Ed West explores the faith of Claus von Stauffenberg — the man who tried to kill Hitler After a long and difficult production Valkyrie, the film of the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, reaches British screens this week. And while the critical reception for the film has been far more positive than was expected, it has also been accused of downplaying the conspirators' Christianity.
Leading the cast is Tom Cruise playing Colonel Claus Graf von Stauffenberg, the onearmed, one-eyed Catholic aristocrat who placed a bomb under Adolf Hitler's table in East Prussia, failing to kill him only because of the solid oak table leg that shielded the Fiihrer.
Stauffenberg was very much the leader of the July 20 plot but it was the only the last in a long line of aborted German army conspiracies to rid the world of Hitler.
Philipp von Boeselager, the last survivor of the conspiracy, died last year, having written his memoirs, which have just been published. In Valkyrie: The Plot To Kill Hitler (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £9.99) he records how much Catholicism influenced antiNazi feeling in the army, and how Nazism's anti-Christian attacks grew to such an extent that they banned Christmas celebrations in the army in 1943.
The White Rose, a Munich student movement, had its origins in an anti-euthanasia speech by Bishop August Van Galen (although most of its members were Lutheran), while one of the most famous anti-Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, headed a Lutheran offshoot, the Confessing Church, before his execution in April 1945.
At the time the White Rose students were beheaded, Claus von Stauffenberg was already on the fringes of the anti-Hitler movement, and would lose his life within a year. He was born in 1907 in the family castle of Jettingen in Swabia, the Catholic Black Forest region, the third son to a mixed Catholic-Protestant family. The von Stauffenbergs were among the oldest Catholic aristocratic families in Germany, while his mother was a Lutheran and came from Prussian military stock.
He joined the Bamberger Reiter, the family regiment, at the age of 18. In 1938, by then a lieutenant in the German ist Light Division under General Erich Hoepner, von Stauffenberg was among the troops who moved into the soon to be doomed Czechoslovakia. Hoepner was part of a circle who planned to overthrow Hitler, a conspiracy that halted when, to their amazement, Neville Chamberlain agreed to hand over the Sudetenland.
There were certainly many German officers interested in killing Hider, for both selfish and moral reasons. Von Stauffenberg's uncle Nikolaus Graf von thckall tried to persuade his nephew to join the plot. At his showtrial in 1944 von UAWl gave the concentration camps as the reason for his treason.
Two of the later plotters. Peter Yorck von Wartemburg and Ulrich Schwerin von Schwanefeld, also urged Stauffenberg early in the war to become adjutant to the supreme commander of the army, Walther von Brauchitsch, in order to help a coup. He declined, citing the oath of allegiance that all soldiers gave to the Fairer.
Stauffenberg rose rapidly through the hierarchy and won an Iron Cross, First Class in the victory over France. But though he was impressed by Hitler's victory in the west he was concerned by the brutality of Operation Barbarossa in the east, and was disgusted at Hitler's incompetence that had sent so many of his countrymen to their deaths.
He fought in Tunisia from November 1942 where in April 1943 he acquired his distinctive features when a British fighter strafed his staff car. After some months recovering from his wounds he was made a staff officer in charge of the replacement army, the Ersatzheer. He quickly took charge of the conspiracy to remove Hitler and negotiate a peace with the western allies (although he came to accept that this was rather optimistic). Whatever their plan was, it's quite clear they wanted to stop the senseless death toll.
Was Stauffenberg a hero? He never joined the Nazi Party, and thought Kristallnacht had brought shame on Germany. There is evidence that he was influenced by the Church's growing hostility to Nazi, especially after Pope Pius XI's 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge.
For many years after the war it had been believed that the plotters only acted out of selfish motives — to save their class from being destroyed by Hitler. However, in 1989 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave German Chancellor Helmut Kohl documents which the Soviets discovered in February 1945 in which the plotters explained their concerns about the ceaseless slaughter.
Nigel Jones, author of Countdown to Valkyrie. The July Plot to Assassinate Hitler, says "[Stauffenberg] was certainly an ardent and devout Roman Catholic. On the very night before he was going to plant the bomb he went into a Catholic church. We don't -know what he did there. Perhaps he was seeking absolution."
Jones believes that Stauffenberg's Christian conscience was central to his decision to try to kill Hitler.
"He definitely knew what was going on, the mass atrocities in the east, even if he didn't know about the organised industrial murder of the Jews." he says. "It was the outrage to his conscience as a German and a Christian, and his disgust at Hitler's military incompetence, that motivated him. And he more or less carried the plot. Had it not been for him, it would not have happened."
The case against von Stauffenberg revolves around the argument that he took too long to demonstrate his opposition to Hitler. He took part in the invasion of Poland, and there is no evidence that he actively opposed the persecution of the Poles. He wrote to his wife about the natives being an "unbelievable rabble; a great many Jews and a lot of mixed race. A people that is only comfortable under the lash."
While he was horrified by the Nazis' mass-murder, the evidence suggests he was happy to keep the conquered population as slaves, but that killing them was too far.
Roger Moorhouse, author of Killing Hitler, says that, although Catholicism was central to Stauffenberg, ultimately the colonel was no hero.
"For all of the people involved the oath of allegiance was a personal one to Hitler," he says. "It was very difficult for most people who had sworn that oath to go against it and be a traitor. But it was easier for Catholics, because they always had an allegiance that went beyond Germany. That was why Prussia was suspicious of Catholics. It helped him along the way that there were atrocities."
Moorhouse says Stauffenberg's near-death experience would have had a profound spiritual effect.
"He comes back determined to act. That certainly is instrumental. How much you can tie that in with his Christian faith we don't know." However, he says, the motives of this "oldfashioned nationalist" were complex."
"The timing is an issue. He wasn't converted until 1943, until his injury. He complained about the Nazis, but while Germany was benefiting he was happy to go along with what they were doing.
"What he wanted to do was to remove the nasty side of Nazi Germany, he wanted a military dictatorship — maybe think of Pinochet as an equivalent. He certainly was no democrat, his initial objection was that Hitler was a petit bourgeois. Rather than being a man from whom the Federal Republic grew, he's a lot closer to Hitler than he is to us."
In fact, as he says, a Stauffenberg coup would have left the Allies in a difficult posidon: "Had he succeeded it would have made it difficult. It would have created a severe problem. Churchill actually said so in a private aside. At least Hitler staying in power until the very end gave us clarity.
Film Review: Page 14