BERLIN–The Bendler Block was not the place to be on this day 63 years ago. A nondescript set of government buildings, the Bendler Block housed the reserve army headquarters. A backwater to Nazi Germany’s failing war effort, these structures were the epicenter of an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Adolf Hitler.
Berlin is a city full of architectural ghosts. The scene of much storied and horrid history, Berlin offers a delight for the historical junkie. Adolf Hitler’s Reich chancellery and bunker are no more, but can be located — the former replaced by an apartment building, the latter located under a playground. Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe headquarters survives, home to the government economics ministry. The old Gestapo headquarters was destroyed; the open lot houses an open-air exhibit, “The Topography of Terror,” supposedly destined to be replaced by a museum on the same subject. The comfortable villa in which Nazi chieftains gathered to plot the final extermination of Europe’s Jewry — the infamous Wansee conference — is open for visitors in nearby Potsdam. Such a pleasant venue, a lakeside villa; such a monstrous task, a plan for genocide.
The collapse of East Germany, the “so-called” German Democratic Republic, has left its own monuments of man’s inhumanity to man. The horrid orangish meeting hall for East German apparatchiks finally is being dismantled. But the old Stasi headquarters and Stasi prison are now museums. The former sports an array of surveillance equipment that enabled apparatchiks to spy on virtually everyone. As for the infamous Berlin Wall, only a few small pieces remain on view.
The Bendler Block, which houses Germany’s defense ministry, is especially poignant. The Nazi era was a time when a fearful majority stood back, allowing an evil few to inaugurate the globe’s worst war, initiate the world’s worst campaign of genocide, and turn over much of Europe to another murderous, totalitarian power. There were few heroes willing to risk all to stop war and genocide. But there were a few heroes willing to do so.
Even before the start of the war there were coup plots, which were largely stillborn as Hitler went from one triumph to another. Several assassination attempts failed; in one case a faulty bomb fuse saved Hitler as he flew from East Prussia back to Berlin. The odds were against success and the price of failure would be great, dissuading all but the most dedicated activist from making the attempt.
One such person was Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. A devout Catholic and courageous soldier, Stauffenberg gradually recognized the Nazi regime’s infamous character. He and his brother, Berthold, became intimately involved in a resistance circle that encompassed pastors, politicians, generals, and others.
Eventually Stauffenberg took on the responsibility of killing Hitler. The plot culminated in the famous bomb attack at Hitler’s East Prussia headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, on July 20, 1944. Although Stauffenberg was not the only courageous conspirator, he was almost the only competent one. Despite crippling war wounds, he set the bomb, talked his way past compound guards to fly back to Berlin, and took charge of operation “Valkyrie,” the coup attempt in Germany’s capital.
The effort failed — most importantly because Hitler survived. Around midnight on July 20 Stauffenberg’s commander, Colonel General Friedrich Fromm — who had refused to commit himself to either side — had Stauffenberg and three of his associates lined up in front of a sand pile and shot in the Bendler Block’s central courtyard. (Fromm’s attempt to silence potential witnesses did not save him from Nazi “justice.”) The courtyard is open to the public today, with the primary noise being laughter from visiting school children. But if you listen closely, you can imagine the report of the executioners’ weapons on a warm July night a few decades ago.
THE GERMAN RESISTANCE MEMORIAL CENTER has been established within the Bendler Block. At the exhibit’s core are the second floor offices of Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Werner von Haeften, executed alongside Stauffenberg. (Retired Gen. Ludwig Beck committed suicide just outside Stauffenberg’s door.) None of the original furniture remains — the building was used as the German army headquarters during the final Soviet assault on Berlin. But photos of Stauffenberg’s office show a standard issue table and chair, and tall telephone characteristic of the period. In this simple office he sought to overthrow perhaps the most monstrous dictatorship in history.
The office is silent now, but photos line the walls and enliven the plain interior. Because he failed, Stauffenberg was not an influential historical figure — moving events like the evil man he attempted to kill. But Stauffenberg proved to be a great historical figure, willing to take an important stand and pay a very high price to do what was right.
Of course, Stauffenberg was not alone in attempting to overthrow Hitler. And Stauffenberg was not alone in paying a very high price for doing so. July 20 sparked a heightened reign of terror that continued through August and beyond. Thousands of people were arrested. Within weeks trials began before the People’s Court, headed by the notorious Nazi jurist, Roland Freisler (who was later killed by an allied air raid). Hundreds of conspirators and other regime opponents were executed, some by hanging — with piano wire. Celebrated Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, only tangentially involved in the plot, committed suicide to save his family. The trials, imprisonments, and executions ended only when the Allies overran Germany in May 1945.
Stauffenberg is the most celebrated conspirator of the most celebrated conspiracy — the street upon which the Bendler Block sits is now named after him. (In fact, Tom Cruise will improbably, and controversially, portray Stauffenberg in the movie Valkyrie, set for release next year.) However, there were many more people who resisted in large and small ways. The Memorial Center also tells their stories.
One of the most arresting tales is that of the White Rose, led by brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, their friend Christoph Probst, and several other students. They were executed for the crime of distributing resistance flyers. At one level their efforts were even more futile than those of the July 20 plotters. Yet the swift, unforgiving Nazi response to the White Rose demonstrated that the regime feared the written word almost as much as the gun barrel.
Although the Memorial Center praises, it does not sentimentalize. Many resisters were not liberal democrats in pursuit of the Germany that we see today. Monarchists and nationalists mixed with theologians and labor activists. Yet all were appalled by the criminality and inhumanity of the Nazi regime. And all, in contrast to many fellow Germans, acted on their beliefs.
Yet perhaps the most heart-warming sign of resistance to the Nazis came from average people who saw no political options but who personally aided Jews and others who were persecuted by the new order. To do so meant hardship — with food rationing, one could ill afford to feed one deportee, let alone a family, for instance. And hiding a Jew could mean imprisonment.
Still, purebred “Aryans” shared food and protected Jews. Ilse Rewald, who went into hiding with her husband after the deportation of several of her relatives, wrote the Center publication, “Berliners Who Helped Us to Survive the Hitler Dictatorship.” In it she explains:
On January 11, 1943, it is a winter day 20 degrees C below zero with a biting east wind, I go to the P. family who I do not know personally at all. I have heard of their great compassion and constant willingness to help only through friends. The Jewish father, a doctor, had died not long ago. The Christian daughter and mother do their utmost to help the persecuted Jews and lessen their suffering. I am so desperate that I dare to ask them for shelter. They tell me that they are already in great danger and cannot take additional risks. As I go down the stairs crying, they call me back. They could not be responsible for leaving me to the Gestapo, and they offer to let me live with them temporarily.
“They could not be responsible for leaving me to the Gestapo.” How sublime, how courageous, how moral. These people decided they were their brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. They did not know Ilse Rewald. In legal terms they owed her nothing. But once she had inserted herself into their lives they accepted responsibility for her, even at significant risk to themselves.
The Center’s wide-ranging exhibits cover such subjects as resistance by Jews, activities by prisoners, and the role of the church. There’s also an on-line database of resisters. It is roll of death but also one of honor.
The capital cities of most European cities embody much history. But few can match the wide range of events found in Berlin, from inconceivable brutality to beautiful artistry, The Bendler Block helps bridge that gap. In the midst of great evil, a few men and women stood tall. Decades later we should continue to remember, and honor, their sacrifice.
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