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.” Likewise, Beck wrote something that has become a key part of my military and personal 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 captured and tortured by the Gestapo after the failure of Operation Valkyrie, 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 Commissar 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. However, those checks and balances are delicate, fragile, and if neglected will fail in the crisis. In fact they are showing incredible strain as the Republican majorities in Congress fail to exercise their constitutional responsibilities and political appointees undermine the very agencies that they are responsible for maintaining, and laws that they were sworn to uphold. If they do fail, will we have the courage to stand for the principles and ideals of our country? That we do not yet know but my recent experience says that we very well might fail in the crisis. Historian 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.”
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. However, as time marches on and the President and his Administration continue to defy the law, ignore the Constitution, and undermine the foundations of our Republic, even encouraging their supporters to violence, will our democratic institutions survive?
The administration has implemented and is continuing to implement policies that are quite similar in their intent to crimes that the Nazis were tried for at Nuremberg. If Americans do not rise up against them we too will be to use the words of Von Trescow: “be burdened with a guilt the world will not forget in a hundred years.”
That is a question that we have to ask. If they do crumble will we stand the test? Will we have the courage to resist even at the cost of our lives? Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had already been jailed by the Gestapo at the time of Valkyrie wrote:
“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
Will we have the courage to resist at that moment? Words are cheap, actions are all to rare. Will we be able to stand against the tide?
That my friends is a question we may all have to answer sooner rather than later.