Book Review: Valkyrie

Valkyrie, The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by its Last Member is a fascinating book, though not primarily for reading about the Valkyrie plot itself. Other books have been written specifically about the plot, and I would imagine that from some of them you could find far more details about the plot itself. This book, a narrative of Philipp von Boeselager’s wartime experiences as he told them to Florence Fehrenbach (herself the granddaughter of another of the Valkyrie conspirators) a year before his von Boeselager’s death in 2008, is in many ways too close and personal a story to give the reader the most detailed possible understanding of the plot as a whole. So long as the reader understands this, Valkyrie is a fascinating window on the experiences of an honorable young man caught up in the Third Reich.

The son of an old Catholic family of minor nobility with a tradition of military service, Philipp credits his resistance to Nazi ideology in part to his school headmaster, Fr. Rodewyck, who had served as a German officer in the Great War before going into the Jesuits, and whom von Boeselager credits with having taught his young charges a German patriotism which was rooted in Christianity.

Philipp’s nearest older brother Georg (there were nine von Boeselager children, of which Philipp was the fifth) went into the cavalry, and when it came time for Philipp to do the same in 1936, he followed his brother, in part on the advice of a relative who advised him that if he followed his first desire and entered the diplomatic service he would have to become a Nazi. Sheltered in the closed society of cavalry officer training, von Boeselager says he barely heard of Pius XI’s Mit brennender Sorge and never read it, and although he and his fellow cadets where shocked at the newspaper accounts of Kristallnacht, they remained for some under the illusion that it was something “the authorities” would surely punish.

As the above demonstrates, Philipp and George were not at all political. Indeed, in many ways their reactions to the coming of war seem startlingly naive from our vantage point. Both young men are heavily focused on hunting and riding, with George in particular going going out hunting for a couple hours at dawn most mornings throughout the war. Something I found surprising reading the book was the extent of the use of cavalry in the Wehrmacht in World War II. I had known that despite their mechanized self (and public) image the German army in fact used horses much more heavily than the Allies for transport. I had not realized, however, that German cavalry were deployed in thousands both as reconnaissance and as mobile skirmishers, first on the Western Front against France, and then on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. As the Eastern Front bogs down in rain and mud in 1941, the cavalry troops are some of the only ones able to cover large amounts of ground quickly.

At times one finds those small moments of quiet and humanity which remind us that the soldiers on both sides of a war are much alike, especially in wanting to live to see their families again. As the French surrender is nearing in 1940, Philipp is ordered to take a village occupied by French troops. Having heard rumors that France and Germany are about to announce a cease fire, Philipp goes forward and under a while flat and talks to the French commander, who knows nothing about a cease fire but says he has been ordered to hold the village until 7:00 PM and then retreat. Philipp agrees not to move his unit forward until the French has left, in order to avoid bloodshed — going to far as to threaten to shoot the commander of another unit who comes up and wants to attack the village before the French leave.

The Lieutenant colonel exploded with anger. But seeing the pistol pointed at him, and seeing that I looked as though I was actually prepared to shoot him, he yielded. The French battalion was saved. Everything went as planned, without a drop of blood being shed. Few people knew what had happened, and we tried to keep it quiet. But we were unable to keep the news from circulating among the staffs. The story became almost a legend — in some versions, I actually fired. Fortunately, as the anecdote spread and became distorted, the names of the two people involved were forgotten. In any case, until the end of the war Doege and I took care to avoid each other. (p. 34)

In 1941-1942 Philipp, now serving on the Eastern Front, already found himself turning against the Nazi regime, and had become acquinted with Achim Oster and Henning von Tresckow, the officer who would be the initiator of the assassination plan which came to its tragic end in June, 1944. However, Philipp marks his decisive turning point as coming in the summer of 1942 when, having been sounded and assigned to staff duties, he is given a report by an SS officer whose unit is operating in army territory. (The SS and the regular army did not get along well, and the activities of the SS were generally restricted to areas to the rear of the army, while their actions were supposed to be limited within army territory.) Mixed in with reports of actions against groups of armed partisans, von Boeselager finds the terse but sinister entry, “Special treatment for five Gypsies.” He took his concerns to Field Marshal Kluge, for whom he was serving as an aide.

I was present at the discussion between Bach-Zelewski and Kluge. They talked first about the guerrillas: how to limit their range, how to eliminate them from the countryside, and especially how to secure the vital connections with Germany. A discreet reminder on my part, once the technical presentation was complete, caused Kluge rather abruptly to ask the SS officer, “Oh, by the way, I was about to forget: What do you mean in your report by ‘special treatment’? You apparently gave ‘special treatment’ t five Gypsies.”

“Those? We shot them!”

“What do you mean, shot them?! Following a trial before a military tribunal?”

“No, of course not! All the Jews and Gypsies we pick up are liquidated — shot!”

The marshal and I were both taken aback. I felt the kind of internal dislocation and devastation that leads to panic. Obviously, we sensed that something was wrong. Kluge could not have been unaware that crimes, major crimes, had been committed in areas under his authority. Still, we had attributed them to the uncontrolled excesses of the SS. But here was Bach-Zelewski stating a doctrine of extermination as though it were perfectly natural. What we had taken for terrible blunders were, in reality, part of a coherent, premeditated plan.

Kluge was not a man to temporize. He immediately called General Franz Halder of the Army General Staff. Leaving aside pointless humanitarian and legal arguments, Kluge tried to prove the inanity of this enterprise, which stiffened resistance instead of breaking it. The only positive result of his energetic complains was that we no longer heard about Bach-Zelewski. Perhaps he simply stopped reporting his barbaric acts.

This incident changed my view of the war. I was disgusted and afraid. I had already had occasion to wonder about the meaning of this conflict, its strategic pertinence, and the Fuhrer’s tactics. Through friends in my division’s reserve battalion who had been sent t Stargard shortly after the invasion of Poland, I had heard rumors about the crimes committed byt eh SS in the conquered areas. We were surprised not so much by the rumors — there were so many young men without morals in the SS units — as by the perpetrators’ complete impunity. We told ourselves that this could not go on for long; we considered these atrocities, which were probably but never proven, to be isolated events.

Henceforth, I had the proof of the abomination before my eyes…. (p79-81)

von Boeselager confided his new disgust with the regime to Tresckow, who proved to have turned to the resistance as a result of hearing about a much larger SS atrocity. Tresckow was now the center of one of several groups of mid and high ranking German officers who were disillusioned with the war, disgusted with the Nazis, and seeking some way to end the Fuhrer’s life and the war. Philipp and George both found themselves in this circle, many of whom were from an aristocratic background and also practicing Christians.

It is difficult to describe a man’s faith without descending into hagiographical platitudes. Henning von Tresckow was inhabited by an ardent piety that he was not afraid to express. For Christmas 1942, the general command of the Wehrmacht had forbidden any celebration. Nazi officers had been assigned to see to the observance of this injunction. Thus, it was more surprising when Tresckow came silently forward among his men, flanked by Georg Schulze-Buttger and Hans-Ulrich von Oertzen. The operations officer read the Christmas gospel just as he would have done amid his own family. I had informed Kluge of what Tresckow was going to do; thus the marshal had come to the junior officers’ mess solely to provide cover for his subordinate. It was a true Christian Christmas, to the joy of the overwhelming majority. (p. 97)

In the spring of 1943 Tresckow’s group, now including both Georg and Philipp von Boeselager made three attempts on Hitler’s life, but all three were either called off at the last minute, or failed. A plan for several officers to shoot the Fuhrer at close range as he toured the mess hall was canceled because Himmler, originally traveling with Hitler, left, and the conspirators feared a civil war if Hitler was killed but Himmler survived. On another occasion, a crate full of explosives (prepared by Philipp) was smuggled into the cargo hold of Hitler’s airplane, but failed to detonate at altitude.

In the fall of 1943, Georg and Philipp were both wounded, and spent much of the winter in and out of hospital. Conditions on the Eastern Front were deteriorating, and by the time the actual assassination attempt (with Stauffenberg’s valise full of explosives which injured but did not kill Hitler) is made, the military situation is on the point of collapse. George and Philipp’s cavalry units are sent rushing towards Berlin to help provide military backing to the coup planned to follow the assassination, and then have to turn and rush back towards the front lines (luckily masked by the chaos of the Russian advance) when word comes that Hitler was not killed in the attempt.

In the glum silence punctuated by the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, I had plenty of time for reflection. I was obsessed by one question; was it still really necessary to carry out this assassination? Stauffenberg had asked the same question of Tresckow a few days before the attempt. Why should one risk one’s life, and especially that of dozens of other people, when the military situation suggested that in a few months the dictatorship would be over? Tresckow responded forthrightly, as usual: “The assassination has to take place, whatever the cost. Even if it doesn’t succeed, we have to try. Now it is no longer the object of the assassination that matters, but rather to show the whole world, and history, that the German resistance movement dared to gamble everything, even at the risk of its own life. All the rest, in the end, is merely secondary.” (p. 159-160)

A great many of the conspirators did pay with their lives for that place in history. Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad. A number of other conspirators were hanged. Tresckow and Field Marshal Kluge both took their own lives before the SS could do it for them. Georg was killed in action. The most unusual and fascinating fate of the one of the conspirators is as follows:

On August 17th, 1944, Fabian von Schlabrendorff was arrested. Tortured at length by the Gestapo, he did not give us away…. Under torture, his legal training came out. He raised procedural issues, and during a hearing he objected to the illegality of the treatment meted out to prisoners. Two of his ribs had been broken in interrogation; he created turmoil in the courtroom by displaying his injury. The prosecution was taken aback, and the trail had to be suspended. Then Schlabrendorff had a real stroke of luck: the courthouse was bombed, and his judicial dossier was lost in the ruins, along with the presiding judge, the infamous Roland Freisler, who had been carrying it. Asked afterward why he had been arrested and then interned, he replied that he was accused of “illegally slaughtering cattle.” He was put in a concentration camp and then transferred, along with General Franz Halder and former French prime minister Leon Blum, to South Tyrol. After being freed by American troops, he returned to civilian life and resumed his work as a jurist; in 1967 he was appointed to the German constitutional court. He died in 1980. (p. 170-171)

However, somehow, word of Philipp’s involvement in the plot never got out. He made it his business for the rest of the war to keep his cavalrymen out of action as much as possible and bring them home alive.

As a first person narrative, Valkyrie provides a unique glimpse into the experiences of a group of men who tried to follow the dictates of their honor and their faith in one of the most chaotic and horrific periods in the last century. It’s a fairly quick read, and definitely a worthwhile one for those with an interest in the period.

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