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?

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.

This Issue

September 11, 1969