Today marks the seventy-first anniversary of the July 20th Plot, the ill-fated attempt by a diverse group of German political and military leaders and intellectuals to assassinate Adolph Hitler, establish a provisional government, and demonstrate to the world that there were righteous Germans who refused to walk the genocidal path of Nazism.
It was a defining event in the democratic state that would follow in Nazism’ wake: the Federal Republic of Germany, commonly known until unification as West Germany. Most of the West German leadership certainly viewed the conspiracy in those terms, seeing it as a kind of prequel to the postwar regime.
Indeed, Theodor Heuss, the liberal journalist and politician who served as the first president of West Germany, maintained secret contacts with the conspiracy, as did Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war Chancellor.
But many ordinary West Germans viewed the plot entirely differently — as an act of treason.
In 1951, six years after the war, the Allensbacher Institute conducted an interview with Germans to garner their views of the plot. A mere third of the respondents viewed it favorably. In 1956, a majority of Germans opposed an attempt to name a school after Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the principal figure beyond the attempt on Hitler’s life.
Many post-war Germans simply could not get past the fact that the Stauffenberg and the other conspirators had violated their oaths, even though these had been given to Hitler.
President Heuss is credited with transforming public views of the conspiracy.
Speaking at the tenth anniversary of the assassination attempt — the first official commemoration to honor the conspirators — Heuss reminded Germans that the oath given by millions of Germans was to a man who, “formally, legally, morally and historically,” had committed perjury many times.
Views of the conspiracy among ordinary Germans eventually changed. The underlying principle of the conspirators — the moral imperative to resist tyranny regardless the cost — became one of the fundamental ideals of the West German army, the Bundeswehr.
Every year on July 20, the Bundeswehr’s elite drill unit, the Wachbataillon, gathers in a solemn ceremony to reaffirm their military vow, which serves as a testament to the conspirator’s efforts to rebuild a democratic Germany out of the ashes and to affirm the humanistic traditions of Germany: “I pledge to serve the Federal Republic of Germany loyally and to defend the right and the freedom of the German people bravely.”
An effort to rid Germany of its greatest pestilence in its history, undertaken by some of the most extraordinary men and women German society ever produced, is recognized today by the vast majority of Germans as an act of selfless bravery and a seminal event in German history.