Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg

Peter von Wartenburg : Nazi Germany

Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg was born in Germany on 13th November, 1904. A cousin of Claus von Stauffenberg he studied law and politics in Bonn before gaining his doctorate in Breslau in 1927. He passed civil service entrance examination for lawyers in Berlin in 1930 and later that year he married Marion Winter. (1)

In 1936 he was appointed as assistant secretary to the Reich Price Commission in Berlin. He refused to join the Nazi Party and therefore never received any further promotions. Some of his associates, including Hans Gisevius, a former assistant secretary in the Ministry of the Interior, was also strongly opposed to Adolf Hitler. (2)

Wartenburg opposition to fascism increased after Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938). In 1940 along with Helmuth von Moltke he established the Kreisau Circle, a small group of intellectuals who opposed Hitler. Other people who joined included Adam von Trott, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, Wilhelm Leuschner, Julius Leber, Adolf Reichwein, Carlo Mierendorff, Alfred Delp, Eugen Gerstenmaier, Freya von Moltke, Marion Yorck von Wartenburg, Ulrich-Wilhelm Graf von Schwerin, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Harald Poelchau and Jakob Kaiser. "Rather than a group of conspirators, these men were more of a discussion group looking for an exchange of ideas on the sort of Germany would arise from the detritus of the Third Reich, which they confidently expected ultimately to fail." (3)

The group represented a broad spectrum of social, political, and economic views, they were best described as Christian and Socialist. A. J. Ryder has pointed out that the Kreisau Circle "brought together a fascinating collection of gifted men from the most diverse backgrounds: noblemen, officers, lawyers, socialists, trade unionists, churchmen." (4) Joachim Fest argues that the "strong religious leanings" of this group, together with its ability to attract "devoted but undogmatic socialists," but has been described as its "most striking characteristic." (5)

Wartenburg and Moltke were free from the anti-Semitic prejudice so common among their class. Unlike many members of the resistance, nationalistic motives were only of secondary importance. "Both men made their judgments from a Christian and universalist viewpoint, and regarded the defeat of Nazism not primarily as a German problem, but one which genuinely concerned the whole western world. Neither of them faced the problem of having to separate a supposedly beneficial policy of segregation from criminally violent treatment of the Jews. For them, Jewish persecution had become symptomatic of the long decline of the west." (6)

Peter Hoffmann, the author of The History of German Resistance (1977) has argued that one of strengths of the Kreisau Circle was that it had no established leader: "It consisted of of highly independent personalities holding views of their own. They were both able and willing to compromise, for they knew that politics without compromise was impossible. In the discussion phase, however, they clung to their own views." (7)

Although the Kreisau Circle did not have an accepted leader, Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg and Helmuth von Moltke began the too most important figures in the group. Joachim Fest, the author of Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) has pointed out the Moltke has been described as the "engine" of the group, Yorck von Wartenburg was its "heart". (8)

Wartenburg was called up as a reserve officer on the outbreak of the Second World War, He took part in the invasion of Poland before being assigned to the Armed Forces High Command in Berlin in 1942. While at Abwehr joined Wilhelm Canaris, Hans Dohnanyi, Hans Oster and Hans Gisevius in the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. Gisevius was later to comment that "Wilhelm Canaris's (chief of Abwehr) great achievement" was to promote Major-General Oster into a position where he could organize "an intelligence service of his own within the counter-intelligence service." (9)

On 8th January, 1943, a group of conspirators, including, Helmuth von Moltke, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, Johannes Popitz, Ulrich Hassell, Eugen Gerstenmaier, Adam von Trott, Ludwig Beck and Carl Goerdeler met at Wartenburg's home. Hassell was uneasy with the utopianism of the of the Kreisau Circle, but believed that the "different resistance groups should not waste their strength nursing differences when they were in such extreme danger". Wartenburg, Moltke and Hassell were all concerned by the suggestion that Goerdeler should become Chancellor if Hitler was overthrown as they feared that he could become a Alexander Kerensky type leader. (10)

Claus von Stauffenberg decided to carry out the assassination himself. But before he took action he wanted to make sure he agreed with the type of government that would come into being. Conservatives such as Carl Goerdeler and Johannes Popitz wanted Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben to become the new Chancellor. However, socialists in the group, such as Julius Leber and Wilhelm Leuschner, argued this would therefore become a military dictatorship. At a meeting on 15th May 1944, they had a strong disagreement over the future of a post-Hitler Germany. (11)

Stauffenberg was highly critical of the conservatives led by Carl Goerdeler and was much closer to the socialist wing of the conspiracy around Julius Leber. Goerdeler later recalled: "Stauffenberg revealed himself as a cranky, obstinate fellow who wanted to play politics. I had many a row with him, but greatly esteemed him. He wanted to steer a dubious political course with the left-wing Socialists and the Communists, and gave me a bad time with his overwhelming egotism." (12)

Peter von Wartenburg : Nazi Germany
Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg

The conspirators eventually agreed who would be members of the government. Head of State: Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, Chancellor: Carl Goerdeler; Vice Chancellor: Wilhelm Leuschner; State Secretary: Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg; Foreign Minister: Ulrich Hassell; Minister of the Interior: Julius Leber; State Secretary: Lieutenant Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg; Chief of Police: General-Major Henning von Tresckow; Minister of Finance: Johannes Popitz; President of Reich Court: General-Major Hans Oster; Minister of War: Erich Hoepner; State Secretary of War: General Friedrich Olbricht; Commander in Chief of Wehrmacht: Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben; Minister of Justice: Josef Wirmer. (13)

On 22nd June, 1944, Von Wartenburg and Lieutenant-Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, gave their approval for Julius Leber and Adolf Reichwein to met with two members of the underground Central Committee of the German Communist Party (KPD). "The meeting place was the house of a Berlin doctor, Rudolf Schmid... It was agreed that no names would be given and no introductions made; one of the communists who knew Leber, however, exclaimed:'Oh you, Leber.' Two of the visitors were in fact communist party functionaries, Anton Saefkow and Franz Jacob." In fact, a third communist turned up to the meeting. He was Hermann Rambow, who was in fact a Gestapo agent. The following day, Leber, Reichwein, Saefkow and Jacob were arrested. (14)

On 20th July, 1944, Stauffenberg entered the wooden briefing hut, twenty-four senior officers were in assembled around a huge map table on two heavy oak supports. Stauffenberg had to elbow his way forward a little in order to get near enough to the table and he had to place the briefcase so that it was in no one's way. Despite all his efforts, however, he could only get to the right-hand corner of the table. After a few minutes, Stauffenberg excused himself, saying that he had to take a telephone call from Berlin. There was continual coming and going during the briefing conferences and this did not raise any suspicions. (15)

Stauffenberg went straight to a building about 200 hundred yards away consisting of bunkers and reinforced huts. Shortly afterwards, according to eyewitnesses: "A deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... and a dark plume of smoke rose and hung in the air over the wreckage of the briefing barracks. Shards of glass, wood, and fiberboard swirled about, and scorched pieces of paper and insulation rained down." (16)

Stauffenberg observed a body covered with Hitler's cloak being carried out of the briefing hut on a stretcher and assumed he had been killed. He got into a car but luckily the alarm had not yet been given when they reached Guard Post 1. The Lieutenant in charge, who had heard the blast, stopped the car and asked to see their papers. Stauffenberg who was given immediate respect with his mutilations suffered on the front-line and his aristocratic commanding exterior; said he must go to the airfield at once. After a short pause the Lieutenant let the car go. (17)

According to eyewitness testimony and a subsequent investigation by the Gestapo, Stauffenberg's briefcase containing the bomb had been moved farther under the conference table in the last seconds before the explosion in order to provide additional room for the participants around the table. Consequently, the table acted as a partial shield, protecting Hitler from the full force of the blast, sparing him from serious injury of death. The stenographer Heinz Berger, died that afternoon, and three others, General Rudolf Schmundt, General Günther Korten, and Colonel Heinz Brandt did not recover from their wounds. Hitler's right arm was badly injured but he survived. (18)

However, General Erich Fellgiebel, Chief of Army Communications, sent a message to General Friedrich Olbricht to say that Hitler had survived the blast. The most calamitous flaw in Operation Valkyrie was the failure to consider the possibility that Hitler might survive the bomb attack. Olbricht told Hans Gisevius, they decided it was best to wait and to do nothing, to behave "routinely" and to follow their everyday habits. (19) Major Albrecht Metz von Quirnheim long closely involved in the plot, had already begun the action with a cabled message to regional military commanders, beginning with the words: "The Führer, Adolf Hitler, is dead." (20) As a result, Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, Ludwig Beck, Eugen Gerstenmaier, and Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg arrived at army headquarters in order to become members of the new government. (21)

Adolf Hitler had survived the blast. He was seized by a "titanic fury and an unquenchable thirst for revenge" ordered Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Kaltenbrunner to arrest "every last person who had dared to plot against him". Hitler laid down the procedure for killing them: "This time the criminals will be given short shrift. No military tribunals. We'll hail them before the People's Court. No long speeches from them. The court will act with lightning speed. And two hours after the sentence it will be carried out. By hanging - without mercy." (22)

Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg enters the People's Court (7th August, 1944)
Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg enters the People's Court (7th August, 1944)

Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg was arrested along with Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg and Friedrich Olbricht. His trial took place on 7th August, 1944. It resulted in the conviction of Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, Colonel-General Erich Hoepner, General-Major Helmuth Stieff, General Paul von Hase (the commandant of the Berlin garrison) and several junior officers. All the men were tried by Roland Freisler, the notorious Nazi judge. Witzleben was especially badly treated. The Gestapo had taken away his false teeth and belt. He was "unshaven, collarless and shabby." It was claimed that he had aged ten years in two weeks of Gestapo captivity. (23)

Joseph Goebbels ordered that every minute of the trial should be filmed so that the movie could be shown to the troops and the civilian public as an example of what happened to traitors. (24) Wartenburg was particularly fearless and steadfast. He told the court: "The vital point running through all these questions is the totalitarian claim of the state over the citizen to the exclusion of his religious and moral obligation toward God." (25)

All the men were found guilty and sentenced to hang that afternoon. In his last letter to his wife, Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg wrote: "I believe I have gone some way to atone for the guilt which is our heritage." (26) Hitler had ordered that they be hung like cattle. "I want to see them hanging like carcasses in a slaughterhouse!" he commanded. The entire event was filmed by the Reich Film Corporation. (27)

Primary Sources

(1) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997)

It was founded and held together by Helmuth von Moltke, a great-grandnephew of the celebrated army commander of the Franco-Prussian War, who worked in the Wehrmacht dubbed the Kreisau Circle after the estate owned by the Moltke family in Silesia, although it met there only two or three times. Its intense discussions, conducted in working groups, took place more frequently in various locations in Berlin; beginning in early 1943 most were held on Hortensienstrasse in Lichterfelde, at the home of Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, another bearer of a famous name in Prussian history... While Moltke has been described as the "engine" of the group, Yorck von Wartenburg was its "heart".

Around Moltke and Yorck gathered what at first glance appeared to be a motley array of strong-willed individuals with markedly different origins, temperaments, and convictions... The most striking characteristic of this group, apart from its strong religious leanings, was its earnest and quite successful attempt to attract a number of devoted but undogmatic socialists...

A number of figures from the Christian resistance also joined the Kreisau Circle, including the Jesuits Alfred Delp and Augustin Rösch, as well as prominent Protestants like the theologian Eugen Gerstenmaier and the prison chaplain Harald Poelchau. Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg and Julius Leber were also loosely affiliated with this group...

There was a strong utopian streak in their thought and planning, which was infused with Christian and socialist ideals, as well as remnants from the youth movement of a romantic belief in the dawning of a new era. They basically believed that all social and political systems were reaching a dead end and that capitalism and Communism, no less than Nazism, were symptomatic of the crisis deep and all encompassing in modern mass society.

(2) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998)

On October 19, 1938, Colonel General Ludwig Beck resigned as chief of the General Staff in protest against Hitler's plan to annex Czechoslovakia. For some time Beck had concentrated on winning the support of high-ranking army officers in a plan to arrest or eliminate Hitler, and he founded a loosely knit organization to achieve this end. Over the next five years discontent proceeded in three stages, from opposition to resistance to conspiracy.

At the centre of the plot were such senior officers as Major General Henning von Tresckow, chief of staff in Army Group Center on the Russian front; Colonel General Erich Hoepner, the commander of an armoured force who had been dismissed by Hitler in December 1941; Colonel Friedrich Olbricht, head of the Supply Section of the Reserve Army; Colonel General Karl Heinrich von Stuelpnagel, military governor of France; Major General Hans Oster, chief of staff of Abwehr; and Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, who has been retired from active service in 1942. Added to these senior members were a number of younger officers who believed that the Third Reich was a catastrophe for Germany and were willing to gamble their lives on the outcome of the plot. Among them were Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, chief of staff to General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army (who was both in and out of the conspiracy); 1st Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, staff officer under General von Tresckow on the eastern front; and Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, Von Stauffenberg's adjutant.

Added to the military were such diplomats as Christian Albrecht UIrich von Hassell, former German Ambassador to Italy; Hans Bernd Gisevius, who worked for the Abwehr from his base in Switzerland; and Adam von Trott zu Solz, an official in the Foreign Office. On the political side were such figures as Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, former lord mayor of Leipzig; Julius Leber, a former Social Democratic member of the Reichstag; and Johannes Popitz, Prussian Finance Minister. There were such ecclesiastics as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, religious leader, scholar, and teacher; and a Jesuit, Father Alfred Delp. There were members of the Kreisau Circle, including Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, legal adviser to the Abwehr, who counseled nonviolence; and Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenberg. There were also miscellaneous figures as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, leader of the Abwehr; Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, chief of the Berlin Police, General Paul von Hase, President of the Berlin Police; and several lawyers, including Carl Langbehn, Klaus Bonhoeffer, Josef Müller, and Joseph Wirmer.

Others knew of the plot but did not take an active role in it. Among them were Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, popular war hero; Lieutenant General Adolf Heusinger, operations chief of the Army High Command; and Field Marshal Günther Hans von Kluge, army group commander in France.

(3) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977)

Freisler attempted, usually with success, to prevent the accused telling of their motives. Stieff made several efforts to do so but each time Freisler cut him short. Nevertheless many of those in the dock did contrive to say briefly why and to what purpose they had acted. Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg said: "We have accepted the necessity to do our deed in order to save Germany from untold misery. I expect to be hanged for this, but I do not regret my action and I hope that someone else in luckier circumstances will succeed.... Yorck said: "The vital point running through all these questions is the totalitarian claim of the state over the citizen to the exclusion of his religious and moral obligation toward God." Yorck was particularly fearless and steadfast.

(4) Dan van der Vat, The Guardian (21st May, 2007)

Marion, Countess Yorck von Wartenburg, who has died in Berlin aged 102, was one of the last survivors of the Kreisauer Kreis (or Kreisau circle) of aristocrats, academics, senior civil servants and other leaders of pre-Nazi society whose ideas for a democratic regeneration of postwar Germany cost them their lives.

The group took its name from the Kreisau estate, now in Polish Silesia, of Helmuth James Count von Moltke, who formed it with von Wartenburg's husband, Peter Count Yorck von Wartenburg, in 1940. Both were descended from Prussian field marshals whose victories over the French in the 19th century laid the foundations for the unification of Germany in 1870-71 and its emergence as the leading European economic and military power.

The circle, which usually met on the estate, is commonly described as part of the resistance to Hitler, which most historians agree did not amount to much. Its members described the circle as no more than a discussion group, expressly opposed to a coup d'état or political violence. Yet in Nazi Germany even that amounted to treason.

There is no denying the moral and physical courage of Kreisauer members, so many of whom were horribly executed for their beliefs. As Count Yorck wrote in his last letter to Marion before his execution in August 1944: "I believe I have gone some way to atone for the guilt which is our heritage."

Appalled by Hitler and the Nazi stain on the name of Germany, the members took it as read that he would be defeated by the Allies in the second world war, and agonised over the utopian shape of a democratic, Christian-socialist state that would rise from the ruins. It was a very German manifestation of idealism, and even mysticism, that had nothing to say about how the Germans themselves might make a practical contribution to their own salvation by deposing the regime the group blamed for their country's plight. As William Shirer, historian of the Third Reich, wrote: "Moltke and his friends had the courage to talk - for which they were executed - but not to act."

Marion Winter was born in Berlin, the daughter of a senior civil servant responsible for the German state's role in supporting the performing arts. After school in her home city, she went on to university there to study medicine, but switched to law, in which she gained a doctorate at the age of 25. Unusually for a woman at the time, she started training as a judge, a career separate from advocacy in Germany.

In 1930, however, she married Peter Yorck, a year older, whom she had met while they were both studying law. Although her background was upper middle class, Marion's marriage to a landed aristocrat from a family with several estates (awarded to the field-marshal ancestor) led her to give up the law and help with the progressive management of the estate that her husband took over from his brother, who was killed in action in 1942.

Although opposed to violence, Kreisau members inevitably came into contact and conversed with the military plotters who were bent on deposing Hitler by force and had made several ineffectual attempts on his life. Peter Yorck was working in the war office, where Claus Count von Stauffenberg and other army officers were planning to assassinate Hitler with a bomb at his headquarters at Rastenburg on July 20 1944 and take over power using the home army. The military plotters were largely motivated by Germany's impending defeat and wanted to prevent Hitler taking the country down with him. But he miraculously survived the blast and took a terrible revenge on all those involved or suspected of involvement - including anyone who had dared to question the regime, such as the Kreisau circle.


(1) Louis L. Snyder, Encyclopedia of the Third Reich (1998) page 384

(2) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 81

(3) Louis R. Eltscher, Traitors or Patriots: A Story of the German Anti-Nazi Resistance (2014) page 298

(4) A. J. Ryder, Twentieth Century Germany: From Bismarck to Brandt (1973) page 425

(5) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 157

(6) Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler (2003) page 263

(7) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 192

(8) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 81

(9) Hans Gisevius, Valkyrie: An Insider's Account of the Plot to Kill Hitler (2009) page 51

(10) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 164

(11) Elfriede Nebgen, Jakob Kaiser (1967) page 184

(12) Roger Manvell, The July Plot: The Attempt in 1944 on Hitler's Life and the Men Behind It (1964) page 77

(13) Gerhard Ritter, German Resistance: Carl Goerdeler's Struggle Against Tyranny (1984) pages 368-371

(14) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) pages 363-364

(15) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 400

(16) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 258

(17) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 401

(18) Louis R. Eltscher, Traitors or Patriots: A Story of the German Anti-Nazi Resistance (2014) page 313

(19) Hans Gisevius, interviewed by Peter Hoffmann (8th September, 1972)

(20) Ian Kershaw, Luck of the Devil: The Story of Operation Valkyrie (2009) page 46

(21) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) page 272

(22) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964) page 1272

(23) John Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics (1964) page 681

(24) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 750

(25) Peter Hoffmann, The History of German Resistance (1977) page 526

(26) Dan van der Vat, The Guardian (21st May, 2007)

(27) Samuel W. Mitcham, Hitler's Field Marshals (1988) page 338