WW2 Relevance

|   19 October 2010

Resistance to Hitler

Hitler’s bunker at the Wolf’s Lair in wartime East Prussia.

In Berlin, in the early evening of 20 July 1944, Ludwig Beck, one of the leading conspirators in the plot against Hitler, posed a vital question to a fellow conspirator, General Friedrich Olbricht.

Would the sentries who guarded their resistance headquarters be prepared to fight against the Gestapo when they appeared? Crucially, would they be prepared to die for Olbricht?

Olbricht replied that he was unsure.

It was a dramatic moment in the conspiracy, and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. The problem Beck and his fellow conspirators faced was that they didn’t know whether Stauffenberg had managed to kill Hitler at his Headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia earlier that day. Reports differed. Some said Hitler was dead, others that the bomb Stauffenberg had planted had merely injured the German leader. And so, in the shadow of this uncertainty, Beck tried to hold the conspiracy together. It mattered not whether Hitler lived, he said, the time had come to fight back regardless. The only trouble was that many of his fellow conspirators didn’t see the situation in such black and white terms.

Field Marshal Hans Kluge was just one of a number of leading figures in German society who vacillated that day. If Hitler – for certain – was dead, then he would go along with the coup. If not, then, well, things would be more difficult….

The story of how Beck and the other conspirators tried desperately to persuade their comrades to support the coup despite the lack of news about Hitler is a poignant one. It’s a history – ultimately – of a few individuals who were prepared that day to make a stand that they knew could most likely end in their own death, alongside that of many more Germans, like Field Marshal Kluge, who were making pragmatic choices about their own personal fate.

It’s why I think the question Beck posed to Olbricht, as their hopes of a successful coup seemingly collapsed around them, is simple but profound. Will these soldiers die for you? It’s also, I think, a question that is relevant to each one of us today. To stop and think if we have anything or anyone in our lives that we are prepared to die for. Martin Luther King thought he knew how we should answer, saying: ‘A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.’

In a way, I guess, profound religious faith offers the most straightforward reason to sacrifice one’s life. Especially if one has absolute faith in an afterlife. But the events of the Second World War contain numerous examples of people who willingly laid down their lives for others with no such certain belief. Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, for example, remarked after the war that he did not know of one mother who had decided not to enter the gas chamber with her children to comfort them in their last moments. (Especially in the early days of the murders at Auschwitz, in the improvised gas chambers in two peasant cottages in a distant corner of Auschwitz/Birkenau, many mothers knew that they were going to die if they stayed with their children.)

So don’t we all need to think today. Would we die for anyone? And would anyone die for us?

One Response to “Resistance to Hitler”

  1. applejuice says:

    Did Hitler spend more time in the Wolf’s Lair or the Eagles Nest?