A moving burial ceremony in Berlin on Monday reminded us of the high cost of those who stand against evil. Those executed for resisting Adolf Hitler and his monstrous death state suffered the final indignity of secret, anonymous disposal of their bodies. However, the microscopic remains of several hundred of those opposed the Nazis were recently discovered and finally interred, almost 75 years after the failed plot which came closest to killing him.
In July 1944 the catastrophe known as World War II was racing toward its inevitable end. Hitler's decision to battle much of the known world, most importantly the U.S., Soviet Union, and British Empire, ensured destruction of the Tausendjähriges or Thousand-Year Reich a little early.
However, even after the D-Day landings, creating a three-front war, counting Italy, Hitler still inspired fanatical loyalty and resistance, dragging Germany and the rest of Europe toward the abyss. Aggression and atrocity, mass murder and genocide, irrevocably stained the German nation's reputation. The Nazis' descent to unimaginable depths of depravity gave new meaning to an old word, Holocaust.
Still, there was a German resistance. Good and decent people, but divided, weak, dispirited, horrified, and frustrated. The German military plotted against Hitler early, before the British and French yielded at Munich. There were several unsuccessful assassination attempts against the Führer, some only narrowly missing their target. For instance, in 1943 the detonator failed on a bomb placed on Hitler's plane when he was returning from the Soviet Union to Germany. The would-be assassin coolly retrieved the defective device before its discovery.
However, “almost” successful did nothing to halt the Nazi war machine. Germany’s bloody crimes multiplied and defeat became more certain. On July 20, 1944, Lt. Col. Claus Graf von Stauffenberg, a 36-year-old decorated war hero who had been badly injured in combat, set off a bomb in Hitler’s Wolfsschanze, or Wolf’s Lair military headquarters in Prussia. Hitler’s luck held — quirks of timing and construction spared his life. Nevertheless, Stauffenberg flew back to Berlin and triggered the planned uprising. He infused Operation Valkyrie with energy and determination, but Hitler’s survival ensured the plan’s quick collapse.
Stauffenberg was shot just after midnight by his superior, Gen. Friedrich Fromm, desperate to cover up his tepid involvement in the plot. (The Gestapo was not fooled: Fromm was quickly arrested and later executed.) The reconstructed defense ministry building, the Bendlerblock, where Stauffenberg desperately led Operation Valkyrie, now houses the Memorial to the German Resistance; a statue of Stauffenberg stands in the courtyard where he died.
Others were rounded up in the ensuing days and weeks, more than 7,000 in all. Not all were involved in the assassination attempt; many merely suspected of opposing the regime were among the 4,980 known to be executed. A number of resistance leaders were tried before the infamous Volksgerichtshof, or People’s Court, and hung with piano wire. The proceedings were presided over by Roland Friesler — a fanatical Nazi killed, appropriately enough, during a trial the following February by an American air raid. That ended the show trials, but executions continue until the war’s end.
The list of those killed for their apparent involvement in the July 1944 operation was topped by three field marshals, 19 generals, a government minister, three secretaries of states, the Berlin police chief, and two ambassadors. Among the most famous was theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed just a month before Germany surrendered. Perhaps the most celebrated victim of Hitler’s purge was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the fabled “Desert Fox,” named after his battlefield exploits in North Africa. Historians debate the degree of his involvement, but it was sufficient to force his suicide, forestalling a public trial and punishment of his family. Many lesser known but still gifted, thoughtful, and moral people also sacrificed their lives. Among their professions were architect, lawyer, pastor, farmer, industrialist, diplomat, mayor, priest, journalist, merchant, professor, technician, landowner, and politician.
Admittedly, the plotters were a motley crew: humane liberals, titled aristocrats, combat officers, urbane intellectuals, nationalistic conservatives. Some unrealistically hoped to try rather than kill Hitler. Some equally unrealistically hoped to negotiate an end to the war, focused more on avoiding defeat than atoning for Germany’s crimes. People’s degree of involvement varied greatly. They also differed dramatically on their vision for a post-Hitler Germany.
But all recognized the horrors being committed in the German people’s name. And the inevitable consequences which awaited their nation. Some believed their efforts were doomed to fail, but nevertheless necessary to demonstrate that there were Germans prepared to risk their lives to oppose a regime unique in its monstrous principles and practices.
Said Col. Henning von Tresckow, one of the most energetic plotters: “The assassination must be attempted, whatever the cost. Even if it fails, we must take action in Berlin. For the practical purpose no longer matters; what matters now is that the German resistance movement must take the plunge before the eyes of the world and of history. Compared to that, nothing else matters.”
Tresckow was stationed on the Eastern front when Operation Valkyrie collapsed. On July 21 he walked into no man’s land and set off a hand grenade. Beforehand he told a colleague: “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. None of us can bewail his own death; those who consented to join our circle put on the robe of Nessus. [A deadly poisoned garment in Greek mythology.] A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.”
Who among us would be willing to do the same?
Unsurprisingly, those murdered by the Nazi regime did not receive normal burials. That would treat traitors with respect. Moreover, explained Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, “The Nazis worried that the graves of the resistance fighters could become martyrs’ cemeteries, so to speak, and they wanted to avoid this.” The regime transferred many of the bodies to Hermann Stieve, director of the Berlin Institute of Anatomy. He used them for research and left no remains.
He died decades ago, his role unknown. However, his heirs recently found tissue samples from some 300 victims that he had preserved and turned them over to Charité research hospital. Only 20 people could be identified, and most families asked that their names not be publicized. However, the descendants of Erika von Brockdorff, executed in 1943 for her involvement in an earlier resistance effort, went public. A plain wooden box containing the remains was buried in Berlin’s Dorotheenstadt cemetery. The grave was placed across from a memorial to the leaders of the July 1944 plot. Charité’s head, Karl Max Einhäupl, observed: “With this, we can give back some of their dignity to those who were murdered.”
Seventy-five years late, but in this case it is never too late to act. While the killing of so many brave resisters cannot be undone, their dignity can be returned to them. In fact, they never lost their dignity. The Nazis’ attempt at humiliation simply expanded the horrific and lengthy list of crimes committed by the most notorious gangsters to ever seize control of a modern industrialized state. Even in failure, opposing them, sacrificing one’s life to try to stop them, was a courageous, ennobling act. The resistors’ reburial reminds us of their heroism and affirms their enduring dignity.
The Nazi government committed the most horrendous atrocities, culminating in the Holocaust. For many Germans resistance seemed impossible. But some genuine heroes and heroines fought back and died in the process. We should never forget the need to resist the sort of crimes which we also must never forget.