Obituary: Axel von dem Bussche
Saturday 20 February 1993
THE FIRST impression of Axel von dem Bussche was of a wounded lion. Everyone who was lucky enough to meet him will remember his physical and intellectual power. Tall, handsome, with piercing blue eyes and a voice like a cello, he made little of his war injuries - he had lost a leg and three fingers of his right hand. He was worldly, amusing and a fine raconteur. The fascination he held for people had something to do with the war record of his early twenties, but it came from the man himself. Children who knew little of the war always voted him the grown-up it was most fun to be with.
With Bussche's death the President of Germany, Richard von Weizsacker, lost his best friend. The country lost a man who came within hours of changing the course of German history. Yet most contemporary Germans had hardly heard of him. Marion Dunhoff, a friend of Bussche and founder of the great weekly paper Die Zeit, wrote: 'If you read Axel von dem Bussche's story in the present political climate in Germany it seems like a mythical tale from another era.'
Bussche was one of the last surviving members of a group of Wehrmacht officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who made a number of attempts on Hitler's life after 1943. What set Bussche apart from the other conspirators was that at the age of 24 he and Stauffenberg planned and tried to execute a suicide mission to blow himself up with Hitler.
The plan was clever. Bussche would act as a model for a new Wehrmacht greatcoat at the Wolfsschanze, Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. The operation was based on two essential elements: Hitler's obsession with uniforms and military paraphernalia and Bussche's ability to lull suspicion among the SS guards. His credentials were flawless. He had the right kind of Aryan good looks and he had won the Ritterkreuz, the German equivalent of the VC. In the greatcoat he was to carry two hand-grenades with four-second fuses. While Hitler inspected the coat he would release them and throw himself on the Fuhrer until the explosion immolated them both.
Bussche travelled by rail to the High Command of Mauerwald, 10 miles from Hitler's headquarters. He stayed in his room so as not to attract attention. The date was fixed. Then the irony of war struck. An Allied air raid hit the train delivering the uniforms; the model greatcoat was destroyed. With his luggage full of explosives Bussche returned to Berlin. By January 1944 the lost uniforms were replaced and Stauffenberg recruited Bussche a second time. His divisional commander, Gurran, unaware of the plot, refused permission with a curt note: 'My officers are not mannequins.'
Not long after, Bussche was wounded and lost his leg. This helped save his life. He was in hospital (with the bomb under his bed until a friend managed to smuggle it out) when Stauffenberg's ADC, Klausing, visited him to warn him of the impending July attempt to kill Hitler. After Stauffenberg's death the visit alerted the SS and he was repeatedly interviewed. But his long hospitalisation and the brave silence of his fellow conspirators made things difficult for them. Bussche always felt guilty for having survived.
Axel von dem Bussche was born in 1919 in Braunschweig to an ancient aristocratic Saxon family. His mother was Danish and much of his childhood was spent on his grandmother's estate in Denmark. His first cousin, Anders Lassen, who fought for the British in the Second World War, was one of the only foreigners ever awarded the VC. After school Bussche joined the army. His regiment, the 9th Infantry, was based in Potsdam and kept alive the spirit and best traditions of the Prussian army - justice, duty, self-esteem, courage. The Nazi regime was held by many in open contempt.
Bussche's moment of truth came with the terrible crimes he witnessed in the Ukraine. In 1942, near Dubno, he was ordered to form a cordon sanitaire around a small, unused airfield. He was not told why. 'So I went,' he later recalled, 'and there in the beautiful autumn sunshine was a queue about a mile long of men, women and children, babies, all naked. Large trucks were being driven away with their clothes. They were local Jews - waiting to lie in the enormous holes they had dug - and to be shot by the SS.'
He later felt he should have joined the queue. He hardly ever talked about his involvement in the Resistance. He despised the terminology of heroism and never used the word honour but talked rather of 'self- esteem'. He did not agree with present 'cloak-and-dagger' interpretations of the plot. To remove the man responsible for untold evil seemed an act of simple moral compulsion.
After the war he studied law and worked first for the publishers Suhrkamp and then for the BBC in London. He later joined the German Foreign Office and went to Washington before becoming headmaster of the great German private school at Salem. During the Sixties he was the head of the German Peace Corps. He also worked for the World Council of Churches.
In 1950 he married Camilla von Stauffenberg, daughter of the fifth Earl of Gosford, and previously married to a cousin of Claus von Stauffenberg. She bore him two daughters. Until Camilla von dem Bussche's death in 1988 their beautiful house in Begnins in the vineyards above Lake Geneva was a meeting-place for friends from all over the world - among them Sir Conn O'Neill, Richard von Weizsacker, Philip Toynbee, Golo Mann, Robert McNamara, Carl Burckardt.
Throughout his life Axel von dem Bussche retained a special affinity for Britain. In 1985 he spent a year at St Antony's College, Oxford, encouraged by English friends to write his memoirs. But he had always wryly maintained that the German Resistance was an overcrowded ship and the idea of writing about it stuck in his throat.
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