On Friday, July 21, 1944, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the Wehrmacht officer who led the attempt to assassinate Hitler, was executed in Berlin. A day earlier, on Thursday afternoon, he had placed a briefcase containing a bomb under the table in the conference room of the “Wolf’s Lair” in East Prussia, where General Staff meetings were held with Hitler’s participation. The bomb exploded, but the blast wasn’t powerful enough to kill the Fuehrer, who was lightly wounded and able to carry on with his regular schedule. Stauffenberg fled with an aide, but was arrested in Berlin and executed by firing squad. Eyewitnesses related that before being shot he shouted, “Long live sacred Germany!” According to a different version, he called out, “Long live secret Germany!” The two words have a similar ring in German, so it’s difficult to decide on the basis of the surviving testimonies. And, as will become apparent, the difference is highly consequential.
Earlier this month, a new biography of Stauffenberg, by the journalist Thomas Karlauf, was published in Germany. Stauffenberg, the most senior German figure to attempt to kill Hitler, has been the subject of many books and films, including the 2008 Hollywood saga “Operation Valkyrie,” in which he was played by Tom Cruise. Karlauf’s biography presents the July 20 conspirators in a rather unflattering light. In contrast to other authors, who maintain that Stauffenberg was motivated by moral considerations and wanted to put a stop to the regime’s crimes, the new book plays up flaws in the character and motivations of the mysterious officer.
According to Karlauf, Stauffenberg, who was from an old noble family, belonged to aristocratic circles that abhorred the Weimar Republic’s democracy. Following the Nazis’ rise to power, he supported the regime’s rearmament and expansion efforts, and when the war erupted he longed to serve on any front – Poland, France, the Soviet Union and North Africa. He felt repulsion for the Polish population and espoused ant-Semitic views, albeit not extreme ones. These points are largely known and have been published in the past. But precisely the fact that Stauffenberg was no different from other senior Germans with a similar profile, renders more acute the question of what made him, of all people, decide to carry out the act. Why was he ready to risk death and, no less serious from his perspective, to violate his oath of allegiance as an officer?
That question is the hub of Karlauf’s book. He emphasizes Stauffenberg’s determination to go ahead with the assassination even when he knew that a catastrophic German defeat in the war was unavoidable. In the conspirators’ original plan, a different general, Helmuth Stieff, was supposed to carry out the actual act. But when the opportunity arose, on July 7, Stieff got cold feet. Stauffenberg thereupon decided to kill Hitler by himself, even though he was disabled: a year earlier, he had lost an eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left hand in an Allied bombing raid during the campaign in Tunisia. The wounds limited the size of the bomb he was able to plant.
There were many officers in the Wehrmacht who loathed Hitler, yet Stauffenberg was the only one who displayed determination to kill the Fuehrer at any price. Karlauf offers an explanation for that determination. He argues that Stauffenberg was loyal to a secretive order to which he had belonged since his adolescence: the “Secret Germany” circle of the poet Stefan George. That also explains his peculiar last words before his death. That Stauffenberg was affiliated with George’s coterie is a well-known fact, but no previous biography has placed so much emphasis on George’s importance to the assassination attempt. According to Karlauf, the elitist poet, who had died a decade earlier, was nevertheless the “spiritual father” of the act.
Stefan George is known today mostly to scholars of German literature. In the first decades of the 20th century, in certain circles in Germany, he was considered a kind of poetic messiah of the type who appears once in a thousand years. He gathered young poets around him in Munich and created an isolated group that shunned the world’s vanities. The acolytes were expected to abstain from relations with women and devote themselves to reading Plato and Dante. George tended to prefer boys of noble lineage and attractive appearance. Claus von Stauffenberg and his brother, Berthold, met both criteria.
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The ideal that linked the followers of the circle to the poet-leader was known as “pedagogic eros.” Karlauf, one of whose earlier books was a biography of George, maintained that the relations in the group could be considered exploitation of authority. This homoerotic circle also had a political ideology.
Stefan George was contemptuous of democracy and modernity. He attributed a fateful role to the German people and forecast the establishment of a “New Reich,” an idea that was adopted by the Nazis. His aim was to revive in Germany the aesthetic of classical Greece and form a society led by an elect class of geniuses. Accordingly, he extolled the determined hero who does not hesitate to take action even at the price of risking his life.
When George died in Switzerland, in 1933, the circle around him scattered. A few of his followers were Jews who, despite their loyalty to German culture, were compelled to go into exile in all parts of the globe. Others, like the philosopher Ludwig Klages, became ardent Nazis. But the brothers Stauffenberg harbored a rarefied self-regard and spurned anything that smacked of vulgarity and crudity. As such, they came to detest the mass, screeching character of Nazism and its ruling riffraff.
In Stauffenberg’s perception, only the elect individuals from the “Secret Germany” circles were worthy of devoting themselves to action. Like the tyrant slayers Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who assassinated the government minister Hipparchus in 6th century B.C.E. Greece, only they were worthy of saving Germany and the whole of Europe from the modern tyrant. According to Ulrich Raulff, who also wrote a book on George’s legacy, Stauffenberg was driven by “aesthetic morality” in the assassination – which, in this sense, was a kind of work of art.
Stauffenberg and George might seem to be figures from the remote past. But in our time, too, when tyrants are again rearing their head around the world, the episode is relevant. Though Karlauf sought to emphasize the famous assassin’s antidemocratic views, a different lesson can be drawn from the story: the assumption that the masses aspire to freedom often proves a disappointment. An uprising against a dictator needn’t necessarily take the form of a popular revolt by the oppressed. In some cases, the act of resistance will have its genesis in the mind of an individual from the privileged class, who read Plato at the right age.