By Kerstin Gehmlich
PARIS (Reuters) - Philipp von Boeselager's sleep is troubled by furtive chats with conspirators, concealed bombs and a desperate horseback ride from the battlefield on the day he and his friends tried to kill Hitler.
In his dreams, the 86-year old baron talks to friends and co-plotters -- high-ranking German military officials -- who tried to blow up Adolf Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944 and who were killed or committed suicide when the attempt failed.
"If you are the only one among some 100 who is still alive, that makes you think. I feel they are watching me and I have a certain responsibility toward them," Boeselager told Reuters in Paris, where he received the prestigious Legion of Honor medal.
"I call on young people to get politically involved, to feel responsible for their country. If that's not happening and if someone like (Nazi propaganda minister Joseph) Goebbels appeared today -- as millions are unemployed -- I would be very scared."
In postwar Germany, the July 20 attack has become a famous symbol for German resistance to the Nazi regime, discussed in school lessons and honored in museums.
Army officer Boeselager was only 25 when he was asked to join a secret team of officers who planned to kill the dictator -- and who were ready to sacrifice their own lives.
"We were convinced that even if July 20 had been successful, we would have been hanged because the mass of Germans believed Hitler. They would have said: 'If Hitler was still alive, we would have won the war'," he said.
Boeselager, an elegant man dressed in a dark suit who wears his hair carefully combed back, said the wish to halt the Nazis mattered more to the men than the danger of death.
"Each day Hitler ruled, thousands died unnecessarily -- soldiers, because of his stupid leadership decisions. And later, I learned of concentration camps, where Jews, Poles, Russians -- human beings -- were being killed.
"It was clear that these orders came from the top: I realized I lived in a criminal state. It was horrible. We wanted to end the war and free the concentration camps."
BOMBS PACKED IN LEATHER SUITCASE
Boeselager and his brother Georg belonged to a group of plotters around Colonel Henning von Tresckow on the Eastern Front, who used his access to senior officers to try to recruit them for his idea. Several planned attacks failed before 1944.
Boeselager, who worked in an explosives team, was charged with organizing a bomb for July 20: "One day, my brother called and said: 'They want explosives' -- I knew exactly what for."
In his brown leather suitcase, Boeselager smuggled several British bombs -- "I realized English ones were the best" -- to General Hellmuth Stieff at Army High Command.
"Getting out of the plane, I was limping, because I had been injured in the leg. Several young soldiers came up to me, offering to carry my suitcase. But I refused. I thought they would notice at once that the suitcase was far too heavy."
As Stieff was in a meeting when Boeselager arrived, he went to a cinema to wait: "They were showing a comedy but I didn't pay attention. I was worried someone would trip over my suitcase."
On July 20, 1944, Hitler met officials at his so-called Wolf's Lair headquarters in today's Poland, a secluded area in the woods, tightly watched and protected by thousands of mines, but to which one leading conspirator had access.
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a tall German aristocrat who deeply opposed the Nazis' treatment of Jews, planted one of Boeselager's bombs in a briefcase under a table close to Hitler.
The bomb exploded after Stauffenberg had left the room, killing four men -- but Hitler survived almost unscathed.
"Stauffenberg was the wrong man for this, but no one else had the guts," Boeselager said, noting that previous injuries including the loss of an eye, a hand and two more fingers would have handicapped Stauffenberg in the assassination bid.
Lacking time, Stauffenberg had only used one bomb instead of two as originally planned. An open window or a heavy table shielding Hitler could also have saved the dictator's life.
Hitler immediately launched a merciless hunt for the plotters.
In the days after the attack, the Nazis killed Stieff, Stauffenberg and many accomplices. Relatives of the plotters were arrested and Tresckow, like many others, committed suicide.
Historians say thousands were killed or sent to concentration camps in the purge. Though the Nazis brutally tortured the conspirators, no one revealed Boeselager's name.
The plotters had planned that Boeselager should lead a troop of some 1,000 horsemen from the eastern front to Berlin after Hitler's assassination, where they would seize key Nazi bodies.
Having ridden 200 kilometers (125 miles) toward the airport they were to leave from, Boeselager got a message from his brother: 'All back to the old holes' -- code meaning the attack had failed.
Boeselager ordered the soldiers, who were not aware of the plot, to make an immediate about face, riding back eastwards to the front before anyone could find out their secret movement.
"I was sure we would be noticed. Some 1,000 riders make up a huge caravan stretching over a few kilometers," Boeselager said.
"And the soldiers must have been suspicious: First, they are asked to ride westwards at one hell of a speed. And then, the command is to ride back eastwards as quickly as possible."
Boeselager returned to the front after the failed attack but he said he carried cyanide on him every single day until the war ended -- convinced the Nazis would eventually find him out. His brother Georg also eluded capture, but died in battle.
After the war, the officer studied economics and became a forestry expert. Over the front door of his house in Kreuzberg near the western city of Bonn, a sign reads "Et si omnes ego non -- Even if all, not me."