The Trouble with Trott

Gabriele Annan

  • A Good German: Adam von Trott zu Solz by Giles MacDonogh
    Quartet, 358 pp, £17.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 7043 2730 9

In England, Adam von Trott has always been the best-known of the plotters against Hitler who were shot or hanged after the abortive coup of 20 July 1944 – better even than Claus von Stauffenberg who carried the bomb in his briefcase to the Führer’s headquarters in East Prussia and detonated it. This is because from 1931 to 1933 Trott was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College and made a tremendous impression on his contemporaries and seniors at Oxford. He made friends with men and women who were to become, or beginning to be, what the Germans call prominente. Among them were Richard Crossman, A.L. Rowse, Maurice Bowra, Isaiah Berlin, David Astor and the journalist Shiela Grant Duff, who, in 1982, published a book about their relationship, and followed it up with a volume of their correspondence. At opposite ends of the political spectrum he impressed Lord Lothian and won the affection of Sir Stafford Cripps. Trott was intelligent, aristocratic, idealistic, thoughtful, funny, beautiful, and devastatingly charming: a male Zuleika Dobson. Undergraduates and dons of both sexes were bewitched by him and never shook off the spell. No one who had ever known him at all could escape haunting by his heroic and gruesome death. The familiar photograph of him listening to the judge pronouncing the death sentence has become a tragic icon. It can be seen again in MacDonogh’s book, and on this page.

From the middle Thirties onwards, some of Trott’s English acquaintances and even some of his friends lost faith in him and suspected him of being a Nazi fellow-traveller and worse: possibly a secret agent. There were three main reasons for this. The first is that he was a passionate and touchy patriot. He would not think of emigrating; he could not bear all Germans to be lumped in with the Nazis, or foreigners to denigrate his country: he flared up, in conversation and in print, and said things he himself regretted.

The second reason is that when he came to England before the war to persuade the British Government to co-operate with the German opposition, his approach was made through the Cliveden set. It was the best contact he had, since Lady Astor’s son David was his friend. Besides, Chamberlain was in power: however strongly Trott may have deplored his stance, the Prime Minister was the man he had to influence.

The third reason is this: in order to be able to travel and fulfil his mission, Trott had to remain on good terms with the German Government and its embassies and consulates in the countries he visited. Naturally this made him suspect: on his trip to the US in 1940 he was constantly followed by the FBI. Shortly afterwards he joined the German Foreign Office (which was thick with anti-Nazis). After that his excursions to neutral and occupied countries were craftily disguised as official visits undertaken on behalf of the Foreign Office, though in fact he used them to solicit Allied support for the resistance.

Even before the war the British Government cold-shouldered approaches from German opposition groups which had plans for Hitler’s overthrow. These groups judged that no coup and no new regime could succeed unless it had a guarantee of support from the Western democracies. It can be argued that the British and the Americans were quite right to be stand-offish: the various conspiracies were either suspect or hopeless or both. The counter-argument is that if the Allies had backed the Halder/Witzleben plot in 1938, they could have prevented the war; and if they had supported Trott and his group in 1944, they could have shortened it. So the weight of responsibility (and guilt and shame) to be shifted one way or the other is tremendous. Trott was the plotters’ foreign affairs specialist and their chief emissary to the Allies: the question of how good a Good German he was therefore affects the issue of where the blame should fall or how it is to be apportioned.

In 1968 Christopher Sykes published a biography of Trott called Troubled Loyalty. It is a sympathetic and moving work, protective and sometimes even defensive about Trott. All the same, some people thought, and still think, that it was unfair because it made him too much of a nationalist and failed to recognise how early he had been a committed and active anti-Nazi. Sykes followed up the book with an article about the German opposition in Encounter. In June 1969, again in Encounter, David Astor attacked both the article and the biography in a piece called ‘Why the revolt against Hitler was ignored’. A controversy developed in the pages of Encounter and elsewhere; it has been going on intermittently ever since, and Giles MacDonogh’s book is part of it.

No one today doubts that Trott was a hero and a martyr. He risked his life by his treasonable démarches in England and America before the war, and in Sweden, Switzerland, Holland and Turkey during it. He knew the death he faced would be peculiarly horrible. What he did he did for his country. He was a patriot. But was he also a nationalist? Grant Duff thought so, and their friendship came to grief over their differences. But the line between patriotism and nationalism is not so easy to draw, especially for a post-Versailles German. Trott was only 19 when he first came to England in 1928, and only 35 when he died. His views changed and developed. He thought of himself as a social democrat and did not particularly admire Western capitalism. He wanted the classes to be equal, but his own to govern because it had a tradition of governing and public service. The British liked to think of the Prussians as a sabre-rattling lot of bullies: the Prussians’ own idea of Prussianism was service to the state. The generals and the upper classes as a whole were not rabid Nazis. Their relation to Hitler was a bit like that of the Wets to Mrs Thatcher: they went along with him reluctantly, deploring his manners and his ethics. Trott wanted Germany to be reinstated as an equal with other nations. He believed that she had something special to offer as das Land in der Mitte – the country in the middle of a Europe which he hoped would be a federation of states. In a memorandum smuggled to Cripps in 1942 he spoke of ‘the final overcoming of European nationalism’. Still, Trott had written his German doctoral thesis on Hegel, supposedly the father of German nationalism. Sykes devotes quite a lot of space to Hegel’s influence on Trott. Twice, at least, he asserts, with the utmost regret, that Trott was, at certain stages and in certain ways, a nationalist. And yet the drift of his book seems to deny it.

MacDonogh starts from the conviction that what matters about Trott is ‘his role in the German Resistance and the part he played in the abortive plot of 20 July 1944. With this in mind I have skirted over those things which I feel are of doubtful importance in the light of his later destiny. The reader will not find here, for example, a detailed discussion of the dissertation on Hegel which Trott wrote at the age of 21, and which so fascinated Christopher Sykes in his biography.’ The gloves are off, and one can’t help wanting to side with the challenger: when a man gives his life for a cause he believes in it is, of course, quite proper to ask whether it was the right cause, but ungenerous to quibble as to whether it was exactly right in every respect, or whether he had always adhered to it in exactly the right way.

So one looks forward to an account of what exactly Trott did. This is very difficult to establish because so much of it was clandestine. Sykes had to leave gaps in his story, but at least it was coherent. MacDonogh does not claim to have discovered any new facts, though he may well have done: his narrative is so confused that one would never know. Perhaps it needed a Le Carré to sort out all the moves made by the conspirators. MacDonogh is no Le Carré. Besides, he has terrible difficulties with words. Here’s a typical sentence: ‘Matters of policy towards Great Britain were Ribbentrop’s special domain and one in which he exercised the extreme bitterness which he harvested from the snubs and ridicule which had dogged his London years.’ Sometimes the meaning is obscure just when it matters most: ‘Werth ... decided that if the military plans went ahead, this would prove whether Hitler was actually dead or not.’ Hardly a German word gets by without a spelling mistake, and sometimes, just to be on the safe side, two versions of the same name appear on the same page. There are factual mistakes (Professor Tom Marshall was never at Balliol) and others which reveal a combination of ignorance and naivety, not just about a fact, but about its whole context: for instance, MacDonogh claims that Subhas Chandra Bose ‘was a Kayastha [sic], a caste which had risen to being second only to the Brahmins in Bengal’. Even if one could follow MacDonogh’s account, it wouldn’t carry much weight.

He gets very angry with everyone he thinks rejected or misunderstood Trott. Eden, Crossman, Wheeler-Bennett and Bowra are his particular bêtes noires, though not, surprisingly, Grant Duff. In Bowra’s case, it seems unfair, because he did public penance in his memoirs: ‘My main reason for suspicion was quite unfounded. Von Trott was not only against Hitler, but after the failure of the plot of 20 July 1944, he was arrested and hung with horrifying brutality on a wire cord. When I heard of this, I saw how mistaken I had been, and my rejection of him remains one of my bitterest regrets.’ In any case, all the bêtes noires are dead, and can’t make any more amends. The sad thing is that Trott not only emerges from MacDonogh’s pages less vividly than he does from Sykes’s or from Missie Vassiltchikov’s poignant Berlin Diaries, but also seems less appealing. The only new fact I am sure I learnt was that he suffered from bad health.