A MATTER OF HONOUR
Claus von Stauffenberg was born into an old South-German Catholic
aristocratic family, and grew up at a time when post-World War I Germany
was trying to come to grips with the notion of representative democracy,
as well as a punitive peace treaty, imposed by a coalition of victors
intent not on justice but revenge - a combination of circumstances ripe
for exploitation by demagogues.
One of three largely like-minded brothers, he was a supremely
intelligent, idealistic, practising Christian (in the best sense of the
word). He believed that social position conferred an obligation of social
responsibility. He did not believe in some of the more egalitarian tenets
of "democracy", but had a practical commitment to human rights. He was a
handsome man, and reaped the rewards with which society rewards beauty. He
was eloquent and, when appropriate, outspoken. He had extreme moral and
The Knight of Bamberg
Although he loved literature, music and architecture,
he chose to join the army in 1926. In 1930, he was commissioned into the
cavalry, the 17th Cavalry Regiment of Bamberg, as a lieutenant, having
graduated "first" in his class. Between 1936 and 1938, he attended staff
college and again graduated "first". His peers and superiors from this
time onward judged him with high admiration and respect, both as soldier
and as human being.
At first neutral, cautious and non-judgemental towards
the Nazi regime, he quickly became disillusioned as he, unlike most
Germans, sought out information about the policies and behaviour of the
Third Reich's leadership. Following the annexation of Czechoslovakia, the
destruction of Germany's synagogues, and the increasing persecution of
Germany's Jewish population during 1938 and 1939, he is known to have
spoken out publicly, and he also began to study the techniques of the
After the start of World War II, Stauffenberg, as well
as the steadily increasing number of opponents of the Hitler regime, found
themselves in a quandary, on the one hand detesting the regime on moral
and practical grounds, on the other facing their duty to the nation as
After the war, many people, but especially members of the German
officer corps, sought to find protection in the now overly familiar
argument, "I was only following orders". This was and is not a tenable
position, however. As early as July 16, 1938, Colonel-General Ludwig Beck,
whom Stauffenberg admired greatly, then Chief of the General Staff, wrote
the following when he resigned following the invasion of Czechoslovakia:
"Vital decisions for the future of the nation are at stake.
History will indict these commanders (who blindly follow Hitler's
orders) of blood guilt if, in the light of their professional and
political knowledge, they do not obey the dictates of their conscience.
A soldier's duty to obey ends when his knowledge, his conscience, and
his sense of responsibility forbid him to carry out a certain order."
This view led Beck to join the efforts to remove and later to
assassinate Hitler, and would cost him his life on July 20, 1944.
Editorial Comment: The above principle is at the base of the
professional soldier's code of behaviour. Sadly, many modern
professional soldiers seem to ignore it, here in democratic countries now, just as in Germany then.
Eventually, Stauffenberg and others, solved the dilemma by separating
their loyalty to country and humanity from their obligation to their
government. In addition, Stauffenberg also had the moral and physical
courage to take action, unlike the majority of opponents (especially among
the senior officers) who only talked about it. His talents as a staff officer were quickly recognized,
and he was given increasingly more responsible assignments as the war
progressed, after 1940 as a member of the elite General Staff. Once there,
he quickly realized that the reputation of the German General Staff was
based more on history than current ability.
Germany's most brilliant General Staff officers comments on the
command structure of the German forces during World War II:
"Our command structure is even more absurd than what the most
experienced General Staff officers could have come up with, had they
been asked to develop the most absurd command structure imaginable."
("Unsere Kriegsspitzengliederung ist noch unsinniger, als die
befaehigsten Generalstabsoffiziere sie erfinden koennten, wenn sie
den Auftrag bekaemen, die unsinnigste Kriegsspitzengliederung zu
-- Stauffenberg, quoted from lectures he gave
at the German War
College during 1941.
One of the remarkable things about statements like the above, and
others made by various members of the military resistance movement during
discussions intended to widen the circle of opposition to the Hitler
regime, is the fact that there were no betrayals to the Nazi security
apparatus. This makes the fact that so few senior officers were prepared
to act even sadder. One should also not forget, however, that very few
people were in a postion to act, whether by means of a direct attempt on
Hitler's life, or the method preferred by most (but of course, not based
on reality), namely the arrest and trial of Hitler and his immediate
The German resistance movement to the Nazi dictatorship
was larger and more active than is generally known. Publicity of its
existence was suppressed for many reasons. They're obvious before 1945,
reprehensible afterwards. German diplomats, politicians, military and
civilian personnel tried repeatedly between 1934 and 1944, not only to
kill Hitler, but to warn the British government of developments. But, the
British upper class members of government (like American industrialists
and politicians) were riddled with Nazi sympathisers, who not only ignored
all warnings, but made life difficult for surviving resistance members
after the war for fear of exposure.
For a detailed account of the last attempt to remove Hitler from power,
including the sociological background necessary to understand what
motivated those who took part, I highly recommend Hoffmann's biography in
English and von Krockow's in German (which, I hope, will soon be
translated into English).
The latter is particularly penetrating because the
author has a deep understanding of the development of Prussian & German
society (both its positive and negative aspects) since the 17th century,
and thus helps the reader make sense of what often seems confusing about
"typical German" behaviour. It is an indispensable historical work of high
literary quality as well.
Peter Hoffmann, Stauffenberg - A Family History, 1905-1944,
Cambridge University Press, 1995 - The most exhaustively researched
biography in existence. Well and interestingly written. Military
background and knowledge of German history is helpful to reaching an
understanding of the interplay of the various psychological imperatives at
play. The author is a professor of history at McGill University, Montreal.
Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier, The Free Press
(Collier-Macmillan), Revised Edition, 1971 - Although not dealing with
Stauffenberg, and focused exclusively on American military
professionalism, this book is an excellent attempt to explain the
"professional military ethos".
Christian Graf von Krockow, Eine Frage der Ehre, Stauffenberg und
das Hitler-Attentat vom 20. Juli 1944, Rowohlt-Berlin Verlag, 2002 -
The most recent evalution and biography of Stauffenberg, written after,
and in the light of political developments since, the WTC attacks of
September 11, 2001.
Joachim Kramarz, Claus Graf Stauffenberg, Das Leben eines Offiziers,
Bernard & Graefe Verlag, 1965 - First major biography of Stauffenberg's
Bodo Scheurig, Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, Colloquium
Verlag, 1964 - A short, psychological study of Stauffenberg's life and of
the July Uprising.
Wilhelm von Schramm, Aufstand der Generale, Kindler Verlag, 1964
- Detailed tracing of the military resistance and implementation of the
July uprising in France.
Hans Hellmut Kirst, Aufstand der Soldaten, Verlag Kurt Desch,
1965 - A fictionalized account of the July 20, 1944 uprising, based
extensively on original sources - an excellent introduction to the
personalities and events.