A German officer and patriot recalls his service — loyal and otherwise — in the World War II memoir ‘Valkyrie’

August 27, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 27, 2019

Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager, born in 1917, was the fourth of eight children of a prominent and monied German Roman Catholic family. He served as a cavalry officer during World War II and was part of an Army cabal that unsuccessfully attempted at least twice to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator. Boeselager died on May 1, 2008, almost eight months before the release of a Tom Cruise movie about the conspiracy, Valkyrie.

Nearly a year to the day after the former cavalryman’s death, his wartime memoir, also titled Valkyrie, was published in English. The book is subtitled “The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member,” but this turns out to be somewhat misleading: Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist passed away in 2013 at age 90. (In fairness to the publishers, I found at least two Boeselager obituaries calling him the last or “almost certainly the last” surviving plotter.)

Boeselager’s tale is interesting, but the efforts to kill Hitler only comprise a modest portion of it. Most of the volume — cowritten with Florence Fehrenbach and Jérôme Fehrenbach and translated by Steven Rendall — is devoted to the experiences of the author and his beloved slightly older brother, Georg von Boeselager, a more senior cavalry officer. (Michael Prichard, the prolific audiobook narrator who read the version of Valkyrie to which I listened, pronounced this name as GAY-org.)

The brothers’ involvement in the invasion of France seems almost quaint. The most dangerous situation Philipp faced was when he threatened to shoot a senior officer who ordered an attack on a village from which defenders were preparing to withdraw peacefully following gentlemanly negotiations. Georg saw more action, flanking the French in one case by having his soldiers swim across a river. In another episode, Georg was magnanimously enjoying a genial meal with some officers his unit had captured when someone spotted approaching French tanks; naturally, this prompted him to beat a very hasty retreat.

The Boeselagers’ participation in the push toward Moscow was much less idyllic. The Communists thoughtlessly sacrificed throngs of poorly equipped men by ordering them to attack Nazi machine gun emplacements. However, the Wehrmacht offensive ultimately was stymied by unforgiving terrain, challenging supply lines, the Soviet Union’s famously brutal winter weather and at-times incompetent leadership. (American industry, which was able to produce weaponry more quickly than Germany, also helped turned the tide.)

The Nazis’ incompetence, cruelty and disregard for law eventually persuaded the conspirators to start planning their coup, but not before the officers accumulated evidence of — and in one cases witnessed — the summary execution of Roma and Jews. Many of the plotters were further motivated by their disdain for the gauche manners, tacky stylings and pompous self-regard of many prominent Nazis, whose families lacked the aristocratic backgrounds of Boeselager and his peers. On one occasion, over lunch during a military summit, Boeselager was detained for failing to conceal his scorn; he evaded punishment when an indulgent guard released the author into the custody of his commanding officer, Field Marshal Hans Günther von Kluge.

‘Valkyrie’ by Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager.

In 1943, the author volunteered to shoot Hitler and his second-in-command, Heinrich Himmler, at an event both men were scheduled to attend. This plan was scotched when Himmler failed to show up; the conspirators feared their coup d’état would collapse if either senior Nazi survived.

The following year, the author covertly brought explosives to Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a fellow conspirator. The ensuing bombing, however, receives less description than the measures taken to conceal the illicit package. The explosives were transferred from beneath Stauffenberg’s bed to beneath that of his aide in conjunction with the routine of the housekeepers in their lodgings; the officers lived directly across the hall from one another, and each week a different side of the corridor was cleaned.

(What the author doesn’t say: Stauffenberg was interrupted before he could arm both of the bombs in his attaché case. After he excused himself from a briefing, the bag containing his deadly payload was shifted, and Hitler avoided the brunt of an explosion that was not as strong as initially intended.)

A few days before the bombing was set to occur, Boeselager’s new role in the conspiracy was triggered. He withdrew his unit from the Eastern Front — from which the Germans had already begun a disorderly retreat — and began racing to Berlin, where his cavalry had been assigned to seize part of the capital in furtherance of the coup. It’s a testament to the Germans’ desperation that no commander had the wherewithal to question Boeselager when, after the failed bombing, he and hundreds of men and horses suddenly reported for duty hundreds of miles from the position they were supposed to be reinforcing.

Georg von Boeselager emerges as the book’s most memorable figure — an intelligent, gallant and seemingly fearless man. Once, caught off-guard by a surprise Russian attack, he supervised vigorous close-quarters defensive action without a sidearm. When a dismayed subordinate realized the commander was unarmed, Georg declined the offer of a pistol. At another point, he and a driver hid in a swamp while at least a dozen Russians searched for them. After the enemy appeared to have abandoned the effort, Georg, an experienced hunter, recognized that the Russians were using artificial birdsong in an attempt to lure the duo out of cover.

This incident occurred after the failed bombing. One reason Georg was determined to avoid capture was that another plotter had already defected to the Russians; a second such occurrence might have cast suspicion on Philipp and other of Georg’s associates.

As it was, the Nazis conducted an extensive purge, locking up hundreds if not thousands of officers and troops who appeared to be linked to the cabal. The Boeselagers evaded the inquisition largely because of a legendary bluff by Fabian von Schlabrendorff, who blithely told the Gestapo that Philipp and Georg were completely loyal. As Boeselager tells it, Schlabrendorff, who later became a judge on Germany’s highest court, escaped or at least delayed court proceedings against him when the presiding judge was killed, and relevant court records destroyed, by an enemy air raid. (Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates that Himmler sentenced Schlabrendorff to death but Germany surrendered before the execution could be carried out.)

Valkyrie serves as a sobering reminder of the cruelty and capriciousness of war. Georg died near the end of the conflict; not only did Philipp survive, he returned home with the two horses he had brought with him into military service. One conspirator in Philipp’s brigade was killed by a mine that exploded only after a thousand men and horses had already passed over it. (This officer was doubly unlucky; Boeselager writes that land mines typically killed mounts but not riders.) The author pretended to pray over the body while he searched the dead man’s belongings for potentially incriminating documents.

Boeselager’s memoir offers a different perspective on World War II; it’s unusual for me to find Germans in the conflict to be particularly sympathetic. Valkyrie is a compelling volume, and a relatively brisk read, which I’d recommend to those interested in military history and the Second World War. However, it doesn’t provide a comprehensive overview of the military’s opposition to Hitler, and should not be taken as doing so.

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