Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Plotter recalls failed attempt to kill Hitler

After 60 years, one man isgaining recognition in Germanyfor his boldness in tryingto bring down the Fuehrer

REUTERS , Berlin

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist had a vision of eternal damnation as he was taken in for questioning at Gestapo headquarters in Berlin over the attempt to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944.

"I thought of the lines from the Divine Comedy: `Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,'" Kleist said, referring to the inscription over the gates to hell described in Dante's medieval opus.

Sixty years ago, Kleist was a 22-year-old army lieutenant and part of the largely military conspiracy which carried out a bomb attack on Hitler and attempted a coup d'etat in Berlin.

The bomb killed four but Hitler emerged almost unscathed, dooming the coup to failure and ushering in brutal reprisals and the final, bloodiest phase of World War II.

"We had to try something," said Kleist, whose forceful and energetic manner belie his 82 years. "The things being done by those criminals in Germany's name were simply appalling."

The plot's driving force was the aristocrat Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a man deeply opposed to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews, who planted the bomb in a briefcase under a table close to Hitler in his "Wolf's Lair" headquarters in modern Poland.

Of an estimated 40 assassination attempts, only Stauffenberg and the solo bombing of a Munich beer hall in 1939 by a Swabian joiner Georg Elser came close to claiming the Fuehrer's life.

But for the intervention of fate, Kleist might have killed Hitler himself. In early 1944, he had agreed with Stauffenberg to carry out a suicide bombing on the Nazi leader as he inspected new uniforms, but the inspection was cancelled at short notice.

While most Germans remained loyal to Hitler through almost six years of warfare and genocide, the plotters hoped that removing him and installing a new government could save Germany and end the war.

Kleist was always skeptical.

"We were too few," he said. "But it was a question of attitudes, and how criminal and in need of change the state seemed to you. And then you had to ask yourself how far you were willing to go -- even if that meant things could get nasty."

LONG LIVE OUR SACRED GERMANY!

Sitting inside the "Bendlerblock," the former Wehrmacht headquarters and nerve center of the coup bid, Kleist, one of the last surviving plotters, is quick to play down his bravery.

"It was no great achievement on my part," he said. "Once you've made a decision, fear can play no role."

The July plot was codenamed "Operation Valkyrie", originally an emergency government plan for suppressing internal unrest, but reconceived by the plotters as a pretext for putting down a would-be attempt by disgruntled Nazi leaders to seize power.

Kleist and the other conspirators, who included several top generals, succeeded in sealing off the government quarter in Berlin and arresting 1,200 SS and Gestapo members in Paris.

But defective planning, a lack of support and moments of crucial hesitation proved decisive and the rebellion foundered.

As darkness fell, Hitler regained the initiative. Soon after midnight, the now captive Stauffenberg was shot by firing squad, reportedly dying with the shout: "Long live our sacred Germany!"

Arrested, interrogated by the Gestapo and then interned for months in a concentration camp, Kleist was eventually released and sent back to the front where he survived the war.

He does not talk about how he escaped death, but admits his debt to comrades who refused to betray him under torture.

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