Adam von Trott as a student at Oxford; and on trial in August 1944
Adam von Trott's British connections have made him better known in this country than any of the other figures involved in the failed plot to kill Hitler in July 1944, with the exception of its prime mover, Claus Count Schenk von Stauffenberg. Trott had spent a term at Oxford in 1929 and returned to Balliol in 1931 for a further two years as a Rhodes scholar, reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Deeply affected by Germany's post-First World War political turmoil, inspired by socialist ideals and filled with a sense of civic duty instilled in him by his parents, Trott had resolved at early age to engage in public service. Frustration over German apathy and introspection fuelled his belief in internationalism and the desire to see his country embedded in a European framework. Aged only 19, he had already noted that there must be something greater than the nation.
Trott saw his studies at Oxford as an opportunity to hone his "civil courage", as he put it in a letter to the historian A. L. Rowse, and further the understanding between Britain and Germany so that the two countries would never again be at war with each other. In his application for the Rhodes scholarship he expressed his hope of being able to learn lessons abroad for the solution of problems at home. The friendships he formed during those years were crucial to Trott's later ambassadorial role in the German resistance against Hitler. He and his co-conspirators pinned high hopes on British support for their cause. These were cruelly dashed in a sequence of misunderstandings, suspicion and insensitivity that resonates to this day.
In many ways, Trotts's personal associations mirror the wider complexities of the Anglo-German relationship, coloured as it was by the experience of the First World War and the rise of National Socialism. Over and above the fascination of this brief and poignant life, the British angle must in part explain the copious literature about him in English. It ranges from several biographies, memoirs, editions of letters and essays to Justin Cartwright's roman à clef, The Song Before it is Sung, which focuses on the strained friendship with Isaiah Berlin and perpetuates some of the misconceptions about Trott. The German reading list on Trott has recently been extended by the historian Benigna von Krusenstjern's meticulous biography published in August on the occasion of the centenary of his birth. Its somewhat laborious title, Daß es Sinn hat zu sterben-gelebt zu haben, which translates roughly as That There is a Point in Dying-Having Lived, is drawn from a notebook Trott kept in the mid-1930s and encapsulates his conviction that resistance was not futile, even if doomed to fail. He was under no illusion about the risks he was taking in opposing Hitler. On leaving Oxford in 1933, he admitted to thinking "a great deal about the implications of my returning home this time-the balance of possibilities lies within its being a final return". In 1938, he compared the ship on which he was returning from his studies in the Far East to a "big black coffin carrying me back to Europe to be buried there". On a visit to the United States the following year he confided to a former lover that he did not expect to survive and shortly before the attempt on Hitler's life he estimated the chances for success at a mere 25 per cent, when more optimistic fellow-conspirators gave it a 50-50 chance.
Given the volume of writing on Trott one might well ask what another biography can reveal that adds to the picture. But Krusenstjern's assiduous research has unearthed a wealth of unknown material. From an English perspective, the information she has culled from the papers of the Labour politician Stafford Cripps, whose son was at Oxford with Trott, are of particular interest. The young German aristocrat had made a strong impression on Cripps, who tried in vain to garner support from the British government for the German opposition. His diaries reveal the extent of his despair over the lack of response with which his efforts were met.
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