For a few hours on July 20, 1944, Nazi Germany's fate hung on a 32-year-old Wehrmacht major named Otto Ernst Remer. On that day, believing that their plot to kill Hitler had succeeded,* the mutineers occupied the War Ministry in Berlin and flashed the code word Walkure to all Wehrmacht units. On its receipt, commanders throughout Germany were to break open sealed orders directing them to arrest Nazi and SS officials and occupy their headquarters. Germany would at last throw off Naziism.
Much depended on the few hours before the anti-Hitler troops could get to Berlin. Nazi headquarters in Berlin had to be seized, and the Berlin Gauleiter, Propaganda Boss Goebbels, arrested. Orders to do this were given to the commander of the Guards Battalion, Major Remer.
Jawohl. Destiny perched on Remer's shoulders. Instead of arresting Goebbels, he went to see him, unsure what to do. Goebbels persuasively cooed that Hitler was still alive, reached for the phone, handed it to Remer. "Do you recognize my voice?" asked Adolf Hitler. "Jawohl, mein Führer," quavered Remerand his mind was made up. Hitler empowered Remer to act in his behalf to crush the plot and supersede all officers. By evening, the Nazis again gripped Berlin.
Remer's hour of glorywhich eventually won him a sensational advancement from major to major generalhelped prolong the war ten months. In the blood bath of revenge that followed, 5,000 Germans were arrested, tortured and killed.
But Otto Ernst Remer felt no shame about his work. Two years ago he began going from town to town under the auspices of the neo-Nazi Socialist Reich Party, telling avid listeners the great saga of how he had served the Führer and confounded the traitors. He became a minor hero, and grew bolder and bolder until last May 3, in Brunswick, he shouted: "These conspirators of July 20 are to a great extent traitors to their country!"
This was too much. Last week, neat and spruce in a brown suit, Remer sat in the dock of the Brunswick court, accused of slandering the July 20 conspirators.
The Witnesses. Actually, the real defendant was not Remer but the conspirators. The issue involved the very foundations of the democratic West German Republic. Who were the real traitors, the Nazis or the plotters? All Germany last week carefully followed the trial.
Intense, nervous Prosecutor Fritz Bauer, whose eye tic and lined face attested to years in Nazi concentration camps, summoned his witnesses. He called survivors of the plot; he summoned theologians who said that Christians were justified in ridding their nation of tyrants. Another witness quoted Hitler himself in Mein Kampf: "If through exercise of governmental power, a nation is led toward ruin, rebellion is not only a right but a duty."
Prosecutor Bauer, pressing yet another point, asked: Was the plot really a stab in the back? Historian Percy Ernst Schramm, wartime keeper of the Supreme Command's diary, testified: "The war was lost. Final catastrophe was certain. Only the date remained in doubt."
Then Bauer, rapping the table, poured out his summation: "The resistance fighters wanted only to save their country. The Third Reich was an illegal state, and every citizen had the right of self-defense against it. Hitler was the greatest of war criminals. There can be no treason against a war criminal."