The following article is from our February 2009 issue.

Why They Tried To Kill Hitler What the Tom Cruise film does not explain - a footnote to 'Valkyrie' - By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Bryan Singer's film "Valkyrie" starring Tom Cruise as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the German colonel who tried to kill Hitler, raises the question: What motivated Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators and what was the Nazis' ultimate goal? A new biography of SS leader Heinrich Himm­ler provides an answer.

There's no doubt about Himmler's anti-communism and anti-Semitism; he wiped out both groups mercilessly," writes historian Peter Longerich, "but basically, he was much more engrossed with Christianity. The conflict with the Christian world, in which he grew up, was of truly existential significance to him."

According to Longerich, Himm­ler considered it his life's calling to coalesce the fight against Christians with his idea of resurrecting the lost world of (pagan) Germania. While anti-Semitism and anti-communism were core elements of Hitler's entire Nazi movement, de-Christianization linked to re-Germanization "was the quintessential task of the SS in Himmler's mind," Longerich writes in his 1,000-page tome. Himmler saw Christianity as an "alien, Asiatic" imposition on the Germanic world.

Himmler loathed the Christian virtue of neighborly love, Longerich writes: "The principle of Christian compassion stands in the way of his (Himmler's) insistence on an uncompromising treatment of 'sub-humans.'" Himm­ler strove to "replace Christian principles with Germanic virtues, such as toughness, as a precondition to persevere in the struggle against sub-humans and win the future." "We live in the era of the ultimate showdown with Christianity," he added.

By stressing Himmler's anti-Christian fixation, Longerich, a German citizen, substantiates a key statement by Carl Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig and civilian mastermind of the German resistance. As far back as in 1937, Goerdeler deposited his "political testament" with Friedrich Krause, a Leipzig editor who had fled to New York. In this document, Goerdeler warned that Hitler was determined to destroy first the Jews and then the Christians. This forewarning was Goerdeler's essential message as he traveled tirelessly to Western capitals before World War II urging governments not to give in to Hitler's demands.

Goerdeler (1884-1945) would have become chancellor of post-Nazi Germany had the attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944 succeeded. Instead, he was hanged on Feb. 2, 1945.

Goerdeler's opposition to the Nazis began well before Hitler took over power in Germany in 1933. In the film, "Valkyrie," Goerdeler's is the least truthfully developed character, as scriptwriter Christopher McQuarrie admitted in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany's leading national daily.

The reason for Goerdeler's portrayal as Stauffenberg's antagonist within the resistance was chiefly dramaturgic, McQuarrie explained: "Without conflict you have no drama."

For theological, philosophical and practical reasons, Goerdeler was initially opposed to this and all previous schemes to kill Hitler. He wanted the military to arrest the dictator instead and have him tried for treason before a German court; this way, he thought, the Nazis' crimes would be laid bare before a horrified German public.

A film is arguably not the perfect medium for a theological and moral discourse concerning the legitimacy of tyrannicide, which is really what the disagreement between Goerdeler and the anti-Nazi military men was all about. But like Goerdeler, senior officers felt shame over their nation's war crimes, as Bryan Singer's film shows. And it was this sense of shame that led them to plot against Hitler's life, not just towards the end of the war but also on several previous occasions.

"It was in reaction to reports about the mass murder of Jews... that Stauffenberg first mentioned the need for Hitler's overthrow, that was in April of 1942," historian Peter Hoffmann of McGill University in Montreal told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. At about the same time, Gen. Henning von Tresckow argued that unless the military killed Hitler, "we ourselves will become accomplices" (in the murder of the Jews). Hoffmann, the premiere specialist on the German resistance, counseled "Valkyrie" scriptwriters McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander free of charge.

Given these historical facts, it seems scandalous that in their reviews of "Valkyrie" some prominent U.S. film critics labeled Stauffenberg and his co-plotters "Nazi" officers, and mocked these men who had their lives ended before a firing squad or on meat hooks for having done too little too late - and too incompetently. "Stauffenberg was never a Nazi," Hoffmann insisted.

"Most of the men involved in the 1944 plot were committed Christians," Smith College historian Klemens von Klemperer, another leading expert on the German resistance, told this writer more than two decades ago. Some were ardent Roman Catholics like Stauffenberg and others Protestants like Carl Goerdeler, whose self-proclaimed motto was "omnia restaurare in Christo" (restoring everything in Christ).

Over half a century ago, historian Gerhard Ritter wrote a stirring account of Goerdeler's inner turmoil over how to depose Hitler in a manner commensurate with his Christian beliefs and his political philosophy rooted in the thought of Baron Karl vom und zum Stein, the celebrated 18th- and 19th-century Prussian statesman, whom Goerdeler and many of his co-conspirators endeavored to emulate.

In "Valkyrie" and in some historical accounts, Goerdeler was ridiculed for his mania for drawing up lists for a post-Hitler Germany, which proved his undoing. But this was very much in line with Lutheran thought. "When the coachman has lost his mind, he must be removed from the driver's seat," Martin Luther said. But before that, he cautioned, a qualified replacement must be found lest chaos ensue.

With this in mind, Goerdeler had begun compiling elaborate lists early in the Nazi era of men and women qualified to assume power immediately after Hitler's removal. They included the names of potential candidates for chief of state all the way down to the level of county executive and local police chief.

A sophisticated stage play rather than a feature film would probably be the most appropriate artistic forum to explain the complex historical figure of Goerdeler. Still, Singer managed to drive home one significant point made by one of the plotters early in his film. In the book of Genesis, God promised to spare Sodom if ten righteous men were to be found in that depraved place. Sodom could not come up with those ten righteous men; Germany did. To Singer's credit, "Operation Valkyrie" has made this abundantly clear.


Picture above: Facing the end: Carl Goerdeler on trial at the Volksgerichtshof for his part in the July 20 conspiracy.