Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Growing up in Nazi Germany

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerAlthough not herself a prominent figure in the German Resistance to Hitler as Marion Countess Yorck or Axel Baron von dem Bussche were, Renate Bethge and what she told me about growing up in Nazi Germany had a profound impact on my understanding of what Nazism was like for ordinary people.  She too contributed to making An Obsolete Honor  a more authentic account of the period. (The Kindle edition of "An Obsolete Honor" will soon be released under the title "Hitler's Demons")



She was a quiet, unassuming woman, apparently the perfect „Hausfrau“ – housewife – to a famous man. Her husband Eberhard Bethge was famous because he had been Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, his confidant and his disciple. Eberhard Bethge had willingly and passionately taken up the burden of publishing Bonhoeffer’s papers, of explaining and interpreting his theological legacy, and of keeping the memory of a great Christian alive in a modern world that was often hostile to faith and religion. But Renate Bethge was herself a woman of great courage and intelligence, and she provided me with some of the most significant insights into what life in Nazi Germany was really like.

Renate was the daughter of Rüdiger Schleicher and Ursula Bonhoeffer, one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sisters. In the aftermath of the unsuccessful coup attempt against the Hitler on July 20, 1944, her father and three of her uncles were executed for treason by the Nazi regime. Her father and her Uncle Klaus were known to have been tortured by the Gestapo before their death. This alone is an indication of how staunchly anti-Nazi Renate’s upbringing was. It was a family that opposed Hitler before he came to power, and recognized the full extent of his immorality. It was a family that was actively involved in trying to put an end to the dictatorship.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that, on the day when “Heil Hitler!” was introduced as the compulsory greeting in school, Renate rebelled. Outraged that she was supposed to greet her teachers every morning with “Heil Hitler,” she stormed home and announced to her parents that she “absolutely refused” to say “Heil Hitler!” Only God, she told her profoundly devout parents, should be adulated in such a manner. (It was customary in much of Germany to say “God’s Greetings” rather than “Good Morning” of “Good Day.”)

Renate’s father was at this time a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Aviation and Head of the Institute for Aviation Law at the University of Berlin. He knew that Renate at this stage in her life wanted to study medicine like his own brother. When his young daughter furiously declared her determination not to “insult God” by saying “Heil Hitler!” he nodded and told her that she was “old enough to make her own decisions.” But he then went on to warn her: “However, you must be prepared to live with the consequences of your decision. If you refuse to say ‘Heil Hitler’ then you may be sent home from school. You will certainly not be allowed to go to high school, and that means you will not be able to go to university to study medicine. The decision you make today will affect your whole future, so make it wisely.” Renate went to school the next day and said “Heil Hitler” just like all the other pupils.

The significance of this story cannot be over-emphasized. It is too simple for anyone who has not lived under a totalitarian regime to think that it is easy to resist and protest. We forget that even small acts of defiance could have large consequences. A child’s stubbornness might not lead inevitably to a concentration camp, but cutting off all avenues to higher education for a bright young person is a powerful disincentive to dissent!

Time and again in my interviews, I was confronted with stories in which compromise was mixed with opposition because even the most courageous and dedicated of opponents had to earn a living. A woman whose closest friends were Jews took a job as translator with the Propaganda Ministry because it was “safer in the lion’s den;” because of where she worked, she was less subject to suspicion and she continued to visit her friends and take them forbidden gifts until they were deported. People joined various secondary organizations, the Frauenschaft, the Deutsche Beamten Bund and the like, to avoid becoming full members of the Nazi Party. It was dangerous to refuse to participate in a comprehensively organized society. It was very dangerous to be seen to reject the spirit of the times.

On the other side of the coin, it is important to remember that not everyone who was a supporter of the Nazi regime was a fanatic or an evil person. Secret opinion polls taken among official members of the Nazi Party in the late 1930s show that a majority of Nazis opposed the Nazi Party policies against the Jews! Most people in Germany supported the Nazis for a variety of complex reasons – because they had provided full employment, because they abrogated the hated Treaty of Versailles, because they had restored national sovereignty to the Rhineland etc. That does not mean that most people supported everything the Nazis did – and certainly not everything that all the increasingly corrupt officials of the regime did.

Ultimately, no matter how much a man or woman hated Hitler, he or she also had loved ones, whom he or she wished to protect from harm. And sometimes love leads us in strange directions. In a tiny, studio apartment in Munich I met the widow of Field Marshal Alfred Jodl. Jodl ended his career as Chief of the Joint Operations Staff (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) – and on the gallows. He was one of the men condemned at the first trial of major Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg. But his second wife was Luise von Benda, a close friend and associate of two of the most important leaders of the German military resistance to Hitler, Generaloberst Beck and General Henning von Tresckow.

Luise von Benda had been Beck’s secretary during the period when Beck challenged his fellow generals to join him in a collective protest against Hitler’s planned invasion of the Sudetenland in what was then Czechoslovakia. Beck urged his fellow generals to refuse to obey Hitler’s orders and advocated confrontation with Hitler that would – he hoped – end in the restoration of “the rule of law.” His secretary worked long and hard with him during this period in his futile efforts to win the support of his fellow generals. She shared Beck’s views on the illegality and disastrous consequences of Hitler’s foreign policy.

Luisa von Benda was furthermore the personal and family friend of Henning von Tresckow. Tresckow was the mind behind two of the most promising assassination attempts against Hitler and a tireless anti-Nazi conspirator. Tresckow did not confide to Luisa what he was planning, but he did keep his opinion of Hitler secret. As another family friend of Luisa von Benda, told me, Luisa shared Tresckow’s opinion of Hitler fully. It was this friend, Ludwig Baron von Hammerstein, who sent me to visit her. “You need to meet her,” he told me smiling, his eyes bright with mischief.

Luisa Jodl was a delicate, fragile woman in her eighties when she received me in Munich. She was anxious to be a gracious hostess, as was fitting for a woman born into the gentry, but she was embarrassed by what she could offer; all her china was chipped, and some of it glued back together again. As the widow of a “major Nazi war criminal,” she had not had an easy life in post-war Germany.

She was nervous too. Of course she had agreed to see me because Ludwig had provided the introduction, and Ludwig Hammerstein was an old friend, dating back to the days when his father had been Chief-of-Staff of the German Army and Luisa had been a secretary at Army Headquarters. But she still feared an American would judge her – and her husband – harshly.

“You have to understand,” she begged me, “my husband was a product of his upbringing.” Her husband, she explained (and most historians agree), was never a Nazi, never a believer in Hitler’s ideology or even in his genius – he was simply a man who could not find the moral courage to disobey. “At the age of seven,” she told me, “he as sent to a cadet school by his father. On the first day, the boys were lined up and told: ‘Gentlemen, you are here to learn how to die well.’” That was it. From that point forward, he had followed the rigid code of self-sacrifice, duty and blind obedience. Trapped by his own sense of duty into serving a man he inwardly detested, Jodl was a man in more desperate need of comfort and affection than many others. And so, although Luise knew that Hitler was leading Germany to both moral and physical destruction, she could not deny her love to the man she knew to be inwardly suffering and in need of what comfort she could offer as a wife.

Luise’s choice, no less than Renate’s, was the very human decision in favor of life and hope for a better future. No one, who has not been in their shoes, has the right to condemn them for it.





Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Suicide-Bomber Targeting Hitler: Axel Baron von dem Bussche

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerLast week I introduced Marion Countess Yorck. This week I'd like to introduce another survivor of the German Resistance, who had an even more profound impact on my novel An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to Hitler (soon to be released in Kindle format under the title "Hitler's Demons.") I came to know Axel very well, twice spending time as his house guest in Switzerland. He was a witty conversationalist, an insightful observer and commentator on contemporary events, and a haunted man. Few people who met him went away unimpressed.


“The survivors of a failed coup are never its heroes,” Axel Baron von dem Bussche told me the first time we met, but by most standards Bussche was a hero. At the age of 24, while a captain in the German Army, Bussche agreed to carry out a suicide-bombing against Adolf Hitler.

When he made this offer it was November 1943 and the conspiracy against Hitler, headed by former Chief of the German General Staff Ludwig Beck, had already made several unsuccessful attempts on Hitler’s life. Twice explosive devices had been activated in Hitler’s proximity, but in one case the bomb failed to detonate and in the other Hitler got out of range before the device could go off. Opportunities to get explosive devices near to the increasingly paranoid German dictator were few and far between, and the conspirators recognized that Hitler’s insistence on seeing the new officer’s uniform modeled for him personally was a rare and perfect opportunity for an assassination attempt. Under normal circumstances, anyone admitted to Hitler’s presence was first searched for arms, but a man modeling a uniform would have to be fully outfitted with side-arms - and grenades.

Axel Baron von dem Bussche was known to the conspirators as a “reliable” officer – i.e. a man who was a bitter opponent of Hitler. He was also tall, blond, blue-eyed, and good-looking. Furthermore, he was a veteran with multiple wound badges and he had been highly decorated. Bussche had the Iron Cross First and Second Class, and the German Cross in Gold at the time he was asked to serve as a model/assassin; he would later receive the Knight’s Cross. In short, he made an ideal “model.” Bussche was asked if he was willing to carry out an assassination attempt and agreed without hesitation.

Bussche traveled to Hitler’s HQ in East Prussia and prepared for the fateful meeting. The Conspiracy provided him with English plastic explosives and a fuse that could be set to various lengths, but Bussche preferred to use a German hand grenade instead. “I was a lot bigger and stronger than Hitler,” Axel told me bluntly, “and I figured I could hold on to him long enough for a three second fuse to go off. The plastic explosives were too unreliable.”

The date for modeling the uniform in front of Hitler was set: Nov. 23, 1943. Bussche waited impatiently, but the uniform failed to arrive. It had been destroyed in the previous night’s air-raid. Meanwhile, Bussche’s leave had run out. His division was involved in the heavy fighting on the Eastern Front, and as a company commander he was needed there urgently. He could not wait for another uniform to be sent. He returned to duty – and was shortly afterwards so severely wounded that his leg had to be amputated. He was in an SS hospital recovering from surgery – with the English plastic explosives he had not used in a suitcase under his bed - when Claus Count Stauffenberg made his assassination attempt on July 20, 1944.

On that same night, after hearing the news, Axel ate his address book page by page to prevent it falling into Gestapo hands. He also resolved to ask his first visitor to dispose of the incriminating explosives in the suitcase under his bed. Unfortunately, the first person who came to see him was “a young lady” and, as Axel put it, “unthinkable to impose on her.” So he had to wait for a second visitor, this time a fellow officer, who obligingly took the suitcase and threw it in a near-by lake – without asking any questions.

But in Berlin, more and more of Axel’s friends and comrades were being swept up in the Gestapo investigation of the July 20th Coup. Guilt by association was the rule, and over the remaining months of the war, men and women hanged for nothing more serious than giving a friend a place to stay the night, or expressing sympathy with the conspirators. As Axel made sure I knew, I had the opportunity to meet him only because friends and comrades did not betray his name - even under Gestapo torture.

So Axel survived the war, and I will never forget the first time Axel contacted me. I was working for a Washington area consulting firm when one day the phone rang. I answered unsuspecting with the company name and the standard question, “How can I help you?”

On the other end of the line a deep male voice barked: “Bussche. Ludwig Hammerstein says we should meet. I want you to come to dinner on Thursday.” The address and time followed. I really wasn’t given a choice – but I would have jumped at the opportunity any way. I knew who Axel Baron von dem Bussche was because by the time I got that call I had been researching the German Resistance for years; I knew Ludwig Baron von Hammerstein, the son of the Chief of Staff and C-in-C of the German Army in the 1930s, quite well.

That dinner in Georgetown was the start of a long friendship which included many conversations particularly during my visits to Axel’s baroque manor outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Axel had a way of telling stories that kept one breathless – but the laughter was never far behind. By the time I knew him, however,  he not only suffered from severe “phantom pains” in his missing leg, but from a guilt complex. He felt guilty for having failed to kill Hitler – although it was not his fault. And he felt guilty that so many of his friends had died in the war and in the aftermath of July 20th, but he was still alive. Last but not least, he felt guilty for not having done more to stop Hitler’s atrocities. This was largely because Axel was one of the few members of the German Resistance who had actually witnessed the atrocities.

It was the summer of 1942. Bussche, having finally recovered from a lung wound that had kept him in Germany “convalescing” in the position of Adjutant to his Regiment's Reserve/Training battalion in Potsdam, was back on the Eastern Front. He was an Infantry First Lieutenant. One quiet day, a sergeant, one of the company couriers, rode up on a motorcycle. “Herr Leutnant, you better come and see this for yourself,” was all the man said. It was an unusual request but something about the man’s demeanor made Bussche go along with the messenger without question.

When he told me the story, he turned on me at this point and, scowling fiercely, growled: “You grew up knowing about Auschwitz! You know that we murdered millions! But I grew up thinking we were a civilized people – the people of Goethe and Beethoven. I had to stare at what was happening for five minutes before my brain would accept what my eyes told me: civilians were being brought up by the truck-load. The SS made them strip off their clothes – men, women and children – and then climb into an open pit which was already filled with a layer of corpses – some of them still twitching. The SS ordered them to lie face down on the others and then the SS shot them in the back of the head.”

Axel was never the same after this experience, and more than 40 years later he told me that he had given much thought to what he should have done. At the time, he said, he had wanted to rush to his superiors and demand that the Army intervene to stop the SS. But he soon recognized that this was futile. The Army had no control over the SS. Only Hitler could stop the SS – and Hitler had given the orders. So Axel became an even more fanatical opponent of Hitler than he had been before. He was prepared to kill himself in order to kill Hitler. But he did not have an easy conscience. He told me that after much soul-searching he had finally realized that what he should have done was step up to the edge of the pit, remove his officer’s uniform with the many decorations for bravery and recording his wounds, and climb into the pit with the victims.

Axel Baron von dem Bussche was a hero by almost any definition of heroism – except his own.
























Sunday, July 3, 2011

Encounters with Characters: Marion Countess Yorck

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerWhen doing research for my novel, An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to Hitler, I had the priviledge to meet several of the surviving members of the German Resistance to Hitler, one of whom was Marion Graefin (Countess) Yorck von Wartenburg. At the time I was researching and writing from my apartment in Berlin and Marion lived in Berlin-Dahlem, so I had the opportunity to visit her many times. The stories Marion shared with me had a major impact on  An Obsolete Honor (soon to be released in Kindle format under the title: "Hitler's Demons.")  I would like to "introduce" the real Marion here:

She was not born a countess. On the contrary she came from solid bourgeois stock. One of six children, Marion was never spoiled, but the family believed in a good education for girls no less than boys. So she was sent to the most progressive and only co-educational school in Berlin, where she was in the same class as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and – what was exceptional in her age – she went on to university to study law.

Not that Marion was a book worm. She told me that she never worried about politics as a girl or young woman and remembers only the “good times” of the “Roaring Twenties” – the period when Berlin was one of the most dynamic centers of art, literature, music and theater in the world, easily on a par with New York, London and Paris.

One day she was invited to an extravagant wedding on a large estate in Silesia. The place next to her was left vacant for a guest who came late. The young man swept in and, Marion felt, treated her far too familiarly. She thought the young count was arrogant and cynical. But Peter Count Yorck von Wartenburg fell in love at first sight.

Peter too was a lawyer, and he had soon won Marion over – maybe in part because he never suggested she give up her studies. On the contrary, he helped her get her PhD in jurisprudence. They married shortly after he completed the equivalent of the bar exam in 1930. Although Marion had not yet completed the three-year practical training that was then a required part of German legal training before she could sit for the final exam, Marion was already 26 and wanted to have children. She stopped her studies, and devoted herself to making a home of the little apartment Peter and she shared.

Marion could not tell me exactly when she and Peter slid from opposition and disapproval of the Nazis to resistance and treason. One key factor was their friendship with Helmuth Count Moltke, whom the Yorcks met in 1940. Soon Peter and Helmuth, both sons of families that had produced two of Germany’s most famous generals in by-gone eras, were discussing with increasing energy all that was wrong with Nazi Germany – and what had to be done to set things right.

Neither Moltke nor Yorck were in a position to change anything. Both were civil servants. Nor did the two men initially know about the military conspiracy to depose Hitler. But it was obvious to them from 1941 onwards that Germany would lose the war and that the Nazi regime would one-day fall, and they wanted – in part just to keep themselves from despair, Marion said – to think about what a post-Hitler Germany ought to look like.

Gradually, they drew other people into their circle, selecting men, who had expertise in one area or another, so that all aspects of a future, German state could be properly thought through. Eventually, the connection was made to members of the military resistance, and a loose alliance was formed. While the military conspirators were responsible for getting rid of Hitler and his regime, the Kreisauer Circle, as the group of thinkers around Counts Yorck and Moltke came to be called, was responsible for developing the outlines of a future, post-Nazi German government and constitution.

Molke, it should be noted, opposed an assassination of Hitler. He felt that killing Hitler would enable a martyr-legend to evolve. He feared that Germans would convince themselves that Germany would have won the war “if only the Führer had lived,” and he felt the Germans needed to suffer complete and humiliating defeat in order to fully understand their complicity in the crimes committed in their name by the Nazi regime. Yorck, perhaps more strongly influenced by his distant cousin Claus Count Stauffenberg, supported the assassination attempt. Moltke was arrested for treason on January 11, 1944, before the coup attempt. Yorck took part in the coup and was arrested that same evening.

Marion never saw her husband again after saying good-bye to him on the morning of July 20, 1944. By evening, she knew the coup had failed and Peter was under arrest. All requests to see her husband were denied, but she learned that Peter was to go on trial before the feared “People’s Court” on August 8, along with several of other conspirators. The “People’s Court” was a Nazi institution which had been created in 1934 with the explicit mandate to eliminate all domestic opponents of the National Socialist Movement. By 1944, the Court, headed by the infamous judge Roland Freisler, was notorious for sentencing people to death for nothing more than circulating a joke against the regime or for a diary entry expressing doubt about “Final Victory.” Marion was under no illusion that her husband would get a fair trial, but she made her way to the imposing building that housed the court in the hope of being able to see Peter – and let him see her.

When Marion reached the gatehouse, the guards stopped her. She needed a special pass to attend the trial. But the guards, on learning who she was, invited her to sit in their little booth with them. Here she could hear through a window high in the wall over head the proceedings of the court.

All day, Marion sat with the guards listening to Judge Freisler’s high-pitched, scratchy voice heap abuse and insults on the defendants. He rarely let the defendants answer his questions, but rather cut them off in mid-sentence and mocked whatever they said. Marion could hear neither the court-appointed lawyers nor the men on trial. Because the judge never addressed the defendant by name, only as “Defendant,” she only learned when Peter was before the judge because the guards told her. She could not hear his answers any more than that of the others, but the trial ended with the death sentence.

Marion went home and wrote a last letter to her husband which she personally carried to Gestapo Headquarters. Here she begged the man on duty to give her letter to her husband. She told the Gestapo that her husband had just been sentenced to death, but the duty officer saw no urgency in her request. He sent Marion away. As she was later to learn, by the time she got home again that night, Peter was already dead.

Her own arrest followed the next day. She was arrested, as were the wives of all known conspirators, merely for being who she was - not because anyone suspected she had actually taken part in the planning of the coup. Fortunately for Marion, Nazi ideology cast women in the role of mothers and housewives, not intellectual partners.

Still, Marion’s fate was not easy. She was kept in isolation for weeks on end, locked in a cell with no direct sunlight – a time she came to treasure in retrospect because, as she put it, it was a chance for her to absorb Peter into her inner self. She was interrogated repeatedly, but never tortured. Eventually, she was granted the right to exercise, and then released – just in time to experience the Russian occupation.

Because she had returned to Peter’s parents home in Silesia, Marion found herself hiding in barns and graveyards in order to avoid the orgies of rape and murder that accompanied the Soviet occupation of Germany. Eventually, Marion made it back to Berlin without a serious mishap and there she was able to move into her old house. The Russians, once they had settled down into organized occupation, recognized Peter Count Yorck von Wartenburg – despite his aristocratic class - as an “Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighter” and gave Marion a document stating this and ordering everyone to help her!

But Marion kept slipping back across the new Polish border without proper papers to Peter’s home in Silesia. One day the Poles caught her. She was put in prison and her paper from the Russians did her no good. Weeks went by and she had no idea why she was being held. There were lice in the cell and the food, as Marion put it, was worse than what they fed the pigs on Peter’s estate. Eventually, however, she was sent to Warsaw and here, at last, a Russian colonel recognized the significance of her “Anti-Fascist” I.D. He agreed to help her - but first she had to spend another three weeks in a freezing cell, from which water dripped off the walls.

Then just as suddenly as the arrest, Marion was set free. She was in Breslau, a city that had once been German but was now Polish. She had no money. No clothes but what she was wearing and she was, as she put it, “as dirty as a hunting dog.” She had lice too. She went to Caritas, a Catholic aid organization, where she was taken in, given shelter, food, a delousing, a bath and clean clothes. Here she learned to her amazement that Freya von Moltke, the widow of Helmuth Count Moltke, had reported her missing to the Americans, and they had informed the French Consul in Breslau. Although it was not easy, eventually the Caritas managed to get Marion back to Berlin – loaded with secret messages from the Caritas in Poland to their sister organization in Germany.

Back in Berlin, Marion first took work with the social welfare office of the city council. This was dominated by Communists, but Marion’s work was to find and reunite the families of the resistance members. When the coup failed on July 20, 1944, not only were most of the wives, parents and adult children of the condemned also arrested, but the young children and infants of the conspirators were assigned new names and divided up among “good” Nazi families. Thus, quite apart from all difficulties of trying to find loved-ones in a world where the infrastructure was largely obliterated, neither post nor telephones worked, and new borders with new rulers had been created, the survivors of the resistance had to find out under what name and to which Nazi family their small children had been given. It was important work, and Marion enjoyed it. But around her she witnessed the increasing terror of the German Communists and their Soviet masters. Marion had experienced the consequences of one dictatorship far too acutely to be indifferent. She turned her back on the East and looked for new opportunities in the Western Sectors of Berlin.

The Americans at the time (1946) were desperately looking for trained lawyers and judges who were not tainted by a Nazi past. Marion was short just one exam and one last practical internship before being a qualified lawyer. She was advised to complete both qualifications as soon as possible, and no sooner was she finished than she was appointed judge.

One might think that her lack of experience as a lawyer made her ill-suited for the position of judge, but Marion pointed out to me that she had other experiences that were at least, if not more, valuable. Marion knew the smell of prisons from the inside, that “constant mixture of food and urine.” She knew the agonies of isolation, the indignities of lice and filth, and never could she forget the sound of Freisler screaming at her husband without using his name.

Marion vowed that she would never address a defendant by anything other than their proper name. And she vowed she would never condemn anyone to any sentence without first making sure that she understood his or her motives. She rose rapidly in the ranks of the West German judiciary and retired in 1969. And she kept her vows.