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Beyond the war hero

Bernard-Henri Levy embarks on an adventure of anti-Nazi dialectics. First stop: Tom Cruise

The release of "Operation Valkyrie" first in the Unites States and Germany and now in France is without question a good thing. Because it's always a pleasure to see the world honour its heroes. Riveting as it is however, this film poses certain questions that are too complex and too delicate to be resolved solely within the logic of the Hollywood film industry.

The first has not escaped the attention of German commentators and concerns the choice of Tom Cruise to play von Stauffenberg, a man presented as the very incarnation of anti-Hitler honour. Not that Cruise ever showed sympathy for Hitlerism. But he is a leader of a sect, the Church of Scientology, about which the least one can say is that its values have little to do with those that led to the destruction of Hitlerism. Elitism… social and political Darwinism… education as a form of dressage… brainwashing raised to a principle of conviction… sequestration… applying cybernetics to social organisation… black magic… an apocalyptic vision of the world.… This is Scientology, and this is Cruise's credo. And seen in this light having him play Stauffenberg is a mistake or, as Berthold von Stauffenberg, Stauffenberg's son, said when he learned of the decision, a very grave attack on the memory of his father.

The second question, no doubt unavoidable with this sort of enterprise, is whether raising someone to hero status does not always happen, alas, to the detriment of precision, nuance and history itself. The film shows Stauffenberg's integrity very well. It shows his courage, the nobility of his views, his firmness of spirit. But what does it tell us of his thoughts? What does it teach us about why he enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party in 1933? Why does it go into no detail on how many of his initial Nazi convictions he had to jettison to carry out his plot and how many remained in tact? A sympathy for Ernst Jünger, for example? Or for Oswald Spengler? A fierce hostility to Weimar and the idea of democracy which he shared with the other former members of the Freikorps who remained true to National Socialism and its frenetic anti-Semitism? Did Stauffenberg hope to get rid of Hitler or Hitlerism? Of a bad tyrant or the principle of tyranny? Was his project to destroy Nazism or to rescue it?

And why does the film not go into the true and tragic paradox of the affair? Why does it not illustrate what one should call the "Stauffenberg theorem", which involved getting close, very close, to Hitler (a proximity that, bearing in mind the hyper-surveillance of Hitlerist society, could be neither feigned nor fictitious) to acquire access to the wolf's lair and thus be able to deposit the deadly briefcase? I do not believe I am flouting anyone's memory by saying that even after "Valkyrie" one can ask what values (oh yes!) Nazism and certain of its adversaries shared, or by maintaining that on second analysis there could be a sort of hidden logic after all, a ruse of history, in this meeting between the Scientologist actor and the conspirators of July 1944.

Thirdly, this film risks having the Stauffenberg tree hide the forest of the German resistance to Hitlerism, such as it is described by Joachim Fest in his book "Plotting Hitler's Death: The Story of German Resistance". This book must be read as a counterpoint to "Valkyrie", because it clearly differentiates between the latter-day plotters among Hitler's officers like Stauffenberg and earlier ones such as Hans Oster and Hans von Dohanyi, who conspired against Hitler from within the army as early as 1938. The explosion of the first National Socialist nucleus revealed a whole galaxy of figures. There were National Bolsheviks like Ernst Niekisch who broke with Nazism as early as 1934, and national conservatives like Wilhelm Canaris who looked back nostalgically to the grand eastern alliance dashed by the rift between Stalin and Hitler. There were conservative revolutionaries such as Hermann Rauschning, author of "The Revolution of Nihilism".

But above all there were simple people like the carpenter Georg Elser who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939. There were student associations like the White Rose group, there were socialists, Catholics and Jews. There were the workers in Berlin, the heroes of Hans Fallada's novel "Every Man Dies Alone" which Primo Levy called the most beautiful book on the German resistance to the Nazis. And there were, finally, those who remained true to the ideals of Weimar and who, like Willy Brandt, preferred being labelled "deserters" over risking the irremediable dishonour of having worn the uniform of the Wehrmacht and, consequently, of the plotters of July 20.

Eradicating these distinctions, all of them, is the risk run by such a film. Underlining them, acknowledging them, continually distinguishing between the culture of war of the Nazis and certain of their opponents on the one hand and the radical anti-Nazism of the heirs of Willy Brandt on the other is made imperative by the very confusion of this film. For Germany this is a task, for Europe it is a duty.


Bernard-Henri Levy is a French public intellectual and journalist. He was one of the leaders of the Nouvelle Philosophie movement in 1976.

This article orginally appeared in Le Point on January 29, 2009.

Translation: jab - let's talk european