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philipp von boeselager

Philipp von Boeselager

This July 20th marks the 69th anniversary of the plot by German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler, a story nicely retold in the 2008 film Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer. Shortly after the movie’s release a memoir by a surviving conspirator, Philipp von Boeselager (1917-2008), appeared in English under the title Valkyrie: The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler by its Last Member (Vintage Books, 2009). The title is somewhat misleading, since Boeselager was not involved in the famous attempt led by Count von Stauffenberg (portrayed by Tom Cruise in the movie). But the author was nevertheless an active participant in plans which came very close to eliminating the Nazi leader.

One interesting thing about Boeselager is his candor. Unlike many contemporaries, he makes no attempt to editorialize his views as a young man even if those views seem out of date. “I can understand,” he says, “if a foreign reader mistrusts German patriots’ political position in that period, and is tempted to see in it an unacceptable compromise with the goals pursued by Adolf Hitler. However, we German patriots were nonetheless able to tell the difference. We had no more cause to be ashamed of wanting to restore Germany than had the French, who, in 1914, wanted to restore Alsace and Lorraine to France.” This is exactly how people of his generation thought, regardless of political persuasion. Hitler came to power as much through working class support and appeals to the left as he did to the complacency of revanchist militarists. It will be easy for modern readers to condemn such views, but personal choices are tidy only in theory. I say this not as a revisionist, but as a realist. Our attitudes can be influenced by popular complacency much more than we realize.

While reading Valkyrie, I was reminded of the rare memoir, Against Stalin and Hitler, by Captain Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt, which I highly recommend if you can obtain a copy. Like Boeselager, Strik-Strikfeldt was a member of the famous Tresckow circle. General Henning von Tresckow was assigned to Soviet prisoners by the Wehrmacht with the aim of raising an anti-Communist volunteer force. Many officers like Boeselager were sincere in their desire to liberate Russia. But Nazi party leaders were uninterested in such a project, preferring instead to enslave the Russian population. Such disillusioning experiences fueled the opposition to Hitler, along with a growing awareness of even more lethal projects against “subhuman” races.

As in any historical crisis, there are a variety of motives at work. The fact that people were at one time more fearful of Communism—which had already murdered, starved and enslaved tens of millions of people—and were slow to understand the new tyranny of Nazism is not so shocking as it seems. But once an evil becomes apparent then pragmatism and convention cease to be an excuse. I do not believe that men fundamentally change from one generation to the next. They hope that the better forces will prevail without having to resort to desperate measures. That was true of honorable military leaders like Heinz Guderian who disapproved of the anti-Hitler plots despite his intense dislike of Nazism. But for Boeselager, Germany was too far gone for quiet resignation.

Whether or not assassination is a legitimate means of resistance is a point that will be keenly debated. It is arguable that the 1944 Valkyrie plot made things worse by inciting Hitler to even more draconian measures. And what if Hitler had been killed at a time when Nazism had yet to be decisively routed? The majority of Germans may not have fully appreciated the extent of his failure, as they did nearly a year later, when the Führer committed suicide as victorious enemy troops surrounded his bunker. These are the sort of questions which may forever remain unanswerable. That said, there can be no denying that the efforts of Boeselager are a striking testimony to the decency and resolve of the men and women who refused to collaborate with tyranny.

For more details about Boeselager and the anti-Hitler plots, see my comments at the end of the “Briefly Reviewed” section (New Oxford Review, April 2011).

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1 reply to this post
  1. Excellent post. I particularly appreciate the second paragraph. The tendencies of our current generation to paint World War II in an overly simplistic light, implicitly ignoring any and all German claims to legitimacy in its politics in the first half of the twentieth century has been the cause of the present suffering of many nations, including America, as one by one, subsequent post Cold War international crises in the the Balkans, Middle East and Caucas were viewed through a faux “Churchillian” lense, on the look out for a “Hitler” to fight and a “France” to liberate.

    I shall only add that one ought to compare the NAZI-Soviet alliance as it functioned from Molotov-Ribbentrop to Hitler’s invasion of the USSR to the Ally-Soviet alliance post 1941. A large swath of German officers and soldiers were aghast at the alliance, having considered Stalin their enemy, then were later pleasantly surprised by the cooperation and aid afforded them by the Soviets. The exact dynamics were at work when the USSR began cooperating with the allies. The point being that the moral distinctions between the principle beligerants were really quite fluid and vague. Ayn Rand described the whole thing best in the words of Howard Roarke during his trial (the book having been published during the war) – that the world was suffering an “orgy of collectivism.” Collectivism – not Nazism, communism, or some particular national varient. Orwell likewise was sensitive to the mass deciet as seen by the changing alliances of Big Brother and the contention “we have always been at war with Oceana” as self-deluding propaganda.

    Finally, as your post illustrates, there is little appreciation for the distinction between academic historical hindsight and being in a real time crisis situation. People always act and think within the bounds of what is possible. Moral conscience is hard to muster clearly when the future is bleak and one must consider such staggering variables as the various peoples involved in that conflict had to. Celebrating the war as a victory for anyone but Stalin only makes the task of moral appraisal harder. For Stalin, D-day was the day his two greatest potential European rivals definitively began to destroy their capacity as bulwarks of European civilization. The extinction of the British Empire and the Reich meant no force in Europe would be capable of challenging Soviet tyranny. Nothing to celebrate about that.

    Mass technological politics, mass propaganda and total war perverted the noble aspirations of entire groups of patriots from different nations and enhanced the power of the state, demeaning individual humans, reducing them to abstract groups. It was the zeitgeist of the XXth century, and it was finally broken by Reagan, not FDR or Churchill, who were willing participants in it more than bulwarks against it. Reagan was a greater statesman than FDR or Churchill, because Reagan managed to create a world where Germany could be free and whole, Poland independent, Russia a weak but passable democracy with a vibrant economy, and Europe at peace – all without turning America into an Empire, using US troops or any of the other troppings of the XXth century total warfare collective state. This is because Reagan, like Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover before him, understood the unique purpose and strength of America as a City on a Hill.

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