I saw a History Channel documentary a few weeks ago on the July 20th 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler. I knew the basic story as a kid–Claus von Stauffenberg was an aristocratic, combat-wounded army officer who led the plot and was executed when it failed. This program had general documentary and interviews with a few original plotters and a few wives, and lots of plotters’ daughters, sons, and grandsons.
It started with a summary of the Nazis taking over in the depression after WWI, then turning Germany into a police state, including the anti-Jew policies. They showed some excerpts from propaganda films that were freakin’ scary. There were a handful of resistance groups even in that era–politicians, leftist students, elitist aristocrats, army officers–but none ever amounted to much.
Resistance efforts picked up as the war did. One July 20th plotter said his captain overheard two drunk SS men on a train bragging that they’d killed 250,000 Jews in their sector and were coming to cleanse his. I knew the Final Solution was not made public at the time, but I’d always suspected some word had to have gotten out.
The plotters cited that as a secondary motivation, but mostly said they mostly driven by the strain of the war on the country and the general murderousness of the police state. By1943 the different resistance groups started meeting together and agreed that Hitler couldn’t just be arrested; he had to be assassinated. Several attempts by army officers failed because of bad luck with logistics or fuses.
Stauffenberg was an aristocrat, a devout Catholic who’d served on Rommel’s staff in Africa. Motivated by love for his concept of an honorable Germany, he was dead set that Hitler must die but annoyed that the plotting generals hadn’t gotten it done. So he took over as a main instigator. A major part of the plot was using the army reserves to take over after Hitler was dead, code-named Valkyrie, so they could seize other Nazi leaders and overthrow the regime.
Then the program described the failed plot. The army reserve commander had been a lukewarm plotter; after the bomb failed, he arrested Stauffenberg and four others and had them executed immediately. Others were arrested at their estates; many killed themselves. The surviving plotters were tried in a sham trial and hung.
They did not mention Rommel at all. I read as a kid that Rommel was told of the plot but was not involved, and that Hitler forced him to kill himself afterwards. Knowing that Stauffenberg was on Rommel’s staff in Africa would make sense if I have that right.
The program also talked about the descendants of the plotters and reaction in postwar Germany, which still considered the plotters traitors even then. A monument was erected in Berlin in 1952 on the spot where Stauffenberg and the four others were shot, and the attitude toward the plotters warmed in modern times toward regarding them as heroes.
I find the sociology behind the whole thing fascinating–the motivations behind racism, noblesse oblige, duty, betrayal, execution, and the social reaction to all of it. As a writer, I think those kinds of complex motivations are what make great characters.
And of course this documentary had director Bryan Singer pimping the new movie about Stauffenberg, with clips of Tom Cruise in the lead role. He looks to me to have about 1% of the kwan necessary to play a man like that. I’ll stick with the documentary, thanks.