One of the most interesting aspects of the Second World War is the ways in which people resisted, challenged and sacrificed their lives in defiance of the Nazi regime. Today’s blog explores Chelsea’s and Hannah’s recent travels and how resistance in Nazi Germany is remembered and commemorated today. And of course, there was many different kinds of resistance in Germany: the Edelweiss Pirates and the White Rose youth movements, the protests of German wives at Rosenstrasse, and, of course, the 20 July Plot.
HR: So what was the 20 July Plot and who was involved?
CS: The 20 July Plot conspired to assassinate Adolf Hitler inside his Wolf’s Lair field headquarters in East Prussia in 1944. But this kind of resistance – unlike all the others in Nazi Germany – was the only one that could have stood a chance of success in overthrowing the Nazi regime.
This is because it was organised by members of Germany’s military elite – the only ones with enough practical resources and control over the reserve army to take over the major institutions of government. Some were from the idealistic and disparate ‘Kreisau Circle’ (named so by the Gestapo), while others were moderate new members with international experience and critical perspectives on Nazism. Many held minor government posts, such as Count Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg (Deputy Police President of Berlin) or were civilians with good connections, such as Ulrich von Hassell (the former Ambassador to Italy). Notable among them was the most famous, Claus von Stauffenberg.
However, the 20 July Plot was a failure. It led to the arrest and execution of many members of this circle and Claus von Stauffenberg is the most famous.
HR: And who was Claus von Stauffenberg? Why is he so famous?
CS: Claus Philipp Maria Justinian Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (a mouthful!) was the third of four sons from one of the oldest and most distinguished aristocratic Catholic families of southern Germany. Following a conventional military career path, Claus distinguished himself studying modern weapons in Berlin and showed an affinity for horses. He married in 1933 and had 5 children (the last of which was born after his death and while his wife was imprisoned).
In late 1943, Claus von Stauffenberg was a lieutenant-colonel with a black eye patch and missing fingers from his time in North Africa. He had become disillusioned with Hitler’s military failures on the Eastern Front (Stalingrad had been lost in February 1943), and wary of the overwhelming atrocities committed against civilians in the East. Historians describe Claus as an able and energetic man who, importantly, was one of very few with regular access to Hitler. After a few failed assassination attempts, Claus committed to killing Hitler himself. He was clearly very brave too.
But the 20 July Plot failed. The ensuing ‘Operation Valkyrie’, which was the military coup to seize control of Berlin’s government ministries following the assassination, also failed. General Fromm, a fellow conspirator and Stauffenberg’s boss, feared that the conspirators would expose his involvement and quickly condemned Stauffenberg and two aides to death after a small shootout at the Army Headquarters in Berlin (Stauffenberg’s offices). Rather quickly, Stauffenberg and others were all arrested and shot one by one in the courtyard. Just before he was killed, Stauffenberg shouted: “Long live sanctified Germany!” (Fromm’s treason was eventually discovered and he was executed in March 1945).
HR: How have you found that Stauffenberg is represented in Germany today?
CS: Today, Stauffenberg comes across as the epitome of resistance in Nazi Germany. For example, in Berlin his offices (and the offices of others who were executed) have been transformed into the Gedenkstaette Deutscher Widerstand (German Resistance Museum). Many other resistance groups are included in its popular exhibition, but it’s ultimately Claus von Stauffenberg who is the anchor here. In 1955, even the street was renamed “Stauffenbergstrasse”. And, of course, there’s that Tom Cruise movie…
HR: Ah yes, Valkyrie and Tom Cruise! I mean we must remember that this was a Hollywood movie, whereas a movie directed and created in Germany may have been very different. But the fact that Tom Cruise was chosen to play Stauffenberg says a lot I think. Tom Cruise is a Hollywood hero and action-man, which many think Stauffenberg should also be portrayed as. I really felt that the film was trying to show him as a superman, the military rebel who wanted to save Germany from big bad Hitler, which of course needed to happen, but it didn’t feel quite believable.
If Stauffenberg (Cruise) had been so concerned about the Jews that were being killed, or even the concentration camps, why didn’t they act before? Instead, there’s an undercurrent in the film that the conspirators needed to act before the Allies arrived – this comes across much more loudly to me. In the film, it’s as if the Nazis were rebelling as a way to redeem themselves, so they aren’t the bad guys too. And of course, it was a Hollywood movie, so it was very much the spy and thriller movie.
CS: And you’ve been to Stuttgart, near where Stauffenberg was raised, what did you think about Stauffenberg’s representation there?
HR: Yeah, I hadn’t actually made the connection with Stauffenberg before I arrived in Stuttgart, and found an exhibition about him. So
whilst I was there I had forgotten that many museums in Germany are closed on weekends. The only place open was the Haus der Gerschichte Baden-Würtemberg, where they were hosting a Stauffenberg exhibition. Now, the exhibition was in German so my GCSE German wasn’t quite up to scratch, but nonetheless it portrayed him as a hero. They showcased his medals and military achievements, for example. But they also displayed family photo albums and a violin, which was great because it humanised him. But then of course that was next to Tom Cruise’s outfit from filming! But I don’t think the exhibition really explored WHY Stauffenberg and others conspired to kill Hitler – it sort of glossed over this. It didn’t go into detail about the atrocities that I had thought was one of the key reasons for the 20 July Plot.
CS: I think your experience is similar to many others, Hannah. Even if men like Stauffenberg are well remembered and even mythologised – whether in Berlin or Stuttgart – German resistance was actually not very unified. The group that Stauffenberg represented bickered endlessly amongst themselves, and were comprised of many different backgrounds (including Christians, Catholics, Social Democrats, theologians, lawyers, military men, anti-capitalist, pro-monarchist, pro-military). Many were right wing conservatives who, some historians claim wanted to establish a sort of ‘radical-conservative idealism…based in Christian values and local identities (but) were suspicious of capitalism’ (Evans, Third Reich at War, pp. 632).
HR: And what about genocide against the Jews? Because in Tom Cruise’s film, Valkyrie, it is very much presented that the plot took place to stop the Holocaust.
CS: Yes and no. Some members of Stauffenberg’s circle were livid about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. There’s evidence that Ulrich von Hassell and Helmuth von Moltke both expressed outrage in 1941 at the systematic murder of thousands of people because of their Jewish descent. But, after the fall of Nazism, both also stated that the Nuremberg Laws would be abolished – not because they were unjust, but because there would be a very small number of Jewish survivors and thus not constitute a ‘danger for the German race.’ (Evans, Third Reich at War, pp. 634).
So I guess the point of all this is to be careful that when looking at resistance against any regime that we do not attach our own presumptions about historical injustices to conspirators’ motivations. Stauffenberg was clearly a courageous man who capitalised on his exclusive access to Hitler. But he and his circle were not putting their lives at risk to save the Jews of Europe. He was an elitist and product of a strong military culture. Similar to others (but not all, of course), Stauffenberg was pro-military, right-wing and conservative. His group probably would have set up a military dictatorship directly after killing Hitler and gaining power.
HR: Incredible. But still, I think it’s very moving that so many people had such courage to resist, if their motivations are different or more complex than we imagined.
Dr Chelsea Sambells and Hannah Randall