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Courage in Times of Turmoil

Posted on can be little doubt that 2016 will go down in history as a year of seismic change. I won't try to list the changes here, it would take too long. One of the defining factors in this year is that it did not affect just one little corner of the world; the shock waves were felt everywhere.
It has happened before. On my bookshelf is a copy of The World Turned Upside Down. The period was the mid-seventeenth century, when Britain not only beheaded its king, to the horror of the rest of Europe, but all sorts of grass-roots protest groups sprang up, from the Levellers to the Diggers and the Ranters. Less than 150 years later, it was France's turn to behead a king. The country was decimated by a revolution which often chose its victims randomly.

The revolutions and rebellions of 1848 were more widespread and somewhat less bloody, and many commentators have chosen to compare the current upheavals to that year. In its scope, that may be the case, but the parallels are sometimes tenuous. 

Current events have also been compared to the 1930s, with perhaps rather more justification. Financial instability, poverty, and a disturbing tendency on the part of nations everywhere to shut the doors on the rest of the world in order to look after their own - as if such a thing were possible in isolation - led to one of the ugliest conflicts the world has known. Soldiers died, but also countless civilians: women, children, the elderly, the disabled, were not just killed, but exterminated in a mindless rage against the "other".

All of these momentous periods brought forth their heroes, and the 1930s and 1940s gave us some very remarkable, and courageous, men and women. 

Raoul Wallenberg was one. He is rightly celebrated for his tireless work to save Hungarian Jews. Oskar Schindler, who saved over a thousand Jews from the gas chambers and is one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

There was another man who lived at that time who is not so well known in the English-speaking world. His name was Adam von Trott zu Solz. 

While the Resistance fighters in France, Hungary, Poland, as well as the British SOE are, quite rightly, commemorated and honoured, one should not forget that there was also a very active and important German resistance movement. 

From his origins to his education and his interests, von Trott embodied everything the Nazis most hated and feared. He was born into an aristocratic family whose members had served the state with distinction and devotion over the centuries. His ancestors included ambassadors as well as government ministers, and his American grandmother was a descendant of one America's founding fathers, John Jay.

A brilliant scholar, his studies in Germany were followed by a period at Balliol College Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. It was at Oxford that he was exposed to the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, and where he formed some important and long-lasting friendships, including Isaiah Berlin.

By 1933, von Trott had already developed ideas which would guide his life: freedom of conscience, the rights of man and respect for international law. Together with his cosmopolitan, cultured family background, this made his a natural enemy of the National Socialists. To him, Hitler's rise to power in 1933 was not just a cause for concern, it was a national cataclysm. 

By the time the war started in 1939, von Trott was working at Germany's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the heart of the Nazi regime. He had also established important links with the German resistance.

His work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs allowed him to travel more freely than would otherwise have been possible, and it gave him access to a great deal of information and useful contacts. It also cost him some friends, particularly in England and America; people who were unaware, and could not safely be made aware, of his clandestine activities with the resistance. The emotional, mental and physical demands the situation made on him were enormous.

He nevertheless made overtures to both the British and the American governments, hoping to find support for the German resistance movement, but little support was forthcoming. 

The attempt on Hitler's life, carried out by Claus von Stauffenberg on 20 July, failed. Had it succeeded, Stauffenberg would have travelled to Washington and von Trott to London to negotiate with the Allies. The plot's failure saw Stauffenberg executed the following day. Adam von Trott was tried, tortured and executed on 26 August.

He deserves to be remembered, and his memory honoured, today more than ever.

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