BERLIN — Germany is marking the 75th anniversary of the most famous plot to kill Adolf Hitler, honoring those who resisted the Nazis — who were stigmatized for decades as traitors — as pillars of the country's modern democracy amid growing concerns about the resurgence of the far-right.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will speak Saturday at an annual swearing-in ceremony for some 400 troops before addressing a memorial event, paid tribute ahead of the anniversary to executed plot leader Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators and highlighted their importance to modern Germany.
"Only if we understand our past can we build a good future," she said.
Von Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler with a briefcase bomb on July 20, 1944, during a meeting at his headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler escaped the full force of the blast when someone moved the briefcase next to a table leg, deflecting much of the explosive force. The plot crumbled when news spread that Hitler had survived. Von Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters were executed within hours.
The story had little resonance in the immediate post-World War II years, when many still viewed the July 20 plotters as traitors, as they had been painted by the Nazis in the aftermath of the failed assassination.
The resistance against the Nazis only came to be "laboriously accepted" over subsequent decades, said Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, and even in the 1980s many believed its memory would fade away. Only in 2004 did a survey show that a majority of Germans believe the resistance to the Nazis is "important for our political culture," he added.
"Those who acted on July 20 are an example to us, because they showed that they followed their conscience and set their stamp on a part of German history that otherwise was defined by the darkness of Nazism," Merkel said last week in her weekly video message.
Tuchel said von Stauffenberg is a "symbolic figure" of the resistance, an officer who evolved from supporting Nazi policies to becoming a ferocious opponent of the regime after Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. He acknowledged that the resistance within the German military was, in overall terms, tiny: 200 to 300 people were involved in the July 20 plot. The German military had some 8 million men under arms at the time, and only "a handful or two" of its more than 1,000 generals and admirals participated.
But the memorial Tuchel heads, in the Berlin complex where von Stauffenberg worked and was executed, seeks to display the full breadth of German resistance to Hitler's regime after the Nazis took power in 1933.
Students in Munich formed the White Rose movement, distributing pamphlets urging "passive resistance" starting in 1942. Its leaders included siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were executed in 1943 and also have become resistance icons.
Helmuth James von Moltke's so-called Kreisau Circle started working in secret to end the dictatorship in 1940. And in 1938, carpenter Georg Elser attempted to kill Hitler and other senior Nazi leaders at an event in Munich, but was thwarted as the Nazi leader unexpectedly left the room minutes before a bomb exploded.
Tuchel conceded that, even now, there are shortcomings in historians' knowledge of the resistance and promised more research in the coming years into the role of women who opposed the Nazi dictatorship, responding to a recent call from parliament.
This year's anniversary comes amid a spike in concerns about rising numbers of far-right extremists in Germany, weeks after the killing of a regional official from Merkel's party who had supported the chancellor's welcoming approach to migrants. An extremist with previous convictions for violent anti-migrant crime has been arrested as the suspected killer.
"Today, we are obliged to confront all tendencies that want to destroy democracy — including right-wing extremism," Merkel said in her message on the July 20 plot.
Historians worry about efforts by far-right groups in Germany and parts of the hard-line nationalist Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, to appropriate the resistance for their own ends. AfD entered the national parliament in 2017 and its support in the polls stands above 10%. In 2017, a local AfD association came up with an ad claiming that "Sophie Scholl would vote for AfD," co-opting the name of the White Rose activist in a widely decried attempt to legitimize the party by implying that Merkel's government is a dictatorship.
Robert von Steinau-Steinrueck, the head of the July 20, 1944 Foundation — which started in 1949 to support the plotters' families — denounced such "attempts at fraudulent labeling, mixing up opposition in democracy with resistance to a dictatorship just because some people don't like the result of democratic processes."