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Unmasking the July 20 plot

Karl Heinz Bohrer defends Stauffenberg's historical honour against the judgement passed by Richard Evans

It is thanks to the judgement pronounced by the English historian Richard J. Evans on the assassin Stauffenberg as a new German "hero", that we can move beyond the superficial interest in the film and its plot and on to the moral and political substance of Stauffenberg as hero. If, however, it was Evans's intent to enlighten German readers, then he was doubly mistaken: Firstly Evans's lesson consisted of historical half truths, contradictory theses and slanderous allusions to Stauffenberg's character; and secondly, such distortions differ very little from the view held by West German intelligentsia regarding the events of July 20th 1944 and the conspirators who were, for the most part, of aristocratic Prussian stock. So it's owls to Athens. For a proper understanding of the how the plot against Hitler of 1944 is seen and judged today, one should bear in mind that today's horizon has shifted.

Before I go into the weaknesses of Evans's thesis, I would first like to look at the horizon in Germany today. One should remember that until the end of the fifties and later even, the overwhelming majority of the German society stigmatised the attack and its protagonists. The reasons for this, as Evans's text rightly suggests, stemmed on the one hand from the residue Nazi mentality in the majority of the population and on the other, from the resentment harboured by a new petit-bourgeois middle class which could no longer relate either culturally, politically or psychologically to characters such as Stauffenberg, Tresckow, Kleist, Schulenburg, Bussche, Trott zu Solz, or even to Moltke und Yorck von Wartenburg. That a list of distinguished middle-class men, most notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer – lost their lives resisting Hitler has done nothing to prevent this memory loss.

If, in spite of all the official remembrance days, the names of those who conspired against Hitler surfaced at all in the collective memory of the West German public, it was most likely to be as scapegoats: Why couldn't the members of an elitist upper class just disappear and take the flawed Nazi past with them – one, it should be said, which the West German majority initially refused to confront (until the children and grandchildren of these very Nazis suddenly became tireless in their efforts to kitschify the intellectual climate with their "antifascist" posing and strutting.

As such Evan's misrepresentation of the July 20 plot and its central figure - something he avoids in his in his important book "The Third Reich At War" (2008) - is profoundly accommodating of this milieu. Indeed, reading his text one sometimes gets the impression that he is having his lines fed to him by West German academia. In the course of his problematic argument he walks into two traps: 1. by contesting Stauffenberg's "moral motivation"; 2. by contesting Stauffenberg's suitability as role model. At he fall into the first, his analysis blurs and he starts contradicting himself.

If then, as Evans notes with initial objectivity, Stauffenberg had a strong moral imperative - whether this stemmed from an aristocratic code of honour, Catholic doctrine or Romantic poetry - then this also underpinned his initial affinity for National Socialism which Stauffenberg misinterpreted as "spiritual renewal". If "true spirituality" was Stauffenberg's guiding political impulse - and aside from Stefan George's mystical nationalism, this was rooted in the language of Hölderlin more than anything else, in his evocation of the "Fatherland", his "holy heart of the people" his avowal of "the holy be my word". Logically then, Stauffenberg's moral leitmotiv should be traced back to this spirituality which, for Holderlin, was pietistically tinged. It is therefore unconvincing to declare Stauffenberg's initial patriotic engagement in the war a moral deficit.

To muddy Stauffenberg's motives, Evans likes to operate with dates. It was "only in 1941" that Stauffenberg entertained his first doubts. Doubts about what? About the Nazi war's chances of success, or about the Nazi crimes in Russia? Evans's rhetoric becomes opaque at this point: If he has to admit that the National Socialist mass killings were what made an assassin out of Stauffenberg, the spiritually motivated soldier, why then relativise this motivation with a remark about Stauffenberg's insight into the military senselessness of this crime, an insight that was shared by high-ranking SS officers?

But then Evans's tactic is to contest the moral motivation behind the assassination attempt by pointing to how late in time it supposedly took place, as if were born out of the fear of losing the war rather than any morals held by the conspirators. Indeed in his book "The Third Reich at War", which otherwise relies on very balanced historical observation, Evans claims that Fritz Dietlof von der Schulenburg, one of Stauffenberg's early political mentors, did not arrive at the decision to assassinate Hitler until 1944, after the catastrophe of Stalingrad. Bearing in mind that there are undisputed documents which testify that, as early as 1939, before the outbreak of war, Schulenburg had mentioned in a conspiratorial conversation, the need to eliminate Hitler, not least because of the obvious criminality of his regime, - Evans's date shifting constitutes libel and insult to his honour, in that it implies that Schulenburg was motivated exclusively by military considerations. This view, which was hinted at in the book, now becomes method. The fact that Schulenburg, like Stauffenberg, thought in categories of Prussian-German patriotism that are alien to us today, is apparently too much for Evans's one-dimensional historical imagination.

Unclear in his argumentation, Evans continues to play off "military" against "moral" motivation until he collapses into self-contradiction. While, on the one hand, he talks about Stauffenberg being "motivated more by military than by moral considerations" in the next paragraph he talks about his "moral conviction" so as to distinguish him from the other conspirators. This, although his book about the Third Reich during the war provides plenty of evidence that he was aware of the mindset of the other younger putsch officers such as von dem Bussche or Ewald Heinrich von Kleist. This false analysis then reaches it grotesque climax with the equation of Stauffenberg's execution with Hitler's suicide: Stauffenberg had no intention of sacrificing himself, no, he was planning to outlive Hitler and realise his political ideas. And Hitler was certainly not sacrificing himself but expressis verbis the German people.

If his assessment of the moral motives borders on impudence, his political conclusions are slow on the uptake. That Evans accuses Prussian officers of being German nationalists, who, like Hitler, were bent on revising the Versailles Treaty and who endorsed Third Reich European power politics, is not only profoundly naive, it is also hypocritical.

When English politicians and intellectuals of the 1930s mistrusted Adam von Trott zu Solz and his attempts to use his old Oxford contacts to raise support for a secret Germany of resistance, they did so on the basis of what they deemed to be unacceptably patriotic motives. They wrote him off as a Nazi, and made their suspicions known to his American contacts. But they had their reasons. This mistrust resulted from an intellectually-based argument, as the letters from von Trott's Oxford friends, Sheila Grant Duff and Isaiah Berlin reveal.

Evans cannot co-opt this understandable insecurity about Trott's "Hegelian" mentality. His claim, astounding for an historian of our times, that the conspirators were not democrats and are therefore undeserving of our respect and honour, goes beyond distortion of the facts and into the blindness of political correctness. This is the line of argument taken by German historians who write German history from a social-democrat perspective.

There is no question that like Ernst Jünger and Gottfried Benn, Stauffenberg's first spiritual influence, Stefan George, entertained pre-fascist fantasies. And there is also no question that the young Stauffenberg's reverence for the medieval 'reich' was reactionary – in a similar vein to Novalis's ideas in 'Die Christenheit oder Europa'. But what does that mean? Neither of them had political ideas that could in any way have served as a model for democratic European societies in the second half of the twentieth century. But to fundamentalise this tautological insight to effectively deny the conspirators any moral or cultural relevance is blinkered and constitutes intellectual bigotry. George, Jünger and Benn's pre-fascist fantasies contained important modernist symbols which mean they cannot be judged by political moralist criteria, alone. The same goes for Stauffenberg and his friends who – in a different way to the "idealistic" Scholl siblings and their circle – represented a calibre of ethics, character and culture class of which today’s politicians and other bureaucratic elites can only dream.

One would think that Evans might have been prompted by Hans Mommsen, a historian who was certainly not uncritical of the July 20 conspirators, not to forget the noblesse and strength of character shown by these emphatically conservative men, even if their ideas – and this goes for Stauffenberg, Schulenburg as well as those in the Kreisau Circle – seem politically anachronistic today. Evans has not only forgotten them, they seem to have entirely escaped his attention.

The fact is, as English critics of the film "Valkyrie" have rightly pointed out, its specific deficit is the failure to even broach the subject of the spiritual and intellectual background of the conspirators. Then again, that would have demanded a second "recherche du temps perdu" which is not possible in a film of this genre. The documents for this intellectual-moral zone exist, one only needs to consult the letters (which are partly accessible to the public at least) of von Trott zu Solz or Schulenburg, the diaries of one Marie "Missie" Vassiltchikov or Ursula von Kardoff ("Diary of a Nightmare"), to recognise Evans's complete denial of a moral dimension as tendentious.

The problem, aside from putting historical facts into disarray, centres around an error of reasoning: The belief that one can negate an intellectual and cultural paradigm by challenging – and rightly so – the validity of a political role model. How philistine, and in terms of philosophical history, how naive to believe that contemporary applications are the sole criteria for past events. But it's not about these applications!

The danger that, in the imagination of an historically illiterate cinema audience, the character of an American actor will fuse with that of the German original into a heroic role model for people today, is insufficient grounds to rob Stauffenberg of his historical honour. Bertolt Brecht's words are far more applicable to the summer of 1944: "Unhappy the land that needs heroes". This deed was necessary because it took place in an unhappy country that was turning its back on the community of nations. In this sense the conspirators were heroes. But also in a contemporary sense that Evans completely overlooks. These were people with enormous civil courage, who were ready and able to endure absolute isolation. This is a very modern virtue. One would not want to demand something similar from the conformist and politically correct Nazi heirs in a post-heroic society. My guess is that these politically correct conformists would have been the first to condemn the 1944 plot. Which is why their representatives – and their new stooge Evans – should stop beating the sparks of a modern-day moral triumphalism out of a past historical event at the expense of its authors. It is sensible and necessary to make the Germans politically responsible as a nation. But to give their political minorities the honour they deserve is beyond the level of finesse that Professor Evans has at his disposal. To recognise this is all the more essential now that the German intellectual milieu will be lapping up Evans's unmasking of the July 20 plot, as piously as lambs.


This article orginally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Janary 30, 2009.

Karl Heinz Bohrer
is a cultural critic and publisher of the monthly
Merkur magazine. He is also visiting professor for German and Comparative Studies at Stanford University.

Translation:lp - let's talk european