How Germans Came to View Claus von Stauffenberg as a Hero -- And Thank Goodness!

tags: World War II, Hitler

Randall Hansen is the author of Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Valkyrie (Oxford University Press). He is a Professor of Politics and holds a Research Chair at the University of Toronto.

Seventy years ago this July 20, a dashing colonel, Claus von Stauffenberg, blind in one eye and missing fingers on one hand, placed a bomb under a conference table in East Prussia. The plan, called Operation Valkyrie, was to kill Hitler, declare martial law to put down an alleged SS coup, and to install a government that would negotiate an end to the war with the Allies.

The plan almost worked: several men in the room were killed, and if Stauffenberg had either used two bombs (one was left behind for reasons that remain unclear) or if the conference had taken place in the usual airtight bunker (it was moved to an airy hut because of the heat), everyone would have been killed. After it emerged that Hitler had survived, the coup in Berlin fell apart, and an opportunist commander, General Friedrich Fromm, had Stauffenberg, his adjutant First Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, his old friend Colonel Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, and Lieutenant General Friedrich Olbricht (commander of the reserve army that was to arrest the SS, SD, and Gestapo across Germany) shot.

Stauffenberg was directly supported on that night by around two hundred resisters, who waited to seize Vienna and Paris, to pass on orders, to mobilize troops, and to sever communications. Their motivations were multiple, but for those at the top – Stauffenberg, General Henning von Tresckow, Olbricht, and others – three factors led them to risking their lives in overthrowing Hitler: he was a lunatic who was destroying the German army, sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their deaths, and slaughtering entire peoples in the process.

In the decades that followed, there has been great debate on the plan, which is frequently denounced as feeble and amateurish; on the moral worth of the resisters; and on the merits of commemorating their efforts. Indeed, as the July 20 commemorations roll around, several commentators attempt, like clockwork, to ruin the party. Drawing (often without citation) on the early work of the distinguished historian Hans Mommsen, they point out that the July 20 resisters were not ‘PLU’ (people like us): they were not democrats and had been horrified by the chaos of Weimar Germany; they had in many cases supported National Socialism in the early years; and they hoped to save the German army from total destruction.

All these points are very true, and Mommsen and his associates were right to reject a fawning and sycophantic literature that attempted to canonize the July 20 resisters. But the critics are not content to leave it at that: the resisters, they continue, were deplorable reactionaries who had nothing to teach the postwar federal republic.

The last point gets it entirely wrong abstractly but, more importantly, historically. For as a matter of fact they did teach postwar Germany, and by extension Europe, a great deal. To understand this, we must recognize that in the months and the years after the coup most Germans viewed Stauffenberg and the July 20 resisters as traitors. This was, not coincidentally, a period in which a majority of Germans thought National Socialism was a good idea badly applied. The wives of the resisters were denied pensions, and former mass murderers from the SS gleefully went around the globe denouncing them as treacherous cowards.

Then matters slowly began to change. When the German armed forces – now the Federal German Armed Forces – were created in 1955, the ghosts of both Stauffenberg and Stalingrad (the latter a prime example of the results of blind military obedience) had to be confronted. Against those who argued that an army could not be built upon the legacy of disobedience of military orders, Defense Minister Theodor Blank insisted that Stauffenberg and the July 20 resisters become the moral foundation of the new German army. When officers applied to the new German army, they were expected to “recognize Stauffenberg’s act of conscience and base their respect for the many soldiers who died doing their duty on this recognition (Buck 1998: 279).”

As the army changed, so did the German people. From the 1960s, Germans’ view of the resisters evolved, and respect and admiration replaced suspicion and contempt. More than this, the Germans’ attitude to the resisters was a marker for broader, more fundamental trends: Germans began celebrating the resisters in the same years that their democracy consolidated (the reaction to the 1962 Spiegel affair marked one turning point) and they began seriously, from the 1960s, to confront their own responsibility for the Holocaust and a war of annihilation against the Soviet Union.

The July 20 resisters would never have regarded themselves as heroes. Although the senior resisters – Stauffenberg and Tresckow – turned against Hitler on moral grounds, in revulsion to the atrocious, they knew that they were indirectly implicated in National Socialist crimes, whereas other resisters were directly implicated. Indeed, they saw their final act as resistance in part as a form of penance. They in fact doubted they would succeed, but they were determined to try to show the world that were those in Germany that were horrified by the deeds of the regime and to offer their children and grandchildren a moral frame of reference. “The assassination attempt must take place whatever the cost,” Tresckow told Stauffenberg, who questioned the point of the coup after the Normandy landings. “What counts is the fact that in the eyes of the world and of history the German resistance was prepared to act. Compared with that nothing else matters.”

In this they succeeded, and it is natural and right that the Germans regard them as heroes. As the great military historian Gerhard Weinberg noted, all people need a past to which they can relate positively. It should be a matter of unalloyed satisfaction, not curmudgeonly carping, that in a day in which mass murders such as Josef Stalin enjoy the admiration of millions, and in which the starver and slaughterer of millions, Mao Zedong, has his picture emblazoned across China, the Germans look for heroes in the figure of those who were prepared to risk their lives, along with those of their families, to put an end to Hitler’s butchery. That Stauffenberg  failed, and tens of millions of people went to their deaths in the last nine months of the war, was an unalloyed tragedy.


Buck, Robert (1998). “Die Rezeption des 20. Juli 1944 in der Bundeswehr,” in Gerd R. Ueberschär (ed.), Der 20. Juli: Das “andere Deutschland” in der Vergangenheit. Berlin: Elefanten Press.

Noakes, Jeremy (2000). “Introduction” in Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Weinberg, Gerhard (1971). “The Plot to Kill Hitler.” Michigan Quarterly Review 10/2: 125-130.

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