Books: Cultural Amnesia — Henning von Tresckow |
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Henning von Tresckow (1901–1945) was the heart, the soul and the brain of the July 20, 1944, plot against Hitler’s life. After the plot failed, Claus von Stauffenberg, who delivered the bomb to Hitler’s forward headquarters, was the name popularly associated with the attempt; but really Henning, the mastermind in the background, was the man who mattered. Nor had he always been in the background. In March 1943 he personally got a bomb on Hitler’s plane. The bomb should have gone off. Had it done so, Henning would have changed history. Superfically, he had all the characteristics of the ideal hero. On the revisionist left to this day, efforts continue to denigrate the July plotters as aristocratic right-wing romantics who wanted the war against the Soviet Union to continue, with better leadership than the Nazis could provide. With regard to how the Nazis are viewed in retrospect, the contest between the old aristocracy and the far left is a perennial stand-off, mainly because both sides were guilty, and therefore each had a permanent interest in passing the buck to the other. Hitler would scarcely have risen to power if the Weimar Republic had not been sabotaged by the aristocracy. On the other hand the Communists sabotaged it as well, and in the crucial period between the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939 and the launching of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 they gave Hitler aid and comfort by denouncing any attempts to resist him as “imperialist.” The July plotters undoubtedly had questionable credentials as democrats. But a full twenty among them, when interrogated by the Gestapo after the plot failed, insisted that they had been motivated by revulsion at what happened to the Jews. Henning, had he lived, would have said the same. There can be no doubt that he despised the Nazis. There can, however, be a doubt about his views on the German army and its career of conquest. Like most of the career officers he enjoyed the idea of the army becoming strong again. Because only Hitler could make it so, Henning was in a dilemma. He finally resolved it by turning against Hitler. Henning’s key role in the conspiracy depended on his ability to persuade senior officers that they should do the same, so that there would be some hope of taking Germany back from the grip of the SS after a successful attempt. He probably knew, before the critical day, that not enough of the senior officers had been persuaded. He then said the thing that mattered: the attempt should go ahead, at whatever cost. In other words, he was proposing a religious sacrifice. If modern Germany, as a liberal democracy, now recognizes the word “July” in that sacrificial spirit, it has a lot to do with Henning von Tresckow.

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Now the whole world will fall upon us and mock us. But I remain, as before, firmly convinced that we did the right thing. I regard Hitler not only as the arch-enemy of Germany, but as the arch-enemy of the world. If, a few hours from now, I stand before the judgement seat of God, and am asked for a reckoning of what I did or failed to do, I believe with a good conscience that I can represent myself by what I have done in the battle against Hitler.


HENNING VON TRESCKOW said this to his fellow conspirator Fabian von Schlabrendorff at 2nd Army staff headquarters in Ostrów, northeast of Warsaw, in the early morning of July 21, 1944, the day after the plot failed against Hitler’s life. Or anyway, Schlabrendorff said that Henning said all this: all this and more. It really doesn’t matter, because it was undoubtedly what Henning thought. Before the attempt, he had said that it should go ahead coûte que coûte—no matter what the cost. After it failed, he made immediate plans to kill himself, because he knew too much and might, under torture, give everyone away. At one stage I was so struck with Henning’s heroism that I thought of writing an opera libretto about him. The piece would have been written as a long flashback from the moment of his death, which Henning accomplished by walking into the forest and blowing himself up with a grenade. He was trying to make it look like a battle incident, in the hope that the Gestapo would be fooled into thinking he had not been a conspirator, and so lay off his family. It hardly needs saying that the stratagem didn’t work, but Henning should not be seen as a blunderer on that account. Many of the conspirators were blunderers, but he wasn’t. He knew that the coup d’état scheduled to follow the July attempt was so sketchily organized that it would probably come apart even if Hitler was killed, but he thought the attempt should go ahead because the sacrifice would mean something in itself.

He had a right to say so. Of all the long-term conspirators, he had come closest to killing Hitler on a previous occasion. On March 13, 1943, only a month after the Stalingrad defeat, Henning got a bomb on the four-engined Focke-Wulf Condor carrying Hitler back from Smolensk to Rastenburg in East Prussia. The only reason the bomb did not go off was that the Czech-made fuse was of a type sensitive to temperature. It froze at altitude. If the bomb had gone off, the modern history of Europe might have been quite different. Henning had been only a millimetre away from eliminating the arch-enemy. It might have been better if Henning had been in direct charge of all the attempts. Unfortunately he was also the ideal man for arranging the attendant coup: a necessary effort that involved a huge expenditure of time even when it got results. Most of the time it didn’t. One of the lost dialogues of the war was the conversation he had with General Erich von Manstein—the embodiment of the old, pre-Nazi army—in February 1943. Henning paid what was ostensibly a staff visit to von Manstein’s headquarters at Saporoshje in Russia. From Alexander Stahlberg’s book Die verdammte Pflicht we know that Henning and von Manstein were together for at least half an hour. What was said? Whatever it was, the canny von Manstein would not bet. Henning kept on plugging away at the senior officers. He had been plugging away at them since the launch of Operation Barbarossa, and had been winning the allegiance of the junior officers since well before that. After July 20, 1944, it was frequently said that the young officers had found reason to rebel only after the reverse at Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943. But Henning was already organizing his network of young rebel officers while Barbarossa was being planned in early 1941. Before the starting whistle blew in June of that year, he had recruited Schlabrendorff, Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff, Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff, Hans Graf von Hardenberg and Berndt von Kleist. Most of the names were from the Almanach de Gotha, and some of them had a romantic notion of making peace in the west so that the more dangerous enemy could be fought in the east: but on the eve of the invasion of Russia they were all capable of realizing that the most dangerous enemy was a single German.

For an opera libretto, Henning’s conversations with the young officers would provide tempting opportunities for duets, trios, quartets and so on, with the additional attraction that everyone was in Wehrmacht uniform, with no SS insignia in sight: a stage full of fresh-faced idealism. If a certain element of fresh-faced naivety is hard to ignore, it should be remembered that these really were the flower of their generation, and even the most dense among them had realized that something had gone seriously wrong with Germany’s historic mission. There were thousands of young officers who got all the way through the war—or anyway all the way to an early death—without realizing that the Jewish business was at the very least a mistake. Henning’s conspirators knew better, even when they still believed that Grossdeutschland, conveniently rid of Hitler, might somehow be allowed to fight on beside the western allies in the battle to save civilization against the threat from the east. After July 20, 1944, the Gestapo included several of the young aristocratic officers on their list of conspirators who had confessed to having rebelled because of Nazi policies towards the Jews. Henning chose his soldiers well. The question of why there were so few like them is largely answered by the fact that there were so few like him. The aristocracy was a network that had been there before the Nazis arrived. The aristocrats had a language they could share in private. They knew how to talk freely to one another. But anyone who wanted to get them organized had to trust them not to talk out of turn. Once there were more than a few involved, the contact man was living on borrowed time. In other words, a hero was required, and that cut the field right down: cut it down, in effect, to Henning von Tresckow.

Unfortunately for the librettist, there is a problem with Henning himself. In the first winter of the Russia campaign, it became apparent that if there were no quick victory the German troops, stuck in place, would freeze. They had no warm clothing. Behind barbed wire, hundreds of thousands of Russian prisoners still had their felt boots and overcoats. It was decided—in clear defiance even of German military law, let alone of the Geneva Convention—that the Russian prisoners should be deprived of their warm clothing so that it could be given to the German troops. In their book Der Krieg der Generale, Carl Dirks and Karl-Heinz Janssen show that one of the men who endorsed this sinister initiative was none other than Henning von Tresckow. Stealing the warm clothes must have seemed like common sense at the time. But it was common sense only in the context of the world that Hitler had created, and that was the very world that Henning had set himself against. Faced with this awkward information, one must struggle to remember that Henning had a long-term aim, which would have been impossible to achieve had he been removed from his staff post—and if he had refused to sign the order, he would probably have been removed straight away. Henning’s stature as a hero just about survives the struggle. But the opera becomes a casualty. A baritone aria on the theme of “Let the Russians freeze first” would make a mess of Act One.