Traitors and Heroes

Reflections on the Myths and Complexities of German Resistance

ARCHIV Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (helle Uniform) und der Chef der "Kanzlei des Führers", Martin Bormann (l.), begutachten die Zerstörung im Raum der Karten-Baracke im Führerhauptquartier Rastenburg, wo Oberst Stauffenberg am 20. Juli 1944 eine Sprengladung zündete, mit der Absicht Hitler zu töten (Archivfoto vom 20.07.1944). Als am 20. Juli 1944 gegen 12.50 Uhr der Sprengsatz in der "Wolfsschanze" detoniert, ging Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg vom Tod des Diktators aus. Für den Attentäter schien das größte Hindernis für den Sturz der Nazis beseitigt. Doch vor Tagesende war "Operation Walküre" gescheitert. Hitler überlebte den Anschlag, Stauffenberg wurde hingerichtet. Foto: Heinrich Hoffmann dpa (Zu dpa Themenpaket 70 Jahre Attentat vom 20. Juli 1944 - «Viele Hitler-Attentate sind fast vergessen») +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Leading Nazi Hermann Göring (light uniform) and Hitler's Chief of Staff, Martin Bormann (l) review the results of Claus von Stauffenberg and others' attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944. The attack failed and Stauffenberg and his supporters were hanged.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    On the 70th anniversary of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler, Rüdiger von Voss recalls his father’s involvement and suicide. He reflects on the culture of remembrance and argues for a more nuanced understanding of the war, the resistance and on politics driven by conscience.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The failed July 20th plot resulted in a massive Gestapo roundup. Thousands thought to be involved in the failed effort were murdered.
    • Rüdiger von Voss’s father was involved in the plot; his son reflects on the way people remember their actions and the cultural response to the Second World War.
    • He calls for a more sophisticated view of those involved in the execution plot and of society as a whole, arguing that people weren’t just victims and aggressors, but some were both.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

I don’t remember much about my father. There is one moment I recall when I sat on his knee, cutting out soldiers and coloring them in.

Hans-Alexander von Voss was a lieutenant colonel in the German army during the Second World War. In a small town north east of Berlin, in November 1944, my father took his own life. I was five.

My father was one of a group of soldiers who intended to kill Hitler in 1944 in what was known as the July 20 plot. The effort was the culmination of resistance attempts to end the war.  The soldiers involved hoped that by killing Hitler, they could make peace with the allies and hasten the end of the war.

But the assassination attempt went wrong. In the months afterwards, the Gestapo rounded up and executed thousands of people suspected of involvement.

The terror got closer, and my father received a warning call from a friend. He knew the danger he was in and he did what he had always resolved to do. “I cannot be certain that under torture, I would not reveal my friends’ thoughts and actions,” he had told my mother.

And so on November 8, 1944, my father went down to the Heinersdorfer Lake to buy fish as a present for my grandparents. My mother was back in our house with me, my older sister Ellen and my younger brother Hubertus.  Mother was getting us ready for the trip to Berlin.

My father bought the fish. The fisherman’s son would later tell us that my father was actually rather calm and exchanged some small talk with his father.

Father did not come home. Instead he turned left into the park near our house, where the forest begins and stood on a sandy area under the protection of the tall trees.

You could hear the shot back in our house. He died in our mother’s arms.

The Aftermath

Afterwards, as the Russian army advanced, my family fled from Berlin. We went to live with relatives. Once the war was over, I was sent to a boarding school, which was housed in what was formerly one of Himmler’s prison camps. There I was beaten by the son of Rudolf Hess and his gang. I was never allowed to forget that my father had betrayed his position. But there were many children who grew up without a father.

We were ostracized in the years after the war. People saw my family as traitors. Outside our home, society focused on the question of whether the soldiers involved in the plot had betrayed their position and their country.

My mother struggled to collect her pension as a widow and had to give explanations and justifications for her husband’s actions. She was isolated and she never recovered from her loss. Many resistance fighters died, still bitter that their struggles went unrecognized. In the decades following the war, the past became a zone of silence.

W.S. Sebald investigated this culture of silence in his novels. He and other writers have reflected upon the violence under dictatorship, people’s sense of responsibility and their actual guilt.

These writers describe what seems to have developed as a collective dementia.  Their investigation is in no way finished. Their reflections are relevant today in considering discrimination and the abuse of human rights.

Günter Grass, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, describes a “self-censorship.” People say “I didn’t know,” or “I was forced to do it,” which he calls a schizoid reaction.

This way of thinking enables people to avoid truly engaging with the history of the Nazi period. Ultimately, it banishes the victims and opponents of National Socialism to a different world.

 

Waldsieversdorf_Voss
Hans-Alexander von Voß is buried at a cemetery in Waldsieversdorf, about 46 km (28 miles) east of Berlin.

 

“Perhaps there will come a time when our actions will not be condemned, when we will be understood differently, not as criminals but as patriots.”

German soldier's letter in 1944

History Simplified

This attitude seals history safely away. It explains the treatment of war crimes committed by the German armed forces and why none of the judges of the Nazi People’s Court were ever brought to justice.

Everyone is responsible in a totalitarian dictatorship. We should take time to carefully question the responsibility and guilt of each individual.

This question applies particularly in the persecution of the Jews. In some people’s “broken biographies,” there are periods where people shared responsibility with the Nazi regime before they became opponents.  It is important to deal with this truthfully and avoid confusing the aggression with other times of opposition.

There were perpetrators who were victims and there were victims who were also perpetrators.  That applies to the German resistance too. We should avoid creating a myth of heroes.

So how should we remember those who died in the resistance?

The legitimacy of the resistance is to be understood through the soldiers’ awareness of their own guilt and responsibility. They decided to follow their consciences and to dare the act to show the world that there was “a different Germany.”

The actions of Germany’s resistance should not be evaluated from the point of view of their success but through their motivations in the interest of freedom and justice.

It is not possible to commit treason against a dictatorship. Those who do not oppose the dictatorship commit treason and deny their own consciences. It is not the program of the resistance in exile that counts, rather it is the aim to resurrect justice and protect people’s dignity.

The decisive question is whether a free society is prepared to accept the spiritual legacy of the resistance, to allow it to become part of their identity and to pursue politics oriented by conscience.

Only then will we know how important law and justice, social responsibility and solidarity are to defend our freedom. Those who contravene human rights open a Pandora’s Box of potential for violence – then and now.

As a young man I started working for a research foundation dedicated to the July 20, 1944, plot. Later, in 1973, I set up a study group dedicated to this period together with other children of those who were involved in the plot. I led this for 20 years.

Alongside my job, one of my most important tasks was to research the resistance and to protect this spiritual and political legacy of the “different Germany.” I was involved in establishing a memorial for my father.

Hans-Alexander von Voss with his son Rüdiger shortly before his death.
Hans-Alexander von Voss with his son Rüdiger shortly before his death.

 

When the wall came down, I marked his grave in a small town north east of Berlin, but there are still official reservations about naming the main street after him.

On Sunday German President Joachim Gauck gave a commemorative speech on the square of the Bender Block, where a plaque celebrates Claus Graf von Stauffenberg, Friedrich Olbricht, Albrecht Merz von Quirnheim and Werner von Haeften.

The day he was murdered, one of the soldiers involved in the July 20 plot wrote a letter to his mother. He said, “Perhaps there will come a time when our actions will not be condemned, when we will be understood differently, not as criminals but as patriots.”

Mr. von Voss has spent his adult life researching the resistance in Germany and reflecting on the way the people remember their actions and the cultural response to the Second World War.

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