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Grandson of anti-Hitler plotter seeks restitution

By David Rising
Associated Press Writer / December 2, 2008
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BERLIN—Friedrich zu Solms-Baruth was swept up by the Gestapo the day after a failed 1944 bombing attempt on Hitler and thrown into the secret police's notorious Prinz Albrecht Strasse prison in downtown Berlin.

Unlike scores of others connected with the Kreisau Circle of plotters who were executed, the German aristocrat was eventually released -- but not before he had signed away ownership of his family's estates on the order of Gestapo and SS chief Heinrich Himmler.

Now, some 60 years later, Solms-Baruth's grandson is continuing the family's fight for compensation for the millions of dollars (euros) in lost property, taking his case to court.

"My father did it for his father, and unfortunately didn't live to the day to see justice served ... therefore I am virtually making this a life's quest," Friedrich zu Solms-Baruth, who shares his grandfather's name, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Barcelona, Spain, ahead of a Thursday hearing.

"It's really absurd that we should be talking about something like this today, when it's obvious a man who was imprisoned after the assassination attempt, with virtually a noose around his neck, was forced to sign his properties away."

The question the court will decide is when Solms-Baruth's grandfather lost his properties: when he signed away power-of-attorney in the Gestapo prison, but remained the official owner on the books, or when the area was occupied by the Soviet Union immediately after the war and all large estates were seized and land redistributed.

If the latter, German court decisions since reunification have ruled former land owners have no claims.

At stake is nearly 17,300 acres (7,000 hectares) of land in the state of Brandenburg held by the state, municipalities and private companies.

Solms-Baruth said there's no estimate on how much the developed properties are worth because it has not yet been established exactly what lands were part of his grandfather's estate, but that the forested areas alone are thought to be worth euro7 million ($8.8 million).

Peter Ilk, mayor of Baruth -- one of the towns at the center of the dispute that still carries the family's name -- said he could not comment in detail because of the ongoing legal proceedings, but that it would be good to have the matter settled.

"We must accept the decision, no matter how it comes, but it is important that there is a decision so that it will put an end to this issue, no matter how it turns out," he said.

The case comes amid a renewed focus in recent months on the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler led by Col. Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, in part because of the upcoming Tom Cruise film "Valkyrie" based on the event, in which the American actor plays the aristocratic colonel.

Von Stauffenberg placed the bomb in a conference room where Hitler was meeting with his aides and military advisers.

Many plotters were arrested and executed in revenge killings that saw some hanged by the neck with piano wire.

Solms-Baruth's grandfather, a long-time anti-Nazi, was involved in discussions of the plot and provided two of his mansions as meeting places.

But the evidence against Solms-Baruth was thin, and he was kept him alive in an attempt to extract information about other plotters, according to his grandson.

It is also thought that Himmler, who tried to establish a separate peace with the Allies through Sweden at the end of the war as the Red Army closed in, did not want to jeopardize that by executing a German prince with hereditary links to Sweden and Denmark.

"It is generally accepted that Himmler eventually decided to spare the prince's life after he had completed all his interrogations and torture out of fear that further actions against the prince could harm his attempts with Sweden," Solms-Baruth said.

Instead, his grandfather pledged to relinquish all rights of ownership of his properties and accept banishment. He fled with his family to southern Africa.

He died shortly after the war, but told his son to get the family's lands back, said Solms-Baruth, 45, a German citizen who splits his time between residences in Monaco and South Africa.

"My father was instructed by his father to do whatever one could do to retrieve the stolen properties, as he called it, but during his time virtually nothing could be done because it was East Germany, it was behind the Iron Curtain," he said of his father, who died in 2006.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the family received compensation for land that fell into the possession of the federal German government -- which approached the family looking to settle because it wanted to sell the land, but couldn't with a pending claim.

The family received about 33 percent of the value of thousands of acres in exchange for relinquishing claims on it. Solms-Baruth refused to disclose the exact amount, and the federal agency that handled the restitution had no immediate comment.

Though the family had offered to settle the Brandenburg claim in the past, he said he will now appeal the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if he loses on Thursday -- a good possibility, according to what Solms-Baruth said he has heard in pretrial hearings.

"At this stage we've gone through so much, we've been subjected to so much, that it's become more a matter of principle, to make a point," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Sven Kaestner contributed to this story from Potsdam, Germany.

(This version CORRECTS SUBS graf 20 to correct residence to Monaco sted Spain)

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