I have just read a curiously fascinating little book that has lain unread in my shelves for some years. It is called Valkyrie: the Plot to Kill Hitler, was written by a man called Philipp Von Boeselager, and was first published in English in 2009, the year after his death. He was the last remaining member of the great conspiracy that tried many times unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler, culminating in the attempt on July 20 1944. Although he had always been reluctant to discuss his experience, he finally realized it was up to him to record the details of a plot that, had it succeeded, could have changed history, and saved the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who were subsequently killed as the war continued until the German surrender on May 7, 1945.
The fascination of the book comes not so much from the detailed story of the plotting, as from the fact that Von Boeselager was a member of the high German aristocracy, from a family long associated with the German military, and his account of the war is told from the point of view of such a rigidly proper viewpoint as to be, in its way, almost amusing.
Great attention is paid to the rigid requirements of citizenship placed on members of this high Catholic family of nine children, brought up in an immense castle, fathered by a man described as “a cultured man of letters. Originally from Brussels on his mother’s side, he considered the European nobility a single unit. He hunted all over the continent, and spoke four or five languages….He attached particular importance ro learning how to make proper use of freedom --- and the capacity for Christian discernment which was for him its corollary --- and of hunting."
Philipp was born in 1917, his elder brother Georg, who became a co-member of the conspiracy, in 1915: Georg is portrayed as the absolute epitome of the military hero, a leader of men, always concerned about his soldiers, a brilliant strategist and fighter, who eventually fell in the service of his country after giving everything he had to its cause. The boys were 18 and 15 when the Nazis came to power in 1933, an event that left their family rather indifferent, for the father was not sorry to see the end of the Weimar republic, nor of the humiliation they had felt after the defeat in the First World War. “My father believed in European unity before it was fashionable to do so….as a former officer… he was a patriot and he wanted to see Germany regain all its rights as a great nation…..We had no more need to be ashamed of wanting to restore Germany than had the French who in1914 wanted to return Alsace and Lorraine to France.”
Georg passed his final exams in 1934: a man given to action, loving the outdoor life, he wanted to become a military officer. “It seemed to us that the army was the only institution that had remained faithful to its principles and was capable, through its vitality and culture, of preserving its identity and, especially, its autonomy with respect to the government.” When Philipp’s turn came he asked the advice of his grandfather, telling him he was leaning towards a career in diplomacy, but the old man said, “My boy, in diplomacy it’s not always good to tell the whole truth, but with the Nazis you’d have to simply lie, that wouldn’t be suitable for you. Choose the army instead; war is coming.”
So, the brothers joined the cavalry, to which they were devoted for the rest of their lives. Philipp joined the Fourth Army which entered France in May, 1940, exhibiting an effortless superiority to the French army. He tells a story of approaching his adversaries on the battlefield under a white flag and making a deal with them to save lives. When a superior arrived and ordered him into action, he refused because of the deal he had made, and when the superior persisted, he drew his gun, pointed it at his superior, and forced him to yield. “Everything went as planned, without shedding a drop of blood. ..few people knew what had happened, and we tried to keep it quiet.” His outfit was poised for the attack on England, but when England refused to surrender, they were suddenly transferred to Poland, very close to the USSR, which they attacked on June 23, 1941.
He became aide-de-camp to Field Marshal von Kluge. Noticing a bald statement in a field report, “Special treatment for five gypsies,” he asked for an explanation of the responsible officer, a man with a scandalous reputation, embittered by his treatment during the First War, what “special treatment” meant. “Those? We shot them!”
“What do you mean, you shot them! After a trial before a military tribunal?”
“No, of course not. All the Jews and Gypsies we pick up are liquidated, shot.” Philipp thought his Marshal would explode as he protested in the name of the Geneva conventions, the laws of war, and even the interests of the German army. But eventually he drew from the officer the rejoinder: “Jews and Gypsies are among the Reich’s enemies. We have to liquidate them.”
The war had been raging for three years by this time, and all of Western Europe had been conquered by Hitler’s army, so it does seem to me rather unlikely that even a rigidly trained military officer full of morality and fighting spunk could have found nothing, until this moment, to arouse in him feelings of disgust at what his nation, and its army, had been doing.
His account of the unsuccessful advance on Moscow is accompanied by careless references of contempt for the Russian soldiers, who, we are given to understand, were as often as not drunk on vodka, and were thrown into certain death by careless officers. Also, although mostly in the notes at the back of the book, Russian citizens are recorded as protesting against the government foisted on them by the Communist authorities. Yet somehow or other, resistance offered by partisans, citizen militias, proved to be a major problem as the German advance was stalled, and then gradually turned back, this highly disciplined German army thrown into a disastrous retreat, from which they were never rescued.
He gives a harrowing picture of the state of the German army under the withering bombardment they suffered, especially once the Soviet forces were armed with newly supplied American weapons. Some severe doubts have in recent years been cast on the behaviour of the German troops, which some German authors and historians have claimed were stoked by massive quantities of drugs that kept them awake as they marched back and forth across the frozen tundra.
From out of their massive retreat, a group of dissenting officers began to conspire to assassinate Hitler, whose crazy military decisions were making defeat almost inevitable. They realized that just to remove Hitler would not be enough: he could be replaced by someone who might conceivably be worse. So various planned assassination attempts were stalled because neither Himmler nor Goering nor Goebbels were also present, as they would need to be if a coup d’etat were to succeed.
The attempt, when it was made by Claus von Stauffenberg, the severely wounded man whose job was made more difficult by his injuries, did not succeed in anything except the death of hundreds of conspirators and people connected to them. Of course, a peripheral result was the demonstration to their adversaries that such a determined resistance to Hitler did exist.
On another point the book is strangely silent. Neither Philipp nor his brother Georg, though deeply committed to the conspiracy, was arrested, and no satisfactory explanation is offered for this when virtually every other conspirator was either summarily shot or imprisoned.
This little book does contain an account that could be used as a warning in the present day: that no matter how disciplined and well trained an army, it can nevertheless fall into the hands of unscrupulous national leaders. One does not have to look too far in the present world to envisage the possibility --- however remote it may seem --- that something similar could happen, not far from our borders, that would be a disaster for the entire modern world.