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

Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 16

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.

"Of course it helped me. Some talked, and as a result some people were unnecessarily sent to the gallows," he said.

The purge that followed the uprising claimed around 140 lives, among them that of Kleist's father, who had long been an opponent of the Nazis. Executions dragged on until just weeks before the war ended, with the Third Reich already in freefall.

In total, some 5,500 conspirators and political opponents were rounded up and interned after the abortive putsch.

EITHER TRAITORS OR COLLABORATORS

Long a divisive topic, July 20 is now seen as a day Germany can be proud of, one which proved there were Germans in positions of high authority ready to risk their lives to end the tyranny that plunged the country into its darkest hour.

"The history of July 20 is one of the few things that makes the history of the Third Reich bearable," Hartmann von der Tann, editor-in-chief of the German public broadcaster ARD, said recently.

It was not always so, according to Christian Hartmann from the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich.

"For years after the war [the plotters] were regarded as betrayers of the Fatherland," Hartmann said.

Later generations of leftist students dismissed them as collaborators with a fascist regime, he added.

"Now, though, I think they've become a fixed part of the German consciousness," Hartmann said. "But it did take a while."

A recent nationwide poll by ZDF television on the "best German" of all time featured a number of prominent resistance fighters in its top 50, including Stauffenberg.

The plot's 60th anniversary has coincided with a surge in media interest in the subject in Germany and the release of the first new feature films on the events in almost 50 years.

Kleist, who became a publisher after the war, is loath to dwell on the past and gives few interviews about the conspiracy.

"The matter's closed for me now. There's nothing more that can be changed about it," Kleist said. "I pay much more attention to the future than I do to the past."