Last survivor of bid to kill Hitler is hero without honor in Germany Today is 50th anniversary of attempt

July 20, 1994|By Thom Shanker | Thom Shanker,Chicago Tribune

BERLIN -- Otto John is the last one left, the last of the inner circle of conspirators who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944.

This 50th anniversary should be a day of pride, one of the few jubilees of World War II that Germany can celebrate -- and, in fact, politicians and generals are lining up and immodestly claiming their inheritance of the moral tradition of the July 20 plot.

But when Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Defense Minister Volker Ruehe give speeches today, there will be no glory for Otto John, despite his central role in the resistance to one of history's foulest tyrants.

Mr. John, who in the 1950s was accused of defecting to East Germany and jailed, remains a hero without honor in Germany.

Once a traitor, always a traitor -- that's the epitaph Mr. John, 85, fears the most. Immediately after the war, the few who acted and the fewer who survived were nothing but a painful reminder to the millions who never wavered from the path of the goose step.

"It was all such a long time ago, and we failed," said Mr. John, who visited Berlin from his self-imposed exile in Austria to break a long silence, also self-imposed, where he gave this interview.

"But," he said, "at least we tried."

Had the plot succeeded, it might have saved half of all those who eventually died in Europe during World War II. The bitter slog across the continent after D-Day could have been halted. Even the Nazi death camps did not reach the peak of their horrific murder until the last year of the war.

Mr. John was among those intellectuals who as early as the 1930s were nauseated by the thuggish new Nazi regime.

Chief liaison to Allies

A lawyer working for Lufthansa, he was posted to Madrid, Spain, and Lisbon, Portugal, where he secretly established links to U.S. and British military intelligence. He was the chief liaison between resistance plotters on the Nazi general staff and Allied commanders.

Once the fuehrer is dead, the plan went, Mr. John will negotiate an armistice with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. So trusted was Mr. John that he was given early notice of the D-Day invasion.

The plot called for a severely war-wounded aristocrat, Col. Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg, to pull the pin on Hitler.

Mr. John was summoned back to Berlin to await the attack, and was with the secret coup circle inside the Bendler Block, the army high command headquarters.

At 18 minutes before 1 in the afternoon of July 20, 1944, Colonel Stauffenberg planted a briefcase time-bomb beneath a table next to Hitler at a meeting in the fuehrer's Wolf's Lair hideaway in East Prussia, now part of Poland. Colonel Stauffenberg feigned a telephone call, and left by plane for Berlin.

Briefcase moved

The blast killed four people, but not Hitler, who was saved because someone moved the briefcase to the other side of the table's thick oaken legs.

"We heard Hitler on the radio, and knew he was still alive," Mr. John said. "Stauffenberg told me, 'Use your Lufthansa credentials and get out of Berlin at once. Tell the world what we wanted to do, and why we failed.' I left the Bendler Block just ahead of the Gestapo and the SS troops. Everyone else in the Bendler Block got shot."

Shot, or beheaded or hanged with piano wire or forced to commit suicide.

The coup's commanders, including Colonel Stauffenberg, were shot on the spot, while others even slightly implicated in the resistance -- including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Germany's most brilliant commander -- chose to commit suicide. Hitler used the pretext to execute 2,000 supposed enemies; 5,000 more went to the camps.

One victim was Mr. John's brother, Hans, who was arrested, tortured and executed.

"It was an illusion to think we could kill Hitler," Mr. John said.

Cognizant of his impeccable resistance credentials, the U.S., British and French forces occupying western Germany after the war had Mr. John appointed president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a new internal security service, like the FBI.

Then, on July 23, 1954, 10 years to the week after the coup attempt, a government bulletin announced that Mr. John had vanished from West Berlin, the victim of kidnapping by Communist agents. Within a week, though, the government amended that to accuse Mr. John of defecting.

"Once a traitor, always a traitor," was the verdict from Gen. Reinhard Gehlen, the founder of Germany's postwar intelligence agency who had been Hitler's director of military intelligence.

When Mr. John fled back to the West from East Berlin 15 months later, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

Mr. John served two-thirds of his sentence, but now, four decades later, he wants another day in court.

KGB documents

Just this month, he asked to reopen his case, based on KGB documents recently released in Moscow that he swears will clear his name.

Mr. John's attorney, Gerhard Jungfer, says he has depositions from Lubyanka case officers in Moscow who confirm they plotted the kidnapping of Mr. John -- he was wooed to a meeting in East Berlin, where he was fed drugged coffee and cognac -- to discredit West Germany.

Mr. John wants none of the July 20 anniversary celebrations, and even turned down an opportunity to join Chancellor Kohl at the Bendler Block today.

"After the war, so many people pretended they were anti-Nazis," he said.

"Of course, they weren't. It is the same thing today. All of these politicians and military leaders claim they would have acted like Stauffenberg, like the rest of us. I know; they would not have.

"Let the politicians speak. I don't care. All I know is one thing: The mentality of people who brought Hitler to power is not dead."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.