On 20 July 1944 a group of German army officers attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler by exploding a bomb in his Wolf’s Lair headquarters.
They then intended to accuse central figures in the Nazi regime of plotting against Hitler.
The conspirators hoped to carry out a military coup using the army’s emergency plan to take control of German cities in case of social breakdown – “Operation Valkyrie”.
However, Hitler survived the explosion and on the same day the coup failed. Thousands of conspirators were interned and the main plotters were hanged or shot.
The story is told in the new film Valkyrie, a pet project of actor Tom Cruise. He plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the central figure in the conspiracy.
Stauffenberg had direct access to Hitler and personally delivered the bomb to the Wolf’s Lair.
When Cruise first announced his plan to make the film there was a storm of protest in Germany. But now that it has been released, Valkyrie has been praised by politicians and press alike.
This should be no great surprise – its version of the story fits neatly with myths about resistance to Hitler spun by the German establishment ever since the end of the Second World War.
The 20 July conspirators are often held up as representing the rebellious conscience of democratic Germany. They are contrasted to left wing resistance, which supposedly wanted to swap one dictatorship for another.
There is a big problem with this theory.
The vast majority of conspirators were not seeking a return to parliamentary democracy – in fact many of them despised the previous Weimar Republic.
The German officer corps was drawn from the nobility. Their political outlook was deeply reactionary.
Valkyrie leaves out the ambiguous nature of these officers’ rebellion, which makes it deeply flawed politically.
Tom Cruise plays Stauffenberg as an untainted hero.
However, after taking part in the 1939 invasion of Poland, the real Stauffenberg wrote that the Polish people “are an unbelievable rabble, with many Jews and many people of mixed blood… only happy when they are dominated”.
He thoroughly approved when Hitler concentrated military command in his own hands towards the end of 1941. It was only in 1942 that the attitude of Stauffenberg and many senior officers, began to shift.
This was for two main reasons.
First, the war had turned bad. The German advance to the east had been halted. Many of Hitler’s officers came to regard him as incompetent in his conduct of the war.
To them Hitler’s crime was not that he started a barbaric war, but that he appeared not to be winning it.
The conspirators came to regard Hitler as the major obstacle to an honourable peace.
They remembered the “shame” of the Versailles Treaty which had ended the First World War. This had left Germany liable for crippling reparations and parts of the country occupied by foreign troops.
They were determined that this time Germany should be left intact and unoccupied.
The second reason was fear of the consequences from the sheer scale of the killings that had been carried out behind the lines on the eastern front – where the regular army had worked hand in glove with the SS and the Nazi death squads, killing Jews, Slavs and Roma Gypsies.
Like many of his class, Stauffenberg associated the barbarity of the genocide with the regime’s upstarts, people from modest backgrounds who had risen with the Nazis and taken leadership roles that “rightly” belonged to the old conservative elites.
To his credit it does seem that he was genuinely appalled by the genocide from 1943 onwards.
Other conspirators had more sinister motives. For example, Eduard Wagner ran prison camps, and was partly responsible for the deaths of several million Soviet prisoners of war. He joined the conspiracy fearing Soviet retribution in the case of a German defeat.
Valkyrie could have been about how staunch supporters of the Nazi regime transformed into Hitler’s enemies, with all the ambiguities that implies.
Tom Cruise and director Bryan Singer weren’t interested in such subtleties. This is especially annoying, as Cruise said his ambition was “to tell it like it was”. Superficially this is true – the minutiae of the planning and the coup are well depicted.
But the film fails because it can’t explain what motivated the characters.
Stefan Bornost is the editor of Marx21 magazine in Germany. Marx21 website (in German) » www.marx21.de