Valkyrie: Stauffenberg a hero? I don’t think so.

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Valkyrie: Stauffenberg a hero? I don’t think so.


A patchy hero

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.


  1. January 29, 2009

    Terrence O'Keeffe

    I haven’t seen Valkyrie yet, but the previews alone indicate the typical Hollywood overkill in terms of stars, staging, special effects, etc. (the normal nonsense of “high production values”). If you want to get a sense of the times, forget Hollywood — it’s far better to watch the grainy old documentaries, especially those that show Hitler giving Mussolini a guided tour of the bombing’s rubble or the Nazi hanging judge Roland Freisler at work during the trials of some of the senior conspirators. As Kundnani points out the consensus among the conspirators about what should follow was far from reassuring: a “national” government incorporating all the old conservatives who had formerly abetted Hitler (and been outsmarted and outmaneuvered by him), one or two Social Democrats who might go along and broaden the popular base of support, and a position of returning the borders to the status quo ante of early 1939 (thus leaving Germany with Austria, the fake “first victim” of Nazi expansionism, rather than the first enthusiastic collaborator which it was, and also with the portions of Bohemia and Moravia peeled away from Czechoslovakia); what the status of Poland was to be, especially the areas directly incorporated into the Reich (West Prussia, Warthegau, Silesia) remained unresolved, since the conspirators were not fully opposed to cutting a deal with Stalin, which might have resulted in keeping Poland partitioned.

    Almost all high-ranking generals (e.g., Fromm, Kluge, Rommel) who gave either tacit or explicit pledges of co-operation also made their position as fence-sitters clear – if it works, fine, if not, we’re not pledged to anything. Most of these military men also wished to preserve the territorialy enhanced Reich of 1939. The business of how to deal with the remaining Nazi hierarchy had not been thought out either. Even the role of Himmler as super-policeman and how he might be utilized internally after a successful coup was not clear (his level of knowledge about the conspiracy and his own fence-sitting in the face of prospective Allied victory were covered in detail way back in the 1950s in Gerald Reitlinger’s excellent book, “The SS: Alibi of a Nation”). The fall of 1944, three months after the assassination attempt, gives the lie to the idea of a significant resistance anywhere in Germany — the allegedly ailing Hitler was again showing one of his furious bursts of energy, planning the Ardennes offensive, and the war-economy was going full-stroke under increasingly difficult conditions while the civilian population was being pummeled and impoverished by the bombing war (in other words a sort of suicidal mentality prevailed among some, apathy among others, leading in either case to full compliance with the will of Hitler).

    One piece of Kundnani’s with which I disagree is that there was a winding down of the campaign to murder the Jews after July 1944. The obvious major exception to this notion is Eichmann’s frenzied activity in Hungary throughout this period, terminated only by the Red Army’s approach to Budapest. It’s true that Auschwitz was shut down (for the same reason of advancing Russians), but death-camp inmates and other captives were then being marched into Germany for possible last-minute use as slave labor, to be followed naturally by death through maltreatment or murder. (During the war’s last months Himmler was attempting to barter a few thousand Jews for military equipment and in order to ingratiate himself with the Allies; yet he never called off murder squads and flying tribunals sent out to hang “traitors”, i.e., those showing a lack of enthusiasm for the war or the regime.) Hitler himself never gave up on the murder campaign, even after he had come to the conclusion that the war was lost and even though allocation of resources to it were entirely counter-productive to the rest of the war effort. An excellent examination of Hitler’s thinking during this period is in Sebastian Haffner’s “The Meaning of Hitler”, published in 1979. About the only historian I can think of who would dispute Haffner’s elucidation of Hitler’s mentality and behavior after 1942 would be David Irving, who probably admires Hitler’s final center-stage act of grandiose death and destruction for as many as possible.

    It’s certainly understandable why some post-war Germans wished to memorialize the July 20th events and the conspirators, though it should be noted that most Germans who lived through the Hitler era felt that the assassination attempt was an act of treachery. Raising a monument to Stauffenberg himself encountered considerable political and public resistance right up to the end.

  2. January 29, 2009

    Len Nicholson

    I *have* seen the film and was pleasantly (if that’s the appropriate word) surprised at what it managed to convey within the time constraint. For a Hollywood film it is also fairly accurate historically, but it naturally also has the good guys vs the bad guys, shadings being restricted to other than the major star, and fairly simply put at that. Never mind, I’m all for popularising history as long as there is an essential truth to the representation.

    It’s obviously important to see von Stauffenberg and his ilk from all angles but I think the film will put enquiring minds on the road to further reading.

    I also feel that the film has been getting more criticism than it might otherwise have had had Cruise not played the starring role.

  3. January 30, 2009

    Terrence O'Keeffe

    Len is probably right and I should get over my Hollywood phobia and go see the film. It’s also true that several of the men who were executed immediately after the event or during its long grisly aftermath of SS and Gestapo dragnet, torture, and Peoples’ Court “trials” were heroic in their personal behavior. And, in point of fact, Stauffenberg was the conspirator with the most energy and resolution. But, as Kundnani points out, the heroism of many of the plot’s participants was fixated on the one idea of getting rid of Hitler (sufficient in itself for self-sacrifice)while conserving some of his territorial gains and his welcomed squashing of the “chaotic” democracy of the Weimar Republic (often described as a “republic with no republicans.”)

  4. January 31, 2009

    Len Nicholson

    One of the reasons I put in a good word for the film is that I felt it managed fairly successfully to simplify a very complicated subject without descending to the infantile. Whether you take that view rather depends on what aspects of the story you find important.

    Hans Kundani’s post, which I didn’t address, argues that von Stauffenberg should not be seen as a hero. He doesn’t give us his definition for legitimate hero status but, whatever it is, it should be denied von Stauffenberg because some of his political beliefs did not contradict Nazi territorial objectives, for example. Or because the conspirators were not inclined to be ‘suicide bombers’. I’d suggest that von Stauffenberg was well aware of the retrospective ‘suicide bomber’ status he might, and did, achieve. The Nazi bogeyman is so powerful that showing any common ground is enough to have many foaming at the mouth, but the point that Hans makes “like many aristocratic Wehrmacht officers, Stauffenberg was initially enthusiastic about Nazism and approved of the colonisation of Poland” should really be the other way round i.e. Nazism gained support by feeding the resentments of, amongst others, the German aristocracy. It was Nazism that initially adopted the policies of many and various antecedents and built on a tradition of discipline and obedience to hi-jack a society woefully unprepared to resist in any meaningful way.

    If I was pushed to give a judgement on whether von Stauffenberg should be accorded heroic status I would tend to say yes because he managed to transcend the difficulties set against his eventual course of action by his cultural programming and make a moral stand. Essentially the argument is did he make a moral stand or was he pragmatic/ opportunistic? I think yes, again, but more the former.

  5. March 22, 2009


    Only people who lived trough a war know how difficult it is to see clearly trough political propaganda. To be on one side and to find logic in the other is an impossible task. To stand up to what you call your own and to what has been said that is your own is..
    It is fair to say, that it took me 17 years of peace to distinguish heroes from criminals. It is next to impossible to realize that the side you are on is a wrong side. So you can judge now, from the perspective of 60 years, but if you think that an action and the figure of a hero must be morally impeccable to stand up to the name than you don’t know real life..

  6. September 27, 2009


    Love the way a person who has never lived through and hopefully will never have to suffer what so many suffered feels they can make such critisisms..What right have you to critise people because they didn’t really want to kill themselves in the process of trying to save so many others? I think it makes them even more heroic that they valued their lives so much and yet still took the risks..People like you have no idea!

  7. November 23, 2009


    The movie Valkerie portrays Hitler as a worn out, incompetent buffoon. However, the revenge killings that resulted from the assassination attempt proved that he was evil incarnate until the end!

  8. September 15, 2010

    Catholic Gent

    This review reads like Marxist propaganda and probably Teutonophobia. If Stauffenberg was a communist type, ready to slit the throat of his nation and sell it out to the slavery of the Soviet Union, then no doubt the reviewer would be proclaiming him a secular messiah of Mandelian proportions. But because he was conservative, Catholic, loved his country and wanted to end the war by assasinating Hitler, then allying with the West against the Soviet Union, he is smeared.

  9. March 24, 2011


    Staffenberg was a hero. It took great courage to know the truth and to want a new country in the time of turmoil.

  10. April 17, 2012

    Frank Lippold

    Hi,I Am German and YES,I didnt know what you
    Are thinking but in Germany Stauffenberg is
    A Hero,the biggest Hero with the other involved
    People who has help them in Germany.A Lot of
    German People want that the 20.Juli becomes
    The National Day.

  11. May 22, 2012

    Frank Schmied

    Hi, I AM GERMAN and yes,in Germany he
    and the other involved people are HEROS.
    Many Germans wants that the 20.Juli becomes
    The National Day.
    In Germany are actually around 60 thousend people
    Who are Vote for the npd,the modern nspad.
    Why are this factional legal?The dark side
    of democracy.And this is a smaller percentage
    Than in hungary or Bulgaria.

  12. June 19, 2012


    Well,I mean Stauffenberg was a hero.Great courage.

  13. August 24, 2012


    Sorry if i have offended you but its Late but todaly
    this was a insult of Germany And i think
    youre German because of your Name.

  14. November 11, 2013

    Terrence O'Keeffe

    A final note from me on this one. I eventually saw the film and found it to be better than I expected, and I think that Len Nicholson’s observation is correct, i.e., some of the criticism thoughtlessly reflected negative opinions of Cruise as an actor (or Scientology member); he’s actually pretty good in the film. And yes, in spite of his flaws (and the more glaring ones of some his confederates) Stauffenberg was a hero in the sense of a man risking his life to fulfill a worthy ideal (killing Hitler and overthrowing Nazi control of Germany were very worthy ideals). The most distasteful remarks of the above discussion (which, I hope, lingers on, given the importance of WWII for the half-century and beyond that followed it) are those made by the David Irving-like, so called “Catholic Gent”. First of all conservative Catholic people in Germany (as well as elsewhere) were pro-Hitler to the extent that he left their beloved church alone (which he was smart enough to do, though he often mused in his table-talk, and in the Goebbels’ diaries, about “settling accounts” with the Catholic Church after he had won the war; Hitler admired the church strictly for its mastery of propaganda, indoctrination, and ideal-creation, though he hated its ideals, for the most part, and in this this respect he admired Communists for the very same reasons, i.e., effectiveness in the game of power politics – his admiration for Stalin only grew as the latter proved to be his nemesis). Second, Catholic Gent skips the interesting matter of Hitler’s behavior toward Poland, a very conservative Catholic nation indeed — not only did he kill 3 million or so Polish Jews, he also killed 3 million or so Catholic Poles, considering the whole nation to be inferior Slavs without whom the world would be a better place. Catholic Gent’s sins of omission and commission, are, in brief, rather disgusting, and he masks them under the banner of anti-communism. Did he conveniently forget the Hitler-Stalin dismemberment of Poland and their joint efforts to abolish that nation politically and culturally? Enough said.

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Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani is a writer and critic 

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