Goerdeler was born to a family of Prussian civil servants in Schneidemuhl, Germany (now Pila, Poland) in the Prussian Province of Posen. Goerdeler's parents were supporters of the Free Conservative Party, and Goerdeler's father served in the Prussian Landtag as a member of that party after 1899. Goerdeler's upbringing was described by his biographer and friend Gerhard Ritter as a part of a large, loving middle-class family that was cultured, devoutly Lutheran, nationalist, and conservative. As a young man, the deeply religious Goerdeler chose as his motto to live by, omnia restaurare in Christo (restoring everything in Christ). Goerdeler studied economics and law at the University of Tubingen between 1902 and 1905. Starting in 1911, Goerdeler worked as a civil servant for the municipal government of Solingen. That same year, Goerdeler married Anneliese Ulrich, by whom he had five children. Goerdeler was described as:
Goerdeler's own career had been both impressive and idiosyncratic. He came of conservative Prussian stock with a strong sense of duty and service to the State; his father had been a district judge. His upbringing had been happy, but sternly intellectual and moral; his legal training had pointed to a career in local administration and economics...He was a born organiser, an able, voluble speaker and writer, tough and highly individual; in politics he became a right-wing liberal. Although at heart a very humane man, Goerderler's frigid, spartan belief in hard work and his austere, puritanical morality-he would not tolerate a divorced man or woman in his house-lacked warmth and comradeship. He was, in fact, an autocrat by nature and his commanding personality, combined with his utter belief in the rightness of his point of view, enabled him to persuade weak or uncertain men over-easily to accept his own particular point of view while he was with them
During the First World War, Goerdeler served as a junior officer on the Eastern Front, rising to the rank of Captain. From February 1918, Captain Goerdeler worked as part of the German military government in Minsk. After the end of war in November 1918, Goerdeler served on the headquarters of the XVII Army Corps based in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). In June 1919, Goerdeler submitted a memorandum to his superior, General Otto von Below, calling for the destruction of Poland as the only way of preventing territorial losses on Germany's eastern borders. After his discharge from the German Army, Goerdeler joined the ultra-conservative German National People's Party (DNVP). Like most of the political class of Germany at that time, Goerdeler strongly rejected the Versailles Treaty, which stipulated that Germany cede territories to the restored Polish state. In 1919, before the exact boundaries of the Polish-German border were determined, he suggested restoring West Prussia to Germany. Despite his strongly held hostile feelings towards Poland, Goerdeler played a key role in breaking a strike by the Danzig dockers, who wished to shut down the Polish economy by closing Poland's principal port during the Polish–Soviet War of 1920 on the grounds that however undesirable Poland was as a neighbour, Soviet Russia would be even worse.
In 1922, Goerdeler was elected as the mayor (Burgermeister) of Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in East Prussia before being elected mayor of Leipzig on 22 May 1930. During the Weimar Republic, Goerdeler was widely considered to be a hard-working and outstanding municipal politician. On 8 December 1931, Chancellor Heinrich Bruning, a personal friend of Goerdeler, appointed him as Reich Price Commissioner, and entrusted him with the task of overseeing his deflationary policies. The sternness with which Goerdeler administered his task as Price Commissioner made him a well-known figure in Germany. Accepting the post of Price Commissioner forced Goerdeler to resign from the DNVP because Alfred Hugenberg was a committed foe of the Bruning government. In the early 1930s, Goerdeler was a leading advocate of the viewpoint that the Weimar Republic had failed as proven by the Great Depression, and what was needed was a right-wing revolution to replace democracy.
After the downfall of the Bruning government in 1932, Goerdeler was considered to be a potential Chancellor and was sounded out by General Kurt von Schleicher, who ultimately chose Franz von Papen instead. Following the fall of his government on 30 May 1932, Bruning himself recommended to President Paul von Hindenburg that Goerdeler succeed him. Hindenburg vetoed Goerdeler because of his former membership in the German National People's Party (DNVP). Starting in 1928, under the leadership of Alfred Hugenberg, the DNVP had waged a vituperative campaign against Hindenburg, claiming that he was one of the "November Criminals" who were alleged to have "stabbed Germany in the back" in 1918, which led Hindenburg to loathe and hate the DNVP. As a result, by 1932, no member of the DNVP or even a former member was acceptable to Hindenburg as Chancellor. The fall of Bruning led to Goerdeler resigning as Price Commissioner. Later in 1932, Goerdeler was offered a position in Papen's cabinet, which he refused.
As late as 1935, Goerdeler considered Adolf Hitler an "enlightened dictator", who, provided he received the proper advice, would be a force for good. Goerdeler was later to call the period in which he supported the Nazis the only chapter of his life that he found embarrassing. On 1 April 1933, the day of the national boycott declared against all Jewish businesses in the Reich, Goerdeler appeared in full uniform of the Oberburgermeister of Leipzig to order the SA to cease and desist in their efforts to enforce the boycott, and ordered the Leipzig police to free several Jews taken hostage by the SA. Several times, he attempted to help Leipzig Jewish businessmen threatened with the "Aryanisation" economic policies of the Nazi regime. A few days after the boycott, Goerdeler found himself as mayor of Leipzig enforcing the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which unlike the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 did not give him cause for complaint.
As part of his efforts to influence the Nazi regime, Goerdeler had sent Hitler long memoranda containing his advice on economic policy, and in the second half of 1935, wrote up a new draft law on the powers and responsibilities of municipal governments. Despite his early sympathy for the regime and considerable pressure from the National Socialists, Goerdeler always refused to join the NSDAP. By the mid-1930s, Goerdeler grew increasingly disillusioned with the Nazis as it become more and more apparent that Hitler had no interest in reading any of Goerdeler's memoranda, but instead was carrying out economic and financial polices that Goerdeler regarded as highly irresponsible. In addition, the fact that the Nazis in the Leipzig municipal government massively increased the debts owed the city was a major source of worry for Goerdeler. By 1934 he clashed with Hitler over his foreign policy, as Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland, to which Goerdeler was opposed, demanding annexation of Polish territories. He wrote to Hitler that continued Polish possession of territories in Gdansk Pomerania and Greater Poland was "thorn in country's economic flesh and honour", and that "the German people must fight for security of their existence".
In 1933, a Reich law forbade doctors who were members of the KPD or who were "non-Aryans" from participating in public health insurance, exempting only those who were First World War veterans, or children or parents of veterans. A second decree of 1934 banned all physicians from participating in public health insurance who had one or more Jewish grandparents regardless of their religion, or if they were married to a "non-Aryan". However, these laws did not affect those physicians who received their approbation under the Weimar Republic. On 9 April 1935, the Deputy Mayor of Leipzig, the National Socialist Rudolf Haake, in defiance of the existing laws, banned all Jewish doctors from participating in public health insurance, and advised all municipal employees not to consult Jewish doctors. In response, the Landesverband Mitteldeutschland des Centralvereins deutscher Staatsburger judischen Glaubens e. V (Middle German Regional Association of the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith) complained to Goerdeler about Haake's actions, and asked him to enforce the existing anti-Semitic laws, which at least allowed some Jewish doctors to practice. On 11 April 1935, Goerdeler ordered the end of Haake's boycott, and provided a list of "non-Aryan" physicians permitted to operate under the existing laws, and those who were excluded. Critics of Goerdeler such as the American political scientist Daniel Goldhagen have asserted that, because Goerdeler published a list of "non-Aryan" physicians to be excluded from practicing under public insurance, Goerdeler was an anti-Semite; by contrast, Goerdeler's defenders like the Canadian historian Peter Hoffmann have argued that Goerdeler's insistence on enforcing the laws served to protect those Jewish physicians entitled to practice.
In November 1934, Goerdeler was again appointed Reich Price Commissioner, and ordered to combat inflation caused by rearmament. Gestapo reports from 1934 record that the German public greeted the news of Goerdeler's reappointment as Price Commissioner as a positive development. The appointment of Goerdeler was Hitler's response to the increasing problem of inflation. Despite the great fanfare which greeted Goerdeler's appointment, he was given little real power. In 1934, Goerdeler was strongly opposed to the idea of devaluing the Reichsmark, and had supported Hitler and Dr. Schacht against the advocates of devaluation. During his second term as Price Commissioner in 1934–35, Goerdeler often came into conflict with the Economics Minister and Reichsbank president Dr. Hjalmar Schacht over his inflationary policies. In Goerdeler's opinion, these posed a grave danger to the German economy, and finally prompted his resignation in 1935 as Price Commissioner. As Price Commissioner, Goerdeler became increasingly troubled by Nazi economic policies, as well as being disgusted by rampant corruption within the Nazi Party. In September 1935, as Mayor of Leipzig, Goerdeler found himself enforcing the Nuremberg Laws, laws that he found deeply distasteful.
In October 1935, Goerdeler sent Hitler a memorandum in which he urged that the priorities for the use of German foreign exchange should be shifted from buying raw materials that Germany lacked for rearmament, and instead be used to buy food that Germany was short of, such as fats. In his report, Goerdeler wrote that the foremost goal of German economic policy should be: "the satisfactory provisioning of the population with fats, even in relation to armaments, as having political priority". In the same report, Goerdeler argued that the root of German economic problems was rearmament, and advocated as the solution reducing military spending, increasing German exports, and returning to a free market economy. Goerdeler warned that to continue the present course of increasing statism in the economy and the current levels of high military spending would result in the total collapse of the economy with an extremely drastic drop in living standards. After Hitler ignored Goerdeler's report, Goerdeler asked Hitler to dissolve the Reich Commissariat for Price Surveillance since there was nothing for that office to do. In the spring of 1936, Goerdeler came into increasing conflict with Haake over the question of demolition of a monument to the German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn.
In the summer of 1936, Goerdeler was heavily involved in trying to influence the decision-making regarding the great economic crisis which gripped Germany that year. Despite his earlier differences with Dr. Schacht, Goerdeler together with Schacht headed the "free-market" faction in the German government who during the economic crisis of 1936 urged Hitler to reduce military spending, turn away from autarkic and protectionist policies, and reduce statism in the economy. Supporting the "free-market" faction were some of Germany's leading business executives, most notably Hermann Duecher of AEG, Robert Bosch of Robert Bosch GmbH and Albert Voegeler of Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG. Goerdeler and Schacht were opposed by another faction centred around Hermann Goring calling for the opposite. Despite his disagreements with Goring over the best economic course to follow, on 6 August 1936, Goring commissioned a report from Goerdeler as a leading economic expert about whether Germany should devalue the Reichsmark or not. Goerdeler began his report by rejecting the policies of Dr. Schacht's New Plan of 1934 as untenable. Making a U-turn from his stance of 1934, Goerdeler now embraced devaluation of the Reichsmark as the best solution to the economic crisis. Goerdeler argued that the tolerance of other Western nations, especially the United States for the German state's subsiding the dumping of exports was wearing thin, and would soon result in harsh new tariffs being applied against German goods. Goerdeler argued that the only way out of the economic crisis which gripped the German economy in 1936 was the devaluation of the Reichsmark, and abandoning all of the restrictions governing foreign exchange in Germany. Goerdeler argued that for devaluation of the Reichsmark to be successful would require co-ordination with other nations, especially the United States, the United Kingdom and France, who otherwise might be tempted to engage in competitive devaluations of the dollar, the pound and the franc respectively. To secure their co-operation, Goerdeler argued for rapprochement with the Western powers. In his memorandum for Goring, Goerdeler wrote of the "grandiose possibility" that a German reengagement with the world economy, and the end of protectionism and autarchism would lead to a new age of economic co-operation among the world's largest economies. To this end, Goerdeler argued in exchange for Anglo-French-American economic co-operation and support, Germany should at a minimum cease its unilateral economic policies, and sharply cut military spending. In addition, Goerdeler felt that the price of Western economic support would be a moderation of the Nazi regime's policies in regards to the "Jewish question, freemasonry question, question of the rule of law, Church question". Goerdeler wrote that "I can well imagine that we will have to bring certain issues...into a greater degree of alignment with the imponderable attitudes of other peoples, not in substance, but in the manner of dealing with them".
The British historian Adam Tooze has argued that Goerdeler was following his own agenda in seeking to moderate the regime's domestic policies in his memorandum, and that it is highly unlikely that outside powers would have required the concessions on anti-Semitic and other domestic policies that Goerdeler advocated as the price of Western economic support (through Tooze does feel that Goerdeler was correct in arguing that the West would have made cutbacks in military spending a precondition of economic support). Goerdeler argued his policies of economic liberalisation and devaluation would in the short run cause 2 million-2.5 million unemployed in Germany, but argued that in the long run, the increase in exports would make the German economy stronger. In public, Goring called Goerdeler's memorandum "completely unusable." Goring's copy of Goerdeler's memorandum is covered with handwritten personal comments by Goring on the side such as "What cheek!", "Nonsense!", and "Oho!" When Goring forwarded a copy of Goerdeler's memorandum to Hitler, his covering letter stated:
This may be quite important, my Fuhrer, for your memorandum, since it reveals the complete confusion and incomprehension of our bourgeois businessmen, limitation of armaments, defeatism, incomprehension of the foreign policy situation alternate. His (Goerdeler's) recommendations are adequate for a mayor, but not for the state leadership.
Goerdeler's advice was rejected by Hitler in his "Four-Year Plan Memorandum" of August 1936, and instead in the autumn of 1936, the Nazi regime launched the Four Year Plan as the way out of the 1936 economic crisis. Hitler himself found Goerdeler's report objectionable, and Hitler's "Four-Year Plan Memorandum" may have been written in part as a reply to Goerdeler's memorandum (Gerhard Ritter favoured this theory whereas Gerhard Weinberg rejects it). On 4 September 1936, speaking before the German Cabinet, Goring cited Goerdeler's memorandum as an example of flawed economic thinking, and announced that Germany would pursue heavy military spending, protectionism and autarky regardless of the economic consequences.
In the autumn of 1936, Goerdeler's on-going dispute with Haake over the Mendelssohn statue came to a head. After much argument, Goerdeler agreed to have the statue moved from its location in front of the Gewandhaus concert hall to a less high profile position. In the autumn of 1936, Goerdeler left for a trip to Finland promoted by the German Chamber of Commerce. Before leaving, Goerdeler met with Adolf Hitler and the Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and received their promise that nothing would happen to the statue during his trip. During his trip, the statue was demolished on Haake's orders. Upon his return, Haake stated that the matter of the statue was "only the outward occasion of the conflict" and declared that "Dr. Goerdeler's attitude in the Jewish Question had been revealed particularly clearly in the matter of the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy statue". Goerdeler tried to have the statue rebuilt. After failing that, he declined to accept his reelection as mayor of Leipzig and resigned from office on 31 March 1937.
After his resignation as Oberburgermeister of Leipzig, Goerdeler was offered the position of heading the finance department at the firm of Krupp AG, which was at the time Germany's largest corporation. However, Hitler forbade Goerdeler to take up this appointment, and ordered Krupp to withdraw the offer. Goerdeler instead became the director of the overseas sales department at the firm of Robert Bosch GmbH. Shortly after his resignation, Goerdeler became involved in anti-Nazi plots. Bosch, who was a friend of Goerdeler's, agreed to turn a blind eye to his anti-Nazi work. As a conservative and self-proclaimed follower of the Bismarckian tradition, Goerdeler was opposed to what he considered the extreme radicalism of the Nazis, and was fearful of what the results of Hitler's foreign policy might be. Starting in 1936, Goerdeler worked to build an opposition faction out of his circle, comprising mostly civil servants and businessmen. Despite his anti-Nazi plotting, Goerdeler continued to submit memoranda to Hitler and the other Nazi leaders out of the hope that he might somehow convince them to change course. The case of Goerdeler has been used by the historian Hans Mommsen to support his view of "resistance as a process", with Goerdeler going from an ally of the regime to increasing disillusionment by Nazi economic policies in the mid-1930s, and finally becoming committed to the regime's overthrow by 1937. By early 1938, Goerdeler was convinced that "something must be done" about the Nazi regime. Describing Goerdeler during this period, the American journalist William L. Shirer wrote that Goerdeler was "A conservative and a monarchist at heart, a devout Protestant, able, energetic and intelligent, but also indiscreet and headstrong..." who "...went to work with heart and soul in opposition to Hitler".
Using the "cover" of his job as chief of overseas sales at Bosch, between 1937 and 1938, Goerdeler often travelled abroad, mostly to France, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Balkans, the Middle East and Canada, to warn anyone who would listen about what he considered to be the aggressive and dangerous foreign policy of Nazi Germany. Though opposed to what he considered to be a reckless foreign policy, Goerdeler often demanded in his meetings with his foreign friends that the Great Powers back the cession of the Sudetenland, the Polish Corridor, the Memelland (modern Klaipeda, Lithuania), and the Free City of Danzig, together with the return of the former German colonies in Africa, to Germany. At the same time, Goerdeler became a member of General Ludwig Beck's private intelligence network. Goerdeler's reports were received not only by General Beck, but by General Werner von Fritsch. The German historian Klaus-Jurgen Muller observed that Goerdeler, in his contacts abroad, tended to falsely portray himself as representing a more organized movement than was in fact the case, and presented himself to his foreign contacts as the secret spokesman of a well-organized "German Opposition". Besides trying to influence foreign governments, Goerdeler attempted to use his reports to the Army leadership to try to influence the Army into considering an anti-Nazi putsch. During one of his visits to London, in June 1937, Goerdeler told Sir Robert Vansittart that he would like to see the Nazi regime replaced by a right-wing military dictatorship that would seek British friendship, in exchange for which Goerdeler wanted British support for annexing parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia. In October 1937, during a visit to the United States, Goerdeler stayed with the British historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett at the latter's estate in Virginia, and informed him of his desire to restore the monarchy in Germany. During the same trip, Goerdeler drafted his "Political Testament" attacking Nazi economic policies, and criticized the regime for its anti-Christian policies, widespread corruption, and lawlessness. In this period, Goerdeler met several times with Winston Churchill and Vansittart.
During the Blomberg–Fritsch Affair and the attendant crisis caused by the court-martial of General Werner von Fritsch, Goerdeler became closely associated with several loose groupings of German rightists in the Civil Service and the military who, for various reasons, were unhappy with aspects of the Third Reich. Goerdeler attempted to use the Fritsch crisis to try to turn the Army leadership against the Nazi regime, but his efforts were in vain. In April 1938, Goerdeler visited London, where he advised the British government both to resist the Nazi claim to the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, while at the same time declaring that he wanted to see the area transferred to Germany as soon as possible. As Gerhard Weinberg observed, Goerdeler's contradictory statements left the British somewhat confused. In the spring of 1938, Goerdeler, in association with Hans von Dohnanyi, Colonel Hans Oster, and Johannes Popitz, became involved in planning a putsch against the Nazi regime should the regime launch Fall Grun, the codename for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In June 1938, General Beck often consulted with Goerdeler over the question of whether or not he should resign as Chief of the General Staff as a way of stopping Fall Grun.
Vansittart introduced Goerdeler to one of his spies, the British industrialist A.P. Young, who was a close business partner to several German corporations, and as such often visited Germany. Because Young did frequent business with Bosch and because of Goerdeler's position there, the two could meet often without raising suspicion. Starting in August 1938, Goerdeler started to leak information to London, informing the British that Hitler intended to launch Fall Grun in September 1938. In August 1938, Goerdeler met with Young in the village of Rauschen Dune in East Prussia. During his meeting with Young, Goerdeler asked that Young convey a message to the British government, to the effect that London should apply diplomatic and economic pressure on Germany to cease the persecution of the Jews. In order to have more frequent meetings with his British contacts, Goerdeler stayed in Switzerland in August–October 1938. Though those British politicians and civil servants who met with Goerdeler were impressed with his candor and earnestness, it was judged too risky by the Chamberlain government in 1938 to stake all upon the Goerdeler's projected putsch, especially given that the chances for success were uncertain at best, and the discovery of British backing for an unsuccessful putsch was likely to cause the war the Chamberlain government was seeking to avert in 1938. Moreover, as one British civil servant wrote on August 22, 1938:
We have had similar visits from other emissaries of the Reichsheer, such as Dr. Goerdeler, but those for whom these emissaries claim to speak have never given us any reasons to suppose that they would be able or willing to take action such as would lead to the overthrow of the regime. The events of June 1934 [the Night of the Long Knives] and February 1938 [the Blomberg–Fritsch Affair] do not lead one to attach much hope to energetic action by the Army against the regime.
Ulrich von Hassell wrote in his diary that Goerdeler was "imprudent", but at least "he wants to act rather than grumble", which was a marked difference to the generals who indicated that perhaps they would or perhaps they would not act against the Nazi regime should Czechoslovakia be attacked. In the tense atmosphere of September 1938, with the crisis in Central Europe looking likely to explode into war at any moment, Goerdeler was waiting anxiously for the putsch to overthrow the Nazi regime, and his taking over the reins of the German state as the new Chancellor. During his planning for the coup, Goerdeler was in contact with Chinese intelligence, using General Alexander von Falkenhausen as intermediary. Like most German conservatives, Goerdeler favoured Germany's traditional informal alliance with China, and was strongly opposed to the volte-face in Germany's Far Eastern policies effected in early 1938 by the Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who abandoned the alliance with China for an alignment with Japan. In a September 1938 meeting with Young, the latter reported that "X" (as Goerdeler was code-named by the British) had stated about the domestic situation in Germany: "the working classes are nervous, distrustful of the Leader. Their allegiance is doubtful." In another meeting on September 11, 1938, in Zurich, Young recorded Goerdeler as saying:
the feeling among the people against the war is welling up at an alarming rate. His [Goerdeler's] recent talks with leading industrialists had satisfied him that the workers' feelings have been bitterly roused to the point where, if they were in possession of arms, they would physically revolt against the regime
On September 29, 1938 Goerdeler informed the British, through one of Vansittart's contacts, Colonel Graham Christie, that the mobilization of the Royal Navy was turning German public opinion against the regime. The British historian Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, who knew Goerdeler well, noted that Goerdeler failed to realize that Hitler was not bluffing with Fall Grun and had every intention of attacking Czechoslovakia on October 1, 1938, and that he regarded Munich as a personal set-back. In 1938, Goerdeler was deeply disappointed with the Munich Agreement, which in his view, though it turned over the Sudetenland to Germany, was undesirable in that it removed what Goerdeler considered to be best chance of a putsch against the Nazi regime. After the Munich Agreement, Goerdeler wrote to one of his American friends:
...The German people did not want war; the Army would have done anything to avoid it;...the world had been warned and informed in good time. If the warning had been heeded and acted upon Germany would by now be free of its dictator and turning against Mussolini. Within a few weeks we could have begun to build lasting world peace on the basis of justice, reason and decency. A purified Germany with a government of decent people would have been ready to solve the Spanish problem without delay in company with Britain and France, to remove Mussolini and with the United States to create peace in the Far East. The way would have been open for sound co-operation in economic and social fields, for the creation of peaceful relations between Capital, Labour and the State, for the raising of ethical concepts and for a fresh attempt to raise the general standard of living...
In the same letter, Goerdeler wrote "You can hardly conceive the despair that both people and the Army feel about the brutal, insane and terroristic dictator and his henchmen". Wheeler-Bennett commented that Goerdeler was vastly exaggerating the extent of anti-Nazi feelings, both in the German Army and among the German public. After Munich, Goerdeler told Young that:
It is vitally important to realise that Hitler is deeply and definitely convinced that after his unexpected victory at Munich, anything is possible to him...He says that he [Hitler] is now convinced that England is degenerate, weak, timid and never will have the guts to resist any of his plans. No war will ever be needed against either England or France
In November 1938, when Sir Nevile Henderson, the British Ambassador to Germany went on sick leave, the acting heads of the Embassy in Berlin sent a series of reports to the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax intended to effect a change in British policy towards Germany. Goerdeler emerged as one of the Embassy's leading informants.
In November 1938, Goerdeler met with Young in Switzerland and asked if were possible for the British government to intercede on the behalf of 10,000 Polish Jews the Germans had expelled from Germany, and whom the Poles refused to accept. Goerdeler declared that the treatment of the Polish Jews, stranded on the German-Polish border, was "barbaric". In December 1938-January 1939, Goerdeler had a further series of meetings with Young in Switzerland, where he informed Young that the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 had been ordered by Hitler personally, and was not a "spontaneous" demonstration as the Nazis had claimed. Goerdeler recommended that Young inform London that as soon as "the new persecution of the Jews is started, it is absolutely essential to break diplomatic relations". Goerdeler also informed Young of his belief that Hitler was seeking world conquest, and that the Fuhrer had "decided to destroy the Jews-Christianity-Capitalism". Speaking to Young about the economic situation in Germany, Goerdeler stated:
Economic and financial situation gravely critical. Inner situation desperate. Economic conditions getting worse.
In another meeting with Young, Goerdeler claimed "the working classes are nervous, distrustful of the leader. Their allegiance is doubtful". Goerdeler maintained to Young that:
the feeling among the people against war is welling up at an alarming rate. His [Goerdeler's] recent talks with leading industrialists had satisfied X that the workers' feeling have been bitterly roused to the point where, if they were in possession of arms, they would physically revolt against the present regime.
Goerdeler's reports to Young were later published by the latter in 1974 as The "X" Documents.
In December 1938, Goerdeler again visited Britain, where he alienated those British civil servants he met by his extreme German nationalist language, together with demands that the British support the return of Danzig, the Polish Corridor, and the former German colonies in Africa, plus making a huge loan to a post-Nazi government. Goerdeler asked Frank Ashton-Gwatkin of the Foreign Office to ensure that Britain gave a post-Nazi government an interest-free loan of £500 million in exchange for which Goerdeler would end protectionism, end the efforts to place the Balkans into the German sphere of influence, and support Britain in the Mediterranean against Italy and in the Far East against Japan. In addition, the fact that Goerdeler was exaggerating the extent of anti-Nazi feeling in Germany, and his inability to organize a putsch, were becoming increasing clear to the British. Sir Alexander Cadogan wrote about Goerdeler's offer "We are to deliver the goods and Germany gives I.O.Us". Chamberlain was more hostile, writing "These people must do their own job". In the same month, Goerdeler wrote his "World Peace Programme" calling an international conference of all the world's leading powers to consider disarmament, a "moral code" for relations between the states, and the stabilization of the various currencies. The end of Goerdeler's "World Peace Programme" read "Whoever abstains from co-operating wants war and is a breaker of the peace."
Despite what Goerdeler perceived as a major set-back after Munich, he continued with his efforts to bring about the downfall of the Nazi regime. Goerdeler was an unyielding optimist; he believed that if only he could convince enough people, he could overthrow the Nazi regime. Goerdeler believed that through sheer force of will and the goodness of his cause that he could bring down the Nazi regime. Goerdeler spent much of the winter of 1938–39 holding discussions with General Beck, the diplomat Ulrich von Hassell and Erwin Planck about how best to overthrow the Nazi regime. At the same time, Hitler grew increasingly annoyed with Goerdeler's memoranda urging him to exercise caution. Goerdeler, together with Dr. Schacht, General Beck, Hassell and the economist Rudolf Brinkmann, were described by Hitler as "the overbred intellectual circles" who were trying to block him from fulfilling his mission by their appeals to caution, and but for the fact that he needed their skills "otherwise, perhaps we could someday exterminate them or do something of this kind to them". During the winter of 1938–39, Goerdeler sent reports to the British stating that Hitler was pressuring Italy into attacking France, was planning to launch a surprise air offensive against Britain, intended to achieve a "knock-out blow" by razing British cities to the ground sometime in the second half of February 1939, and was considering an invasion of Switzerland and the Low Countries as a prelude to attacking France and Britain. Unknown to Goerdeler, he was transmitting false information provided by the Abwehr chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and General Hans Oster who was hoping that these reports might lead to a change in British foreign policy. In this, Canaris and Oster achieved their purpose as Goerdeler's misinformation resulted in first the "Dutch War Scare" which gripped the British government in late January 1939, which in turn led to the public declarations by the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in February that any German attack upon France, Switzerland and the Low Countries would be automatically considered the casus belli for an Anglo-German war, leading to the British "continental commitment" to defend France with a large ground force.
On 16 March 1939, Goerdeler suggested to Young that Britain call an international conference to discuss "legitimate" German demands for changes in the international order. Goerdeler claimed that Hitler would refuse to attend the conference and this would so discredit him as to bring about his downfall". Young passed on Goerdeler's conference idea to Cordell Hull, who was so impressed with it that he offered to bring about the proposed conference to be chaired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was the origin of Roosevelt's famous appeal to Hitler and Mussolini on 15 April 1939 that the two leaders publicly promise never to disturb the peace for the next ten years, in exchange for which Roosevelt promised a new economic international order.
In the second half of March 1939, Goerdeler together with Dr. Schacht and Hans Bernd Gisevius visited Ouchy, Switzerland to meet with a senior French intelligence agent representing the Premier Edouard Daladier Goerdeler told the Deuxieme Bureau agent that the strain of massive military spending had left the German economy on the verge of collapse, that Hitler was determined to use the Danzig issue as an excuse to invade Poland, which in itself was only a prelude for a German seizure of all of Eastern Europe, that a forceful Anglo-French diplomatic stand could deter Hitler, and that if Hitler were deterred long enough, then the economic collapse of Germany would cause the downfall of his regime. In April 1939, during a secret meeting with the British diplomat Sir Gladwyn Jebb, Goerdeler stated that if the British continued with their "containment" policy adopted in March 1939, then they might see the "Hitler adventure...liquidated before the end of June ." There is considerable debate as to the accuracy of this information, with some historians such as Richard Overy arguing that Goerdeler and other German conservatives had exaggerated German economic problems to the British and the French. Overy charged that what Goerdeler wanted was a very firm Anglo-French stand in favour of Poland, hoping that if confronted with such a situation the German Army would overthrow Hitler rather than risk a world war, and as such Goerdeler exaggerated the economic problems of the Reich to encourage such a stand. The "X documents", and how to interpret them played a key role in the debate in the late 1980s between Overy and the Marxist Timothy Mason about whether the German attack on Poland was a "flight into war" forced on Hitler by an economic crisis. Other historians have contended that Goerdeler's information about German economic problems was correct, and have pointed to the fact that only massive Soviet economic support, combined with plundering occupied lands, saved the German economy from collapse in the winter of 1939–40. Even with Soviet economic support (especially oil) and the exploitation of Poland and the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia, under the impact of the British blockade, there occurred a 75% decline in value and tonnage of German imports during the Phoney War.
On 6 May 1939 Goerdeler leaked information to the British Foreign Office stating that the German and Soviet governments were secretly beginning a rapprochement with the aim of dividing Eastern Europe between them. In May 1939, Goerdeler visited London to repeat the same message to the British government. During his London trip, Goerdeler told the British that the state of the German economy was so deplorable that even if war occurred then it could only have the effect of accelerating the German economic collapse, and that Germany simply lacked the economic staying power for an extended war. During the same visit to London in May 1939, Goerdeler claimed that the German Army leadership was willing to overthrow the regime, that he himself favored launching a putsch immediately, but that "the leaders of the whole movement...still considered it too early". The German historian Klaus-Jurgen Muller commented that Goerdeler in making these claims was either lying to the British or else was seriously self-deluded. Goerdeler's assessment of the German diplomatic-military-economic situation had considerable influence on decision-makers in the British and French governments in 1939, who, based on Goerdeler's reports, believed that a firm Anglo-French diplomatic stand for Poland might bring about the fall of Hitler without a war, or failing that at least ensure that the Allies faced war on relatively auspicious economic terms.
Besides trying to influence opinion abroad, Goerdeler urged the German military to overthrow Hitler, and frequently found himself frustrated by the unwillingness of the generals to consider a putsch. In a memo written at the end of July 1939 during a visit to Turkey, Goerdeler took the view that Hitler was bluffing in his demands against Poland, and if he could be forced to stand down by a firm Anglo-French stand, that would be such a blow as to topple the Nazi regime. Later, as the summer of 1939 went on, Goerdeler changed his views about Hitler's intentions towards Poland. In August 1939, Goerdeler contacted General Walter von Brauchitsch, and advised him if Germany attacked Poland, the result would not be the limited war that Hitler expected, but rather a world war pitting Germany against Britain and France. Goerdeler advised Brauchitsch that the only way to save Germany from such a war would be a putsch to depose Hitler. Brauchitsch was not interested in Goerdeler's opinions, and told him that he shared Hitler's belief that Germany could destroy Poland without causing a world war in 1939. On August 25, 1939 on discovering that the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact had not led as intended to an Anglo-French abandonment of Poland, Hitler ordered the temporary postponement of Fall Weiss, which had been due to begin the next day. Goerdeler was convinced that the postponement was a fatal blow to Hitler's prestige. On 26 August, he went to a trip to Sweden that he had been considering canceling because of the international situation. On 27 August 1939 Goerdeler told the British diplomat Gladwyn Jebb to continue to make a firm diplomatic stand for Poland as the best way of bringing down the Nazi regime. At the same time, Goerdeler's insistence on restoring Germany to 1914 borders and his intense German nationalism left many British diplomats to distrust Goerdeler as they regarded him as not much different from Hitler. At the beginning of September 1939, Goerdeler returned to Germany a dejected man. Goerdeler was most disappointed and unpleasantly surprised when Germany attacked Poland on 1 September, which was followed up by Anglo-French declarations of war on 3 September, which was followed up by the German Army doing nothing to overthrow Hitler. This marked the beginning of a recurring pattern where Goerdeler would invest great hopes in his beloved German Army rising up against Hitler, only to discover time after time that Army officers much preferred to fight for the Fuhrer as opposed to fighting against him.
In 1939–40, Goerdeler assembled conservative politicians, diplomats and generals, most notably Ulrich von Hassell, General Ludwig Beck and Johannes Popitz, in opposition to Adolf Hitler. On 11 October 1939 speaking to Hassel of German war crimes in Poland, Goerdeler commented that both General Halder and Admiral Canaris were afflicted with nervous complaints as a result of "our brutal conduct of the war" in Poland. In October 1939, Goerdeler drafted peace terms that a post-Nazi government would seek with Great Britain and France. Under Goerdeler's terms, Germany would retain all the areas of Poland that had been part of Germany prior to 1918, Austria and the Sudetenland with independence being restored to Poland and Czechoslovakia with general disarmament, the restoration of global free trade and the ending of protectionism as the other major goals for the new regime. On 3 November 1939, Goerdeler paid another visit to Sweden, where he met with Marcus Wallenberg, Gustav Cassell, and Dr. Sven Hedin. Hedin wrote in his diary that "he [Goerdeler] believed in Goring and thought that a speedy peace was the only thing to save Germany, but that peace was unthinkable so long as Hitler remained at the head of affairs". At the same time, Goerdeler was deeply involved in the planning of an abortive putsch intended to be launched on 5 November 1939, and as such was in very high spirits prior to that day. Hassell wrote in his diary that with worry that "He [Goerdeler] often reminds me of Kapp." (Wolfgang Kapp, the nominal leader of the Kapp Putsch was notorious for his irresponsibility) The proposed putsch became stillborn when Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch and General Franz Halder, the leaders of the planned putsch got cold feet, and dropped their support. Brauchitsch and Halder had decided to overthrow Hitler after the latter had fixed "X-day" for the invasion of France for 12 November 1939; an invasion that both officers believed to be doomed to fail. During a meeting with Hitler on 5 November, Brauchitsch had attempted to talk Hitler into putting off "X-day" by saying that morale in the German Army was worse than what it was in 1918, a statement that enraged Hitler who harshly berated Brauchitsch for incompetence. After that meeting, both Halder and Brauchitsch told Goerdeler that overthrowing Hitler was simply something that they could not do, and he should find other officers if he that was what he really wanted to do. Equally important, on 7 November 1939 following heavy snowstorms, Hitler put off "X-Day" until further notice, which removed the reason that had most motivated Brauchitsch and Halder to consider overthrowing Hitler. On 23 November 1939, Goerdeler met with Halder to ask him to re-consider his attitude. Halder gave Goerdeler the following reasons why he wanted nothing to do with any plot to overthrow Hitler:That General Erich Ludendorff had launched the Kaiserschlacht in March 1918, which led directly to Germany's defeat in November 1918, yet most people in Germany still considered Ludendorff one of Germany's greatest heroes. By contrast, the men who staged the November Revolution and signed the armistice that took Germany out of a losing war were hated all over the Reich as the "November Criminals". Even if Hitler were to launch an invasion of France that signally failed, most people would still support Hitler, just as the failure of the Kaiserschlacht had failed to hurt Ludendorff's reputation as it should have, so the Army could do nothing to overthrow Hitler until the unlikely event that his prestige was badly damaged. Until Hitler was discredited, anyone who acted against him to end the war would be a "new November Criminal".
That Hitler was a great leader, and there was nobody to replace him.
Most of the younger officers in the Army were extreme National Socialists who would not join a putsch.
Hitler deserved "a last chance to deliver the German people from the slavery of English capitalism".
Finally, "one does not rebel when face to face with the enemy".
Despite all of Goerdeler's best efforts, Halder would not change his mind.
In January–February 1940, Goerdeler together with Popitz, Beck and Hassell spent of their time working on the sort of constitutional, economic, social and educational system that a post-Nazi government would carry out. The basis of all their planning was the restoration of the monarchy. Goerdeler believed that the main reason why the Army would not overthrow Hitler was the lack of a positive goal to inspire them with the hope of a better tomorrow, and if he and his colleagues could work out plans for a better future, then the Army leaders would change their minds. During their discussions for a post-Hitler future, it was agreed that various Nazi leaders like Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler, provided that they were willing to break with Hitler could have a leading role in a post-Nazi government. The only Nazi leader besides Hitler whom Goerdeler and his circle were adamant could play no role in a post-Nazi government was the Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop who Goerdeler personally hated as an obnoxious bully, and whose foreign policy Goerdeler viewed as criminally inept. In early April 1940, Goerdeler met secretly with General Franz Halder, the Chief of the General Staff, and asked him to consider a putsch while the Phoney War was still on, while the British and French were still open to a negotiated peace. Halder refused Goerdeler's request. Goerdeler told Halder that too many people had already died in the war, and this refusal to remove Hitler at this point would ensure that the blood of millions would be on his hands. Halder told Goerdeler that his oath to Hitler and his belief in Germany's inevitable victory in the war precluded his acting against the Nazi regime. Halder told Goerdeler that "The military situation of Germany, particularly on account of the pact of non-aggression with the Soviet Union is such that a breach of my oath to the Fuhrer could not possibly be justified" [Halder was referring to the Hitler oath here], that only if Germany was faced with total defeat would he consider breaking his oath, and that Goerdeler was a fool to believe that the Second World War could be ended with a compromise peace. Halder ended his meeting with Goerdeler on 6 April 1940 with the remark:
Britain and France had declared war on us, and one had to see it through. A peace of compromise was senseless. Only in the greatest emergency could one take the action desired by Goerdeler
In June 1940, much to Goerdeler's intense disappointment, following the German victory over France, the German Army lost all interest in anti-Nazi plots. Not until December 1941 following the first German defeats in the Soviet Union were Army officers again to show interest in becoming involved in Goerdeler's anti-Nazi plots. In June 1941, Goerdeler experienced a brief surge of hope that he learned that Hitler had issued a set of orders to the Army for the upcoming Operation Barbarossa that violated international law and made it clear that he wanted the war against the Soviet Union to be waged in the most inhumane, brutal way possible. Goerdeler argued that the Army would now overthrow Hitler because no self-respecting German officer would wage war in such an inhumane fashion and become a war criminal. The sequel was recorded in Hassell's diary on 16 June 1941:
"Brauchitsch and Halder have already agreed to Hitler's tactics [in the Soviet Union]. Thus the Army must assume the onus of the murders and burnings which up to now have been confided to the SS.
A series of conferences with Popitz, Goerdeler, Beck and Oster to consider whether certain orders which Army commanders have received (but which they have not yet issued) might suffice to open the eyes of the military leaders to the nature of the regime for which they are fighting. These orders concern brutal...measures the troops are to take against the Bolsheviks when the Soviet Union is invaded.
We came to the conclusion that nothing was to be hoped for now...They [the generals] delude themselves...Hopeless sergeant majors!"
During the winter of 1940–1941, Goerdeler spent much of his time discussing with Popitz, Beck and Hassell which of the Hohenzollerns would occupy the throne of Germany after the overthrow of the Nazis. Goerdeler supported the claim of Prince Oskar of Prussia. The idea of restoring the former Emperor Wilhelm II to his throne was rejected by Goerdeler under the grounds that the personality of the former Kaiser and the way he had behaved during his thirty-year reign made him a completely unsuitable candidate. The Crown Prince Wilhelm was rejected by Goerdeler partly because his well deserved reputation as a womaniser, a heavy drinker and an irresponsible playboy made him offensive to the austere, God-fearing Lutheran Goerdeler and partly because of his outspoken support for the Nazi regime. Popitz by contrast, while agreeing with Goerdeler that the unstable former Kaiser was unsuitable, insisted on dynastic grounds that the Crown Prince Wilhelm be the next Emperor, and was to spend much time arguing with Goerdeler over which of the sons of the former Emperor was to sit on the throne. They developed a future constitution for Germany and even a list of potential ministers. Popitz favored a return to the pre-1918 authoritarian political system. But Goerdeler argued with his fellow conspirators in favor of a British-style constitutional monarchy with an emperor who was "...not meant to govern, but to watch over the Constitution and to represent the State."
Goerdeler's proposed constitution called for a strong executive, a high degree of decentralisation, a Reichstag elected partially by the people on a British-style "first-past-the-post" basis (instead of by party lists) and partially by members of local councils, and a Reichsrat composed of representatives nominated by Christian churches, trade unions, universities, and business groups. To assist with the drafting of the future constitution, Goerdeler enlisted the help, through his friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, of the so-called Freiburger Kreis (Freiburg Circle), an anti-Nazi discussion group of professors at Freiburg University founded in 1938 and which included Adolf Lampe, Erich Wolf, Walter Eucken, Constantin von Dietze, and Gerhard Ritter. Had the July 20 Plot succeeded, Goerdeler would have served as Chancellor in the new government that would have been formed after Hitler's assassination and the overthrow of the Nazi regime. In August 1941, Goerdeler was most disappointed with the Atlantic Charter. He felt that the demands contained in Clause 8 calling for the disarmament of Germany would make both the task of recruiting the German Army to overthrowing the regime more difficult, and were unacceptable since Goerdeler believed in maintaining a strong military. Starting in 1941, Goerdeler expanded his network of anti-Nazi contacts to include Social Democrats like Wilhelm Leuschner and Hermann Maas.
In late 1941, under the impact of the news of the deportations of German Jews to be shot in Eastern Europe, Goerdeler submitted a memo to the German government calling for all Jews who had been German citizens or were descended from Jews who had been German citizens before 1871 to be classified as Germans, and those Jews who were descended from Jews who had not lived within the borders of Germany prior to 1871 to be considered citizens of a Jewish state whose creation would occur later. In the memo entitled Das Ziel ("The Goal"), Goerdeler wrote that a Jewish state should be created somewhere in South America or Canada, to which almost the entire Jewish population of Europe would be deported; only German-Jewish veterans of World War I or those German Jews descended from Jews who were German citizens in 1871 would be allowed to stay. Meanwhile, pending the deportation of the Jews to the Americas, Goerdeler called in "The Goal" for the Nuremberg Laws to stay in force while demanding the repeal of the post-Kristallnacht anti-Semitic laws. Some controversy has been attracted by this memo. Goerdeler's critics are offended by his suggestion that German Jews whose ancestors had not lived within the borders of the German Empire before July 1, 1871 should not be considered German citizens, whereas Goerdeler's defenders such as the Canadian historian Peter Hoffmann have argued that Goerdeler was trying to present the Nazi regime with an alternative to genocide. The German historian Hans Mommsen wrote that Goerdeler's anti-Semitism was typical of the German right, where Jews were widely considered to be part of an alien body living in Germany. Mommsen went on to comment that given Goerdeler's background in the fiercely anti-Semitic German National People's Party, what is surprising was not his anti-Jewish prejudices, but rather that he was able to make any sort of moral objection to Nazi anti-Semitism. In January 1942, Goerdeler submitted another memo to the German government protesting at the deportation of Leipzig Jews. In April 1942, during another visit to Sweden, Goerdeler contacted the Wallenberg family, asking them to contact Winston Churchill about the peace terms that the British would conclude with Germany once the Nazi regime was overthrown. In May 1942, Goerdeler was much saddened when his son Christian was killed in action while serving on the Eastern Front.
In November 1942, Goerdeler made a secret and illegal visit to Smolensk using forged papers provided by Colonel Hans Oster to meet Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge and Henning von Tresckow to gain their support for overthrowing Hitler. Both Kluge and Tresckow promised to arrest Hitler when he visited the Eastern front. Tresckow in particular was very favourably impressed with Goerdeler, whom he saw as a kindred spirit. Goerdeler returned to Berlin feeling assured about the future, and was most disappointed when he received a message from Kluge via General Beck stating he changed his mind about acting against the Nazi regime, and to include him out of any putsch. Kluge's change of mind about attempting to overthrow Hitler was related to the "gifts" he had received from Hitler in the fall of 1942. On October 30, 1942 Kluge was the beneficiary of an enormous bribe from Hitler who mailed a letter of good wishes together with a huge cheque totaling 250,000 marks made out to him from the German treasury and a promise that whatever improving his estate might cost could be billed out to the German treasury. Hitler was unaware of Goerdeler's plotting, but had heard rumours that Kluge was unhappy with his leadership. After receiving another "gift" of 250,000 marks from Hitler later in November that was intended to buy his loyalty, it had the desired effect with Kluge's message to Goerdeler not to involve him in anti-Nazi plots.
The corruption of the German officer corps by the Nazi regime via generous bribes was a source of considerable disgust and exasperation to Goerdeler. One of Goerdeler's contacts with the Army, a Captain Hermann Kaiser informed Goerdeler that all of the senior officers were taking huge bribes from Hitler in exchange for their loyalty. By May 1943, Goerdeler was well aware that Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, General Heinz Guderian and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had accepted 250,000 Reichmark cheques as birthday presents from Hitler that were intended to bribe them into loyalty, and that in addition, Guderian had received an estate in Poland. Since these were all men that Goerdeler had hopes of recruiting, their refusal to join the conspiracy because of their greed for more bribes enraged Goerdeler. Goerdeler wrote with disgust in May 1943 that the senior officers "think only of helping themselves".
In December 1942, the "Freiburg Circle" who were continuing their work helping Goerdeler develop a constitution submitted the "Great Memorandum" to Goerdeler for the proposed post-Nazi German government, which also included "Proposals for a Solution of the Jewish Question in Germany". The "Proposals" rejected Nazi racial theories, but stated that after the overthrow of the Nazis, German Jews would not have their German citizenship restored, would be restricted to living in ghettos, and would be allowed only minimal contact with German Christians, and called for continuing the Nazi ban on marriage and sex between Jews and German Christians. The Israeli historian Saul Friedlander used the "Proposals" to argue that Goerdeler was anti-Semitic, and that his differences with the Nazis on the "Jewish Question" were ones of degree, not kind.
After the Battle of Stalingrad, the pace of Goerdeler's conspiratorial activities gathered speed. Between November 1942 and November 1943, Goerdeler was in regular contact with his friends, the Wallenberg family of Sweden whom he used as middle-men in his efforts to make contact with the British and American governments. On January 22, 1943 at the home of Peter Yorck von Wartenburg Goerdeler met with the Kreisau Circle, during which he argued and debated forcefully about the social and economic policies to be pursued by a post-Nazi government. Only with some difficulty were Ulrich von Hassell and Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg able to patch up a measure of agreement between the Kreisau Circle and Goerdeler. Those present at the meeting of January 22 were Goerdeler, Hassell, General Beck, Johannes Popitz and Jens Jessens for the conservative faction and von der Schulenburg, Yorck von Wartenburg, Eugen Gerstenmaier, Adam von Trott zu Solz and Helmuth James Graf von Moltke for the left-learning Kreisau Circle. In March 1943, Goerdeler wrote a letter addressed to several German Army officers appealing to them to overthrow the Nazis and demanding that just one line divide Germans: "...that between decent and non-decent." Goerdeler went on to write: "How is it possible that so basically decent a people as the Germans can put up for so long with such an intolerable system? Only because all offences against law and decency are carried out under the protection of secrecy and under the pressures of terror" Goerdeler argued that if only a situation were created "in which, if only for twenty-four hours, it [were] possible for the truth to be spoken again", then the Nazi regime would collapse like a house of cards. In May 1943, Goerdeler submitted a memo to the Wallenbergs, which he asked them to pass on to the Anglo-Americans outlining his thoughts on the German–Polish border. In the same memo, Goerdeler called for a "European community" comprising a German-dominated confederation, which in turn was to be sub-divided into an Eastern European confederation consisting of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a confederation of the Scandinavian states, a South European confederation, and a Balkan confederation. The "European confederation" was to be one economic unit with one military ruled over by a Council consisting of two representatives from every state, who would elect a European President for a four-year term. Helping the Council and the President was to be a Federal Assembly to which each of the various confederations would send five to ten members based on their populations. Finally, the European confederation was to serve as the nucleus of a "World Confederation of Nations" that would banish war everywhere, and promote peace and prosperity.
During the spring of 1943, Goerdeler grew increasing impatient with the military end of the conspiracy, complaining that those officers involved in the plot were better at finding excuses for inaction than reasons for action. In a letter to General Friedrich Olbricht of May 17, 1943, Goerdeler wrote:
MY DEAR GENERAL.
I have again and again considered the view that we must wait for the psychologically right moment.
If by this we mean the moment at which events cause us to take action, then it will coincide with the beginnings of the collapse; action would then be too late to be exploited politically. In the meantime irreplaceable cultural monuments and the most important industrial centers would be heaps of ruins and the responsibility for precious lives would fall on the military leaders. Therefore we must not wait for the 'psychologically right' moment to come, we must bring it about [emphasis in the original]. For we are certainly agreed that leadership without far-sighted correct action is impossible.
For the sake of the future of our fatherland I would not like to see the intelligentsia which has grown up throughout the centuries excluded from this leadership; for the same reason the experienced leaders among our soldiers should not be excluded either.
Stalingrad and Tunis are defeats unparalleled in German history since Jena and Auerstadt. In both cases the German people were told that for decisive reasons armies had to be sacrificed. We know how false this is; for soldiers and politicians can only describe such sacrifices as necessary when they are justified by successes in other fields which outweigh the sacrifice. The truth is that our leadership is incapable and unscrupulous; if it had been true leadership both tragic sacrifices would have been avoided and a favourable military and political situation would have been established..
The number of civilians, men, women and children of all nations and of Russian prisoners of war ordered to be put to death before and during this war exceeds one million. The manner of their deaths is monstrous and is far removed from chivalry, humanity, and even from the most primitive ideas of decency among savage tribes. But the German people are falsely led to believe that it is Russian Bolshevists who are constantly committing monstrous crimes against innocent victims.
The list of such things can be extended at will. I chose these two examples, because they are obvious examples of the poisoning of people's minds, and taken in conjunction with a corruption never before known in German history and the suppression of law, they offer every opportunity of creating [emphasis in the original] the 'psychologically right' moment. The vast majority of the German people, almost the whole working class, knows to-day that this war cannot be brought to a successful conclusion.
In face of this the patience of the people is inexplicable. But this perversity is based only on the fact that terror fosters secrecy, lies, and crime. It will disappear as soon as the people realize that terror is being attacked, corruption removed and that sincerity and truth are taking the place of secrecy and falsehood. At that time every German will pull himself together again, both the decent and corrupt, each will reject and condemn the action which he tolerated yesterday or to which he took no exception, because it was secret, because the decent German will again see decency and the others will be faced with responsibility.
If we can find no other way I am ready to do everything to talk personally to Hitler. I would tell him what he must be told, namely that in the vital interests of the people, his resignation is essential. If such a personal talk can be brought about, there is no reason why it should end badly. Surprises are possible, not probable, but the risk must be taken. Only it is not unreasonable on my part to demand that action must be taken immediately.
The political conditions for this exist..
I urgently entreat you, my dear General, to consider again whether the difficulties standing in the way of the technical measures cannot also be overcome. I also ask you to think over the method I have suggested and to give an opportunity on my return to discuss the situation and the possibilities calmly.
With my best wishes.
Goerdeler had great faith in his idea that if only he could meet with Hitler and explain to him that his leadership was grossly inadequate on military and economic grounds, then Hitler could be persuaded to resign in his favor, thereby ending Nazi Germany through non-violent means. It took considerable effort on the part of Goerdeler's friends to talk him out of this plan. After a visit to western Germany where Goerdeler was horrified by the damage caused by Anglo–American bombing, in July 1943 Goerdeler wrote a letter to Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge that read as:
The idea fostered by the High Military authorities that the devastation in the West was not so bad and that after a few days, during which they 'gathered up their chattels from among the ruins', the workers return to work, induced me to look at the devastation for myself. You would be as shocked as I was. The work of a thousand years is nothing, but rubble. There is no point in describing my feelings when I looked down from the Trolleturm on the ruins of the town of Barmen and on Elberfeld, half of which is destroyed. In Essen it is almost impossible to find one's way through the streets because all of the familiar landmarks are lost in the rubble. Sixty per cent of Krupps is destroyed and it is only working to 30 per cent of capacity. It is untrue to say that the contrary is the case. The damaged sections have not even been rebuilt in other parts of Germany; the process of shifting the industry is only in its initial stages. Whoever has the courage to think must realize even without special technical knowledge that buildings must first be found, then adapted, then machinery must be procured, most of it new, and then coal and labour must be obtained. In Elberfeld even undamaged factories in the Vohwinkel area are only working to 30 per cent capacity, because the workers have left. In Essen and Wupertal about two-thirds of the population have disappeared and in Cologne about four-fifths. That is how it is with the people who in three days gather up their chattels from the rubble. The coal output of the Ruhr has now dropped from 420,000 to 300,000 tons a day and is decreasing daily. In June the output of the South German armaments industry declined sharply for the first time, because the drop in supplies from the Ruhr is making itself felt. Furthermore, nothing can be done with these ruins. They are heaps of debris, concrete, and iron. Reconstruction will take generations. The debris cannot be disposed of on German soil, it would ruin too much land. It must therefore be dumped into the sea. The removal of debris from Essen alone will take 3 years, using 100 wagons a day.
One hundred milliard marks would not be too high a estimate for the damage sustained so far. At present our national debt is 250 milliards, in 3 months our debts will be as high as our total assets..
You, Field-Marshal know that all theories which maintain that this means nothing and that a pernicious economy based on debt can go on unpunished are sheer nonsense. No, the German people is faced with the decision either to declare itself bankrupt; then we have all lost everything and industry has no capital. As this is an impossible situation because it would mean revolution on the largest scale, those whose money is invested in real estate must part with some of this, in order to finance the firms which must be kept going in order to maintain economy and avert revolution. Thus everyone will be poor. Or the German people can again disguise the truth and start on the road to inflation by incurring further debts and by letting things go on as they are doing now. In the end, this would come to the same as the other. For the chances of 1923 will not occur a second time.
Even now the difficulties of maintaining life of the German people for war and peace are tremendous. For the whole of Europe has been thoroughly ruined by Hitler's madness. In 1918 Norway, Denmark and Holland at least were intact. To-day every European country is to a great extent laid waste, robbed of its supplies and its gold and currency ruined. One can be seized with holy rage when one hears how frivolously even well-educated people talk of reconstruction after the war. It fills one with horror that cultured people are simply living from day to day at the expense of a universe which is collapsing and content themselves with the thought that we have not yet collapsed, fondly imagining that this can go on.
The transition to peace-time conditions when millions of soldiers have lost the habit of work and are looking for homes and jobs and finding only ruins can only come about if we have as the basis of our action a moral, idealist conception which will seize men's minds and lift them above the material difficulties and if we can win the people over to this.
To-day the bonds of morality have been torn away; what is left is merely convention. Anyone who travels as I do almost constantly see what is going on, for example in the big hotels. He can see officers who have nothing in common with our good officer class; he can see young louts with a party badge who talk victory but never think of doing their duty as soldiers. Even in the Wehrmacht the bases of morality must be shattered, because the religious background has been forsaken and comrade can denounce comrade behind his back without himself being treated as a scoundrel. The introduction of the special court into the military tribunal, the penetration of the Army with secret agents, speak volumes. A week ago I heard a report by a SS soldier, aged 18 ½, who had previously been a decent lad, but who now said calmly that 'it wouldn't be exactly a very pleasant thing to machine gun trenches filled with thousands of Jews and then to throw earth over their quivering bodies'. What has become of the proud army of the Wars of Liberation and of the Emperor Wilhelm the First? But the people know and feel this with a certainty which is admirable and instinctive, and which, thank God, still exists. For God's sake, Field-Marshal, do not be deceived when you are told the people believe the lies which are forced down their throats. The people despise these lies and hate those who spread them abroad. That is the truth. It will break forth with all the greater force the longer people try to surpass it. But it will go hard with all those with responsibility.
Hitler has made his fifth military blunder in the South. He is pouring German soldiers and valuable arms into Sicily, whereas reason must tell him that Italy can no longer be saved. The squandering of German strength, the useless sacrifice of German soldiers is a crime; for even the time gained by defending Sicily means nothing. The secret hints of powerful new weapons are, according to my enquiries, mere irresponsible chatter, for even if these new weapons are really ready one day, they will not alter the decision which has been reached already in men's minds-quite apart from the fact that the enemy has just as effective weapons. Thus from the military angle the same mistake is being made as in 1918-only more senselessly; one has not the courage to face the inevitable facts in time. But in 1943 that is a great deal more fateful than 1918, for then our leaders were mentally and morally sound, whereas to-day they are insane and morally corrupt.
If there is still anyone who wants proof of this insanity, he will no longer require it when he hears that Hitler has told his entourage that his aim is the partition of Italy! In the end Mussolini would be forced to ask him for help, he says, then he would perhaps appoint him Governor of Northern Italy, and make the Apennines the German frontier! Hitler is also prepared to accord Russia-provided she makes peace-frontiers which a decent German government would not have to grant even today; he is dreaming of another victory nearer home. In view of this national disaster which is now becoming obvious and into which we have been led by an insane and godless leadership, which disregards human rights, I take the liberty of making a last appeal to you, Field-Marshal. You may be sure that it will be the last. The hour has now come at which we must take the final decision on our personal fate. On the one hand there is the way clearly indicated by conscience; on the other, a different easier way. The former may have its dangers, but it is the honourable way; the latter will lead to a disastrous end and to terrible remorse. In face of the terrible and increasing destruction of German cities, do you my dear Field-Marshal, know of yet another way to achieve victory which will (1) make it possible to hold Russia off from Europe for good, (2) force the U.S.A. and the British Empire to give up these attacks and finally make peace? That, from the political and military point of view, is the question with which we faced. If such a victory exists, then the chances of it must be made clear to the German people not with lies, but with the truth, which by then must be a reality. But if there is no such victory, then it is a sheer crime to continue the war, because there is never a heroic ending for the people, but simply the necessity to go on living.
I have again ascertained, and I accept the responsibility for this, that there is still the possibility to conclude a favourable peace, if we Germans again make ourselves capable of taking action. It is self-evident that no statesmen in the world can negotiate with criminals and fools because he cannot lightly place the fate of his people in the hands of fools. Our own conscience too tells us that. Naturally, the possibilities are less easy to realize a year ago. They can only be exploited if the politician still has a certain time for freedom of action, that is, if he is not, as in 1918, faced overnight by the military Diktat 'we can do no more!' If this second condition, which depends on the military authorities, is fulfilled that we can calmly and by reasonable action slow down the tempo of the war, at once in the case of the war in the air, and gradually in the land fighting. Anyone who to-day can tell the German people that the war in the air is over have the people behind him, and no one will dare a word or lift a finger against him. That and none other is the state of affairs.
I am at your service, no matter what the risk, for any such action which simply calls things by their proper name and deals with criminals. For this purpose I could become an officer again if only I knew that it would ensure quick organized action. I can tell you to-day, that I can win over to you, Field-Marshal and to any other General resolved to take the necessary action the overwhelming majority of the German working class, the German civil service and the German business world. I also, if you so desire, make Herr Goebbels or Herr Himmler your ally; for even these two men have long realized that with Hitler they are doomed. [Goerdeler was over-selling the extent of opposition to Hitler to Kluge here; there is no evidence that Himmler or Goebbels were a part of Goerdeler's anti-Nazi circles.] Therefore, all this is required is really a decision, bold thinking and right action. What is most dangerous and in the end unbearable is to shut one's ears day after day to the voice of conscience. In this I am sure that you, my dear Field-Marshal will agree with me.
You must, however, know my opportunities for action are limited in time. For many years I have been looked upon as a militarist, an admirer of the military, as a promoter of militarism and as the friend of many Generals. I have had many an unpleasant moment in my life because of that, both after the first war and in recent years; for many in Germany expected nothing of the Generals for the start. But I always took their part, saying that one could rely on their character, and their sense of responsibility. Now it has come to this that I myself feel ridiculed and in South Germany, where I have many excellent friends, I am told that Prussian militarism is to blame for everything. They are not fools, the men who say this; they are men who love Germany, and the German soldier, but who despair because with our eyes open, our minds working and our hearts feeling we are letting the Fatherland be led into the abyss by criminals and fools and are letting German youth and German manhood be driven unresisting to death and mutilation.
We must put an end to this state of affairs in which we allow fools to force their delusions and lies on the German people. We must make the war of conquest, started from a spirit of domination, into a war of necessary defence. We have absolutely no cause to fear Bolshevism or the Anglo-Saxons [Goerdeler was playing down his anti-Communism in order to entice Kluge into joining the conspiracy by trying to counter Nazi claims that Hitler was the world's only bulwark against the Soviet Union]. People in those countries are the same as we are and we have much to throw into the balance. But German interests must once again be represented with force and reason by decent Germans.
I will not trespass any further on your time, my dear Field-Marshal; I only ask one more answer from you , and I know what it means if you do not give me this answer. One thing I ask you; not to refuse to answer because you are afraid. I have learned to be silent and I shall not forget the lesson. I know what I owe to the men whom I trust. Unless at least three or four men in Germany have more confidence in each other, then we go out of business.
With best wishes.
Kluge refused to answer Goerdeler's letter, despite the fact that Goerdeler was all but calling the Field-Marshal a coward for his refusal to join the conspiracy.
In August 1943, Goerdeler and his friend, the Oberburgermeister of Stuttgart, the disillusioned SA-Brigadefuhrer Karl Strolin sent a joint memo to the Reich Interior Minister, the Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler complaining about the anti-Semitic and anti-Christian policies of the Nazi regime, asking for the end of the "emergency" laws that had suspended civil rights in Germany since 1933, and called for the end of the NSDAP influence on the judiciary. Predictably enough, the memo drew the attention of the Gestapo, who visited both men at their homes to deliver a "final warning" telling them if they continued with "trouble-making", they would be sent to a concentration camp. In September 1943, Goerdeler appealed to his friend Jacob Wallenberg to ask that the British suspend bombing attacks against Berlin, Stuttgart and Leipzig until the middle of October because "the oppositional movement has its centres there and the interruption of communications would make the putsch more difficult" In a memo Goerdeler sent to the British and American governments in the autumn of 1943, he called for a negotiated peace between the Allies and Germany once the Nazis were overthrown. In the same memo, Goerdeler called for the "1914 frontier" to serve as the basis of Germany's borders both in Western and Eastern Europe, called for Austria and the Sudetenland remaining part of the Reich, and for the annexation of the south Tyrol region of Italy. In the discussions within the German Opposition between the "Easterners" who favoured reaching an understanding with the Soviet Union after the overthrow of Hitler and the "Westerners" who favoured reaching an understanding with Britain and the United States, Goerdeler belonged to the "Westerners", considering Communism to be no different from National Socialism, and regarding the "Easterners" as being dangerously naive about the Soviets.
In the summer of 1943, Goerdeler confidently told Jacob Wallenberg that the putsch to depose Hitler would happen for certain "in September", even through Goerdeler had yet to win over any active-duty senior officers. After five years of trying, the only senior officers Goerdeler had recruited were Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, whom Hitler had forced into retirement in early 1942 and General Ludwig Beck who had resigned in 1938. In September 1943, Goerdeler attended a meeting at the home of Olbricht where together with his host Olbricht, General Beck and von Tresckow he finally won over the vacillating Field Marshal Kluge into joining the conspiracy. However, no sooner than Kluge was finally persuaded to join the plot than he was badly injured in a car accident that removed him from active command. As Goerdeler gloomily noted, Kluge's successor, Field Marshal Ernst Busch, was a convinced National Socialist who was clearly not "verschworungsfahig" (plot-worthy).
In the autumn of 1943, Goerdeler first met Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg. The two men took an immediate dislike to each other. Goerdeler wrote that 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-leaning Socialists and Communists, and gave me a bad time with his overwhelming egoism". Goerdeler who had been the unofficial leader of the German opposition since 1937, resented the efforts of Stauffenberg, who he regarded as a dangerous "romantic socialist", to take over the conspiracy. Stauffenberg for his part, saw Goerdeler as the leader of "the revolution of the greybeards" . Stauffenberg saw Goerdeler as an out-of-touch reactionary, a man living in the past, whose plans to restore the monarchy were simply not relevant to the modern world. Moreover, Stauffenberg was an "Easterner" who favoured making contacts with the underground KPD, and wished for a post-Nazi Germany to ally herself with the Soviet Union; Goerdeler by contrast was a "Westerner", and thus a resolute anti-Communist and wanted a post-Nazi Germany to align herself with the Western powers. Despite his differences with Stauffenberg, Goerdeler did appreciate Stauffenberg for solving a problem that had bedevilled him since 1938. Goerdeler had always assumed that to stage a putsch required recruiting a senior military figure who could order large bodies of troops into action against the Nazi regime, and it had been the unwillingness of senior military officers to be recruited like Kluge who could never quite make up his mind or Halder who had severed relations with Goerdeler in 1940 once he become convinced that Hitler would win the war that had prevented him from staging a putsch. Stauffenberg solved that problem by devising Operation Valkyrie, a plan that ostensibly was meant to crush a slave labour uprising, but in reality was the cover for a putsch that could be activated by officers of less than senior rank. Goerdeler was pleased that at long last the means for a putsch without the senior officers who were plainly not willing to break with the regime had been devised by Stauffenberg, but his uneasy relations with Stauffenberg were described by the German historian Hans Mommsen as one of mutual "misunderstandings".
Unlike the Kreisau Circle, Goerdeler was a strong champion of laissez-faire capitalism, and was very much opposed to what he saw as the socialism of the Kreisau Circle. In Goerdeler's vision, this economic system was to serve as the basis of the "democracy of the Ten Commandments." However, Goerdeler was heavily criticised by other members of the German resistance (for example by some members the Kreisau Circle) for objecting to killing Hitler (whom Goerdeler wanted to see tried; Goerdeler had no objection to Hitler being executed after his conviction), for his sympathy for reintroducing monarchy, and for his extremely anti-communist ideology. In late February 1944, Goerdeler sent Strolin to meet Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to see if he would like to join the anti-Nazi conspiracy, and was delighted when Strolin gave him a positive report about Rommel's attitude towards the conspiracy. Goerdeler decided that Rommel would be the ideal person to play a leading role in a post-Hitler government and asked Strolin to find out if Rommel would be willing to play that role. As Rommel was fully engaged in preparations to resist the expected Allied landing in France all through the spring of 1944, it proved difficult for Strolin to make contact again. After meeting Goerdeler in March 1944, Strolin described him in a high-strung state, constantly afraid that he could be arrested at any moment, and anxious to recruit Rommel while attempting to juggle Rommel's demand that he be Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief with his prior promise that position would go to Erwin von Witzleben if Hitler were overthrown. Not until May could a meeting be arranged to sort out where Rommel stood in regards to the conspiracy. On May 27, 1944, Goerdeler attended a secret meeting with Strolin, the former Foreign Minister Baron Konstantin von Neurath and General Hans Speidel (who was representing Rommel) at Speidel's flat in Freudenstadt. At the meeting, Speidel speaking on behalf of Rommel made clear that his chief wanted nothing to do with any attempt to assassinate Hitler, but was prepared to serve in a government headed by Goerdeler. Later in 1944, Goerdeler told Kunrath von Hammerstein that "In those days your father stood at the helm of world history", by which Goerdeler meant that if General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord had carried out a putsch in 1933, then the present state of world troubles in 1944 might have been avoided.
A latter-day controversy about Goerdeler concerns his attitude towards anti-Semitism. Some historians such as Christof Dipper and Martin Broszat have argued that Goerdeler agreed with the antisemitic policy of the regime until 1938, though afterwards he did resist the Holocaust and other forms of mass murder. The German historian Christof Dipper in his 1983 essay "Der Deutsche Widerstand und die Juden" (translated into English as "The German Resistance and the Jews") argued that the majority of the anti-Nazi national-conservatives such as Goerdeler were anti-Semitic. Dipper wrote that for Goerdeler and his social circle "the bureaucratic, pseudo-legal deprivation of the Jews practised until 1938 was still considered acceptable." Through Dipper noted no-one in the Widerstand movement supported the Holocaust, he also claimed that the national-conservatives like Goerdeler did not intend to restore civil rights to the Jews after the overthrow of Hitler. By contrast, the Canadian historian Peter Hoffmann in his 2004 essay "The German Resistance and the Holocaust" has contended that Goerdeler was opposed to anti-Semitism in all forms, and that this opposition played a major role in motivating his efforts to overthrow the Nazi regime. Most recently in his 2011 book Carl Goerdeler and the Jewish Question, 1933-1942 and in his 2013 book Carl Goerdeler gegen die Verfolgung der Juden Hoffmann has defended Goerdeler against the charge that he was an anti-Semite. Hoffmann quotes memoranda for Hitler from the years 1934-1939 in which Goerdeler urged the government to change its "Jewish policy" as a matter of justice and national interests; Goerdeler argued that Germany could enjoy good relations with Britain, France and the United States only if the policies concerning "the Jewish Question, the Free-Masons´ Question, legal security, the Church Question" were changed. He beleaguered the British government before the war to pressure Hitler to alleviate his "Jewish policy". In 1941 he proposed that the League of Nations found a Jewish state that would extend Jewish citizenship to all Jews in the world. Since Germans according to the German citizenship law of 1913 lost their German citizenship by acquiring another citizenship, Goerdeler declared that for German Jews there must be four categories of "exceptions" to this rule. Analysis of population, emigration, immigration and naturalization statistics shows that Goerdeler's proposal guaranteed German citizenship to at least 94% of German Jews, while sustaining the legal fiction of "exceptions". Goerdeler thus intended to protect if possible all German Jews against the loss of their German citizenship; the few who did not fall into one of Goerdeler´s categories of "exceptions" could have applied, under the 1913 German citizenship law, for re-instatement. As a leading civilian anti-Hitler conspiracy leader, Goerdeler worked tirelessly to bring about the pre-condition for his proposals' implementation: the overthrow of the Nazi government. The Israeli historian Danny Orbach in his 2010 book Valkyrie: Hahitnagdut Hagermanit Lehitler (Valkyrie: Germans Against Hitler) defended Goerdeler against the charge that he was an anti-Semite by noting Goerdeler's strong support for Zionism and his work with Chaim Weizmann in encouraging German Jews to move to the British Mandate for Palestine. In a recent article, Orbach also argued that Dipper's accusations of anti-Semitism are based on a misreading, if not distortion, of Goerdeler's memoranda, thus ignoring Goerdeler's plan to restore emancipation to the German Jews and securing a national homeland for their Polish brethren. The Israeli historian Tom Segev has dismissed Orbach's claims that Goerdeler was a philo-Semitic, stating that Goerdeler was an anti-Semitic who supported Zionism only because he disliked the idea of German Jews living in Germany, and much preferred if they all move to Palestine. The Israeli historian David Bankier wrote in 2002 that Goerdeler was appalled by the Holocaust and was sincerely against the Nazis, but for him, Jews were not and never could be Germans, and instead were an alien, foreign element who would just have to be relocated from Germany whatever they liked it or not. Bankier wrote that Goerdeler felt that the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" was going too far and would have to be stopped, but "For Goerdeler, the solution of the Jewish question after the war was the establishment of a Jewish state in parts of Canada or South America and granting German citizenship only to a small, elitist minority of Jews willing to assimilate completely."
In May 1944, Goerdeler revived his idea of 1943 of talking Hitler into resigning as a way of achieving a peaceful end to Nazi Germany. Again, Goerdeler proposed to meet with Hitler, explain to him why his leadership was defective, and hope that Hitler would resign and appoint Goerdeler his successor. Again, it took considerable effort on the part of Goerdeler's friends to talk him out of this plan, which they considered to be as bizarre as it was impractical. The British historian Ian Kershaw commented Goerdeler's plans to talk Hitler into resigning reflected a certain lack of realism on his part. In June 1944, Goerdeler finished his final Cabinet list. Had the putsch of 20 July 1944 succeeded, the Cabinet that would have taken power included the following:President of Germany (Regent-Reichsverweser): Colonel General Ludwig Beck
State Secretary to the Regent: Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld
Chancellor: Goerdeler (DNVP)
State Secretary to the Chancellor: Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg
Vice-Chancellor: Wilhelm Leuschner (SPD)
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Jakob Kaiser (Christian Trade Union leader)
Minister of War: General Friedrich Olbricht
State Secretary to the Minister of War: Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg
Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces: Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben
Commander in Chief of the Army: Colonel General Erich Hoepner
Minister of the Interior: Julius Leber (SPD)
Minister of Economics: Dr. Paul Lejeune-Jung (lawyer and economist)
Minister of Finance: Ewald Loeser (DNVP)
Minister of Justice: Joseph Wirmer (Zentrum)
Minister of Education: Eugen Bolz (Zentrum)
Minister of Agriculture: Andreas Hermes (Zentrum)
Minister of Reconstruction: Bernhard Letterhaus (Christian Trade Union leader)
Minister of Information: Theodor Haubach (SPD).
The position of Minister of Foreign Affairs would have gone to either Ulrich von Hassell (former ambassador to Italy) or Count Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg (former ambassador to the Soviet Union) depending upon whether the Western powers or the Soviet Union signed an armistice with the new German government first. In the radio address Goerdeler planned to deliver once the putsch had triumphed was included the statement "The persecution of the Jews, which has been carried out in the most inhuman, deeply shaming and quite irreparable ways, is to cease".
On 16 July 1944, Goerdeler saw his wife and children for the last time in Leipzig, and then departed for Berlin to prepare for the putsch planned for later that month. In the days preceding the putsch attempt of 20 July 1944, Goerdeler stayed at the home of General Beck in the Berlin suburb of Lichterfelde. Unlike Beck, Goerdeler was very confident of the success of the planned putsch, and in a most optimistic mood. On 17 July 1944, a warrant for Goerdeler's arrest was issued, causing him to go into hiding. Goerdeler spent the day of the putsch hiding out at the estate of his friend, Baron Palombrini, in an anxious and agitated state, listening obsessively to the radio for news of success. Following the failure of the 20 July putsch, the Gestapo searched the room in which Goerdeler had been hiding out in the Anhalter Bahnhof hotel, in which they discovered a vast collection of documents relating to the putsch such as the text of Goerdeler's planned radio address to the German people as Chancellor. Much to Goerdeler's deep disappointment, it was Army troops led by Major Otto Ernst Remer rather than the SS who crushed the putsch of 20 July, marking the final time Goerdeler's hopes in the Army were to be dashed.
Goerdeler managed to escape from Berlin, but he was apprehended on 12 August 1944 after being denounced by an innkeeper named Lisbeth Schwaerzel in Marienwerder (modern Kwidzyn, Poland) while visiting the grave of his parents. After his arrest, eight members of Goerdeler's family were sent to the concentration camps under the Sippenhaft law. His brother Fritz was also sentenced to death and executed on 1 March 1945. Under Gestapo interrogation, Goerdeler claimed that the Holocaust was the major reason for his seeking to overthrow the Nazi regime. On 9 September 1944, after a trial at the People's Court, he was sentenced to death. Goerdeler was not physically tortured by the Gestapo, and freely co-operated with the Gestapo in naming names, which made him the object of a considerable hatred from the other prisoners, who saw him as a "spineless rat." Goerdeler's friend, the historian Gerhard Ritter who shared the same prison with him, reported that Goerdeler was never tortured, but was instead subjected to "the overheating of cells, painfully tight shackling especially at night, bright light shining on one's face while one tried to sleep, completely insufficient food". One prisoner recalled that Goerdeler was often "groaning aloud from hunger". Goerdeler's hope in confessing all was to overload the Gestapo with information, and thereby buy time to save his life and the others imprisoned; in the process, he caused hundreds involved in the plot to be arrested. During his time in prison, Goerdeler was asked by the SS to assist with writing the constitution of a future SS-ruled Germany. Goerdeler agreed, and often met with Otto Ohlendorf and Dr. Mading of the SD to provide his advice. Whether Goerdeler was sincere in wishing to help the SS or just trying to buy time to save his life remains unclear. When confronted with the loneliness of his imprisonment and the utter defeat of his cause, Goerdeler, who had always been a highly devout Lutheran, became increasingly preoccupied with spiritual matters. Goerdeler was overwhelmed with despair over what he considered to be the triumph of evil and the destruction of all that he loved. Goerdeler's friend, the historian Gerhard Ritter, saw Goerdeler in prison in January 1945 and reported:
I was...astonished at his undiminished intellectual power, but at the same time I was shocked by his outward appearance. It was a man grown old who stood before me, shackled hand and foot, in the same light summer clothes as had on when captured, shabby and collarless, face thin and drawn, strangely different. But it was his eyes that shocked me the most. They were once bright grey eyes and had flashed beneath the heavy eyebrows; that had always been the most impressive thing about him. Now there was no light in them; they were like the eyes of a blind man, yet like nothing I had seen before. His intellectual power was as it had always been; his spiritual strength was not. His natural cheerfulness had gone; his look seemed turned inward. What I beheld was a man with the weariness of death in his soul.
While Goerdeler was on death row, he wrote a letter which called the Holocaust the very worst of Nazi crimes. But at the same time, Goerdeler remained anti-Semitic. In his "Thoughts of a Man condemned to Death", written towards the end of 1944 in prison, Goerdeler wrote:
We should not attempt to minimize what has been happening, but we should also emphasize the great guilt of the Jews, who had invaded our public life in ways that lacked customary restraint
He was finally executed by hanging on 2 February 1945 at Plotzensee Prison in Berlin. While awaiting his death sentence, Goerdeler wrote a farewell letter, which ended with "I ask the world to accept our martyrdom as penance for the German people."Goerdeler does not appear, but is frequently mentioned in the 1951 film The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel, through Goerdeler's emissary to Rommel Dr. Karl Strolin (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) does play a large role in the plot.
In the 1955 German film Der 20. Juli, Goerdeler was portrayed by the German actor Paul Bildt.
The German actor Peter Schutte played Goerdeler as a supporting character in two West German TV films from 1970, General Oster - Verrater oder Patriot? and Claus Graf Stauffenberg.
In the West German 1971 TV film Operation Walkure, Goerdeler was played by actor Willi Rose.
The East German actor Max Bernhardt portrayed Goerdeler in the 1971 film Liberation: Direction of the Main Blow.
In the 1972 West German TV film Der 20. Juli, Goerdeler was played by the German actor Hannes Messemer.
In the 1988 American TV mini-series War and Remembrance, the actor Carl Duering played Goerdeler.
In the 1993 German film Die Denunziantin (known as Just a Matter of Duty in the English-speaking world) dealing with Lisbeth Schwaerzel, the woman who had denounced Goerdeler to the Gestapo in August 1944, Goerdeler was played by German actor Dieter Schaad.
English actor Kevin McNally portrayed Goerdeler in the 2008 Bryan Singer thriller Valkyrie.