This month’s story is that of 20th century German statesman Adam Von Trott Zu Solz (1909-1944), a descendent of John Jay through his maternal grandmother Anna Jay Von Schweinitz, daughter of John Jay II. Von Trott zu Solz is perhaps best known for his participation in the infamous Operation Valkyrie plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944.
Adam Von Trott zu Solz was born in August 1909 to Prussian Culture Minister August Von Trott zu Solz and Emilie Eleanor in Potsdam, Brandenburg, a province in the German state of Prussia. His Protestant was a dynasty in the German nobility going back to the 14th century and held traditional Conservative-Nationalist political views. His childhood was typical of a member of the European nobility, having attended the best schools in Berlin, and Kassel throughout the 1910s and early 20s. He began his college education at the University of Munich in 1927, where his main subjects were law and public administration, foreshadowing his future career as a diplomat. He also spent time at Gottingen University, where he made several societal connections with other members of the German nobility.
After two semesters in Germany, Von Trott attended the University of Oxford, where he began to form his unique political ideology, believing that a fusion between conservativism and socialism, would be the remedy for the economic woes of the lower classes in Europe. His first term was spent at Mansfield college, where he continued the studies of politics and philosophy and began a significant friendship with Cornish writer and historian A.L. Rowse. Rowse, a proponent of various socialist and left-wing political ideologies became a mentor to the young German and fueled his desire to develop relationships with working class and socialist groups.
Von Trott attend his final semester of university in Berlin, where he truly began to immerse himself in socialist political circles. It was here that a friend he met in England, Hans Gaides, introduced him to an organization called the socialist working group. He also regularly attended meetings of the Sozialistischer Studentenbund, or Socialist Students Union. He even cast his vote for the German Social Democratic Party, in the 1930 Reichstag (German Parliament) elections. Also deeply influenced by German philosopher Georg Hegel’s vision of the ideal state, Von Trott began to think that a fusion between socialism, and traditional Prussianism (by which he meant a readiness to render service, openness to social questions, and the primacy of the community over the individual), would fulfill Hegel’s ideal. He felt that this ideal state could be a reality if the rights of the masses were held sacred in the eyes of the German government, something Von Trott believed that Adolf Hitler and the tyrannical Nazi regime had no intention of doing.
After, completing his law degree, Von Trott attended Oxford once again in 1931 as a Rhodes Scholar, studying more advanced law and philosophy. While at Oxford he met Lord Lothain, the chairman of the Oxford Rhodes Trustees. Lothain would later be an important diplomatic connection for Von Trott in his capacity as Britain’s Minister to the United States during negotiation with England at the onset of the war.
Friends at Oxford described a somewhat serious individual, with a cynical sense of humor. They also took note of his pride in his German heritage. Yet, in 1932-33, when it became clear that Hitler’s National-Socialist movement was beginning to gain popularity, Von Trott was unafraid to voice his opposition to Hitler’s view of a German-dominated Europe. Von Trott even wrote to a friend in 1931 that upon his return to Germany he hoped to become part of a new movement which would oppose the extremism represented by National Socialism.
By 1933, the German government had essentially become a totalitarian one-party state, and even German nationalists like Von Trott were living in fear of the Nazi regime. The elections that year were corrupted by Hitler’s political bullying, as the newly appointed chancellor unleashed the SS and SA Nazi paramilitary organizations in a wave of violence and arrests against the German Communist Party and the Social Democrats. Votes were suppressed following a false-flag event, the Reichstag fire, that prompted a decree from President Paul Von Hindenburg making it “permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom, freedom of expression/opinion, freedom of the press, freedom to organize/assemble, privacy of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic communications.” When Hindenburg died in August of 1934, Hitler seized the opportunity to take complete and singular control over the German state. With the Nazi’s holding an overwhelming majority in the Reichstag, and all other political parties in Germany paralyzed by fear of the SS and Gestapo (the Nazi secret police); Hitler merged the positions of President and Chancellor to become Germany’s “Fuhrer.” The political repression was so brutal, that Von Trott reluctantly joined the Nazi Party in 1935 for two reasons: as a party member he would be eligible to serve in the foreign office, and to evade suspicion, allowing him to build a resistance movement from the inside.
Von Trott had spent time working and establishing connections in Germany’s foreign office, where he secured a position as secretary under the direction of Secretary of State Ernst von Weizsacker and began to take an active role in diplomatic discussions with Britain in the late 1930s. Weizsacker had been secretly maintaining contacts in England’s foreign office with the hopes of diffusing the rising tensions in Central Europe and avoiding war. At the behest of Weizsacker, Von Trott went to Britain unofficially in 1939 to negotiate terms that would hopefully stop Hitler from plunging Europe into a full-scale war. He met on two separate occasions with senior British diplomats Lord Lothain, and Lord Halifax to discuss Germany’s desired land claims to the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and the city of Danzig in Poland. Hitler’s rise to power was greatly dependent on manipulating the public’s anger and pride about losing land to Poland and Czechoslovakia under the Versailles Treaty of 1919. Both Von Trott and Weizsacker believed that if the British could make the land concessions they proposed, Hitler would lose much of his power and influence with the German public and army.
Much to his dismay, Von Trott’s efforts were unsuccessful. At a final meeting with Lord Halifax and Prime Minister Chamberlain in June 1939, the British solidified their position. Since Hitler had violated their agreement by invading Czechoslovakia, and refusing to abandon his ambitions to invade Poland, Chamberlain was unwilling to agree to any of Von Trott and Weizsacker’s proposed terms. England would rather go to war with Germany than see another nation crumble at the hands of the Nazis. It was after these meetings that Von Trott and many other German conservatives saw that the only way to peacefully achieve their goals was to forcibly remove Hitler and the Nazi party from power.
From 1940-1944, Adam Von Trott began attending meetings of a clandestine group, the Kreisau Circle, planning to overthrow Hitler. Many of its members were also members of the German nobility, and like Von Trott, they believed in a conservative Christian-Socialist ideal for post-Hitler Germany. Von Trott acted as the group’s foreign policy advisor. They gathered to discuss scenarios on how to remove Hitler from power, how the German state would form in a post-Hitler Europe, and who would occupy important leadership roles in a new government. The group united around Von Trott’s Hegel-inspired idea that not only should people feel a sense of duty towards the state, but the state should also have a sense of duty towards its people. One of Von Trott’s major visions for a new German foreign policy was that it based on the need to collaborate policy with other nations. He made several visits to other European and Asian nations as an official representative of the resistance group, to pre-emptively forge relations with them in the event of Hitler’s downfall. The group itself even seemed to function in the manner that Von Trott envisioned for the state, where almost every political ideology in Germany was represented. Leaders of both the Protestant and Catholic churches had representatives attend at least one Kreisau meeting. There were trade unionists who weighed in on how to organize a labor force, and economists to review plans for a post-Nazi economy, and of course Von Trott and his foreign office colleagues gave their diplomatic expertise.
There was a consensus that the German Army must play a vital role in any coup that was to take place. Since their support and compliance were essential to Hitler’s plans, taking those away could be the key to destroying his control over the government. When Von Trott initially began attending Kreisau meetings, resistance support among the army had dwindled primarily due to the onset of the war and the initial success of the Blitzkrieg strategy. Previously, between 1935-1939, a considerable amount of resistance discussions had taken place among the upper ranks of the German High Command, led by the Chief of Staff General Ludwig Beck and General Friedrich Olbricht. Like Von Trott, Beck and Olbricht were German Nationalists, who denounced reduction of German resources and the army that were required under the Versailles treaty. After 1941-42, and the failure of Hitler’s Russia campaign, resistance support from the Army grew rapidly. To even the most devoted and nationalistic German soldiers it became evident that their Fuhrer was not only violent and unstable, but a complete fool when it came to military strategy. It was at this point that Olbricht and Beck began to create the plans that would become Operation Valkyrie.
News of the atrocities, genocide, and other war crimes being committed by the SS on the eastern front were leaked to the public by James Helmuth von Moltke, a member of Germany’s military intelligence service and one of the founders of the Kreisau circle. This horrified Germans and gave new life to the resistance movement within the Army. By 1943, the time had come to act.
The German Army’s resistance movement recruited their primary operator, a disgruntled but passionate Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, in 1943. Like many German Army officers, Stauffenberg had been horrified by the genocide on the eastern front and in the concentration camps and hoped to stage a coup against the Nazi Regime. After being badly injured in the war, Stauffenberg was assigned to German Army Headquarters in Berlin as Chief of Staff to General Friedrich Olbricht, who easily recruited him into the resistance movement. Von Trott met Stauffenberg in the summer of 1943 and the two became friends through their work with the resistance.
The structure and aims of the resistance movement shifted drastically upon the arrest and imprisonment of its leader, Helmuth J. von Moltke, in January of 1944. At this point, Von Trott stepped up and took a leadership role within the resistance movement and re-aligned the Kreisau group behind Col. von Stauffenberg. The resistance movement took on a more radical tone as the Colonel was determined to act quickly and decided that assassinating Hitler would be the only means to achieve the radical regime change they were aiming for. Von Trott and Von Stauffenberg hatched a plan that would use an existing volunteer “Replacement army” stationed in Berlin to stage their coup. The replacement army was established to reinforce troops on the eastern front if needed and to assume control over the German state if a disturbance blocked Berlin’s communication with the Army High Command. Von Stauffenberg and other high-ranking Army Officers in the resistance changed the contingency plan to state that if Hitler were to be killed, the entire Nazi regime would be removed from power, and replaced by German Army officers. Now that the mechanics of the coup were in place, all that was left was the planning for Germany’s new government.
By this point Von Trott was hosting most of the resistance meetings at his home in Dahlem, Germany. Throughout the next few months Von Trott, Von Stauffenberg, and their colleagues worked to finalize the structure of the new government, and iron out the details of how and when Hitler would be killed. To pre-emptively legitimize the resistance as an alternative government, Von Trott opened diplomatic communications with the United States, and Swedish governments. Meanwhile, Von Stauffenberg was planning the assassination of Hitler. The Colonel was to plant a suitcase bomb during a meeting with Hitler and other members of the German high command at the Fuhrer’s preferred military base, known as the Wolf’s Lair, in eastern Prussia. The Wolf’s Lair was perhaps the German Army’s most secure base where only the most trusted, high- ranking members of the German Army, like Von Stauffenberg, had access. Von Stauffenberg chose to use British-made explosives, with a unique fuse that only the British had technology to make to make the assassination appear to be an act by the British. The Fuhrer’s assassination by the allies would be presented to the public as evidence that the war was unwinnable. Von Trott would be named Foreign Secretary of the new government and would broker peace.
During July of 1944 Von Stauffenberg and Olbricht convinced several influential Field Marshalls at both to go along with the plot. Simultaneously, Von Trott met with his colleague Wilhelm Melchers to assign people new jobs within their replacement government. At their final meeting before the coup, Von Trott outlined how the orders for the replacement army takeover would be distributed to enact the plan at each major command center and detailed instructions for a mobilization of workers groups and social democrats. In the final moments before the plot were to take place on July 20, 1944, Von Trott and Melchers were both hopeful.
Von Stauffenberg successfully detonated the bomb inside the Wolf’s Lair, but an open window on that hot day greatly limited the bomb’s impact and Hitler only sustained minor injuries. Von Stauffenberg rushed back to Berlin, where he, Von Trott, and their co-conspirators began to put the wheels of the coup in motion. Initial signs were good, as soldiers began cordoning off the Army Headquarters building, and the Foreign Office as planned. However, orders for the takeover took too long to reach their destination, and some Army officials refused to cooperate altogether without definitive proof of the Fuhrer’s death. All was lost when at 1 am on July 21 Hitler boldly went on the radio to announce to the German public that he had survived the attack. The fate of the conspirators was sealed. The Army was dispatched to make arrests and Col. Stauffenberg, and Gen. Olbricht were executed by firing squad.
In the Aftermath, Von Trott met with several other conspirators to take stock of the situation. Some he urged to flee to Spain and France, which they did with success. He and another colleague spent a portion of the following day destroying papers, and communications having to do with the conspiracy. Von Trott even refused one offer to fly to France and go into hiding. He pondered the idea of publishing an article in the London times, to explain to the world what the resistance represented, but he was arrested on the morning of July 25 and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Colleagues at the foreign office had talked about his involvement during their interrogations, and Von Stauffenberg’s personal driver kept logbooks of his meetings, where Von Trott’s name appeared frequently. The SS also had discovered a list of positions in the proposed new government, where Von Trott was listed as the Foreign Minister. He stood trial on August 15. He knew he would be executed, as he had no defense for the evidence against him, and when asked if he was aware that his actions amounted to attempted murder, he replied calmly, “Certainly.”
Adam Von Trott zu Solz was executed by hanging on August 16, 1944. Friends noticed that throughout his many travels and moves around Europe, was he always carried with him a photograph of his grandmother, Anna Jay; fitting, as the ideals of democracy and justice that he fought for mirror in many ways the actions of his famous ancestor John Jay.