The reason for selecting this picture is explained at the bottom.
Today (July 20th) is the anniversary of Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed attempt in 1944 to assassinate Adolf Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, empty the concentration camps, and seek a negotiated peace with the Allies, particularly the western democracies. The putsch was probably too late to end the war through negotiation, and certainly too late to rescue the traditional civil and military élites of Germany from our condemnation for allowing the Nazis into power and then failing to overthrow them in their career of increasing internal and external criminality. Stauffenberg, however, did rise above the limitations of his class in a sacrifice which deserves to be remembered.
These reservations apply to Stauffenberg, but then so do some significant redemptive issues: he gave his life in the attempt, he made the attempt despite equivocation among the conspirators and is own war wounds which left him blind one eye, and with the use of only one hand, and only three fingers on that hand.
Any attention paid to Stauffenbery always leads to reactions from some to minimise his act. I will list some familiar points of that kind, and other possible reservations, and my reaction.
Stauffenberg was motivated by Germany’s impending defeat rather than by Hitler’s crimes including those against Jews.
Stauffenberg’s letters and the arguments he used to gather support for the conspiracy show that he was horrified by the slaughter of Jews, and by other Nazi crimes. It’s true that the realisation that Hitler had led Germany into an unwinnable war was key in leading Stauffenberg to plot Hitler’s death. As an office, from an old aristocratic family, related to great generals in German history, like Gneisenau and Scharnhorst who revived Prussia’s military fortunes after defeat by Napolean, the sense of duty and obedience to the commander-in-chief was immensely strong in Stauffenberg. It took Hitler’s suicidal attitude to conducting the war with the USSR to allow Stauffenberg to give himself permission to rebel. Hitler’s conduct of the war on the Eastern front was suicidal from an early stage, generals know even in the first few weeks of the invasion (Autumn 1941) that German armies could not supply and hold the vast territories that had been overrun, and Hitler was still trying to expand that territory in the Autumn of 1942. It was from this time that Stauffenberg decided that Hitler was a madman and a criminal and should be killed and that his regime should be overthrown. None of this is incompatible with rejection of Hitler’s crimes against Jews and other supposed inferior peoples and supposed enemies of Germany. The madness of Hitler’s criminality, beyond the rational interests of even a totalitarian regime, and the madness of his conduct of the war are of a piece. What piece of this anyone might react to most strongly at that time was going to depend on their place in the society, it’s absurd to condemn Stauffenberg for reacting as an aristocratic army officer would. With regard to moral theory, I believe it is important to make the point that acting against evil with great courage is not something to be minimised because we think that the person concerned did not focus enough in inner motives on the most evil part of that evil. I suggest that we consider this from the moral point of view that a tendency to resist injustice use of power is a good thing and a sign of admirable character. Anyway if we condemn Stauffenbery for not making the holocaust of Jews the overriding motive for his anti-Hitler activities, we should equally condemn Churchill, Roosevelt, De Gaulle, Jean Moulin, and just about every other hero of the struggle against Naziism.
Stauffenberg had a racist German chauvinist attitudes, and was a Nazi supporter for a timr
The above claims are correct, to some degree, but it is important to see that we cannot condemn Stauffenberg on the first point without condemning the democratic and progressive leaders of the time. We cannot consistently condemn Stauffenberg on the second point without condemning Stalinists and Maoists, but strangely intellectuals who have been Stalinists and Maoist, even in those countries where Stalin and Mao were committing massive crimes have never been criticised as Stauffenberg was. For an example of ex-Stalinist intellectuals I merely mention the well known Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who was a Communist Party member when Stalinists came to power in Czechoslovakia.
On the first claim above, it’s true that Stauffenberg had some chauvinist racist attitudes, a letter referring to Poles in derogatory terms can be found on page 114 of the standard biography (Stauffenberg by Peter Hoffmann, Cambridge University Press, 1995) which makes very unpleasant reading and has been quoted by Stauffenberg denigrators. When contemplating that letter, we should also contemplate the story Hoffman gives in page 113, the story of how Stauffenberg insisted on the court martial and demotion of an officer who had been Stauffenberg’s friend for having two Polish women shot. We can safely say that Stauffenberg can in no way be placed on a level with SS criminals, or anyone in the main German military of the time who was guilty of war crimes. Stauffenberg’s private correspondence contains some bad ideas but not always, his actions show a man who fought against injustice and immorality as much as he could, and who would look good if someone combed through all their private letters (or now mostly emails) and looked for the nasty bits?
On racism in general, let us remember that this was the time of legalised racial segregation in the southern states of the US, accompanied by unrestrained acts of illegal violence against African-Americans deemed to have offended whites and less formalised racism in the rest of the union. Let us remember that left progressive icon F.D. Roosevelt did not act against those gross abuses, indeed in the southern states the Democratic Party was the white supremacist party.
Let us remember than in the most notorious legal case of the New Deal period, the ‘Sick Chickens’ case of 1935, the federal government just happened to prosecute owners of a small chicken business in Brooklyn who just happened to be Jewish immigrants with poor English, who had never sold a sick chicken but did under undercut price controls, to the benefit of poor immigrant consumers in Brooklyn. The case was inevitably covered with Jew baiting comments in some parts of the press. Fortunately the government lost the case and FDR pulled back from the most excessive parts of the New Deal. He still managed to intern all Japanese-Americans for the duration of World War Two. I certainly do not suggest that we judge Roosevelt purely on those actions, but neither should we judge Stauffenberg on that letter.
Let us also remember the vast colonial empires operated by France and Britain at that time, and the racist assumptions and actions that inevitably accompanied colonialism. On Hitler and Nazism, it should be remembered that Winston Churchill himself initially welcomed the ‘New Germany’.
Stauffenberg was a supporter of the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler up to the Crystal Night of November 1938, when Nazi thugs attacked German Jews and businesses, and it became clear that the Nazi regime stood outside any idea that the state can be restrained even by its own laws or morality as normally understood by most people, even in Nazi Germany. Before then he had maintained an idealised view of the Nazis as following the best cultural and community standards of German tradition. Before Crystal Night, Jews suffered scandalous discrimination (lack of political rights, exclusion from state employment, restricted entry into universities), but not systematic violence, and could still live in a precarious kind of decency. From the point of view of Stauffenberg, and other moderate pro-Nazis, this just seemed like a return to a normal situation in which pure ethnic Germans had the leading role in the society, but where there was no question of complete exclusion of Jews and certainly not annihilation.
Stauffenberg’s attitude of that time cannot be condoned, but by the standards of the Nazi regime he was not much of a Nazi, just a conservative ethnic-nationalist who was deeply disturbed when the Nazi attitude became completely explicit. Stauffenberg’s support for the regime and Hitler went into decline after this happened. He had thought that a moral and legal order could exist where communal values and solidarity are promoted by means which include ethnic solidarity stopping short of eliminationism of minorities. It was the wrong ideology, but not a very extreme one even by the standards of the leading democracies of the time. He was always opposed to, and disturbed by, the more vulgar and explicit aspects of Nazi ideology but believed it to be just one extremist strand, a belief that Hitler worked very hard to foster himself up to 1938. Staiffenberg’s attitude was wrong, and may seem like absurd self-deception and evasion in retrospect, but it is not appropriate to engage in extreme retrospective condemnation. Many of the current left critics of Stauffenberg would have been Stalinists at that time. The left was largely Stalinist in Italy and France after World War Two, and many prominent intellectuals in these countries and others were Stalinists, and some are still unrepentant like the British historian E.J. Hobsbawm.
Certainly, no one can deny that Stauffenberg died (on the night of 20th July) for an attempt to kill Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, and free Jews along with all other inmates of concentration camps.
Stauffenberg was not willing to work with the left.
This is the most absurd claim of all, but some German left-wingers seem quite addicted to it, even when evidence to the contrary is presented to them. The anti-Hitler conspirators behind the July 20th Plot, were largely very conservative and did not adjust easily to the idea of co-operating with social democrats, and certainly not with communists. Nevertheless, Stauffenberg had meetings with social democrats and communists, and declared that the conspirators were willing to work with social democrats and independent communists, that is communists who were more than instruments of Moscow.
The claim is really puzzling. It must be partly rooted in Stauffenberg’s own inclinations to organicist nationalist aristocratic conservatism. Stauffenberg was an organicist in the sense that he believed in the community as a living thing to which individuals are obliged are as a higher moral entity. He was a nationalist in that he believed that the nation was that community, and that the nation was based on ethnicity, though not the elimination of those outside the majority ethnicity.
He was an aristocratic conservative in the sense of his origin and in his sense of natural hierarchy. He came from a very old aristocratic family. Though the German aristocracy is often referred to as if it was all Prussian (from Berlin-Brandenburg, and lands conquered by the rulers of Brandenburg, in what is now Poland and Kaliningrad), it should be obvious that most German aristocrats are not Prussian and that German conservatives looked back to traditions preceding the 18th Century rise of the Prussian monarchy. Stauffenberg was from Swabia in south-west Germany, and his family had been aristocrats there going back to the Hohenstaufen Emperors of the 12th and 13 Centuries, who themselves were Dukes of Swabia. The Stauffenbergs had been servants of the Hohenstaufens as Stauffenberg was deeply aware. Not only was Stauffenberg aware of this family history, he was deeply aware of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II as a symbol of high German culture and spirit. Frederick was a Crusader, but also had a positive attitude to the Muslim presence in Sicily, which was part of his domains and where he was brought up, and was a promoter of science and culture.
Friedrich had a cultic status for German conservative nationalists in the 1920s, leading to a famous biography by Ersnt Kantorowicz, a German Jew of mystic German ultra-nationalist orientation. Kantorowicz belong to a mystic cultural nationalist circle round the poet Stefan George, which Stauffenberg also belonged to as as did two of his brothers. George claimed to be the ruler of a secret Germany of poetry, culture and spirit, which referred back to Friedrich Hohenstaufen, Hölderlin, Nietzsche and others. George was a cultural anti-semite happy to include assimilated German Jews in his circle, but also willing to co-operate with the Nazis. Kantorowicz was a particular enthusiast for the Nazis in the circle, but realised when they came to power that they would follow a racial definition of semitism and discriminate against all Jew however assimilated, so he fled to the United States and had a distinguished career as an academic historian, most famously writing The Two Bodies of the King. The ‘secret Germany’ idea fitted in with Stauffenberg’s belief in natural hierarchy. He never doubted that he was born to rule, he never doubted that ruling should be a burden and an obligation. That might sound like self-serving upper class ideology, and it often is, but no one can deny that Stauffenberg sacrificed himself and was willing to take responsibility for enforcing morality and justice at all times. As we have seen, he did not hesitate to have a fellow officer punished for injustice against Poles , not the attitude of a die hard Nazi or even a complacent self-serving aristocratic conservative. The manifesto he drew up for the July 20th conspiracy was for a constitution based on equal rights before the law, democracy and individual freedoms. Like 19th Century democrats and liberals, e.g. William Ewart Gladstone in Britain, Stauffenberg came to join legal-political ideas of equality with inner moral beliefs in natural aristocracy and the duty to serve the community.
On this issue of the supposed unwillingness of Stauffenberg to work with the left, the relevant context I am told is that in Germany school children learn about Stauffenberg; and about the White Rose group of Munich student, and a professor, who carried out a campaign of leaflet and graffiti protests against Nazi criminality during the Second World War until their arrest and execution. Apparently right wing students gravitate to Stauffenberg and left wing students to the White Rose. This all seems very artificial to me. The White Rose group were inspired by various religious positions, and were not connected with the left. Stauffenberg himself was deeply Catholic. The spiritual idealism of the White Rose and Stauffenberg has common origins in early 20th Century German culture, particularly in the German Youth Movement. In any case, it is absurd for anyone to only see the good in their national history as coming purely from one part of the political spectrum. What a nation achieves must come from people of many beliefs, including the achievements of those who carry out some redemptive self-sacrificing protest against the triumph of evil at one point in national history.
Stauffenberg wears an army helmet at his wedding because he believed that marriage was an act of duty. Stauffenberg’s military-aristocratic belief in duty and self-sacrifice is illustrated in a way which I find both absurd and touching. The definition of marriage as duty might seem cold and unkind to his wife, but the evidence is that he was a warm husband and father. I don’t believe that he could have achieved what he did out of a passionless belief that duty is its own motivation and its own reward, and as I argue above some of the criticisms of Stauffenberg themselves draw on this kind of one sided abstract attitude to moral duty.