A Higher Duty

“I do not know how future generations will judge our actions or what they will think of me, but I know for a fact that none of us acted from baser motives. Only the desperate situation forced us to risk everything to save Germany from complete destruction. I’m convinced that one day, posterity will recognize this and understand.” 

General Friedrich Olbricht, July 20, 1944

 My grandfather served in World War II. He took part in the great push by allied forces across Europe to Berlin, and I take pride in knowing that. If you grew up in Germany, you might be able to say the same thing, but you would not necessarily do so with pride. Even if your grandfather had served honorably (as many German soldiers did), that fact is so overshadowed by the horror and cruelty of the Third Reich you probably wouldn’t dare to say anything.

If you’ve watched any educational channels you know there’s no lack of documentaries on Hitler and the Nazi party. I think most people watch those programs, or movies like Schindler’s List, and wonder what they would have done if they lived in Germany at that time. It’s human nature to think that you would do the morally upright and correct thing.  However, if you look at what actually happened, the vast majority of people at the time did not do the morally correct and upright thing. That is not to say that those people actively participated in the atrocities of the Third Reich, but that through a combination of inertia, willful ignorance, and shame everyone ended up with some dirt on their hands. So the hard truth is that if you were put into the same set of circumstances you would most likely do nothing, and hope it would all go away. Most people, I think, really just want each day to be the same as the last, and are willing to overlook a great deal to make that happen.  That is the same today as it was then.

We tend to have a monolithic vision of the German people during the war that is a combination of movie portrayals, video games and countless melodramas on TV. In fact there were pockets of resistance to National Socialism both before and during the war.  Most are largely unknown in the US at least until the film Valkyrie came out in 2008. This blog post would be much larger if I attempted to go into any great detail, so I’ll summarize as best I can. The movie tells the story of the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on 20 July, 1944, and the coup d’état that was attempted with it. The story centers on a group of active and retired German army officers and civilians who had been working to overthrow Hitler for most of the war. At first they sought a change by solely political means, but as time went on it became clear that the only way to remove Hitler was to kill him.  Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg volunteered to place a briefcase containing plastic explosives under a table during a briefing he was attending at Hitler’s eastern headquarters. After the blast, Stauffenberg was to return to army headquarters at a place called Bendlerblock in Berlin where an operation would be initiated that would effectively place Germany under the control of the conspirators. The operation was codenamed Valkyrie (in German die Walküre) after the handmaidens of the gods in Norse mythology. The conspirators would then put a new government in place and attempt to negotiate a cease-fire with the allies to avert the complete destruction of Germany. Operation Valkyrie was originally conceived to counter an uprising of the slave labor population that was working throughout Germany.  The conspirators leveraged the plan for their purposes by re-writing it to enable them to execute their coup. The success of the scheme relied heavily on the fact that Hitler was dead. However, due to chance and a number of things going wrong, Hitler was only slightly injured. He was able to take steps to over-ride the orders that were being carried out in Berlin and all over the Third Reich as a result of Operation Valkyrie. The conspirators at the Bendlerblock were arrested and executed by firing squad in the courtyard. They were General Freidrich Olbricht, Colonel Albrecht Mertz Ritter von Quirnheim, Stauffenberg, and Lieutenant Werner von Haeften. General Ludwig Beck was arrested that night as well, but he was allowed to shoot himself earlier in recognition of his years of service. The building that once housed the reserve army headquarters in the Bendler Block survived the war, and has been preserved as a memorial to German resistance. In the courtyard of the building is a monument to the men who died as a result of the 20 July plot.

Bendlerblock courtyard on 21 July 1944. The sand pile where the conspiritors were shot is visible on the left.

After the incident there was a massive investigation by the Gestapo, which resulted in the arrest of some 5,000 people and the execution of 200. Among those executed in connection with the plot was Dietrich Bonhoefer, the well-known theologian. Not everyone arrested or executed was involved with the conspiracy, but the Gestapo used the opportunity as a pretext to settle scores and “clean house.”

Most of the people involved were spread throughout the army and many of them had been working against Hitler for years, in many cases before the war even began. For a long time after the war these men were seen as trying to undermine their government while they were in the midst of a war on two fronts and viewed as traitors. Some thought they were trying to end the war early in order to preserve their rank and status in the army. I, and most other people, are now convinced that they were working to prevent the total destruction of their country. I have heard it said that more people died between 20 July and the end of the war (which was about nine months later) than had died through the whole rest of the war. I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but when you consider the terrible battles that took place during that time, and the fact that the concentration camps had stepped up their program of annihilation, it may very well be true. In any case a stupefying number of people died during that period that, if a cease fire could have been negotiated, would possibly be alive now. The cold war and subsequent history would also have been very different.

I had heard of the 20 July plot and knew a good deal about it before the film came out.  Once I had seen Valkyrie my interest was piqued.  Any time I see a film that is based on history, I usually research it myself afterward to see what is historically accurate and what is Hollywood storytelling. I will say briefly that I believe this film to be largely accurate to the events.  I will also mention as a side note, that after having researched General Olbricht’s life, I am disappointed with his portrayal in the film. Bill Nye (who plays Olbricht in the film) is a great actor, and he gave a wonderful performance in the film, but the character he portrayed bore only a passing resemblance to the real Friedrich Olbricht that I’ve read about, and the portrayal of his role in the plot is also distorted. I won’t go into any more detail about this now, because that’s another blog post. If you’re interested, I recommend this web site which was put together by the author of a biography of Olbricht.

Once I knew that I was going to be going to Berlin, I had to carve out time to visit the Bendlerblock myself.  On our tour we had free time the Sunday morning after we arrived. I had already researched how to get to the building by subway and walking. When you turn the corner from Sigismund Strasse onto what is now called Stauffenberg Strasse, you see the Bendlerblock, and it looks much as it did during the war. I walked into the courtyard, and I was suddenly and surprisingly moved to be standing where these men had their lives taken from them. It is humbling to stand in such a place. A lot of images ran through my mind as I stood and looked toward where the firing squad was formed up waiting to fire. What were those men thinking about as they waited their turn to die? I thought of Lt. Haeften who, when Stauffenberg was about to be shot, walked forward and placed himself between the firing squad and Stauffenberg in a last show of loyalty and defiance.

The German resistance memorial is located in what were the offices of these men.  Each man’s office is identified as is the location where Ludwig Beck took his own life. In the rooms are exhibits about the various forms of resistance that were taking place throughout Germany. One of the many challenges that faced Germany after the war was how to rebuild their army. It was decided that these officers and the dedication they had to their country should be a basis for that. In fact the Wachtbattion of the Bundeswehr (the German army) take their oath in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock to this day. They are the German army’s elite drill unit, comparable to the 3rd US Infantry who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery among other duties.

Bendlerblock courtyard today. The conspirators exited through the doors on the right. The firing squad would have formed up to the left of the tree.

A great deal has been written about the motives of these men, their continued participation in the war effort despite their opposition to Hitler, and how much some of them did or did not agree with Hitler’s stated aims when he first came to power. I am not going to take the time to examine all these arguments as there are entire books written on that subject. I’ll simply say that no one ever does anything with completely morally consistent motives.  But I don’t think that’s the point. The men of the 20 July plot, and all the people who resisted Hitler and his minions throughout the war did something. All of them knowing full well that torture and death were what awaited them if they were caught. They did what they could in the situation in which they were placed with the means they had available. Those who know me at all know that the Lord of Rings is a major influence, and I am reminded of a passage where Frodo tells Gandalf that he wishes none of the things that have befallen him had happened. Gandalf replies “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” The men and women who resisted Hitler decided to do something incredibly brave with the time they were given, and I think we should be indebted to them. Henning von Tresckow, who was involved in operation Valkyrie and the planning of a number of attempts to assassinate Hitler, committed suicide on the Eastern Front once he learned of the failure of the 20 July plot.  Before he did so he reportedly said:

 The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler.

Plaque with wreath near the execution spot. It reads: “Here died for Germany on July 20, 1944,” and it lists the names of the executed.

Germany has a long history, and has given many good things to the world.  Sadly this will always be overshadowed by Hitler and the Third Reich. For proof of this go to any book store and find the German history section.  90% of the books you find there will be about Hitler and the Third Reich. It is yet another in a long line of horrors and tragedies that Hitler has blotted out the very history that he was claiming to honor. A great many people come to Germany to see this history, and very little of it has been untouched by the evil of the Third Reich. Not only the places have been touched, but you can still see the affect it has on the people — even generations born well after the war. When I was stationed in Germany in the mid-80s, I can remember a conversation I had with a friend. She had asked her Grandfather if he was a Nazi, and he told her he wasn’t. One day she was snooping around in her grandfather’s room and found a swastika armband and Nazi party member’s pin in a drawer, and was devastated. She was afraid to ask him about it later, and though she never said, I’m sure she did not look at her grandfather in the same way again. Hitler not only destroyed the Jewish people, he destroyed his own country as well. For every committed SS officer, there were numerous ordinary German people who experienced the horror of a war that was brought to their very doorstep. Many of those ordinary Germans helped Jews and other victims of the Reich without anyone now knowing their names. Some say that maybe they received what they deserved for allowing Hitler to come to power. I cannot pass that judgment. I will say my experience of the German people as a whole is very positive. I have had the privilege to look through a tiny crack and get a brief glimpse at the pain and shame that still lingers. But I have also seen how the German people struggle to move on and live and thrive in spite of it. I believe the sacrifice that was made by the men of the 20 July plot in part has made that possible.

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