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Claus Von Stauffenberg

Tom Cruise Stars in "Valkyrie", a new feature film about Claus Von Stauffenberg.
 

Valkyrie, Starring Tom Cruise
as Claus Von Stauffenberg

Von Stauffenberg, Claus Philip Schenk (1907-1944) was the youngest of three sons of one of the oldest and most distinguished South German families.  Stauffenberg grew up in a massive, turreted Renaissance chateau that had been the ancient seat of counts and dukes.  Strikingly handsome and with a fine physique, he excelled both academically and in sports.  Developing a passion for horses that qualified him for a place on the German Olympics team, he also exhibited an inquisitive and intelligent mind that pursued literature and the arts; he spoke fluent Greek and Latin.

For a while, young Stauffenberg considered a musical career, then architecture; but at the age of nineteen, in 1926, he entered the army as an officer cadet in the famed Bamberg Cavalry Regiment 17.

During the hectic years of German economic unrest and the Nazi rise to power, Stauffenberg remained an apolitical military officer.  In 1930, he met seventeen-year-old Nina von Lerchenfeld, descended from a line of Bavarian nobility.  They married after a three year betrothal.

By 1936, when Stauffenberg was posted to the War Academy in Berlin, he and his wife had started a family; their first son was born in 1934.   In Berlin, his all-around brilliance attracted the attention of ranking German officers and in two years he emerged as a twenty-nine-year-old officer of the high command.   He was a dedicated patriot and, according to his family, "basically a monarchist.  He was not dogmatic.  He saw in the monarchy a better type of constitution than the one that existed in the Weimar Republic."

While not opposed to National Socialism in the mid-1930s, Stauffenberg was certainly far from a slavish follower of Hitler.   Stauffenberg's first doubts about the Nazi programs came during the virulent anti-Jewish campaigns of 1938.  But when the war started in September 1939, Stauffenberg was willing to perform his duty.  He did so with characteristic energy and talent, earning a solid reputation as an officer in the Sixth Panzer Division's campaigns in both Poland and France.  In early June 1940, just before the Dunkirk assault, he was transferred to the army high command.  And for the first eighteen months of Operation Barbarossa, the Russian campaign, he spent most of his time in Soviet territory.  There he witnessed firsthand the brutality of the SS.  His Russian service disillusioned him with the Third Reich.

During his service at the front, Stauffenberg obtained leave for major holidays.  Stauffenberg's visits to his family were welcome respites from the deteriorating situation on the Russian Front.  The unnecessary disaster at Stalingrad in February 1943 further alienated Stauffenberg from Hitler's strategy.  As soon as the battle for Stalingrad finished, he asked for a transfer to a new front, and he was sent to the Tenth Panzer Division in Tunisia, just in time to join the last days of the fierce battle of the Kasserine Pass.

Tom Cruise Stars in "Valkyrie", a new feature film about Claus Von Stauffenberg.

On April 7, 1943, his car drove into a mine field and he was seriously wounded.  He lost his left eye and suffered injuries to his left ear and knee.  He also lost his right hand, and the surgeons had to amputate part of that arm as well as the ring and little fingers of his left hand.  The doctors doubted that he would survive; if he did, they thought, he would not regain his sight.   Stauffenberg returned home in the early autumn of '43 for recovery and convalescence.  He had been in a military hospital in Munich prior to this time, and it is here where he made his most important contacts with the people preparing a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Any other man, almost killed from his wounds, would have likely retired from the military and the conspiracy.  Stauffenberg did neither.   By midsummer, after much practice with the three fingers of his bandaged left hand, he wrote letters to his superiors notifying them of his intention to resume his duties within three months.  In the summer he also confided to his wife that he felt compelled to act to save Germany.  "We general staff officers must all accept our share of the responsibility," he told her.

By September of 1943 Stauffenberg was back in Berlin as a lieutenant colonel and chief of staff to General Friedrich Olbricht at the general army office.  Now with a block eye patch, the heavily decorated six-foot-three Stauffenberg had become a legendary soldier in the Berlin command.   While he settled into his new assignments, he also quickly achieved political control of the disheartened conspirators.  He insisted that the new government have an anti-Nazi cabinet, and he recommended a list of potential leaders.  Recognizing that the conspiracy needed younger military men ready to mobilize their commands, he persuaded some of the most important German officers to support the coming putsch.

In early 1944, a senior officer let it be known that he would be available to the conspirators:  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the celebrated "Desert Fox."  Stauffenberg and many of the other conspirators did not trust Rommel, considering him a Nazi who was only abandoning Hitler because the war was being lost.  Whatever his motivation, Rommel differed with the conspirators on a major point.  He was against assassinating Hitler, believing it would make him a martyr.  Instead, he thought, Hitler should be tried before a German court for his crimes, at the same time a separate peace was signed with the West and the war continued against the Russians.

Tom Cruise Stars in "Valkyrie", a new feature film about Claus Von Stauffenberg.

However, Stauffenberg and many of his friends realized the West would never accept a separate peace.  As the war situation worsened they hastened their plans to remove Hitler and take control of the government.  The new effort was code-named Valkerie, after the beautiful maidens in Norse mythology who hovered over the battlefield to select those who would die.  In this case, Hitler was to die.

In June 1944, Stauffenberg and many of his colleagues were surprised by the successful Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy.   Some of the conspirators thought they should abandon the assassination plans since the end was inevitable, and they did not want to be blamed for bringing about Germany's defeat.  But in heated discussions, Stauffenberg convinced the plotters it was critical to kill Hitler to stop a needless loss of lives, and to prove to the world that the men of the German resistance dared to take the decisive step against the Nazi dictator, despite incredible personal risks.

By July, Stauffenberg had been promoted to full colonel as the chief of staff for the commander in chief of the home army.  This was a stroke for the conspirators since it gave him frequent personal contact with Hitler.   Any chance of success rested on his ability to kill Hitler.  He approached his new assignment with the same zeal and determination that marked his entire career.   He practiced setting off the English-made bombs with his three remaining fingers.

On July 11, Stauffenberg brought a bomb to Berchtesgaden, and although he was with Hitler and Göring for half an hour, he did not release the bomb because Himmler was not present.  The conspirators had decided it would be best to kill the three top Nazis in one moment.   A second chance came on July 15, this time at Rastenburg.  Himmler and Goring were not present.  Stauffenberg left the room and telephoned his conspirators in Berlin to inform them that though only Hitler was present he was about to plant the bomb anyway.  When he returned to the conference room, Hitler had left.

On July 20, Stauffenberg was again scheduled to meet with Hitler, this time at the Wolf's Lair, his East Prussian headquarters.  This time, the plotters decided to kill Hitler no matter who was present.  Instead of being held in the underground bunker, where the enclosed area would magnify the blast, the meeting was held in the conference barracks, with all ten windows open because of the hot weather.  Walking to the conference with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Stauffenberg excused himself on the pretext of having forgotten his cap and belt in an anteroom.   There, with his three good fingers, he swiftly opened the briefcase, broke the capsule that started the primitive timer, and then calmly rejoined the waiting Nazis.   In ten minutes the bomb would explode.

Inside the conference room, Stauffenberg took his place a few feet to the right of Hitler.  He placed his briefcase on the floor, against the stout oak leg of the conference table.  With four minutes left on the bomb, Stauffenberg quietly left the room on the pretext of receiving an important call from Berlin.  After he left, one of the officers leaned over the table to get a closer look at the war map, and found Stauffenberg's case in his way.  He moved it to the far side of the massive table support, unwittingly protecting Hitler from the brunt of the blast.  At twelve-forty-two in the afternoon the bomb exploded.   Stauffenberg was standing a couple of hundred yards away observing the scene when he saw the building go up in a roar of smoke and flames.  Debris flew in the air and some bodies came out of the windows.  Stauffenberg had no doubt that everyone in the room was dead or dying.

Although an immediate alarm was sounded, Stauffenberg talked his way past four armed SS checkpoints.  At the nearby airfield, he boarded a plan with its engine running and began the three-hour trip to Berlin.

Unknown to Stauffenberg, Hitler had survived the blast.  His back was cut by a falling beam, his legs were burned, his hair was singed, his right arm was temporarily paralyzed, and his eardrums were punctured, but he was not seriously hurt.  Four others died, and many were critically injured.   Meanwhile, with Stauffenberg in the air, the conspirators lost their momentum and leadership.  The message from the Wolf's lair was not clear as to whether Hitler was dead or alive, and as a result no one in Berlin issued the Valkyrie Orders to start military operations to take over the government.  Everyone idly waited for Stauffenberg's landing, and when he did arrive in Berlin, he was stunned to learn the most crucial hours had been lost.  No one had even seized the radio broadcasting headquarters or telephone exchanges.  He rallied the plotters, and the conspirators did manage, for the rest of the day, to hold some major buildings and detain some loyal Nazi forces, but the open communication lines slowly carried the word that the Führer had survived.  Stauffenberg refused to believe it.  But once that news spread, some key officers who had been fence-straddling reverted to supporting Hitler.  The news also guaranteed that forces loyal to Hitler were energized for a bitter fight.

At nine p.m. the conspirators were startled to hear a radio announcement that Hitler would shortly address the nation.  By eleven that night the dwindling leadership of the conspiracy was sequestered in the war ministry when a group of loyal Nazis burst in.  During the ensuing scuffle, Stauffenberg was shot in his remaining arm.  Within half an hour, his former superior office, General Friedrich Fromm, announced that Stauffenberg and three others had been sentenced by a summary court-martial to immediate execution.  Stauffenberg, the sleeve of his wounded arm soaked in blood, was led to a courtyard in back of the ministry.  There an army truck's headlights lit a wall where the condemned men were lined up to be shot.   "Long live our sacred Germany!" Stauffenberg shouted as he fell to the floor, dead at the age of thirty-six.

 

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