Valkyrie, new film vs. World War II reality


This video is called Michael Palin in Auschwitz.

From British weekly Socialist Worker:

The truth behind ‘Valkyrie’ and the coup against Hitler

The film Valkyrie dramatises an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. German writer and activist Stefan Bornost looks at the reality

On 20 July 1944 a group of German army officers attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler by exploding a bomb in his Wolf’s Lair headquarters.

They then intended to accuse central figures in the Nazi regime of plotting against Hitler.

The conspirators hoped to carry out a military coup using the army’s emergency plan to take control of German cities in case of social breakdown – “Operation Valkyrie”.

However, Hitler survived the explosion and on the same day the coup failed. Thousands of conspirators were interned and the main plotters were hanged or shot.

The story is told in the new film Valkyrie, a pet project of actor Tom Cruise. He plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the central figure in the conspiracy.

Stauffenberg had direct access to Hitler and personally delivered the bomb to the Wolf’s Lair.

When Cruise first announced his plan to make the film there was a storm of protest in Germany. But now that it has been released, Valkyrie has been praised by politicians and press alike.

This should be no great surprise – its version of the story fits neatly with myths about resistance to Hitler spun by the German establishment ever since the end of the Second World War.

The 20 July conspirators are often held up as representing the rebellious conscience of democratic Germany. They are contrasted to left wing resistance, which supposedly wanted to swap one dictatorship for another.

There is a big problem with this theory.

The vast majority of conspirators were not seeking a return to parliamentary democracy – in fact many of them despised the previous Weimar Republic.

The German officer corps was drawn from the nobility. Their political outlook was deeply reactionary.

Valkyrie leaves out the ambiguous nature of these officers’ rebellion, which makes it deeply flawed politically.

Tom Cruise plays Stauffenberg as an untainted hero.

However, after taking part in the 1939 invasion of Poland, the real Stauffenberg wrote that the Polish people “are an unbelievable rabble, with many Jews and many people of mixed blood… only happy when they are dominated”.

He thoroughly approved when Hitler concentrated military command in his own hands towards the end of 1941. It was only in 1942 that the attitude of Stauffenberg and many senior officers, began to shift.

This was for two main reasons.

First, the war had turned bad. The German advance to the east had been halted. Many of Hitler’s officers came to regard him as incompetent in his conduct of the war.

To them Hitler’s crime was not that he started a barbaric war, but that he appeared not to be winning it.

The conspirators came to regard Hitler as the major obstacle to an honourable peace.

They remembered the “shame” of the Versailles Treaty which had ended the First World War. This had left Germany liable for crippling reparations and parts of the country occupied by foreign troops.

They were determined that this time Germany should be left intact and unoccupied.

The second reason was fear of the consequences from the sheer scale of the killings that had been carried out behind the lines on the eastern front – where the regular army had worked hand in glove with the SS and the Nazi death squads, killing Jews, Slavs and Roma Gypsies.

Like many of his class, Stauffenberg associated the barbarity of the genocide with the regime’s upstarts, people from modest backgrounds who had risen with the Nazis and taken leadership roles that “rightly” belonged to the old conservative elites.

To his credit it does seem that he was genuinely appalled by the genocide from 1943 onwards.

Other conspirators had more sinister motives. For example, Eduard Wagner ran prison camps, and was partly responsible for the deaths of several million Soviet prisoners of war. He joined the conspiracy fearing Soviet retribution in the case of a German defeat.

Valkyrie could have been about how staunch supporters of the Nazi regime transformed into Hitler’s enemies, with all the ambiguities that implies.

Tom Cruise and director Bryan Singer weren’t interested in such subtleties. This is especially annoying, as Cruise said his ambition was “to tell it like it was”. Superficially this is true – the minutiae of the planning and the coup are well depicted.

But the film fails because it can’t explain what motivated the characters.

Another review of this film: here. And here. See here.

Valkyrie: A thriller, but not a historical film: here.

Tom Cruise accused of being ‘a homophobic bore’: here.

9 thoughts on “Valkyrie, new film vs. World War II reality

  1. I congratulate you for your subtle and balanced statements. I agree Valkyrie is a one dimensional very well made thriller, which leaves aside the personal evolution of the leading characters. You are right Singer shows Claus Stauffenberg as a untainted hero. I think this is what he was starting mid 1942. He didn´t have this quality in all ocasions before 1942. You describe Stauffenberg before 1942, the film after that period. I would have preferred a description as this man changed while the circumstancies got more and more criminal and Hitler´s way of leading the war cost millions of lives. Yes you describe correctly one layer of Stauffenberg´s motivation, Cruise describes only the other layer. Both are compatible. Unfortunately the extreme “left” in Germany tended only to see his so called “patriotic” motivation which was decidedly anticomunist but not antisocialist. In the end they left the question monarchy or republic open. They had
    planned the social democrat Goerdeler as future chancelor. Of course they knew, that Stalin ( “the comunists” ) would exchange one dictatorship against another. This is exactly what hapened after the war in the eastern part of remaining Germany. Pls be ashured again the characters were also motivated by the atrocities commited. Please read about Axel von dem Bussche in Wikipedia or read what the conspirators said in front of Freisler´s Volksgerichtshof. You will see, yopu are both right and there is no onedimensional truth.

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  2. Dear Sebastian von Stauffenberg,

    Basically, it is not me whom you should praise for “subtle and balanced statements”, or criticize. As the article is by Stefan Bornost. All I did was blog it, add a video, links, etc.

    You probably being a relative of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, I should praise you for your moderate criticism, as many relatives of historically well known people tend to react extremely emotionally to any criticism of their famous relatives.

    Indeed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg during the second half of the Second World War was also motivated by rejection of the atrocities of the Hitler regime, as Stefan Bornost notes. So were other 20 July conspirators. However, they were a heterogeneous group, including at least one person with a “doubtful” career in Hitler’s SS. Bornost notes the Eduard Wagner case. You yourself note that they were heterogeneous on the monarchy vs. republic issue. If one knows about the links of Emperor Wilhelm II, his wife Hermine (see elsewhere on this blog), and some of his sons, to Hitler, one might doubt the wisdom of restoring the Hohenzollern monarchy.

    Goerdeler, contrary to what you write, was not a Social Democrat, but a member of the conservative nationalist DNVP. See here.

    Of course, Hitler had not recently started to be a criminal when Claus von Stauffenberg started conspiring against him. He already was so in 1939, just after World War II started, when an “extreme leftist” tried to kill him. And in the 1920s and early 1930s, when many people in Germany, quite some of them on the “extreme left”, already thought that. By the way, the German Democratic Republic, in spite of its many absolutely unaccaptable faults, cannot be equated with Hitler’s Third Reich. There was no Treblinka in the GDR.

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  3. Jan 31, 1:24 PM EST

    Priest uncovering beginnings of Final Solution

    By MARIA DANILOVA and RANDY HERSCHAFT
    Associated Press Writers

    KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The Holocaust has a landscape engraved in the mind’s eye: barbed-wire fences, gas chambers, furnaces.

    Less known is the “Holocaust by Bullets,” in which over 2 million Jews were gunned down in towns and villages across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Their part in the Nazis’ Final Solution has been under-researched, their bodies left unidentified in unmarked mass graves.

    “Shoah,” French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s documentary, stands as the 20th century’s epic visual record of the Holocaust. Now another Frenchman, a Catholic priest named Patrick Desbois, is filling in a different part of the picture.

    Desbois says he has interviewed more than 800 eyewitnesses and pinpointed hundreds of mass graves strewn around dusty fields in the former Soviet Union. The result is a book, “The Holocaust by Bullets,” and an exhibition through March 15 at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

    Brought to Ukraine by a twist of fate, Desbois has spent seven years trying to document the truth, honor the dead, relieve witnesses of their pain and guilt and prevent future acts of genocide.

    Some 1.4 million of Soviet Ukraine’s 2.4 million Jews were executed, starved to death or died of disease during the war. Another 550,000-650,000 Soviet Jews were killed in Belarus and up to 140,000 in Russia, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Most of the victims were women, children and the elderly.

    Begun after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the slaughter by bullets was the opening phase of what became the Nazis’ Final Solution with its factories of death operating in Auschwitz and other camps, all in Nazi-occupied Poland.

    Desbois devotes his 233-page book, published by Palgrave Macmillan in August, to his work in Ukraine, where he says he has uncovered over 800 mass extermination sites, more than two-thirds of them previously unknown.

    Since the book was written, he has expanded his search for mass graves into Belarus and plans to look early this year in areas of Russia that were occupied by the Germans.

    Sometimes bursting into tears, old men and women from poor Ukrainian villages recount to Desbois how women, children and elders were marched or carted in from neighboring towns to be shot, burned to death or buried alive by German troops, Romanian forces, squads of local Ukrainian collaborators and local ethnic German volunteers.

    Even then, it was methodical, Desbois’ research shows. First, Germans would arrive in a town or village and gather intelligence on how best to transport the victims to extermination sites, where to execute them and how to dispose of their bodies.

    “It was done as systematically as it was done elsewhere,” said John Paul Himka, an expert on the Holocaust and Ukraine at the University of Alberta in Canada, who is not connected to Desbois’ work. “You can read as they’re figuring out best way to do this, the best way to shoot … it’s absolutely systematic, no accident here.”

    Desbois’ interviews and grave-hunting tie in to millions of pages of Soviet archives, heightening their credibility, says Paul Shapiro, of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who wrote the foreword to Desbois’ book.

    Father Desbois’ work is also having an impact on efforts to preserve Holocaust sites. In December, the 26-nation International Task Force on the Holocaust called on European governments to ensure the protection of locations such as the mass graves Desbois is uncovering, according to Shapiro, who helped draft the resolution.

    Among Desbois’ key findings is the widespread use of local children to help bury the dead, wait on the German soldiers during meals and remove gold teeth and other valuables from the bodies. His work has also yielded evidence that the killings were most frequently carried out in the open, in daylight and in a variety of ways – shooting victims, throwing them alive into bonfires, walling up a group of Jews in a cellar that wasn’t opened until 12 years later.

    Desbois’ witnesses are mostly Orthodox Christian, and he comes to them as a priest, dressed in black and wearing a clerical collar, taking in their pain and trying to ease their suffering. Many have never before talked about their experiences.

    In the village of Ternivka, some 200 miles south of Kiev where 2,300 Jews were killed, a frail, elderly woman, who identified herself only as Petrivna, revealed the unbearable task the Nazis imposed on her.

    The young schoolgirl saw her Jewish neighbors thrown into a large pit, many still alive and convulsing in agony. Her task was to trample on them barefoot to make space for more. One of those she had to tread on was a classmate.

    “You know, we were very poor, we didn’t have shoes,” Petrivna told Desbois in a single breath, her body twitching in pain, Desbois writes in his book. “You see, it is not easy to walk on bodies.”

    Desbois, 53, a short, soft-spoken man with dark, thinning hair, says the stories give him nightmares. The most difficult is “to bear the horrors that the witnesses tell me, because often the people are simple, very kind and want to tell me everything,” Desbois said in a phone interview while on a trip to western Ukraine.

    “You have to be able to listen, to accept, to bear this horror,” said Desbois. “I am not here to judge the people’s guilt, we are here to know what happened.”

    Desbois’ small team includes a translator, a researcher, a mapping expert, a ballistics specialist and a video and photo crew. He often joins his witnesses in their homes, leaving his shoes outside. He tends to a peasant’s cow while the man tells his story.

    Desbois has deep personal roots in his project, dating to 2002, when he first visited Ukraine to see the place where his grandfather was interned as a French prisoner in World War II.

    When he arrived, the locals told him of a stream of blood that had run from the site where the Jews were executed and of a dismembered woman hanging from a tree after the Nazis threw a grenade in a pit full of people. When he was offered a visit to more villages, he did not hesitate.

    “I am in a hurry to find all the bones, to establish the truth and justice so that the world can know what happened and that the Germans never left a tiny village in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia without killing Jews there.”

    The Holocaust is a divisive topic here because some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis. Jewish groups are grateful for Desbois’ efforts and lament the lack of government support for his and other Holocaust research and education programs.

    “As a Ukrainian citizen and a Ukrainian historian it pains me … that there is no policy of national remembrance,” said Anatoly Podolsky, head of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies. “We are not responsible for the past but we are responsible for remembering.”

    Desbois leads a French association, Yahad-In Unum (the Hebrew and Latin words for “together”), which was founded by Catholics and Jews to heal the wounds between the two faiths. He believes that as a Catholic priest talking to Orthodox believers about the killing of their Jewish neighbors his work advances that healing mission.

    “The book is meant so that people know … that a genocide is simply people killing people,” Desbois said. “My book is also an act of prevention of future acts of genocide.”

    Randy Herschaft reported from New York.

    On the Net:

    The Holocaust by Bullets book site: http://us.macmillan.com/theholocaustbybullets

    Yahad-In Unum: http://www.yahadinunum.org/index.en.html

    Museum of Jewish Heritage: http:http://www.mjhnyc.org

    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: http://www.ushmm.org

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