Honorable disloyalty: German resistance remembered

July 25, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- They come to their memorial day more frail and in fewer numbers each year, like revered elders to a family reunion, these Germans who resisted the Nazis.

They and their survivors visit the shrines of their struggle and lay wreaths and talk of friends lost in the time of Hitler and of those who died during the past year.

They listen to dense and serious lectures about the long years of the Nazis and of the rise of a German resistance. They pray and sing hymns in the execution chamber where their martyrs were hanged or guillotined.

They make up an odd elite, a kind of establishment of the `D righteous, about which many Germans are ambiguous. Streets are named after resisters, but relatively few people view them as heroes. They're just not thought about much at all. And in the east, their years of resistance were drowned in years of totalitarian communism.

Germany celebrates July 20 as the memorial day of the resistance. On July 20, 1944, officers of the German general staff tried to blow up Adolf Hitler. They were a true military elite. Many were descendants of generals who had led armies in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, even in the Napoleonic wars.

The July 20 conspirators were moved by an odd combination of religious conviction, despair for the lost "honor" of the army and a sense that the "Fatherland" was headed for destruction after Stalingrad.

And in a ceremony that may be unique among the world's armies, a German general now places a commemorative wreath on the memorial plaque that marks the spot where conspirators who tried to assassinate the nation's leader, the commander in chief, were shot.

In a frenzy of anger after the July 20 attack, Hitler wiped out the men now celebrated and replaced them with loyal Nazis. Something like 100 or 200 top officers were executed.

Resistance against Hitler ranged far wider than the military, from simple Bible-study groups to Social Democratic politicians.

The resistance was never large-- although nearly 5,000 people were executed in the aftermath of the July 20 plot, sometimes for offenses as minor as listening to the BBC. But it became and remains highly charged symbolically in the postwar world.

Simply put, the resistance proved that not every German in the Hitler era was a Nazi.

"These people were useful for diplomatic reasons after the war," said Professor Beate Ruhm von Oppen, of St. John's College in Annapolis, who was this year's resistance memorial lecturer.

They were, she said, "an enclave of heaven in hell."

And in his official resistance-day message, Chancellor Helmut Kohl echoed her: "In the darkest time, the resistance fighters allowed the light of freedom, human dignity and peace to shine."

A distinguished scholar who has taught at the University of Massachusetts and lectured at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies, Ms. von Oppen worked for the British Foreign Office during World War II in analyzing German propaganda.

She was still a student in Germany when she rejected Nazism. She had read "Mein Kampf," Hitler's jail-house-written program for a totalitarian state. She left to go to school in Holland and England. Now a British subject, she was an "enemy alien" while working at the Foreign Office.

She recalled a famous pronouncement of the July 20 leader Gen. Henning von Tresckow: "We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German Resistance dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it."

When the attempt failed, he killed himself on the Russian front with a hand grenade.

Ms. von Oppen recalled that General von Tresckow defended the actions of the conspirators of July 20 in biblical terms.

"I believe that I can defend what I have done in the struggle against Hitler in good conscience," the general said. "Just as God once promised Abraham he would not destroy Sodom if but 10 righteous people could be found there, so I hope that God will not annihilate Germany for our sakes."

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