Ethics Hero Emeritus: Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin

The first Nazi soldier Ethics Hero.

The SECOND Nazi soldier Ethics Hero!

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin didn’t accomplish anything heroic, but boy, did he try. The last surviving member of the most famous and closest call of the many failed plots to kill Adolf Hitler, von Kleist-Schmenzin is a ringing example of how the only difference between a a deathless hero and some guy with an unspellable name that you never hear of until he dies sometimes is just luck, and moral luck at that.

von Kleist-Schmenzin was 90 when he perished at his home in Munich this week, outliving almost all of his fellow conspirators in Operation Valkyrie by just short of seven decades. After that near-miss assassination attempt failed (because the bomb-in-a-briefcase dropped near Hitler’s feet by chief conspirator Claus von Stauffenberg was inadvertently moved just enough to save Der Fuhrer’s miserable life), von Kleist-Schmenzin managed to convince Gestapo interrogators that he wasn’t part of the plot, though in truth he was originally given the assignment of planting the bomb. He ended up in prison (the fact that his father was also involved in the plot and was one of those executed guaranteed that) and later was sent back onto the battlefield, but only random chance prevented him from being remembered as the man who ended the war…in fact, it foiled him twice.

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin had also been the key figure in another failed assassination plot earlier in 1944.  He was wired with explosives, and was ready to blow himself up while he was being examined by Hitler as von Kleist-Schmenzin modeled a new uniform for his approval. Only a sudden change in the dictator’s plans stopped the 23-year-old from becoming the most famous and most honored suicide bomber in history. He later told an interviewer how he came to agree to be a human bomb. Colonel von Stauffenberg approached von Kleist, then a lieutenant, aware that he had been chosen to wear the new uniform. He asked the dubious young man to self-detonate to rid the world of Hitler. “I found it a very difficult decision, I must say,” Mr. von Kleist recalled for a 1992 documentary, “The Restless Conscience.”

He decided to ask his father, Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, who was active in the German resistance, to help him make what might be a fatal choice. “My father said, ‘Why are you here again?’ ” He said, remembering the day. “I said, ‘Well, I have difficult decisions I have to make.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ And I told him. And he said at once, ‘Yes, of course you have to do it.”’

It seems strange, doesn’t it, to consider someone a hero who attempted both murder and treason twice? Yet the intended victim was Adolf Hitler, and the treason was against Nazi Germany, both of which dwelled in that shadow-land where ordinary ethics rules collapse upon themselves. von Kleist-Schmenzin was a young man who had become convinced that his nation had gone mad, and he was willing to sacrifice himself to prevent Germany and its vicious leader from continuing their rampage against humanity. He did everything that defines a hero, except succeed.

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin was a hero nonetheless.

[Note: When I first posted this, the caption under von Kleist-Schmenzin’s photo said that he was the first Nazi soldier to be named an Ethics Alarms Ethics Hero. That was an error…he was, in fact, the second. The story of the first, Henri Salmide, is equally remarkable.]


Facts: Washington Post, New York Times

21 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin

  1. What a great find, and a great post. I was not aware of von Kleist, but I guess that is the point. Circumstances kept him unkown. Ironic that he would live to be 90 when he was ready to sacrifice it all at 23.

    Sometimes killing is the most loving option and in Nazi Germany a few were able to see that with clarity. It is tragic that they were not successful.

  2. Good story. Valkyrie has always fascinated me with just how close it came to success.

    I have nothing to say against von Kleist-Schmenzin, but the little fact you bring up about Von Stauffenburg lowers my opinion of him a bit.

    That Von Stauffenberg, who had relatively regular interaction with the Bohemian Corporal, did not take on the task himself but ask a relative boy to do so, lowers him.

    Although the cause to kill Hitler is far more noble than the cause to blow up American soldiers, the same individuals who order young fanatics to blow themselves up for any cause while comfortably remaining *alive* are fairly analogous to this.

    I think Von Stauffenberg overall is till heroic. But that little tid-bit is bothersome to me.

    • Please read the clear distinction attempted by “far more noble than the cause to blow up American soldiers” with the understanding that there is NO, ZERO, ZILCH, nobility in blowing up American soldiers.

    • I think you are being overly critical. Von Stauffenberg was the leader of the assassination effort, and saw an opportunity, since he learned that a soldier with connections to the resistance was designated as the uniform model and would be right next to Hitler. It isn’t as if Von Stauffenberg could have modeled the uniform instead. That was a special set of circumstances, and von Kleist-Schmenzin, was the only one who could set of that bomb. It seems like very reasonable chain of command to me. As the mastermind, it would have been foolish for Von Stauffenberg to risk himself and the whole effort if this one attempt failed. In military terms, the kid was both expendable and the only one with that particular opportunity.

      • Don’t mean for it to be overly critical, I still indicated my high regard for Stauffenburg. I just know its no false dichotomy. Blowing ones self up is no the only option for assassination.

        Stauffenburg had more frequent contact with Hitler than Kleist-Schmenzin. If a suicide mission ends up being the absolutely only option, then leaders lead, there were plenty of other leaders in the resistance group who could easily follow through with the maneuver portion of Valkyrie.

        Otherwise make a better option: there always are plenty.

        The one mitigating factor is Stauffenburg *asked* Schmenzin but even that is tempered by the military custom of a request from a superior is the same as an order.

        • Tex,
          That is all true as far as it goes. However, one critical element has to be taken into account as well – there needs to be some structure ready to take the reins of power when Hitler is killed. Logically, that needs to be those closest to the power structure. Simply killing Hitler would still leave in place a bunch of high ranking people who were “all in” on the methods and goals of the regime.

          So, if Stauffenburg pulled out his P-08 and putting one behind Hitler’s ear makes him an assassin, rather than one of the obvious ones to take control after the tragedy of the loss of the dear leader.

            • I still don’t understand your objection. A human bomb was the immediate option created by circumstances. When it comes to killing Hitler, you take the opportunities you are handed.

              • I’m still wrestling with it, quite a bit. But my *gut* negative reaction to sending a subordinate, not to a likely death at the hands of the enemy, not to a possible death at the hands of the enemy, not to a very likely death at the hands of the enemy for a mission, but to a guaranteed death (by one’s own hand even) originates from my military experience. Leaders would never have subordinates execute tasks they were ready and willing to do themselves. And that willingness and readiness to do it oneself increases with the catastrophic nature of a particular task.

                And it flips the switch in this scenario, that Von Stauffenberg had many more opportunities than Schmenzin to do so. That he didn’t implies he wasn’t willing or ready, but quite ready to send a relative boy on his behalf.

                “A human bomb was the immediate option created by circumstances.”

                No disagreement, but Von Stauffenberg had more opportunities and better collateral effects on other high ranking targets.

                “When it comes to killing Hitler, you take the opportunities you are handed.”

                No disagreement, but again, Von Stauffenberg had more opportunities and even more methods at his disposal that this one situation.

              • This is bothersome to me because the formula for the right decision contains too many almost divides by zero.

                After conference with the esteemed Sarge983 (an adjacent Platoon Leader of mine with whom many conferences occur) my principles are not altered, but my assessment of the application of principles in this scenario has.

                In relation to ordering subordinates into scenario in which they have no options but death, I’ve determined that:

                IF the Objective (killing Hitler) is absolutely and utterly and unquestionably and exclusively decisive to the overall success of the Campaign (re-establishing a lawful and just Germany);

                IF the Tactic (suicide bomb) for achieving the Objective, is completely exclusive of other options;

                IF a particular subordinate (Schmenzin) is the ONLY option on the Battlefield located most effectively to execute the Tactic *in a timely manner*;

                THEN, yes the decision to stifle one’s Leadership Values (in this case, not ordering a subordinate to a task you are not willing to do) is the correct one.

                I agree on all respects that Von Stauffenberg weighed those considerations correctly, except I still have reservations on #2, that the Tactic was the *only* option available.

                I temper that by the clause *in a timely manner* as my assessment may be only hindsight bias. As urgent as the situation was, I don’t think we can truly assess how urgent the urgency von Stauffenberg felt he was operating under.

                • Oh, but the leader who does make that decision better send Flowers and Hand-written letters to the mother of the subordinate every Christmas, Easter and Birthday, while doing everything to remind the world of the subordinate’s heroism (at a minimum).

                • Do consider that there were something like 40 failed attempts to get Hitler. Hindsight also, but several had failed before the human bomb plan—I think the strategy of taking every opportunity until the bastard was dead was the only course.

                  You objection is ironic too, since in the Valkyrie attempt, Von Stauffenberg DID put himself in peril in place of von Kleist-Schmenzin, and in fact saved the latter’s life by doing so, since he would have been executed had he placed the bomb and the plot failed.

                  • I’m resolved on von Stauffenberg’s assessment. It’s just the whole killing oneself vs the enemy killing you I think is what it boils down too. It’s just bothersome to tell someone you will die for my objective, vs here’s a scenario you may be able to survive albeit low chances.

                    Of course, off topic, if Harry S Truman had benefitted from a great deal of luck with some of his Artillery Missions during the Great War, Hitler may have just been an essence wafting in the breeze. Apparently the two opposed each other in nearly the same sector of the Western Front.

                  • Of course, this being determined and accepted:


                    Rick has about 20 lbs of C4 and knows how to make a suicide vest.

                    Does he give up Michonne (packing vest) to the governor now?

  3. There comes a point where a soldier’s duty to his country diverges from that of his oath to obey his leaders unquestioningly. We have the advantage of hindsight. Von Kleist did not. He had only his innate patriotism and principles to guide him in undertaking a legal act of treason, but against those who had usurped the honor and values of the nation he had sworn to defend. It’s not a decision I would have cared to make. I can only hope that, had I been in his place, I would have made the same one… and succeeded.

    • The corruption was with the extra-constitutional leadership.

      Most nation’s military oaths of office place duty to the constitution before duty to the leaders, so yes, if a conflict arises, one takes precedence.

      In the German instance, the extra-constitutional leadership imposed its own oath of loyalty: one directly to Hitler.

      This is no oath to be ethically bound to anymore than a thug swearing to fight for his gang leader, and a few years into his life of crime realizing he is a bad person and wishing to go straight.

      • Well put, Tex. One of the recent developments which has just plain frightened me is the increasingly loud argument from some circles that the Oath of Enlistment demands unquestioning obedience to the “Commander in Chief” (the President) in all matters. I run into it all the time, now. This invokes the Hitler Oath by direct implication, as far as I’m concerned. Soldiers serve the nation and the Constitution that defines it. When Hitler combined the offices of Presdient and Chancellor upon the death of President Hindenburg, disbanded all opposition parties and undertook rule by decree, he essentially become an extra-legal entity at that point. Therefore, no oath of loyalty to his person- direct or indirect- was binding.

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