Monday, July 25, 2011

July Anniversaries: Attempted Assassination of Hitler, 20 July 1944

July 20 as a historical date is many things to many people. For most of us nowadays, and Americans in particular, and this year above all (with the end of the space shuttle program), it is the anniversary of the moon landing in 1969.

For me, as a historian, it is always first and foremost the anniversary of the nearly successful bomb attempt on Hitler's life in 1944.
That date barely seems to register here, and Germans seem resigned to that fact, as well.  The editors of the English language international edition of Spiegel evidently decided that the first anniversary of the deaths in the gay "Love Parade" in Duisburg—21 people were trampled to death, and hundreds injured—would interest a wider readership. That topic earned two stories (1, 2).

Der Spiegel ran a series of very substantial pieces this past week, but they're only in German, so I'll just summarize and link.

The theme of guilt and survival may be a good place to start. The first of the pieces on the Love Parade disaster, "The Difficult Burden of Love Parade Guilt," is about a man who believes he accidentally trampled someone to death in that tragic incident. The second, "There Is Life Before, and Life After," is about a woman who was saved by a stranger. Both survivors wrestle with enduring psychological trauma.

One of the German pieces on the 20 July plot describes a different kind of guilt and suffering. "Mein Vater, der verhasste Held" ("My Father, the Hated Hero"), by Till Mayer, tells the story of Frauke Hansen. Her father, Col. Georg Alexander Hansen,
supplied the explosives for the plot and paid with his life. Hanged with a thin wire, he died an agonizing death that lasted half an hour. The agony for his family continued, as the widow and children were pilloried as traitors—and not just during the final months of the Nazi regime, but well into the postwar period. Chillingly, the daughter recounts how even three years ago, a client came to her and felt compelled to declare that he still regarded her father as a traitor.

"Heiliger Unterm Hakenkreuz" ("A Saint Under the Swastika"), by Peter Steinbach, marks the centenary of the birth of Klaus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the originator of the plot, and describes the evolution of his reputation from traitor to officially celebrated hero. The piece includes original film footage on the assassination attempt.

Speaking of survivors, a story in the English-language international edition of the Spiegel profiles Ewald von Kleist who, at 88, is the sole remaining conspirator (the last member of the inner circle, Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager, died in 2008). In the lengthy interview, von Kleist discusses not only history and Hitler, but the present and future:  German involvement in Afghanistan (having to "die so that girls can go to school in Asia" strikes him as a steep price), the German military (not a threat to democracy even if there is a switch from conscript to professional army), President Obama's dream of world nuclear disarmament ("nonsense").

A few tidbits.

On German military preparedness:
SPIEGEL: One gets the impression that the Bundeswehr is having a harder time of it than other armies.

Kleist: I agree. Given our past, we are especially cautious and, as a result, we're also training our soldiers with a great deal of gentleness.

SPIEGEL: With too much gentleness?

Kleist: I would almost say yes, we are. Things are more difficult for them when push comes to shove. If possible, a soldier should be placed in a situation where he can handle the horrible things he's likely to experience.

SPIEGEL: The Bundeswehr is based on the ideal of the citizen-soldier, that is, a citizen wearing a uniform.

Kleist: We want the thinking soldier, which is in principle OK. But if you rely too heavily on thinking soldiers, the soldiers end up having problems. When he approaches his evil enemy and is thinking too much, he'll say: "Okay, the closer I get, the more dangerous it gets!" This isn't necessarily helpful.

SPIEGEL: Do we need to rehabilitate terms like "heroism" and "bravery"?

Kleist: Certainly not heroism. I never understood the saying "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." Is it really honorable and sweet to die for one's fatherland? This sort of thing is bloody idiotic, and we really don't need it. As a soldier, you do have to be brave so you can overcome your fear.

On fear, courage, and the moral imperative in the resistance against Hitler:
SPIEGEL: You are the last surviving member of the July 20 plot. Were you afraid when you decided to take part in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler?

Kleist: I think fear is very reasonable; fear extends life. But sometimes, when it's absolutely necessary, you have to overcome fear.

SPIEGEL: And was that one of those situations?

Kleist: When you encounter a situation like that and it was a voluntary decision, you've already answered that question in the affirmative.

SPIEGEL: You asked your father whether he agreed.

Kleist: He said: "You have to do it. A person who fails at a moment like this will never be happy again in his life."

• On the nature of war, government, and the press today:
Kleist: If only the people who talk about war today and make the decisions had experienced what it's really like. A father-son relationship develops between the commanding officer and the soldier, even if the officer is much younger. And then those things happen that happen in war. Someone gets hit and is lying there, and you have to go to him and watch him die, watch one of your own children die. And he had believed he was sacrificing his life for something just and necessary. It's horrible, you know.

SPIEGEL: Do you get inured to it after a while?

Kleist: Many people got used to it, but I never did. I still feel that way today, which is why security policy interests me. And that's why I'm worried that we sometimes treat these issues very recklessly.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that's because many people today haven't been through the life-and-death experiences you're describing?

Kleist: That's a good thing. But the job of a politician who specializes in security issues is to protect the blood and lives of those entrusted to his care. Nothing is more valuable than the blood of the people you are responsible for. People should be made to understand this.


Kleist: I believe that the media should report a lot more on these issues. Then people would understand.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it true that people today are far better informed about the war in Afghanistan than was the case in earlier wars? We sometimes get the impression that readers have only a limited attention span.

Kleist: Goebbels once told me that, when it comes to propaganda, you just have to keep repeating the same thing over and over again until people can't bear to hear it anymore -- and then you say it again.

SPIEGEL: That's what politicians running for office today say. You don't even have to quote Goebbels for that.

Kleist: Yes, but he was very clever, diabolically clever.

SPIEGEL: Mr. von Kleist, thank you for this interview.

 Worth a read. Read the rest.

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