The critics seem to have been almost unanimously unimpressed with Valkyrie, which stars Tom Cruise as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the key figure in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. But whether or not it’s a good film, it raises a deeper, much more difficult question: should Stauffenberg be seen as a hero, as the movie strongly suggests and many people in Germany also believe?
You wouldn’t know it from watching the movie, but like many aristocratic Wehrmacht officers, Stauffenberg was initially enthusiastic about Nazism and approved of the colonisation of Poland. Although he was subsequently appalled by the mass murder of Jews on the Eastern Front, in which the Wehrmacht was complicit, he became involved in the resistance movement within the military only after he was badly wounded in North Africa in April 1943. The movie also gives us little sense of what else was going on in the Reich in the summer of 1944 when the assassination attempt finally took place. At that point, as the Red Army advanced and war crimes tribunals loomed, the SS was even beginning to wind down the extermination of the Jews. In other words, Stauffenberg left it until extremely late in the day.
One might also think, from watching the movie, that the conspirators were enlightened democrats. Far from it. Men like Carl Goerdeler, who would have become German chancellor if the Stauffenberg coup had succeeded, were national conservatives who hated the Weimar Republic as much as the Nazi dictatorship and wanted essentially to restore aristocratic rule and maintain German domination of contintental Europe. (There was another connected group, the Kreisau circle around Helmuth James von Moltke, which was motivated more by Christian and socialist principles, but unlike the national conservatives it declined to act against Hitler.)
Furthermore, a big part of why the conspirators took so long to attempt to assassinate Hitler, why they devised such elaborate schemes to do so (including one involving a bomb disguised as two cognac bottles that mysteriously metamorphoses in the movie into Cointreau – product placement perhaps?) and why they ultimately failed, was their own reluctance to be killed in the process. Despite their pious declarations about the need to show the rest of the world that another Germany existed – which the movie takes at face value – these professional soldiers were remarkably squeamish about sacrificing their own lives, even as literally millions of Germans, let alone foreigners, died around them.
I don’t doubt that, after being so deeply implicated in the crimes of the regime for so long, Stauffenberg, a Catholic, had pangs of genuine guilt that formed a part of his complex motivation for joining the collaborators. He obviously also showed great bravery in carrying out the assassination attempt. But a hero? I don’t think so. It seems to me that the most one can say about Stauffenberg is that by attempting to kill Hitler in the summer of 1944, he atoned for his previous sins.