July 20, 1969 was the day of a great human accomplishment. Watching the rebroadcast of bits of Cronkite's newscast, I was struck by how much we have lost the sense of wonder that was felt around the world that day and abandoned the sense of adventure that made it possible.
But I want to talk about a different thing that happened on July 20.
On July 20, 1944, a group of German military officers and civilians made one last attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime. This one came the closest to success. As we all know, the plan was to kill Hitler and then to use a Nazi contingency plan called Operation Valkyrie (Unternehmen Walküre) to remove resistance from the regime with the regime's own resources. Once accomplished, a new government would be established. By a series of three misfortunes, Hitler survived and the plan failed. Had any of these three not occurred, he would have died on that day and perhaps the war would have ended nine months before it did, sparing hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of lives and avoiding the forty year Soviet occupation of Germany.
The plotters were not themselves at great risk of death during the final months of the war and they knew that the regime would soon be eliminated. They understood that the plan was a long shot and failure meant certain death. They knew that the Allies would nevertheless insist on unconditional surrender. When asked whether, in light of this, it was worth it, one of the plotters, Colonel Henning von Tresckow observed that everyday the war continued, 16,000 people were murdered and more soldiers died in battle. They acted to show that someone was willing to stand up for what is right. Shortly before he took his own life to avoid capture, torture and execution, von Tresckow wrote:
God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany. None of us can bewail his own death; those who consented to join our circle put on the robe of Nessus. A human being's moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.
It took great courage to fly to the moon and we ought to acknowledge the accomplishment. But Neal Armstrong and his colleagues are not the only heroes of 20 July.
Cross posted at Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog