Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Bendlerstrasse

Frontage of the Bendlerblock Complex
The July 20, 1944 coup attempt was centred in the Bendlerblock, the headquarters of the Allgemeines Heeresamt (General Army Office) and Ersatzheer (Reserve or Home Army). The site was commonly referred to by the adjoining street name, the Bendlerstrasse. The site is a large complex of buildings that is located directly south of the Tiergarten, on the Landwehr Canal. The complex was also the headquarters of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) or combined armed forces high command before its relocation to Zossen, south of Berlin. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris' Abwehr counter-intelligence organisation was also located in this complex until relocated to Zossen in 1943.

The site saw several significant historical events through its years of occupancy by the army and naval arms of the military services. The expansion of the German navy was planned here in the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II and it was the site of Hitler's speech of February 3, 1933, on Lebensraum (living space) in the east. The site is now best known or being the setting for the coup d'etat phase of the July 20, 1944 bomb plot. 

The Bendlerblock was severely damaged in the Battle of Berlin in 1945, when it served as Helmuth Weidling's headquarters for all German forces fighting the advance of the Russians.

German Resistance Memorial Museum
The site is currently occupied by various government ministries with the exception of that portion of the site were the coup was run in 1944. This is now the site of the German Resistance Memorial, a museum dedicated to all forms of resistance to the Nazis. 

The memorial courtyard is a public site dedicated to the memory of the officers who died there in the early hours of July 21, 1944. It also provides a more general memorial site to those who took part in the bomb plot. When I visited the site late on a Sunday afternoon in 2006, I found it to be a very haunting place. I had the place completely to myself and found that the impact of the courtyard was magnified by the effect of surrounding office buildings suppressing the ambient street noise usually heard in such a large city like Berlin. Its a place of quiet reflection most days and on the anniversary of the bomb plot, it is a focal point for a large memorial service that involves government and foreign dignitaries, senior soldiers, and descendants of officers and others individuals who took part in the resistance.
Truck-Sized Entrance to the Site


The entrance into the courtyard is found on the east side of the complex. One enters the site through a large sized opening with a very strong barred swinging gate. In July 1944, the courtyard looked very different, with construction materials, sandbags and a large pile of sand being stored in the location. It was here that Valkyrie conspirators Claus von Stauffenberg, Werner von Haeften, Friedrich Olbricht and Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim were shot. The firing squad was ordered under the personal authority by Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army. The execution was carried out by soldiers from the Berlin Guard Battalion.

Inscription at the Courtyard Entrance

The memorial courtyard was designed by Professor Erich Reusch and the following inscription was engraved in the wall of the entrance in 1980:

"Here in the former Army High Command, Germans organized the attempt to overthrow the lawless National Socialist regime on July 20, 1944. For this they sacrificed their lives."

A Photo of Me Standing in the Bendler Courtyard - the Entrance to the GDW is to the Right of the Tree
 


Lookin gthe Other Direction in the Bendlerblock Memorial Courtyard Showing Some of the Memorial Installations






The memorial courtyard was re-designed by Professor Erich Reusch and the following inscription was engraved in the wall of the entrance in 1980:

"Here in the former Army High Command, Germans organized the attempt to overthrow the lawless National Socialist regime on July 20, 1944. For this they sacrificed their lives."
 
Bound Prisoner Statue
On July 20, 1953, Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter unveiled a striking monument created by Professor Richard Scheibe; a figure of a bound man in bronze. Some believe that this is intended to be a portrait of Stauffenberg and admittedly it does look somewhat like him. I believe the sculpture is intended to portray a generic political prisoner.

Set into the cobbles, in front of the bound figure is a bronze plaque with the following words written by Professor Edwin Redslob:

"You did not bear the shame.
You fought back.
You gave the great,
Forever tireless
Sign of change,
Sacrificing your glowing life
For freedom,
Justice, and honor."


These are the words quoted at the conclusion of the recent film "Valkyrie."

Professor Redslob's Quote
On the western wall of the courtyard is another small bronze plaque set in the wall. It would be easy to miss given the immediate visual impact of the bound man sculpture. The fact that the wall plaque is almost always adorned with a large wreath ensures that even the casual visitor will see it. And that is a good thing as this is the most specific memorial to the men of July 20.

On July 20, 1960, Mayor Franz Amrehn unveiled this memorial plaque in the commemorative courtyard bearing the names of the five officers who were executed in the Bendler Block on July 20, 1944.

The plaque lists the five officers in order of rank and Stauffenberg's name strangely changes the order from the more often used Oberst Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg:
 
"Here died for Germany on July 20, 1944 
Generaloberst Ludwig Beck
General der Infanterie Friedrich Olbricht
Oberst Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg
Oberst Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim
Oberleutnant Werner von Haeften"


One enters the Home Army's portion of the sprawling Bendlerblock complex from the memorial courtyard. Upon entry, one is greeted by the same red stone staircase that was used by the condemned officers shot in the wee hours of July 21. One can imagine Werner von Haeften breaking away from the soldiers of the firing squad who were bringing him and his three comrades down from their offices to the dark courtyard lit only by the headlights of a few army trucks. Von Haeften tried to flee from his escort as his survival instinct took him over. One can admire how quickly he settled himself down, as witnesses noted that when the firing squd commenced its duty, he threw himself in front of Stauffenberg and took the bullet meant for his mentor.


Stauffenberg
As shown above, the former offices of the Ersatzheer have been beautifully refinished and made into a very effective musuem to the German Resistance in all of its forms. While located in the actual offices of the officers who tried to kill Hitler and take over the Nazi government in 1944, the displays include resistance by the churches, the communists, the Jews, as well as non-military groups like the White Rose and the Kreisau Circle. But as one might expect, the July 20 plot takes centre stage and the displays show key documents and photos of the main actors in this tense drama.

As one proceeds through the exhibit, one is faced with several stark reminders of the events that took place here. The display on Claus von Stauffenberg is located in his former office, where a very striking bust of the colonel sits on the mantle. Stauffenberg's life and career are traced via well-known photos.

In another room, there is a small plaque on the wall. The plaque commemorates Generaloberst Ludwig Beck, one of the key leaders of the July plot, s well as earlier conspiracies dating back to 1938. Beck resigned s Chief of the General Staff in 1938, after trying to get other senior officers to resign en masse in protest against Hitler's bellicose policies. Beck firmly believed that Hitler would lead Germany into a world war and, worse still, that he would do it before  the military was ready to fight it successully.  When all was clearly lost for the conspiracy on the night of July 20, Beck successfully appealed to hiold comrade Generaloberst Fromm for permission to take his own life rather than face retribution and potentially torture from the regime. Beck borrowed a side  arm form a Guard Battalion officer and made two unsuccessful attempts to shoot himself in the head. He only succeeded in wounding himself. Fromm ordered an officer from the Guard Battalion to finish the job. That individual allocated the unpleasant duty to one of his NCOs, who ended the life of the respected former Chief of the General Staff with the coup de grace.

Looking at the Documents in Claus von Stauffenberg's Office in the Bendlerstrasse
My Son in the Museum
The Gedenkstaette Deutscher Widerstand (GDW) is currently undergoing renovations and is closed from July 2014 to 2015. If you are in Berlin after it reopens and if you have an interest in this very tragic and important event, which could and should have decisively changed the course of European and world history, the GDW is well worth setting aside some time to visit.

The museum also has its own excellent web site with material in both German and English. The site describes the history of the Bendlerblock and provides short biographies of many of those who were invlved in resistance against the Nazis from 1933 to 1945. The main players in the military plots are covered, but so are the small time individual resisters who took stands based on their own consciences with little hope of making a difference or even of being remembered by history.

Note: Photos on this page were taken by myself or my son on our visit in 2006,



Wednesday, March 13, 2013

R.I.P. Ewald Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin

Lt. Ewald Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin
Ewald Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin died Friday March 8, 2013.

The announcement of his passing came on March 13, the 70th anniversary of Operation Flash (aka Operations Spark), Henning von Tresckow's 1943 assassination attempt on Hitler involving the secreting of a bomb on Hitler's plane during his rare visit to the Eastern Front HQ of Army Group Centre. Kleist was the sole remaining survivor of those who were directly involved in the July 20, 1944 bomb plot and who were ctually present in the HQ of the Home Army in the Bendlerblock on July 20. Although he was heavily involved in the Operation Valkyrie plot, for some unknown reason he strangely escaped retribution while others who were only peripherally involved were executed like cattle at Pl├Âtzensee Prison in Berlin.

Leutnant von Kleist was the son of Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, an East Prussian landowner and early and adamant opponent of Hitler. Kleist the elder was heavily involved in Hans Oster's 1938 coup attempt. He acted as  primary diplomatic liaison to the British government as the Sudetenland Crisis percolated. Prior to the collapse of the nascent coup as a resultof the Munich conference, Kleist visited high level members of the British government including Loard Halifax (Foreign Minsiter) and Winston Churchill (then out of power) to lobby for a firm stand to be taken against Hitler.

Ewald Heinrich was a young Leutnant in the famous 9th Potsdam Infantry Regiment, a unit that another famous resister, Axel von dem Bussche-Streithorst once said was notorious for having more men executed for involvement in the German Resistance than any other. While serving in the regiment, Kleist was recruited as an active resister by his commander Fritz (Fritzi) Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg. Schulenburg was to serve as deputy chief of the Berlin police force during the muddle that was July 20, 1944.

In January 1944, Kleist was approached by Oberst Claus Graf von Stauffenberg and asked if he would consider carrying out a suicide bomb attack on Hitler during an upcoming planned demonstration of new army uniforms. Kleist's brother officer in the 9th Regiment, Axel von dem Bussche-Streithorst, had previously volunteered for such an attack after witnessing an SS atrocity in the East. However, the demonstration was delayed and before it could be rescheduled, von dem Bussche was temporarily posted back to his unit on the Russian front where he was wounded and lost a leg.


Ewald von Kleist (the elder)
Kleist asked for 24 hours to think over the proposal and returned home to discuss it with his father. Kleist the
elder noted his son's distracted manner and asked what was wrong. After the son described Stauffenberg's plan, the father turned away and gazed out the window for a time before turning back to face his son. If Ewald Heinrich was expecting to be barred from carrying out the plan, he was in for a surprise. His father told him: "Yes. You must do it. A man who is offered such a chance and who does not do it can never be happy in this life again." It can only be imagined what saying these words cost the father. Kleist returned to Stauffenberg and agreed to the plan. He attack was never carried out due to the fact that the demonstration was rescheduled and the opportunity was lost.

Kleist was the last survivor of those who were actually present at the Bendlerstrasse on July 20. He witnessed this historic event first hand and took an active role in it. He has given several interviews post-war, notably in his appearance in the Oscar nominated documentary "The Restless Conscience," in which he convincingly describes the tension in the Bendlerblock on that day. He stated that normally there is a certain weight of the air upon one's skin, but on that day, when "history was balancing on the edge of a knife," the weight of the atmosphere on his skin seemed a thousand times heavier.

Kleist was one of four young subalterns from the 9th Regiment sent by Schulenburg to assist the plotters during the coup. He was there when Stauffenberg returned from Wolfschanze and he witnessed the drama that occurred when Generaloberst Fromm refused to co-operate in issuing the Operation Valkyrie orders. In company with Stauffenberg's ADC Werner von Haeften, Kleist drew his pistol when Fromm threatened the plotters with arrest. He jammed his weapon into Fromm's stomach and arrested him instead. Later in the day, between 6 and 7 PM, Kleist did the same to General Joachim von Kortzfleisch, the Commander of  Berlin's military district Wehrkreis III, when he visited the Bendlerblock and denied Hitler was dead. Later in the evening General der Infanterie Olbricht sent Kleist into the streets surrounding the Bendlerblock to review the posture of Remer's Gro├čdeutschland
Guard battalion. He was later sent out on missions to liaise with the city commandant and police units.

Otto Skorzeny in the Bendler Courtyard Iuly 21, 1944
When the coup failed, Kleist was arrested as an active conspirator. There were ample witnesses to his involvement through the day. He made two attempts to escape on the night of july 20. In the first he struck down a guard who was armed with rifle and fixed bayonet and in the second he struggled free of an officer. The second time, he fled into a room in search of a window to leap from and instead burst into a room full of SS. When Otto Skorzeny toured the premises early in the morning of the 21st, he walked into a room where Kleist sat handcuffed to a chair. Not seeing the restraints, Skorzeny bowed and introduced himself thinking Kleist was a loyal officer who had assisted in retaking the building.

Amazingly, Kleist was not executed that night. In fact he was not executed at all or even held in custody for the duration. He saw his father one last time but he could not exchange words with him. He remembers a look from his father in the basement cells of the Gestapo HQ in the Prinzalbrechtstrasse that he interpreted as "I hope you behave." Soon after, Kleist the elder was sentenced to death by Volksgerichtshof or "Peoples' CourtJudge Roland Freisler and he was decapitated at Ploetzensee. Ewald Heinrich was released for lack of evidence and he immediately made his way to the front where he was captured. Kleist wonders to this day why he was released when he had been arrested in the commission of treasonous acts before many witnesses, all in a country where even a negative statement or ill-timed joke about Hitler could send you to the gallows. One theory he has heard is that the Gestapo released him hoping that he would lead them to his co-conspitator and brother officer, Ludwig von Hammerstein-Equord, who had successfully eluded capture and gone underground.

Kleist Interviewed in the Oscar-nominated Film "The Restless Conscience,"


After the war, Kleist founded a respected publishing house and the annual Munich Security Conference, to this day a key date on the international security calendar. The conference still draws senior statesmen, soldiers and foreign service officers from around the globe.


Kleist's is the only signature in my collection that was signed for me personally and for that reason has a special place in my collection. I wrote to him in 2006 decribing my interest and requesting an autograph to add to my other signatures. He generously provided a signed embossed card, shown below with the transmittal letter from his secretary.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Overview and Intent

A continuous and active German resistance to the twelve-year rule of the National Socialist Party existed from before the date of Hitler's seizure of power to the last days of the Reich in 1945. The movement was centred in various locations and within different organizations through the 1933 - 1945 period. Individuals of differing backgrounds and motivations took more or less active roles in resisting Hitler. While the resistance, or Widerstand as it is referred to in German, was very small in order to preserve security, it nevertheless represented a cross section of the nation including influential members drawn from the armed forces; the churches; academia; and government. Officers and officials of political stripes were involved, including monarchists; socialists; communists; conservatives and ex-Nazis.

Those who laid everything on the line to take part in the resistance have only recently started to receive their due from the media and from society in general. Recent films like "The Last Days of Sophie Scholl" in Germany and the U.S. "Valkyrie" have raised the public's general consciousness of the resistance within Germany.

Sir John Wheeler-Bennett
Immediately after World War II, the western allies had no real interest in recognizing the moral worth of the Widerstand or its participantsThere was no suppressing the fact that on July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg had launched his bomb plot, but it was represented in many official publications and communications as the act of traitors leaving a sinking ship when all was clearly lost. Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, an English historian seconded to the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department, penned an infamous internal memorandum that reads today as a cold blooded condemnation of the purpose and character of the July 20 conspirators. It seems to welcome the bloody purge that followed the event: "The Gestapo and the SS have done us an appreciable service in removing a selection of those who would undoubtedly have posed as 'good' Germans after the war . . . The killing of Germans by Germans will save us from future embarrassments of many kinds."1. It is unclear whether Wheeler-Bennett was specifically referring to the risk that certain members of the Widerstand, particularly those representing the German Foreign Office, could attest to the fact that they had tried to warn the British government about Hitler's plans on multiple occasions and at great personal risk in the pre-war period but had been resolutely ignored. After the war, Wheeler-Bennett penned one of the first histories of the resistance in English, a generally unfavourable history called "The Nemesis of Power."

This suspicion paralleled the view of many Germans in the immediate post-war period, who generally saw the resisters as traitors to the country rather than as conspirators against Hitler personally. Its hard to recognize the courage of neighbours who put their own lives, and those of their family and friends, at risk when you did not take that same action yourself.Only in the 1950's and 1960's did a new generation in Germany start to see merit and honour in the actions of the small group who defied the Nazis. But the division of Germany into a democratic west and a communist east preserved some negative stereotyping of certain individuals and of bands of those who actively or passively stood up to Hitler. It was only with the unification of Germany and the passing of the generation that took an active part in the war that the trend toward seeing the various resistance groups in a positive light started to become dominant.

This blog will serve to summarize my research, opinions and general thoughts on the Widerstand. It will not be organized in any particular way and it will consist of primarily of individual biographies and profiles, summaries of specific plots and resistance actions against Hitler, and descriptions of major resister groups. Hopefully, over time, it will all start to hang together.

I am not a professional historian. But I have studied these men and women for more than ten years so I suppose I know more than the average person in this one specific area of interest. Finally, I do not speak or write German, yet many of the most important documentary sources (original, in print and on the internet) are in that language. I will do my best to translate them properly using dictionaries and internet translators when I do use them. Apologies in advance to the many German speakers for any inaccuracies that will creep in.