Martyrs and Modernity: Germany’s Heroes and the Left

Though she was never one of my instructors, I vividly recall Beate Ruhm von Oppen from my time as a graduate student at St. John’s College. Though the advance of years had slowed her gait and weakened her voice, I can attest – based on a few conversations – that age had left her mind keen. In retrospect I regret not having sought the benefit of that mind more often, when I had the chance: She died in 2004 at age 86, and her obituary proved something of an eye-opener for me and many of my classmates.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, and raised in Germany, [Oppen] finished her secondary school education in Holland, and later moved to England, where she studied at the University of Birmingham. During World War II she worked for the British Foreign Office, analyzing German propaganda. She then joined the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

In the late 1950s Oppen came to the United States. She took a job with the American Historical Association, combing through captured German documents at a facility in Alexandria, Virginia, known as Torpedo Factory. She also worked at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard.

Subsequently she was a visiting lecturer at Smith College, spent a year in the history department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and later joined the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where she researched the role of religion in the German Resistance to Nazism.

Oppen’s interest in the German Resistance led her to edit and translate the letters of Helmuth James von Moltke to his wife Freya (Letters to Freya). Moltke, a legal adviser in the High Command of the Wehrmacht, worked within the regime to undermine the Nazis, and was captured and executed. The German edition of the volume won the Scholl Prize, one of Germany’s most prestigious awards, in 1989.

Now that she’s passed on, the only way to know Oppen is via her work. As noted, her main focus vis-à-vis the German Resistance was Count Helmuth James von Moltke. But she also studied other topics, like the failed 1944 attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life and the reaction to this assassination attempt on the part of the British Foreign Office. The failed coup itself has been well-publicized recently thanks to the film Valkyrie, yet the Allied response at the time has remained out of the public eye. Based on first-hand experience, Oppen wrote of the atmosphere in the Foreign Office when news came that Hitler had survived the assassination attempt:

There was relief at the failure of the plot. Two reasons were given for it: One reasonable, the other less so and, so it seemed to me, excessively cold-blooded.
Success would have meant another ‘stab in the back’ legend and would have bedeviled a new German regime just as the legend that Germany was robbed of victory after the first world war bedeviled the Weimar Republic. That made some sense.  
The other, to my mind less respectable, reason was that the plotters were not the kind of people the Allies could work with.  

It seems that some English policymakers feared catching blue-blood cooties from exposure to – in Oppen’s wry wording – “too many counts and barons.” Remember that Anglo-American leaders had no qualms about turning some hundred thousand men, women, and children into radioactive briquettes in order to “end the war”. (That is, to end it unconditionally, without need of peace negotiations.) And recall that in order to defeat the Führer, Allied leaders were quite willing to make an alliance with that famed international humanitarian Joseph Stalin.
But as for working with Hitler’s enemies within the German aristocracy… well, apparently that was asking a bit much. Whoa – come now, there are limits, after all.
One such aristocratic persona non grata was Oppen’s biographical subject – grand-nephew of the famed Prussian field-marshal of the same name – Helmuth James von Moltke. Though active in a variety of spheres, Moltke’s most productive work is circumscribed by the Kreisau Circle, so-called after the count’s country estate where Protestant theologians, Catholic priests, and lay intellectuals gathered to discuss Germany’s fate. Moltke and his companions intended that post-Hitler Germany would not repeat the mistakes of Weimar, and sought some viable, humane vision with which to fill in the vacuum left by Nazism’s inevitable self-destruction.
The Kreisau papers describe a decentralized society anchored by organic institutions, in which regional autonomy and an independent local leadership class would impede the ascendancy of any totalitarian demagogue. This decentralist ideal flowed from Kreisau’s Christian orientation, which translated practically into an emphasis upon localism and small communities. Such communities based upon “naturally occurring ties between individuals” – i.e., the organic ties which bind families together and neighbors to one another – were in Moltke’s view the key to a sustainably sane society.
Per Moltke, National Socialism was a logical consequence of the modern trend toward political and economic consolidation, a consolidation which snuffed out both human identity and the economic means by which individuals might resist tyranny. Rendered anonymous and faceless like ants in a hive, modern mass-man had no chance for either spiritual or political freedom. Quite early on Moltke attributed the philosophical roots of this totalitarian trend to his bête-noir G.W. Hegel, warning that “... in my view, we are on the road which leads through Hegel to the deification of the state.”
How Moltke’s decentralized society would have turned out is anybody’s guess. And whether Moltke was right in blaming Hegel is debatable; certainly better-qualified heads than mine have questioned how culpable Hegel really is vis-à-vis the modern totalitarian impulse. Yet right answers or wrong, at least Moltke was asking the appropriate questions. While he may have fingered the wrong suspect, at the very least he was aware of the essential nature of the problem – which is more than one can say of most intellectuals then or today. This is worth emphasizing. While Moltke particularly abhorred Nazism, his remarks about the general trend toward “the idolized state” also applied to the Bolsheviks… and to the increasingly centralized regimes of America and Britain as well.
In any event, Moltke’s disdain for National Socialism cut short his potential career in the judiciary; he was called up to serve as legal advisor to the German High Command. From this post he strove wherever he could during the war to shield people from the Third Reich’s disregard of international law. One memorandum drafted by Moltke – regarding the abuse and mass-murders of Russian POWs – was directed at Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Protesting such barbaric measures, Moltke’s memo reminded Keitel that

… war captivity is neither revenge nor punishment, but solely protective custody, the only purpose of which is to prevent the prisoners of war from further participation in the war. This principle was developed in accordance with the view held by all armies that it is contrary to military tradition to kill or injure helpless people.

Keitel’s retort was that such “objections arise from the military concept of chivalrous warfare. This is the destruction of an ideology. Therefore I approve and back the measures.” One sees a grim logic in Keitel’s 1946 hanging by the Nuremberg tribunal – it was, after all, the natural extension of his own disregard for the laws of war and the treatment of captured enemies.
In this disregard we find a common ground among Communists, Nazis, and managerial-technocrats alike: The patronizing contempt for chivalry, that serious existential ideal which declares that it is better to lose a war fought honorably than to lose one’s humanity achieving “victory.” A people who worship material success and give no thought to what it means to be human will conceal their cowardly rejection of such ideals with talk of “practicality” and “realism”.
During the war Moltke saw firsthand the effects of such widespread rejection, thanks to fact-finding expeditions throughout Germany’s occupied territories. Even as most of his countrymen were celebrating Hitler’s victories of 1940 Moltke described the capture of Paris as “a triumph of evil”. Whenever the opportunity presented itself he obstructed the offenses of the Nazi regime, yet such achievements seemed to him rather “like winning a victory over a hydra. I chopped off one of the monster’s heads, and 10 new ones have grown in its place.”
Naturally Moltke’s activities and dissent attracted more and more negative attention as time went by, and in January of 1944 the Gestapo finally arrested him. Though several of his Kreisau colleagues were directly involved in the Valkyrie plot, investigators could find no direct evidence implicating the count in any explicitly illegal activities.
Hence in his case the death sentence was meted out solely on the basis of his intellectual leadership, which was deemed a threat to the state. As Moltke wrote to his wife shortly before his execution, “We are being hanged because we thought together... if we must indeed perish then by all means I am in favor of dying for that reason.” As to his motivation, he wrote that he faced his executioners “as a Christian and nothing else”. In a sort of backhanded compliment, the Reich was forced to admit that faith and ideas are every bit as dangerous as bombs and bullets.
Though he had passionately opposed Hitler from the very beginning and had striven to protect the helpless from the SS, neither Americans nor English shed many tears for Moltke when he was put to death by the Führer’s henchmen in 1945. Nor, for that matter, did Allied policymakers mourn much for any of the other dissidents and resistance operatives who were executed following the failure of Valkyrie. On the contrary, Anglo-American public relations organs announced that the July 20th attempt to assassinate Hitler – and the various homicidal purges of opposition figures – merely reflected a power struggle within Nazism itself.
An internal memo of the British Foreign Office neatly encapsulated the prevailing sentiment:

… we are better off with things as they are today than if the plot of July 20th had succeeded and Hitler had been assassinated... By the failure of the plot we have been spared the embarrassments, both at home and in the United States, which might have resulted from such a move, and, moreover, the present purge is presumably removing from the scene numerous individuals which might have caused us difficulty, not only had the plot succeeded, but also after the defeat of Nazi Germany...
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... It is to our advantage therefore that the purge should continue, since the killing of Germans by Germans will save us from future embarrassments of many kinds.

As observed by Beate Oppen, wartime analyst for the British Foreign Office, some English policymakers felt that “the loss of lives was hardly a consideration, indeed the loss of plotters’ lives evidently had its positive aspect.” Apparently “the subsequent enormous loss of Allied – and Jewish – lives in the eight and one half months the war in Europe continued” was “a necessary price to pay” in order to stick to the script: A successful coup would’ve meant that the Allies would not have the opportunity to pound Germany into rubble, and could also – as the memo put it – could have led to “embarrassments”.
Yet a successful revolution would also have meant an immediate settlement with the Allies, the death-camps shut down, and the sparing of those lives lost at the end of the war. To say nothing of Allied soldiers and German children, one cannot in any case see how Anne Frank – who perished at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp eight months after the unsuccessful coup – was “better off” with Hitler remaining in power till the very end.
Several hypotheses may explain the memo’s sentiments. For one thing, many progress-minded Anglo-American liberals loathed the German aristocracy – and Christian intellectuals, and meddlesome clergymen – just as much as Hitler did. Undoubtedly some among the avant-garde elite welcomed the prospect of a postwar German reconstruction sans interference from pesky partisans of traditional European civilization.
Another factor was simple nationalism and hostility toward Germans as such. Many English and Americans alike regarded the war less as an idealistic crusade against Nazi ideology than as a national struggle against the hateful Huns; the distinction between actual Germanic culture and the National Socialist perversion of that culture was undoubtedly blurry for some. Ergo the only good Kraut was a dead Kraut, regardless of what his actual convictions might be.
The third factor is skillfully highlighted by Pulitzer Prize-winning intelligence analyst Thomas Powers in his discussion of Britain’s so-called “Absolute Silence” policy. The British Foreign Office stuck to this policy of no contact with the German resistance even when it meant impairing the Allied war effort, as Powers notes:

How could the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), desperate for information about Hitler and his government, have failed to maintain contact with the many Germans who had knocked on British doors before the war?
General Hans Oster, the chief deputy to Admiral Canaris in the Abwehr, had committed conventional treason in passing on reports of Hitler’s military plans to the British and the Dutch. Otto John had contacted British intelligence in Lisbon. Is it really possible the SIS had turned a cold shoulder to these prime assets? The answer appears to be yes.

In this context the career of Hans Oster deserves a closer look. A German officer of the old school disgusted by the Nazis’ lawlessness and brutality, Oster had organized a plot to overthrow Hitler as early as 1938 – before the war even began. The elaborate “Oster Conspiracy” had unfortunately fizzled when Neville Chamberlain acceded to Hitler’s demands at Munich, thereby conferring upon the Führer an aura of invincibility and success which rendered a coup d’etat infeasible.
So Oster spent the war itself trying to undermine Hitler’s plans, assist the underground, and pass on German military secrets to the Allies. Simultaneously Oster’s colleague in the German military intelligence bureau, Hans von Dohnanyi, was busy with a project of his own. Count Dohnanyi orchestrated a covert operation code-named U-7, which smuggled German Jews to safety in Switzerland. This enterprise earned Dohnanyi posthumous honors from the Israeli government in 2003.
Yet during the war the existence of such rebels was unacknowledged by the very Allies they strove futilely to contact, and Powers speculates as to why:

The British refusal to have anything to do with the opposition [to Hitler] was almost certainly prompted, at least in part, by lingering embarrassment over the Chamberlain government’s miserable failure to resist Hitler stoutly when that might have been enough to prevent the war.

Ah, well – ignore a problem and it goes away. In 1944 the Gestapo discovered the resistance cell within the German intelligence service and placed both Oster and Dohnanyi under arrest. They were put into concentration camps and most conveniently hanged shortly before Germany fell. Hmm: “The Gestapo and the SS have done us an appreciable favor,” by eliminating those who would have “posed as ‘good Germans’”…
Lord Noel Annan spent the war with the British Joint Intelligence Office, and his opinion of the German resisters differed dramatically from the prevalent damning British consensus:

They had two ambitions, as the agonising last letters they wrote before their executions showed: To be true to their conscience and to uphold their honour. They knew they would be vilified as traitors, but by honour they meant preserving Germany, the country of Kant and Goethe, as a great power.
The plotters were heroic. They recognized how slim were their chances of success. Only those who have lived under a totalitarian regime with secret police and a servile judiciary can understand how difficult it was to plot and how ferocious the system of oppression.

Annan had considerably less admiration for some of his colleagues:

On the other hand, what is one to say of the Foreign Office, who after the war suppressed documents, manipulated evidence and refused to acknowledge or even give minimal recognition to the widows and children of the executed plotters? This is a squalid little chapter.

This squalid little chapter has yet to close. A great many would-be “debunkers” of the German resistance have crawled out of the academic woodwork since January’s release of Valkyrie, which focuses particularly upon chief Valkyrie conspirator Count Claus von Stauffenberg. Self-styled historical-integrity watchdogs urgently repeat the old self-serving meme of the British Foreign Office: There were no ‘good Germans’ during the war.
To this end every possible speck of dirt is dug up on Colonel Stauffenberg – who had initially supported Hitler, only becoming disillusioned with the Nazis in 1942. Said dirt is trotted out and gloatingly massaged into the central facts of his life, while everything admirable and honorable about the count is suppressed. And the resultant hatchet-job of omissions, venomously spin-doctored half-truths, and factoids are now leveled against a man a bit too dead to defend himself.
Among other things, Colonel Stauffenberg opposed and subverted his own High Command’s murderous policies vis-à-vis Russian POWs. Here in Bizarroworld, this carries no moral weight, or certainly not as much weight as bold denunciations of racism issued by heroically-fashionable P.C. pundits from the cozy halls of modern-day academia.
Meanwhile those resisters foresightful enough to oppose Nazism even well before the war – such as Moltke, Oster, Dohnanyi, Stauffenberg’s cousin Peter Yorck, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, et al… well, would-be debunkers have a tried-and-true way of dealing with these men, too: Absolute silence. They ignore such men in their diatribes against the German resistance, thereby airbrushing martyrs from the pages of history.
Such ignoble behavior is explicable if we recognize that the modern West’s supposed intellectual-class consists simply of sophists peddling a self-interested narrative. Only egalitarian progressives are true human beings, you see, and hence egalitarian progressives hold a monopoly on decency and virtue. Therefore the aristocrats, politically-incorrect theologians, and traditionalist army officers who comprised the German resistance must be dragged through the mud, if possible; if not, then they are dropped down the memory-hole.
Like the Nazis themselves, devotees of globalism are incapable of recognizing any merit in those who do not fit under their suffocating ideological blanket. After all, when leftists (and most so-called “conservatives”) start clucking about the perils of local and particular attachments, they hardly want to hear the echo of General Oster’s words, as quoted by the Dutch intelligence officer to whom Oster passed along German military secrets: “One might say I am a traitor, but in reality I am not. I consider myself a better German than all those who run after Hitler.” See, had Oster been a real hero, one worthy of remembering – why, he would have proclaimed nations obsolete and himself a universalized citizen-of-the-world.
And had Stauffenberg been a real hero, why, he would have realized much sooner that it was immoral to let himself be hampered by concerns about defending Germany from Bolshevik troops – who in some towns would later “rape every German female between 8 and 80.” (By this same imbecilic reasoning, presumably American Christians who regard abortion as murder should, therefore, yearn to see Taliban legions marching in bloody triumph down Main Street USA.)
Really, how could anyone fail to mark the contrast between the best representatives of the old European aristocracy on the one hand, and our own half-witted elite on the other? The former took Aristotle’s thesis of the “great-souled man” to heart, and in many cases were concerned enough about family traditions of honor and magnanimity to die for them. The latter seeks little more from life than the immediate-gratification of being “in.” I have seen the next generation of leadership up close, and it is not pretty: The ethical depths of bright young yuppiedom have been pretty exhaustively plumbed by Stuff White People Like. Perhaps the most optimistic thing one could say of our bourgeois-bohemian class is that most of them are simply too insipid and shallow to be deliberately wicked.
As illustration I recall a graduate school discussion of Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”, in which debate turned toward the necessity of walls for the maintenance of identity. At this, one Zenlightened bo-bo chimed in, “Why do we take it for granted that having an identity is a good thing? That’s, like, such a Western assumption.”
It is laughable to imply such a people embody sufficient integrity to even recognize totalitarianism, much less resist it.
As Moltke once said of his own countrymen:

No one causes me more problems than people who are so at ease with themselves. They are like chameleons: In a healthy society, they appear healthy, in a sick society like this one they appear sick. The truth is, though, that they are neither the one nor the other. They are fluff.

The appropriate question is not how any denizen of today’s posthumanized, internazi culture judges Moltke, or the German resistance, or the events of July 20, 1944. The question is whether this insanely decadent culture and its judgments still possess any worth at all.

Heroes and the left

Wonderful article - thanks for this thought-link; i'll look up mrs von Oppen and Moltke

We cannot be reminded too often how heavily the people steering the west since WWl have been defined by the communist creed that in order to build a just society 'old bourgeois culture' - the root of all evil - would have to go; preferably be destroyed.

That thought is still alive and uncontended; jealous hatred and resentment of 'the elite' and 'the rich' , even our past is still the ruling sentiment, to our great detriment

@marcfrans RE: German Resistance

I am equally wary of resistance on the part of the aristocracy and officer corps.  They desired to resurrect pre-war Imperial power and prestige.  Valkyrie was not put in motion to protest Case White, Case Yellow, Operation Sealion or even Operation Barbarossa.  Rather it intended to end the war when Hitler had reached "military overstretch", leaving Germany still in an advantageous position militarily and territorially compared to 1939.


The Army was cautious in 1938-1940 only because it feared Britain, France, Italy and Russia.  Politically, the Army wanted to march east, not west to fight the British and French.  When the Eastern Front began grinding down the Wehrmacht, and Soviet manpower and industry seemed more than a match, resistance was sparked again.  In each instance, the Army opposed war out of fear of losing rather than concerns for human rights, sovereignty, self-determination, etc., even if it did not share the zealous barbarism of the SS, GeStaPa, etc.


Indeed, the film "Valkyrie", ignored von Stauffenberg's true convictions so as not to "confuse" audiences, and treated him as some sort of pacifist who abhored the horrors of war.


There is a famous photo in London's Imperial War Museum showing the bodies of two young Polish girls lying in the grass, having died in a German air raid on Warsaw in 1939.  Contrary to German propaganda, these girls were "Aryan" by any standards.  The ultra-nationalism of the Army meant that German not Aryan supremacy prevailed; however, the National Socialists' fervent belief in the latter as well meant that the normal rules of warfare no longer applied to civilians or POWs.  Ideologically-speaking National Socialism and German Imperialism were equally responsible for the Second World War;  1919-1938 was only the intermission before round two.

Resistance # 2

I agree with KO that there is considerable "rethorical excess" in this article.  And it would certainly be a mistake to think that internal German "resistance" to the nazis was limited to "aristocrats, theologians, and traditionalist army officers".  At the same time, let's not forget that the bulk of the German aristocracy and  "traditional" military officer corps was quite prepared to be an instrument for Hitler (who most of them probably despised) as long as he seemed to be riding 'the wave of history'.  Ex post historical revisionism can have its merits, in very specific instances perhaps, but one should be careful not to create new 'myths'.  And, it would certainly be a misrepresentation to claim, or even imply, that postwar Western  historical analysis has been one of ignoring  internal German opposition to national socialism.  I certainly learned about that resistance many decades ago.   

Ex post criticism, from an armchair, is easy. Those who had to actually fight German national socialism and prevail, had a harder task.   The important lesson is that we cannot escape our environment and society, and that one must resist the morally intolerable from the very beginning and resist temporary 'accomodation'.  Obviously that lesson has not been learned, as contemporary geopolitics illustrates on a daily basis. 

P.S. The implied notion that general Dwight Eisenhower, supreme allied commander in Europe, would have regarded the war as a "struggle against the hateful Huns" (rather than against a hateful ideology) strikes me as ludicrous.  At the same time, any people should be careful about what kind of ideology they are associated with, and should take responsibility for their own 'governance'. 

German resistance

This is an outstanding article about heroic individuals and what they stood for.  The rhetorical excess of the article detracts from it a bit, since it is hardly true that the British and Americans had no qualms about making common cause with the Soviets or that the Americans had no qualms about dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities.   The Machiavellianism of British agencies was part of their job.  But let him who is without rhetorical excess cast the first stone.  The collective cover-up of the German resistance--in which the Germans have collaborated--is an interesting and important story and one that bears directly, as the author indicates, on the current state of Western souls.


still wants to know if Christianity has helped to develop European culture, or what the importance of Christian thinking was in Europe?
I think Mr. Thomas Bertonneau will love this "little" gem.