Inga Haag: Co-conspirator in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler

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The Independent Online

Inga Haag was one of the last surviving link to the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Haag was merely one of the co-conspirators in a plot designed to shorten the Second World War. However, with its failure, retribution was swift and brutal and she was lucky to survive the Gestapo's reign of reprisals. Haag believed that the July Plot was a manifestation of a spirit when intelligent and well-educated people in Germany risked their lives. It had to happen – what had gone before was too terrible. It should be remembered, she said, as "a warning to humanity that this must never happen again. It is a symbol of the best of our convictions against evil."

Of Prussian stock, Ingeborg Helene Abshagen was born in August 1918 to a well-to-do family. Her father, Otto, who was a lawyer and banker, and her mother Bertha, were both fiercely anti-Nazi and thus she too took on this conviction. This was borne out upon Hitler's accession to power in 1933, when Otto decided to send his daughter to London for her education, believing the majority of teachers in Germany had Nazi tendencies. Following school she studied briefly at the University College of the South West (now Exeter University) and then at the London School of Economics under Professor Harold Laski.

However, shortly before the outbreak of war in September 1939, Haag returned to Germany and, with the help of her father, her fluent English and undoubtedly her own stunning good looks, secured a position in the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, as a secretary to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. He affectionately nick-named the 21-year-old "The Painted Doll". It was while working there that she was first drawn into a group that opposed Hitler's regime.

Before the attack on Poland in September 1939, Canaris was deeply frustrated by a briefing he received from Hitler. During the briefing, he was required to take notes on the "special treatment" that would be meted out to various groups. Once the war started, Canaris visited the front and witnessed examples of war crimes committed by the SS Einsatzgruppen. Among these included the destruction of the synagogue in Bedzin with the town's Jewish residents being burned to death. He also received reports from Abwehr agents about many other incidents of mass murder throughout Poland. This seemed to precipitate his work, at increasing risk, to overthrow the régime. To create a decoy, he cooperated with the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). This made it possible for him to pose as a trusted man for some time. In January 1940, he was promoted to full Admiral. With his subordinate Erwin Lahousen, he formed a circle of like-minded Wehrmacht officers, many of whom would be executed or forced to commit suicide after the failure of the 20 July Plot.

With the fall of France in 1940, Haag was posted with Canaris to Paris. One of her tasks was to provide passports for Jews and other minorities threatened with persecution. She would deliver some in person, as Canaris believed she would not alert the police owing to her youthful, French look. In addition, others were given token training as Abwehr "agents" and then issued papers allowing them to leave. In a rare interview, Haag was emphatic that "he [Canaris] had tried to shorten the war and saved many Jewish lives." She explained that Canaris always insisted that "Germany will never be forgiven unless some action is taken against these criminals." The 1944 plot came to stand for an idea of a "better Germany". As Henning von Tresckow, one of von Stauffenberg's colleagues, had put it, "The assassination must be attempted, coûte que coûte [whatever the cost] ... the German resistance movement must take the plunge before the eyes of the world, and of history."

Haag developed contacts with many individuals who were against the regime. She recalled that "the plots were in the minds of most of my friends most of the time." She knew almost everybody in the July 1944 conspiracy. Her husband Werner Haag, whom she married in 1942, was also involved. Apart from the worry of detection by the Gestapo, the main problem was that there was no single, coherent group and individuals were driven by varied motivations. Furthermore, there was no consensus on how far they should go to attain their goal. In the end, she continued, "You lived in fear that you were going to be arrested. So I took my father's advice to try to know as little as possible, because what you didn't know you couldn't talk about and betray under torture."

At the insistence of Heinrich Himmler, who had suspected Canaris for a long time of being a double-agent, Hitler dismissed him from the Abwehr in February 1944, replacing him with Walter Schellenberg and merging most of the Abwehr with the SD. Some weeks later Canaris was put under house arrest, preventing him from taking part directly in the July Plot.

On 20 July 1944, Inga and her husband, who were now in Romania, working for the German Foreign Ministry, were entertaining two Gestapo officers. This posting helped her to keep her distance from association with the plotting. Her invitation to the Gestapo was part of maintaining her cover as she knew that "something was planned" for that day.

At 12.30, having left a briefcased bomb under the conference table, Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg made his excuses to leave for a few moments. The attempted assassination of Hitler, inside his "Wolf's Lair" field headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia, had begun. At 12.40, the bomb detonated, demolishing the conference room. Three officers and the stenographer were seriously injured and died soon after, but Hitler survived. His trousers were blown off and in ribbons and he suffered only minor injuries. It was discovered that he was saved because Colonel Heinz Brandt had moved the briefcase to the opposite side of a heavy table leg when it bumped against his foot, unwittingly deflecting the blast.

Von Stauffenberg believed his mission had been a success and left quickly. During her meal with the officers, Haag received a call with the news that the Führer had survived the attempt on his life. She recalled feigning "a sigh of relief" and exclaiming, "Gott sei Dank" [Thank God] in front of the officers. That evening, with Hitler back in control, the reprisals began. Von Stauffenberg was picked-up and executed without trial along with other plotters including Haag's cousin, Adam von Trott.

The failure of the assassination and the coup d'état planned to follow, led to the arrest of at least 7,000 people. According to records of the Führer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 4,980 were executed, effectively destroying the resistance movement. Canaris was implicated and sent to Flossenbürg concentration camp, then executed on 9 April, 1945, a few weeks before the end of the war.

Haag believed that had the plot had been successful, the regime would have been overthrown and the war ended, though this has been a matter of much argument among historians.

Haag was disappointed by the attitude of the British government. "The British in particular were not encouraging," she said. Winston Churchill dismissed the 1944 bomb plot as part of a murderous power struggle.

"It wasn't a masterpiece of organisation," Haag admitted. "This was one of the plots discussed for quite some time, but it was obviously rather confused. Lots of people wanted to do it and much was improvised. In operas on the stage plots are better planned."

Haag and her husband were re-called to Berlin and at the end of the war he was taken prisoner by the Americans but soon released. She worked briefly as a journalist and was one of the first Germans to get top security clearance for political work when she worked for Nato.

The couple lived in France and adopted a son, Luc. Upon the death of her husband she moved to Britain, where she remained, eventually earning a living giving children horse-riding lessons. In addition, she became the "grande dame" of the London embassy circuit.

In 2003, the German authorities recognised her efforts during the war and awarded her the German Cross of the Order of Merit.

Martin Childs

Ingeborg Helene Abshagen, anti-Nazi activist: born Germany 3 August, 1918; married 1942 Werner Haag (one adopted son); died London 10 December 2009.