Honor-Bound Traditionalist

November 1992By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain is Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and a Contributing Edi­tor of the NOR.

Matriarch of Conspiracy: Ruth von Kleist, 1867-1945.  By Jane Pejsa. Pilgrim. 408 pages. $21.95.



Jane Pejsa dedicates her book “to men and women in every age and place who have acted to uphold decency and honor amid indecency and dishonor, and especially to those who, in so doing, have perished.” In other words, hers is a heartfelt, even pious, volume. It is chock full of detail about a particular time and place, the world of classical Junker society. A powerful figure in that world, Ruth von Kleist-Retzow was born a countess in 1867, married, as did all young women thus born, into the East Prussian nobility, and died just a few months after the destruction of the Third Reich in 1945. This is a tale of a “woman and a clan who not only resisted the Nazis from the beginning, but who also became deeply involved in three attempts to kill Adolph Hitler and overthrow [the] Nazi regime.” Four major par­ticipants in this conspiracy were from von Kleist’s close family circle.

What is most remarkable about the story Pejsa tells is not the way in which she tells it, which is straightforward to the point of being turgid, but the way in which strong fami­lies bound by tradition and religion became the heart of a political conspiracy undertaken precisely in the name of those values. The destruction of their world, detailed by Pejsa, is almost unbelievable. No one was untouched. One marvels at the way in which von Kleist dealt with the deaths, in World War I, of young men from her clan, including her son, Kon­stantin, a fighter pilot, and then with the devastation wrought by the second war, both to her immediate and her more extended family.

Pejsa puts the question directly: “How was it that from the archconservative, anti-dem­ocratic, militaristic environment typical of the old Prussian estates there emerged a family whose dominant members be­haved as they did during Germany’s darkest years?” I’m not sure that Pejsa herself really gives us the answer, but she certainly helps one to en­gage the question. To this world of honor-bound traditionalists Hitler was a vulgar charlatan. Although there was much in Hitlerian rhetoric that appealed to traditionalists — Nazi ideology being a hodge­podge designed to appeal to every segment of German gentile society — von Kleist and those around her could not accept his animus and hatred, particularly toward the Jews.

Pejsa is clear that, as with all Germans of her time and place, von Kleist was not im­mune to fervent appeals to na­tional endeavor. She too enjoyed bands, marches, and “the ideals of her ancestors, generations of loyal vassals to the king,” but Hitler, despite rhetorical protestations, was not loyal to this tradition. In­deed, one of the strongest characteristics of Nazism was its radicalism. To see in Ger­man fascism an exaggerated extension of traditional German conservatism is a serious mis­take. The Nazis were radical in their contempt for tradition, for restraint on what a govern­ment should do, and for what it meant to define a nation. Because von Kleist was “by in­stinct conservative,” she could see in Nazism the radical nihil­ism it embodied. Her conservative instincts in this sense held her in good stead.

But, rather remarkably, von Kleist also, according to her biographer, felt obliged “to understand the new ideas and to evaluate them against the old values.” This led her into an ongoing engagement with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She be­came his friend and benefactor, yes, but fascinatingly she also appreciated his work and respected the complexity of his fusion of the traditional with the radical in theology. Central to Bonhoeffer’s attack on the Nazi regime was the Fuehrer cult itself. Bonhoeffer, remem­ber, proclaimed of Hitler: “this is the leader who makes an idol of himself and his office and who thus mocks God.” Finally, she supported his decision to become part of the anti-Nazi conspiracy. Von Kleist was an authority figure, in part, because of her position as matriarch. But she was revered because of the particu­lar way in which she inhabited that inherited role.

It was the godlessness of Nazism that turned von Kleist, Bonhoeffer, and others of their remarkable circle against the Nazi regime. That a matriarch protective of the well-being of her own family should enter into a sustaining and protective friendship with the circle of conspirators is testimony to von Kleist’s strength of charac­ter and spirit. Pejsa claims that von Kleist helped realize Bon­hoeffer’s understanding of freedom, namely, the ability to act responsibly and even cou­rageously.

Pejsa suggests that one can detect a fruitful parallel be­tween the life of von Kleist and Bonhoeffer’s own indom­itable grandmother Julia, who defied the Nazi interdict on Jewish businesses in order to continue to follow her decades-old tradition of shopping at a Jewish-owned store in Berlin. She simply marched through the cordon of Nazi storm troopers to carry on shopping as usual with neither fanfare nor histrionics. This was her way and she would persist in it.

Von Kleist lived to see much of what she loved and cherished destroyed — family, friends, a way of life. But she ended her life full of hope in things eternal and convinced that she had acted in an hon­orable fashion. Here one is reminded of the elegy deliv­ered by Bonhoeffer at the funeral of his grandmother when she died at age 94. In a way, with this funeral oration, Bonhoeffer also bade farewell to an entire way of life: “With her a world is buried, which we all in some way bear within us, and wish so to bear. The unbending authority of the right, the free vow of a free man, the binding power of a promise once made, clarity and moderation in speech, honor and simplicity in public and private life — this she cared for with all her heart. In this she lived. She had discovered in the course of her life that it cost trouble and effort to achieve these aims in one’s own life. She did not flinch from this trouble and effort. She could not bear to see these aims despised, or to see human rights denied; therefore her last years were darkened by the distress she felt over the fate of the Jews in our country, for this she herself grieved and suffered. She belonged to a different age, to a different spiritual world — and this world shall not be buried with her. This inheritance, for which we must thank her, puts us under obligation.”

This is a fitting epitaph for the remarkable woman whose saga is documented in Pejsa’s devoted, even devotional, work.



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