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.]