This July 20th marks the anniversary of the plot by German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler, a story nicely retold in the 2008 film Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer. Shortly after the movie’s release, a memoir by a surviving conspirator, Philipp von Boeselager (1917-2008), appeared in English under the title Valkyrie: The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler by its Last Member (Vintage Books, 2009). The title is somewhat misleading, since Boeselager was not involved in the famous attempt led by Count von Stauffenberg (portrayed by Tom Cruise in the movie). But the author was nevertheless an active participant in plans which came very close to eliminating the Nazi leader.
One interesting thing about Boeselager is his candor. Unlike many contemporaries, he makes no attempt to editorialize his views as a young man even if those views seem out of date. “I can understand,” he says, “if a foreign reader mistrusts German patriots’ political position in that period, and is tempted to see in it an unacceptable compromise with the goals pursued by Adolf Hitler. However, we German patriots were nonetheless able to tell the difference. We had no more cause to be ashamed of wanting to restore Germany than had the French, who, in 1914, wanted to restore Alsace and Lorraine to France.” This is exactly how people of his generation thought, regardless of political persuasion. Hitler came to power as much through working class support and appeals to the left as he did to the complacency of revanchist militarists. It will be easy for modern readers to condemn such views, but personal choices are tidy only in theory. I say this not as a revisionist, but as a realist. Our attitudes can be influenced by popular complacency much more than we realize.
While reading Valkyrie, I was reminded of the rare memoir, Against Stalin and Hitler, by Captain Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt, which I highly recommend if you can obtain a copy. Like Boeselager, Strik-Strikfeldt was a member of the famous Tresckow circle. General Henning von Tresckow was assigned to Soviet prisoners by the Wehrmacht with the aim of raising an anti-Communist volunteer force. Many officers like Boeselager were sincere in their desire to liberate Russia. But Nazi party leaders were uninterested in such a project, preferring instead to enslave the Russian population. Such disillusioning experiences fueled the opposition to Hitler, along with a growing awareness of even more lethal projects against “subhuman” races.
As in any historical crisis, there are a variety of motives at work. The fact that people were at one time more fearful of Communism—which had already murdered, starved and enslaved tens of millions of people—and were slow to understand the new tyranny of Nazism is not so shocking as it seems. But once an evil becomes apparent then pragmatism and convention cease to be an excuse. I do not believe that men fundamentally change from one generation to the next. They hope that the better forces will prevail without having to resort to desperate measures. That was true of honorable military leaders like Heinz Guderian who disapproved of the anti-Hitler plots despite his intense dislike of Nazism. But for Boeselager, Germany was too far gone for quiet resignation.
Whether or not assassination is a legitimate means of resistance is a point that will be keenly debated. It is arguable that the 1944 Valkyrie plot made things worse by inciting Hitler to even more draconian measures. And what if Hitler had been killed at a time when Nazism had yet to be decisively routed? The majority of Germans may not have fully appreciated the extent of his failure, as they did nearly a year later, when the Führer committed suicide as victorious enemy troops surrounded his bunker. These are the sort of questions which may forever remain unanswerable. That said, there can be no denying that the efforts of Boeselager are a striking testimony to the decency and resolve of the men and women who refused to collaborate with tyranny.
For more details about Boeselager and the anti-Hitler plots, see my comments at the end of the “Briefly Reviewed” section (New Oxford Review, April 2011).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image shows Claus von Stauffenberg (far left) and Adolf Hitler with other high-ranking German officers. It is provided by the German Federal Archive, and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.