When the Second World War broke out, Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager, then 25-years-old, fought enthusiastically for Germany as a cavalry officer. But after discovering Nazi crimes, von Boeselager's patriotism quickly turned to disgust, and he joined a group of conspirators who plotted to kill Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. In this elegant but unflinching memoir, von Boeselager gives voice to the spirit of the small but determined band of men who took a stand against the Third Reich in what culminating in the failed "Valkyrie" plot--one of the most fascinating near misses of twentieth-century history.
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June 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Valkyrie by Philip Freiherr Von Boeselager
A Taste for Freedom My brother Georg was born in August 1915, I in September 1917. We were the fourth and fifth in a family of nine children. My family had settled in Heimerzheim, in the Rhineland, in 1910, leaving our old home in Bonn, which in the eighteenth century had been one of the residences of Prince-Archbishop Clemens August of Bavaria. With its network of canals and moats, its great central building--white, gabled, and flanked by corner towers--it stood on an island reached by a succession of bridges, like a summer palace in ancient China. Its immense grounds were left in a half-wild state where deer peacefully grazed and the familiar mixture of mystery and nature on the doorstep made Heimerzheim seem to us like a fairy-tale castle. Nothing was easier there than to retreat into a secret world. Imagination and children's games could hardly have found a more propitious place to develop. We had a liberal upbringing at Heimerzheim, something that always surprised the guests who passed through--and they were many, since our mother be-lieved that those who had the good fortune to live in a great residence should keep an open house. But for all that, our upbringing was not permissive. Life was very clearly structured, framed by a few strictly defined moral principles: for example, it was forbidden to torture animals. Within this framework, we enjoyed a great deal of latitude. My father, Albert von Boeselager, was a cultured man of letters. His mother's side of the family hailed from Brussels, and he considered the European nobility a unitary body. He hunted all over the Continent and spoke four or five languages. Because of this, he attached particular importance to learning how to make proper use of freedom--and the capacity for Christian discernment that was for him its corollary--and also of hunting. Georg received his first rifle as a Christmas present in 1928, when he was only thirteen years old. At fifteen, my brother's list of kills already included some 150 head of game. His passion was such that he managed to sneak a disassembled rifle into our boarding school--with my complicity, I must admit. When Father Strasser made the rounds of the bedrooms to check the students' bags, we were forced once again to engage in a ruse. Each of us slipped part of the rifle into his shorts--Georg the barrel and I the stock--while the inspection took place. The maneuver was acrobatic, be-cause it was strictly forbidden to put our hands in our pockets, but we somehow had to prevent the parts of the rifle from slipping out. It was hunting that truly shaped our behavior in nature, and profoundly influenced our way of life. Georg, in particular, learned to find his way in the forest even before the sun came up; to creep up to within a few meters of a woodcock without scaring the bird away; to slip through the bushes without making the leaves rustle so as not to frighten the deer; to disappear into the vegetation, perfectly camouflaged; to wait patiently, silent and inactive; and to act at the right fraction of a second. In a word, hunting, practiced in a group or in the course of long solitary hikes, with that passion for animals that marks true nature lovers, made Georg a real Indian. He remained one. He was later to find this training ex-tremely valuable. Hunting was not only a way of hardening the body. It prepared us, without our being aware of it, for the laws of life, for the struggles of existence: saving one's strength, fleeing from an adversary, recovering, knowing how to use cunning, adapting to the enemy, assessing risk. We learned how to keep our sangfroid in the tumult of dogs excited by the battle, how to strike the throat of a stag or a boar in the coup de gr?ce and look without revulsion at the dark red fluid bubbling out of mortal wounds. We did not shiver upon seeing the brown trickle running down the pale pelt of a young deer, or the bloody foam staining the chops of an animal exhausted by the chase. We withstood the glassy stare of the dead animal and, finally, collected these bloody, damp trophies, the spolia opima of modern times. Hunting also accustomed us to the laws of violent death, internalized the notion of an offering. Yes, hunting was a preparation for the supreme sacrifice--the sacrifice of life. The education we received at Godesberg did not differ from what we were taught at Heimerzheim, which I would call relaxed Catholicism. My family was profoundly Catholic, with a centuries-old history linked to that of the German Catholic princes. In the seventeenth century, our ancestors, the Heyden-Belderbusches, from whom we had inherited the Heimerzheim castle, had been ministers of the powerful archbishop of Cologne. During the same period, the Satzenhovens, from whom we had inherited the Kreuzberg estate, had served the prince electors of Mainz. As children, Georg and I were very close. Only two years apart, we were like Castor and Pollux--natural playmates, and accomplices in the same practical jokes. But this intimacy, which made us almost a separate unit among our siblings, did not prevent us from developing different qualities; nor did it diminish the natural ascendancy of the elder child over the younger. As a duo, we complemented each other. Georg was physically more robust, more athletic, more intuitive, and instinctively perceptive regarding people, situations, and things. I, on the other hand, was more reflective and analytical. Two anecdotes from our early childhood clearly show our difference in character. At Heimerzheim, the grounds were full of wild deer. The animals sometimes came quite close to the house. One day, our older brothers Antonius and Hermann, who were then not quite ten, were amusing themselves by throwing pebbles at one of the deer, trying to provoke it. Sitting behind a stone bench, Georg was watching carefully. The roebuck, suddenly responding to the little devils' challenge, was about to attack. Georg reacted with lightning speed; all of five years old, he seized the rifle that Antonius had left leaning against the bench and shot at the animal. Ka-boom! Bowled over by the rifle's recoil, Georg fell backward. Fortunately, he was not injured. But the explosion had frightened away the roebuck. As for me, when I was four years old I distinguished myself at a family dinner. Our cousin zu Stolberg-Stolberg had been seriously wounded in the head during the Great War. The surgeons had installed a silver plate on his skull to close the hole left by enemy fire, and he lived until the 1960s. I had heard about this extraordinary operation and wanted to see the result for myself. Climbing silently onto a chair, I leaned over my cousin's head and began to examine, discreetly and carefully, the bald area where the precious metal shone. They say that I then cried, disappointed, "That's not silver! There's no hallmark!" As a reward for this impertinent observation, I received a couple of slaps. To tell the truth, our father never took much interest in his children's scholastic progress. After several years of taking lessons at home, however, the boys had to be subjected to modern education. "School," our father said, sighing, "is an obligation these days. It's very boring, but you've got to do it!" So we were enrolled in the Alo?sius Jesuit secondary school in Godesberg, on the outskirts of Bonn. As it turned out, entering boarding school was not very traumatic. Heimerzheim was then less than an hour's drive from the school. The Jesuit tuition at Alo?sius did not seek to train priests, but to reconcile the sacred and the profane in human beings, and to keep alive the flame of faith amid the chaos of the world. The practice of religion was not supposed to be an end in itself; it was intended to slip naturally into the schedules, the lives, and, as it were, the skins of the young boys. The five or six years we spent in Godesberg helped root in us a solid, authentic, uncomplicated, moderate faith. Ultimately, we acquired more a way of behaving than a body of knowledge, although nothing was omitted from the regular curriculum. In any case, we learned the most important thing that can be taught how to learn. The headmaster of the boarding school was a patriot. As he saw it, the Christian values, humanism, sense of honor, respect for others, and tradition of intellectual rigor and critical vigilance that had long characterized Jesuit pedagogy were not incompatible with patriotism. Interestingly, none of my classmates later became a Nazi supporter. This fact, which was rather exceptional in my generation, deserves to be noted. The Time of Choices 1933?36 In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Georg was not yet seventeen years old; I was only fifteen. This event, although it later turned out to be crucial for us and our families, left us rather indifferent at the time. Our parents, though they certainly did not adhere to the ideology of the Nazi Party, were not sorry to see the end of the Weimar Republic. We knew what it was to feel humiliated after a defeat. Because we lived on the left bank of the Rhine, which was under Allied occupation between 1919 and 1926, we saw Canadian, British, and then French troops--chiefly drawn from the colonies--march past. These six years of peacetime occupation were long and burdensome. For Germans, the situation was incomprehensible: enemy troops had not entered the country on the western frontier, there had been no invasion during the war, and it was the Treaty of Versailles, a treaty considered unjust and designed to ruin the country, that had brought about foreign occupation. An occupation, even a tranquil one, is hardly likely to strengthen friendship among peoples. But the occupation of the Ruhr from 1923 to 1926 was accompanied by violence and turmoil, and resulted in 121 summary executions and tens of thousands of expulsions. It also led to a general strike, instigated by Chancellor Cuno, and the economic collapse of the industrial heart of Germany, which caused terrifying inflation. All that, I think, accentuated the Rhinelanders' already very strong prejudice against the French, who had been seen for centuries as troublesome neighbors. The humiliations inflicted by the occupying forces did not escape my notice when I was a child. I remember that my parents were forbidden to attend my grandmother's funeral, on the pretext that my father was a reserve officer. I also recall how we congratulated Father Seelen, who had dared to sing the German national anthem, which was strictly prohibited on the left bank, in full view of the French troops. Fortunately Father Seelen was a Dutch citizen, and the French could not arrest him. That is how, as young men, we practiced as much resistance as possible. My father believed in European unity before it became fashionable; he was not at all inclined to vindictiveness. But as a former officer in the Great War, he was a patriot, and he wanted to see Germany regain all its rights as a great nation. He communicated this desire to us without imposing it on us. And our elder brother Antonius quite naturally joined the paramilitary organization Stahlhelm. I can understand if a foreign reader mistrusts German patriots' political position in that period, and is tempted to see in it an inadmissible compromise with the goals pursued by Adolf Hitler. However, we German patriots were nonetheless able to tell the difference. We had no more cause to be ashamed of wanting to restore Germany than had the French, who, in 1914, wanted to restore Alsace and Lorraine to France. I must describe something that happened to me at that time that taught me a little about the methods of Hitler's men. In 1934 the chancellor of the Reich came to Bonn. Curious, I climbed over my boarding school's wall, accompanied by a classmate. We approached the Dreesen Hotel, where the chancellor was supposed to be staying, and found a hiding place where we might at least catch a glimpse of him on the steps. We were found out. Two SS men picked us up and, without further investigation, simply locked us in a garage. We were terrified that the headmaster of the school, informed of our escape, might punish us. Our internment, without food and without sleep, lasted until the early hours of the morning, but once the chancellor had departed, we were set free. Miraculously, our desertion had not been noticed at school. During that day and the following night we had plenty to think about. The somewhat suspicious nature of the Nazi movement was soon revealed in another way. The headmaster of the school in Bad Godesberg, Father Rodewyck, a Jesuit and a former military officer in the Great War, was not indifferent to the revival of patriotism. But he was able to channel the ardor of the boys entrusted to him by providing a Christian framework within his school and avoiding any pollution by Nazi ideology. Thus in 1933 George founded a Catholic patriotic movement in the school whose scouting spirit was indicated by its attachment to moral and religious values. It was called the Jungstahlhelm. Along similar lines, the Jesuit school founded a movement on the model of Hitler's Deutsche Jungvolk or Pimpfen, whose activities (camping, hik- ing, and the like) then seemed quite innocent. Father Rodewyck had seen the risk that hearts and souls might be won by the Nazi Party's youth organizations, and he preferred to infiltrate the movement using boys like us. Our principal thought he had done what was necessary to keep control of the organization. But it gradually escaped his grasp and that of the school. It was at this time that another important episode occurred. I belonged to a club devoted to Our Lady: the Congregation of Mary. One fine day in the summer of 1937, the head of my group of Pimpfen, a nice fellow, came to tell me that belonging to the valiant Pimpfen was incompatible with religion, and so I had to choose between the two. I was intelligent; he was sure that he would succeed in persuading me to give up my membership in the Congregation of Mary without hesitation. But I flatly refused. I found it intolerable to be forced to make such a choice, and did not hesitate. I have to admit that I did not reveal the precise motive for my refusal. I told him only that preparing for my final school examination prevented me from continuing to participate in Pimpfen activities. The pretext seemed valid, and it was accepted. Georg took his final exam in the summer of 1934. He had already made a decision regarding his future: he wanted to be a military officer. My brother had a taste for action and initiative. He excelled in all athletic disciplines, had inexhaustible energy, and showed great endurance. He liked the outdoor life. And in the end, he was interested in human psychology. Objectively, everything pointed him toward this profession. At that time people believed, not without a certain na?vet?, that entering the army was a way of serving one's country without serving the government. It seemed to us that the army was the only institution that had remained faithful to its principles and was capable, through its vitality and culture, of preserving its identity and, especially, its autonomy. In 1934, for a young man like Georg, a military career still seemed to make it possible to reconcile a taste for action with independence.