Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, the last survivor of the failed 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, died Friday in his Munich home at age 90. Kleist volunteered to wear a suicide vest in order to kill the German leader and collaborated with fellow would-be assassin Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, who was the leader of the doomed Operation Valkyrie.
According to The Guardian, Kleist joined the German army in 1940 over the objections of his father, Ewald, who came from a long line of Prussian landowners. The elder Kleist was so vehement in his opposition to Hitler that, before the war broke out, he traveled to England hoping to plan a coup.
While the younger Kleist was recuperating from wounds suffered on the Eastern Front in 1943, he was approached by Stauffenberg (who is considered a hero in Germany today and was portrayed by Tom Cruise in the 2008 film “Valkyrie”) and asked if he’d be willing to take part in an assassination plot.
Kleist would serve as a uniform model for Hitler only to detonate a suicide vest concealed beneath his outfit. He was encouraged by his father, who told him only, “Yes, you have to do this.”
“Fathers love their sons and mine certainly did, and I had been quite sure he would say no,” Kleist once told The Guardian. “But, as always, I had underestimated him.”
That particular plot was never carried out but the 22-year-old soldier was approached by Stauffenberg again and asked to deliver a briefcase filled with explosives to a meeting at the Fuhrer's complex in East Prussia. Stauffenberg would eventually be the one to deliver the bomb on July 20, 1944 – which exploded but failed to eliminate Hitler – before he was arrested and shot in Berlin.
The Gestapo knew Kleist had been involved and interrogated him before sending him to a concentration camp and then, oddly, back onto combat duty. His father was executed, however.
After the war, the Associated Press reported, Kleist founded the Ewald von Kleist publishing house, a defense affairs association called the Society of Military Studies, and European Military Studies magazine. Then, in 1963, he founded the Munich Security Conference, which brings together the world’s foremost diplomats and defense officials.
Kleist was awarded the U.S. Department of Defense’s Medal for Distinguished Public Service – the highest award available to a civilian – in 1991 for the Munich conferences.