21 December 2008

The Failed Attempt to Assassinate Hitler

The new Tom Cruise movie, Valkyrie, is set to hit theaters in a few days and preliminary reviews indicate it will be worth seeing. Whether or not the movie is a success there is no doubt that the story behind the film is amazing. Although the film is mainly about Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who carried the bomb, there were a number of co-conspirators. One of them, Philipp von Boeselager, was only discovered after the war ended and later given highest honors by the governments of Germany and France. He died this past May and was the last surviving conspirator. In 1946 he became a Knight of Malta and was responsible for co-founding the medical operations of the Order and bringing German pilgrims to Lourdes among many accomplishments.

The Telegraph in the U.K. wrote an account of his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler and it is an exciting story that can be read here.

In 1942, as a 24-year-old field lieutenant in the 41st Cavalry, Boeselager turned against the Nazi government after hearing how five Romany gypsies had been shot in cold blood purely on the ground of their ethnicity.

With his commanding officer, Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, Boeselager joined a plot to assassinate the Führer. The first attempt was in March 1943, when both Hitler and Heinrich Himmler were expected at the Eastern Front for a strategy meeting with Kluge.

Once Hitler was dead, Boeselager was to order his troops (who were ignorant of the plot) to commandeer horses and return to Berlin to seize key parts of the city and to round up senior Nazis in a full-scale coup d'état. Their specific target was the SS Reichssicherheitshauptamt RSHA, the central headquarters of the SS.

Boeselager was issued with a Walther PP pistol, with which he was to shoot both Hitler and Himmler during dinner at the officers' mess. But the plan was aborted at the last minute when Himmler left early, opening up the possibility that he would have succeeded Hitler as leader.

In the spring of 1944 the conspirators planned a second attempt on Hitler's life, Boeselager helping to supply Stauffenberg with explosives; a job with an explosives research team provided von Boeselager with cover. When ordered to deliver his cargo of British-made charges (his team considered the fuses easy to set), Boeselager found the recipient was in a meeting, so he carried his payload in a suitcase to the cinema to avoid drawing attention to himself.

"They were showing a comedy," he recalled. "But I didn't see much. I had to be careful that people didn't trip on the suitcase." When at last he met his contact,Boeselager said: "I'm supposed to give you a suitcase. "He said 'Thank you', and that was all."

The bomb was planted under a table at Hitler's Eastern Front headquarters where he was holding a meeting. Although Hitler survived, Boeselager had already set in train his return to Berlin to help install a new government. He would later recall an "unbelievable" ride covering 120 miles in 36 hours, with 1,000 cavalrymen under his command, to reach an airport in western Russia from where they had planned to fly back to the German capital.

But on receiving from his brother Georg the coded message "All back into the old holes", Boeselager knew that the plot had failed, and that he must return to the front at once. Although he was able to reverse his cavalry retreat in time and get his troops back to their positions before arousing suspicion, it was a close call. One of his comrades was killed as he rode over a mine, and he had to retrieve a strategic map of Berlin from the dead man's pocket which, if found, would have exposed his links to the plot and the planned takeover of key buildings in Berlin.

While most of the other conspirators were executed by firing squad, Boeselager's part in the plot remained undetected, as was that of his brother Georg –who was later killed in action on the Eastern Front.

It was only after the war that Boeselager's role in the failed assassination attempts was revealed. He was hailed as a hero in both Germany and France, and awarded the highest military honours both countries could bestow.

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