January 8, 2009 - by John Rosenthal
The conspirators against Hitler were anything but heroes
“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.
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” 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.” 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 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 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.
On July 11, 1944, Staff Officer Lt. Colonel Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, convinced that he and he alone could assassinate Hitler, attended a conference at the Berghof. Concealed inside his briefcase was a time bomb. Waiting outside in a getaway car was his co-conspirator, Captain Friedrich Klausing. Inside the Berghof, Stauffenberg telephones his colleagues in Berlin to tell them that neither Göring nor Himmler are present. They insist that the attempt be aborted. Stauffenberg then returns to Berlin to plan his next assassination attempt. 1. Adolf Hitler 15. Stenographer Heinrich Berger (killed)
On July 11, 1944, Staff Officer Lt. Colonel Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, convinced that he and he alone could assassinate Hitler, attended a conference at the Berghof. Concealed inside his briefcase was a time bomb. Waiting outside in a getaway car was his co-conspirator, Captain Friedrich Klausing. Inside the Berghof, Stauffenberg telephones his colleagues in Berlin to tell them that neither Göring nor Himmler are present. They insist that the attempt be aborted. Stauffenberg then returns to Berlin to plan his next assassination attempt.
1. Adolf Hitler
15. Stenographer Heinrich Berger (killed)
In the years following WWII, three main "myths" surfaced regarding these atrocities of the Third Reich:
A further explanation of the exact nature of the three myths is required. Germans who ascribed to the myth of ignorance took the stance that they weren’t aware of exactly what was happening during WWII, and that when the war came to an end and the truth was brought to light, they were horrified to learn of the death camps and the suffering. Over time this mentality transformed into a desire to move on and to remain unaware of the atrocities. The myth of resistance, on the other hand, was held by those individuals who felt that, while they did not know everything, they resisted as much as they could based on the knowledge that they had. Over time this myth developed into the mindset that enough is known about WWII, that the physical markers of the war should be swept away, and that the survivors of the war should not be emphasized so much. Those who believed the myth of victimization held that WWII and the Holocaust were not the fault of the entire German people, but rather that the "good Germans" were victims of "bad Nazis," which with time became the conceptualization of the Germans as victims of the.
Myth of Resistance
The Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Treptow is an example of how the legacy of communist struggle against the Third Reich was clung to as a cornerstone of the East German myth of resistance.
In West Berlin, the concept of resistance as a myth is tinged with multiple layers of irony. To begin with, the main heroes of the resistance that the West had to place on a pedestal were those individuals involved in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. This is ironic in one sense because these people were high-ranking conservatives in the government and military, who supported the Third Reich until it began to lose the war. Their positions and late action do not make most of them resisters so much as opportunists who were with Hitler while it benefited them, and then wanted him out of power at least in part because he was losing.
The myth of resistance is also ironic in that the response of the populace to the early attempts to spread and solidify this myth largely negated the myth itself. For example, a statue that was dedicated in 1953 to the attempted assassins at Bendlerblock, where some of the conspirators were executed, was only given the status of a national memorial to resistance in 1967. Clearly the delay in widespread recognition and adoption of the statue as a national memorial reflected that many Germans considered them [the would be assassins] to have been what Göbbels’ media had portrayed them as - traitors. If the indoctrination was so strong among Germans that they continued to view those who attempted to assassinate Hitler as traitors, how could the people claim to have resisted? Regardless of the lack of consistency, the statue erected as a resistance memorial came to serve the myth well, with a 1972 visitors’ brochure at the memorial stating that, "The German resistance proves that the entire German people was not stricken with the disease of totalitarianism and that, in Germany, too, the tradition of inalienable human rights could not be destroyed". This clearly demonstrates the way in which the myth of resistance helped to ease the minds and clear the consciences of those who ascribed to it.
Myth of Ignorance
The reactions of many people, particularly conservatives, to proposals of preservation and other such markers of the Nazi legacy show how the myth of resistance transformed from the notion that the German people resisted as much as they could based on their awareness of Nazi atrocities, to the mindset that the sites of Nazism and Nazi crimes should be swept away and that enough is known about the era. This, in turn, works in conjunction with the development of the myth of ignorance into the mindset that it is not desirable to know more about the Third Reich. The developments of these forces clearly come into play in a common reaction to the unearthing of the bunker in 1990. Many people, especially conservatives, wished to destroy the bunker or cover it up and forget about it. As can be seen with what ended up happening to the Führerbunker, "Typical German treatment of a historically burdened site”, Kerndl [the head of the municipal archaeology office] observed sardonically, “is either to plant it with greenery or to use it for parking, and here we have both". These conscious attempts to ignore or gloss over the Nazi influence on the city are clear extensions of these highly influential myths.
Another way in which it is possible to construe that these myths were and are present in the mindset of Berliners is in the repeatedly expressed desire and multiple attempts to restore or renovate city architecture in order to regain the appearance of the pre-Nazi era, typically going back to before 1914 and the First World War. Examples of this can be seen in the rebirth, "critical reconstruction," and accompanying rewriting of the history of the Mietkaserne (the five story tenement buildings inhabited by all but the richest Berliners by the 1900s, the preeminent symbol of Berlin as industrial metropolis, and Friedrichstadt (the old commercial center of Berlin). What had been the troubling specter of modernity and upheaval is now a comforting link back to an idealized past.. Undoubtedly the urge to move away from the Nazi legacy points to these myths and the way in which they capture the mindset of a segment of the German population.
Sites that have not received memorial status also serve as examples of the myth of ignorance at work. Particularly interesting instances of this are the office buildings previously inhabited by Nazis that simply rolled over into use during the post-WWII era. Two of the most striking examples of this ignorance at work can be seen in the fates of the sites of the Third Reich’s Ministry of Aviation and Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. The building that housed the Ministry of Aviation during the Nazi era, having survived WWII fairly unscathed, was renamed the "House of Ministries" by the GDR. In addition to being a main center of the East German government throughout the GDR’s existence, the building housed the ceremony that officially established the GDR in 1949. While both a mural and a plaque commemorated significant GDR events in the building, no reference was made to the Nazi planning that occurred within its walls. Just as troublesome, if not more so, was the smooth transition that occurred in the buildings of Göbbels’ Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. The GDR decided to use these existing buildings to house the Government Press Office and Ministry of Media. The clear dismissal of the Nazi legacies of these buildings speaks volumes about the degree to which the myth of ignorance played a role in the East German consciousness during the post-Nazi era.
Myth of Victimization
The myth of victimization is certainly no less important in the history of Berlin’s attempts to come to terms with the legacy of the Third Reich, and in some cases this myth even works in conjunction with the myths of resistance and ignorance. For example, victimization and resistance work simultaneously in the irony of the Western myth of resistance. This use can be construed as an example of how "bad Nazis" thoroughly indoctrinated "good Germans," such that the influence of the "bad Nazis" was what caused the delayed the acceptance of the memorial to the resisters. More concrete ways in which the myth of victimization can be seen influencing the architectural decisions of the post-Nazi era include the transition into identifying with the broader category of Nazi victims that began to occur in West Berlin with the 1952 establishment of a memorial to victims of the Hitler dictatorship at the Plötzensee prison in north-western Berlin" and its dedication to all the millions who had been persecuted or killed because of their ‘political convictions, religious beliefs, or racial heritage’. This tendency to lump all victims together is also evident in the slow build up of plaques and sculptures that marked where Jews were persecuted.
While the decisions show an orientation towards the plight of victims and subtly highlight the ways in Germans saw themselves as victims as opposed to perpetrators, the most blatant example of the myth of victimization can be seen in the debate over a national Holocaust memorial. Lea Rosh, a television talk-show host, spearheaded the push for a national Holocaust memorial to honor Jewish victims, stating that Germany needed to do what other nations had already done in establishing the memorial. However, in looking at the need for a memorial from this perspective, Rosh failed to acknowledge that Germany is not like "other nations" particularly when it comes to the legacy of the Holocaust. In ignoring this she demonstrated her unwillingness to see the complex issues involved. Her complete attachment to the myth of victimization became most apparent in her rejection of placing a memorial in front of the Reichstag (on which the inscription reads DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE, "To the German People"), stating, "Did the ‘German people’ murder the Jews? Hardly". This statement exposes her belief that it was "bad Nazis" as opposed to "good Germans" who were the perpetrators of the horrors of the Third Reich.
The memorial was officially opened in May of 2005, so the impact of the memorial on the psyche of Berliners and the ways in which Berliners chose to interpret the memorial can now be studied. However, from the point of view of those examining the issues before resolution, the argument was made by individuals such as Kerndl, the head of the municipal archaeology office, and those involved in the Active Museum, the group behind "The Topography of Terror" exhibition, that the memorial was an "alibi" and that placing the memorial on the site proposed by Rosh that was so closely linked to Hitler would in effect shift the blame onto his shoulders alone and thus remove the burden from common. These arguments were seemingly not a problem in the eyes of Rosh. Clearly the criticism of the concept of a national Holocaust memorial brings to light the concern of some Germans regarding the application of the myth of victimization.
It is clear that the three predominant myths regarding the atrocities of the Third Reich come to the surface in a variety of ways in the architecture of Berlin and the stories behind the physical aspects. However, these three myths do not tell the whole story, as evidenced by the push by some like those involved with the Active Museum who are dedicated to documentation and preservation. The interweaving of the myths with other perspectives and opinions demonstrate the difficulty of coming to a consensus about such a troubled past. What is clear, however, is that the physical aspects of Berlin and the debates that they inspire are intimately tied not only the past of the city and the German people, but to what will become of them as well.