Von Kleist: You always have to do the right thing
Each year at the beginning of June, the American Academy in Berlin awards the Henry A. Kissinger Prize turning a villa on the shores of the Wannsee into a beacon of transatlantic friendship. Heeding the call from Dr. Kissinger, towering figures from the transatlantic community gather at the Academy, among them two US Presidents. President William Jefferson Clinton in 2011, honoring his friend and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and President George H. W. Bush as recipient in 2008.
This year’s award was bestowed posthumously upon Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, founder of the Munich Security Conference and the longest surviving member of the July 22, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, who passed away on March 8, 2013. Two distinguished statesmen delivered the honorary remarks, Senator John McCain, of Arizona, and German Minister of Defense Thomas de Maizière.
The prize was accepted by Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist’s daughter, Comtesse Vera de Lesseps, on behalf of her late father.
Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist was honored for his exemplary moral leadership and lifelong dedication to fostering critical and candid dialogue on vital security issues, and to strengthening the transatlantic relationship. His life was marked by extraordinary courage, independence of thought, and judgment. In 1944, as a 22-year-old Wehrmacht lieutenant in Infantry Regiment 9, he twice volunteered to risk his life in the assassination of Adolf Hitler. The first attempt never materialized, but the young officer went on to assume an important role in the well-known plot of July 20, 1944—and would become the last surviving activist in the circle around Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
The award ceremony was attended by distinguished guests from the international diplomatic corps, the German government and military, and heads of German business, industry, academia, media, publishing, and policymaking. The hour-long ceremony was moderated by the Munich Security Conference’s current chairman and former German Ambassador to the United States, Wolfgang Ischinger.
In a moving speech, senator McCain said of his friend:
I have had the honor of knowing quite a few brave and inspiring people in my life, but never someone quite as brave as Ewald, who was twice prepared to sacrifice his life to rid the world of one of the cruelest, most depraved and dangerous tyrants in history. You know, it is never easy to answer fully the demands of conscience and to have always the courage of your convictions. There is always some price to be paid to live that honorably. But the kind of choice Ewald made, to choose honor and duty over every personal consideration, to choose the world over his place in it, to choose history over his own future, that is a price that only people who possess the most sublime sense of honor and humility are willing to pay.
“You always have to do the right thing,” von Kleist said in an interview with ZDF, in 2009, part of which was shown at tonight’s ceremony. “You can do no more.”
Accepting the award on her father’s behalf, Comtesse de Lesseps concluded the ceremony by recalling the extraordinary choices her father confronted: “Sometimes in life we are in a situation where we can choose between two paths. We can choose what is best for us in a selfish way, or we can choose the path of what our conscience tells us to do, which can have unpleasant consequences personally. But deep down we know that this is the right thing to do. I think my father was the perfect example of someone who has done the right thing in his life, and therefore I admire him.”
The Henry A. Kissinger Prize has been awarded annually by the American Academy in Berlin since 2007 to a distinguished European or American who has made an outstanding contribution to the transatlantic relationship. The prize was established to honor the Academy’s Founding Chairman, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, whose initiatives to create and sustain a stable East-West relationship, and to promote détente in the post-Cold War period helped to lay the foundation for democratic change in Europe, end of the Cold War, and the reunify Germany.
The Academy was founded by Richard C. Holbrooke in 1994 and awards scholarships to emerging and established scholars, policy experts, artists, and writers.
Following the ceremony, a private reception was held in the Academy’s Hans Arnhold Center villa and continued until late at night.