Director: Bryan Singer. Valkyrie. Hollywood: United Artists, 2008. Film. Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language. Country: USA and Germany. Runtime: 121 min.
Reviewed by Edward N. Snyder (University of Minnesota)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Benita Blessing (Oregon State University)
A Hollywood Take on the German Resistance
When I first heard that Tom Cruise would play Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in the film Valkyrie, my initial reaction was to recoil in horror at the thought of Cruise tarnishing the legacy of the great hero of German resistance during World War II. Furthermore, I could only imagine the damage an American popular film director (Bryan Singer) would do to the memory of this important aspect of the war. I expected to hear Stauffenberg, Ludwig Beck, and the other leaders of the July 1944 plot proclaim a belief in freedom and democracy in the face of Nazi tyranny. I feared that the complex debates the resistors had about their vision for postwar Germany would go unmentioned. I thus entered the theater with a number of reasons why I wanted to dislike this film.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by Valkyrie and its depiction of the 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Cruise's energetic portrayal of Stauffenberg was entirely satisfactory and, at times, even enjoyable. More important, director Bryan Singer did a respectable job of highlighting the conflicts and debates that arose within the circle of resistors prior to the assassination attempt. Although Singer did not articulate fully the issues of contention among the resistors, he nevertheless made clear that the 1944 plot leaders did not intend to replace the Third Reich with a U.S.-style republic. Ultimately, historians should consider Valkyrie a success, because it introduces the audience not only to the July 1944, conspiracy, but also to several of the larger questions and debates surrounding the nature of German resistance to the Third Reich.
Valkyrie opens with Stauffenberg on the battlefields of Tunisia just before an Allied air raid attacks the German division and severely wounds Stauffenberg in the process. In the meantime, Henning von Treschkow attempts to assassinate Hitler by sending a bomb disguised as a bottle of alcohol on a plane carrying Hitler back from the eastern front. The bomb fails to detonate, however, and Treschkow hurriedly travels to Berlin to retrieve the package. On screen, the two events happen concurrently. In fact, Treschkow's assassination attempt occurred on March 13, 1943, almost one month before Stauffenberg suffered his injuries. The film also uses Treschkow's plan to stand in for other assassination plots; several previous attempts to eliminate Hitler had been made. However, due to numerous mechanical problems, coincidence, and the Führer's unusually good luck, all of these attempts failed.
When Treschkow went to retrieve the bomb, he learned that the Gestapo had arrested Hans Oster, a member of the conspiracy. Treschkow then instructed General Friedrich Olbricht to find a replacement for Oster. Olbricht selected Stauffenberg and invited the colonel to a meeting with the other conspiracy leaders. Before the meeting, Stauffenberg explained to Olbricht why he was willing to engage in resistance: "I am a soldier. I serve my country, but this is not my country.... I know now there is only one way to serve Germany, and in doing so I’ll be a traitor. I accept that." This brief exchange with Olbricht is key to understanding the anxieties of many resistors in deciding to engage in resistance activity. Stauffenberg saw himself as remaining true to his principles of protecting the German nation, while acknowledging that the majority of Germans would view any attempt to destroy Nazism as treason. In the film as in the historical record, it is a testament to Stauffenberg's personal courage that he did not back out of the plot even after recognizing the dangers that the assassination attempt would pose to both himself and his family.
His co-conspirators, however, were not quite as thoughtful. During the meeting, Stauffenberg asked them what their plan was for post-Hitler Germany. He knew they could not simply assassinate Hitler and expect to end the war and destroy the Nazi regime. Yet some of the conspirators believed such a quick solution possible. In response to Stauffenberg's question, one of the resistors arrogantly replied: "You are in the presence of men who would have been in Hitler's inner circle. Instead, we refused, Colonel. The people know we put our principles above personal gain. We have the respect of the people and the army." These few sentences conveyed the challenges those engaged in resistance activities faced.
Nonetheless, the scene is not without its flaws. For those unfamiliar with the history of the German resistance, the conspirators' reaction to Stauffenberg's question could give the impression that the German public supported the plotters and any attempt to throw off the yoke of Nazism. No such grand coalition existed. The Nazi regime ruthlessly hunted those who engaged in resistance activities, but the greater population also stigmatized them as traitors for years after the war. Peter Hoffmann, a consultant for the film and an eminent scholar on the German resistance, argued this point in his book Stauffenbergs Freund, which describes the problems that the resistor Joachim Kuhn faced following his release from a Soviet prison several years after the war.
Furthermore, by asking what would happen after Hitler, Stauffenberg opened the door to discussing one of the larger and more interesting questions surrounding the German resistance to Nazism: what ultimately pushed the various circles comprising the resistance to act, and what did they envision for a post-Hitler Germany? Although the film hints at the real motivations behind Operation Valkyrie, it never deals with the question directly. When Stauffenberg first enters the meeting, the leaders of the conspiracy are complaining that unless they act quickly, the Allies will soon overrun Germany and "all of Europe will pay a price." Certainly, many members of the resistance were not necessarily supporters of Nazism; they were nevertheless willing to tolerate the ideology insofar as it advanced Germany's standing within Europe, a point made by Hans Mommsen in his work on the German resistance. The impetus to remove Hitler only grew stronger once the conspirators realized that Nazism was leading Germany (as well as Europe) on a path to catastrophic destruction. Along with co-conspirator Carl Goerdeler's assertion that the conspiracy comprised principled men who consciously chose to oppose Nazism, the film thus presents a misleadingly unified picture of the resistance. In reality, the conspirators' relationship with the regime was much more complex. For instance, the resistors did make a conscious decision to oppose Nazism actively, yet many of them had initially been sympathetic to the regime and its aims--something the film fails to mention. They decided to resist only after they realized how destructive and nihilistic the regime was.
Perhaps the greater failure of Valkyrie's portrayal of Stauffenberg's initial encounter with the resistance is the response of the circle's leaders to the colonel’s question of what will happen after Hitler. Sadly, Goerdeler's reply is not only misleading, but it also misses the opportunity to explore the fascinating debates within the conspiracy about how the resistance envisioned postwar Germany. Certainly, Singer accurately illustrates the arrogance and naivety of some elements of the resistance, but he also gives the impression that it failed to give any serious thought to a postwar government. The resistance leaders had no real plan for post-Hitler Germany in part because their own political views differed significantly. They detested the liberal Weimar Republic and believed that the growth of mass political movements had prepared the ground for Nazism. They thus were not ready to turn any power over to the people. Ultimately, they wanted Germans to forego political parties and embrace a corporatist system in which the conspirators would play a leading role in the postwar government.
The film focuses on broader concepts of Operation Valkyrie, while also including enough details of the kind that audiences enjoy. For instance, the plotters decided that Stauffenberg would assassinate Hitler in his Wolf's Lair bunker using pencil detonators. After setting the explosives, he would then call Olbricht in Berlin, who would in turn arrest leading Nazi officials and take control of the central government. These actions would be justified with the claim that the SS was really behind the assassination as part of a larger coup attempt. The conspirators therefore needed to take control of the government in order to prevent the coup. In order to legitimize their actions, they rewrote the orders for Operation Valkyrie accordingly and, after forging Friedrich Fromm's signature, Stauffenberg asked Hitler to sign off on the revised plans.
Initially, Stauffenberg traveled to the Wolf's Lair on July 15, 1944 to carry out the assassination, but aborted the mission after Heinrich Himmler failed to attend a planning session at the bunker. Stauffenberg returned to the bunker a second time on July 20, 1944 and set the explosives, even though the meeting had been moved from the cement bunker outside to a wooden hut due to the heat. The change in venue ultimately reduced the impact of the explosion, allowing Hitler to survive. Stauffenberg, however, left the retreat before he determined whether or not he had killed Hitler. Without confirmation that Hitler had died in the blast, Olbricht hesitated to carry out Valkyrie back in Berlin. The hesitation proved fatal, because it allowed the regime to regroup and reassert its authority in the capital. Regime officials quickly arrested the leaders of the coup and executed them almost immediately.
Shortly after the film premiered in theaters, I began teaching a lifetime learning class at the University of Minnesota. I asked my students who had seen the film what they thought of how it depicted the German resistance. Their responses eased my fears considerably. They overwhelmingly said that, although the film did not discuss the postwar plans of the resistance, it nevertheless gave a clear impression that the leaders certainly had plans for a postwar Germany. Many said they left the film wanting to learn more about the German resistance, and were highly motivated to read more on the subject. Only one student said later (jokingly, I hope) that the next time someone decides to produce a film on the resistance, he or she should rewrite the ending to allow for the possibility of a sequel.
Several students were particularly interested in the conspirators' attitudes towards the Holocaust and German war crimes, which the film does not address. Early on, Stauffenberg makes a comment indicating his disgust with the Nazis' Jewish policy, but none of the other conspirators raise similar concerns. In some respects this absence of discussion is appropriate, as the conspiracy leaders never expressed overt concern for the Jews and other persecuted groups. However, they disagreed with Nazi racial policies in the East because they feared it would undermine Germany's position as a future leader in the region. The filmmakers could have touched upon this question as a way to explain better the conspirators' post-Hitler vision.
Despite its flaws, Valkyrie is a film that historians should not dismiss. As a review in the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger stated: "Was im Vorfeld so viele Bedenkenträger auf den Plan rief, nämlich dass der deutsche Widerstandsmythos durch die Weichzeichner Hollywoods gefiltert werden könnte, entpuppt sich nicht nur als falsch und präjudizierend--im Gegenteil, die amerikanische Herkunft dieses Films ist sein größter Vorteil." As a Hollywood film, Valkyrie has the potential to reach a much larger audience than most historians. The film leaves much unsaid; however, any film must work within the medium's limits while still telling a coherent and entertaining story. Valkyrie has created significant public interest in the German resistance, and historians should use this opportunity to teach their students and the broader public about the aspects of the resistance that the film does not address. Despite its Hollywood pedigree--or perhaps because of it--this is a positive tool for historians of modern Germany.
. Peter Hoffmann, Stauffenbergs Freund: Die tragische Geschichte des Widerstandskämpfers Joachim Kuhn (München: C. H. Beck Verlag, 2007).
. See Hans Mommsen, Germans Against Hitler: The Stauffenberg Plot and Resistance Under the Third Reich (New York: I. B. Taurus, 2009)
. Frank Olbert, "Der versehrte Held," Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (Cologne, Germany), December 19, 2008.
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Edward N. Snyder. Review of Director: Bryan Singer, Valkyrie.
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