The outcome in the kangaroo court for anyone involved in the previous year’s near-miss bomb attack on Hitler was foreordained. Just the day before, the movement’s ineffectual but conscientious political statesman Carl Goerdeler had hanged for it.
But a funny thing happened to the lawyer and reserve officer Schlabrendorff on the way to the gallows.
As he awaited this date his tongue-lashing and inevitable condemnation at the hands of the vituperative Nazi judge Roland Freisler, a bombing raid led by Jewish future Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Rosenthal struck the People’s Court — killing not the prisoner, but the judge, who was reportedly found still clutching his prey’s file.
“It is God’s verdict” was the succinct epitaph issued by a worker at the hospital where they raced his body, and nobody cared to dispute the subversive remark.
Hysterically badgering defenseless prisoners in farcical show trials, ostentatiously obeisant to the Reich, and personally responsible for thousands of executions, Freisler was a hard guy to admire. His role model for courtroom demeanor was supposed to be the ruthless purge trials of the Soviets.*
(Freisler also attended the Wannsee Conference, where Reinhard Heydrich organized the Final Solution. What a guy.)
In the confusion of the bomb blast, Schlabrendorff was hustled off to detention un-sentenced, and spent the last months of the war being shifted from one concentration camp to the next. The Third Reich — and admittedly, it had a few other things on its mind in those days — neglected to kill him, trial or no.
Schlabrendorff went on to become a West German constitutional court judge, though in this career he could hardly be as memorable as his onetime persecutor.
That Schlabrendorff miraculously escaped the war with his life thanks to a timely explosion was a particular irony: Hitler had once unwittingly been preserved from a Schlabrendorff assassination attempt by a bomb that failed to detonate.
In a March 1943 attempt on Hitler’s life, Schlabrendorff himself had passed one of Hitler’s entourage a package supposedly containing two bottles of cognac for delivery to another officer. In fact, the package was meant to blow up Hitler’s plane.
When [Hitler] was boarding the plane I started the mechanism of the delayed-action bomb … timed to explode within half an hour. At a sign from Tresckow, I handed the parcel to Colonel Brandt,** the member of Hitler’s escort who had promised to take it. It was a great nervous strain to remain quiet at this juncture.
After more than two hours of waiting, we got the shattering news that Hitler had landed safely …
We were stunned and could not imagine the cause of the failure … even worse would be the discovery of the bomb, which would unfailingly lead to our detection and the death of a wide circle of close collaborators.
After considerable reflection Tresckow resolved to ring up Colonel Brandt at Hitler’s headquarters and ask whether the parcel for General Stieff had already been delivered. Brandt replied that it was still in his keeping. This gave us hope that the bomb had not been discovered. Its delivery had to be prevented by all means. So Tresckow asked him to keep the parcel. He added there had been some mistake. I would call on him the following day to exchange the parcel, as I had anyway to go on official business to headquarters in East Prussia.
On some military pretext, I flew to Headquarters with the regualr messenger plane. I called on Colonel Brandt and exchanged a parcel containing two bottles of brandy for the one containing the bomb.
I can still recall my horror when the man, unaware of what he held, smilingly handed me the bomb and gave it a jerk that made me fear a belated explosion. Feigning a composure I did not feel, I took the bomb, immediately got into a car, and drove to the neighboring railway junction of Korschen. From there a sleeper train left for Berlin in the evening.
At Korschen, I got into a reserved compartment, locked the door, and … dismantled the bomb … The mechanism had worked; the small bottle had broken; the corrosive fluid had consumed the wire; the striker had hit forward; but — the detonator had not fired.
* Not the only ostpolitik admiration the Nazis showed for their battlefield foes’ ruthlessness; Hitler, similarly, applauded (sometimes envied) Stalin’s 1930s purge of the officer corps.
** This Heinz Brandt, too, has another unwitting part left to play in the story of the German resistance: it was he who, on July 20, 1944, moved Col. Stauffenberg’s deadly parcel behind an oaken table support, preserving Hitler from the bomb’s worst effects. Brandt died in that explosion.