Dr Hans von Dohnányi (or ‘Hans von Dohnanyi’ – he began using the accent in his surname in about 1925) was born on 1 January 1902.
The son of a Hungarian composer and pianist (his son Christoph would become a prominent conductor), Hans von Dohnányi was brought up in Berlin, where he studied law before gaining his doctorate in Hamburg.
He qualified as a lawyer in 1928.
He was a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from school days, and in 1925 married Dietrich’s sister Christine. They had three children – Klaus, Christoph and Barbara.
He worked for the Ministry of Justice from 1929 until early 1932 and then from June 1933 to late 1938 he returned to the Ministry. He was personal adviser to Franz Gürtner, the Minister for Justice. Hitler kept Gürtner in office after becoming chancellor. Later Dohnányi headed Gürtner’s ministerial office. In these roles he met senior Nazi leaders.
From 1933 Dohnányi systematically gathered information on Nazi crimes – including in concentration camps. He hoped to place Hitler and other senior Nazis on trial.
From early 1938 he was in contact with opponents of Hitler, and he was a leading figure in plans for a coup in September 1938 at the time of the Sudetenland crisis. He discussed with his father-in-law, Karl Bonhoeffer (a prominent psychiatrist) providing a psychiatric opinion at a trial of Hitler.
In late 1938 the Nazis forced him to resign from the Ministry of Justice, and transferred him to the Supreme Court of the Reich in Leipzig. In late 1939 Hans Oster asked for him to be transferred to the Abwehr (military intelligence - and a centre for the resistance to Nazism).
In 1939 and 1940 he was a key liaison for Josef Müller in his negotiations on behalf of the resistance with the Allies through the Vatican. He also worked to obtain explosives for a bomb to be used against Hitler prior to the attack in the west.
In early 1943 he was involved in Henning von Tresckow’s attempts to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup. He was instrumental in obtaining explosives and he prepared proclamations (approved by General Beck) to be read over the radio in the event the assassination succeeded. Dohnányi and Oster had compiled a fund of information to be used in propaganda.
While at the Abwehr he helped Jews escape by enrolling them as Abwehr agents and sending them to Switzerland.
On 5 April 1943, along with his wife Christine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (whom he had recruited to the resistance), and Dr Josef Müller, Dohnányi was arrested by the Gestapo, allegedly for breach of foreign currency regulations. They had sent money to support the Jewish ‘agents’ they had sent to Switzerland.
Dohnányi had on his desk a communication to Josef Müller as to the failure of the March 1943 plots against Hitler. It was disguised as intelligence material, so there was no need to hide it. When General Oster tried to conceal the papers, he also fell under suspicion, and was removed from office (an important blow for the German resistance).
Christine was released some weeks later.
Dohnányi endured a long imprisonment at the Gestapo headquarters in Prinzalbrechtstrasse in Berlin. He was repeatedly interrogated.
His wife smuggled infected food to him so that he contracted a serious illness and was removed to the police hospital – where it might be easier to escape.
Meanwhile Gestapo investigations following the July plot uncovered evidence of Dohnányi’s activities against the regime.
Learning that Dohnányi was to be transferred to a concentration camp, his doctor gave him drugs to incapacitate him – hoping this would save his life. However, on 6 April 1945 he arrived at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
That day, semi-conscious and on a stretcher, he was ‘tried’ before Otto Thorbeck, with SS Standartenführer Walter Huppenkothen prosecuting, and sentenced to death.
He was hanged by the SS at Sachsenhausen, probably on 9 April 1945.
This is an edited extract from TREASON: Claus von Stauffenberg and the Plot to Kill Hitler