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 ess…