Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, the last surviving member of the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Adolf Hitler, died earlier this month at age 90.
Von Kleist had joined the Wehrmacht as an infantry officer in 1940 at age 18, but he did so out of an allegiance to country, not to the Führer. He came from a long line of Prussian landowners who had served the state for centuries in high-ranking military and administrative positions, according to the Associated Press.
However, von Kleist’s father, a Christian, conservative and monarchist, resisted Hitler, and the Nazi flag never flew from the Kleist castle in Pomerania nor was the Nazi salute ever given there, according to The Economist.
As the war progressed and its true nature was revealed to the younger von Kleist, he grew increasing troubled. Stationed on the Eastern Front, he saw some of the conflict’s most brutal action and was wounded in 1943.
In early 1944, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of a group of anti-Nazi plotters, asked von Kleist to undertake a suicide mission to kill Hitler.
Von Kleist hesitated, according to The Economist, hoping that his father would object and save him. But his father paused for only a moment before he told him he must do it: “A man who doesn’t take such a chance will never again be happy in life.”
Von Kleist agreed to wear two hand grenades under his uniform and to detonate them as he stood at attention before Hitler, but the Führer cancelled their meeting.
Similarly, in the famed plot of July 20, 1944, to kill Hitler in the “Wolf’s Lair,” near Rastenburg in East Prussia, it was von Kleist who agreed to carry the suitcase of explosives into the conference room. Ultimately, however, von Kleist was told to stay in Berlin, and von Stauffenberg placed the bomb in the conference room.
After the bomb detonated, von Kleist believed Hitler had been killed. In fact, he had survived, although four others died.
Ultimately, the Nazis had nearly 5,000 individuals executed as a result of the attempt, including von Kleist’s father, who was guillotined.
Von Kleist was arrested, questioned by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp before being dismissed as a “callow, apolitical soldier,” according to The Economist. He was returned to combat duty for the remainder of the war.
Von Kleist lost his ancestral home after the war when most of Pomerania was transferred to Poland and all Germans were expelled.
He went into the publishing business, founding the Ewald von Kleist publishing house. He joined the Protestant Order of Saint John (Brandenburg branch), to which his father had belonged, was admitted as a Knight of Honor in 1957 and promoted to Knight of Justice in 1975.
In 1962, von Kleist founded the Munich Conference on Security Policy, a forum that still brings together the world’s top diplomats and defense officials in an informal setting for talks on global security policy, and has long been considered the preeminent conference on NATO issues.
The youngest of those recruited for the July 20 plot, von Kleist was its last survivor. He died on March 8.
(Above: The Wolf’s Lair conference room soon after the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Adolf Hitler.)