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The Limit of Soldierly Obedience: Ludwig Beck and a Lesson for Officials in Authoritarian States

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

While we were in Berlin I visited the German Resistance Memorial Center. The museum is located in what was the headquarters of the German Army in World War One, the Weimar Republic, and during the Nazi Era. On July 20th 1944, German Army officers attempted to kill Adolf Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, and end the war. Sadly, they failed in their attempt and most of those involved were tried and executed for what their criminal government considered treason.

Of course by the law of their times their act was treasonous, but morally it was all that men and women committed to the rule of law and human rights could do. The officers involved had all sworn a personal oath of obedience to Adolf Hitler as the Führer and Reichskanzler of Germany in 1934. At the time most of the men who swore that oath did not anticipate what would come. Many of the older officers had served in the Imperial Army and sworn an oath to the Kaiser and their dynasties of the lands where they entered service. That changed in 1918 when the Weimar Republic came into existence and military officers as well as civil servants swore an oath to the constitution rather than a person.

A year after Hitler came to power as Reichskanzler, President Hindenburg died. Hitler, seized the opportunity used the occasion to swear the military, as well as the civil service to a new oath. This oath was not to the Constitution, or to Office of thePresidency or Chancellor, but to him personally as the Führer and Reichskanzler.

Most officers and civil servants, even those uncomfortable with Hitler’s policies obeyed their oaths and simply stayed in their lanes and did their jobs, even when they had incontrovertible evidence of Nazi atrocities.

Yet there were others who for a number of reasons, in some cases noble, and in others pragmatic, or even base, decided to break the oath they had sworn to Hitler in 1934. Among these men was General Ludwig Beck. Beck noted:

“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.”

With the rise of legally elected authoritarian rulers in Europe and the Americas should concern men and women who have sworn to uphold the constitutions of their countries. These leaders campaigning against democratic institutions, and upon gaining power purge those institutions of opponents and use them to solidify their own power. The veneer of democracy is maintained while the soul of it is crushed. Too often those charged with guarding it are willing participants in its death, soldiers, civil servants, judges, and legislators.

That is what Beck understood. He resigned his office as Chief of Staff of the German Army in 1938 over Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia, became a member of the anti-Hitler resistance and died in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th 1944. He was a career Army officer and a conservative, but he realized that there are limits to obedience in the face of evil.

I fear that there are many men and women in nations whose democratic institutions are being subordinated to authoritarian rulers who will not rise to the occasion and allow those institutions and eventually their nations to perish. Sadly, that also includes those in the United States.

I will leave you with that thought for the evening.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Price of Resistance: Remembering the Men of Operation Valkyrie

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.

Tresckow 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?

There are many lessons to be learned in this. Will we learn them?

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure.” My Favorite Resistors, Part One: the Anti-Nazis

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

They are know and unknown but all resisted tyrants and all have become inspirational figures in my life. They are men and women, and many are soldiers or clergy, while others were civil rights leaders. Most were advocates of non-violence, but some due to the incredibly evil nature of the regime under which they lived and served resorted to violence. But all show me and I hope will show you that the path of resistance is not futile.

The problem is that far too many people become discouraged the longer the struggle lasts and end up accommodating themselves to the evil regimes under which they lived. That will probably be the experience of those who struggle against tyranny around the world today as authoritarianism under many guises becomes more entrenched. It is a world wide phenomena but if the classic understanding of democratic liberalism advocated by so many including the founders of the United States is to survive, authoritarians and their tyrannical worldview must be resisted.

Sophie Scholl, a young student at the University of Munich wrote:

“I’ve been thinking of a story from the Old Testament: Moses stood all day and all night with outstretched arms, praying to God for victory. And whenever he let down his arms, the enemy prevailed over the children of Israel. Are there still people today who never weary of directing all their thinking and all their energy, single-heartedly, to one cause?”

That my friends is important.

Yesterday, July 20th was the 74th anniversary of Operation Valkyrie, the attempt of conservative German military officers, diplomats, and others to kill Hitler and end the tyrannical and genocidal Nazi regime. Among the men who died in that attempt were Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, General Henning von Trescow, General Ludwig Beck, Lieutenant Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim, and General Friedrich Olbricht. Others were implicated and were murdered after kangaroo court proceedings at the hand of the Volksgericht, the “People’s Court” headed by Roland Freisler. Among them was Field Marshal Erich von Witzleben. While Freisler hounded and tried to humiliate him Witzleben remained calm and announced to the court:

“You may hand us over to the executioner, but in three months’ time, the disgusted and harried people will bring you to book and drag you alive through the dirt in the streets!”

 

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General Henning von Tresckow

“We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.” When the attempt failed von Trescow was serving on the Russian front far away from Berlin. To avoid arrest and the possibility that under torture he could implicate others or cause harm to his wife and children von Trescow killed himself. Another participant wrote that before his death von Trescow said:

“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 only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.”

Ludwig Beck

General Ludwig Beck

Beck, who had resigned his post as commander of the German Army in protest of the planned invasion of Czechoslovakia 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.” 

Tresckow, a committed Christian also noted of Hitler’s supposedly Christian supporters: “I cannot understand how people can still call themselves Christians and not be furious adversaries of Hitler’s regime.” 

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Admiral Wilhelm Canaris 

There were other Christian resisters of the Hitler regime. Hans Oster was the son of a pastor and one of the senior officers in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence. His boss, Admiral Wihelm Canaris was also a resister. Both would be executed on the personal order of Hitler in April 1945 along with Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all had been arrested for their involvement in anti-Hitler activities. For his part Canaris would note something that military, intelligence, or police officials who might be tempted to excuse the actions of modern day tyrants or would be authoritarians:

“One day the world will hold the Wehrmacht responsible for these methods since these things are taking place under its nose.”

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Pastor Bonhoeffer who died with Oster and Canaris at Flossenburg wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

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Hermann Maas 

Hermann Maas, another Lutheran pastor made his mark by speaking out in defense of Jews and Socialists. He angered the German political right including the Nazis by doing so. He aided Jews and other non-Aryans to escape Germany, and cared for the elderly Jews who could not. He was removed from his pastorate and imprisoned. He survived the war and would be the first German recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Maas discussed the responsibility of all Germans for the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis, something that Christians and others in nations like the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America that are threatened by authoritarian leaders and racist regimes:

“Every German bears responsibility for Germany no matter who he is or where he stands, in the homeland or abroad, in public and at home. No one can absolve him of this responsibility. He can transfer it to no one.” 

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Sophie Scholl

But these men were not the only opponents of the Nazi regime. A young woman, a student at the University of Munich named Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were at the center of an anti-Nazi resistance called the White Rose. They published and distributed a number of anti-Nazi leaflets and were caught doing so in early 1943.

One of those pamphlets noted:

“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be “governed” without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day?

If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order in history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.

Goethe speaks of the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on, who now – the marrow sucked out of their bones, robbed of their center of stability – are waiting to be hounded to their destruction. So it seems – but it is not so. Rather, by means of a gradual, treacherous, systematic abuse, the system has put every man into a spiritual prison. Only now, finding himself lying in fetters, has he become aware of his fate.

Only a few recognized the threat of ruin, and the reward for their heroic warning was death. We will have more to say about the fate of these persons. If everyone waits until the other man makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon.

Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism. Offer passive resistance – resistance – wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities, like Cologne, have been reduced to rubble, and before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield for the hubris of a sub-human. Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure.”

She wrote:

“It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

I think of all of these people that I admire young Sophie Scholl the most. She had no power. She was not an officer, a government official, a businessman, or a pastor. She was simply a young woman who was informed by her faith and her concern for basic human morality and ethics.

While the Nazi State was consumed by the flames of Hitler’s Götterdämmerung, the lives and message of those few who resisted still redounds to us today. And yes, in comparison to the majority of Germans  of the Hitler era, they were a tiny minority, Of over 2000 German General and Flag officers a mere 22 were involved in anti-Nazi activities and the same is true for most professions in the Third Reich.

Milton Mayer wrote the words of a German University Professor and colleague after the war was over. The professor was reflecting on how people ended up going along with the Nazi regime. Mayer wrote his friends words:

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

“Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

“What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.”

I think that I shall close with that tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“We Have to Show the World That Not All of Us are Like Him…” Resistance or Acquiescence?

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Major General Henning Von Tresckow 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I wasn’t planning on writing anything new until sometime next week, but after President Trump’s off the cuff decision to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un and the speech that he gave in Pennsylvania on Saturday night I must share a couple of thoughts.

Last night (Saturday) I watched the movie Valkyrie which is about the July 20th 1944 attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, and tonight the movie Conspiracy which is about the bureaucratic workings of the decision to eradicate the Jews from earth by the Nazis in the decision now known as The Final Solution. 

It is interesting the the British actor Kenneth Branagh stars in both. In Valkyrie he plays Major General Henning von Tresckow, a key member of the the anti-Hitler movement; and in Conspiracy he plays SS General Reinhardt Heydrich who helped engineer the Final Solution against the Jews.

In the past few days I have thought of the words of Von Tresckow, Heydrich, and General Ludwig Beck, another of the conspirators who attempted to kill Hitler and lost his life in the process.

Heydrich was the ultimate opportunist, who had he not been assassinated two months after the Wansee Conference might well have been a participant in the anti-Hitler conspiracy; not because of any ethical or ideological purity, but for the sake of his own power and survival. Heydrich was not an ideologue but a pragmatist, and many historians think that he would have joined a movement against Hitler in order to preserve his ideal of Germany. In Valkyrie Branagh played Major General Henning von Tresckow who was a Christian and opponent of the Hitler regime. Branagh played both parts very well, and was believable.

Ever the pragmatist Heydrich told a young SS Major at the Wansee Conference: “Politics is a nasty game. I think soldiering requires the discipline to do the unthinkable and politics requires the skill to get someone else to do the unthinkable for you.” Sadly I have to admit that he was correct. Since I have served in the military for nearly 37 years I can understand the comment, thankfully I have never been a politician so I cannot imagine having the skill to do the unthinkable for me.

That being said I have taken to hear the words of General Ludwig Beck who resigned from his position as the head of the German Army in 1938 over the planned invasion of Czechoslovakia and lost his life in the attempt to overthrow Hitler:

“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.” 

Von Tresckow would note in words that I would hope that Americans would heed today in terms of the current President: “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

The question is: Will Americans simply roll over and do the unthinkable or will they decide to show the world that we are not like him?

That is the question. How we answer it is another matter.

Until tomorrow and my third installment of the six part series on Dan Sickles,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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