Thursday, 9 December 2010

Valkyrie. The Night of the Generals, Rommel the Desert Fox

Over my life time I have seen three films about the heroic decision of senior members of he German army and others to attempt to assassinate Hitler, and capture the leading figures of Nazism, and then negotiate a truce with the allies The July 20th 1940 bomb and regime change plot is only the main subject of latest film. Valkyrie

The first of the films was the story of Field Marshall Rommel, The Desert Fox, played by James Mason and released in 1951, only five years after World War II.

My impression is that this film more than any other caused many of those who had fought or experience suffering during the war to begin the process of changing their feelings about the people of Germany in general. It will be difficult for anyone who has not experienced total war in some form not to be marked for life by the experience. Obviously there is a range of experiences. For the majority of people who did not live in British cities and who were not involved directly in the fighting or support of the fighting the experience was different from those who did.

Those who fought had some training and the means to protect themselves but only to a degree to a degree. Those who experienced the bombs and the rockets felt more powerless but also had the similar fear that death and serious injury was seconds away, and they also heard the sounds, the smell and the sights of death, injury and destruction. Not everyone had such a direct and horrific experience and my memory of the summer spent at officer’s quarters at the edge of the countryside at Catterick towards the end of the war, is a memory of cornfields, a full larder and a trip alone with my birth mother for the first time

Similarly the view of the German army, the Nazi regime and the German people varied from those had fought and lost relatives and friends in the First world war, those who had visited, studied or become friends with German people after the first world war, those who had witnessed the rise of Hitler and his regime, all; different from those like me born at the beginning of the war and going to school immediately after the war in Europe ended. We were influenced by the views and feelings of our families more than the media, with the main source of information being the state controlled BBC radio. A large number of us experienced the bombings and the rockets first hand, and in my case it was the fear of my birth and care mothers and their old sisters which still sends shudders.

I then experienced a succession of a British and Hollywood films about the war which concentrated on the God on our side heroism of Service men and women and the ordinary people of Britain, the USA and conquered Europe which only reinforced the strongly held belief that the only good German was a dead German. In my instance reading, on the advice of a Jesuit priest, as an adolescent, two of the reports of the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials, which I did after the release of the film about Rommel had the opposite effect and hardened my fear and reserve about Germany and its people, although I was already strongly influenced by the teachings of the Christ of the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount and the eight beatitudes as much if not more than the Ten Commandments.. Blessed are the Peace Makers.

Leaving school in 1955 and going to immediately work in a London where there were still large holes the ground, an interest in girls and New Orleans and Chicago Jazz and Big Band Swing commanded my attention more than the immediate past and it was not until travelling by train through Germany in 1963 and then touring by car and camping at the Rhine and attending a Beer festival and being invited to link arms with the local while swinging little pots of beer, that I was first able to modify my feelings and views.

The Night of The Generals was not released until 1967 and primarily is a war time thriller involving a General who murders a prostitute in Paris, on the night before the failed bomb plot and where senior German officers on Paris were heavily involved in the regime change coup.

Valkyrie is the first film about the actual and the first question to ask it has taken over fifty years for an English speaking film to be produced about the man who not only placed the bomb but was one of the leading figures, if not the most important figures in the regime change and war ending plan: Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg? German language films for theatre and television were made in 1955, 1989,1990, 2004 and 2005.

The second question. which I can answer, is how far does this film cover the actual events and provide an essential and accurate portrayal of the man, played in this film by Tom Cruise. I was entirely convinced by his performance, forgetting who the actor was.

The film also conveys that the assassination of Hitler was secondary to the main objective which was to bring about a regime change and end to the war and that it was only the last of a number of attempts by a groups within the army and among German people. The plot was conceived and directed by a large group of senior figures in the services, some who had been opposed to the Hitler and his regime from the onset, while others became more and more opposed as they became aware of the way opponents of the regime and the Jewish and others selected groups were being treated, some were concerned about the honour and reputation of German, some wanted to bring the war to an end, preferably with some honor and dignity rather than unconditional surrender, some were concerned about their personal futures after the defeat and most from mixtures of all these things. The one thing they had in common was heroism because they knew what would happen if they failed and it took exceptional courage, because while they had faced active combat and the bombings they also knew the pain of losing families and friends, and most of all they knew their immediate families would be captured, imprisoned tortured and likely to be killed, and that this included their children.

I am indebted as usual to Wikipedia for their comprehensive article on those involved with the regime change coup and the background, reminding that even before the war there were those in the German Army and German Intelligence who opposed the regime and the direction the country was being taken.

Moreover the these senior military men were also in touch with the civilian, political and intellectual resistance groups throughout Germany. Plans to over throw the regime before the war were aborted because of indecision and certainty about the position of the subsequent allies on both sides of the Atlantic who had not challenge or threatened the regime. We have seen the consequences of hesitating to intervene for humanitarian reasons in regimes which slaughter hundreds of thousands, even millions of their own people and of others since 1945. There has also been the negative consequences of intervention such as in Vietnam and Iraq, the British French intervention into Egypt and Suez. Even when the intervention appears to have positive in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan there remain concerns. History tends to be supportive and be sympathetic when such ventures are successful.

The success of German invasions made it impossible for any regime change plan to work and it was not until 1943 that first significant plan was implemented and a bomb placed on a plane carrying Hitler but failed to detonate as did a second attempt days later. The conspirators recognised that killing Hitler would not change anything without regime change and for this purpose an important recruit was General Olbricht played in the film by Bill Nighy who was head of the General Army Office headquarters in Berlin and who controlled an independent system of communications to the reserve units stationed in Berlin and throughout Germany. This was linked to the to the resistance group led by Colonel Henning von Treschow, a member of Marshall von Bock’s Army Group Centre command. Von Treschow is played in the film by Kenneth Branagh, This provided resistance with the communications system and the apparatus to conduct a successful regime change.

It was not until August 1943 that Treschow met and recruited von Stauffenberg who was recovering back in Germany from wounds received in North Africa where he lost an eye, a hand and two fingers of his remaining hand. Claus von Stauffenberg and his wife were aristocrats, proudly nationalist, conservative and Catholic. The family was on of the oldest and distinguished of catholic aristocratic families in the former Kingdom of Bavaria. He joined the family regiment in 1926 when aged 19 while remaining interested in the arts and philosophy, He was introduced to a group influenced by a 1922 written work which proposed a new form of society ruled by a hierarchical spiritual aristocracy. (I am writing this will listen to a German music site found at random this morning playing the album of a French artist Pep’s Utopies dans le Decor). Claus became a second lieutenant in 1930. In 1939 his regiment took part in the attack on Poland. There is controversy over the extent to which he fully supported the way Germany took over countries in the east with German speaking populations. But he and his aristocratic colleagues were in favour of regaining control of the eastern territories lost as a result of World war I. While sympathetic with nationalist aims of the Nazis Party as most Germans, he found aspect unacceptable and never became a member, He was concerned about the suppression of religions, and the persecution of the Jews .

He participated in the war in France and it was not until the massacring of people in the East with the invasion of Russia that it is recorded that Claus commenced to associate with resistance groups together with his older twin brothers who were involved with those who planned for a Germany after Hitler.

His 10th Panzer division was moved to occupy Vichy France before going to Tunisia as part of the Afrika Korps at the end of 1942 where in 1943 he was promoted to Colonel on the General Staff and in April while scouting for a new command area his vehicle was strafed and wounded he was taken back to Germany for treatment in Munich where he spent three months in hospital and then returned to one of his homes, a castle in Southern Germany with his wife and children. This contact would have made it more difficult for him to accept the role which Treschow decided for him in consultation with other conspirators.

The Reserve army had a an operational plan called Valkyrie which was intended to be used if allied bombing created a breakdown of law and order on Germany or if the millions of slave labourers from occupied countries being used in Germany rose up. The plan was to take control of Berlin and German cities, disarm the SS and arrest the Nazi leadership once Hitler has been assassinated, Valkyrie could be put into operation only by General Fromm, played in the film by Tom Wilkinson the Commander of the Reserve Army so he had to be won over or neutralised. And according to Wikipedia, like many other officers in the German army he tried to sit on the fence, not becoming involved or reporting to the Gestapo.

During 1943 and early 1944 there were four attempts organised by Claus and his group to try and get close enough to Hitler to assassinate him, Von Gersdoff in March 1943, von dem Bussche in March 1944, von Kleist in Feb 1944 and March 1944 with von Brietenbuch. This succession of attempts was not brought out in the film and would have helped to explain why Claus effectively ordered the coup without first establishing that Hitler has been killed rather than accepting that he had failed and committed suicide in order to prevent the rest of the resistance group from being destroyed.

However here was also a growing sense of now or never because Hitler had retreated to his heavily fortified headquarters the Wolfshanze near Rastenburg in East Prussia, taking breaks at his mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden. (Now listening to Amy McDonald’s album This is the Life). They were faced will the Himmler and his Gestapo having growing suspicion that officers on the General staff were behind the plots the plots to kill Hitler. There was then now evidence suggesting Claus was not under suspicion who after being introduced to Hitler at the Berchtesgaden had successfully obtained an amendment to Valkyrie which concentrated action of securing control of Berlin as the priority within three hours of the assassination of Hitler. He had successfully avoid having to explain the changes in the plan to Hitler’s personal staff officers and successfully pressed the attention of Hitler because of his previous record of loyal service and continuing to serve despite severe wounds. No doubt Hitler also looked up to the aristocratic military families of Germany and needed their support given his background.

With allied landing in June 6th 1944 many of the conspirators realised that their chances of success and survival were rapidly diminishing but believed they had to continue to try and save lives and to show the allies that opposition had existed. It was “ to be a grand futile gesture rather than actually altering the course of history.” For me this makes the individuals more heroic. They were sacrificing themselves to make a point as well as registering to the allies that their families needed protection and help. This view was expressed in a retained letter by von Lehendorff-Steinort to Stauffenberg. There is also the suggestion that Himmler allowed the July 20 plot to proceed in the hope that if it succeeded he would replace Hitler and negotiate with the allies, gaining his own survival a point made in the biography of Cannaris that the two were working to achieve regime change.

The opportunity for action came when Stauffenberg was appointed chief of staff to General Fromm on July 1st and this enabled him to attend Hitler’s military conferences. The military commander in France von Strulpnagel joined in the plot. On July 7th there was opportunity but the assigned individual, General Stieff could not go through with the assassination. It was at this point that Stauffenberg decided that he had to be the assassin and get back to Berlin to manage the regime change which he had masterminded

In the film Claus was prepared to proceed on the basis of killing Hitler alone, but those who had recruited him and would take over the running of Germany insisted killing Himmler and if possible Goring at the same time if Valkyrie was to succeed. Twice Claus took a bomb in his brief case but did not proceed because Hitler alone of the three was present. Because of this and that it was established that Himmler rarely attended he military conferences this condition was dropped.

They were ready again on July 15th but at the last minute Stauffenberg was told not to go ahead although the first part of Valkyrie was initiated with the reserve forces put on alert. Ludwig Beck played by Terence Stamp was to become head of state and Dr Karl Goerdeler (Kevin McNally) the Chancellor.

By July 18th rumours reached Stauffenberg that he was suspected and could be arrested at any time. Although this was not true except that the net was closing in on the plotters. This added to the sense of now or never. The plan involved two small bombs 1 kilo of plastic explosive that would fit into a suitcase and pencil detonators which involved being inserted and then set off with a ten minute fuse system which commenced when a pair of pliers was used to crush one end. It was thought that one would be sufficient but two were guarantees because although small the effect of the explosion within the bunker would ensure the death of everyone present. What is amazing is that given the previous attempts and Hitler’s concern for his own security everyone was not searched before entering he conference room. In the film a last minute switch is made between the bunker and out building and then because of pressure to attend the meeting as Hitler had arrived and his Claus’s physical disability only one the two devices was primed. The conference commenced at 12.30 and the device detonated at 12.40 Three officers and a secretary died from their injuries but everyone else including Hitler survived.

It is generally accepted that Claus believed the bomb had been successful as he and his assistant managed to get through the three checkpoints at the complex to their plane back to Berlin where he was to take control of the implementation of Valkyrie which he believed would have been largely completed by the time of his arrival back at military headquarters..

He was on the plane at 13.00 but it took him two hours to reach the in Berlin and then he had to get from the airport to his the headquarters..

It is at this point that I am unsure how far the film followed the facts of what happened. The main difficulty is that all the principals died one way or the other over the subsequent weeks and months. Claus had told them to proceed assuring them that Hitler had died whereas General Felliebel played by Eddie Izzard told them accurately that Hitler survived so panic set in and the plotters lost their nerve. Had they immediately acted the outcome might have been different. Although Claus insisted that Hitler had died and that the report he was not was false and intended to give the hierarchy time to reorganise it was not until16.00 that the order was given to implement Valkyrie and the Reserve army told that Hitler was dead and the plotters, the SS who had to be disarmed and arrested. The order to implement the regime change was given by Olbricht and when General Fromm heard he contacted Field Marshall Keitel who assured him Hitler had survived and who wanted to know where was Stauffenberg. Fromm lied saying he thought he had been with Hitler. At 16.40 Stauffenberg arrived and was shocked to find the operation was only 40 minutes underway. Fromm tried to have him arrested and in turn he was arrested by Olbricht and Stauffenberg. In the film those in the communications centre were receiving conflicting orders which the operators queried with their supervisors who decided to pass both sets on until at one point they decided to support the status quo and shut down communications from the coup command centre. That the outcome might have been different if the order to begin had been given earlier can be demonstrated that in Paris Strulpnagel gave the order to arrest the SS and SD commanders, In Vienna, Prague and many other places troops occupied the offices of the Nazi party and arrested those in charge. In Berlin the Police commander had joined in and given his support while City Commandant gave the order to take control for teh plotters and arrest Geobbels.

At 17.40 the second decisive moment of the day took place, the first was after leaving the room, the brief case holding the bomb was moved away from Hitler so that the solid table helped to shield Hitler from the blast. At this time Hitler had recovered sufficiently to make phone calls and contacted Goebbels to re assure him he was alive and in turn Goebbels’s was able to convince the Major surrounding the building that Hitler was alive and that he in effect was the coup and therefore he needed to regain control of Berlin for their leader. The order was to take Stauffenberg and others alive. People began to change sides rapidly as in Paris where Strulpnagel was arrested. Claus was wounded in the arm in fighting at the command centre and by 23.00 Fromm was back in control and he went to see Geobbels to try and take credit for stopping the plot, He was arrested and later executed, Beck knowing the coup had failed, shot himself. Olbricht and Claus were arrested and shot the following day, probably in an effort to prevent them revealing Fromm’s awareness of the plot.

In 2005 an attempt was made to recreated the bomb situation using live explosives and test dummies and this was said to show that if the briefcase had not been moved, if it had been possible to use both devices, or if the explosion had taken place in a more confined space Hitler would not have survived.

The rounding up of everyone and any suspected of being involved commenced and for the first time the history of the conspiracy became known to Hitler with letters and diaries discovered revealing the plans of 1938, 1939, and 1943. 5000 individuals were arrested an 200 immediately executed with the Gestapo using the situation to settled old scores unconnected with the plots. Very few of those involved tried to run or escape or deny their involvement, so making a statement to future generations of where they had stood. Hitler ordered them to die by slow strangulation, to be hung up like cattle. One of these was an elder brother of Claus, Berthold on August 10th,

Going back to the film story of Rommel, he was given the choice of committing suicide and saving his family or they would die with him if he insisted in going to trial for knowing about the plot and doing nothing to prevent it. This is was accurate. Treschow is shown as blowing himself up with a grenade in the film. Strulpnagel also tried to commit suicide, survived and was executed. The executions were filmed and then edited by Goebbels into a 30 min film to be shown to cadets as a warning. Every member of the army was required re swear their oath of loyalty and instead of the usual military salute ordered to give the full Nazi salute.

The film ends with notes explaining that Countess von Stauffenberg survived and only died in 2006. Their five children including one born after his execution were placed in foster homes for the remainder of the war. One son became a General, another served in the German and European Parliaments, while one daughter wrote a successful book about her mother, who once said that her husband let things comes to him before making up his mind and that he enjoyed playing devil’s advocate. As a consequence Conservatives were convinced he was a ferocious Nazi and ferocious Nazis were convinced he was an unconstructed conservative.

This reminds me of sitting at the top table at the end of the international senior management course I attended in middle of the 1980’s when someone who had taken an instant dislike said in a voice distained to be heard by the rest of the top table that he could not make up his mind if I was on the extreme left or right to which I responded, that shows what a good course it is! He was a dangerous man and worked behind the scenes to get his revenge later.

It is evident that where a government is extreme there will be opposition and aware of this those in power will be ruthless towards opponents and establish undercover systems for finding out their opponents and keeping track of them.

However it should not be assumed that there are no plots for power in a democracy. There is evidence that even when a democracy is established those who were content with the older will attempt to de-stabilise and take power, with events post Franco Spain a good example. The early indication is that the Obama Administration is aware of the potential reaction of right extremists if the administration moves too far to the left. There is evidence that the President and his advisers are aware that he and his family are targets and have already taken measure to protect themselves while remaining open to the public with the glass screens much in evidence. There is some concern about the different levels of security between state and Federal as revealed by the BBC Radio Five Live Team who found that it not only took three hours on Inauguration day to get to their position, but found the different levels of security with different instructions and information. It is essential that such divisions are quickly sorted. The President and team need to be able to get on with the job and leaving their backs to be covered by a strong and integrated security system. The good are always more vulnerable than the evil.

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