August 18, 2009 2:28:00 PM
Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager died in May 2008. He was the longest surviving member of the most famous assassination plot against Hitler. Before he died he sat down for long conversations with Florence and Jérôme Fehrenbach, and together they have produced the memoir "Valkyrie: The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member" (Knopf). The Fehrenbachs say that von Boeselager agreed only reluctantly to talk about the matters herein. "Every reference to them," they write, "elicits memories that are almost always painful. Even after the war, his participation in the plots against Hitler was a difficult secret to bear. At first he did not even share this with his wife." There was a sensational Tom Cruise movie earlier this year by the same name, but von Boeselager''s memoir has few pyrotechnics or chase scenes. His turned out to be a supporting role (in the actual plot, not in the movie), but in this he delivers an important lesson. There were not just a few Germans in the conspiracy, not just a few assassins, but a broadly organized group that were patriotically motivated.
Von Boeselager was born in 1917. His father had fought in the First World War, and he knows that his parents were glad that there was no more Weimar Republic, although they were far from supporting the Nazi Party. The father had a Nazi Party card; he had been invited to join in 1934, and felt that as a member of the German aristocracy he could not disdain a movement of national renewal. As he saw more of the totalitarian aims of the party (particularly the forced removal of crucifixes from Catholic schools) he resigned four years later. The father drew a distinction between German patriotism and the Nazi agenda, a distinction his son was to draw as well. Much of this memoir has to do with von Boeselager''s brother Georg; they were from a family of nine children, but Georg and Philipp were particularly close, going to school together and both eventually joining the army. It was not von Boeselager''s first choice; he had wanted to go into the diplomatic corps, but his grandfather said, "My boy, in diplomacy, it''s not always good to tell the whole truth; but with Nazis, you''d have to simply lie. No, that would not be suitable for you! Choose the army instead; war is coming." He followed the advice and joined the cavalry.
Von Boeselager explains that he had little concern about the Nazi regime initially because officers were trained in apolitical ways, and lived in barracks cut off from the cities and from newspapers. He did hear within the barracks about Kristallnacht in November 1938, a limited report of only a few shops ransacked. He and his fellow officers in training recognized that this was a violation of German laws; their commandant gave empty assurances that the courts would put an end to such atrocities. Much of Valkyrie has to do with how von Boeselager''s eyes were eventually opened to what Hitler was doing. He and his brother had an early distrust of how the war was being waged, finding their assignments and those of the army to be illogical or random, but they remained officers in good standing with plenty of official duties to carry out. In June 1942, von Boeselager saw a dispatch from an SS leader which ended "Special treatment for five Gypsies". The author eventually clarified that the five Gypsies had all been summarily shot, as were all the Jews that were being picked up. It was a doctrine of extermination, and the army was remaining silent about it. "This situation now seems to us blindingly clear, yet it was not so clear for contemporaries, who were convinced that Germany was a model of civilization and that it could not be subjected to either a dictatorship or a murderous totalitarianism." Once his suspicions were up, it was easy to find confirmation of Nazi atrocities or stupidities. He was at a dinner, for instance, with the head of Hitler''s personal office, who said, "When the war is over, we will have to purge, after the Jews, the Catholic officers in the army." (Von Boeselager was able to make a polite point that he himself was Catholic, resulting in an embarrassed silence.) He says that a great deal of his enlightenment was due to chance; he happened to be assigned to sympathetic officers or to meet them and allow tentative mutual understandings. Making such contacts was dangerous. There is a bitingly funny story about how one night he was drinking and talking with a visiting officer, and they began criticizing the Führer together. They said good night, and then von Boeselager slept not at all; he didn''t know the fellow and his words might easily have been reported to authorities. It was only months later that he found out that his companion was a fellow member of the resistance movement. "If you only knew how scared I was!" he said when they saw each other again, which got the reply, "And what about me? I didn''t sleep all night!"
Von Boeselager was fortunate to be assigned to Major General Henning von Tresckow, who organized the resistance. The plan Valkyrie which he had drafted was much more than an assassination attempt. These officers understood that eliminating Hitler was an important goal, but it would do little if, say, Himmler were not eliminated as well because there would simply be civil war. (In fact, at least one attempt to assassinate them simultaneously, with von Boeselager carrying a pistol to do the deed, was called off suddenly when Himmler was not going to be in the region.) The plan included security efforts for after the assassination, and Von Boeselager and his brother were involved in independent cavalry movements toward Berlin to be there to enforce order after Hitler was killed by Claus von Stauffenberg''s famous failed bomb on July 20, 1944. They were both able to wheel back to the battle lines with the confusion of war preventing them from being suspected of any duplicity. As an aide to Tresckow, von Boeselager was able to help communications between the far-flung conspirators under pretext of simply delivering mail. He had had training in explosives work, and it may have been that explosives he himself had procured were in von Stauffenberg''s bomb, although precautions the conspirators took at the time have made this impossible to confirm.
Neither of the von Boeselager brothers was caught in the aftermath of the bomb plot, but Georg was killed in action on the Eastern Front. All the members of the conspiracy that von Boeselager knew died during the war, either by Hitler''s thugs or by suicide to keep the Nazis from having the satisfaction of doing the job. He was given honors by post-war Germany and France, and in 2004 he was made an officer of the Légion d''honneur; he accepted in honor of the others who had died: "I was only the last representative of those whom fate had treated less generously." People will ask forevermore what might have happened if the attempts on Hitler had succeeded, but that the attempts failed is less important than that they were made. General Tresckow had told von Boeselager that attempts had to be made, and if they failed, they would still succeed "to show the whole world, and history, that the German resistance movement dared to gamble everything, even at the risk of its own life." Here is a fascinating first-hand account of the gamble and the gamblers.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]