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.
























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