We are not the first who, with best meaning, have incurred the worst.
Cordelia, in King Lear
Today is the 117th anniversary of the birth of Major General Henning von Tresckow, mastermind of the 20 July 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henning_von_Tresckow
Tresckow was from a long line of Prussian aristocrats and military officers. His father was a cavalry general, and his grandfather a Prussian Minister of Education. He fought in the German army in World War One, gaining a reputation for intellectual independence. His commanding officer predicted that “You, Tresckow, will either become Chief of the General Staff, or die on the scaffold as a rebel.”
Resistance within the German army to Hitler began before the war, and was intensified by wartime atrocities. When Tresckow learnt of the “Commissar Order” requiring the execution of captured Soviet commissars his reaction was:
If we don’t convince the Field Marshal [Fedor von Bock] to fly to Hitler at once and have these orders cancelled, the German people will be burdened with a guilt the world will not forget in a hundred years. This guilt will fall not only on Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and their comrades but on you and me, your wife and mine, your children and mine, that woman crossing the street, and those children over there playing ball.
Army officers began planning Hitler’s removal, if necessary through assassination. However, they faced moral as well as security challenges. Hitler had bewitched a nation with the “stab in the back” narrative – that Germany was betrayed in World War One by the “November criminals” who sued for peace when the German army had not been defeated. This led to a Versailles agreement that dismembered Germany and imposed crippling reparations.
Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) predicted that impoverishing Germany through the Versailles agreement would lead to disastrous future conflict. Apirana Ngata also predicted dire consequences from destroying German pride.
The 1923 hyperinflation and the Great Depression from 1929 created the conditions for Hitler to come to power. Infrastructure investment and rearmament expenditure then made huge inroads into unemployment and bolstered support for the Nazi government.
While Hitler closed down political opposition, he had been democratically elected, and could claim constitutional credibility. German soldiers were also required to swear loyalty oaths to Hitler, and many Generals were further bound by Prussian honour codes.
Resistance conspirators therefore risked their actions being perceived as a traitorous “stab in the back” that would alienate Germans and strengthen Hitler’s hold. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel opposed Hitler’s assassination for fear it would make him a martyr. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein declined to actively support the resistance, arguing that “Prussian officers do not rebel”.
In December 1941, Tresckow reflected:
I would like to show the German people a film with the title “Germany at the end of the war”. Then perhaps people would be alarmed and realize where we are heading. People would agree with me that the superior warlord [Hitler] must disappear. But since we cannot show this film people will create the legend of the “stab in the back” whenever we will act against Hitler.
However, resistance conspirators developed a counter-narrative to Hitler’s. The struggle was for Germany’s soul and honour, and within that, for Prussian and wider German culture and values. At his son’s confirmation at Potsdam Garrison Church in 1943, Tresckow argued that:
The real Prussian spirit means a synthesis between restraint and freedom, between voluntary subordination and conscientious leadership, between pride in oneself and consideration for others, between rigor and compassion. Unless a balance is kept between these qualities, the Prussian spirit is in danger of degenerating into soulless routine and narrow-minded dogmatism.
On 13 March 1943 Tresckow planted a time bomb on Hitler’s aircraft. Unfortunately, it failed to explode. After the Allied landings in France in June 1944, the conspirators decided to risk another attempt – planting a bomb in Hitler’s meeting room, and then launching a military coup in Berlin.
In the lead-up to the 20 July attempt, Tresckow argued that:
The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.”
Tresckow further noted that:
“It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?”
On learning that Hitler survived the bomb that Claus von Stauffenberg had planted, Tresckow committed suicide. His parting message to a friend was:
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. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defence of his convictions.
In the aftermath of the 20 July attempt, around 7,000 people were arrested and 4,980 executed. These included army officers, diplomats, Christian leaders, conservative and liberal politicians. Field Marshalls Rommel and von Kluge committed suicide rather than face treason charges. While awaiting his death sentence, the ultra-conservative Prussian politician Carl Goerdeler wrote a farewell letter, which ended with “I ask the world to accept our martyrdom as penance for the German people”.
At the time, many Germans were angry with the assassination attempt. For some years after the war ended the conspirators were not always seen positively within Germany. East Germany’s communist authorities ignored the 20 July attempt because the conspirators were largely from conservative rather than socialist backgrounds. However, the conspirators are now widely seen as German heroes.
Germany owes much to Henning von Tresckow, and to the other resistance members.
Most Germans today reject ‘kadavergehorsam’ (uncritical obedience). Typically, German people apply critical thinking to politicians’ actions and words. The German Army is sworn to obey parliament, and MPs are sworn to obey their conscience, not their party leaders.