Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Seventy-three years ago today a number of German military officers as well as civilian officials attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in an attempt to overthrow the Nazi Regime and end the Second World War. Ironically many had been supporters of Hitler’s early policies and few had spoken out against the Nazi seizure of power, elimination of political opponents, the outlawing of trade unions and opposition political parties. Most remained silent when Hitler conducted his brutal Night of the Long Knives massacre of 1934 and took the personal oath of loyalty to him after Hindenburg died soon after.
Some would recognize the threat but offered little resistance as Hitler consolidated his power and began to begin his reign of terror at home even as he began to conquer swaths of Europe without firing a shot. Early plans to overthrow Hitler collapsed because his opponents, so used to being loyal and obedient servants of the State were paralyzed whenever an unexpected contingency arose.
Eleven years after Hitler made opposition political parties illegal and almost five years after he invaded Poland to begin the Second World War a plan called Operation Valkyrie was launched. Two of the key plotters were Colonel Claus Schenk Von Stauffenberg, Major General Henning Von Trescow, and retired General Ludwig Beck.
Most understood that the attempt would likely fail, but they were determined to try. Von Trescow said: “It is almost certain that we will fail. But how will future history judge the German people, if not even a handful of men had the courage to put an end to that criminal?”
When Stauffenberg detonated a bomb at Hitler’s East Prussian Wolf’s Lair headquarters Beck and other conspirators attempted to seize power in Berlin. However their plans went awry. Hitler survived the blast. Josef Goebbels secured Berlin, and the plot fell apart. Stauffenberg and a number of conspirators were shot that night, Beck attempted to commit suicide but failed and was killed. Over 5,000 more conspirators, suspects, and other Nazi opponents, including some of the most respected officers of the Wehrmacht were tried in show trials and executed. Some like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel were given the choice of committing suicide to save their families. Von Trescow, who killed himself on the Russian front following the collapse of the coup noted: “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.” Beck notes something that has become a key part of my military ethic: “It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”
Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a conspirator who was tortured by the Gestapo, said: “Obedience is the rule. However, there are cases which demand disobedience. This has been uncontested in the Prussian Army. Blind obedience has its origin with Hitler.”
When Hitler issued the Commisar or Criminal Order on the eve of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Von Trescow told a colleague:
“Remember this moment. If we don’t convince the field marshal (Fedor von Bock) to fly to Hitler at once and have these orders (Commissar Order) canceled, the German people will be burdened with a guilt the world will not forget in a hundred years. This guilt will fall not only on Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and their comrades but on you and me, your wife and mine, your children and mine, that woman crossing the street, and those children over there playing ball.”
Unlike Hitler’s Germany Americans still have some checks and balances to guard against a President attempting to gain control of the country the way Hitler did Germany, but those checks and balances are delicate, fragile, and if neglected will fail in the crisis. If they do will we have the courage to stand for the principles and ideals of our country? That we do not yet know. Timothy Snyder wrote:
“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
But there are prices to be paid for obedience to unlawful orders and the actions of a criminal state, as well as a price to be paid for disobedience. The men who belatedly and against a nation that was still devoted to Hitler understood those questions and acted accordingly. I do hope that none of us have to face what these men did between 1933 and 1944, but if we do, will we stand the test?
That my friends is a question we may all have to answer sooner than we think.