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The Man Who Did Not Kill Hitler

Tormented Loyalty

by Christopher Sykes
Harper & Row, 456 pp., $8.95

There are few greater agonies in the world than that of divided loyalty. Especially is this true for most men when they reach the point of decision to follow a course of conduct which may lead to the destruction of their fatherland in order to assure the preservation of its soul and its ultimate rehabilitation as a member of world society.

This was the choice and the decision which confronted the members of the Resistance Movement in Germany in the Thirties and Forties, and it is the study of this conflict which forms the basis of Christopher Sykes’s biography of Adam von Trott zu Solz. Mr. Sykes has written with infinite fairness, and great understanding and compassion. His book is one of the best to appear so far on the German Resistance Movement. It is remarkable both for sympathy and for honest judgment. It is, moreover, beautifully written.

The resolution of an individual or a group of individuals to resist tyranny and oppression by their own fellow-citizens presupposes a searching reappraisal of the meaning and interpretation of the term patriotism, which the dictionary defines as “love for, and loyalty to, one’s country.”

Those who banded themselves in Germany against Hitler had at the very outset to make clear to themselves how far their actions would cut across their traditional concepts of patriotism, how far they would go in the evolution of a new patriotic concept, and how far they were themselves prepared to be called traitors in the course of so doing. Some arrived at this clarity of thought at an early date, some at a much later period; some never achieved it and only jumped belatedly upon the band-wagon of Resistance at a moment when “treason was no crime” and might indeed serve to erase the stain which earlier Nazi associations had placed upon their records.

The number of those in Germany who saw clearly from the outset was pitifully small. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he had the support, either open or tacit, of the majority of Germans, a fact which certain schools of contemporary German historians are at pains to deny but cannot disprove. The parties of the Left were in opposition from the first. The Communists in absentia and the Social-Democrats by their active vote opposed the passage of the Enabling Act through the Reichstag, but apart from the Nazis the rest of the political parties, together with the Army and the Civil Service, representing “all that was best” in Germany, in varying degrees of hope or belief entertained the thought that Hitler must be given his chance, that he was ultimately expendable and disposable, and that in the meantime he might do something for Germany. They consoled themselves for the many aspects of the Nazi regime of which they disapproved with the age-old aphorism of political “realism” which acts as a cover for moral cowardice, that “one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

It was against the general condonation, this mass placability, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer—one of the relatively few in the Resistance Movement who had never compromised with what he recognized as the forces of evil, for which he was murdered in 1944—inveighed. To him, at least, it was clear that, though primarily the guilt for the misery and death and destruction which had been loosed upon Germany and upon the world would lie with Hitler and the Nazi regime, the German people as a whole, because of their active connivance with—or, at best, their passive condonation and acceptance of—National Socialism and the gains that it had brought to Germany, must bear a heavy burden of responsibility. National Socialism was evil and therefore so were all its fruits. There must be no question of retaining for Germany that which she had gained by such means. Earliest in the field of Resistance, he found himself with reluctance forced along this path.

He never faltered; he was ready to go on to the end with the ruthless work which he regarded as having been delegated to the conspirators by Divine grace. “Hitler is Anti-Christ,” he declared, “Therefore we must go on with our work, and eliminate him whether he be successful or not.” But, he added, their action in removing Hitler must not be prompted by motives of revenge, of expediency, or even of punishment, but of repentance. “There must be punishment by God. We should not be worthy of such a solution. We do not wish to escape repentance. Our action must be considered as an act of repentance.”

It is perhaps understandable that there were few of Bonhoeffer’s fellow conspirators who adhered to this doctrine of exculpatory immolation. Devoted and courageous though they were, many of them men and women of the greatest integrity and probity, they were either unable or unwilling to accept the deep and basic truth that by responding to Hitler’s blandishments and placing him in power, the German people as a whole had committed a crime, for which not only penitence but atonement was demanded. What bound many of the conspirators together was not only their bitter opposition to Nazi tyranny, but also a strong sense of patriotic nationalism. What they plotted to do was no mere attempt upon a wicked ruler, or even a tyrant, but an act of salvation for Germany, an attempt to save her from future disasters and, as a corollary, to conserve as much as possible of what she already held and, perhaps, a little more.

From the first, the way of the German Resistance Movement in what may be called its “external relations” was one of difficulty. In the early days of the Nazi Revolution the rapid growth of Appeasement in Britain and France and its wholesale adoption by the governments of the two countries in the face of German rearmament, the creation of the Luftwaffe, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, and the annexation of Austria only convinced the German people of the efficacy of the choice of Leader and rendered them entirely inimical to any thoughts of change, let alone Resistance. The Czech crisis of 1938 brought with it a hardening of attitude in certain Resistance quarters against a war, or the possibility of such, which it was doubtful Germany could win. For many of the military figures who now became involved in the conspiracy the basis of opposition to Hitler’s plans was that they endangered the national security of the Reich rather than that they were unsittlich (immoral).

Nevertheless in that summer of 1938 they sent to Britain envoys, men of great probity, who, in their interviews in London, begged for some definite statement by His Majesty’s Government that Britain would stand by France in the event of German aggression against Czechoslovakia. This, they said, would strengthen the hands of the dissident and disquieted generals who might then be persuaded to overthrow the Führer. “There would be a new system of government within forty-eight hours; such a government, probably of a monarchist character, could guarantee stability and end the fear of war for ever.”

The argument of these envoys, however, proved unconvincing. Neither Mr. Chamberlain, whom they reminded of “the Jacobites at the Court of France in King William’s time,” nor Lord Halifax was persuaded that these emissaries should be taken seriously, and the same was true of M. Daladier and M. Bonnet. And why indeed should it have been otherwise? The French and British Governments, totally unprepared for war, reaping the bitter fruit of five years’ neglect of national defenses and armaments and of blindly and willfully ignoring the storm signals displayed so blatantly across the Rhine, were bent upon the preservation of peace at virtually any price, even at the sacrifice of their own vital interests and, in the case of France, of her pledged word.

There were many charges on which the appeasers may have been culpable, but that of neglecting the advances of the Berlin conspirators is not among the most serious. They looked at the past record of the German Army and of the German Conservatives in their relation to the Nazi Party. They re-read the reports of their Ambassadors in Berlin over the past ten years. Why indeed should they give credence to the idea of an attempt to overthrow Hitler by a conspiracy headed, so it seemed, by disgruntled Generals and former members of the Nationalist Party? The personalities of the envoys might be in themselves sufficient to convince of their personal sincerity and honesty, but what of their ability to fulfill their intentions and to make good their profession of faith?

To Mr. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, to MM. Daldier and Bonnet it seemed as if they were being asked to gamble with the fate of their countries on the very uneven chance of a successful coup d’état in Germany. They were being asked to adopt a threatening attitude toward Hitler on the assurance of the conspirators that this would not lead to war, but that Hitler would be overthrown at the moment at which his finger curled on the trigger. This was the fantastic demand made to the political leaders of Britain and France by men in Germany who themselves, in many cases, had been enthusiastic and, in others, tacit in the support of Hitler, and whose conversion to opposition or Resistance had been brought about—again in many cases—by their conviction that Hitler could gain no more for Germany without endangering her safety. To men who were as deeply committed to a policy of appeasement as were the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the Foreign Minister of France this was no deterrent argument. Supposing, as was more than likely, the Putsch failed and they were left confronting a belligerent Hitler?

These considerations undoubtedly played a part in the formulation of policy in London and in Paris and, without abating the gravity of the charges made against the men of Munich, one may at least forgive their failure to take seriously either the reliability of the conspirators or their ability to fulfill that which they claimed to be able to do.

Indeed, one may well ask, what would have happened in the very improbable event of such a Putsch succeeding? Was there any indication that a junta of Generals, followed by a reactionary provisional government, followed by a restoration of the Monarchy, albeit in constitutional guise, would be prepared to forego anything that Hitler had gained for Germany by blackmail and menace? Would the Reich not continue to rearm? Would the new regime not persist in the remilitarization of the Rhineland? Would they not hold that Austria was an inalienable part of the German Reich? And for the future, would they abate the territorial claims which Germany was then making good upon Czechoslovakia in respect of the Sudetenland and would later make upon Poland, one day longer than the moment at which they felt strong enough to take territories by force if they were not surrendered, even as Hitler was then demanding their surrender?

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