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Papers of Adam von Trott



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The Von Trott papers at Balliol College are open by appointment to any researcher, but Balliol College does not own copyright in this collection, and permission must be sought in writing from the copyright holders before publication of any part of the letters or essays in any format, including online. Contact details are available from the Library.

Biographical note

Friedrich Adam von Trott, the descendant of a long-established Prussian family, was born in Potsdam on 9 August 1909. He was the second son of August von Trott, the Prussian Minister of Culture and Education 1909-1917, and nephew of H.E. von Schweinitz (Balliol 1903), German Ambassador to Vienna and St. Petersburg. His mother, Eleonore (née von Schweinitz), came from an aristocratic Silesian family. [David Astor notes that she was a direct descendant through her mother of John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and that she was the strongest influence on her son Adam.]

When AvT was still a young boy, his family moved to their country estate in Imshausen, set in the beautiful countryside of Hesse-Kassel which aroused in AvT from an early age a deep sense of patriotism.

AvT's schooling began at the Französisches Gymnasium in Berlin. Recurring periods of ill health compelled him to return home to Kassel where he was educated until ready to enter secondary school in Hannoveresch-Münden. Successfully completing this stage of his education, AvT, in line with his father's wishes, matriculated as a student in Law at Munich University in 1927. However he later transferred to the University of Göttingen, because of ill health.

In 1929 AvT broke from his studies in Germany and spent Hilary Term in Oxford at Mansfield College, a congregational foundation whose students were obliged to study Theology. There was never any expectation of AvT being ordained; this was merely an opportunity for him to widen his intellectual horizons.

During this term at Oxford, AvT became friends with a young Socialist, A. L. Rowse, later to become an eminent historian and Fellow of All Souls, Oxford. Although their friendship did not survive bitter differences over Hegel, it nonetheless left a lasting imprint on AvT's political orientation.

After this brief sojourn at Oxford, AvT returned to Göttingen University to continue his studies in Law, but a growing disaffection with his student life there led to yet another change to Berlin University, where in the summer of 1931 he graduated. Thus by this time he was Preußischer Referendar and doctor juris designatus; he was qualified to practise as Junior Barrister without fee.

Whilst at University in Germany, AvT acquired an appreciation for literature, especially German, particularly the works of Goethe and Schiller. However the philosophical theories of Hegel were of greater fascination to him, and he completed his treatise, "Hegels Staatsphilosophie und das internationale Recht", in 1932, which conferred on him the degree Doktor der Rechte (Dr. jur.) with the highest distinction, sehr gut.

In October 1931, AvT came up to Balliol College, Oxford as one of the first German Rhodes Scholars since the Great War. Here he read "Modern Greats": Politics, Philosophy and Economics. His regular tutor was Humphrey Sumner, but his studies also brought him into contact with A.D. Lindsay (Master of Balliol) who taught Philosophy, Richard Crossman (Fellow of All Souls), and Isaiah Berlin (Fellow of New College).

Graced with a good physical presence, a liveliness of mind and an ability to develop friendships of a profound nature, AvT became friends with some of Oxford's ablest and most political students, even if they were several years younger than himself. His upbringing in the Weimar Republic meant that he felt at home in the politically aware environment of Oxford. He developed his Socialist tendencies and his subsequent membership of the Labour party gained him the reputation of "Red".

Within his close circle of friends were Charles E. Collins (Balliol 1930), David Astor (Balliol 1931), John Cripps (Balliol 1931), Diana Hubback (now Mrs David Hopkinson) and Shiela Grant Duff.

News of events in Germany were disturbing to AvT. With the economic depression worsening throughout the world and especially in Germany, AvT quickly realised that the plight of his fellow countrymen was giving extremism the necessary environment in which to breed. He came to realise that the Nazi party was to be no passing phenomenon and when he read in a newspaper in Balliol Junior Common Room that Hitler had become Chancellor, he knew at once that a terrible disaster had befallen his country and that the prospects for his own future had undergone a fundamental change. He later confided in a friend that he would not join the Nazi party unless it became his clear duty to do so in order to further his anti-Nazi activity.

Unlike many other German students in Oxford when Hitler came to power, AvT continued to speak out against Hitler and National Socialism. Realising that official opposition to the Third Reich and Hitler within Germany would not be tolerated, he found himself being inwardly challenged by how he should respond to this new regime: should he return to Germany when he had finished at Oxford, should he work for a regime which he detested intensely and which was completely antithetical to his own beliefs? However much he disliked National Socialism, emigration to him was never an issue, but he realised that his eventual return to Germany would be open to misinterpretation.

In 1933 AvT was awarded a Second in "Modern Greats", went down from Oxford and returned to Germany to complete his training for Assessor in Law. (This enabled him to practise in the Courts free from the control or discipline of the Ministry of Justice). He completed his apprenticeship and Assessor examinations in 1936.

[David Astor writes:

"During 1934-6, Adam von Trott quietly sought allies in Germany able and willing to attempt political opposition. He reached the conclusion that no political action was yet possible. In 1937, he obtained a special Rhodes Trust grant to visit the USA and the Far East to study hopeful possibilities there: this grant was made personally by Lord Lothian, then Secretary of that Trust. To avoid the obvious risk of being regarded as a British agent by German embassies during these months, he systematically called on all German consulates. This, however, was taken by watchful British Intelligence officers as conclusive evidence that he was working for the Nazis, a view they never changed.

"Arriving back after the Munich Crisis in 1938, Adam von Trott learned from a close friend in the German Foreign Office the deadly secret of the mission to London conveyed by the brothers Erich and Theodor Kordt on behalf of the then heads of the German Army and Foreign Office. Their unprecedented message was that they would arrest Hitler if the British would declare open opposition to Hitler seizing the Sudetenland and if Hitler invaded all the same.

"The fact that these top German officials would act to try to stop a European war changed Adam von Trott's idea of the possible. He made three visits to London in 1939 trying desperately to find means to return to circumstances that would make another such conspiracy against Hitler possible. But as he could never mention the plot to overthrow Hitler, he was taken by most people to be a dangerous appeaser. Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, was the only person who knew all about the unmentionable conspiracy, as he personally received the message of Dr Kordt. Halifax therefore arranged a meeting for Trott with the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. This meeting is evidence of the impression that the Kordt mission had evidently made. Trott talked of the possibility of co-operation with the German opposition but unfortunately similar circumstances to those at Munich were not now possible.

"He concluded his vist to England by concocting, together with his friend Peter Bielenberg, a spurious report intended for Hitler which he hoped would entice him to delay going to war."]

On 1 June 1940 AvT was formally admitted to the information service of the German Foreign Office. He began to exploit the cover of his position in the Foreign Office and to play an active part in the resistance movement which sought to overthrow the Hitler regime. [David Astor writes: "He became the chief emissary of the opposition, making on their behalf seven journeys to Switzerland, four to Sweden, four to the Low Countries and one to Turkey".]

On 8 June 1940, in Reinbek, near Hamburg, AvT married Clarita Tiefenbacher, daughter of Max Tiefenbacher, a prominent Hamburg lawyer.

On 20 July 1944 at 12.45 p.m. a bomb next to Hitler exploded. An assassination attempt against Hitler had been made. Believing the bomb to have killed Hitler, AvT is reported to have said to a colleague later that day "I won't have to sign under that horrible greeting any more". The greeting he was referring to was "Heil Hitler!".

AvT was arrested in the early afternoon of 25 July 1944, and tried in court on 3 August for his part in the July conspiracy to kill Hitler. Despite his position within the Foreign Ministry and his frequent visits abroad, the authorities, especially the Gestapo, seemed to know little about him. The only concrete evidence they had against him was his friendship with Stauffenberg, one of the leading figures in the conspiracy, and the frequency of their meetings, which had been recorded by Stauffenberg's chauffeur. [David Astor writes: "In fact, Trott and Stauffenberg had become the closest friends and met on the evening of 19th July. Trott refused several offers to leave the country, because of the effect on his family if he had done so".] The lack of evidence was such that AvT was convicted on the charge of having betrayed military secrets to the enemy, and having used his official trips to Sweden as a means to pass on to the enemy important war secrets, rather than of complicity in the July Plot. Interestingly a case was never made out against him in the Peoples' Court.

He was sentenced to death by hanging on 15 August 1944.

Photographs taken of the trial show AvT's haggard face. However he remained physically and mentally upright and calm when his case was summed up and the sentence was declared. He was described by the judge as a "spineless intellectual" on account of his years at Oxford and his travels around the globe.

AvT, unlike many of the other conspirators, was spared for another 11 days as the Gestapo tried to extract more information from him. On the 26 August, he was executed at Plötzensee Prison. Hitler's orders had been that the act of hanging should be performed in the most brutal and agonizing fashion.

In his last hours of life AvT wrote three letters, two of which were to his beloved mother and wife. They were not delivered until February 1945, six months after his execution.

Hitler, in response to the Bomb Plot, ordered that a policy of kindred arrest should be implemented at once. On 13 August AvT's two young children were taken from their family home and put into an orphanage where their names and identity were changed. His wife, Clarita von Trott, on trying to attend her husband's trial, was seized and imprisoned. Only a sudden decision by Hitler to refrain from his policy of persecution of relatives averted their death.

In the winter of 1944/1945, AvT's children were returned to their mother when she was liberated from prison. AvT never knew about the removal of his family. After the war ended and records became available, it was estimated that some 4980 people were put to death as a result of the July plot.

In January 1946 David Astor and Sir Stafford Cripps applied to the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, for a visa that would enable Clarita and her children to visit England. Clarita von Trott was the first German to be allowed to enter Britain after the end of the war. In 1955 Clarita completed her doctorate in medicine.

In 1949, a simple cross was erected near AvT's home of Imshausen Solz bearing the inscription "Executed with friends in the struggle against the destroyers of our homeland. Pray for them. Heed their example".

His name can now be found on the plaque outside the chapel at Balliol College which is inscribed with the names of the Old Members who lost their lives in the War of 1939-1945.

In the immediate post war years, the press, [prompted, David Astor notes, by the Foreign Office,] often tried to convict AvT and his fellow conspirators of being Nazis. However literature published in the last twenty years has restored his name. His Oxford friend, David Astor, devoted himself to clearing AvT's name from charges of duplicity and Nazism and he commissioned Christopher Sykes to write a biography of Adam von Trott.

In 1958 AvT's name was given public commemoration within Germany when a housing settlement erected on the Warteberg just outside Kassel was named after him. An edifice within the settlement dedicated to him bears his profile and the inscription: "He died for freedom".

On 20 July 1961, a memorial tablet outside the Foreign ministry in Bonn was dedicated to 11 of those who had perished as a result of the plot. AvT's name was on that list.

A series of lectures in honour of AvT was held in Balliol Hall during Hilary Term 1983, on the 50th anniversary of Hitler's rise to power.


Troubled Loyalty: A Biography of Adam von Trott , Christopher Sykes, Collins, 1968.

A Good German: Adam von Trott zu Solz , Giles MacDonogh, Quartet Books Ltd., 1989.

Adam von Trott zu Solz. The Road to Conspiracy against Hitler , Henry O. Malone, Dissertation for University of Texas for Doctor of Philosophy, 1980.

A Noble Combat: The Letters of Shiela Grant Duff and Adam von Trott zu Solz 1932-1939 , edited by Klemens von Klemperer, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988.

The Challenge of the Third Reich , edited by Hedley Bull, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986.

The Parting of Ways: A Personal Account of the Thirties , Shiela Grant Duff, Peter Owen, London, 1982.

The Incense Tree , Diana Hopkinson, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1968.

David Astor and The Observer , Richard Cockett, André Deutsch Ltd., London, 1991, ch. 2.

The Past is Myself: The Experiences of an English Woman in Wartime Germany , Christabel Bielenberg, Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1968.

The July Plot: The Attempt in 1944 on Hitler's Life and the Men behind it , Roger Manvell & Heinrich Fraenkel, The Bodley Head, London, 1964.


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