Adam von Trott zu Solz - A biographical overview

compiled by Dr. Benigna von Krusenstjern and Ute Janßen

Adam von Trott zu Solz, Dr. jur. (* August 9, 1909 in Potsdam, † August 26, 1944 in Berlin-Plötzensee) was a German resistance fighter against National Socialism.

Adam von Trott zu Solz was an opponent of the National Socialist regime from the very beginning and actively campaigned for its overthrow from 1939 onwards. He also developed far-reaching ideas for a free, united Europe in the future. He belonged to the core of the "Kreisau Circle" resistance group around Helmuth James von Moltke and Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenberg and worked closely with Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg on the conspiracy of July 20, 1944.

Origin and parents

Adam von Trott zu Solz came from a family of the Hessian aristocracy that has been based in what is now the district of Hersfeld-Rotenburg in north-eastern Hesse for many centuries - documented since 1253. The family's ancestral seats are the villages of Solz and Imshausen, which today belong to the town of Bebra.

For generations, members of the von Trott zu Solz family were prominent in the state or national service. Adam's father, August von Trott zu Solz (1855-1938), also joined the civil service after completing his legal training, as he considered himself committed to the common good. Having already recommended himself as an administrative expert in several positions, he rose from district president in Kassel to senior president (i.e. head of administration) of the Prussian province of Brandenburg in Potsdam in 1905. From 1909 to 1917, August von Trott was Prussian Minister of Culture in the cabinet of Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. In 1917, he became Chief President of the Province of Hesse-Nassau in Kassel, but resigned from office in 1919 due to the political upheavals in Germany and retired to private life in Imshausen. From 1921 to 1926, he represented the Province of Hesse-Nassau in the Reichsrat, the newly created regional council.

Adam's mother was Eleonore von Trott zu Solz, née von Schweinitz (1875-1948). Her father, General Hans Lothar von Schweinitz, was ambassador in Vienna and St. Petersburg. Her mother, the American Anna Jay, was a direct descendant of John Jay, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court under President George Washington. Eleonore von Trott's Anglo-Saxon influence was particularly evident in her social and ecumenical commitment.

Childhood and school years (1909-1927)

Adam von Trott zu Solz was born in Potsdam in 1909, the fifth of eight children. As his father had taken up the post of Prussian Minister of Culture shortly before his birth, the family soon moved to Berlin. Adam spent the first eight years of his life there. From 1915, he attended the pre-school of the Royal French Grammar School on the banks of the Reichstag in Berlin. His subsequent schooling was characterized by several changes: After the family moved to Kassel, he attended the Wilhelms-Gymnasium there. When his parents moved to Imshausen in the summer of 1919, he was first taught privately for two years and then went to the Friedrichs-Gymnasium in Kassel. As there was a lack of trust between him and his boarding school parents, his parents sent him to Hannoversch Münden at the beginning of the next school year in April 1922. For the next five years until his Abitur, he attended the municipal grammar school there and lived in the alumni house of the Loccum monastery. During this time, Adam von Trott began to discover art, music and especially literature for himself. His enthusiasm for sporting activities was then, as later, limited by a weak heart. He temporarily joined a splinter group of the Jugendbewegen, the "Nibelungen, dem Bund für Jungwandern", but left again at the end of 1924 because he was not convinced by its content.

Student years and first experiences abroad (1927-1931)

Aged just 17, Trott passed his A-levels in the spring of 1927. Continuing the family tradition, he decided to study law. After a first semester at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, he transferred to the Georg August University in Göttingen for the next three semesters. There, at his father's request, he became a member of the Corps Saxonia, although he distanced himself from it after a good year.

A private stay of several weeks in Geneva in the fall of 1928 proved to be a turning point for the 19-year-old Trott. It was here that his lifelong interest in politics was awakened. As the headquarters of the League of Nations and numerous other international organizations, the 'world capital' of Geneva was a center for international political events of all kinds. The opportunities for international cooperation and global efforts for peace that Trott observed here were to determine his political goals. Trott's first stay in England and thus the beginning of his great affection for this country followed at the beginning of 1929. After periods in Liverpool and London, he spent a trimester as a visiting student at Mansfield College in Oxford. He was impressed by the political realism of the English and found a role model in the British Labor movement.

After his return, Trott continued his law studies in Berlin at the Friedrich Wilhelm University. He also sought contact with workers and took part in discussions in socialist circles. He was concerned about the social hardship, growing unemployment and other negative effects of the global economic crisis. In order to better prepare for his exams, Trott returned to Göttingen for the summer semester of 1930. He continued to follow the political radicalization with concern, especially the rise of the National Socialists. In the Reichstag elections in September 1930, he voted for the SPD, having just become eligible to vote. He shared its principles and hoped that it would stabilize the Weimar Republic.

In December 1930, Adam von Trott passed his legal clerkship examination and six months later obtained his doctorate in law with a dissertation on "Hegel's Philosophy of State and International Law" at the University of Göttingen. Immediately afterwards, he began his clerkship at the district court in Nentershausen near Bebra, but interrupted this in October 1931 as he had been granted leave of absence for two years of additional studies in England.

Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (1931-1933)

While still a student, Trott successfully applied for a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. He explained that he wanted to "further develop his political knowledge" and pay particular attention to the development of the Labour Party from the trade union movement and its integration into British state life (Krusenstjern, Biography of Trott, p. 166).

From October 1931, Trott studied the so-called "Modern Greats", a fixed combination of philosophy, politics and economics, at Balliol College in Oxford, known for its reputation as a hotbed of politics. Trott found this study cycle, which he completed with a Bachelor of Arts degree after just two years (instead of the usual three), to be very beneficial: In addition to imparting a general political education, he says it promotes the ability to judge and criticize as well as a practical sense of politics. Trott was a member of several clubs and societies, including the Oxford Union Society, famous for its parliamentary debating culture, the internationally oriented Bryce Club, the philosophical Jowett Society, of which he was even elected president, and - in line with his special interest - the University Labor Club. He also maintained numerous contacts with lecturers and students at various colleges, which led to many friendships. He was greatly impressed by Mahatma Gandhi, whom he met at a discussion event right at the beginning of his time in Oxford. In London, Trott met Harold Laski and Richard Henry Tawney, two renowned thinkers of the Labour movement, and Sir Stafford Cripps, an up-and-coming Labour politician who became his friend and political mentor in the following years.

Despite his studies abroad, Trott remained a constant observer of the crisis-ridden political situation in Germany. In the late summer of 1932, he himself took part in socialist working groups in Berlin that were looking for ways to push back the National Socialists. In the "Neue Blätter für den Sozialismus" circle, he met Carlo Mierendorff, an SPD member of the Reichstag who was particularly committed to this cause. Back in England, Trott endeavored to establish contacts between this circle and representatives of the British Labour Party and also publicly campaigned for the German Social Democrats.

Trott learned of Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor from an evening newspaper in Oxford. According to his friend Charles Collins, he immediately recognized the "terrible disaster" that had now befallen Germany and also that his own prospects for the future had "fundamentally changed" (Krusenstjern, Biography of Trott, p. 212). Trott had regarded open opposition as unrealistic for a long time, but considered it necessary to rally opponents of the regime.

Legal clerkship in the Third Reich (1933-1936)

After his exams in Oxford, Trott continued his legal traineeship from fall 1933 in a completely changed Germany: at the district court in Rotenburg/Fulda, at the regional court in Hanau and at the regional court and public prosecutor's office in Kassel. From December 1934 to April 1935, he chose a law firm run by Jews in Berlin for his mandatory legal traineeship. This was followed by clerkships at the Kassel District Court, in the administration of a Hamburg shipping company and at the Kassel Higher Regional Court. He also had to spend two months at a trainee lawyer camp near Jüterbog, which was introduced by the National Socialists for political-ideological and military drills.

Despite considerable pressure, Trott refused to adapt to the new regime. He returned blank forms with which he was supposed to commit himself to joining the professional association (Bund Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Juristen) and the NSDAP. Because of his negative attitude towards the regime, which was also mentioned in a training certificate, he was not accepted as a government trainee and his admission to the assessor examination was in jeopardy for a long time.

In February 1934, an article in the Manchester Guardian about anti-Semitic persecution in German courts and elsewhere prompted Trott to cite his own court experiences in a spontaneous letter to the editor, which did not confirm this accusation. He realized too late that he was exposing himself to the misunderstanding of wanting to relativize or even deny the persecution of Jews in Germany. Trott was a stranger to racism of any kind. After 1933, he not only maintained his previous friendships with Jews, but also made more Jewish friends - among these, Wilfrid Israel and Julie Braun-Vogelstein were particularly close to him. He helped racially and politically persecuted people in many ways and did not shy away from personal risks.

In Berlin, he made contacts with opponents of the regime of various stripes, from the conservative Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin to socialist and communist underground fighters, whom he also actively supported.

In 1935, Trott published a selection of Heinrich von Kleist's journalistic and political writings. Both in the compilation of the texts and in his ambiguous introduction, Trott emphasizes the need to fight for freedom and human rights and rejects "submission to any order, as it were for the sake of order [...]" (Trott, Einleitung, in: Kleist, Politische und journalistische Schriften, 1935, p. 10).

Trott passed his assessor exam in October 1936. As he did not want to emigrate, but wanted to temporarily escape further political pressure, he postponed a professional decision. Instead, he applied to the British Rhodes Foundation for permission to spend the third year of his scholarship in Peking. His intention was to collect material in China for a post-doctoral thesis on the Chinese concept of sovereignty. His application was approved and he traveled via the USA in the spring of 1937, where he spent several months preparing for his research stay in China.

China at war (1937-1938)

On his arrival in China in August 1937, Trott found himself in the middle of the Japanese-Chinese war that had just broken out. Despite the adverse circumstances and obstacles, he persevered in China and tried to pursue his studies in Beijing as best he could. He also wrote political memoranda about the war and its expected consequences. He received 'visual instruction' on several trips through the country as well as to Japan, Korea and Manchuria. Trott's stay in the USA and Asia broadened his political horizons and gave him a global perspective.

Campaign against the war in England (June 1939)

The death of his father in October 1938 led to Trott's early return to Germany. In the following months, he searched in vain for a suitable job without the price of joining the NSDAP.

Adolf Hitler's expansionist course, which he regarded as highly dangerous, motivated Trott to take a political initiative. Together with his long-time friend, the left-wing opposition politician and Appeasement opponent Sir Stafford Cripps, he discussed ways of averting war in London in June. At the same time, Trott managed to hold talks with the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax in Cliveden, the seat of the Astor family (David Astor was one of his Oxford student friends). Halifax, to whom he had identified himself as an opponent of the regime, also arranged a meeting with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. In a semi-fictitious report on these talks written for Adolf Hitler, Trott emphatically pointed out that the British government would not tolerate a German attack on Poland, but would regard it as a reason for war. However, like others of this kind, his warning went unheeded.

USA (1939/40)

Because of his expertise on China and the Sino-Japanese War, the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR) in New York wanted to recruit Adam von Trott as a research assistant. Thanks to the support of the IPR and a provisional position at the Foreign Office, he was allowed to travel to the USA in September 1939 despite the start of the war. While Trott gained recognition at the IPR and was elected a permanent member of its International Secretariat, the FBI suspected him of being a Nazi spy. However, as a result of the permanent observation, the FBI certified his intention "to overthrow the present regime in Germany" (Krusenstjern, Biography of Trott, p. 402).

Trott had joined the nascent German resistance movement in 1939 - his comrades-in-arms included Helmuth James von Moltke. Despite the high risk involved, Trott sought to publicize the aims and problems of the German subversion movement in the USA and discussed the coup plans with knowledgeable German exiles. Although American and British friends urgently warned him against it, Trott was not deterred from returning to Germany. His reasoning was that he "could not remain inactive in the face of the criminal activities of the Nazi regime" (Krusenstjern, Biography of Trott, p. 401).

In the Foreign Service (1940 -1944)

After an adventurous journey back to Berlin via Japan, China and Siberia, Trott accepted an offer from the Foreign Office and became a research assistant in the information department from June 1, 1940. Instead of the contractually promised "expert work on questions concerning the Far East and the United States", he was appointed head of department, responsible for propaganda and counter-propaganda in Great Britain, the USA and the Far East. Trott did not like this work at all, but the position proved to be a suitable basis for his activities in the resistance. The Foreign Office provided him with a wide range of unsuspicious information and contact opportunities, and he was allowed to travel to neutral countries. To disguise himself, he, an active resistance fighter, joined the NSDAP at the end of June 1940.

Although head of department, Trott was not given a permanent position as a research assistant until July 1, 1941. He managed to relinquish the unwelcome responsibility for Great Britain and, after the USA's entry into the war, for the USA as well, retaining only the responsibility for East Asia. After the Information and Culture Departments were merged to form the Cultural Policy Department in spring 1943, this remained his department.

From June 1941, Trott was also in charge of the Indian leader Subhas Chandra Bose and at the same time head of the special department for India. Bose had sought refuge in Berlin in order to gain support for his fight for India's independence. As the German government by no means shared this goal, Trott had the delicate task of accompanying the headstrong Indian "on a path of bitter disappointment" and organizing his propaganda activities. In the end, he helped Bose to leave Germany, and Trott's skill in dealing with Bose earned him a good reputation with his superior, State Secretary z.b.V. Wilhelm Keppler, who, without suspecting anything of his actual role, secured his promotion to Legation Secretary and then to Legation Councillor in 1943.

In his area of responsibility, Trott campaigned for the rescue of Jews, among other things through compulsory service. In doing so, he also worked together with acquaintances in the Amt Ausland/Abwehr.

Marriage and family

In June 1940, Adam von Trott married 22-year-old Clarita Tiefenbacher, the daughter of a Hamburg lawyer. He introduced his future wife to his mother with the words: "She understands what is most important to me in life and will help me fight for it." (Clarita von Trott, Adam von Trott (1994), p. 150) Clarita knew that she was marrying a resistance fighter. She supported her husband wherever possible, but was also very worried about the danger to his life that he was constantly exposed to. As a precaution, he did not tell her any details that would have incriminated her if she had been arrested.

Her daughter Verena was born in Berlin in 1942 and her daughter Clarita in Imshausen in 1943.

In the resistance (1939-1944)

From 1939 onwards, Adam von Trott established a broad network of resistance contacts among civilians and military personnel in Germany. Although he was supported by individual members of staff at the Foreign Office on occasion, he did not set up a resistance cell there. He and his colleague Hans Berns von Haeften found the center of their conspiratorial activities in the "Kreisau Circle". This circle - later named after Moltke's Kreisau estate - was initiated from 1940 by Helmuth James von Moltke and Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg. With its core members, including Trott, the circle was part of the revolutionary movement. However, there was no consensus among the Kreisauers on the question of assassination, which Trott considered unavoidable. The focus of the circle was on the development of programmatic drafts for the future, in which Trott was also involved. Trott was even more interested in the creation of a lasting peace system in Europe than in domestic reorganization. As early as 1939, he outlined far-reaching European policy ideas in the USA and elaborated on them in more detail in 1941 and 1943 in two papers written in Switzerland.

Trott considered the overthrow of the regime to be the most urgent and indispensable task of the resistance and persistently pushed for it for years. Between 1940 and 1944, he managed to arrange eleven business trips to Switzerland, four to Sweden and one to Turkey. In the occupied Netherlands, he risked four meetings with Dutch resistance fighters. Trott endeavored to establish contacts with the Allies in various ways in order to secure the coup from a foreign policy perspective. He received important support from Willem Adolf Visser 't Hooft, the Secretary General of the Ecumenical Council being established in Geneva. In May 1942, Visser 't Hooft was able to take a memorandum from the resistance to London and hand it over to Trott's friend Stafford Cripps, who presented it to Sir Winston Churchill. Although the British Prime Minister regarded the memorandum as encouraging, it was not answered in accordance with his directive of "absolute silence" with regard to all attempts at contact from Germany. Strict adherence to this directive, as well as to the "absolute silence" directive issued in January 1943 by American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill announced in January 1943 ("Unconditional Surrender") prevented the success of all further, always highly risky efforts by Trott and his comrades-in-arms. This meant that the resistance fighters remained in the dark until the very end about what the Allies would do in the event of a coup in Germany.

Although Trott had witnessed several failed attempts at a coup d'état and was aware of the weakness of the German resistance, he placed new hopes in Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg when he took the lead in the overthrow movement in the fall of 1943. Together with the Social Democrat Julius Leber, he was one of Stauffenberg's closest civilian collaborators. On Leber's recommendation, Trott sought out the young socialist Willy Brandt in his Stockholm exile at the end of June 1944, informed him of the impending coup and asked him to "place himself at the disposal of the new government" (Brandt, Erinnerungen, p. 137).

On the eve of July 20, Stauffenberg came to Trott and was encouraged by him to carry out the assassination attempt and overthrow the government.

July 20, 1944 and its consequences

The failure of the assassination attempt and overthrow and the loss of his friend Stauffenberg hit Trott hard. Nevertheless, it is recorded that, with his own certain death in sight, he considered the decision to act to be the right one: "It was a good thing that people had been found who at least dared to attempt to break this tyranny. That remains a historical fact." (Krusenstjern, Biography of Trott, p. 508)

Trott was arrested on July 25 and, after endless interrogations, including the use of torture, was sentenced to death by the "People's Court" on August 15. After eleven days of imprisonment in complete isolation, Adam von Trott zu Solz was executed in secret in Berlin-Plötzensee on August 26, 1944. He was just 35 years old.

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