Among the body of conspirators in the July 20th plot
to assassinate Hitler and seize the German government, few were as ambivalent as Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf
, head of the Berlin police. Although sympathetically (if briefly) portrayed in a recent film
about the plot, von Helldorf was a definitely more enigmatic figure.
A former member of the Freikorps
and participant in the Kapp-Putsch
to overthrow the nascent Weimar Republic
. Von Helldorf was also an early-hour Nazi who had been arrested in 1931 for his part in anti-Semitic riots. He was acquitted after a spirited defence by Roland Freisler
, a Nazi lawyer who would go on to become the infamous president of the "Volksgerichtshof" kangaroo court which sentenced dissidents to the regime, like the July 20th plotters, including von Helldorf himself.
Von Helldorf also had a reputation for being a spendthrift and compulsive gambler. As such, he once had a considerable debt with none other than Erik Jan Hanussen
, a notorious conman, medium and grand master of ceremonies of the decadent Berlin of the Roaring Twenties. Hanussen, despite being in fact Jewish, cultivated access to the Nazi top. He was nevertheless murdered shortly after accurately "predicting" the Reichstag fire
, with von Helldorf a prime suspect both for the leak and the subsequent murder.
As police chief first of Potsdam and then of Berlin, von Helldorf eagerly participated
in the harassment of Jewish citizens. Still as greedy, he also took advantage of their plight to collect bribes in exchange of passports to leave Germany. However, some sources
also suggest that he raged against his subordinates' passivity towards the rioters during the Kristallnacht.
From 1938, apparently spooked by the Nazis' warmongering, he seems to have started approaching conservative dissident circles, a gradual movement which culminated in his part in the July 20th plot. Whether his involvement was due to a sudden case of principles, or rather to his well-proven opportunism, he was to pay dearly for it: of all the conspirators, none attracted as much hatred from Hitler and Himmler as the "traitor" von Helldorf, whose gambling debts they had personally taken care of in the past. For possibly the only decent act in his life, von Helldorf was tortured, publicly humiliated and sentenced to death by hanging with a piano wire. Hitler personally ordered that von Helldorf be executed the last of four, so that he would have to watch the long agony of the others.