The attempt to kill Hitler. Claus von Stauffenberg – the 20 July Plot and his position in History.

Deze update verschijnt in het Nederlands op de site van Jonge Historici Schrijven Geschiedenis.

The most famous attempt to kill Hitler during the war took place on 20 July 1944. Colonel Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg managed by then to explode a bomb of one kilogram – only a few meters away from Hitler. He fled from the East Prussian Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair) to Berlin, where he gave command to a circle of military officers called the ‘Fromm Kreis’. With their Operation Walküre – they planned to overthrow the power of the SS by blaming them to kill Hitler. Nonetheless, important figures wouldn’t start the uprise on time because they were uncertain whether Hitler was killed or not. They were right – due to many circumstances, Hitler survived the attempt. There was no way back for the officers – who vainly tried to overthrow Hitler’s regime. Von Stauffenberg and his three closest colleagues (General Olbricht, Senior Lieutenant Von Haeften and Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim) were liquidated shortly after midnight. The attempt was highly counterproductive after all. Hitler – who became even more paranoid and barely showed up in public – widened the rights of repressive forces such as the Nazi Party and the SS. In this atmosphere, at least 200 men who made contributed in the attempt to overthrow the regime were convicted and executed. The infamous Hitler greeting became obliged for civilians and took a part of their daily life. Another thousands of family members were arrested and send to various camps – among them were Von Stauffenberg’s wife and five children. Von Stauffenberg himself already knew that he would be remembered as a betrayer, he wrote in July 1944:

“The moment has come that something needs to happen.
But the man who has the courage to do so,
does this in the knowledge that
he will be memorised in the German history as a betrayer.
Though, when he does not act –
he would be a betrayer of his own conscience.”

Von Stauffenberg became part of the German history indeed. How did and does Germany’s devided and changing political landscape remember him?

Von Stauffenberg, 1934. No © needed.

Directly after the attempt, the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) investigated the common opinion among the German civilians. Most of them regretted the attempt by Von Stauffenberg deeply. The Germans were angry that the attempt came from ‘trustworthy’ high ranked officers and they were glad that Hitler survived. German diaries also show that were shocked and confused and brought up sympathy for Hitler. ‘Spontaneous’ marches broke out to celebrate Hitler’s survival. Of course it would be suicidal to critisise Hitler in public – but the increasing signs of loyalism were not necessary either. They show that Hitler’s shrunken popularity was restored again. Similar signals came from soldiers, Prisoners of War (PoW’s) and the general staff. The censorship who controlled the letters towards Germany noticed these signs of loyality.

Memorial stone (1952) and statue (1953)

Even after World War II, the average German thought of Von Stauffenberg as a betrayer. In 1951, over 20% even thought that Nazi Germany would have won WWII if the 20 July Plot didn’t took place. In 1964, over 30 percent of the German’s still rejected the Plot – still a larger number than the ones who supported the historical attempt. Nevertheless, the Bendlerblock developped as a memorial site in West Berlin. At the Bendlerblock’s courtyard, a memorial stone and a statue of a tied up young man remember Von Stauffenberg’s attempt since the early 1950s. By July 1955, the Bendlerstraße – which gives the entrance to the Bendlerblock – was renamed to Stauffenbergstraße. Where the execution of the four took place, a memorial stone is placed in 1960. Two decades later, a written honouration is developped in the gate leading to the Bendlerblock’s courtyard. In the meanwhile, the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (Memorial to the German Resistance) is erected. This memorial and educational site dating from 1968 was widened in 1978 and brought to its current extent in 1989. The museum shows around the 5000 objects which doesn’t only remember the attempt by Von Stauffenberg – but also the efforts of communist, christian, gypsie and artistic resistance movements. Memorial panels reveal which room used to be Von Stauffenberg‘s, Olbricht‘s and Mertz von Quirnheim‘s office. There is no entrance fee.

Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (Memorial to the German Resistance)

In the GDR, Von Stauffenberg and the 20 July plot was remembered initially negative – though it was not for the reason of treason. The communists thought it was an attempt of American secret agents to form a coalition against the Soviets. Von Stauffenberg and his colleagues were convicted as enemies of the labour class, who only unconsciously contributed to the Soviet Unions victory over fascism. In the meanwhile – a Soviet Union production memorised Von Stauffenberg as a courageous opponant of Hitler. After all, an order of merit for efforts in the GDR’s army was named after Von Stauffenberg. Interestingly, the first freely elected parliamentaries in the GDR consciously took their seats in the parliament at 20 July 1990. It imputes that Von Stauffenberg was an initiator of the democracy – but is this true?

Up till nowadays, there is political discussion whether the act of the coupe d’État should be remembered as an act of upright justice. The motivation of the Fromm Kreis had deeply nationalistic, elitist and conservative sides. Any democratic principles – such as free elections for the German people – were absent. Although Von Stauffenberg made the decision to become Hitler’s oponent after hearing about the massacre on Ukranian jews in the beginning of 1942, he still made important promotions within the German army. In the meanwhile, the mass killings such as the Holocaust, the Porajmos and Aktion T4 were nearly completed – and it is likely that many of the high ranked officers within the Fromm Kreis were also responsible for these. Operation Walküre came into a rapid after D-Day (6 June 1944). After the overthrow, Von Stauffenberg and his colleagues would (vainly) have tried to make peace with the west so they could intensify the war against the Soviet Union. For this reason, it seems that progressive opinionaters are generally more critically towards Von Stauffenberg than the conservatives. A recent example: the upcoming airport at the south of Berlin would have been called Von Stauffenberg Flughafen if not the SPD but the CDU would have the majority. Now it will be named after SPD’s legendary chancellor Willy Brandt.

In 2008, the Hollywood film Valkyrie – in which Operation Walküre stood central – came into cinema. The American directors present Von Stauffenberg’s as if his first intention was to save human lives and to close concentration camps when he is in power. Moreover, he is portrayed as a good partner and ideal father. So to speak, the intention of the film is highly commercial – not historical or political. A nice detail is that the CDU opposed licenses for filming because Tom Cruise, who played the main character of of Von Stauffenberg, is a member of the Scientology Church. It remains unclear if the CDU wanted to prevent the catholic Von Stauffenberg or if they are afraid of a scientologist in an army uniform. Perhaps it was just an attempt to influent the film in a way. Nevertheless, during the progress of the film – Der Spiegel concluded that Von Stauffenberg’s posthumous career never has been this succesful.

Former house of Von Stauffenberg, Berlin-Zehlendorf (January 2013).

Furthermore, a memorial stone is erected at the gate in front of the house where Von Stauffenberg and his family lived in 1943-44. In Schöneberg, at the Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof, a grave stone is developped which remembers the site where Von Stauffenberg and his companions were burried after their execution. They only rested two days here. Then, Goebbels ordered to dig up their corpses, bring it to a crematory in Wedding and spread their ashes at an unknown location. At the Gedenkstätte Plötzensee, a memorial panel is dedicated to the 89 contributors of the 20 July Plot who hung here on the cruel meat hooks. A street named the Haeftenzeile is named after Von Haeften in July 1957, and since October 1971 – a road is named after General Olbricht.

Memorial stone for the four executed. Alter St. Matthäus-Kirchhof, Berlin-Schöneberg - January 2013.

After all, we can see that Von Stauffenberg has been impopulair for various reasons. Even twenty years after his execution – nazi’s thought of him as a betrayer, something which Von Stauffenberg already expected. Nevertheless, he wasn’t disliked only for his treason – but also due his ambivalence. For a decade, the ambitious officers followed all nazi orders, also in Poland and at the Eastern front. His efforts to throw over Hitler and his regime don’t seem to be motivated by humanity, but for the sake to safe his Germany. By the end of the day, Von Stauffenberg became a clear symbol of resistance against Hitler – and that is the most important nowadays. Hitler might have enjoyed an increasing popularity at first instance, but after more than six decades – it was Von Stauffenberg who became the Hollywood star.

Upcoming 21 Januari, I will organise a walking tour through Berlin in which the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand is the destination. The theme will be Victims of the nazi’s – and will also pass by the monuments for the Porajmos, the Holocaust, prosecuted homosexuals and Aktion T4. The tour will be in english and doesn’t charge money. Registration by e-mail (joepdevisser1989@gmail.com) and more information will follow.

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