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Von Kleist, Last Survivor From Plot to Kill Hitler, Dies at 90

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, the last surviving member of the German resistance group that tried unsuccessfully to kill Adolf Hitler, has died. He was 90.

He died March 8 at his home in Munich, the Associated Press reported, citing his wife, Gundula von Kleist.

As a 21-year-old lieutenant, von Kleist accepted Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s personal request to make an attempt on Hitler’s life. The young officer planned to conceal two hand grenades under his coat and to detonate them in the Fuehrer’s presence at a demonstration of military uniforms in February 1944. The suicide mission never took place because Hitler was unable to attend on several occasions. It was one of at least 40 known attempts to kill Hitler.

Von Kleist then joined his father -- who had endorsed his son’s assassination plan -- in the “Operation Valkyrie” plot led by von Stauffenberg and Major General Henning von Tresckow. On July 20, 1944, the group of senior officers and supporters, disillusioned by the mass killings of Jews and others in Eastern Europe, staged a synchronized coup with the backing of a reserve army. Von Stauffenberg failed to kill Hitler with a bomb that exploded at the Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia, and the conspirators were quickly rounded up by the Gestapo.

About 600 people were arrested and about 150 were executed for their roles in the plot, says Johannes Tuchel, head of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin. Von Stauffenberg and von Kleist’s father were among those killed.

Eastern Front

At the reserve army headquarters in Berlin, where von Stauffenberg was chief of staff to General Friedrich Fromm, von Kleist played a supporting role during the plot. A preliminary investigation into his involvement was terminated in December 1944. He was sent to a concentration camp and then to the eastern front.

“I had something that is no longer common today but played a big role back then: a strong attachment to my people and my country,” von Kleist said in an interview with the weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit in May 2001. “I found it appalling that such crimes were committed in the name of Germany.”

Von Kleist was born on July 10, 1922, on his family estate in Schmenzin, a town in Pomerania that is now part of Poland and called Smecino. His ancestors had served in Prussian military and administrative positions for centuries.

His father, a member of the Confessing Church, resigned from public duties when Hitler took power in 1933, and he managed the family manor. In August 1938, the elder von Kleist met with Winston Churchill, a Conservative Party parliamentarian at the time, in London to gauge his support for an army revolt against the Nazi regime and to steer the U.K. away from a policy of appeasement.

Liberal Schooling

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist was sent to high school at the Gymnasium Birklehof, near Freiburg in southwest Germany, where he was exposed to liberal ideas with French and American influences. After his schooling, he returned to Pomerania to pursue an apprenticeship in agriculture. He joined the German army at age 18 and volunteered for Infantry Regiment 9, which was known to have many officers and troops with anti-Nazi sympathies.

After the war, he started his own publishing business and founded the Wehrkundetagung, later known as the Munich Security Conference, in 1962. He stepped down in 1998 as chairman of the conference, a foreign-policy forum for government ministers, academics, high-ranking army officers and media.

The Munich Security Conference was the scene of German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s vocal opposition to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s case for war in Iraq at the meeting in 2003. It highlighted a cooling of relations between the two countries during President George W. Bush’s tenure.

Von Kleist and his wife, Gundula, had a son, Christian, and a daughter, Vera.

“The attempt to save millions of lives was worth it,” von Kleist said in a remembrance speech for von Stauffenberg’s 100th birthday in November 2007.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Henry in Frankfurt at dhenry2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net

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