Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Three days ago in Berlin I visits the memorial to the men of the German resistance movement who attempted to remove Hitler from power a number of times, and then resorted to attempted assassination. Their final attempt occurred on July 20th 1944. The building from which they attempted to seize power was the headquarters of the German Army, the Oberkommando des Heeres, located on Bendlerstraße.
I am not going to retell the story of those men. I have written about the event and some of the men a number of times. Among them at the headquarters were Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who had planted the bomb, General Ludwig Beck, General Friedrich Olbricht, Lieutenant Colonel Merz von Quirnheim, and Stauffenberg’s aide, Lieutenant Werner Von Haeften. All were captured by Wehrmacht Guard forces commanded by Major Remer when it was clear that Hitler was still alive.
Beck was given the opportunity to kill himself but failed and was shot where he lay while Stauffenberg, Olbricht, Quirnheim, and Haeften were tried by a drumhead Court convened by General Friedrich Fromm and executed in the square in the middle of the complex. Fromm had known about the plot but had refused to commit himself to it. When it was clear that Hitler was alive he overcompensated and had them executed to cover up his involvement. This did not save him, he was arrested soon after, tried by the Volksgericht headed by Roland Freisler, and executed in 1945.
I stood in that square where they were executed and I was moved. They paid paid the ultimate price for their act of resistance and I wonder if Americans who claim to be resisters would be willing to pay that price if that was the only remaining option.
Other plotters not in Berlin or at the Bendlerstrasse complex were either arrested and later executed, or committed suicide. One of those men, General Henning von Tresckow said the following shortly before his death:
The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany. None of us can bewail his own death; those who consented to join our circle put on the robe of Nessus. A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.
In the United States we still have the option of elections and for the moment most of our institutions are still holding out against a lawless administration. How long that will remain I do not know. Every day that I wake up without discovering that the United States has not experienced its Reichstag Fire moment I am relieved and say a prayer of thanks; but I worry, especially after a chapel member and strong supporter of President Trump tried to get me tried by Court Martial for a sermon in my chapel. I had to hire a lawyer to fight the charges during the preliminary investigation.
Thankfully, I was exonerated and did not have to face a trial because what the man had said was a bold faced lie. Despite that, the comments of some people who said I did not do what I was accused of doing were still quite harrowing in how they portrayed me and my beliefs. It was as if I was a caricature of a raving leftist. The fact is that I do not blindly follow any political party line. I have been a military officer and chaplain for almost all of my adult life, I have served under six Presidents and there are none who I agreed with on every issue, but my oath is to the Constitution, not any President or party despite my current party affiliation.
On some issues I am very liberal or progressive, and others quite conservative, but in each case I try my best to base those positions with my Christian faith, as well as my belief in the great proposition of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal…” and my belief that Abraham Lincoln was correct when he said in the Gettysburg Address “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
However, history shows that when authoritarian leaders seize power that most people, even opponents find a way to make peace with the regime. This is a fair question to ask of anyone.
A hashtag, tweet, or Facebook like or dislike does not define integrity or strength of character, it is what they do in the crisis when the personal costs are factored in. I have already experienced that to a degree, and I know what I will do because I have already had to do it. Yet most people have not hit that point, and honestly I pray that they never do.
Many of the men who acted on July 20th 1944 did so knowing that if they failed in their attempt that they would die and that their families too would be condemned. Of course they no longer had the opportunity that Americans today have to vote or to speak out publicly. They and their country had sacrificed that when sat silently when Hitler dismantled the Republic and the opposition parties, with the exception of the Social Democrats, voted themselves out of existence and allowed Hitler to rule as a dictator. Likewise, many Social Democrats and Communists converted to the NDSAP or minded their own business and looked the other way after the Nazis seized power. The same was true of most German Conservatives.
The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a part of the plot, but who had been arrested earlier through his association with leaders of the resistance in the German military intelligence service, 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.”
The men of the German resistance tried and failed more than once to stop Hitler. They were not perfect men, but in the end they made a stand that they knew would cost them, their family members, and their friends dearly.
I wonder if we would have the courage to do it should the institutions of the Republic fail and Trump or any other would be authoritarian leader of any party gain absolute power. By and large the leaders of the GOP, even those who fought his nomination and warned about the danger he posed, have already surrendered to Trump. The most notable is Senator Lindsey Graham.
Stauffenberg was right about men like Graham and the GOP leadership when he made this observation about most German military leaders and government officials:
“You cannot expect people who have broken their spine once or twice to stand up straight when a new decision has to be made.”
Likewise I wonder about the many people that claim to be resisters when the cost is still relatively low. Will they stand when their social or economic status, career, family, or lives are in danger? As I said earlier it is a fair question. People are people no matter what and history too often shows that even resisters often find ways to adjust to authoritarian governments.
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?
There are many lessons to be learned in this. Will we learn them?