A Bold Voice at a Miserable Time

A new life of Adam von Trott, executed for plotting to kill Hitler, rescues his integrity

Features Germany History
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. 

With hindsight, it is easy to condemn the high-handed rejection of Trott’s various attempts to persuade British officialdom of the integrity of his cause. Many of his friends failed to understand why he felt impelled to return to Nazi Germany. Although he had been accepted at Oxford as an honorary Englishman, Trott never doubted where his allegiance lay. He saw it as a civic duty to serve one’s country and bring about change, even at the cost of one’s own life. Trott told his friend Sheila Grant Duff that he thought it “humiliating to be an emigrant”. She proved to be less understanding than another fellow student who was present in the junior common room at Balliol in January 1933 when Trott learnt that Hitler had been appointed Chancellor. Charles Collins recalled how Trott “knew at once that a terrible disaster had befallen his country…A number of things he was sure of immediately: that overt resistance to the regime would be useless for a long time to come, that nevertheless he must oppose it by all means in his power; that a common ground must be found for as many opponents of the regime as possible, and that he himself would try to find that ground in a struggle for the ‘liberal rights’; that although it would certainly be at the cost of handicap for his own career, he would not join the Nazi Party unless it should ever become his clear duty to do so in furtherance of his anti-Nazi activity.” The playwright William Douglas-Home, who was present at a dinner given in June 1939 by Lord and Lady Astor, where Trott was seated opposite the Foreign Minister Lord Halifax, was equally struck by the young German’s sincerity. Home describes him as being “as passionate an anti-Nazi as he was a patriot”. 

And yet many of his closest friends doubted his motives-as did the powers that be. Their distaste for Trott’s Hegelian affinities, their disappoval of his links with the appeasing Cliveden set, their suspicion of his left-wing sympathies and his ambiguous role as a German foreign office official, and above all their lack of understanding of the constraints of life under dictatorship all combined to cloud their judgment. Even allowing for the uncertainties of the time, it is breathtaking to read Anthony Eden’s response to a memorandum of the German resistance outlining the urgent need to remove Hitler and asking for British solidarity. Eden declared that until “these people” broke cover and gave “some visible sign of their intention to assist in the overthrow of the Nazi regime, they can be of little use to us or to Germany”. He dismissed Trott as “not untypical of a number of young Germans in the German ministry of foreign affairs who, profoundly anti-Nazi in upbringing and outlook, have never quite been able to bring themselves to pay the price for their convictions and resign from the service of the Nazi regime”. As if conditions in Hitler’s totalititarian state were comparable to those in England, Eden, then Foreign Secretary, took his honourable stand against Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement and resigned. 

Eden’s rebuff was based on a devastating assessment written anonymously for the Foreign Office by Richard Crossman, who had known Trott at Oxford and even spent a few days in 1935 with him on a tour of Germany, although he claimed that their relationship was coloured by mutual distrust. Crossman opined that Trott’s unhappy and uncertain state of mind confirmed his own feelings “that in any serious political conflict Adam’s high-minded idealism would somehow twist to avoid the really unpleasant decision to work for a revolution in Germany”. 

Others, such as Isaiah Berlin, A. L. Rowse and Maurice Bowra, who had been closer to Trott at Oxford, were equally distrustful. Berlin was shocked by an ill-advised letter Trott had written to the Manchester Guardian in February 1934, protesting against two reports on the persecution of the Jews and the partiality of the German courts. Trott objected to the reports, saying that his own experience as a lawyer in Hesse had not borne out these findings. Krusenstjern describes how he regretted his letter, which was cut and appeared under the unfortunate headline “Anti-Semitism Denied”, as soon as he had written it. But she emphasises that his attempt to defend those who were still adhering to the old moral and legal standards against the generalisations of the Guardian‘s special correspondent was bound to give rise to misunderstandings. 

A number of Trott’s Oxford friends failed to recognise his precarious position. They were put off by what they regarded as his
“nationalist talk” and seem to have taken it badly that he did not confide in them, writes Krusenstjern. But when he did reveal to Bowra that he was involved in the resistance while working for the German Foreign Office, the Warden of Wadham concluded that he was really on the side of the Nazis and showed him the door. Rowse also distanced himself. However, Krusenstjern dismisses the assertion that most of Trott’s English friends turned away from him.

The new book deals more thoroughly than previous biographies with Trott’s background and early years. Although he rebelled against his father’s conservatism, the civic values of the former Prussian minister of culture left as strong a mark on him, as did the beliefs of his puritan mother, a great-granddaughter of John Jay, one of the founding fathers of the United States. Eleonore von Trott was proud of her abolitionist roots, urging her son from an early age to become, “with God’s help”, a man “who is able to swim against the tide”. One of the most striking aspects of Trott’s biography is the clarity with which, despite his youth, he predicted the fatal impact of Nazism, even before Hitler gained power. Krusenstjern is also illuminating on the astonishing edition of the German dramatist, writer and poet Heinrich von Kleist’s political writings that Trott finally succeeded in publishing in 1935. His introduction drew scarcely veiled analogies between Kleist’s response to the upheavals of the Napoleonic period and the restrictions on freedom of thought and movement under the Nazi regime. It is further proof of Trott’s fearless challenge of the new order and his sense of public responsibility. 

Krusenstjerns’s biographical approach is heavily influenced by her reliance on the value of personal testimonials. Wherever possible, she allows the documents to speak for themselves in a detailed step-by-step account of Trott’s development and thinking. At times, this presentation can appear to be somewhat plodding. But as the book progresses, the reader begins to recognise a purpose in this method that makes the dénouement all the more affecting. It is heartrending to read Trott’s farewell letters to his wife and mother, written on 26 August 1944. Later that day, he was hanged. The letters did not arrive until more than five months later. Writing to Isaiah Berlin in 1934 about his Kleist project, Trott described the dramatist as “a bold voice at a miserable time”. The same applies to Trott himself. His is an exemplary life that will continue to be relevant for generations to come.