“The Motives of the Men Who Sought Hitler’s Life,” by W. Von Eckardt
May 13, 1946

“Deo—Patriae—Humanitati,” for God, country, and humanity, was the motto of the Germans who attempted to overthrow the regime which made their country the most hated nation in the world. The integrity and motives of the conspirators of the July 20th attempt to do away with Hitler are still doubted by many. The fact that the same group made any number of previous attempts since the first serious one was foiled by Mr. Chamberlain’s fatal arrival in Munich on September 29, 1938, does not seem to clear it of the suspicion of having acted only in order to avoid total defeat. Defeatism was, of course, the motive of a few hard-boiled, calculating generals, who had refused for years to participate, playing both sides of the fence, and who were executed only for their last minute consent to support the putsch if it should succeed. The men, however, who had for years tried to move the army into action against the regime were motivated by even more than earnest patriotism. Throughout the utterances and convictions of all the real conspirators one finds a sincere spiritual premise, which seems sadly lacking in most of the victorious “anti-fascist” forces today.

Their basic conviction seems to me perfectly expressed in a passage of Peter Yorck von Wartenburg’s testimony before the Nazi tribunal. We found the minutes of the People’s Court trials of eight of the principal participants of the July 20th putsch when we came to Berlin. The trial was presided over by the notorious, sardonic Nazi “judge” Roland Freisler, who met his fate in an air-raid on Berlin early in 1945. Yorck von Wartenburg was one of the defendants charged with the attempted assassination of the Führer and conspiracy against the State.

Yorck von Wartenburg: “Mr. President, I have already stated during my interrogation, that the national-socialist ideology developed thus, that I…”

The President, Dr. Freisler: (interrupting) “…could not agree! To say it in concrete terms, you declared: In the Jewish question you disagreed with the extermination of Jews, you disagreed with the national-socialist conception of justice.”

Yorck von Wartenburg: “The decisive factor, which connects all these questions are the totalitarian demands of the State towards the citizen, which force him to cast aside his religious and moral obligations to God.”

It was the struggle against the totalitarian demands of the State which united the German opposition from the political left to the right. This strong anti-totalitarian feeling, based on a simple return to Christian ethics, dominated the thoughts and the, obviously rare, writings of all participants of the attempted putsch, in which almost all efforts of the German opposition culminated. Time and again we find this conscious return to Christian morality on which all was to be based, and which has nothing in common with church-politics, dogma, or ultramontane separatism.

Hellmuth von Moltke writes to his wife in his last letter, which was smuggled out of prison, that the Nazis could not prove his or his friends’ active participation (he was, of course, most active). “But one thought remained: How can Christianity be an anker of salvation in times of chaos? This lone thought demands five heads tomorrow, and later those of Steltzer and Haubach.”

By the end of 1943 Carl Goerdeler had written the proposed declaration which his government meant to proclaim to his people and the world in the event the putsch would succeed. It reads in part:

“The Reich government rejects in all seriousness the idea of the totalitarian state, which never aims at bringing all the forces of the nation together… The Reich government begins its task by subordinating the power of the state to the laws of morality and justice. It respects the individual, the family, the religious confessions, the professional associations, the local self-governments, and the free trade-unions. But it demands that they all assume their obligations toward the common good.”

It has often been doubted that real unity of purposes could have been possible between Wehrmacht officers such as Beck and von Witzleben, nationalist conservatives such as Ambassador von Hassell and Minister of Finance Popitz, romantic dissident Nazis such as Albrecht Haushofer and Fritz von der Schulenburg, Catholic trade-unionists such as Jakob Kaiser and Bernhard Letterhaus, and true socialists such as Wilhelm Leuschner and Theo Haubach. Yet, their unity went further than a mere political coalition because of their like conception of the Nazi evil. The “youngsters” found the common basis during long discussions in Kreisau, the estate of Hellmuth von Moltke. They attempted nothing less than the synthesis between real socialism and individual freedom. They sought it in the laws of morality, Christian ethics, and justice under which all anti-totalitarian forces could and had to unite.

Under the unimaginable pressure of the brown Thousand Year reign, far-reaching unity in this sense had already been accomplished in many respects: Clandestine conversations between the Catholic and socialist trade-union leaders, Jakob Kaiser and Wilhelm Leuschner, resulted in the amalgamation of the two trade-unions. Representatives of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches met in secret discussions to renew the old arguments held between Luther and Zwingli. They realized that in their common plight all differences shrank to unimportance so that soon the synthesis was found. Even Catholics and Protestants met secretly in the monastery of Ettal and discovered that a great deal which had separated them for centuries had now disappeared. They found common ground which made close practical cooperation in their political and spiritual illegal work possible and imperative.

The participation of the churches must not be underestimated. Jesuits and Protestant ministers conspired together with the military and the Socialists. Pastor Gerstenmaier participated actively in the War Office in Berlin when the putsch was released from there. When the socialist Carlo Mierendorff informed the German Bishops of both denominations of the program of the conspiracy, the Bishop of Fulda remarked: “At last there is some action!”

Immediately before his execution on September 29, 1944, Wilhelm Leuschner wrote to his son: “Stay united, build up again!” And to a fellow prisoner in the death camp of Ravensbrück, where he was not allowed to speak any more, he communicated one word in sign language: “Unity.”

Nearly all of these courageous men are dead today. They did not hurl political slogans against the guns of their murderers or shout them from the gallows. Only this intense modesty and the calm of deep Christian conviction speaks out the last utterances of those who attempted to free their country of the dictator, whom Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “The anti-Christ.”

Then came the total collapse and the pull and pressure from many sides—from a world which did not want to know anything about all this. Herr Dr. Goebbels had succeeded to make the world believe to this very day that only “a small clique of reactionaries and discouraged officers” were involved. At best dubious neo-Nazis in Germany attempt to hide behind a July 20th Legend.

But nevertheless, I believe that a simple conscious militant humanism which was the ideal of the German opposition, led by Goerdeler and Leuschner, is still alive in some of the young people in Germany. Their number is small, but they may count. Just as in other countries which were under the heel of fascism, the common experience of the “resistance” will undoubtedly have great influence on the cultural and political life of Germany in the years to come.

While I was in Germany the majority of the people were still completely apathetic. If you saw the endless ruins and all the misery you would know that nothing else could be expected. Life consisted of one great effort to find shelter in the ruins and to get the few measly potatoes. Most Germans, then, were wandering along the roads—searching for their homes, for relatives, and for work. There was little time for reflection. And yet, the strongest impression which I gained from talks with many young people in Germany, was the articulate rejection of totalitarianism, coupled with a strangely emphatic recognition of Christian ethical values. It seemed the only possible reaction to these years of terror. Especially some of the young people who had in the early years embraced Nazism, learned, under the psychological pressure of the regime, and particularly at the Eastern front, that whatever the goal, the means never justify the end.

Only slowly will young people be able to translate this recognition into political action. There are no leaders. Many of them distrust the traditional political parties, which they often believe to be burdened by historical mistakes. Many of them abstain from political participation under present conditions because present policies are not of their own making and they do not want to be called “collaborators.” Others are just modest and want to give themselves time for reflection and an education. During the hectic war years there was no time to think or study, often not even to read. Such Germans are well aware how completely shut off they were from the outside world. “We lived like under a shroud” one of them told me.

It is not cowardice but shows responsibility that just such people do not wish to participate prematurely in the political struggles of the day. By example and an intensification of the personal life alone can they hope to have an influence on the larger numbers of the confused, mislead, and utterly unhappy German youth. Let us not demand phrases or bombastic demonstrations. Everyone in Germany has enough of that. The spiritual inheritance of the murdered German anti-Nazis is still alive—it might yet take roots and spread, if only the victors would see it.

Wolf Von Eckardt (1918 – 1995) was a Jewish German from Berlin who fled the country in 1936 for the United States. In the Second World War, he worked in Army intelligence and afterward served the West German government as an advisor. In 1963 he became the Washington Post’s architecture critic until 1981, but then wrote for Time until 1985.