware of SS plans for their summary disposal. Sayer and Dronfield do an expert job maintaining this tension in the book, which is another of its obvious strong points.
While the book is generally easy to follow, it can be difficult keeping up with the plethora of characters; after all, the Prominenten numbered 139, and aside from the main protagonists, there were multiple minor characters. Fortunately, the authors provide a helpful appendix tabulating the names and nationalities of each. Hitler’s Last Plot would also benefit from a broader conclusion in addition to the useful epilogue on the post-war exploits of the key characters. What role did the Prominenten play in the broader context of the war? How did they influence its outcome? Answering these questions would provide a greater sense of the book’s “so what” to the reader. These minor points aside, Sayer and Dronfield’s work is an impressive piece of detective work that effectively brings its subject matter to life.
Hitler’s Last Plot is a worthy contribution to the burgeoning literature on resistance to Hitler and the Third Reich. It also provides significant insight into the mentality of the Nazi leadership, especially as it became more and more desperate with the approach of the Allies on all fronts. Detailed, readable, and with a clear narrative that is interesting as well as compelling, the book will appeal to students of resistance movements, the Third Reich, and the conduct of the Second World War in Europe.
Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia