July 20, 2011
The book Valkyrie has the same name as the movie starring Tom Cruise, but its very different. Written by Philip Freiherr von Boeselager, Valkyrie: The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member, transports us into another world, the world of the German nobility, the upper reaches of the most powerful army created to that point in the history of the world.
Philip Freiherr Von Boeselager takes pains to describe his upbringing in a close-knit, devout family. Family and faith were central to the worldview of von Boeselager and his class. And duty, duty, as lived out in service to their country and its military.
Von Boeselager makes clear that his family had never accepted the Nazi regimes philosophy or its acts. They had resisted joining the Hitler Youth and had remained loyal to their Christian values. But they lived in a nation state and were willing to put their lives on the line repeatedly to defend it. They believed that Germany had been unjustly branded with the charge of War Guilt from the First World War. Virtually all Germans believed this.
Von Boeselagers older brother was a hero of the Eastern Front. Philip makes a point of telling us his brother never spoke with contempt of the fighting qualities of the Red Army soldiers against whom he fought. Still, the elder von Boeselager fought hard and with signal success.
Philip is drawn deeper into the plots to kill Hitler. The decisive incident seems to have been these officers witnessing a mass killing of civilians by Hitlers Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units. These units followed the armies, just as hyenas follow lions. Their victims were Jews and anyone perceived to be a threat. This included Gypsies. And then, there was the Commissar Order. That order meant instant death for any Communist, or political officer of the party, who was captured along with regular Red Army units.
Realizing that these Einsatzgruppen were ensnaring all German soldiers in war crimes, the military began to plot against Hitler. I had not realized until I read this book that the July 20th plot, the one whose anniversary we recall today, was but the last of a series of failed plots to kill Hitler.
Von Boeselager describes one attempt where a brave Wehrmacht officer, who had been wounded in battle, is slated to guide Hitler through a museum of captured Soviet weapons. This officer carried on his own body the explosives that would kill him and the Fuhrer during their scheduled hour tour. The officer, wearing a heavy leather military coat, punctures the vials of acid that will detonate the bomb he his carrying within. But Hitler abruptly leaves the museum after only ten minutes of the tour. There is the officer with a bomb about to explode inside his coat! Only with great difficulty is he able to rush into a mens room and disarm the bomb, avoiding detection.
Another time, the officers debate among themselves how to kill Hitler when he comes to their forward unit to have lunch with his soldiers. They know he wears a military cap with a steel visor and helmet concealed under the cloth. He also wears a bulletproof vest.
They will have no choice but to shoot him, point blank, in the face. Only one of these battle-hardened veterans can be found willing to do this bloody deed. And then, Hitler cancels out.
On yet another occasion, a bomb is placed on Hitlers plane. It fails to explode, probably because of extreme cold at higher altitudes.
What we learn from this book is that many high ranking, although not top ranking, regular army officers had been imbued with a sense of military honor and a deep knowledge of the theory of Just War, as it had been taught since Augustine first wrote of it in the Fifth Century A.D.
These officers, Protestant and Catholic, were repulsed by the war crimes they were witnessing. And they were deeply devoted to their families. Many of them came from noble families who could recount centuries of dedication and service to Prussia and other German states.
Knowing their strong family ties, Hitler conceived the evil idea of threatening the lives of family members of any of his officers who failed to follow his orders without question. Hitler issued the Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) order on 7 December 1941, the same day the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor. Typically, he got the name from a scene in a Wagnerian opera, Das Rheingold. It meant that your loved ones would disappear into the night and fog.
The book, Valkyrie, is Philip Freiherr von Boeselagers effort to show us another Germany, a Christian, moral, and brave Germany. Every time we read of the failure of one of these plots, our hearts sink. If only...
Von Boeselager died in 2008 at age 90. His short but very readable book is a most valuable addition to our knowledge of the Second World War, a war that continues to shape our world today.
I find von Boeselagers portrait of his fellow officers quite credible. A U-Boat commander, Gerhard Wiebe, torpedoed my dads merchant ship off South Africa in 1943. He held off sending in his second torpedo to allow my father and his shipmates to clamber off the stricken vessel. Then Captain Wiebe, in violation of strict orders from the Kriegsmarine, steered the U-516 in among the survivors in the lifeboats, offering them first aid, water, food, and charts.
These amazing stories should give us heart. The line between good and evil does not run through nations, or classes, wrote Solzhenitsyn, but through the heart of every man. Valkyrie also comes from Richard Wagners operas. It is a great tragedy that Valkyrie
Failed this day, 67 years ago. It would have been a fitting end to the Hitler horror.