July 20: Commemorating Resistance Against Hitler
Enlarge image Visitor views exhibit in German Resistance Memorial Center (© picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb) Each year on July 20, Germany pauses to remember the men and women of the resistance movement who stood up for freedom and human dignity in the face of the Nazi regime, often at the risk of death.
Germany commemorates not only the protagonists of the July 20 assassination attempt, but all those who have given their lives in the fight against Hitler and for the quest of liberty. In fact, resistance to the Nazi regime was not only military but stemmed from all parts of society. Some of the more prominent figures were Hans and Sophie Scholl, university students from Munich (“White Rose”), or Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the social-democrat Julius Leber, the centrist politician Eugen Bolz, or individual plotters like Johann Georg Elser. Clearly, the diverse forms of resistance to the Nazi regime were unsuccessful and the debate about the magnitude and impact is still ongoing in Germany. Nevertheless, the anniversary of the July 20 plot has been a day of national commemoration since 1954 when Theodor Heuss, the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany, started the tradition on the 10th anniversary of the plot.
Attempted assassination – “Operation Valkyrie”
On July 20 1944, the German resistance movement around Ludwig Beck, Friedrich Olbricht, Helmut Graf von Moltke and Claus Schenk von Graf Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler and tragically failed at the attempt. Colonel von Stauffenberg carried two small bombs in his briefcase to a meeting with military leaders in the Wolf’s Lair, one of Hitler’s military headquarters. In a series of fateful events, Stauffenberg, who was handicapped from war injuries, was only able to arm one of the bombs. Then, a staff officer unsuspectingly moved Stauffenberg’s briefcase behind a large wooden desk, which ultimately shielded Hitler from the blast. Whereas four others died, Hitler was only mildly injured in the explosion.
Enlarge image Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (© picture-alliance/dpa) Hitler and his propaganda apparatus had tried to cast the attempt as a plot that was “carried out by a tiny group of ambitious and unscrupulous officers.” In fact, the group brought together members of many different backgrounds: blue- as well as white-collar workers, civil servants, Christians as well as secular humanists. The conspirators exchanged ideas on a regular basis and were in contact in the Kreisau Circle, which brought together military, civilian, intellectual and political resistance groups.
The military coup d’Etat (codenamed Operation Valkyrie) which was to have followed Hitler’s death, also failed. That night already, Stauffenberg, Olbricht and two other co-conspirators were executed by firing squad in the courtyard of the military headquarters, known as the Bendler Block, in Berlin. In the following weeks and months, the Gestapo rounded up some 7,000 people associated or suspected in the resistance and killed them.
Today, the Bendler Block complex remains the home of Germany’s defense ministry and also houses the German Resistance Memorial Center. Military and government leaders hold an annual commemoration of the July 20 plot in the courtyard of the Bendler Block and at the Plötzensee Memorial Center, where the Nazis tried, imprisoned and executed thousands unjustly. It has also become tradition that new soldiers of the Bundeswehr are sworn in on this day every year in a ceremony with high-ranking guest speakers in Berlin.
“Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authorities.” So says the very first Article of the Grundgesetz, the German constitution. That has been, and will continue to be the basis on which the Federal Republic of Germany created its political system, carries out its public life and conducts its foreign policy.
Enlarge image Germany's first Federal President Theodor Heuss (© picture-alliance / dpa) July 20 reminds everyone that citizens have to accept responsibility on an individual level and accept the constant premise of preserving and strengthening the shared values of freedom and the rule of law. Germany’s history, as dark as it has been, can now help to make sure that it will never again steer in a similar direction. History assists in a constant process of verification of our political life.
This day is a symbol of résistance and the will to end tyranny and totalitarianism. Germany’s history has a tradition of freedom, even though the young Republic was only able to achieve it with the help of other freedom-seeking and freedom-loving nations like the United States of America.
In his now famous speech, “Acknowledgement and Gratitude,” in 1954, Theodor Heuss said: “The legacy is still effective, the obligation has not yet been removed.”