July 20, 2010

"Orderly, champers! The swine is dead!"

I posted this blog entry already four years ago. The header could as well read: "Wrong and Too Late". Until today, the anniversary of the desperate and shockingly inept attempt a few brave men undertook, is one of those phoney feelgood days for Germans on which they slap their own backs and assure themselves that there had been "another, better, Germany" that never existed.

Rome, Piazza di Siena 1933: The German show jumping equipe from the Kavallerieschule Hannover, winners of the Coppa d'Oro Mussolini.
FLTR: Richard Sahla, Hermann von Nagel-Itlingen, Harald Momm, Heinz Brandt.

On a scorching hot July day like today, 66 years ago, Claus Graf Stauffenberg attempted, unsuccessfully, to assassinate the dictator of Germany, Adolf Hitler, in his bunker headquarters, the "Führererbunker" Wolfsschanze, near the town of Rastenburg in East Prussia. It had been the culmination of the efforts of the hapless German military resistance to overthrow the Nazi regime. Its failure led to the destruction of any semblance of an organised resistance movement in Nazi Germany until the bitter end.

Stauffenberg and his leading fellow conspirators are widely known. However, to mark the day, I would like to introduce one of the many interesting peripheral partakers in the plot.

On July 20, 1944, Harald Momm (second from right in the above picture), born November 15, 1899 in Trier, had been commander of the Heeres-Reit- und Fahrschule in Potsdam-Krampnitz near Berlin, which had in 1939 superseded the legendary Kavallerieschule Hannover.

Harald Momm, a veteran of WWI, had been on service at the Kavallerieschule since 1927. Originally considered a certainty for the show jumping equipe in Berlin 1936, he was instead transfered away from the school back to his regiment (the 16. Reiterregiment) some time before the Olympic Games because of a "clash of opinions" over an equestrian matter with his superior officer, General von Waldenfels. Waldenfels, commander of the show jumping unit at the school, had been, to be precise, pushed over by Momm and his mount during an argument over an equestrian matter.

After the Olympic Games, he was transfered back to the cavalry school to become successor of General von Waldenfels as commander of the show jumping unit. 1943, he became, as colonel, commander of the school, which had been transfered by then to Potsdam-Krampnitz.

It is said that on the evening of that fateful day, Momm had ordered champagne in the officers' mess: "Orderly, champers! The swine is dead."

While this is, as far as I know, apocryphal, it is a fact that Momm had the troups of the school march out on July 20, 1944 to support the putschists.

Not a very wise thing to do, but then, this was the man who had toppled a German general by literally overriding him.

He was lucky. He was arrested but, different from many men who had done less, not sentenced to death. He was disrated from colonel to captain and transfered to the SS Brigade 'Dirlewanger', a penal unit for felons under the command of SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger, himself a twice convicted rapist. The Dirlewanger unit's "warfare" had raised objections even among the regular SS and for a man like Momm being transfered to such a unit was akin to being sentenced to death.

However, he survived to tell his tale. In his well-written and, for any horsey person, highly intriguing memoirs "Pferde, Reiter - und Trophäen" (Horses, Horsemen and Trophies) he tells, among other things, about his five years in a Russian POW-camp and how he survived in spite of the tuberculosis he had caught working in the mines. His saviour was the commander of the POW-camp who had acquired a little filly whom he let Harald Momm groom.

Home at last, he became one of the few former officers of the SS Brigade Dirlewanger who were able to clear their names and was fully reinstated as colonel.

He became Chef d'Equipe of the German show jumping team after the Germans were allowed to take part in international equestrian competitions again, in 1951, that was. He retired 1956 after the German equipe had won their legendary Gold at the Stockholm Games.

Harald Momm died in Munich on February 6, 1979.

Incidentally, Stauffenberg had been an alumnus of the Kavallerieschule Hannover as well, namely from 1934 to 1936, and this is where I intended the story to end.

However, I noticed a second man in the above picture and remembered that this man had not just been fatefully involved in the assassination attempt on that July day in 1944 as well, in fact, he had been on the scene, and that's why the story goes on here.

Heinz Brandt, on the right in the above picture, then a young first lieutenant, was born on March 11, 1907. As captain, he had been a member of the Olympic Gold winning show jumping equipe at Berlin 1936. After the Olympic Games he gave up riding to focus on his career in the general staff.

On July 20, 1944, then a colonel and aide of the head of the operation unit of the general staff, General Adolf Heusinger, he was present at the briefing in the "Führerbunker".

It is common knowledge that Stauffenberg left his notecase with the bomb under a pretense at the scene and that the notecase was inadvertently moved to the opposite side of the massive plinth of the table, thus saving Hitler and killing, among others, the officer who did so.

This officer was Colonel Heinz Brandt.

He had been, on his deathbed, promoted to general by Hitler and his body had been, together with the bodies of the other victims of the bomb blast, laid out at the nearby Tannenberg monument. When his old father, another general, wanted to take his son home, he was told he couldn't do that, that the body had been cremated and the ashes scattered and that his son had been ... a traitor.

Momm's account is ending here. However, I found a source, which, apocryphal as it may be, might explain the otherwise inexplicable short time between the assassination attempt and the discovery of Brandt's part in the plot.

Here it goes: After the bomb blast, severely wounded, he had been laid down outside the "Führerbunker" in the blazing heat together with the other victims, joking about his lost leg and that it had given him always trouble anyway all the time. Later at Rastenburg hospital, he became delirious and let slip how Stauffenberg could have done that to him, who had been a party in the plot as well.

Whether Stauffenberg didn't know of Brandt's involvement or whether he took the risk of victimising him will remain one of the many unanswered questions history is sometimes asking.

Heusinger, who played a decisive role in the post-war Bundeswehr and became its first Generalinspekteur (the highest ranking general or admiral), knew of the plot to kill Hitler but his understanding of "a soldier's duty" (the title of his memoirs) interfered with active participation. He remained unharmed during the assassination attempt and died 1982. Life is hardly fair.

Whether one finds it endearing or not, it is a fact that Germans have never been inspired at plotting. While those soldiers were tinkering with explosives and trying to solve the problem how to get close enough to an increasingly security obsessed Hitler until they had to resort to a one-eyed man whose only hand had just three fingers left, their opinion leaders were discussing whether tyrannicide is ethically justified or rather not.

Following July 20, 1944 until the end of the war, more blood was shed than during the five previous years.


bruce-church said...

Thanks for reposting this. Very interesting. The 3-fingered bomber was a dolt under pressure, and forgot to place half the explosives provided to him in the briefcase, I read. The full amount would have been enough to do the job, scientists have shown through tests at bomb test ranges.

The_Editrix said...

Bruce, sorry but I think that is a lot of crap.

First, Stauffenberg hadn't always been everybody's darling in Germany. In fact, he and the military resistance were loathed by old (and new) Nazis as traitors as well as by the left who felt (rightfully) that they and their efforts to get rid of Hitler and the Nazis had been ignored by historiography. So if that were true it would be widely known.

Second, I do not believe that a combat-hardened officer with a shining future in the general staff would make under pressure such a ridiculous mistake. We Germans may be a lot, but dolts we aren't, and certainly not that class of men.

I performed a Google search for 'stauffenberg forgot explosives' and got two results apropos to the topic.

The first one says: "Stauffenberg at the Wolfschanze 1944, July 20
Location: Briefingroom
While preparing the bomb Stauffenberg forgot to put a detonater [sic!] into the second pack of explosives in the briefcase he brought to the meeting with Hitler. Stauffenberg was long gone before the bomb went of. Hitler survived." So the bomb went off in spite of the missing detonator? Give me a break!

The second one is so full of shit that it may be meant to be funny and if it isn't I refuse to discuss it precisely because it is totally and utterly full of shit.

The military resistance against Hitler is incredibly complex and multifaceted and highly intriguing on so many levels. To dismiss it like that is criminal negligence on an intellectual level.

F.P.Barbieri said...

Bruce has not done his research, I'm afraid. But on a deeper level, there never was any hope in the July 20 conspiracy. Even the murder of Hitler would have left the party in control of the country, the power of the SS, SD and Gestapo virtually intact, a thoroughly nazified navy and air force (both had been built up by Hitler practically from zero) and plenty of Nazis at all levels in the army itself. The best prospect would have been a civil war between army and SS; the worst, an immediate takeover by Himmler and the enthronement of Goering as designated successor with Himmler as the power behind the throne. And at any rate, by 1944 the Allies were committed to a policy of unconditional surrender, something that, even in the remote chance of their winning, the conspirators could never have conceded. (The stab-in-the-back legend was still a living force in Germany.) The war would have gone on, and in fact the clearer-minded of the plotters must have understood it, since one of them is on record as saying that the one important thing was to show that there had been people in Germany who had been willing to rise against Hitler and damn the consequences.

The person who deserves most honour, and who could really have changed history had he succeeded, was Georg Elser. An archetype of the conscientious hard-working craftsmen who have made Germany great and of whom foreigners think when they think of nice Germans, this man set himself the task of eliminating the tyrant well before the war, and went about it with the same conscientiousness and skill with which he would have repaired a watch or carpentered a wardrobe. And only the most miserable bad luck kept him from success and Europe from a horrendous war. Georg Elser ought to be much better known than he is.

The_Editrix said...

I don't disagree, Fabio. Georg Elser was certainly one of the, maybe THE, most credible failed Hitler assassin.

I think the damn-the-consequences-man was he, wasn't he?