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The Man Who Did Not Kill Hitler

The destruction of Czechoslovakia developed and was enacted, the crushing of Poland loomed ahead. In the summer of 1939 the emissaries of the conspiracy again converged on London. This time they included Dr. Carl Goerdeler (the acknowledged head of the conspiracy, as General Ludwig Beck was its military head), Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Helmut von Moltke, who was to become the leader of the Kreisau Circle, and the subject of Mr. Christopher Sykes’s excellent memoir, Adam von Trott zu Solz. Of these, only Dr. von Schlabrendorff escaped the holocaust which followed the failure of the plot of July 20, 1944. With great fortitude he survived torture and imprisonment to become a Judge of the West German Federal Supreme Court at Karlsruhe.

Adam von Trott came of a distinguished Hessian noble family, with an established Protestant tradition which had given diplomats and statesmen to Germany for some generations. His father served in local government in Hesse-Kassell, which in 1866 had been incorporated in the Kingdom of Prussia after the Seven Weeks War. He was appointed Kultusminister in the Prussian Government in 1909—the year of Adam’s birth—and resigned in 1917 in protest against the contemplated enlargement of the Prussian franchise. Adam’s mother, née von Schweinitz, was half American, her mother having been the daughter of William Jay, a grandson of George Washington’s friend, John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States.

Adam’s background therefore contained not only the Prussian conservatism of both Hesse and Silesia but also a heritage from a notable American family. He himself was a liberal, but in a German rather than an English or American sense, and he planned to be a lawyer.

Adam attended several German universities and in January 1931 was appointed a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and became a member of Balliol College. He at once made many friends, both at Oxford and elsewhere, for he had a pleasing personality, a good sense of humor, and also a seriousness of manner which was appealing to many.

I did not know Adam von Trott in his Oxford days for he was considerably younger than me. If my memory serves me correctly, it was not until the summer of 1938 that we met. Like all who met him I was impressed by his charm and his pleasant and attractive manner but I never rated him among the “dangerously clear thinkers.” There was about Adam von Trott, as Christopher Sykes shows so well, a certain confused political mysticism, a vague Hegelianism, which induced in him, not, to be sure, the worship of the Führerprinzip, but a deep veneration for German military and political traditions and what he believed to be the innate integrity of the German soul. There was also not lacking a false sense of realism, and a belief in power politics and his own part in them. Above all, like many of his fellow conspirators, he was a strong German Nationalist and patriot.

Von Trott had made many friends in high places during his sojourn at Oxford—he was more than once a guest at Cliveden—and relied on these contacts to bring him into touch with Mr. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax; he also met and talked with private citizens like myself who had some knowledge and experience of German affairs. What he said or conveyed to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary I do not know, but to me both he and Helmut von Moltke, though they deplored the spirit of the Munich Agreement and the subsequent dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, expressed strong anti-Czech sentiments, and from neither was there forthcoming any indication that a “de-nazified” Germany would be prepared to forego Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland. Indeed I recall that it was hinted that Britain and France might well reward the conspirators, if successful, with the return of Germany’s former colonial possessions, a view at which I was amazed. I gave them no encouragement on this score.

War came. There had been no Kuhhandel with the conspirators. Adam von Trott, as a protegé of State Secretary von Weizsäcker, was taken immediately into the German Foreign Office where he became identified with the inner councils of the plotters. It was now that he came into my life for the last time.

As a result of German Foreign Office initiative, von Trott obtained permission to do a piece of research work on some Far Eastern subject under the auspices of the Institute of Pacific Relations, and in the third week of November 1939, he attended a conference of the Institute in the United States at Virginia Beach. I also attended the Conference since, like the British Ambassador, Lord Lothian, whose staff I had joined at the outbreak of war, I had been interested in the work of the Institute of Pacific Relations since its inception some ten years before.

At Virginia Beach von Trott met a number of distinguished representatives of the academic world of Canada and the United States. In the plenary sessions and committees of the Conference he observed a very “correct” attitude. He did not openly defend the Nazi principles, but confined himself to several recapitulations of the German case on the usual well-known lines, which might well be employed by Germans of nearly every political complexion. But in private conversation, in small groups or when he and I rode together at the seashore, he used a very different tone, frankly declaring himself an anti-Nazi, yet maintaining that Germany must keep much of what she had taken in Poland. He stressed the readiness of the Army for a “quick peace” on the basis of the status quo ante, less Congress Poland; indicated the preparations already on foot for the restoration of the Rechtsstaat in Germany; and urged the Western Allies to reiterate and redefine their peace terms on the lines of Mr. Chamberlain’s speeches of September 4 and October 12, 1939, in which the Prime Minister had drawn a distinction between the Nazi Party and the German people as the targets for British hostility. To the suggestion that a non-Nazi Germany might, as evidence of good faith, restore some of the territorial acquisitions of Adolf Hitler, von Trott returned an uncompromising negative.

Von Trott’s suggested proposals reached the British Embassy in Washington, the United States Department of State, and the Department of External Affairs in Ottawa, and in all these quarters they were regarded with profound suspicion. In the first place the Allies were being asked to acquiesce in “selling down the river” two Allies, Czechoslovakia and Poland, whose independence we were pledged to restore. In the second, there was no definite assurance that the conspirators would be any more successful in overthrowing Hitler than they had been in the past. In the third place it was only two weeks before that the British Government, following up a not dissimilar lead in the Netherlands, had found themselves negotiating with the Gestapo, with the resultant kidnapping of two of their senior Secret Service agents at Venlo. How was it possible to ignore the possibility that von Trott also might be a double agent?

Nor was von Trott received with any greater degree of confidence by the German political refugees in the United States, many of whom regarded him as a possible Gestapo agent provocateur engaged in finding out which émigrés were politically active in propaganda against the Nazis.

I must declare a personal interest here because it has been stated, notably by Mr. David Astor in his intemperate attack on Christopher Sykes’s book in the June issue of Encounter, that I was responsible for Adam von Trott’s failure by withdrawing my support from him at a crucial moment. This charge is false. Though, like many others, I was in sympathy with, and in support and encouragement of, Adam von Trott and his fellow conspirators in their basic aim of destroying Hitler and the National Socialist regime, I believed then, as I believe now, that no promoters of coup d’état in Germany should have been given promises in advance by the British Government. Had this been done and it had become known, as it undoubtedly would have been, for the German conspirators were notoriously “insecure,” it would have had exactly the opposite effect to that hoped for. Real or alleged foreign interference can only strengthen national resistance and one need only recall the slur that attached to the Weimar Republic as being “wished upon” Germany in 1918 by President Wilson and the Allies. It was essential that any new regime in Germany should be free from the danger of any recurrence of the “stab-in-the-back” exculpatory myth.

Secondly, at no time—before, during, or after the war—was I in a position to exercise the kind or degree of influence which Mr. Astor attributes to me. However, had I occupied such a position, my influence would certainly have been cast against the pursuit by the British Government of so impractical a policy as giving pledges in advance—particularly of a territorial nature—in support of an anti-Nazi conspiracy. It seemed to me absolutely necessary that the conspirators must first give evidence of success before anyone entered into negotiations with them.

Von Trott returned empty-handed to Germany in the spring of 1940. The war spread and developed along global lines. The Allies were defeated in the West; France fell; Italy and Japan joined the Axis Powers, Russia and the United States became belligerent partners of Britain in the Grand Alliance. In Germany too the Resistance Movement was broadened and strengthened. Its representation was wider, its basis firmer, its outlook more realistic. By the spring of 1942 new contacts were being sought by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Adam von Trott and were found in the agency of the late Dr. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who, in the interest of the Ecumenical Movement, was visiting Sweden.

The Bishop was urged to discover whether the Allies, on the assumption that the whole Hitler regime had been destroyed, would be willing to negotiate a peace with a new non-Nazi German Government, based upon the Rechtsstaat. A new development was the inclusion in the peace proposals of a free Poland and a free Czechoslovakia and the renunciation in advance of the territorial acquisitions made by Hitler and, consequently, of the Greater German Reich. It was specifically stated that this included Soviet Russia. In return the conspirators asked that the Allied Governments should make public demand for the overthrow of Hitler and of the Nazi regime as the price for peace negotiations.

The Bishop duly reported to the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Anthony Eden, the fruits of his conversations in Sweden and also informed the American Ambassador in London, John Winant. There were consultations between London, Washington, and Moscow with the ultimate result that on July 17, Dr. Bell was informed that no action would be taken on the proposals of the conspirators.

The Allied statesmen, and particularly Mr. Eden, have been somewhat sharply criticized for not having explored further this last effort of the conspirators to bring about a negotiated peace, but there would appear to be no doubt, both then and now, that the attitude of the British Government was entirely sound and justified. To have made a public announcement of the kind required at this moment would inevitably have been interpreted as a sign of weakness by the enemy and would, at best, have been dismissed by the German people as a further example of our somewhat inept “psychological warfare.” A private message would have been equally unjustifiable. The British Government had been in receipt of alerts regarding a military revolt in Germany ever since 1938 and none of them had resulted in a shot being fired or a sword being turned against Hitler. Why indeed should an attempt made in the summer or autumn of 1942, when German arms were still successful and the Führer’s military prestige—despite the failure before Moscow—was still unchallenged, have any greater chances of success than in 1938 or 1940?

If the German Generals could overthrow Hitler, well and good; the Allies would then judge the situation thus presented on its own merits. Moreover, it was held to be essential to the lasting success of any revolt against Hitler and his paladins that it be represented to the German people as a purely German and spontaneous affair, in no way due to pressure from without.

In the latter years of the Conspiracy Adam von Trott played an honorable part, and when the attempt at a coup d’état was finally made on July 20, 1944, he was at his post ready for duty. The wave of failure and defeat overwhelmed him. Escape would have been easy for him but he honorably refused it. He awaited arrest and faced his trial before the People’s Court, presided over by the odious Roland Freisler, with splendid courage and dignified calm, which he carried to his execution by hanging, under revolting circumstances, on August 26, 1944.

As his biographer has written: “The glory of Adam von Trott’s life is not that of a saint of anti-Naziism; it is something more human. To see it in hagiographic terms is to miss its significance, as though one were to see Hamlet solely as an edifying play on the subject of stainless filial duty…. The wonder of the courage that was in Adam is surely to be found in the fact that it gave him the spiritual energy to be true to the vision to which he had attained in the certain knowledge that on his chosen path there lay no connotations other than the conviction that he was serving a high ideal.”

This seems to me to be both compassionate and true.

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