July 21, 2004

Chief of General Staff or Death on the Scaffold

Major General Henning von Tresckow (1901 - 1944)

A report about the young Lieutenant Tresckow by one of his senior officers said that he would "either become Chief of General Staff or die on the scaffold".

60 years ago today, Major General Henning von Tresckow took his own life.

Born in Magdeburg 1901 into a family of landed gentry, an officer during World War I and subsequently a successful stockbroker, Tresckow rejoined the Reichswehr in 1924. Like many of his fellow officers who became Hitler's and the Nazis' arch enemies, he first flirted with National Socialism, to become the brains of the resistance group formed by army officers fighting on the eastern front.

At the beginning of World War II, Tresckow was General Staff officer of an infantry division in East Prussia. Promoted to Major General, he later served as Chief of Staff of the Army Group Center on the Russian front. Determined to end the war before the German armies collapsed on the eastern front, Tresckow began to plan an independent assassination attempt at the end of 1942. On 13 March 1943 he enticed Hitler to Smolensk and smuggled a time bomb into his aircraft with the help of his cousin Fabian von Schlabrendorff, which failed to go off. Tresckow also played a leading role in the plans for several other attempts on Hitler's life during 1943, and in October of the same year joined forces with Colonel Count Stauffenberg.

The Allied invasion of Normandy gave a new urgency to their plans and Tresckow stressed to those who still hesitated the need to prove to the world and future generations 'that the German Resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and hazard their lives on it'.

Tresckow circa 1938 with his sons Mark and Rüdiger.

A Prussian conservative through and through and a man of unusual integrity, Tresckow took his own life with a hand grenade on 21 July 1944 at the eastern front near Ostrow, Poland. The failure of Stauffenberg's assassination attempt on 20 July 1944 had convinced him to commit suicide rather than endanger other conspirators by revealing information under torture, his personal escort officer reported "death through partisans".

Henning von Tresckow was buried in the small graveyard of his family's estate Wartenberg, Neumark. Only a few days later, the Gestapo dug out his body. His involvement in the conspiracy had become known. His body was burnt and his ashes scattered over the fields.

Tresckow's last known words were about the Biblical promise to Abraham to spare Sodom if there were ten just men in the city. 'He will, I hope, spare Germany because of what we have done and not destroy her. None of us can complain. Whoever joined the Resistance put on the shirt of Nessus. The worth of a man begins when he is ready to sacrifice his life for his convictions.'

Resistance hotbed: Henning von Tresckow, First General Staff officer of the Heeres­gruppe Mitte (fourth from right) and his co-conspirator and first cousin Fabian von Schlabrendorff (right, with glasses) 1943 at a briefing. Schlabrendorff survived to become later a renowned lawyer and judge at the German Federal Constitutional Court.

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