Just Say No. Not Ever.
History has largely forgotten the mid-20th century Prussian Count Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin. But you and I would do well to remember him today.
To the extent to which his name rings any bells, you may recall his role (and that of his son, Ewald-Heinrich) in Col. Claus von Stauffenberg’s 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler. But that’s not why von Kleist-Schmenzin is relevant now. (Not least because I’m not proposing any Assassinations.) Rather, he’s relevant today because he was the only center-right politician to oppose Hitler from the start. The only one.
Here is his story.
Von Kleist-Schmenzin was a conservative, a Christian nationalist, and a member of the German National People’s Party (the DNVP). In our current terms: he was not a Lib, not woke, not a squish.
Yet he first proclaimed his differences with the Nazis in a 12-page pamphlet “National Socialism—A Menace,” published in the run-up to the July 1932 elections, which were the first in which the Nazis won a plurality of seats. After several months’ maneuvers following the subsequent (November 1932) elections, the DNVP leadership agreed to participate in the coalition Government of National Concentration upon President von Hindenburg’s appointment of Hitler as chancellor.
His party’s throwing in with the Nazis proved too much for Count von Kleist-Schmenzin, who resigned from the party (and the Reichstag) within a fortnight on February 13, 1933. The following weeks were historically fateful, with the Reichstag Fire and the subsequent decree which suspended press freedoms and habeas corpus. A third election in March of 1933, gave Hitler’s Nazis their first parliamentary majority. But it is important to note that they did so not on their own but in coalition with von Kleist-Schmenzin’s former party.
When Hitler progressed from mere governing power to dictatorial power later that month, every member of the DNVP voted for the Enabling Act, which granted Hitler and his cabinet the power to make and enforce laws without approval or interference by the Reichstag or president. The transformation from chancellor to führer was completed the following year upon the death President von Hindenburg.
The conservatives had held hands with the Nazis the entire way. Because: Power.
Count von Kleist-Schmenzin’s acts of conscience didn’t advance his career, or make him money, or enhance his brand and reputation among his former colleagues or other peers. He was arrested twice before the spring of 1933 even turned to summer. He spent the bulk of the succeeding years in isolation at his castle in Pomerania, Prussia (now northwestern Poland), openly flaunting the universal requirement to fly the Nazi flag.
In 1938, as Hitler set his sights on Sudetenland, von Kleist-Schmenzin conducted back-channel subversive diplomacy, urging the British to adopt a more bellicose posture. His efforts were futile, resulting only in sternly worded correspondence from Winston Churchill (then not yet prime minister) to Hitler, and were of course followed by Chamberlain’s appeasing capitulation at Munich.
Throughout the war years, Count von Kleist-Schmenzin remained active in the same conservative and aristocratic circles in which he had long traveled. These peers, who had once enabled Hitler, were now united in the belief that the führer must be removed. Von Kleist-Schmenzin was among those who conspired with Colonel von Stauffenberg to plant a bomb at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia on July 20, 1944. The assassination attempt failed, and the conspirators were caught. Von Stauffenberg was summarily executed; Von Kleist-Schmenzin was at least afforded a trial, although he too was executed, on April 9, 1945, less than three weeks before Hitler killed himself, and just one month before Germany’s surrender.
Perhaps the most instructive vignette from von Kleist-Schmenzin’s life is a snippet of conversation between the count and his son.
Earlier in 1944, before von Stauffenberg plot, there was another planned attempt on Hitler’s life. In this conspiracy, the younger von Kleist-Schmenzin was to be the principal actor: Hitler was scheduled to inspect a new military dress uniform and Ewald-Heinrich was to be the model. The young man knew that, were his mission successful, his own life would almost certainly be forfeit.
Before the fateful day the son journeyed from Berlin to his ancestral home, in search of his father’s wisdom. As the son recounted years later, after pouring out his heart and agonizing over his fears, the elder von Kliest-Schmenzin “got up from his chair, went to the window, looked out of the window for a moment, and then he turned and said: ‘Yes, you have to do that. A man who doesn’t take such a chance will never be happy again in his life.’”
The situation Republicans find themselves in circa 2023 is different in crucial ways. Their authoritarian is still only aspiring. No violence or physical courage is required to make a break with him.
But in other ways there are similarities. The Republican party members who enabled Donald Trump’s takeover of the party in their own pursuit of power now realize that he must be pushed aside. Yet taking on Trump presents them with professional risks. Their risk aversion is why so many Republican assert that Trump won’t be the nominee—but then refuse to rule out supporting him if he is. The most recent of these refusals came last week when Larry Hogan and Chris Sununu—two long-time Trump antagonists—simply could not bring themselves to categorically state that they would not support Trump. Period. Full stop.
Here is the only honorable statement to be made by these Republicans who now want to be done with Trump: “I do not, and I will not, support the candidacy of Donald Trump, not now, not later, not if he’s the nominee, not if he runs as a third-party candidate, not ever.”
Saying what you privately believe, out loud, may not gain you votes or enhance your brand. It certainly won’t make you money. But it will allow you to be happy again in the world, unburdened by the weight of calculation and maneuver.
As Ronald Reagan recognized at a different time and in a different place, it is a time for choosing.