Axel von dem Bussche was born on 24th April, 1919 in Braunschweig to an ancient aristocratic Saxon family. His mother was Danish and much of his childhood was spent on his grandmother's estate in Denmark. (1)
After school Bussche joined the German Army. His regiment, the Ninth Infantry Regiment, was based in Potsdam. He was a highly decorated captain and a supporter of Hitler until while at the Ukrainian town of Dubno, he witnessed the massacring of about 2,000 Jewish men, women and children. (2)
The victims were "herded along" and then were "compelled to strip and then to lie face downwards on top of the dead or still writhing Jews who had dug the pit and then been shot; the newcomers were then also killed by a shot in the nape of the neck. The SS men did all this in a calm, orderly fashion; they were clearly acting under orders." (3)
Bussche, a committed Christian, now dedicated himself to the task of doing whatever he could do destroy Adolf Hitler and all that he represented. There were, he said, only three possible ways for an honorable officer to react:"to die in battle, to desert, or to rebel." (4)
A lung injury resulted in him being invalided him out of active service. On his return to Germany he was put into contact with Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, a diplomat sympathetic to the resistance, who arranged for him to meet Lieutenant-Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. (5)
When Stauffenberg asked him if he would be willing to kill Hitler, Bussche accepted without hesitation. After a brief discussion about the preferred method, they concluded that a bomb was the means most likely to succeed. A pistol shot might miss the mark or produce only a superficial wound. It was also believed that Hitler wore a bulletproof waistcoat. (6)
The occasion for the planned attack was a demonstration of new equipment and winter uniforms developed for use on the eastern front. Bussche agreed to be a model for one of the uniforms at a rally on 16th November, 1943, at the Wolfschanze at Rastenburg, where Hitler would be in attendance. He was a perfect choice for such a role. He looked "Nordic" and had served over the entire length of the eastern front. (7)
In the greatcoat he was to carry two hand-grenades with four-second fuses. (8) In the course of explaining its features, arm the bomb, and then jump on Hitler and throw him to the ground, holding him there for the few seconds required for the bomb to explode. Unfortunately, the rally was cancelled because the train in which the new uniforms were being transported was hit and destroyed by an Allied bomb the night before the proposed fashion show. (9)
Bussche was recalled to active service on the Eastern Front, but before he left Berlin he promised that he would be willing to carry out the assassination when the demonstration of new equipment and winter uniforms was re-scheduled. In January 1944, Stauffenberg contacted Bussche requesting his return. However, his divisional commander, who was not in the conspiracy, raised doubts about his battalion commanders acting as models for demonstrations of uniforms. A few days later Bussche was severely wounded and lost a leg and was unable to take part in the killing of Hitler. (10)
The Major General Helmuth Stieff was the only conspirator who was able to attend the demonstration of new uniforms. Stieff had recently declared himself ready to assassinate Hitler, but, when Stauffenberg asked him to carry out the killing, he backed out. Stauffenberg now approached Lieutenant Ewald Heinrich von Kleist and asked him to carry out the task. He asked for his father's opinion, who replied: "You have to do it. Anyone who falters at such a moment will never again be one with himself in this life." However, he decided against taking such action. (11)
After the war he studied law and worked first for the publishers Suhrkamp and then for the BBC in London. Baron von dem Bussche married Camilla Stauffenberg, the daughter of an Irish earl and the widow of a cousin of Claus von Stauffenberg. She bore him two daughters. In the 1950's Chancellor Konrad Adenauer asked him to help organize a new West German Army. He became the chief army spokesman, but resigned in 1952. In subsequent years he served as a diplomat with the West German Embassy in Washington. (12)
In 1959 he became principal of the Schule Schloss Salem, a boarding school in Baden-Württemberg. It is considered one of the most elite schools in Europe. He resigned that post and worked in Switzerland and in private German development aid institutions abroad. In the 1960's and 1970's he worked for the World Council of Churches in Switzerland but moved back to Germany after the death of his wife in 1985. (13)
Adelheid Gowrie pointed out: " The first impression of Axel von dem Bussche was of a wounded lion. Everyone who was lucky enough to meet him will remember his physical and intellectual power. Tall, handsome, with piercing blue eyes and a voice like a cello, he made little of his war injuries - he had lost a leg and three fingers of his right hand. He was worldly, amusing and a fine raconteur. The fascination he held for people had something to do with the war record of his early twenties, but it came from the man himself." (14)
Axel von dem Bussche died in Bonn on 26th January, 1993.
The first impression of Axel von dem Bussche was of a wounded lion. Everyone who was lucky enough to meet him will remember his physical and intellectual power. Tall, handsome, with piercing blue eyes and a voice like a cello, he made little of his war injuries - he had lost a leg and three fingers of his right hand. He was worldly, amusing and a fine raconteur. The fascination he held for people had something to do with the war record of his early twenties, but it came from the man himself. Children who knew little of the war always voted him the grown-up it was most fun to be with.
With Bussche's death the President of Germany, Richard von Weizsacker, lost his best friend. The country lost a man who came within hours of changing the course of German history. Yet most contemporary Germans had hardly heard of him. Marion Dunhoff, a friend of Bussche and founder of the great weekly paper Die Zeit, wrote: "If you read Axel von dem Bussche's story in the present political climate in Germany it seems like a mythical tale from another era."
Bussche was one of the last surviving members of a group of Wehrmacht officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who made a number of attempts on Hitler's life after 1943. What set Bussche apart from the other conspirators was that at the age of 24 he and Stauffenberg planned and tried to execute a suicide mission to blow himself up with Hitler.
The plan was clever. Bussche would act as a model for a new Wehrmacht greatcoat at the Wolfsschanze, Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. The operation was based on two essential elements: Hitler's obsession with uniforms and military paraphernalia and Bussche's ability to lull suspicion among the SS guards. His credentials were flawless. He had the right kind of Aryan good looks and he had won the Ritterkreuz, the German equivalent of the VC. In the greatcoat he was to carry two hand-grenades with four-second fuses. While Hitler inspected the coat he would release them and throw himself on the Fuhrer until the explosion immolated them both.
Bussche travelled by rail to the High Command of Mauerwald, 10 miles from Hitler's headquarters. He stayed in his room so as not to attract attention. The date was fixed. Then the irony of war struck. An Allied air raid hit the train delivering the uniforms; the model greatcoat was destroyed. With his luggage full of explosives Bussche returned to Berlin. By January 1944 the lost uniforms were replaced and Stauffenberg recruited Bussche a second time. His divisional commander, Gurran, unaware of the plot, refused permission with a curt note: 'My officers are not mannequins.'
Not long after, Bussche was wounded and lost his leg. This helped save his life. He was in hospital (with the bomb under his bed until a friend managed to smuggle it out) when Stauffenberg's ADC, Klausing, visited him to warn him of the impending July attempt to kill Hitler. After Stauffenberg's death the visit alerted the SS and he was repeatedly interviewed. But his long hospitalisation and the brave silence of his fellow conspirators made things difficult for them. Bussche always felt guilty for having survived.
Axel von dem Bussche was born in 1919 in Braunschweig to an ancient aristocratic Saxon family. His mother was Danish and much of his childhood was spent on his grandmother's estate in Denmark. His first cousin, Anders Lassen, who fought for the British in the Second World War, was one of the only foreigners ever awarded the VC. After school Bussche joined the army. His regiment, the 9th Infantry, was based in Potsdam and kept alive the spirit and best traditions of the Prussian army - justice, duty, self-esteem, courage. The Nazi regime was held by many in open contempt.
Bussche's moment of truth came with the terrible crimes he witnessed in the Ukraine. In 1942, near Dubno, he was ordered to form a cordon sanitaire around a small, unused airfield. He was not told why. 'So I went,' he later recalled, 'and there in the beautiful autumn sunshine was a queue about a mile long of men, women and children, babies, all naked. Large trucks were being driven away with their clothes. They were local Jews - waiting to lie in the enormous holes they had dug - and to be shot by the SS.'
He later felt he should have joined the queue. He hardly ever talked about his involvement in the Resistance. He despised the terminology of heroism and never used the word honour but talked rather of 'self- esteem'. He did not agree with present 'cloak-and-dagger' interpretations of the plot. To remove the man responsible for untold evil seemed an act of simple moral compulsion.
After the war he studied law and worked first for the publishers Suhrkamp and then for the BBC in London. He later joined the German Foreign Office and went to Washington before becoming headmaster of the great German private school at Salem. During the Sixties he was the head of the German Peace Corps. He also worked for the World Council of Churches.
In 1950 he married Camilla von Stauffenberg, daughter of the fifth Earl of Gosford, and previously married to a cousin of Claus von Stauffenberg. She bore him two daughters. Until Camilla von dem Bussche's death in 1988 their beautiful house in Begnins in the vineyards above Lake Geneva was a meeting-place for friends from all over the world - among them Sir Conn O'Neill, Richard von Weizsacker, Philip Toynbee, Golo Mann, Robert McNamara, Carl Burckardt.
Throughout his life Axel von dem Bussche retained a special affinity for Britain. In 1985 he spent a year at St Antony's College, Oxford, encouraged by English friends to write his memoirs. But he had always wryly maintained that the German Resistance was an overcrowded ship and the idea of writing about it stuck in his throat.
Baron Axel von dem Bussche, the last surviving member of a group of German Army officers who tried to assassinate Hitler in World War II, died here on Tuesday. He was 73.
He died of natural causes, news reports said.
Born into an old Saxon family, he was stationed as a 23-year-old officer in the Ninth Infantry Regiment in 1942 in the Ukraine, where he was horrified to witness the systematic killing of Jews by the SS near the village of Dudno.
The commander of his regiment refused to take part in the operation but would not try to halt it, Baron von dem Bussche recalled.
It was then, he said later, that he resolved to do something about the root of such atrocities. Fellow officers in the regiment put him in touch with Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, who led a group that was plotting to kill Hitler. Plot Never Carried Out
Baron von dem Bussche accepted the crucial role in a mission code-named Overcoat, which was planned for November 1943 but never took place. The plot called for him to blow himself and Hitler up with two grenades he was to carry in his pockets while modeling a new style of German Army overcoat for the Hitler's inspection. The plot was thwarted by changes in Hitler's schedule and finally by an Allied bombing raid that wrecked the train that was to bring the uniforms to him.
The young officer, who stood 6 feet 5 inches tall, returned to his regiment and to the eastern front, where he lost a leg and three fingers of his right hand. He was still recovering when Count Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler by placing a briefcase containing a bomb in a room at a meeting in East Prussia on July 20, 1944.
The bomb went off, killing several generals and a protective Hitler "double" who were attending the conference, but Hitler survived with superficial wounds. He ordered a purge in which Colonel Stauffenberg and many other Germans were executed.
A highly decorated major at the end of the war, Baron von dem Bussche married Camilla Stauffenberg, the daughter of an Irish earl and the widow of a cousin of Count Stauffenberg.
In the 1950's Chancellor Konrad Adenauer asked him to help organize a new West German Army. He became the chief army spokesman, but resigned in 1952.
In subsequent years he served as a diplomat with the West German Embassy in Washington and from 1959 to 1961, as principal of the Salem School in southern Germany.
He resigned that post and worked in Switzerland and in private German development aid institutions abroad. In the 1960's and 1970's he worked for the World Council of Churches in Switzerland but moved back to Germany after the death of his wife in 1985.
He and his wife had two daughters, but further details on survivors were not immediately available.
(1) Adelheid Gowrie, The Independent (20th February 1993)
(2) Craig R. Whitney, New York Times (30th January, 1993)
(3) Nigel Jones, Countdown to Valkyrie: The July Plot to Assassinate Hitler (2008) pages 162-163
(4) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 224
(5) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 324
(6) Louis R. Eltscher, Traitors or Patriots: A Story of the German Anti-Nazi Resistance (2014) page 303
(7) Anton Gill, An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler (1994) page 234
(8) Adelheid Gowrie, The Independent (20th February 1993)
(9) Susan Ottaway, Hitler's Traitors, German Resistance to the Nazis (2003) page 149
(10) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 328
(11) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 225
(12) Adelheid Gowrie, The Independent (20th February 1993)
(13) Craig R. Whitney, New York Times (30th January, 1993)
(14) Adelheid Gowrie, The Independent (20th February 1993)