On March 8 this year a man died at the age of ninety. He was a German officer, born into an old aristocratic Prussian family whose sons had always been officers in the military. World War II saw the young man leading soldiers far older than he on the Eastern Front. He served his country while remaining aloof from the Nazi party. He saw his men dying needlessly. “He said it was not the business of soldiers to think too much. Orders were orders. (But) the one thing that seemed worth dying for was the erasing of Hitler from the scene.”*
Ultimately, the orders that the young oficer followed were to assassinate Hitler. He was to become a suicide bomber: he would wear two grenades under his uniform and detonate them at a planned meeting with the Fuhrer. But Hitler cancelled the meeting. A later plan had the young soldier bringing a suitcase of explosives into a conference to be held in the “Wolf’s Lair”. He wavered. But he agreed to carry out the order after his father told him: A man who doesn’t take such a chance will never again be happy in life.
In the event, the younger man was ordered not to attend. The plot failed, the father was guillotined, and the son was imprisoned briefly before being sent back to the front.
The younger man’s name was Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist.
After the war von Kleist set up the highly influential annual Munich Conferences. Scorning pacifism, he promoted debate on what was worth fighting and dying for. The great names of America and Germany attended.
To judge by a recent obituary, it seems doubtful that Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist ever smiled, certainly not after accepting his orders to kill and to die.
*The obituary quoted was published in The Economist on March 23 this year. Von Kleist’s true life prefigures the fiction of Hans Fellada (author of the magnificent “Alone in Berlin”); both the book and the life offer an answer to the question, ‘how can a sole human being stand up and stare down tyranny?’; of course, von Kleist’s obituary creates the uncomfortable realisation that we support the action of a suicide bomber.
A word about The Economist: the writing in this magazine is invariably of a high standard. It seems like a colossal waste to devote such a lot of ink and so much talent to a journal about the ephemeral, I mean Business and Economics. However so long as people keep dying and The Economist selects individuals to obituarise, the magazine will inform, intrigue and surprise the reader.
The trick with The Economist is to start from the back. Read the final article first. Then, if you are in the mood, read the next-to-rearmost, the reviews of books and the arts. You will be enlightened always, even (as in this case) uplifted. After the reviews you can put the magazine down, unless you lust for exchange rates and gloomy prognostications.
Reading an obituary is cheering proof that it is not your own. You might even smile.