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The World : The Plotters Who Sought to Kill Hitler: A Gift to Humanity at Large

July 17, 1994|Beate Ruhm von Oppen | Beate Ruhm von Oppen teaches at St. John's College. Her publications include "Helmuth James von Moltke: Letters to Freya 1939-1945" (Knopf)

ANNAPOLIS, MD. — When the first news fragments about the failed attempt to kill Adolf Hitler came over the ticker tape in the afternoon of July 20, 1944, it was almost unbearably exciting. I was working in the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office. We had a machine that gave us intercepts of the German news agency.

I listened to Hitler's midnight broadcast. There was, alas, no doubt about it--it was his voice. He denounced the "tiny clique" of traitorous, ambitious and stupid officers who had tried to rob the German people of its leadership and way of life. The stab in the back of the embattled nation had failed. There would not be another 1918. The traitors would be exterminated mercilessly.

The next day, there seemed to be a silver lining in the cloud of disappointment when official word spread in London that the failure of the plot might be a good thing. Success might have made a martyr of Hitler and might not have broken his spell. And it might have started a new legend that traitors had deprived Germany of victory.

Ten years later, in July, 1954, Theodor Heuss, the first president of the Federal Republic, called the desperate and costly attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime a "gift to Germany's future." It was, I should say, a gift to humanity at large. For, despite the sometimes obvious diplomatic use made of "other Germans" who laid down their lives for a better Germany and a better Europe, despite the usefulness of "the German resistance" as fig leaf and olive branch after the war, there is more involved than Germany and its image in the world.

It was not a foregone conclusion that killing Hitler, even if possible, was the best thing to do--though it would free the soldiers from the oath of loyalty they had all sworn to him personally. Thus, Helmuth James von Moltke thought it better to let Hitler live and bear the responsibility for the defeat. Moltke was an international lawyer working in the Abwehr, the military intelligence service, as legal adviser to the German High Command. He helped save many lives. He was one of the victims of the purges carried out after the July 20 assassination attempt.

The judge saw Moltke as at least as dangerous to the regime as those who had taken violent steps to end it. Moltke had opposed the Nazis from the beginning, but had argued against the assassination and coup attempts. He did not think they would bring about the necessary change in the German mentality.

The young Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, held the opposite view. He thought that killing Hitler would be an "act of liberation," freeing the Germans from their stupefaction with the Nazi display of power. So he and his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, were part of the circle of plotters. They were both members of the Abwehr, too, protected by its head, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, and in league with his most active right-hand man and plotter, Hans Oster.

One of their good works--the successful transfer of a small group of Jews to Switzerland under the guise of German intelligence agents--led to Bonhoeffer's and von Dohnanyi's arrest in April, 1943, and to a serious weakening of the Abwehr. Bonhoeffer, Dohnanyi, Oster and Canaris were executed two years later. They were among the hundreds killed in connection with the plot, who were by no means all members of the military.

Others had gone to the gallows and guillotine, to prisons and concentration camps, for less ambitious and more purely altruistic aims. Students of the White Rose group disseminated their leaflets to rouse the conscience of their countrymen--and were beheaded. Bernhard Lichtenberg, the dean of the Catholic cathedral of Berlin, regularly said public prayers for the Jews; after serving his jail sentence, he died on his way to Dachau.

Although the Cold War and the division of Germany and Europe are over, their after-effects are still with us. Divisions between left and right, even of East and West, persist, straining German commemorations of the anti-Hitler resistance. Social Democrats don't want Chancellor Helmut Kohl to be the main speaker at the ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination attempt. Some of the people connected with the permanent center of commemoration at the Stauffenbergstrasse in Berlin are worried that the military Establishment is muscling in. Conversely, others object to including exhibits representing Moscow-sponsored groups. Yet, the decision seems right not to censor them, but to let people make up their own minds about the likely motives and relative merits of the diversity of Germans who opposed the Nazi regime.

The Allies called the events of July 20 a "Generals' Plot." It was a misnomer. Obviously, generals were needed if there was to be any chance of overthrowing the Nazi regime.

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