“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.
In the preface to the third German edition of his Stauffenberg biography, Hoffmann insists that the document, dated September 1944, “is untainted by any wish for ex-post self-justification.” (Cited from German critic Micha Brumlik here.) The remark amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that all the rest of his evidence — consisting as it does of post-war recollections — is precisely so tainted. But, as it happens, Kuhn was a close subordinate of none other than Tresckow, and in Soviet captivity one could easily imagine that he too felt more than a little need for “self-justification.”
Given his ample access to German archives and his many years of research, the fact that Hoffmann would have to rely on such a fortuitous second-hand source is perhaps the most damning indication of just how unconcerned Stauffenberg must have been about the fate of the Jews. Hoffmann himself provides inadvertent insight into Stauffenberg’s views of Jews — as well as his racism more generally — when he cites a letter that Stauffenberg wrote home to his wife Nina from Poland in September 1939, just days after the German invasion. “The population is unbelievable rabble,” Stauffenberg writes, “a whole lot of Jews and a whole lot of racial mixing [Mischvolk]. A people that only feels comfortable under the knout.” And then, displaying an insouciance worthy of a true member of the Germanic “master race,” he adds: “The thousands of prisoners will really be good for our agriculture. In Germany, they will definitely be of good use: hard-working, docile and undemanding.” Hoffman concedes, moreover, that both Claus von Stauffenberg and his brother and co-conspirator Berthold approved of the Nazi “racial” policies. Berthold was indeed a legal scholar and published an article already in 1933 in which he defended stripping the so-called “Eastern Jews” [Ostjuden] of their German citizenship on “racial” grounds.
One would never know any of this from the film, however. The very first scene opens with Cruise/Stauffenberg brooding over the “mass executions of the Jews.” Later, after the assassination attempt and while Cruise/Stauffenberg is still under the impression that Hitler is dead, he is depicted energetically issuing orders to shut down the concentration camps and to arrest the Nazi leadership. The scenes in question represent the most outrageously bogus sequence in the entire film. Among other things, they give the impression that the plotters’ coup plans got much farther than they ever did. But the initial orders [German link] prepared by Stauffenberg in the event of Hitler’s death are known. They contain nothing about shutting down the concentration camps and refer not to the arrest of the Nazi leadership, but merely to its subordination to the Army leadership. Cruise/Stauffenberg’s “concentration camp order” appears to be a transfer from a draft declaration attributed to General Ludwig Beck and Carl Goerdeler, the leading civilian member of the plot who was slated to become chancellor if it succeeded. The text of the declaration [German link] is available from the German Resistance Memorial Center. It is, however, accompanied by a note that indicates that the original document is “missing.” The extant text is a “reconstruction.” While Goerdeler may well have been put off by the brutality of the Nazis’ methods, incidentally, he too advocated the expulsion of Jews from German society.
“We have to show the world that not all of us were like him,” Cruise/Stauffenberg can be heard solemnly intoning toward the end of the film, presumably referring by “us” to Germans and by “him” to Hitler. When all is said and done, this seems indeed to be the whole point of the movie — which undoubtedly helps to explain why it received millions of dollars in financial support from the German government.
Well, of course not all of “them” were like “him.” But Stauffenberg and his inner circle of co-conspirators were in many respects more like “him” than he was. Their geo-political “vision” was essentially indistinguishable from that of leading Nazi theorists like Carl Schmitt. Stauffenberg advisor Adam von Trott zu Solz wrote, for instance, “Germany — and all of Europe — is threatened by alien powers from the East and from the West, by the Soviets and by the Americans.” Stauffenberg and his brother Berthold were devoted followers of the esoteric poet and prophet of the “New Reich,” Stefan George. It is no wonder, then, that they were thrilled when Hitler’s “Third Reich” seemed to fulfill the master’s prophecy.
Above all, Stauffenberg was a great German chauvinist whose convictions about the natural superiority of the German “race” or Volk were arguably even more pronounced than those of Hitler himself. This can be seen most clearly in the “oath” that Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters composed for themselves just weeks before the assassination attempt. The purpose of the oath, incidentally, appears to have been to create a “secret bond” among the plotters that would enable them to continue their struggle against the Allied occupiers, i.e., in the event that they were not able to prevent the Reich’s collapse. It begins as follows:
We believe in the future of the Germans.
We know that the German has powers by virtue of which he is called to lead the community of western nations into a more beautiful life.
In spirit and deed, we pledge our faithfulness to the great tradition of our people [Volk], which created western man through the fusing of Hellenic and Christian origins in the Germanic character.
We want a New Order that makes all Germans into bearers of the state and guarantees them law and justice. But we despise the lie of equality and demand the recognition of naturally given ranks.
The only trace of the plotters’ mystical Germanomania that remains in the film are the final words that Cruise/Stauffenberg cries just before he is executed: “Long live sacred Germany!” According to some reports, his actual words were “secret Germany.” It was this “secret Germany” that was sworn to defy the Allied powers that were then advancing toward the heart of the Reich.