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Ewald von Kleist, last of the July 20th conspirators, dead at 90
March 21, 2013 7:31 PM   Subscribe

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, plotter against Hitler and founder of the Munich Conferences, died on March 8th, aged 90.

Repeated schedule changes prevented his earlier attempt to detonate a suicide vest in Hitler's presence. It was good fortune and the tight lips of his co-conspirators that ensured he was not arrested and executed. His father was not so fortunate.

Having survived the war, founded a publishing house, and helped establish Gesellschaft für Wehr- und Sicherheitspolitik, the Munich Security Conference, an annual forum of international politicians, diplomats and military men to discuss global security policy.

See also here, here, here, and this interview in German.
posted by BWA (34 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by hamandcheese at 8:02 PM on March 21, 2013


As a heads up, the interview is in a not uncontroversial publication. I'm too tired to make it through the whole interview, but it does seem kind of odd in places.
posted by hoyland at 8:03 PM on March 21, 2013


He tried to kill Hitler. After Hitler invaded Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and the Soviet Union. And after it was apparent that the war was lost.

It's a shame that this kind of man passes for a hero.
posted by Ghost Mode at 11:19 PM on March 21, 2013


As such things go, Ghost Mode, the only people who have the means to accomplish such a task would perforce come from those with access to Hitler and that means people who participate in the regime in one capacity or another. For what it's worth, he was Wehrmacht, and not a Nazi. I don't personally consider participation in the war effort itself to put someone beyond the moral pale. And in any event, he was just 22, and regardless of what had come before, his success would have saved probably still millions of lives.

The pure of act heroes you have in mind were, by 1944, in exile, prison, or dead.
posted by dhartung at 11:56 PM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, it seems kind of weird to complain that this guy didn't try to kill Hitler earlier, like when he was 17 instead of 22. When I was 22 it was a big accomplishment if I managed to do laundry twice a month.
posted by Justinian at 12:17 AM on March 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


As a heads up, the interview is in a not uncontroversial publication.

It is indeed a neo-fascist publication.

For what it's worth, he was Wehrmacht

War crimes of the Wehrmacht
posted by patrick54 at 12:42 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


To contribute, here's an Interview that's in a mainstream publication (in German).
posted by patrick54 at 1:36 AM on March 22, 2013


Ghost Mole, that seems pretty unreasonable. His father was working against Hitler from the beginning.

My fav excerpt from the obituaries...

"Von Kleist had been chosen as the officer to model a new uniform for Hitler, and Von Stauffenberg proposed that he wear a suicide vest underneath, and detonate it when he stood next to the dictator.

Years later, Von Kleist remembered explaining the suicide plot to his father, who paused only briefly before telling his 22-year-old son: "Yes, you have to do this."

"Fathers love their sons and mine certainly did, and I had been quite sure he would say no," Von Kleist recalled. "But, as always, I had underestimated him."


posted by C.A.S. at 1:42 AM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is undeniable that the July 20 conspirators rode on Hitler's back while he war was going well. When it was not going well they saw that, in the greater interests of Germany, Hitler had to go.

Heroes? Maybe, maybe not, German patriots? Absolutely.
posted by epo at 3:30 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a shame that this kind of man passes for a hero.

Hero?

Who said he was a hero?
posted by From Bklyn at 3:33 AM on March 22, 2013


patrick54, my point was not that nobody in the Wehrmacht did anything bad. Clearly any surviving institution in Germany by 1945 had some complicity or collusion as an integral part of the Nazi regime. The Wehrmacht, again for situational comparison, was ideally suited to spawn a coup d'etat, whether for the honor of Germany, residual pacifism, or political anti-Nazi sentiment, all of which figured in the involvement of various individuals. If you want to argue that all Germans are equally at fault for the entire enterprise of the war and Holocaust and those tragedies are of equal moral turpitude, please consider that there is another more nuanced view in which there were, to put it plainly, degrees of evil.

To the end of the war the Wehrmacht did hold a repository of traditional soldiering loyal, in their own minds, to the German nation per se rather than the Nazi party. To the extent that you may wish to argue that true German patriots would have prevented the war in the first place, I doubt few Germans today would dispute that view.

But by 1943 all it took to get guillotined was pamphleteering. When a society reaches such a point, where is any rationality or opposition to be found? If it is to be condemned when it appears, why should we expect it at all?
posted by dhartung at 4:28 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure dhartung knows this but Hitler presciently and shrewdly outmanouvered the armed forces early on by combining the roles of President and head of state thus making himself their Commander in Chief, then he got them to swear an oath of allegiance to him personally. The German armed forces were never formally loyal or beholden to the Nazi party (that was the SS), their loyalty was to Germany, and Hitler.
posted by epo at 4:41 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thank you for posting this, BWA.
posted by zarq at 4:59 AM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


... inviting Europeans and Americans to talk candidly together about what was worth fighting and dying for. Great names, among them Helmut Schmidt and Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld and Edward Teller, eagerly came to Munich every year from 1962 onwards to discuss security...

"Great" names perhaps, but not whom I would have selected. "What was worth fighting and dying for" has such a heroic ring to it, but in actuality it means careless and untold civilian deaths. Most often non-American, non-European deaths caused directly, or indirectly by the actions of those who don't consider the death of "others" to be worthy of notice.
posted by marsha56 at 5:01 AM on March 22, 2013


Yeah, it seems kind of weird to complain that this guy didn't try to kill Hitler earlier, like when he was 17 instead of 22.

Well at 18 he did manage to join the Wehrmacht and invade the Soviet Union so I guess he had some agency.
posted by Ghost Mode at 6:23 AM on March 22, 2013


Yeah, there's no difference in moral agency and courage between obeying the orders of your superior officer and planning an assassination of not only your commander in chief, but the totalitarian leader of your nation who you have sworn personal loyalty to.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 6:29 AM on March 22, 2013


Nobody made him join the Wehrmacht and invade someone else's country. He chose to.
posted by Ghost Mode at 6:49 AM on March 22, 2013


"Nobody made him join the US Marine Corp and invade someone else's country. He chose to"

Because every soldier who signs up is doing so purely to invade another country.
posted by schwa at 7:08 AM on March 22, 2013


Me: I support the tropes.
You: Tropes?
Me: Yes
You: Ok. Which tropes?
Me: All of them.
You: Do mean troops?
Me: Them too.
posted by a shrill fucking shitstripe at 7:14 AM on March 22, 2013


"Nobody made him join the US Marine Corp and invade someone else's country. He chose to"

Because every soldier who signs up is doing so purely to invade another country.


Sorry, this is silly, even if I disagree with Ghost Mode, which I do. Maybe it's just my antipathy towards nationalism, but I'm sophisticated enough to think critically about why people join any military, including that of a country I live in.
posted by hoyland at 7:26 AM on March 22, 2013


[Comment removed, please cut it out.]
posted by cortex at 7:39 AM on March 22, 2013


But by 1943 all it took to get guillotined was pamphleteering. When a society reaches such a point, where is any rationality or opposition to be found? If it is to be condemned when it appears, why should we expect it at all?

I do think there's an interesting difference in how von Kleist talks about the July 20th conspiracy and how the Weiße Rose pamphlets read. (I suppose we have other Weiße Rose primary source material, but I don't know offhand. Of course, we also have von Galen's sermons and other things in that vein, which are influencing them.) He's talking from a very establishment perspective and there's not a notion of some greater system of ethics driving the conspirators' actions. There's this weird sense of noblesse oblige or something going on.
posted by hoyland at 7:44 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Gelatin at 9:40 AM on March 22, 2013


Well at 18 he did manage to join the Wehrmacht and invade the Soviet Union so I guess he had some agency.

Surely he would have been conscripted, no? I don't think able-bodied 18 year-old German males had a choice in whether or not they joined the army in 1940.
posted by yoink at 9:58 AM on March 22, 2013


Regarding his father and his ancestor-influenced upbringing and socio-economic status, I am remembering the Prison Commandant played by Erich Von Stroheim in Jean Renior's masterpiece film, 'The Grand Illusion.' Surely Von Stroheim's character represents the reality of Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist's heritage. Also, touting a series of post-war meetings attended by Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld, both un-indicted war criminals themselves, is no recommendation or positive accomplishment! This German is not something his nation can be proud of at any point in his privileged life.
posted by Galadhwen at 11:10 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This German is not something his nation can be proud of at any point in his privileged life.

I'm always amazed at people's certainty that no matter what historical circumstances they were born and raised in, they would have been basically the same people they are now, and that consequently you can always judge everybody by an abstract and absolute standard which is, essentially, "what do I imagine that a shiningly perfect and fearless version of myself would have done in that situation?"

You know what almost all of us would have done had we been 18 years old in 1940 in Nazi Germany? We'd have been good little Nazis. Anybody who managed not to be deserves our respect.
posted by yoink at 12:16 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


This German is not something his nation can be proud of at any point in his privileged life.

I'm not sure anyone's claiming to be proud of him, but I'm kind of thinking that's Germany's call. Someone can correct me, but I think he's not going to go down in history as a hero or anything. His death is significant because he's the last survivor of the plot. The question of precisely how to view the July 20th conspiracy isn't exactly resolved--it's somewhere on the scale between 'principled action' and (to borrow Wikipedia's phrase) 'pure military coup'.
posted by hoyland at 2:10 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


He tried to kill Hitler. After Hitler invaded Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and the Soviet Union. And after it was apparent that the war was lost.

The history of high level resistance is a little more complicated than that and goes back to before the 1938 Munich Conference. See, e.g., Klemens von Klemperer, German Resistance Against Hitler:The Search for Allies Abroad 1938–1945; Richard Lamb, The Ghosts of Peace, 1935–45; Terry M. Parssinen, The Oster Conspiracy of 1938.

>I don't think able-bodied 18 year-old German males had a choice in whether or not they joined the army in 1940.

Indeed. Conscription began in 1935.
posted by BWA at 6:11 PM on March 22, 2013


I think he's not going to go down in history as a hero or anything

Well, mainly because his part in the overall plot* was minor and he did not succeed.

* There were numerous actual "plots" per se, involving different participants, with von Stauffenberg one of the central figures in many.

hoyland, indeed, though: I suspect any immediate result would have been suing for peace with the Western allies in order to continue the war against the Bolsheviks. But the Holocaust would have had a decent chance at being stopped in its tracks.

I don't think able-bodied 18 year-old German males had a choice in whether or not they joined the army in 1940.

Well, note that his legacy status allowed him to enlist as a junior officer.

Anybody who managed not to be deserves our respect.

Respect here and here, for instance.

The more I think about this aspect of it, the more convinced I am that ipso facto your effective opposition to Hitler is not coming from civilian pacifists with a perfect record of non-cooperation with the fascist police-state government under which they live, but the people who are closest to the top and therefore have access. At some point you have to be able to split the difference and say that someone waited until they had the best opportunity rather than some sort of blanket condemnation of every single underling of the regime down to the last Jäger as a war criminal.

Nobody made him join the Wehrmacht and invade someone else's country. He chose to.

And there's the blanket condemnation. You know, he didn't exactly do that by himself. Plenty of admirable Americans "invaded someone else's country", e.g. John Kerry who even went "illegally" (in domestic terms) into Laos.

This points to a problematic issue I see a lot of the time. Nazi Germany killed a lot of Jews (and others); Nazi Germany also invaded a lot of countries. But these are not the same thing. Just because they also tried to ethnically cleanse Europe doesn't mean that the war itself is a maximal evil. In fact, it's generally accepted CW now that the Allies went too far in trying to punish Germany for the FIRST World War (when Germany also invaded a lot of countries, but was accused of more atrocities than it actually committed) and in doing so created the economic conditions that helped bring about Nazism itself. More than a slice of irony there. No, I'm not cheering for the war, but the war and the Holocaust were not integrally connected, and I don't think fighting in that war by itself is an unforgivable sin.

You're free to differ, of course, but your presumably hypothetical pacifist isn't going to be morally reconciled to assassination as a solution either. So, who do you want to stop Hitler? Somebody who can isn't acceptable to you, but those who are acceptable to you can't. That leaves pretty much nobody. Sorry, but on these matters I'm a radical pragmatist.
posted by dhartung at 6:46 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know what almost all of us would have done had we been 18 years old in 1940 in Nazi Germany?

Forced into a concentration camp and gassed or worked to death, like several of my relatives.

I get your point, but still.
posted by zarq at 7:40 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


>I don't think able-bodied 18 year-old German males had a choice in whether or not they joined the army in 1940.

Indeed. Conscription began in 1935.


It sounds very much like he volunteered for his father's unit. Given his social status, he probably could have avoided seeing action in Russia, for instance. (On preview, what dhartung said.)

hoyland, indeed, though: I suspect any immediate result would have been suing for peace with the Western allies in order to continue the war against the Bolsheviks. But the Holocaust would have had a decent chance at being stopped in its tracks.

There's no way that this paragraph isn't going to sound really horrible, but July 1944 was way too late to stop the Holocaust in its tracks, even though the war ending in summer 1944 would have saved several hundred thousand people. As far as I know, it's thought that they weren't hugely concerned that there was a genocide going on. (For scale, Stauffenberg started talking about assassinating Hitler in 1942. There were more two million people killed in the Holocaust between mid-1942 and July 1944. Now, admittedly, they had a failed attempt or two before 1944, but still.)
posted by hoyland at 7:53 PM on March 22, 2013


July 1944 was way too late

Of course it's all horrible. It's horrible that the Final Solution was even contemplated, let alone executed.

In any case, I was speaking more generally about the outcome of any of the plots, of which the major cadre involved in July 20, as you stated, began considering as early as 1942, with the first attempts in 1943. And I wasn't speaking in terms of some grand ethical crisis where they held a Wannsee in reverse, but more of what might have happened in terms of power struggles with the surviving Nazi leadership and what might have been involved in any deals with the Allies.

As far as I know, it's thought that they weren't hugely concerned that there was a genocide going on.

Also said of certain Allied leaders, to be sure. As fought the war was to save democracy, not the Jews. The horrors discovered during the invasion recast the purpose of the war retroactively. The first reports of more than a million victims of Auschwitz and Birkenau reached the mainstream US press in July 1944.

That said, von Tresckow seems to have been motivated at least in part by the battlefield massacres of Jews, but there are indications even he was blind to the full scale of the camps.

In the end, this is not so much a question of why one man was a potential hero, but why so many others never acted at all. It becomes a systemic analysis of the entirety of the ethical rabbit-hole that was Nazi Germany.
posted by dhartung at 1:17 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the end, this is not so much a question of why one man was a potential hero, but why so many others never acted at all.

Exactly.

It's strange to see bystander apathy endorsed as some kind of morality.
Like saying "Well *I* didn't choose to invade Poland" is a more laudable choice because not doing anything is somehow better than choosing to do something that might be seen as wrong in hindsight.

Even if one amends the choice afterward and again chooses to do something.

Kleist was willing to DO something. When it came time to ante up, he was willing to sacrifice his life.

Plenty of others weren't. He chose. They didn't.

That's what creates genocides. There are many studies (Michael Stohl first comes to mind) about bystander apathy and genocide.
It's staggering to see it championed. And it is championed. In '99 there was plenty of criticism for the Kosovo campaign and the denial of ethnic cleansing. Plenty of media attention and pressure and nothing done about Rwanda. The small battalion of Marines in Burundi would have been more than happy to receive the order to supplement Dallaire's forces.
But the UN and everyone else took a walk. One can argue (Powers in "A Problem from Hell does) that U.S. leaders weigh only the political interests in genocide intervention.

Whether that's true or not (and I'd have to agree with it) the question is not why they would rather get the votes than save millions of lives, but rather - why the hell do voters vote that way?
Sure, soldiers sign up to fight. But it's leadership that says when, where, and how. And leadership holds power though its people.

You didn't have to be a Nazi in Germany under Hitler. Regular folks did just fine as long as they shut up. And most of them were more than happy to shut up, work their job (instead of starve as they were under the treaties after the Great War) and not choose to get involved in fighting either way.
Ah, such virtue.

Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, mentally disabled, physically disabled, homosexuals, homeless, alcoholics, pacifists, all systematically persecuted, put into ghettos, camps, used for medical experiments, and annihilated.

A few people opposed it. But most people didn't say a word. Demonstrably.

Yes, the Gestapo might come after you if you said anything, sure.
But then what does that say about Kleist's choice to strap on a suicide vest?

And yes, maybe some people didn't know. But there were villages by Sachsenhausen, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, etc. etc. etc.
They knew. And they did - nothing.
Allied forces liberating the camps said you could smell the burning bodies, the blood, the decay, downwind from 20 miles away.

Those people chose. They chose not to risk their lives in any way. They chose not to get involved. They chose defense mechanisms to deny and rationalize their position so they didn't have to take any responsibility for their complicity in what they allowed their leadership to do.

Kleist was willing to take personal responsibility and do something. Not only at the risk of his life, but as an absolute certainty of its loss.

We might have a harder world with more people in it, perhaps even more violent in some ways, but we would have less genocides.

Watching homeless people stand on bridges and corners in the freezing rain while people pass them by - not even just a kind word but without a glance, I don't doubt it'll happen again.

A while back there was a symposium among world figures, heads of state, religious leaders, social movement heads, sultans, business heads, some very wealthy people, etc. to discuss the greatest threats to mankind, y'know, nuclear terrorism, plague, poverty, climate change, overpopulation, desertification, disasters, resource management, etc. etc.

The Dalai Lama was there and summed up what was essentially the consensus:
"The greatest threat to our world is we’re raising a generation of passive bystanders."
posted by Smedleyman at 2:20 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


It sounds very much like he volunteered for his father's unit.

By the way, for posterity, I think the 'his father's unit' is wrong. There are three guys whose names are approximately 'Ewald von Kleist'. One is this Kleist, one is this Kleist's father and the third was the previous commander if the regiment. Or I could be confused again and all three passed through the same unit.
posted by hoyland at 2:42 PM on March 24, 2013


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