“Many Saw Evil,” the posters for the new Tom Cruise film Valkyrie proclaim, “But They Dared to Stop It.” Or tried, at any rate. The members of what is known in Germany as the “July 20th” plot failed, of course, to kill Hitler and were unable to seize power. If this slight exaggeration amounts to wishful thinking, however, the suggestion that the would-be assassin, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, and his co-conspirators “saw evil” in the Nazi regime amounts to an outright distortion of the historical record.
In fact, Stauffenberg served the Nazi regime loyally almost to the very end and continued to share its most fundamental ideas and “values” even when he finally turned against it. What Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters “saw” was not evil. What they saw — undoubtedly with increasing clarity following the German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, and with near certainty following the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 — was that Germany was going to lose the war and that the reckoning would be severe when it did. The need to prevent this impending “catastrophe” for the “fatherland” is the common thread running through all their known statements. Once Hitler was out of the way, the plotters hoped to avoid the worst by proactively seeking peace with the western Allies before Germany was forced into an unconditional surrender. They, above all, feared the consequences of a foreign occupation of Germany.
Contrary to what the film repeatedly suggests, the fate of the Jews appears to have played little role in their considerations and it was certainly not the trigger that finally moved them to action. The systematic extermination of the Jews had, after all, begun long before the plotters resolved to act. Recent historical research has indeed shown that members of the plot were themselves directly involved in implementing the murderous policies of the Nazi regime vis-à-vis the Jews of the Soviet Union. In reference to this research, the leading German historian Hans Mommsen has concluded: “There is no getting around the fact that a considerable number of the persons who actively participated in the July 20th plot … earlier took part in the war of racial extermination [i.e., on the Eastern front], for periods at least approved of it and in some cases actively promoted it.” (Cited in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, September 14, 2000.)
In light of these findings, it is hardly surprising that one of the conditions that the plotters laid down for any potential peace agreement with the Allies was that no Germans should be tried for war crimes by foreign or international courts. This may have been an expression of self-preservation as much as “patriotism,” since some of them presumably had reason to believe that they could themselves face charges. According to the historian Christian Gerlach, one of those implicated was Major General Henning von Tresckow. He was a key member of the plot who, as played by Kenneth Branagh, figures prominently in the film and whose seemingly “moral” injunctions on the need to act against Hitler serve as a sort of leitmotif. Tresckow’s own role in the Eastern campaign and his anxieties about the inexorable advance of the Red Army are not thematized at all.
The notion that Stauffenberg himself was somehow out to “save the Jews” is a relatively recent bit of revisionism, for which the historian and Stauffenberg biographer Peter Hoffmann is largely responsible. It is undoubtedly no coincidence that Hoffmann is prominently thanked during the closing credits of Valkyrie. But the “most irrefutable” [German link] evidence offered by Hoffmann for this thesis is in fact extremely flimsy. It consists of a single phrase in a testimonial that was unearthed from the KGB archives after the end of the Cold War. The author of the testimonial is one Joachim Kuhn, a German officer who was taken prisoner by the Soviets one week after the assassination attempt.