The officers who tried to kill Hitler were spurred on by a deep sense of shame and guilt
Leaving aside his controversial belief in Scientology, Tom Cruise is not best known for portraying spiritual characters. But as his new film,the Second World War epic Valkyrie opens in the UK at the end of the month, Cruise will be identified with the genuine article. The man he plays, Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg, embodied rare qualities unfamiliar to our debased age, more used as it is to “heroes” whose sole heroism consists of kicking a ball into the back of a net.
It will also be a shock to filmgoers accustomed to seeing German officers only as unreconstructed baddies to watch a parade of British actors – Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy and even Eddie Izzard – supporting Cruise by playing the men in field grey as thoughtful, principled and self-sacrificing goodies. These are real heroes in thought, word and deed. And, however tainted by Hollywood vulgarisation Valkyrie may be, if the movie succeeds in showing a mass audience that not all Germans of the war generation were psychopathic sadists or monocled automata, it will have served some purpose.
Valkyrie was the codename for the military putsch triggered by Stauffenberg’s intended assassination of Hitler on 20 July 1944. The plot’s conspirators wanted to bring down the criminal Nazi regime, end Hitler’s war, and usher in a new Germany built on principles of legality, democracy and – not least – Christian civilisation. But Stauffenberg failed. His bomb exploded, killing four members of the dictator’s entourage, but not the Führer himself, who was left slightly injured and in an even more murderous mood than he had been before the blast. Stauffenberg’s friends in Berlin, who were supposed to launch their coup simultaneously with the bomb, hesitated and dithered when they realised that Hitler had survived. They waited for three fatal hours for Stauffenberg to fly back to the capital from Hitler’s HQ and take charge of the putsch. But by then it was too late.
Even though the putsch had been partially successful – in German-occupied Paris, Prague and Vienna the army conspirators arrested all the SS men in those cities without a shot being fired – elsewhere, as news that Hitler still lived spread, uncommitted or cowardly officers drew back and firmly placed themselves on the winning side. By nightfall, despite Stauffenberg’s frantic effort to shore up support by telephone, the coup had collapsed. Stauffenberg and his four closest collaborators were summarily shot on the orders of one of these equivocating generals as the Nazis unleashed a vicious orgy of vengeance on all those who had dared lift hands against them.
Over the next weeks and months – right up to the very last days of the war – all the organs of Nazi totalitarian terror were devoted to hunting down Germany’s best and brightest. Besides aristocratic officers, there were lawyers and economists, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors, diplomats and scholars, conservatives and social democrats. All were arrested, interrogated, tortured, humiliated and hanged. Many were hauled in front of Judge Roland Freisler, president of the “People’s Court”, a bullying, bellowing Nazi (and former Communist) who took a fiendish delight in taunting and verbally tormenting his victims before handing them over to the hangman. Contrary to persistent legend, the condemned were not hanged by piano wire. However, their deaths – on the explicit orders of Hitler, who had personally briefed the executioner that “I want them hung up like slaughtered cattle”- were terrifying enough. Under the glare of floodlights, and to a soundtrack of whirring cine cameras recording their dying struggles on film for the Führer’s own delectation, the conspirators were lifted up by the executioners and their trousers were ripped off. Then, to a chorus of sneering hoots, thin cords suspended from butchers’ hooks were looped around their necks, and they were let down to be slowly strangled by the nooses.
On Hitler’s express orders, the doomed prisoners were denied religious or spiritual consolation in their last moments on earth. However, the courageous Lutheran chaplain at Plötzensee prison, Harald Poelchau – himself a member of the resistance, and a “righteous among the nations” who had hidden persecuted Jews in his own apartment – defied this vile edict and managed to whisper a few words of comfort to them, smuggling their last messages to their loved ones from the jail. Contrasting the behaviour of the two groups, the killers and the killed, the judges and the judged, is like watching opposite poles of humanity wrestle, the best and the worst.
However, if the fanatical Nazis were not typical of all Germans, the idealistic conspirators were even less so. Indeed, in one sense Hitler himself was right when he described them in a broadcast on the night of the putsch as “a small group of plotters”. Often aristocrats – there is an astonishing number of “vons” in the names of the 200-odd victims executed – many were not just friends, but bound by family ties, too: Claus von Stauffenberg’s brother, Berthold, along with his first cousins Peter Yorck von Wartenburg and Cäsar von Hofacker, and even his ageing uncle Nikolaus, Count von Üxküll-Gyllenbrand. But if this close-knit conservative network was a conscious elite, containing the proud descendants of great Prussian families – the Moltkes, the Kleists and the Bismarcks – and easily caricatured by Nazi propa-ganda as a small reactionary clique, they were also the custodians of the best traditions and tattered honour of old Germany.
What made these men – and a few women – risk their lonely, lingering deaths? It was not even as if their putsch had any realistic hope of success against the increasingly iron grip of the SS state. Their actions, as Germany crumbled in a war she could not win, were rather the product of a deeper desire to atone for and expiate the crimes of the regime that had made the name of their beloved country stink in the world’s nostrils. Some plotters had been planning to assassinate Hitler and overthrow his regime as early as 1938, before he had launched his ruinous war. Time and again, their efforts had been thwarted as if by a malign fate. Repeatedly, as if protected by a providential sixth sense, the dictator had cancelled or rushed through parades at which he was to have been shot down or blown up by young officers acting as the world’s first suicide bombers.
The military plotters were spurred to act not only by their revulsion at the cruel horrors that many of them witnessed on the eastern front as the Holocaust got under way, but by their own sense of guilt. In its early days the Nazi regime had made the Army complicit in their crimes – the Wehrmacht had welcomed and even provided the weapons and facilities for the bloody June-July 1934 Night of the Long Knives purge of the SA Brownshirts. Many officers -Stauffenberg included – had seen the Nazis as reliable anti-Bolsheviks, and had cheered on Hitler’s rearmament programme, jibbing only when they saw – too late – that he was leading Germany into the abyss of an unwinnable war. It was little wonder that Whitehall regarded the plotters as just a milder version of the Nazis. One Foreign Office mandarin, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett – ironically a later historian of the resistance – even applauded the SS in a notorious memo for saving the Allies later trouble by getting rid of the most talented Germans before the war’s end.
By 1944, their overtures ignored by the Allies, and after the failure of their umpteenth assassination plot, the conspirators had lost heart. Fatalistically, as the war turned from Teutonic triumph to what one conspirator, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, predicted would be Finis Germania, they seemed to accept that, for better or worse, in the words of one of his victims, General Werner von Fritsch, Hitler was “Germany’s destiny”. And then the situation was transformed by the advent of Stauffenberg. A latecomer to the conspiracy, he was recruited to the plot after suffering horrifying wounds when his staff car was strafed by an Allied aircaft in Tunisia early in 1943. The handsome young officer lost an eye, a hand, and all but three fingers of his remaining hand, but, undaunted, he insisted on remaining in the Wehrmacht and took up a key position as Chief of Staff in the Reserve Army – a sort of Home Guard encompassing all soldiers not at the fighting fronts.
Stauffenberg blew into the conspiracy like a blast of chill air, inspiring and invigorating the plotters’ weary ranks. A cyclone of energy and determination, he resolved, despite the appalling injuries that had maimed him, not only to carry out the assassination himself – since his new job gave him regular access to Hitler – but effectively to lead the putsch too. He would be the head, hand and heart of the conspiracy. As Germany’s military position worsened, he insisted that there was no time to lose. Hitler must be eliminated physically, and the world shown that there were Germans ready to act, however hopelessly, against his evil reign. As one of Stauffenberg’s mentors, Major-General Henning von Tresckow, put it: “The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed… what matters now is not the practical purpose of the putsch, but to prove to the world and to history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this, nothing else matters.”
The morality of killing Hitler – and those around him if the chosen method was an undiscriminating bomb – had caused long and anguished debate among the plotters. Prominent civilian conspirators such as Carl Goerdeler and Helmuth von Moltke adamantly opposed assassination as incompatible with their Christian faith. However, the officers, who were also sincere Christians, were equally sure that killing Hitler was both a practical necessity and theologically justified. It is noteworthy that on the very eve of planting his bomb, on 19 July, Stauffenberg found time to visit a Catholic church, presumably in search of consolation, if not absolution, for the plot.
In the event, the plot was bungled. As with every previous assassination attempt, the plan went awry. Stauffenberg was interrupted while priming his bomb, which as a result was only half as strong as he had intended. Then an officer at the conference unwittingly kicked the briefcase bomb behind a stout table strut, shielding Hitler from the full effect of the blast. Though bluffing himself out of the Führer’s heavily guarded “Wolf’s Lair” HQ with his customary cool charm and panache, Stauffenberg arrived back in Berlin too late to turn the tide. As they had foreseen, the plotters had failed again, and Stauffenberg duly went to his death with his last shouted words “Long live our sacred Germany” ringing in his executioners’ ears even as the echoes of their shots died away. But in dying so, he and his companions had at any rate tried to save their own and their country’s honour.
Since the war, the July conspirators have come to be adopted by the state as officially approved heroes of German history from a time when heroes were in woefully short supply. Streets and schools have been renamed in their honour, and the places where they died turned into shrines. The efforts of neo-Nazis to brand them as traitors have notably failed, although that is how many Germans saw them at the time. Despite their failure, there can be little doubt that in their main objective – to atone for their country’s atrocious crimes – they triumphantly succeeded, and in dying as they did laid the foundations of a new Germany to arise from the poisoned ashes of the old.