One of the most interesting men of World War II was a high-ranking German officer named Henning von Tresckow. He came from a well-respected family, was obviously successful, and had a bright future in Germany.
The war, however, changed everything. Tresckow saw the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime and became a die-hard opponent of Adolf Hitler. He devoted the last few years of the war to the goal of killing the leader of his country. In one instance, he planted a bomb on an airplane in which Hitler and other leading Nazis were flying. The bomb did not go off. If it had, all on board–probably around twenty people–would have been killed.
Tresckow was also a leading figure in the assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944. The resistance planted a bomb in a place where Hitler and other army leaders were meeting. This time the bomb did go off. Four Nazis were killed, but Hitler survived.
Many men worked with the resistance. With this assassination attempt, the Nazi regime would soon determine who they were. Hitler was enraged and took revenge. Those found to have played any part were tortured and executed. Over 2,000 would experience that fate, including men like the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother Klaus.
Immediately after learning that Hitler had survived the explosion, Tresckow blew himself up with a grenade, making it look as if he had been killed in battle. He hoped this would remove any suspicion of his being a traitor and would benefit other conspirators who worked with him. His plan worked for a short period of time. However, the Nazis soon discovered his role in the plots on Hitler’s life. His body was exhumed, dishonorably burned, and his wife and daughters arrested by the authorities. His partners were arrested and put to death.
How should Tresckow be viewed? Most in his country considered him a vile traitor. Many Christians would argue that he should not have done what he did. He should have left it up to God to get rid of Hitler. Plus, he was willing to kill bystanders in order to put an end to the monster ruling his nation.
But there are others who consider Tresckow a hero. He did not act from a Christian perspective. He simply reasoned that tens of thousands of people were dying every day because of Hitler. Killing him would save all these lives, and that end justified any collateral damage. As a patriot, he also wanted to save his nation from complete annihilation.
I will let others argue about whether he was a traitorous murderer or a hero. But I think we can all look at one aspect of his character and express admiration. Just before blowing himself up in an attempt to save others, he explained to a fellow member of the resistance:
The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing…No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.
In Greek mythology, the shirt of Nessus was a piece of clothing put on by Heracles. He did so, not knowing that it was poisoned and would cause his death. Once it was put on, a person could not take it off. Tresckow was saying that all the conspirators did what they did knowingly. They took on a mantle they knew would lead to their deaths. As they faced that fate, they could not complain. When they put on that “shirt,” they were saying they were willing to give up their lives for the work in which they were involved. Their cause was a noble one and worth dying for.
In the NT, believers are called upon by the Lord to also put on a shirt of Nessus. The Lord tells all who would follow Him in discipleship that they must be willing to die in that endeavor (Mark 8:34-38; Rev 2:10). When Paul is traveling to Jerusalem, he is told he will be arrested and will face the wrath of the authorities there. He responds that he is not concerned. He has already decided that he will gladly lay down his life for the work the Lord called him to do (Acts 21:13).
Did Tresckow do the right thing? Whatever view one takes, we can all admire his dedication. He looked at a situation that he found morally reprehensible and put on the shirt of Nessus in order to stop it. He was convinced it was right, no matter the cost.
All believers have eternal life that can never be lost. But then Christ calls upon them to have the same dedication Tresckow had. They are to lay down their lives following Him. In our case, there is no doubt that putting that shirt on is the right thing to do.