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Honor's Gasp

Valkyrie: The Story Of The Plot To Kill Hitler, By Its Last Member

By Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager; With Florence and Jerome Fehrenbach

Translated by Steven Rendall

(Knopf, 211 pp., $24.95)

Try to imagine the following scenario. It is the winter of 1944 and the great German offensive in the Ardennes is threatening to push the Allied forces into the sea. To avert this disaster, General Patton, commander of the US Third Army, approaches General Bradley, commander of the 12th Army Group, and General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, with the proposition that they assist in the assassination of President Roosevelt. He holds the president responsible for America’s participation in the war against Germany, and for the impending debacle. Patton tells the two commanders what they had known for a long time, which is that a good number of high-ranking American officers and also some distinguished civilian leaders are planning the assassination—and that one of the bravest conspirators, a highly decorated and terribly wounded colonel, has obtained easy access to the president, a great opportunity to implement the plan. Both Bradley and Eisenhower find excuses for not participating in the plot (one pleads advanced age, and the other argues that while he is in favor of the overthrow, murder would turn Roosevelt into a martyr), but neither summons the MPs to arrest the treasonous general. Patton returns to his post and soon thereafter the brave colonel attempts the assassination, but the president miraculously survives. On the very same day, Patton, the colonel, and several other American officers are arrested, tried, and executed—not by the police, or by the military authorities, but by a fellow-conspirator trying to save his skin. The war continues into the next year, with immense losses on both sides.

It is insanely far-fetched, I know. But it is no different, in essence, from what happened in Nazi Germany in July 1944, when some generals approached Field Marshal Rommel, the commander of Europe’s western defenses, and Field Marshal Rundstedt, the commander of all German military forces in the West, with the request that they head the plot to assassinate Hitler. The two declined, with the above-mentioned arguments; and neither of them lifted a finger to prevent the plot from succeeding. The four German field marshals in the East, each one in charge of an army group, also knew about the plan to rid Germany and humanity of the tyrant, and they, too, did not betray the plot.

All in all, we do not know of a single officer among the thousands aware of the conspiracy who tried to prevent it. When time came for retribution, and a generals’ court of honor was duly convoked in order to deprive the conspirators of their military rank and to drum them out of the army, the president of the court, Field Marshal Rundstedt, should himself have been sitting on the defendants’ bench for having failed to report the assassination project. For a large part of the German army high command had been looking forward to the assassination of their commander-in-chief, and to the drastic reorganization of their system of government. And yet Rundstedt’s court of honor proceeded to degrade and to expel from the army such illustrious commanders as Field Marshal von Witzleben, allowing for their torture and strangulation with a thin wire while dangling from a butcher’s hook.

One might argue that my fantastic scenario would have been inconceivable in the United States not least because it was not losing the war, whereas Germany was in desperate straits in 1944, and the killing of the Fuhrer seemed to offer the last chance for avoiding total defeat. But then it is important to remember that military plots against Hitler began as early as 1938, when he was at the apogee of his diplomatic successes and domestic popularity. A major conspiracy to overthrow, and if necessary to kill, the Fuhrer was headed by Witzleben and Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, the former chief of the general staff. It failed because just when the plotters planned to act, Prime Minister Chamberlain decided to throw in the towel and give the Sudetenland to Hitler. One cannot kill a head of state when the entire nation is about to celebrate his magnificent and peaceful victories. It also hampered the conspiracy that the British government, to which the conspirators had sent notices begging for help, communicating crucial military secrets and expressing their wish to see Germany defeated, treated the messengers as traitors to their fatherland or as spies. And high-ranking military and civilian plotters looked for ways to kill Hitler also in 1942, when the Allies were nowhere near Europe, while in the east German troops were surrounding Leningrad and storming into Stalingrad, and the Fuhrer’s flag flew from the highest peak of the Caucasus. No, the attempt to kill the Fuhrer was not the product of despair over a lost war, although it is true that the tyrannicidal attempts began to multiply in 1943, following the traumatic German defeat at Stalingrad.

One might argue also that an officers’ revolt is inconceivable in a democracy; that such things are the specialty of dictatorships. But this does not explain the vast extent—and the airtight discretion—of the German military resistance. After all, no officers’ plots arose in the tyrannical Soviet Union, except in the fevered imagination of Stalin and his cronies. The victims of Stalin’s monster purges were mostly his devoted followers, and some hailed his name while they were waiting to be shot. In Germany, participants in the July 20 conspiracy were tortured to admit to acts that had violated Nazi law; but in the Soviet Union, victims of the purges were tortured to plead guilty to crimes that they had never committed.

German army officers joined in the conspiracy for many reasons, but a yearning for democracy inspired only a few of them. Most of the plotters had begun as ardent supporters of the National Socialist dictatorship. The reasons that they later described for their eventual alienation were such things as the Nazis’ plebeian crudity and irresponsible demagogy; National Socialism’s un-Christian ideology and occasional anti-Church acts; the euthanasia program that led to the deaths of thousands of handicapped Germans; Hitler’s amateurish generalship; the two-front war and the fear of military defeat; the rise—and the overwhelming power—of the SS, the army’s main military and political rival; the mistreatment of Russian prisoners of war and of the eastern population in general; and finally, but only in a few cases, the persecution and the extermination of the Jews.

Esprit de corps certainly helps to explain why these officers were unwilling to betray one another to the outsiders in the SS and the Nazi Party. It might also explain why the plotters operated strictly within the confines of the army and among a select group of mostly conservative civilians. There is no evidence of the plotters having approached their comrades in the navy and the air force, the two less traditional branches of service whose officers were generally devoted to Hitler. (Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the military counter-intelligence service called the Abwehr, was one of the founders of the resistance movement.) But then, while a similar esprit de corps prevailed in the great old armies of France, Great Britain, and even the United States, it is inconceivable that officers in those countries would have tolerated potential regicides in their ranks. So we must look for another explanation. And in this search the memoirs of Philipp von Boeselager offer some useful hints.

Lieutenant Philipp von Boeselager was a junior member of the anti-Hitler conspiracy, with the main distinction that he alone, of all the conspirators, was called upon to provide massive military support for the killing of the Fuhrer. In all the other cases, commanders planned to operate without troops, or with troops that they would deliberately mislead about the purpose of the exercise. The officers in Boeselager’s cavalry battalion, by contrast, were made to understand that the goal of their sudden dislocation from the front in July 1944 was not to defend, but to topple, the Nazi regime. Boeselager’s other distinction was that he outlived his fellow conspirators of July 20. He died on May 1, 2008, at the age of ninety, and in the course of his long life he received many recognitions and decorations which many of his comrades would also have deserved.

The Boeselager ancestors were barons, or Freiherren, free knights, many of whom chose to serve the archbishop of Cologne and the archbishop of Mainz. Philipp was born in a castle near Bonn in 1917, and was brought up in the strict manner of German Catholic aristocrats. The fifth among nine brothers and sisters, he started very early to ride a horse and to hunt: “We learned how to keep our sangfroid in the tumult of dogs excited by the battle, how to strike the throat of a stag or a boar in the coup de grace and look without revulsion at the dark red fluid bubbling out of mortal wounds.” All this took place in full awareness of, as he puts it, “the laws of life ... the struggles of existence.... Hunting also accustomed us to the laws of violent death, internalized the notion of an offering. Yes, hunting was a preparation for the supreme sacrifice—the sacrifice of life.”

The boys in the family attended a Jesuit school, and the years spent there “helped root in us a solid, authentic, uncomplicated, moderate faith.” Nothing indeed could have been more widespread among upper-class Germans, and many other aristocratic Europeans, than this “uncomplicated” faith, which did not amount to a profound devotion, except perhaps among aristocratic women. But it drove Philipp to stand up for his church. He was member simultaneously of a Nazi youth organization and of the Catholic Congregation of Mary, and when his Nazi superior ordered him, in 1937, to choose between the two organizations, he refused. Boeselager’s memoirs indicate that his refusal was a question of personal dignity and not of religious belief.

Philipp’s idol was Georg, his older brother by two years and a career soldier. At first both brothers served in the same exclusive Paderborn cavalry regiment, which was “hermetically sealed off from much of the outside world.... Sports were far more important than political discussion. Jumping and dressage were our daily occupations.” When the war broke out, however, hopes for a new era of dashing cavalry attacks quickly dissipated, and the regiment was divided into reconnoitering units within thirty-three infantry divisions. The campaign against France in the spring of 1940 brought glory especially to Georg, whose heroic exploits made him a celebrity. As in almost all military memoirs, in these reminiscences both Georg and Philipp invariably prove correct in their major decisions in battle, as opposed to the orders of stubborn and unimaginative superiors.

Life was good for the two brothers in occupied France, with horse races in elegant company and a French public most appreciative of the cordial behavior of German officers. But in March, 1941 Georg’s division was transferred to the east, and Philipp’s unit followed somewhat later. In the beginning Operation Barbarossa was just another triumphant march, although this time on dusty or muddy trails ironically called highways; but in August, one of their older brothers was killed. (Altogether, Philipp lost three of his brothers in the war.) In October, when the roads turned into sewers, Philipp’s cavalry unit rode miles and miles ahead of the motorized formations and finally stopped northeast of Moscow, with no enemy in sight. The officers settled down to a life of leisure, which included hours in the sauna and delightful hunting parties. Meanwhile the talented and brave Georg was advancing rapidly in rank: at twenty-six, he was commanding an entire battalion. He organized literary competitions and was planning to offer classes in Latin.

Final victory seemed certain, until the “brutal awakening”: the Red Army’s ferocious counterattack in mid-December 1941. Temperatures had descended well below zero, and whereas the attacking Russians were equipped for the cold and the snow, the Germans were still wearing their thin uniform jackets. Philipp was badly wounded—the first but not the last such calamity in his brief military career. The wounded of his unit were loaded into an unheated freight train, which remained stationary for three days without their receiving any care or food. Half of them froze to death. While marooned in the train Philipp was wounded twice more, in aerial attacks. When finally evacuated, the train traveled for nearly three weeks with little food, water, or medical care. All this reminds one of the deportation of Jews or Russian prisoners of war, and thereby exposes the fatal contradictions of the German army: it was still the best in the world, able to mount its most devastating campaigns in 1942, but it was often incapable of providing for its soldiers and it had no withdrawal strategy, which caused terrible losses.

For the wounded Philipp there came a miracle, when Georg, less seriously wounded, was called into the Fuhrer’s presence in East Prussia to be awarded the highest military decoration possible for a younger officer. At Georg’s personal request, Hitler ordered that Philipp be transferred, under the care of two special nurses, to a hometown hospital. It took him four months to recover and to return to the east. This time, rather than being sent to the front, he was assigned to the headquarters of Army Group Center as an aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge. By then Army Group Center was functioning as a nest of German military resistance. Meanwhile Georg was in Romania teaching the German allies the art of war, which left him with enough time to deepen his contempt for the Fuhrer. Even earlier Georg had exclaimed: “That obtuse parvenu! He is a cheap cafe politician pretending to be a genius!”

The pattern for the two brothers was set: for the rest of the war they would alternate between desk jobs that allowed them to plot mutiny, even assassination, and volunteering for the front, where they displayed extraordinary heroism and self-sacrifice. Philipp was wounded five times during the war and Georg even more often, but each time, emaciated and sick, they managed to limp back into service. Neither seemed to notice the contradiction between their two modes of behavior: after all, at least as Philipp and other conspirators claimed afterwards, their goal had not been to rid the army of the amateur strategists Hitler, Goring, and Himmler in order to fight more efficiently, but to put an end to the war as speedily and in as dignified a way as possible. Disagreements arose only between those, the majority, who saw the way to peace through a negotiated surrender to the Western powers and a continued defense against the Soviet Red Army, and a minority who were willing to surrender to the Soviets too, or only to the Soviets.

The assassination of Hitler—no matter how criminal his behavior and how amateurish his conduct of the war—could not but weaken the German war effort. Also, as Field Marshal Kluge pointed out to the resisters, assassination might lead to a domestic war between the SS and the army. Why, then, did these people risk their lives in conspiracies? Some certainly expected to win over the West for a joint military campaign against the Soviet Union—even Himmler nurtured such hopes in the last year of the war; but the more thoughtful among them knew that the alliance of the three world powers was unbreakable. At best, the demand for unconditional German surrender, announced at Casablanca in January, 1943 could be mitigated. Henning von Tresckow, Kluge’s chief operations officer, declared to his colleagues about the plot to kill Hitler: “Gentlemen, every day we are assassinating nearly sixteen thousand additional victims. We have no choice.” The statement is evidence of a deep humanitarian impulse, which was not common among the conspirators.

For years Kluge had been highly critical of Hitler and his clique, but he still accepted the diamond-studded baton of a Generalfeldmarschall from the Fuhrer in 1940, and two years later a gift of 250,000 marks. Similarly enormous sums of money were offered to the other field marshals, and only Witzleben refused to accept what amounted to a bribe. The head of resistance at Army Group Center was not the cautious field marshal, but Colonel (later Generalmajor) Tresckow, one of the most intelligent and determined leaders of the anti-Hitler conspiracy. Of Prussian noble stock with a long military tradition, Tresckow was a model general staff officer, the best of the best among Germany’s soldiers. He turned against Hitler as early as 1934, but served nonetheless in ever more important positions in all of Germany’s military campaigns. Meanwhile he attempted to assassinate the Fuhrer.

By the time Philipp joined Kluge’s headquarters, he had been influenced in his rejection of Nazism, as he recalls in this book, by his distant cousin Clemens August Count von Galen, the bishop of Munster, who in his sermons protested the Nazis’ euthanasia program and anti-church policy. It did not occur to Galen to mention the persecution of Jews, nor does Philipp bemoan this omission in his memoirs. What converted Philipp finally to the anti-Nazi cause, he records, was a report that accidentally fell into his hands in the spring of 1942. It described the SS Security Service’s “special treatment” of five Roma men in the army's rear area. According to Philipp’s memoirs, Field Marshal Kluge himself wondered what the expression “special treatment” could mean, and he was outraged to hear SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski’s casual explanation that it meant the shooting of all Jews and Gypsies in the army’s rear. “This incident changed my view of the war,” Philipp writes. “I was disgusted and afraid.”

One wants to believe Philipp, who until then had been either at the front or in a hospital, but it is impossible to believe in the field marshal’s sudden indignation. How could he not have known about the Einsatzgruppen’s execution of one million Jews and many thousands of others during the first year of Barbarossa? Even Kluge’s predecessor, the weak Field Marshal Bock, protested the SS brutalities in a letter to Hitler. Nor is it possible to accept that the highest echelons of the army group would have known nothing about the frequent participation of regular army units in the massacres. And yet one finds no recognition of the latter fact in Boeselager’s memoirs.

While Philipp was brooding over the dishonor that the Nazi gangsters were bringing upon the army, Kluge was repeatedly invited to the Fuhrer’s eastern headquarters at Vinnytsya, and in this way Philipp, too, became a guest at Hitler’s table. On one occasion he got into a dangerous altercation with Martin Bormann, secretary to the Fuhrer, and was rescued by the intervention of Kluge. Meanwhile the anti-Hitler group around Tresckow was consolidating itself with, as one of its most interesting members, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, another aristocrat who was a lawyer and now also an officer. It is important to note that by the end of the war only two major conspirators from Army Group Center, Philipp von Boeselager and Fabian von Schlabrendorff, were still alive. There are not many documents regarding resistance activities in the Center. Most of what we know about the grand conspiracy there stems from the pen of these two men. I do not mean to doubt their veracity, only to say that they may have forgotten things and, even more likely, as is inevitable in all memoirs, they may have embellished their roles. (I should add that Philipp von Boeselager makes a very favorable impression in his interviews in Restless Conscience, Hava Kohav Beller’s documentary on the German resistance, which appeared in 1992 and was nominated for an Oscar.)

Soon Georg arrived from Romania, and to the great joy of the many cavalrymen at army headquarters he persuaded Kluge to allow the formation of an independent cavalry unit of one thousand horses with Georg as their commander. It grew into an entire regiment, and later Philipp was put in charge of one of the regiment’s two battalions. The British and the Americans also had their cavalry during the war, but this meant motorized units equipped with swift and light armor. For the Germans, horses were better in the swamps or the melting snow than trucks and tanks. The von Boeselager cavalry was used mainly to fight the numerous partisans in the region. It is interesting that Philipp, who claims to have been so profoundly distressed over the fate of the Jews and other civilians, does not mention the brutality of partisan warfare. Yet his men must have torched many villages and hanged many a real or supposed partisan warrior. It is true that the partisans were no less ruthless than the Germans: both terrorized the rural population—yet it is very wrong, though journalists do it all time, to mention the fighting between occupiers and the occupied in the same breath with the occupiers’systematic extermination of civilians.

Under Tresckow’s guidance, the officers at Army Group Center devised plan after plan for Hitler’s elimination. To arrest and try him would have been best, but was obviously impossible. Some, including the Boeselager brothers, volunteered to shoot him in suicidal missions; others wanted to use bombs. But something always went awry. Hitler did not show up as scheduled, or he came for only a short time, or there was a risk that Kluge and those in the conspiracy would be blown up together with the Fuhrer. Some volunteers developed moral qualms; others did not wish to be blamed for Germany’s defeat. Not even Tresckow was willing to shoot down Hitler like a dog. The most promising plan was to put a bomb, disguised as cognac, in Hitler’s plane; on March 13, 1943 the bottles made it on to the plane—but the British-made detonator failed, and Schlabrendorff, who had given the bomb to an unsuspecting officer among Hitler’s attendants, had to take enormous risks to recover the dud before they were all unmasked.

In October 1943, Kluge was badly wounded in a car accident, and his successor, Field Marshal Busch, could not be counted on to help in any way. When Kluge finally returned to duty, it was as commander-in-chief in the West, replacing Field Marshal Rundstedt. Tresckow decided to send Georg von Boeselager, on June 26, 1944, to Kluge in Paris, asking that he open the front and surrender unconditionally to the British and American forces. In that way the war effort could be shifted “entirely to Russia to prevent Germany from being crushed by the Soviet war machine.” He also recommended that a peace offer be made to the Allies, for which Georg volunteered to fly secretly to England. How Tresckow expected to combine unconditional surrender with peace negotiations is unclear.

Time was of the essence, because on June 22 the Red Army launched Operation Bagration, a gigantic military attack that assembled 2.3 million men against the 800,000 men of Army Group Center. This historic event, which is almost completely ignored in the West, was mounted at least in part to prevent Hitler from moving troops and tanks west against the Allies in Normandy. Busch’s defenses were almost immediately pulverized, with the Russians soon reaching the Vistula River near Warsaw. By August 19, when the offensive was stopped, Army Group Center’s casualties had amounted to 560,000 soldiers. I still remember the first post-liberation Soviet newsreel in Budapest that showed some 50,000 captive soldiers of Army Group Center being marched through sunny Moscow between two rows of eerily silent spectators.

Georg left the collapsing front for Paris with the officially approved but astonishing justification that Lord Wagram, a stallion of the Boeselager family, was running at Longchamp. But his real mission failed, because Kluge again refused to cooperate, claiming that the Allies would soon break through and so there was no need to hurry. By then the conspiratorial action at home had passed into the hands of Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who was determined to blow up the Fuhrer.

Stauffenberg’s plot, Operation Valkyrie, failed because he was half-blind and had only three fingers, which did not allow him to activate the detonators on both of his bombs. Also, the officers met with Hitler not in the Fuhrer’s bunker but in a wooden building that easily flew apart at the explosion. Moreover, an adjutant inadvertently pushed the briefcase containing the bombs behind a heavy table leg: again, Hitler’s luck. No less importantly, the conspirators in Berlin did not dare act without Stauffenberg’s presence, and he brought the mistaken information that Hitler was dead. When the opposite turned out to be the case, the Fuhrer’s legendary charisma triumphed even in his absence: those waiting to hear of Hitler’s death before daring to act now quickly defected. Others turned against the conspirators: General Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the Replacement Army and Stauffenberg’s superior, a member of the conspiracy, now had Stauffenberg and others shot dead. (He, too, was executed later.) Many of the plotters had feared that their success would bring the Red Army deep into Germany, so they participated in the putsch not to win but to die with honor.

Stauffenberg could have saved himself for another day by disappearing when he found out that the Fuhrer was still alive, but as an officer and a proud aristocrat he would not desert his fellows. Hundreds were executed in the subsequent nine months; and thousands who were accused of membership in the conspiracy were sent to prison or to a concentration camp. Most tragically for these soldiers, the “court of honor” presided over by Rundstedt marked the end of the military caste that had raised Prussia, which is to say Germany, to the status of a great power. Lower-middle-class civilians in Party or SS uniform thereby triumphed over the generals, until they themselves went down in total defeat.

Philipp von Boeselager writes in his memoirs that the planners of Operation Valkyrie instructed him to lead his cavalry battalion, over a thousand strong, in a precipitous ride westward, away from the front, to a point near Brest-Litovsk in Belorussia. There they would leave their horses behind and be driven to an airstrip in Poland, from where they would immediately fly to Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. It was a bold plan. Considering that the outcome of Valkyrie was ultimately decided by the commander of the Berlin Guards Battalion who had chosen to remain loyal to the Fuhrer, the sudden arrival of an anti-Hitler battalion, made up of battlefield veterans, might have saved the day for the conspirators. The horsemen would also have provided the badly needed rank-and-file element to what had been an exclusively elite affair.

But is the story true? Amazingly, no historian of the resistance has questioned the reliability of Boeselager’s account. Perhaps, in the chaos of the overwhelming Soviet attack, a whole battalion could ride away from the front, unnoticed; and perhaps, in the midst of a precipitous sauve-qui-peut, Army Group Center would be willing to spare the many trucks needed to transport the battalion to “an aerodrome in the former Poland.” But why is it impossible to find on the map the localities that Boeselager named for his great ride? And why are the ones that may be found not where they are supposed to be? Nor are we told who had promised to provide Boeselager with those airplanes. About fifty Junkers 52s, the air force’s workhorse, would have been needed to transport a thousand men and their equipment in one swoop. I doubt that the Luftwaffe could have mustered so many transport planes for any purpose at that time, and certainly not for a junior cavalry officer. Boeselager writes that once the coded message arrived about the failure of the coup d’etat, he quickly marched his battalion back to the frontline, again unnoticed. All in all, they spent three days and three nights in the saddle, covering nearly three hundred miles. Maybe, but I cannot help feeling that all this is an account not of what Philipp von Boeselager did, but of what he longed to do.

For obvious reasons, the conspirators at Army Group Center could not play a crucial role in the events unfolding on July 20 at the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, and in Berlin, Paris, Prague, and Vienna. Thus members of the Tresckow group had a chance to escape Hitler’s revenge, or at least to kill themselves, which, if nothing else, might mean a pension for their family. To give the impression that he died in combat, Tresckow drove to an area infested by partisans and blew off his head with a hand grenade. He was given a proper military funeral, but later his coffin was excavated and taken to the crematorium in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

The two field marshals in the West committed suicide: Kluge because he feared arrest and torture. Rommel was ordered to swallow poison, and was then given a state funeral worthy of Germany’s greatest general. Fabian von Schlabrendorff was arrested and tortured, but he refused to give up names. He avoided the death sentence when Roland Freisler, the terrible “people’s judge,” was killed in an air attack, still clutching Schlabrendorff’s court papers. Later he was lucky enough to escape summary execution by the SS, which is what happened to many resisters virtually until the day of liberation. Georg von Boeselager was killed by mortar fire at the end of August 1944, at the front on the border of East Prussia. The Fuhrer posthumously awarded the highest military decoration to the man who had repeatedly volunteered to kill him.

Philipp, who had been wounded again and again, was now a cavalry major. He saw many more battlefield adventures and was finally captured by a British cavalry unit in Austria. He was treated as befits a fellow horseman, and soon he and the Englishmen were hunting together in the Alps while enjoying the beauties of a countryside untouched by war. Again, as in the Soviet Union in the fall of 1941, he organized equestrian tournaments and Roman chariot races, wearing togas, but this time for the entertainment of both British and German cavalrymen. “By July, I was home again, my pistol in my belt and flanked by my two horses.” They were the same horses that had taken him to war in 1939.

Georg Freiherr von Boeselager, Axel von dem Bussche, Rudolph-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, Ewald Heinrich von Kleist, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg, Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, Dr. Adam von Trott zu Solz, Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg: this is just a sampling of the aristocrats who made up the majority of the July 20 conspirators. Obviously there were also many commoners among them, such as the socialists Julius Leber and Adolf Reichwein, the civil servant Dr. Carl Goerdeler, and the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer; but Hitler was right to rage about the conspiracy of aristocrats against him. These grandees did not betray each other except under the most bestial torture, and even then not always. They had originally joined Hitler’s “national revolution” so as not to feel cut off from the people, but gradually they discovered that their place was not with the howling mob. And so they conspired to save Germany from its leaders and its population. They sensed that the cause of their caste was hopeless, but they wanted to go down in dignity. In this, they succeeded. When they died, Germany lost some of its more admirable sons.

István Déak is an emeritus professor at Columbia University. This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.