Features » History


Why did Stauffenberg plant the bomb?

Whatever his motives for killing Hitler, Stauffenberg was no role model for future generations, says British historian Richard Evans.

Few incidents in the domestic history of Germany during the Second World War are more dramatic than Colonel Claus Schenk, Graf von Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate the German "Leader" Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944. The hushed conversations and secret debates of the conspirators beforehand, the near-misses of their previous attempts, the breathtaking audacity of the final bombing, the chance circumstances behind Hitler's survival, the violent and desperate confusion of the final hours at army headquarters in the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin, the stark tragedy of Stauffenberg's summary execution, the mystery of his final exclamation – "long live sanctified Germany!" – all of this has become the stuff of legend. It is not surprising that the conspiracy of 20 July 1944 is now to be the subject of a Hollywood movie.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg in 1926, 17th cavalry regiment in Bamberg. © Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)

Yet Stauffenberg was much more than an action hero driven by the kind of simple moral imperative that suits Hollywood's desire to portray everything in terms of starkly opposed opposites of good and evil. He found moral guidance in a complex mixture of Catholic religious precepts, an aristocratic sense of honour, Ancient Greek ethics, and German Romantic poetry. Above all, perhaps, his sense of morality was formed under the influence of the poet Stefan George, whose ambition is was to revive a "secret Germany" that would sweep away the materialism of the Weimar Republic and restore German life to its true spirituality. Inspired by George, Stauffenberg came to look for a revival of an idealized medieval Reich, in which Europe would attain a new level of culture and civilization under German leadership. A search of this kind was typical of the Utopianism that inhabited the wilder shores of Weimar culture – optimistic and ambitious, but also abstract and unrealistic. It was ill-suited to serve as the basis for any kind of real political future.

Such influences set Stauffenberg apart from many of the longer-standing members of the military resistance, whose multifarious projects and plans to overthrow Hitler dated from as early as 1938, and were driven above all by a belief that the war the National Socialists were aiming for was unwinnable. To launch it, they believed, would cause incalculable harm to Germany. It was this, rather than any fundamental opposition to National Socialism as such, that motivated the leading members of the military-aristocratic resistance in the late 1930s and at the beginning of the 1940s. Like them, Stauffenberg thought of himself first and foremost as a soldier, in the centuries-old tradition of his family, and for a long while, this military identity outweighed the influences he had imbibed through his membership of the George circle. But even in the late 1930s, he was markedly more sympathetic to National Socialism than were many more senior officers. His relatives were wont to describe him as the only "brown" member of the family. While he was later to lose altogether his enthusiasm for National Socialism, he never lost his contempt for parliamentary democracy. This alone would make him ill-fitted to serve as a model for the conduct and ideas of future generations.

In the 1930s, Stauffenberg was at first enthusiastic about National Socialism's promise of spiritual renewal, and supported Hitler in the Reich presidential elections of 1932. He welcomed Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor, and took part in a street demonstration in its support on the night of 30 January 1933. His enthusiasm never led him to join the Party – for him, the George circle was the only party -, but he considered the National Socialists were leading a movement of national renewal that was sweeping away the shabby parliamentary compromises of Weimar. More than this, he also believed that a policy of purifying the German race and eliminating Jewish influences from it was an essential part of this renewal, and although he regarded open antisemitic violence with distaste, the only time he protested was when the vulgar anti-Semitic Hetzblatt Der Stürmer accused George's poetry of being "Jewish" and "Dadaistic" in character. For Stauffenberg, Hitler's achievements in revising the Versailles Treaty remained paramount.

Stauffenberg's doubts about the wisdom of starting a general European war were quelled by the stunning successes of German arms in 1939-40, which he saw as decisive steps towards the creation of the general European Reich of the kind he had dreamed of in his days as a disciple of George. Stauffenberg fought with bravery and enthusiasm in the campaigns of the first two years of the war. It was only in the months following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 that he gradually came to doubt whether National Socialism was going to realize the ideals he sought to achieve. The over-ambitious military strategy adopted by Hitler in 1941, which led to disaster at Moscow in January 1942, was repeated on an even greater scale in the following year, and it became clear to Stauffenberg that it was overstretching Germany's resources to such an extent that failure was becoming inevitable. Even more important, the mass killings of Soviet civilians behind the Eastern Front, the murder of three and a half million Soviet prisoners of war, the looting and destruction of Soviet property, above all, the shooting of hundreds of thousands of Jews, convinced Stauffenberg that the National Socialist regime was recklessly squandering the goodwill that it had initially met among the peoples it had freed from Stalin's yoke. It was betraying his idea of a new Europe under the benevolent rule of the Reich. Indeed, Stauffenberg thought it was betraying the ideals of National Socialism itself.

Führerhauptquartier: Stauffenberg (on the left), Hitler and Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. © Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)Führerhauptquartier: Stauffenberg (on the left), Hitler and Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. © Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)
Like the few other army officers who were critical of the conduct of the war in the east, therefore, Stauffenberg at first took a stance that was motivated more by military than by moral considerations. In the course of 1942, however, Stauffenberg realized that such atrocities were not just counter-productive by-products of a brutal policy of waging war, but formed the very essence of the German war effort. Hitler and the National Socialist leadership were betraying Germany, not merely preventing the realization of the true spiritual values of the "secret Germany" but actually negating them. They were perverting military values and implicating the Armed Forces in terrible crimes that went against all the most fundamental principles by which Stauffenberg and his fellow-officers lived; had he survived the war, this realization that the army itself was being turned into an instrument of criminality would no doubt have made him impatient with those who would claim that it remained untainted by the murderous spirit of National Socialism. It was this moral conviction, arrived at when Germany was still absolutely dominant in Europe, that set Stauffenberg apart from the more instrumental views of some of the other conspirators, who sought above all to rescue Germany from the total defeat that stared it in the face after Stalingrad. These beliefs, combined with his energetic personality, were also what led him to act where many other members of the military-aristocratic resistance still hesitated.

Stauffenberg was acting not just on the basis of a strong moral imperative, but also in the name of a political ideology. He remained true to the essential elitism of the George movement, combining it with a more conservative, basically instinctive belief in the superiority of the aristocracy and the army officer corps. The oath he devised for the conspirators declared that in seeking a "New Order, that makes all Germans bearers of the state", those who signed it none the less "despise the lie of equality, and bow down before the hierarchy ordained by Nature". Like almost all sections of the resistance, he considered parliamentarism, the only viable form of democratic politics, had bankrupted itself in the Weimar Republic; that it would re-emerge after the war would have dismayed as well as surprised him. Here too, in their arrogant dismissal of social and political equality, his ideas looked more to the past than to the future. This rejection of egalitarianism and democracy was shared, in different forms by all the multifarious elements of the resistance, and meant that its attempt to gain a popular base by bringing in political figures from differing ideologies, such as Social Democrats, was never likely to meet with any meaningful success.

The leading figures in the conspiracy hammered out and repeatedly revised a set of aims that became distinctly more modest as Germany's military situation worsened, but even in May 1944 they included a negotiated peace on the basis of the German frontiers of 1914 plus Austria, the Sudetenland and the South Tyrol, autonomy for Alsace-Lorraine, and the retention of an effective defence force in the east. These far-reaching aims, which would have kept Germany as the dominant power on the Continent, indicated that Stauffenberg and his fellow-conspirators remained German nationalists to the end. They would have been a poor guarantee for European peace and co-operation had they ever come into effect.

In view of the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender, the foreign policy aims of the conspiracy were unrealistic in the extreme. By the time the bomb went off, most of the leading conspirators already recognized this unpalatable fact. After the Normandy landings, Stauffenberg doubted whether killing Hitler would serve any useful political purpose. Surely there was no hope any longer, if there had ever been any, of reaching a negotiated settlement with the Allies and rescuing something of Germany from the ruins. But, his fellow-conspirators persuaded him that practical politics were now irrelevant: what mattered was to show that the German resistance had been prepared to act.

Stauffenberg knew therefore that his bomb was important above all as a moral gesture. His intention in setting it off was to rescue the honour of the German people. Yet this aim too failed. The notion of honour that underpinned the conspiracy in its final stages was not dissimilar to that which had led the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto the previous year to go down fighting against the final drive of the SS to exterminate them; or, perhaps, to that of the German navy officers who had tried to lead the fleet out against the Royal Navy at the beginning of November 1918, when all was clearly lost. In a way, it was not even dissimilar to that of Hitler, Goebbels and the other National Socialist leaders who determined in the final months of the war to sacrifice themselves in the interests of their own particular version of Germany's future.

But the National Socialist leaders of course sacrificed millions of others as well. German military losses reached their highest numbers in the final months of the war; civilian deaths from bombing raids likewise. And the mass murder of the Jews continued right to the end. Had Stauffenberg's bomb succeeded in killing Hitler, it is unlikely that the military coup planned to follow it would have moved the leading conspirators smoothly into power. Large parts of the army, the SS and the NSDAP would have resisted by force of arms, and a civil war would have been the most probable result. There can be little doubt, however, that this would have brought huge military advantages to the Allies, and that the war would have come to an end several months sooner than it did, with the consequent saving of millions of lives.

That alone was justification enough for Stauffenberg's act. In failing, he failed comprehensively. The war continued: millions more were killed. Anti-democratic, elitist and nationalist, he had nothing to offer the politics of the coming generations, still less the politics of today. In the end, too, for all the desperate heroism of Stauffenberg and his fellow-conspirators, Germany's honour was not rescued. The conspiracy encompassed only a tiny minority of the German people. The vast majority continued fighting to the end. Most were shocked by the news of the assassination attempt and relieved at Hitler's survival. As a moral gesture, Stauffenberg's bomb was wholly inadequate to balance out the crimes that had been committed in Germany's name and with the overwhelming support, or toleration, or silent acquiescence, of the German people. As the Catholic schoolteacher turned army officer Wilm Hosenfeld noted on 16 June 1943, more than a year before Stauffenberg's attempt: "With this horrendous murder of the Jews we have lost the war. We have brought an indelible shame upon ourselves, a curse that cannot be lifted. We deserve no mercy, we are all guilty together."


The article was originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung, 23 January 2009.

Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University and author of "The Coming of the Third Reich" (Penguin, 2003), "The Third Reich in Power" (Penguin, 2005) and "The Third Reich at War" (Penguin, 2008). - let's talk european