Hero Worship

The film Valkyrie has sparked a debate in Germany about Claus von Stauffenberg's action-hero credentials

You will be hard pressed to find a Tube stop in Germany where you can’t see, among the sea of anoraks, a black and red poster of Tom Cruise staring out from behind an eye patch, looking resolute. Most critics agree that his movie Valkyrie isn’t as bad as they had originally feared. The premature outrage preceding the film’s release and its subsequent implosion had a paradoxical result: the character “Claus von Stauffenberg” has been talked about endlessly, while that of the real Stauffenberg was overlooked. Until recently, that is.

In an article in Süddeutsche Zeitung, Richard Evans, professor of history at Cambridge University, wrote that Stauffenberg wasn’t an action-hero. He wasn’t driven by a simplistic good-versus-bad moral code but by a more complex set of values and beliefs. Evans identified a heady cocktail, combining Catholicism, aristocracy, Ancient Greece, German Romanticism and the works of the poet Stefan George. Stauffenberg knew that his attempt to assassinate Hitler would be a decisive moral gesture, but as such it was utterly unsatisfactory, argued Evans. Too many ordinary Germans had supported or at least tolerated the horrific crimes of the Nazi regime to be affected by Stauffenberg’s moral example. Stauffenberg cannot really be your hero, Evans told the Germans, who long for heroes who will redeem their past yet loathe the very idea of redemption.

For Karl Heinz Bohrer, visiting professor of literature at Stanford University, this was one step too far into the ideological clichés of do-gooding single-mindedness that shroud many a debate about Germany’s past. Replying in the same newspaper, Bohrer dismissed Evans’s notion of the hero and faulted his interpretation essentially for committing the most basic error an historian can commit: judging the past by his own, contemporary standards. By not making explicit the mindset of Stauffenberg and his allies, their backbone and their nobility, and in particular the milieu in which those characteristics had developed, Evans fed, Bohrer argued, a demon many Germans still struggled with today: their guilt about the Holocaust. The Germans as a nation are responsible for their crimes, Bohrer concluded, but they should not forget to honour the minority who had the courage to act against them.

Whether or not these articles will turn into a full debate remains to be seen. One can only hope that they will spark an interest in a culture which seems to have been lost – or only hidden? – since the end of the war: a milieu that allowed for a person not only to combine all kinds of complex and conflicting moral positions, but also to choose to act on them. This particular interconnection between the individual and the era, between complexity and action, is something that seems to escape many Germans, particularly younger ones. Why should they know about it? Maybe not so much in order to “work through” the past-whether wallowing in its horrors or feeling indifferent to them – but to find aspects of their country’s history that are fascinating enough to outlast the black and red posters.

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