DONNING THE SHIRT OF NESSUS: HERMANN HENNING VON TRESCKOW, AND THE JULY 20 PLOT
A perceptive reader will see that, in this section on the attempt to stop Hitler on July 20, 1944, the lead name given above is not that of Colonel Klaus Schenck von Stauffenberg, the would-be assassin and the planter of the bomb on July 20, 1944, and who led the coup attempt against Hitler.
This is deliberate. It is not, however, a slight intended toward the celebrated von Stauffenberg, whose name shines like a beacon in the darkest of human times. This series, however, is devoted to those who are, in general, less famous, but who were among the Righteous and acted in the best possible way under the most difficult circumstances.
(I also would like to think that Colonel Stauffenberg, who I understand had quite a sense of humor in private, would agree that having Tom Cruise pretending to be Tom Cruise playing oneself in the movie Valkyrie is probably honor enough for one century.)
While Von Stauffenberg was the driving force behind the assassination and the coup attempt that July afternoon, he was by no means its guiding spirit or its founding father. That honor goes to a man largely forgotten to anyone not well versed in the era: Major General Herrmann Karl Robert Henning von Tresckow. And it is his story that will stand for all those who, for the sake of honor and justice, wanted to end the war quickly, sparing Europe the final agony of the conquest of the Nazi state that took place from June 1944 to May 1945.
* * *
If it is morally dangerous to praise a traitor, as I have in my entry above for Richard Sorge, then praising assassins is even more so. Even if the target is the arch-enemy of the entire world.
Political assassination is not a morally acceptable solution to political problems. As such it is both evil and ineffective. In particular, the political assassination of a high national personage never improves anything. No matter how horrific a nation's condition, it seems that the assassination of an evil king or other abominable leader always, always, makes things worse, not better.
One has to go back to Roman history to find an example where killing an evil king improves the situation: perhaps the only one was the death of the viscious and mad Roman emperor Gaius (remembered to history by his nickname Caligula, or "Bootsie"). Even the murder of Commodus two hundred years later, though well deserved by Commodus himself, still led to a century of mad, bad, incompetent and short-lived Emperors.
But in every other example, assassination always, always brings horror and chaos in its wake, no matter how well intentioned the plotters or evil the king. The actors can call it tyrannicide if they want; it doesn't change the fact that it is also regicide, the most profound sin possible for a Christian and civilized people. One must ask as Christ did: what doth a man gain if you gain the whole world then lose your soul?
Alas, a thorough review of the events of July 20, 1944, shows that even had they succeeded in killing Hitler, the assassins of Hitler must also be numbered among those who would have made things worse, had they truly succeeded in killing him.
To begin with, Germany had commenced its love affair with the National Socialists in the 1920s because of the Dolchstosslegende, the "Legend of the Stab in the Back." Put succinctly, there was a very widespread perception in Germany that the defeat of the Empire in the First World War was due to betrayal at home–the "Stab in the Back"–and that the politicians and the folks back home had betrayed the soldiers at the front by overthrowing the Kaiser. Furthermore, the perception (not reality!) that those who overthrew the empire were supposedly Jews gave a gloss of legitimacy to those who would try to destroy the Jewish people out of a misplaced sense of "revenge."
While there was (of course!) no truth to this legende, the reality was that the majority of Germans of 1944 believed it: and had the government of Hitler been replaced by conspirators who had assassinated him and then surrendered, the result would have been bloody, confused chaos. The coup-leaders would have been seen as a new "stab in the back." Any attempt by the conspirators to end the war immediately would probably have led to a larger scale countercoup by Nazi loyalists which likely would have ended precisely as occurred historically. It simply would have taken longer and taken even more lives than died in reality.
In the end, a Nazi Germany without Hitler would have quickly become Nazi Germany ruled by Himmler or Goering: clearly, no improvement whatsoever, and probably would have required, in the end, precisely the same degree of effort, sacrifice and bloodshed to bring about unconditional surrender as occurred historically.
Furthermore, even had they succeeded in ending the war, Germany would have remained a coiled serpent whose back remained unbroken and that may simply have waited until the coming of the next Fuehrer. The God of Battles and of History (yes, the same God that created the universe and flowers and baby bunny rabbits) likely required the total destruction of the Nazi German state and its replacement by an entirely new structure to pacify and completely civilize Germany.
And that is what finally came to pass. Germany is now a nation that has aged out its Nazi generation and which has rejoined, thank God, the ranks of civilized nations.
So the July 20 plotters, as they came to be known, were doomed from the start. Even if they succeeded in killing Hitler they were almost certain to have failed in their true aim, ending the war and preventing another.
While one can criticize their wisdom, or their execution of the coup itself, one can, at least, recognize the nobility and righteousness of those who tried to show the world--in von Tresckow's words--that "not all of us were like him [Hitler]." They wethey were, too, Tattered Remants of civilization in a nation gone well and truly mad.
* * * *
In a lot of ways Hermann Henning von Tresckow is not exactly praiseworthy. He played a key role, for example, in the destruction of the Third Republic of France and the Nazi German pinnacle of 1940.
When, in 1939, Erich von Manstein presented his plan to conquer France by means of an armored strike through the Ardennes Forest, the plan was rejected by the highest generals as too bold, too dangerous. Von Tresckow heard of it, and through an old school mate, bypassed the Army High Command and got the plan directly before Hitler.
The result was a crushing success for the German army and the total defeat, at the time, for the Western Allies. It also convinced Hitler of his own wisdom and divinity and led to more and more extreme measures against both the enemies of Germany abroad and those perceived within Germany as 'disloyal.' The man with that on his conscience had a great deal to answer for.
Furthermore, Henning von Tresckow played an active role in the German military and, trapped by his officer's oath of loyalty to Hitler personally, was constrained to implement Hitler's military orders and do all within his capabilities to bring about the conquest of those nations that Hitler named as enemies.
Henning von Tresckow, however, like Oskar Schindler, had an epiphany. It began with his disgust, in 1938, at Krystallnacht and the systematic looting of Jewish businesses; later, after SS atrocities early in the war in Poland in 1939; he was shocked that only one general had the courage to confront Hitler about the needless bloodshed there--and was outraged that Hitler mocked the rebuke as "childish."
As the war progressed, he became more and more convinced that justice and morality required the destruction of Hitler's regime. He began by taking advantage of a side effect of his role in the fall of the Western Allies noted above. He became in the German Army what modern Army slang calls a 'waterwalker'; his reputation and weight was such that his recommendation for certain individuals for military postings were a golden ticket to those appointments. He began to use his influence to obtain strategic job placements for sympathetic people, which bore fruit on July 20.
Again, the source of all wisdom, Wikipedia:
As the chief operations officer(1a) of Army Group Center, he systematically placed officers who shared his views in key positions. They included Lieutenant Colonel Georg Schulze-Büttger, Colonel Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, Major Carl-Hans Graf von Hardenberg, Lieutenant Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Lieutenant Philipp von Boeselager and his brother Georg von Boeselager, Lieutenant Colonel Hans-Alexander von Voss and Lieutenant Colonel Berndt von Kleist among others, many of them from Tresckow's old Infantry Regiment 9. The headquarters of Army Group Center thus emerged as the new nerve center of Army resistance.Henning von Treschkow's first attempt to strike at Hitler went awry due to purely technical reasons: the bomb which he personally placed on the Fuhrer's transport aircraft at Smolensk in 1943 did not detonate, probably because it was stowed in an unheated cargo hold.
At the end of September 1941, Tresckow sent his special operations officer Schlabrendorff to Berlin to contact opposition groups and declare that the staff of Army Group Center was "prepared to do anything."
This approach, made at the height of German expansion and nadir of anti-Hitler opposition, represented the first initiative to come from the front and from Army at all as Ulrich von Hassell noted in his diary. Schlabrendorff continued to serve as liaison between Army Group Center and oppostion circle around General Ludwig Beck, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler and Colonel Hans Oster, the deputy head of Abwehr (German military intelligence) who was involved in 1938 coup attempt against Hitler (Oster Conspiracy).
When Oster recruited General Friedrich Olbricht, head of the General Army Office headquarter in 1942, linking this asset to Tresckow's resistance group in Army Group Centre created a viable coup apparatus.
In the aftermath, he recruited Colonel von Stauffenberg, who, having himself survived horrific combat injuries (he lost his left eye, right hand, and two fingers from his other hand in fighting in North Africa) became the driving force for the actual assassination thereafter, and who, due to his wounds, was held in the highest esteem by Hitler himself and had direct access to him.
Shortly before the planned coup, Hermann Henning von Tresckow was transferred back to the Eastern Front, where he became Chief of Staff for the Second Army in Russia. From that distant posting, it became impossible for him to play a further central role in the conspiracy, and command of the plotters in Berlin was taken by Stauffenberg.
Stauffenberg, before acting, required proof that his work would have even a nominal chance that the strike would work, as the justification for tyrannicide he used--that found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas--required that there be some possibility of success. Henning von Tresckow had no such need, or hope. In many ways he was like the Schöll siblings, whom I have written about previously. As they stood up so that future generations would know that not all of Germany was evil, so did he. Hermann Henning von Tresckow, however, unlike those brave youths, had tools available to him somewhat more effective than flyers dropped at a university.
For him, success and failure was not so important as the fact that he simply acted:
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.
He was no fool. He knew the chance of success was almost nil. He saw his mission, however, as this: to transmit the message to the rest of the world and to future generations that "not all of us were like him" (Hitler). Some men and women of the Nazizeit were still men and women of honor, justice, and courage, who chose to stand against Hitler even if it meant the end of their lives.When news came to him of the assassination attempt and its failure, he became clear to him that it was now necessary for him to take his own life, to prevent his giving up the names of his fellow conspirators under the torture which would inevitably result of his arrest. He spent his final hour speaking with his aide-de-camp, saying
God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about his death, 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 up his life in defense of his convictions.These ten righteous men referred to are clearly the Remnant, and it was as one of these he gave his life. The Shirt of Nessus referred to here is the cloak given Herakles; poisoned, it drove him mad and caused him to leap on a pyre to his death.
In order to create an illusion that his death was by combat, on July 21, 1944, Hermann Henning von Treschkow went into the Belarussian woods near Bialystok and fired his pistol into the air several times, and then held a grenade to his neck.
Suicide is not painless, and it is clearly forbidden to Christians. However, I prefer to think that this man did not take his own life but gave it so that others might live.
As it developed, his trick worked and most of the Germans near him were fooled; thinking he had been killed by Soviet partisans, his body was respectfully returned to his estate and it was buried near his parents' graves.
The Gestapo eventually learned of his central role in the conspiracy and arrested his wife and children under Himmler's Sippenhaft (kin-guilt) policy. His wife was imprisoned until the end of the war and the children scattered and adopted under new names.
As for himself, the SS exhumed his body, shipping it to Sachsenhausen death camp where it was cremated before his horrified aide-de-camp who was forced to witness it as interrogation.
His cremation at such a place reminds one of the burial of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry during the Civil War. When Colonel Shaw was killed on the assault on Fort Wagner, Confederate soldiers deliberately buried him with his black soldiers, intending to denigrate him by doing so. After the war, Colonel Shaw's parents chose to allow his remains to stay buried with his men, as that was what he would have wanted.
So with Herrmann Karl Robert Henning von Tresckow. His ashes lie mingled with the now-honored victims of the Reich at Sachsenhausen.
No more glorious monument could be imagined for this righteous man.
But let us also not forget:
Some 5,000 people were executed in connection with the July 20 bombing. Eternal memory to them all.
Ihr trugt die Schande nicht.
Ihr wehrtet euch.
Ihr gabt das große ewig wache Zeichen der Umkehr,
opfernd Euer heißes Leben für Freiheit, Recht, und Ehre
You did not bear the shame.
You bestowed an eternally vigilant symbol of change
by sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice and honor.
- from the German Resistance Memorial at the Bendlerblock, Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany.