Why Germany is still ill at ease with its unwilling martyrs

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The Independent Online
FAILURE is more solid than hope. The attempt to kill Hitler 50 years ago - the 'July Plot', or the 'Stauffenberg Conspiracy' - went wrong. The courtyard in Berlin where Stauffenberg and some of his comrades were shot remains, the echo of the volley still almost audible. The meat-hooks on which other conspirators were hanged are still there at Plotzensee prison. But it is hard to enter the hopes of the plotters before that horrible moment when they knew that they had failed, that Hitler was still alive, that they must all die.

From that moment, the Twentieth of July people became secular saints and martyrs - those whose example teaches later generations how to live and how to give up life. But in what they were trying to do up to that moment, they failed. It was their failure not just to kill Hitler, but to save and restore a certain dream of Germany, that country for which Stauffenberg shouted loudly, as the rifles were raised: 'Es lebe unser heiliges Deutschland] - Long live our holy Germany.'

One of the best of them, Henning von Tresckow, said before he killed himself: 'Now the whole world will fall on us and curse us. But I am still of the firm opinion that we did the right thing . . . When God once told Abraham that He would spare Sodom if he could show Him 10 just men there, so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany, because we stood firm for our country. Not one of us can complain that we must die. Everyone who joined the conspiracy put on the Shirt of Nessus.'

It is the quality of loneliness which makes those words immortal. God did not spare Germany, which was destroyed almost as utterly as Sodom. The Germany which arose from the ruins, first as two states and then as one, is another country in which the ghosts of those men wander as strangers. That is not to say that the Federal Republic in some way betrayed their hopes. It was simply a quite different place. It was not about holiness, or about German destiny. It was a nervous, materialist society, run by dull politicians and pretending to have no history.

When I lived there, in the 1960s, most West Germans had mixed private feelings about the July plotters. Hitler, it was agreed, had deceived the nation and led it into the disaster of war and defeat. At the same time, they found it hard to pardon a group of officers who had sought to overthrow their rulers at the peak of a battle for German survival. Disloyalty was disloyalty, they felt.

Meanwhile the Bonn government had constructed a state cult around the plotters, to give West Germany a political ancestry and to prove that the alternative to National Socialism was not Communism. The public accepted this cult as a prudent gesture to the outside world. But few of them felt genuinely warm towards it.

The official cult survives, even after the collapse of Communism. It still makes it hard to see into the minds of those who 'put on the Shirt of Nessus'. Chancellor Kohl said last week that their legacy was a warning against all political extremism. But it was nothing of the kind. Stauffenberg and Moltke, Tresckow and Trott and the others, were concerned with something entirely different - getting rid of a monstrous tyranny. And to achieve it, they had themselves to become extremists. What could be more extreme than to plan the murder of a nation's leader and a military putsch in time of war, to be followed by mass arrests of the dictator's supporters?

Another poisonous outcome of the cult's Cold War origins is that any discussion of German anti- Nazi resistance becomes competitive. The new Resistance Museum in Berlin is already in trouble for displaying relics of Communist resistance alongside material on the July Plot and other movements in the 'democratic' underground. Were the Communists not just Soviet agents, and did they not set up another German dictatorship of their own? To this, one ex-East German dissident replies: 'We should honour even those whose later careers were contemptible.'

Equally irrelevant is the hankering to discover that anti-Nazi resistance was broader than it seemed. The fact remains that the number of people engaged in purposeful, clandestine operations against the regime was tiny. On the other hand, a phenomenal number of Germans defied the Nazis in minor ways. Last week the Bundestag refused compensation for the shooting of more than 20,000 men by the Wehrmacht for desertion, conscientious objection or self- wounding, on the ridiculous grounds that to do so would accuse those who continued to serve of 'supporting a terrorist regime'.

But the true pity is that nobody takes the July plotters seriously. They are honoured precisely because it is supposed that they acted out of conscience alone, without hope. They are perceived as an elite of aristocrats and Prussian officers left over from an earlier age.

A lot of this is condescending myth. They nearly succeeded. They were not willing martyrs, but participants in a long-planned coup attempt which - if Hitler had been killed by Stauffenberg's bomb - stood a decent chance of winning the inevitable fight with the forces of the SS. They were certainly an elite, with many proud patrician names. But that is what the leadership of the German armed forces was still like. And by 1944 an officers' putsch (which is, by definition, elitist) was the only action which could possibly have brought the Nazi regime down.

And their ideas were not outlandish. Stauffenberg, it's true, had a queer vision of an authoritarian society governed by 'natural rank'. But the civilian wing of the plot, which included experienced politicians, looked to familiar varieties of Christian or Social Democracy. Their weakness was foreign policy. They all wanted to 'save Germany' - essentially from the advancing Red Army - and to retain the 1938 frontiers. But even if the conspirators had taken control and sued for peace, the Allies would not have deviated from the policy of unconditional surrender. Their intention was to destroy and dismember the Reich, and they had said so to emissaries from the German resistance. A democratic government in Berlin would not change their minds.

A romantic Germany, in the good sense and the bad, perished with the collapse and occupation of the country in 1945. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed just before the Nazi defeat, wrote that 'today there are once more villains and saints . . . Instead of the uniform greyness of a rainy day, we have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash . . . Shakespeare's characters walk in our midst'.

That was the tempest in which the plotters had their being. Now it is grey again. Nobody in Germany wants Macbeth and Macduff to leave the stage and walk the streets of Berlin, calling upon citizens to fight or be accursed. Nobody in Germany wants lightning, except in that other country, remote in time, which was once their own.