Stauffenberg, A Family History, 1905-1944 |
by Peter Hoffmann
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|Botched but not Forgotten
by Peter Yan
Despite the aesthetic evil of the many footnote numbers scarring the text, Professor Peter Hoffmann of McGill University has written a very readable history of Claus, Count Von Stauffenberg and his historic failed attempt to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. A revised and translated 2nd edition, Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944, is a thoroughly researched study, written in a style which stands up to the rigours of academia and still appeals to a lay public who learn history through the usual genre of historical fiction or biography.
In the early chapters Hoffmann centers on the three Stauffenberg brothers, the youngest Claus, and the older twins, Berthold and Alexander, who were born at the start of the 20th century and were the German equivalent of the American Kennedy clan. They were well educated, steeped in the classics, and enjoyed every advantage of upper class aristocrats. The Stauffenberg pedigree stretched back to 1698 when Emperor Leopold I, blessed and turned one family member into a hereditary Baron. The family stayed politically invovled and retained their connections over the centuries, right up to Stauffenberg's father, who served at the royal court of Wurttemberg in Stuttgart in the early 1900s.
The middle chapters deal with the preparation of the July plot to kill Hitler. Claus Stauffenberg wanted to kill Hitler for no reason other than the atrocities he witnessed resulting from Hitler's policy right up to May 1942, namely the abuse of Russian POWs and the mass annihilation of Jews and Poles.
Killing Hitler would be no mean feat, as Hitler had something like a sixth sense about danger. Previous attempts failed because planted bombs malfunctioned or Hitler altered his plans and routes at the last second, evading suicide bombers targeting him. Stauffenberg's plans to kill Hitler were hatched slowly. Support was difficult to find at home because Hitler was a popular dictator, and surprisingly little support could be found from abroad among the Allies:
"Long before the outbreak of war, those who were trying to overthrow Hilter's government from within sought to enlist the political support of the governments of France, England and America, without any great success . . . Contacts between the anti-Hitler plotters and the British government . . .only resulted in Allied demands for better 'guarantees' than they had got from the Versailles Treaty, meaning above all the more effective disarmament of Germany . . . Germany's unconditional surrender."
We see also from Hoffmann's research that a political assassination of this order required a great deal of paperwork. Memos, plans, written oaths flowed back and forth among the conspirators. At one point, drafts of the plans to kill Hitler were all in the hands of the secretary, Margarethe von Oven, "when a carload of SS men approached and stopped alongside them. Stauffenberg's and Tresckow's [Captain General Staff] faces turned white. The SS men jumped out and entered a house across the street."
Claus was not the first choice for carrying out Hitler's assassination, as he would be needed for the coup d'etat in Berlin and for organizing the country after the coup. He wasn't initially considered as well because he had been maimed in battle. He lost his left eye, his right hand and the last two fingers of his left hand. The conspirators' concerns about Claus's disabilities proved to be well founded; he would later have trouble setting a second explosive, which would certainly have killed Hitler had it gone off. Claus was ultimately chosen to carry out the assasination because the conspirators could find no one else who was close enough to Hitler to kill him or who was close enough and wanted to kill him. After being promoted to Senior Staff Officer, Claus had direct access to Hitler during military briefings.
Hoffmann's descriptions of Stauffenberg's attempt to kill Hilter are riveting. The details-how Stauffenberg armed the explosive's timer with difficulty because of his missing two fingers, and how he left the second explosive behind, bringing the one explosive hidden in a briefcase into the briefing compound known as the Wolf Lair in East Prussia, then setting it off-hook the reader as well as any spy fiction.
The bomb killed 4 people and injured everyone in the room. Shielded by a heavy oak conference table, Hitler escaped major injury. Stauffenberg fled for Berlin where he was arrested and later that same day, shot in front of a firing squad.
Hoffmann notes that Stauffenberg always suspected that he would fail in his quest and asked fellow conspirator, Tresckow, whether the attempt would be meaningful if no political objective was achieved. Treskcow replied that the "assassination of Hitler must take place coute que coute. Even if it does not succeed, the coup d'etat must be attempted. The point now is not the practical purpose, but to prove to the world and before history that the German resistance have staked their all and put their lives on the line. Beside that, nothing has any weight."
Stauffenberg's last words prior to being shot were Long live holy Germany", although Hoffmann notes that he may have said "Secret Germany", an image of a poetic ideal from poet Stefan George (1868-1937), which guided Stauffenberg's convictions and seems to have acted like an antidote, rendering him immune to the Nazi ideology and propaganda of his time.
The most interesting sub-plot, so to speak, in the book is the role of the poet Stefan George (1868-1937, also known as The Master) and the influence of his poetry during this ideologically charged period. The Stauffenberg Brothers were in contact with him from their youth, and at the time George was the premiere lyric poet of Germany, a German hybrid of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, whose fragmented poems were filled with classical allusions, full of the myth of paradise, the "Secret Germany", lost and reclaimed. George often held secret meetings of a select group of influential members, including the three Stauffenberg brothers and government officials; it was a kind of Live Poet Society. In George's poetry, this secret lost German paradise would be awakened with the right kiss, a revolution headed by a group of select leaders, of a kind Claus Stauffenberg imagined himself to be right to the end. Hoffmann, if there is a 3rd edition, should include more of George's poetry in the study and more commentary on the lines of poetry, myth and mythology, which guided Stauffenberg to public service and helped him see through the propaganda and ideology that corrupted the vision of millions. Clearly beyond the scope of Hoffmann's study, his book does raise questions about the role of poetic language and myth: how was it possible for similar types of myths to develop on the one hand into the Nordic racist ideology of Nazism, and the humanitarian values of a Stauffenberg on the other? Stauffenberg is a celebrated hero and symbol of the German Resistance, and a great reminder that actions in the name of conscience, however futile, have as much merit as those historic actions that succeed.