The Man Who Plotted Against Hitler

I first met Adam von Trott in the porter’s lodge of Balliol in September 1931: we were signing on as new arrivals. I had just been spending a term at Heidelberg in what was to be the last eighteen months of the Weimar Republic. This experience made me curious to get to know the German Rhodes scholars at Oxford and two of them became my friends. One was Adam, the other, Fritz Schumacher (later to become an economist and write Small is Beautiful).

They were friends. Both came from liberal-conservative families: one diplomatic, the other academic. Of the two families, Trott’s was the more freethinking: he had been brought up in the kind of idiosyncratic home where every question of the day was debated, the elder brother, Wernher, arguing as a Marxist, Adam as a Social Democrat.

Trott found the atmosphere of Oxford immediately congenial. He very soon became a popular figure, and a friend of some of the ablest younger dons, such as Isaiah Berlin, Richard Crossman, Maurice Bowra. Then in January 1933 came those events that changed everything: Hitler began to maneuver his way into power. Within weeks, the situation of the German students in Oxford had become subtly transformed. There was henceforth an element of threat in their lives. If they denounced Hitler openly—as Trott had done in his first term at Oxford—they knew what was already happening to people who did so in Germany.

They must have had at least an awareness of physical fear. They could see that the Nazis did not hesitate to put anyone into their new oubliettes. On the other hand, the role of students-turned-émigrés must also have looked uninviting. No one had paid attention to the émigrés from Mussolini’s Italy.

To this situation, Trott’s first reaction, as I recall, was gloom, tempered by challenge. He was, of course, fully aware of what was happening in Germany, particularly to the left, both communist and Social Democrat, and he had no illusions about what would happen to him if he made himself conspicuous. He decided that he would complete his law studies in Germany; and that he would move among his fellow citizens to discover their basic feelings. He was to draw most comfort from the reactions of the Berlin working class. He talked at this time of “not giving the country over to Hitler.”

He also spoke of the hatred that the rest of the world had felt for Germans during the Great War and how Hitler would surely bring this back. He yearned to retain some sense of a common humanity between nations. With Hitler talking of the “master race” and behaving with the utmost brutality, apparently unopposed, it was difficult to maintain this hope. Yet Trott, to the abiding annoyance of some of his British friends, always continued to think, and to speak privately, as if a normal Germany still existed within the Third Reich.

After some three years of this sub-life in Hitler …

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