German leader honors Nazi coup plotters at ceremony

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

BERLIN -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder honored Germany's Nazi resistance Tuesday on the 60th anniversary of the most famous plot to kill Adolf Hitler, saying the army officers, civic leaders and citizens who frequently sacrificed their lives for the movement were heroes.

On July 20, 1944, aristocratic Nazi Col. Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler with a briefcase bomb placed under a conference table. Hitler escaped, and Stauffenberg and several other key conspirators were executed by firing squad that night.

Speaking at the World War II army headquarters where Stauffenberg was killed, Schroeder said July 20 is a reminder to Germans to "defend again and again the values of freedom and tolerance that we consider so self-evident today."

Germany increasingly is shedding the debilitating legacy of the Third Reich, as evidenced by Schroeder's invitation to D-Day ceremonies in France last month. The 60-year-old Schroeder is the first German leader with no personal memory of the war.

Schroeder said those Germans who opposed Hitler from the first also were members of the resistance.

"Resistance against the dictatorship began already in 1933, when the Nazis had seized power," he told the ceremony.

The commemoration also underscored the fact that the German resistance never gained popular support for an uprising against Nazi rule, unlike similar movements in France or the Netherlands.

German President Horst Koehler laid a wreath before a plaque honoring the assassination plotters at the Bendlerblock building, now the Defense Ministry. Later Tuesday, Schroeder was to attend the swearing-in of new German army recruits there -- an annual tradition meant to highlight the resistance to Hitler from within the military.

Schroeder said Germans need to keep asking themselves: "How could the dictatorship rely for so long on a broad mass base? It was not possible for the resistance to mobilize something of a natural patriotism against the National Socialists."

Some answers, he suggested, lie in the all-encompassing Nazi police state, Hitler's survival of repeated assassination attempts and the fact that even the army coup plotters and other elites who became resistors long wavered between loyalty to the Fuehrer and their conscience.

Also at Tuesday's ceremony was Freya von Moltke, who, with her husband, gathered other enemies of Hitler at their castle, forming a group known as the Kreisau Circle. Helmuth James von Moltke was arrested before the Stauffenberg bombing and executed in 1945.

His widow remembered the euphoria sweeping Nazi Germany in 1940 -- Poland and France had fallen, and it looked like the invasion of Britain could happen at anytime. Despite the victories, she and her husband never wavered in their opposition to the Nazis, launching their resistance group the same year.

"At the high point of Hitler's success, that's when the circle began," the spry, white-haired 93-year-old told a crowd at a Berlin church Monday. "I'm proud."

After the war, the resistors were largely shunned in Germany.

"The slogan promoted by the Nazis that they were 'traitors' had a long-lasting effect," German Culture Minister Christina Weiss said.

Not only was it hard for Germans to overcome more than a dozen years of Nazi indoctrination, but many former Nazis still influenced policy after the war's end in 1945, said Johannes Tuchel, director of the resistance memorial.

"After the war, there were still many Nazis in politics, in industry and in media in the 1950s and '60s and they minimized the resistance," he said.

Popular culture has given the memory of the German resistance a boost, with books, documentaries and a new feature film on Stauffenberg.

Freya von Moltke said the new respect finally gives her satisfaction.

"Even though we had no success and even though we were weak, we kept European humanity alive in Germany -- and I mean all who stood against Hitler," she told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

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