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Ausgabe 9/2011

Last of the July 20 Plotters: 'There Will Be Another Hitler Some Day'

Ewald von Kleist, 88, a former officer in the German Wehrmacht and the last surviving member of the July 20, 1944 plot against Hitler, discusses Germany's elimination of conscription, why German soldiers need to toughen up and his failed attempt to kill Adolf Hitler.

SPIEGEL: Mr. von Kleist, for decades, conscription has been seen as a guarantee that the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, wouldn't develop into a sort of state within a state. Now conscription has effectively been abolished. Do you agree with the decision?

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Ewald von Kleist: Armed forces should be organized so they can achieve what they're supposed to. During the Cold War, we had large armies so we could repel an attack from the East. It's different today. Soon, wars involving lots of artillery, tanks and all those old-fashioned things won't exist anymore. The Bundeswehr has to adapt to this new reality.

SPIEGEL: Many fear that the inner character of the army will change when there aren't any more conscripts.

Kleist: That's probably true, but we have to accept it. I don't believe that the Bundeswehr will pose a threat to democracy if conscription is abolished.

SPIEGEL: This could change the military's socioeconomic mix. Certain societal strata that conscription exposed to military service will no longer be affected.

Kleist: That could surely happen. But I believe we just have to accept certain problems. What's more important is how the Bundeswehr is deployed. It's apparently moving strongly toward becoming an expeditionary corps modeled on the mission in Afghanistan. I have grave concerns about this.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that Germany's freedom is being defended in Afghanistan, as former German Defense Minister Peter Struck famously said once?

Kleist: You are intelligent enough (to know the answer to that).

SPIEGEL: You don't believe it, do you?

Kleist: No, I really don't. I've never heard about our having protectorates there or about large numbers of Germans vacationing in the country.

SPIEGEL: The 9/11 attacks triggered Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that NATO members are required to assist other members if they come under attack. According to this logic, the Bundeswehr was obligated to support the United States in its war against Islamist terrorism and in Afghanistan, in particular, because that is where the people behind the attacks were.

Kleist: It's true that, after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States declared war on global terrorism. But against which country? Why is this a war? And who is the enemy?

SPIEGEL: The enemy is the Taliban in Afghanistan and the al-Qaida terror network.

Kleist: Al-Qaida is a chimera. There's no organization, and there's no country you can wage a war against. Instead, we're waging war against an idea. At the time, we should have asked whether this actually was a war within the meaning of Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

SPIEGEL: Should Germany pull out of Afghanistan and stop showing solidarity with the United States?

Kleist: Other countries have done it and survived, and a majority of our population opposes the war. Nevertheless, I do believe that alliance commitments must be taken seriously.

SPIEGEL: So, in other words, you think Germany should go on fighting?

Kleist: At any rate, we can't withdraw overnight. But an endpoint for the mission should have been discussed with the Americans at an earlier point.

SPIEGEL: The Bundeswehr is defending universal values -- that is, human rights -- in Afghanistan. Isn't that an honorable goal?

Kleist: The real question is whether it's right for our people to have to die so that girls can go to school in Asia. The answer to that doesn't seem very clear to me.

SPIEGEL: So, what is worth dying for?

Kleist: Risking the lives of German soldiers is only justified when our vital interests are threatened. Exactly what those vital interests are has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Then, we have to determine whether we have the means to achieve our goals. And, finally, I have to ask myself how I can get back out. A military mission is only justified when we have a convincing answer to these questions.

SPIEGEL: Looking back at the Bundeswehr's military missions over the last 20 years, has any of them met your criteria?

Kleist: My memory is no longer what it used to be. I can't think of anything at the moment that I was very enthusiastic about. Let's take Somalia, for example. The Bundeswehr was sent there to build bridges and roads. That sort of stuff is really just silly.

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© DER SPIEGEL 9/2011
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About Ewald von Kleist
Ewald von Kleist, 88, is the last living member of the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler as part of "Operation Valkyrie." Though suspected of involvement, he escaped the fate of most of the other conspirators -- including his father -- when charges were dismissed due to a lack of evidence. (Earlier, in January 1944, Kleist had planned to assassinate Hitler with explosives at an event to demonstrate a new uniform, but the Nazi leader failed to show up.) After being held for a period in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, north of Berlin, Kleist went to Italy with false papers before ultimately falling into American hands. After the war, Kleist founded a publishing house and, in 1962, the event that would later become the annual Munich Security Conference, which he ran until 1998.


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