MUNICH - Half a century after World War II, German aristocrats are still often caricatured as militarists and Nazis. Baron Ewald Heinrich von Kleist is the living disproof of such myths.
The son of a Third Reich field marshal, he was a brave Wehrmacht officer wounded on the Eastern Front against the Red Army. He hoped to plant a bomb to assassinate Hitler in 1944. His family traces its noble line back to 1175 and has produced more diplomats, generals and field marshals than any other in German history.
When the bomb plot failed, Baron von Kleist's father, who had led panzer divisions surging into France and the Soviet Union, was hanged by Hitler with piano wire. The young Baron von Kleist himself was sent to Nazi concentration camps.
For the past half-century, Baron von Kleist, now 75, has been a leading champion of Christianity, democracy and human rights in Germany and Central Europe, a friend and adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and one of America's best friends in the region.
An era ended in Munich last weekend when he retired after chairing the annual influential Wehrkunde, or Security Policy Conferences, since he founded them in the early 1960s.
Through the stormiest era of the Cold War, the Wehrkunde conferences were a major force in linking and coordinating the leaders of the United States and Western Europe.
At a time when the qualities of the old Prussian aristocracy were rejected in his native Germany as well as in the United States, Baron von Kleist exemplified the very best of them.
The Wehrkunde conference was run in the spare, unassuming, understated style of the man.
"In the past, it was said that our meetings were a little simple. That's true," Baron von Kleist said in his closing remarks this year. "We always believed that every mark that is spent has to be earned before it is spent. We always felt one should spend as little money as possible and bring about something reasonable nevertheless." "I have been coming here for five years and that is the very first time I heard him joke - if it was a joke," a German journalist covering this year's conference said.
In the opinion of many of America's and Germany's top decision-makers, he did a lot more than that.
"The life of the founder of this conference is a very exemplary one," said Rudolph Scharping, chief foreign-affairs spokesman of Germany's opposition Social Democrats.
"He has made this conference into what it is today: a unique forum on trans-Atlantic security relations," said NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana de Madariaga.
"Ewald von Kleist has created much more than a widely acclaimed international conference: He has created a trans-Atlantic family, held together not only by shared interest but also by personal friendships," Mr. Solana said. "This achievement cannot be overestimated."
Baron von Kleist's life reads like an epic. He was originally an architecture student who served with distinction as an army lieutenant on the Eastern Front. But he was disgusted by Nazi atrocities and ideology. …