Can We Judge General von Hammerstein?

Helene Bechstein, Adolf Hitler, and Kurt von Hammerstein at the funeral of Edwin Bech-stein, 1934. Bechstein, whose family firm made pianos, and his wife were early and generous supporters of Hitler in the 1920s. According to Hans Magnus Enzensberger in The Silences of Hammerstein, ‘This is the only photo in which Hammerstein is to be seen in the company of Hitler.’

Even a reader with some knowledge of the history of modern Germany might well draw a blank at the name of Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, the man at the center of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s unusual and fascinating new book. From 1930 to 1934, Hammerstein was Chief of Army Command, the highest-ranking officer in the Reichswehr, as Germany’s army was known under the Weimar Republic. He was also an undisguised opponent of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Yet he does not figure in the military or political history of the period nearly as prominently as some other generals—like Kurt von Schleicher, Hammerstein’s friend and political ally, who was the last chancellor of the Republic before Hitler, and was killed during Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934.

Nor, on the other hand, does Hammerstein share in the honor due to the July 20, 1944, conspirators, whose plot to assassinate Hitler came close to success. Hammerstein was involved in the long-brewing conspiracy: one of the many documents reproduced by Enzensberger is a memo delivered to Martin Bormann a few days after the failed coup, which noted that some of the leading conspirators met at Hammerstein’s home in 1942. But by the time those plotters—again, a largely aristocratic group of officers, including Henning von Tresckow and Claus von Stauffenberg—brought themselves to act, Hammerstein had been dead for more than a year. Remarkably, for a man with such powerful enemies, he died of natural causes. At his funeral, his family declined the usual military honors, because they refused to allow the swastika flag to be draped on his coffin.

If Hammerstein played a comparatively small historical role, why did Enzensberger—Germany’s leading poet and man of letters, now eighty years old—think him deserving of a book? The reason, he writes, is that Hammerstein’s life “says a great deal about how one could survive Hitler’s rule without capitulating to it.” The quality that made this possible comes across more clearly in the book’s original German title—Hammerstein oder Der Eigensinn—than in the English translation by Martin Chalmers, The Silences of Hammerstein. Eigensinn can be translated as stubbornness or obstinacy, but in this case it carries a more positive connotation than those words usually do. The book’s French title, Hammerstein ou l’intransigeance, seems to come closer to Enzensberger’s meaning.

In writing about Hammerstein, Enzensberger is not just telling the story of a man, or of that man’s remarkable family. He is investigating the moral value of intransigence—the combination of principle, arrogance, and willfulness that prevented Hammerstein…

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