What makes a hero? I cogitate on this question every year as July 20th approaches. On July 20, 1944, a group of German Army officers came darned close to killing Adolf Hitler with a bomb. Today those officers are considered heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance. It wasn’t always that way, though.
In 1944, the officers were considered traitors by their fellow Germans and by the people on the Allied side of the war. In 1944, only anarchists, traitors and Communists were so morally challenged as to commit political murder. No one wanted to believe that respectable, educated, upper-class men would commit pre-meditated murder.
So who were the German officers who tried to kill Hitler? They were primarily Junkers or German aristocrats and most of them were related to each other. They tended to be devout Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant. They thought, incorrectly, that if they killed Hitler, the western Allies (U.S., Britain, and France) would sign a ceasefire and agree to join them in fighting the Russian Communists.
Alas, their bomb failed to kill Hitler and the Nazis took revenge. Henning von Tresckow, the mastermind, died on the eastern front hours before Gestapo agents stepped off a plane to arrest him. Graf von Stauffenberg, who planted the bomb, was shot by firing squad on the evening of July 20th. They were the lucky ones. Most of the other plotters, and quite a few innocents, were taken to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin where they were tortured before being tried in kangaroo courts and hanged.
Their wives and children ended the war in prison or in concentration camps. The youngest children were sent to orphanages. Stauffenberg’s widow gave birth to her daughter in prison and spent about 10 years searching orphanages trying to find her sons. The widows were ostracized after the war until the 1960’s when their dead husbands were proclaimed as heroes.
The plotters became heroes because West Germany needed heroes. In 1945, Germany was split in two. East Germany was occupied by the Russians. West Germany was created from the American, French and British occupation zones. By the 1960’s, West Germany needed heroes to give the country a sense of continuity with the past but without the taint of the Nazis. The German officers who plotted to kill Hitler fit the requirements and became heroes.
So what makes a person a hero? In the case of the July 20th conspirators, it was political necessity. But I like to think that the July 20th conspirators would have been recognized as heroes even without political necessity. They were truly brave men who knew they were risking the lives of their families in their quest to build a better future for all.
About Norma Shirk
My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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