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Debating Stauffenberg

The recent release of the Hollywood film “Valkyrie” has brought the July ’44 plot back into the limelight. Much debate has focussed on the central figure of Count von Stauffenberg, especially the motivation and inspiration for his attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime. Writing in Süddeutsche Zeitung, Richard Evans (Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge) asks “Why did Stauffenberg plant the bomb?” Prof. Evans argues that the Count’s contempt for liberalism combined with his (Stefan George-influenced) romantic nostalgia « make him ill-fitted to serve as a model for the conduct and ideas of future generations » .

A week later, the Süddeutsche Zeitung published “Unmasking the July 20 plot“, a response to Evans by Karl Heinz Bohrer, the publisher of Merkur and a visiting professor at Stanford. Bohrer counters Evans on two fronts. « 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. … 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. »

« 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. »

In that same week, Bernard-Henri Lévy — the omnipresent French man of letters — waddled into the debate with “Beyond the war hero” in the pages of Le Point. BHL proclaims the release of “Valkyrie” is unquestionably good, for it is inherently good for the world to 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. »

In a moment of pure irony, Lévy attacks the lack of accuracy in the film while making a gross historical error himself. The philosopher asks 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? » In actual fact, while Stauffenberg’s family members were concerned that he was “turning brown” the Count never joined the Nazi Party; not in 1933, not ever.

In a sense, Lévy has answered his own question in that Stauffenberg’s elevation has apparently taken place to the detriment of precision and history in that Lévy is apparently unaware of quite central historical facts of the case.

Previously: Stauffenberg

This post was published on Saturday, February 28th, 2009 2:49 pm. It has been categorised under Germany History Military Nobility and been tagged under , , , .
Steve M
28 Feb 2009 7:28 pm

Andrew, What a fine article by Bohrer–thanks for giving your readers the link. I particularly liked Bohrer’s thoughts on civic courage. I expect he is right about what resistance (or cooperation) the politically correct types would give if they had been born into Stauffenberg’s time and place.

Baron v Senden
28 Feb 2009 9:23 pm

Bohrer’s article is indeed excellent, and a necessary antidote to the juvenile vaporings of Evans, who is no true historian, but a mere hireling of the professional German haters (many of whom, of course, are Germans themselves).
But still: why this refusal to allow relevance to the ideals which influenced the German romantics, from Novalis to Stefan Georg? Why allow them only an interpretive significance? Mass democracy never offered much, and the collapse of unrestricted capitalism which we are now witnessing demands an ideal to strive for beyond the tired (and false) shibboleths of equality and moral licence. Or else: communism and chaos.

2 Mar 2009 10:43 pm

Also, it’s not like all the non-liberal movements were fascist, not by a long shot! In fact, in many countries, it was authoritarian governments that were the greatest opponents of revolutionary fascist movements.

3 Mar 2009 11:09 am

Some conservative Catholics would have Count von Stauffenberg be one of theirs, not least because he went to confession before the assasination attempt, and – I believe – understood his part of the attempt as a spiritual act.

How do they reconcile this view with his having been part of the Stefan George’s circle, which was close to notorious for its having been an occasion for sin.

Did K. v. S. have a conversion? Did George accept Conservative Catholics?

Chris Galea
23 Mar 2009 11:11 am

I have not seen the film yet, however it is a good thing to remember these Fallen Heroes.

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