Von der Schulenburg was born in London, as his father Friedrich Bernhard Graf von der Schulenburg was the German Empire's military attaché in the British capital. His mother was Freda-Marie (née von Arnim, 1873). Von der Schulenburg and his four brothers as well as his sister Tisa von der Schulenburg grew up, as a result of the nature of their father's work, in various places, among them Berlin, Potsdam, Münster, and the family's mansion, Schloss Tressow, in northwestern Mecklenburg province. In accordance with traditional Prussian noble practices, the children were at first strictly educated privately by a governess.
In 1920, von der Schulenburg passed his Abitur exam in Lübeck, and thereafter chose not to pursue a career as a military officer, which had been the family tradition, but rather he studied law at the universities of Göttingen and Marburg. At that time, he became a member of the Corps Saxonia Göttingen, a German student fraternity, and during his membership he sustained several sword cuts as a result of traditional fencing with swords. In 1923, he did the state examination in Celle and became for the next five years a government trainee in Potsdam and Kyritz. In 1924, he interrupted his training for three months and went on a steamship as a sailor to South America. In 1928, he completed his training and became a graduate civil servant (Assessor) in Recklinghausen.
As a son of a prominent old Prussian noble family, Von der Schulenburg saw himself as part of the national élite, which was defined by the two pillars of the state, the military and the civil service. Citizens outside these structures were to him, at best, "civilians" — or simply the mob. However, this élite saw itself in a patriarchal role in which officials and military men had a duty to act in the people's best interests. For this reason, von der Schulenburg busied himself with such themes as agrarian debt and land reform. His romantic vision of the farming community and of social justice soon brought him the nickname "roter Graf" ("the Red Count") from his colleagues.
Joining the Nazi Party
Von der Schulenburg's first contacts with the Nazi Party (came in 1930, and he became a member by 1932, at about the same time as the rest of the family joined. In the same year, he was posted to East Prussia, where he helped build the Nazi rank and file. Von der Schulenburg could be counted among the followers of "north German" National Socialism characterized mainly by the brothers Gregor and Otto Strasser, who later were eliminated by Hitler.
In March 1933, von der Schulenburg was named to the government council in Königsberg and gained increasing influence, both as a government official and as a member of the Party. He married Charlotte Kotelmann in the same month. His new jobs at this time were mainly to establish Gleichschaltung (the Nazi policy of forced "coordination" of societal groups) among officials in the realm of his influence, and also to delegate jobs to NSDAP members.
However, von der Schulenburg increasingly came into conflict with his superior, Erich Koch, the infamous Gauleiter of East Prussia. In 1934 he had himself transferred to the small town Fischhausen, west of Königsberg, as a district administrator. The conflicts with Koch increased as time went on, but in 1937 he was promoted by the Reich Interior Ministry and posted to Berlin as police vice president. His immediate superior was Berlin Police President Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf, who resisted having von der Schulenburg assigned for a long time. Contrary to expectations, however, the two very different officials got along well together.
By 1939, the year Hitler attacked Poland, von der Schulenburg was named acting Oberpräsident of Upper and Lower Silesia. By this time, the régime had come to view him as politically untrustworthy, and in 1940 he was barred from the Nazi Party.
Despite military officials' reservations about Adolf Hitler's plans for conquest, and despite shock over the seamy affair of Army Commander in Chief Werner von Fritsch's discharge in 1938 (see Blomberg-Fritsch Affair), von der Schulenburg volunteered for service at the front with patriotic enthusiasm. After his superior, the Gauleiter and Oberpräsident Wagner, had been dismissed, his position as Regierungspräsident ("Government President") in Breslau had become untenable anyway.
Von der Schulenburg, a lieutenant in the reserves, went to the reserve battalion of Infantry Regiment 9 in Potsdam. With this elite unit, he participated in Russian Campaign and was awarded the Iron Cross, first class. However, not until his experiences in the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941-1942 did he become a critic of Hitler's war. During this time, his job changed often, and in the end he returned to the reserve battalion in Potsdam. By this time he viewed his duty as organization of the resistance and the forcible removal of Hitler.
On the Eastern Front, the crises that became apparent involving provisioning, military leadership, and treatment of civilian populations in conquered lands gave von der Schulenburg reason to distrust the Nazis. His attitude towards National Socialism changed radically at this time. Von der Schulenburg observed with growing anxiety and disgust the lawlessness of the Nazi régime, and he made contacts with like-minded opposition forces from a spectrum of political circles, including Prussian aristocrats like himself. One of the greatest friends to the circle at that time was Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, another son of a historically famous Prussian noble family. By 1942, he was regularly taking part in the opposition Kreisau Circle's meetings. A remarkably forward-looking 1943 resistance-group plan for postwar Europe, co-authored by von der Schulenburg, says:
- "The special thing about the European problem consists of there being, in a comparatively small area, a multiplicity of peoples who are to live together in a combination of unity and independence. Their unity must be so tight that war will never again be waged between them in future, and Europe's outside interests can be protected jointly...The solution of the European states can only be effected on a federative basis with the European states incorporating themselves into a community of sovereign states by their own free decision."
As a nobleman, official and officer, von der Schulenburg had multiple contacts, which he used over time to recruit plotters. Due to these ties, especially with the civilian resistance circles about Carl Friedrich Goerdeler and the socialist group (Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold) about Julius Leber, he stood out as an important link.
By 1943, von der Schulenburg had fallen under suspicion of working against the régime and spent a night under arrest. However, owing to his aristocratic status and connections, he was released.
Attempted coup and sentence
Von der Schulenburg belonged to the inner circle of the plotters and was actively involved in the planning of Operation Valkyrie. He was designated by the plotters to head the Interior Ministry after Hitler was overthrown. On 20 July 1944, von der Schulenburg found himself in the headquarters of the revolt, the Bendlerstrasse military intelligence headquarters in Berlin. There he was arrested on the same day, after the attempt on Hitler's life went awry. On 10 August 1944 he was tried at the notorious Nazi Volksgerichtshof. In this show trial, with the infamous Nazi henchman Roland Freisler presiding, von der Schulenburg explained his actions thus:
- "We took upon ourselves this deed to protect Germany from a nameless misery. It is clear to me that I shall be hanged for it, but I do not rue my deed and hope that another, in a luckier moment, will undertake it."
During the trial von Schulenburg conducted himself with courage and never lost his nerve. At one point Freisler, who had been addressing von der Schulenburg as "Scoundrel Schulenburg," inadvertently called him by his hereditary title "Count Schulenburg" — whereupon Schulenburg interrupted him by humorously saying, "Scoundrel Schulenburg, please!" A furious Freisler instantly sentenced him to death.
Von der Schulenburg was hanged at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin on the same day, Aug. 10, 1944.
- Ulrich Heinemann, Ein konservativer Rebell; Berlin (Siedler) 1990 (ISBN 3-88680-373-2)
- Albert Krebs, Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg. Zwischen Staatsraison und Hochverrat; Hamburg (Leibniz Vlg.) 1964
- Hans-Joachim Ramm, ... stets einem Höheren verantwortlich. Christliche Grundüberzeugungen im innermilitärischen Widerstand gegen Hitler; Neuhausen u. Stuttgart (Hänssler) 1996 (ISBN 3-7751-2635-X)
Two of his daughters, Charlotte and Angela, married sons of Christabel Bielenberg, Nicholas and Christopher respectively; another, Adelheid, married Grey Ruthven, 2nd Earl of Gowrie.
- Graf Fritz Dietlof in the Preussen-Chronik (German)
- Photo as a soldier (German)
- Photos during the plot (German)
- The Restless Conscience (USA 1991)
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