Monday, 15 December 2014

The Kleist-Schmenzins

Ewald, Count von Kleist-Schmenzin

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin

Ewald, Count von Kleist-Schmenzin, was born on 22 March 1890. An early and public opponent of Nazism, he was arrested on several occasions for his outspoken criticisms.

He was a lawyer and estate owner, and a cousin of Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist.
In 1932 he wrote a paper National Socialism - a Danger. He continued to battle with the Nazis after they came to power. He was on the list of those to be liquidated in 'The Night of the Long Knives' in 1934, but escaped when he was forewarned.

In 1938, with key figures in Germany poised to overthrow Hitler, he travelled to London on behalf of the German resistance, using a false passport provided by the Abwehr. He had gone to urge Britain to stop engaging in appeasement of Hitler and to threaten force if Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. He met with Churchill (then out of power) and with Robert Vansittart (then Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office). He made a powerful impression, having travelled, as he said, 'practically with a noose around my neck'. He wanted some proof that Britain and France were not bluffing - if possible a public speech by a leading British statesman. Churchill provided him with a letter advising that if Germany attacked the Sudetenland, Britain would fight, and the democracies of the world with her. To protect the identity of the recipient, he addressed it simply 'My dear sir'.

Chamberlain disregarded these and similar overtures - and entered into the Munich agreement which ceded the Sudetenland to Germany.

Despite being at risk and under constant surveillance, Kleist-Schmenzin continued to be involved in the resistance.

His son, Ewald-Heinrich, was born in 1922. The names are confusingly similar, but the son had the hyphenated first name. He was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. He was recruited into the resistance by Claus von Stauffenberg.

In January 1944 Claus asked Ewald-Heinrich - then 21 years old - to blow up Hitler with a bomb strapped to his body while modelling new army uniforms for the Führer to inspect. It was obvious that the attempt was likely to cost the young man his life.

Ewald-Heinrich first wanted to discuss the undertaking with his father. He took the train journey home and asked his father's advice.

Once the proposition was explained to him, Kleist-Schmenzin senior stood up, went to the window, and after a moment's thought replied: 'You have to do it. Anyone who falters at such a moment will never again be at one with himself in this life.' He urged his son under no circumstances to miss this opportunity to fulfil so vital a duty.

Ewald-Heinrich told Claus he would do it.

In Berlin, conspirators waited for the code word - in vain. Repeatedly, Hitler postponed the inspection. 

In the end, they had to find another way of killing Hitler.

In the lead up to the July plot, Claus appointed Kleist-Schmenzin senior a political representative for the military district of Stettin in the post-coup regime.

Lieutenant Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin was present at the Bendlerblock (coup headquarters) on 20 July 1944. He later recalled:
What I will never forget about 20th July 1944 was the sensation we all felt of being part of a moment in which history was balancing on the edge of a knife.

When General Kortzfleisch refused to obey the conspirators' orders, and tried to leave, Ewald-Heinrich drew his pistol on the general.

Ewald-Heinrich was arrested on the night of the coup. His father was arrested the next day.

At one stage during the investigation Ewald-Heinrich was made to stand in a room facing a wall. Another prisoner was brought in to stand beside him. It was his father, who indicated with his expression to say nothing. Ewald-Heinrich did not see his father again.

Ewald-Heinrich was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, but later released and posted back to the eastern front.

On 23 February 1945 Ewald was tried before the People's Court, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 9 April 1945.

Ewald-Heinrich survived the war, and went on to found a publishing house and to participate actively in German public life. 

He died on 8 March 2013 - the last survivor of the German resistance.

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin in later life

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