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valkyrie: memoirs of a cavalry officer
on 18 July 2011
This is a memoir of Philipp von Boeselager, traditional German aristocrat, cavalry officer and last surviving member of the 1944 Bomb Plot to assassinate Hitler. In many ways this would seem to be of limited value to a historian: it is as said, a personal memoir, and would seem to be ghost written at that. Much of it is devoted to uncritical praise of an elder brother, also involved in the Plot and the amount of the (slim) work on the actual Plot is minimal.
Nonetheless, this is a significant piece of history, but not so much on what it says about 1944, rather, it gives an interesting insight into the mentality of the Junker officer class during the Third Reich. Implicitly, the content and presentation of the narrative in the memoir makes clear that the aristocracy saw the Fuhrer as an upstart, but did not intervene to obstruct his accession to power seeing this more as "the will of the people" with which they should not deign to interfere. They also appeared to have exercised considerable informal local authority, but without too much accountability, or desire to use this considerable local and historic influence to resist or reduce the impact of national socialist policies (although a incident of the family assisting fleeing Jews early on is described).
Von Boeselager and his brother join the cavalry and there is little questioning of German war aims/strategy until the war turns against the Germans, especially in the east, although the memoir states it was a growing awareness of SS atrocities in the east rather than growing Soviet pressure that brought about plans to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup. We read of how the July 1944 plotters gradually came together and instigated several attempts to kill Hitler in preparation of seeking an anti-Soviet alliance with the western allies, but ultimately failing and most facing arrest, torture and execution. Several take their own lives. The von Boeselager brothers are not betrayed by fellow plotters and survive (although Phillips brother is killed later fighting the Red Army), with Philipp himself living until 2008.
These officers of the Junker class were undoubtedly brave and fought determinedly and with a strong sense of historic duty to defend Germany and ensure the well being of their men (Von Boeselager distinguished himself in combat on the Eastern Front, was wounded several times in combat and was awarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves for bravery in combat). It is clear that they were principled and honourable with a genuine sense of chivalry. The plotters themselves became the conscience of postwar (western initially) Germany. Unfortunately, these memoirs do little to remove the notion that the principles and sense of duty were misdirected. They had the political awareness, skills and inherited authority to prevent or restrain national socialism at its birth but chose to wait too long to act and when they did von Boeselager's account still makes it is difficult to remove the impression that they did so at a time when their historic interests and privileged lifestyle were most under threat - by the advance of Soviet communism.
PS I suspect the English title is the product of publishers keen to cash in on the (dubious) Tom Cruise movie. The original was written in French as Nous voulions tuer Hitler: le dernier survivant du complot du 20 juillet 1944 (We wanted to kill Hitler: the last survivor of the plot of July 20, 1944), much more appropriate