Over the years, a few high-ranking officers plotted to kill Hitler, but their efforts were marked by thumb-sucking (did Himmler also have to die? What about Goebbels?), faulty detonators, cowardice and plain bad luck.
In “Valkyrie: The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member,” Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager recalls his role in the best-known attempt, led by Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg on July 20, 1944.
Von Boeselager, a Catholic cavalry officer from a prominent Rhenish family, finished his memoir shortly before his death in 2008. It is now in paperback -- a slim volume with a few pale, atmospheric photographs of horses and Hitler-haters, including his adored brother, Georg, and Henning von Tresckow, the doomed Wehrmacht officer who led the resistance.
Like so many of these strangely ineffectual men, von Boeselager comes across as thoroughly decent, infused by his faith and tortured by doubts.
He offers a revealing glimpse of Georg, a great marksman, who was chosen to shoot the Fuhrer. When he realized he would have to aim for his face since Hitler was encased in thin body armor, Georg got the jitters. He worried he might miss and asked for backup. But that was one of the plots that got canceled when Himmler didn’t show for lunch as expected. Himmler also had to be shot to avoid a coup by his SS, so went the thinking.
By the time von Stauffenberg pushed a suitcase bomb under the table at the Wolf’s Lair, millions more had died.
You get the sense that the field of hero assassins wasn’t very deep. Wounded in Africa, von Stauffenberg was down to three fingers and one eye when he proceeded to the Fuhrer’s headquarters with his bombs. A more dexterous assassin could have set the second device that might have finished off his monstrous uber-commander.
Von Boeselager describes rushing from the Russian front to secure Berlin with his cavalry unit when he received a coded message from Georg to turn back immediately. Hitler had survived. Thanks to the chaos in the countryside, his weird reappearance provoked no great suspicion. Neither did their captured friends give them up before they were tortured to death, though Georg died in combat a month later, just after his 29th birthday.
A photo shows Philipp cantering home. Throughout the war, he had carefully strategized to keep his men and their mounts as safe as possible, and he was justly proud that Oter and Moritz, who had borne him to battle in 1939, were alive for the ride.
“Valkyrie,” written with the assistance of Florence Fehrenbach (the granddaughter of another conspirator, Karl von Wendt) and her husband, Jerome Fehrenbach, is published by Vintage. To buy this book in North America, click here.
Where did they all go, all those Nazis? What happened to them once the war was finally over in May 1945?
Guy Walters takes up the theme of the disappearing Nazi in “Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice.” A few, of course, were hanged in Nuremberg, but most survived to reminisce about the olden days in the local bierstube, occasionally plagued by intrusive journalists and enraged survivors. Sentences were laughably short and often trimmed for health reasons. Yes. Really.
Dr. Josef Mengele, who enjoyed torturing children at Auschwitz, died comfortably with a view over the ocean, thanks to a support network for Nazis that sailed him to South America a few years after the war.
Walters reckons some 30,000 major criminals escaped punishment. The Allies simply couldn’t cope with so many and sometimes employed a few to fight the new enemies in the Soviet Union. Walters writes vividly of those who refused to move on and forget, but also offers a sharp reappraisal of Nazi-hunting legend Simon Wiesenthal, a spotlight hog in his view.
“Hunting Evil” is published by Broadway Books. To buy this book in North America, click here.
Ben Macintyre’s “Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory” is a bit long, like the title. But there aren’t many books involving Nazi Germany that make you gleeful. Here’s one.
Outfitted with misleading information, the body in question was dumped off the coast of southwest Spain, where the sardines were plentiful and a fisherman was likely to pull him out of the water and alert the authorities.
While this is not an unknown story, Macintyre is skillful in setting the scene and describing the main players involved in turning the corpse of a destitute Welsh miner into a British officer with military secrets in his soggy pockets.
Incredibly, the Germans got suckered into thinking the Allies would attack Greece, thereby allowing them a significant victory in Sicily.
“Operation Mincemeat” is published by Harmony Books. To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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