Love Bomb

The mysterious motives of Hitler’s would-be assassin.

Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944
By Peter Hoffmann
Cambridge; 424 pages; $39.95

(Part 2 of a two-part article. For Part 1, click here .)

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who set off the bomb that nearly killed Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, was one of the most spectacularly odd figures to flash across the world stage. Under his military exterior he was a pure aesthete, a devotee of esoteric literature and musty medieval romanticism, a kind of tactical symbolist. If the German resistance to Hitler amounts to nothing more than a myth, as the books I reviewed last week in Slate suggested, Stauffenberg was aiming at myth and nothing less. He knew by July 1944 that his conspiracy had little chance of success, but he drove ahead regardless. He was determined to commit an act that might start a rumor of residual goodness in Germany. Even more, he wanted to save the old German myths from Hitler’s corrupting touch. It was an unreal, crazy, but terribly earnest mission.

Peter Hoffmann has written good general histories of the resistance, but his Stauffenberg takes a new tack. Decades of exhaustive research are telescoped into a swift biographical narrative, at times matter-of-fact and at times unexpectedly passionate. It is the first book to do justice to the strangeness of Stauffenberg’s world. The family had lived in the southwest German province of Swabia for centuries, and believed itself to be descended from the Hohenstaufen dynasty, whose lineage included the Holy Roman emperors Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II. More recently, the family had served the eccentric kings of Bavaria. Claus’ older brothers, Berthold and Alexander, were twins; Claus, too, had a twin, who died in infancy. “For a time he often brought his mother flowers for his brother’s grave,” Hoffmann writes in one of his surprising sentimental touches. The Countess Stauffenberg moved in various artistic circles, befriending Rainer Maria Rilke, among others; it was through her connections that her sons met the poet Stefan George.

George, who lived from 1868 to 1933, is ranked high among German lyric poets for his elegant Symbolist visions. The teen-age Stauffenberg brothers were the most ardent disciples of his last years. The poet took them in first of all because he liked to have handsome youngsters around him. (Eyebrow-raising photographs in Hoffmann’s book show boys posing in George’s home in medieval costumes.) But George was also fascinated by the Stauffenberg lineage, particularly the Hohenstaufen connection. Frederick II, the alternately splendid and frightening 13th century monarch who earned the nickname stupor mundi, was, for him, the model of an enlightened authoritarian. George thought the Empire lingered in modern times as a “secret Germany”; the Stauffenberg brothers providentially appeared as a band of boy princes who could take command. Claus was told that the emperor himself may have awakened in him, after centuries of sleep beneath a Swabian mountain.

All this smacks of Hitlerism, of course. George did share Hitler’s contempt for democracy and devotion to German myth. He also bandied about anti-Semitic phrases, despite the constant presence of Jews in his circle. But his worldview departed from Hitler’s in several respects. For one, he was steeped in foreign influences. He translated English, Spanish, and French poetry, with the French Symbolists his principal poetic model. His love of the Romance languages incited a highly subversive orthographic innovation: the elimination of capital letters on German nouns. And, for all his elitism and secretiveness, George had a most un-Hitlerlike strain of gentleness. Like Wagner (and like Thomas Mann in his conservative phase), he saw authoritarian rulers ushering in a kingdom of “ardor and love.”

G eorge died too soon for his real attitude toward the Nazis to become clear. (As Hoffmann notes, disciples would later spend much energy trying to expunge tentatively pro-Hitler remarks from the George oeuvre.) Stauffenberg, following the lead of the Master, showed vague enthusiasm toward Nazism early on. While training for a career as an officer in the late 1920s, he displayed fashionable contempt for the Weimar Republic. In 1934, he posed for a model of a massive storm-trooper monument sculpted by his friend Frank Mehnert, also a George disciple. He refused, however, to don a Nazi uniform, and struck an attitude that was deemed insufficiently fascist by the monument committee. He criticized the vulgarity of the Nazi leadership but never exhibited any deeper opposition to its ideals. Hoffmann writes that some relatives expressed surprise after the coup attempt of 1944: “Many had thought of him as the only real National Socialist in the family.”

What caused Stauffenberg to turn so suddenly against Hitler in 1943 and 1944? Standard theories about German officers and their disillusionment with the regime seem inadequate. As a member of George’s secret “state,” Stauffenberg went only so far in his devotion to the military; he was not acting simply to save the institution from Hitler’s murderous ineptitude. Perhaps what enticed him was a sense that George’s ideals could flower in the ruins of Hitler’s Germany, and that he himself might become the prophesied savior. Stauffenberg was a shadow-Hitler in some ways: His youthful love of architecture, music, and stage design coincides precisely with Hitler’s cherished dreams. In a school essay, Stauffenberg wrote of Speer-like architectural ambitions: “Every building will, so to speak, represent a temple dedicated to the German nation and fatherland.” One observer noted in him “a streak of demonic will to power and a belief that he was born to take charge.”

Weighing against these authoritarian traits are descriptions of the man’s essential sensitivity to others. His military career shows him repeatedly choosing human values over material gains. His specialty lay in the supply of troops on the front and, as the Russian invasion unfolded, he grew horrified by Hitler’s willingness to cut off entire divisions on a whim. He was also angered by the army’s policy toward Russian civilians. At a time when Slavs were being massacred by the thousands, he engaged in an ideologically incorrect effort to assemble troops of Russian volunteers and give them equal status with Germans. When his division was pinned down by a fighter-bomber attack in Africa in 1943, he sustained incredible wounds–the loss of an eye, a hand, and two more fingers–directing the evacuation.

More problematically, Hoffmann presents Stauffenberg as one of the few Germans who came to the defense of the Jews. According to many witnesses, the chief conspirator repeatedly named the mass murder of Jews on the Eastern front as the regime’s ultimate crime. But the question of his real feeling toward Jews is shadowed by Berthold Stauffenberg’s testimony at his treason trial in 1944, to the effect that the brothers subscribed generally to the Nazi “racial principle” and abhorred only the violence of its application. Hoffmann sought out Jewish schoolmates from Claus’ youth and asked if they had perceived anti-Semitic attitudes in him. They remembered him as an unusually friendly and generous gentile. The ambiguity of Stauffenberg’s attitude toward Jews can be sensed in this inscrutable sentence from a resistance manifesto: “We want a New Order which makes all Germans supporters of the state and guarantees them law and justice, but we scorn the lie of equality and we bow before the hierarchies established by nature.”

Stauffenberg stormed into a small, chaotic resistance movement and gave it at least the appearance of purpose. He set up an intricate plan for military rebellion across the Reich and took it upon himself to bring a bomb into Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” compound in East Prussia. Despite his injuries, he also insisted on arming the bomb himself. He was interrupted by a phone call and succeeded in activating only one of two packages of explosives; had he left the second package in the briefcase, it too would have exploded, greatly increasing the force of the bomb and killing everyone in the room. He brought the weakened bomb into Hitler’s briefing room and nudged it as close to the target as he could, then left on a mumbled excuse, drove off the compound, and flew to Berlin. He struggled for several hours to keep the rebellion together, but innumerable weak links were revealed in his improvised chain of command. Since he had probably resigned himself to failure from the beginning, he kept up a confident exterior to the end. As he faced a firing squad at the end of the day, he shouted out a phrase that was variously reported as “Long live holy Germany!” or “Long live hallowed Germany!” (heiliges or geheiligtesDeutschland). One George scholar claims that the true message, understandably misunderstood, was “secret Germany” (das geheimeDeutschland).

Conventional history can do nothing with Count Stauffenberg–this military aesthete who confused himself with a Holy Roman emperor and found reality in the musings of a visionary pederast. History wants movements, tendencies, collective motion; Stauffenberg is merely Stauffenbergian. Nor is he of any use as an instructional hero–neither a democrat nor a capitalist, he gives little comfort to modern Germany. But he did disprove, for an unimportant but magnificent moment, W. H. Auden’s dictum that poetry makes nothing happen.