Heroes, for the use and abuse of

August 2, 1996

Few fields in the history of national socialism have been as closely tied to the political fortunes of the postwar German Federal Republic as the German resistance to Hitler. In the early postwar years a case still had to be made for the moral legitimacy of acts regarded by many Germans as cowardly and treasonous. It was not until the mid-1950s that the resistance began to be officially celebrated as the moral foundation stone of the Bundesrepublik. In a famous speech of 1954, President Theodor Heuss stated that "the blood of the martyred resisters [had] cleansed the German name of the shame which Hitler cast upon it" and described the courage and self-sacrifice of the July plotters as "a gift to the German future". Anniversary commemorations of the "July plot" became a fixture in the West German political calendar.

This transformation in public attitudes was accompanied and assisted by the virtual canonisation of leading resistance figures. In its "monumentalist phase", resistance studies were dominated by individual and group portraits whose purpose was commemorative rather than analytical. Public remembrance focused above all on the Stauffenberg brothers, whose lofty and selfless commitment seemed to encapsulate the highest qualities of the German resistance.

The late 1960s and 1970s brought dramatic changes of emphasis. Annual commemorations of the July plot continued in the Stauffenbergstrasse, but there was an increasing awareness of the breadth and variety of resistance activity. Historians were now less concerned with the inner "rebellion of conscience" that had moved many prominent resisters to take a stance against the regime, and more interested in their indebtedness to specific institutional and social contexts. Closer and more critical examination of the aspirations of a number of major figures in resistance circles revealed that they were in many ways ill-suited for their role as patron saints of the federal republic. Some hoped for the restoration of a Bismarckian Reich run along authoritarian lines. Many agreed that there existed a "Jewish question" in urgent need of solution. Far from being heralds of the new Germany, these were people who thought in terms quite alien to the postwar democratic order.

Peter Hoffmann's study of the Stauffenberg brothers draws upon both these traditions in resistance historiography. There are unmistakable traces of the "monumentalist" approach: the brothers are marked from earliest childhood as Rilkean heroes-to-be: young Berthold has "a profound expression in his eyes that frighten[s] his mother"; Claus is "uncommonly insensitive to pain" and knows from the age of four that he wishes to be a hero. Much is made of the independence and high sense of calling attendant upon aristocratic birth. Throughout the book, Hoffmann focuses unequivocally upon conscience and moral intuition as the foundations of resistance and insists that the historical significance of Stauffenberg's "act" lies in its "continuing existential challenge to contemporaries and successors alike".

But Hoffmann is too fine a scholar to allow these concerns to dislodge the heroes of his narrative from their historical context. The book uncovers a wealth of fascinating material on the close links between the Stauffenbergs and the poet Stefan George.

Hoffmann is especially good on the affinities between the volkisch mysticism of George's circle and the ideology of the Nazi movement. The Stauffenberg brothers emerge as ambivalent supporters of the new regime: initially enthusiastic, Claus was deeply shocked by the Blomberg-Fritsch affair of 1938, but regained his enthusiasm after the victorious campaign against France. After a period of growing disillusionment with Hitler's management of the war, the turning-point came around May 1942, when he received reports of mass killings in the Ukraine. Politically, both brothers remained anchored in the world-view of the Georgekreis. The famous "oath" of 1944 declared that "the German has powers which designate him to lead the community of the occidental nations" and called for a "New Order" founded upon "scorn [for] the lie of equality" and submission to "the hierarchies established by nature". It is a vision of the future that holds little appeal for today's readers. Notwithstanding his insistence on the exceptional qualities of his protagonists and the timeless ethical import of their deeds, the chief strength of Hoffmann's meticulously researched study is that it permits us to see the Stauffenbergs as men of their era.

Christopher Clark is a fellow, St Catharine's College,Cambridge.

Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-44

Author - Peter Hoffmann
ISBN - 0 521 45307 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 424

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