A Good German, by Giles MacDonogh

Adam von Trott on trial for his life after failure of 20 July plot

Adam von Trott on trial for his life after failure of 20 July plot

A Good German is Giles MacDonogh’s biography of Adam von Trott zu Solz, a key figure in the 1944 plot against Hitler, providing it with much of its foreign policy and diplomatic leadership while Stauffenberg organised the military aspects of the attempted coup.

Trott was well qualified for this role. He had been a Rhodes scholar to Oxford and as a result was well acquainted with leading British figures of the time including Stafford Cripps and Richard Crossman. He had also travelled extensively in the United States and China. But with only a few honourable exceptions, most of these contacts, some who had been friends, interpreted his decision to return to Germany with the rise of Nazism as a betrayal of democratic principles rather than the fundamental commitment to a democratic Germany that it was.

As Trott discovered during the war the Allies showed considerable distrust for his overtures. In part the distrust that the British had for this was because of a stunning German intelligence success early in the war, known as the Venlo incident, which resulted in the capture of a number of senior British intelligence officers who had been lured to a purported meeting with a Resistance group. But the origins of this distrust appear, in fact, deeper than the enormity of war. The first half of the book, which contains some of the chapters I found most difficult, deals in significant part with the relative alienness of British and German cultures in the 1930s which gave rise to diverse cultural and political misunderstandings between Trott and his British contemporaries. These misunderstandings contributed to the misinterpretation by many of Trott’s decision to return. Hence, in particular Crossman in British government during the war, denigrated his bona fides and undermined his attempts to establish contacts between the German Resistance and the Allies. This misinterpretation still echoes down the years with, for example, Tom Cruise’s Stauffenberg movie, Valkyrie, provoking an article in the Guardian by Justin Cartwright, which 60 years on raised the question that the German resisters may not have been the democratic allies that they are now generally accepted to be.

Claus von Stauffenberg

Claus von Stauffenberg

The issues that MacDonogh raises here are still relevant in our world at 21st Century war. Today even more alien cultures than the European powers of 1939 are finding themselves in confrontation and conflict. For there ever to be peace there must eventually be understanding, and an important starting point for such a process must be a realisation that the narratives of conflict, identity and responsibility may be wildly divergent.

Trott’s decision to work within for the undermining of Hitler was was not an unambiguous one. Trott, and many of his Resistance colleagues, questioned how their roles within the Nazi state may have contributed to advancing the ideology that they actually wished to destroy. One particularly interesting chapter highlighting this ambiguity deals with Trott’s foreign ministry responsibilities towards India and his relationship with Bose, the leader of the Axis aligned Indian National Army, and the Axis efforts to undermine one of his few true British friends, Stafford Cripps, efforts to come to a settlement in India during the war.

The final half of the book deals in considerable, sometimes dizzying, detail with the organisation of the 20 July coup. I found a parallel in the description of Trott’s efforts in this with that of Jean Moulin in the French Resistance at the same time as set out in Mathew Cobb’s book on the subject. Both expended considerable energy not just in removing the Nazis but thinking about what the post Nazi future would look like for their countries.

In spite of the knowledge of how things are going to turn out the final portions of this book are filled with dread. The courage of the 20 July conspirators is still an awe inspiring thing. This book shows the depth of their intellectual, administrative and philosophical efforts too. As such it is an important contribution to the literature of the Second World War.

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