Valkyrie and the German Resistance: Remembering the July 20th plot

We cannot understand the resistance unless we first accept “that German conservatives and nationalists might be moral and religious men who were appalled at the lawlessness, brutality, and inhumanity of the Nazis.”

The vital point running through all these questions is the totalitarian claim of the state over the citizen to the exclusion of his religious and moral obligation towards God.
First Lieutenant Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, Valkyrie conspirator

One of the most intriguing fields of World War II history deals with the German Resistance—a clandestine network of disillusioned military officers and civil servants who began actively plotting against Hitler’s government as far back as 1938.  After the war began, the resistance gained new momentum by recruiting Catholic nobleman and Wehrmacht colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, under whose leadership the conspirators appropriated a homeland defense plan called Valkyrie. Per the Valkyrie protocols, martial law would be imposed upon the Reich to restore order in the event of a national catastrophe. But if Hitler were to be assassinated, Stauffenberg reasoned, SS and Gestapo officials could be framed for the assassination and accused of attempting a coup, thereby giving high-ranking conspirators within the army a pretext to seize control of the country and dismantle the political establishment.  

As Randall Hansen explains, the conspirators were driven by a complex mix of motivations: 

The core of the military resistance – Henning von Tresckow and, from 1942, Claus von Stauffenberg—turned against Hitler for three reasons that, though separate, were by no means mutually exclusive […] Hitler was wrecking the army, sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their deaths, and slaughtering millions of innocent civilians in the process. Relatively few turned against the Nazis solely out of concern for Hitler’s victims (Henning von Trescow was one), but the atrocities deeply offended German officers’ sense of honour.  This offence, combined with the effect of Hitler’s leadership on the German army and its soldiers’ lives, helped push many more into the resistance column.

Undoubtedly most military members of the resistance would by today’s standards be categorized as extremely right-wing, observes Hansen, but be that as it may they “were nonetheless horrified by the wholesale murder of the Jews.” Numerous considerations inspired Stauffenberg to act when and as he did, but it is clear that he became alienated from National Socialism in part because of his disgust at war crimes being perpetrated by SS units on the Russian front.  In the words of yet another historian, it is impossible to understand the resistance unless we first accept “that German conservatives and nationalists might be moral and religious men who were appalled at the lawlessness, brutality, and inhumanity of the Nazis.”  

These conservatives and nationalists carried out an ultimately tragic game of cloak-and-dagger for the duration of the war.  Having resigned his office to protest the Nazi removal of Felix Mendelssohn’s statue from Leipzig’s town square, Leipzig’s ex-mayor Carl Goedeler worked behind the scenes afterwards, trying to use the annexation of Czechoslovakia as the occasion for a revolt; in 1940 intelligence officer Hans Oster secretly handed over German plans for the invasion of western Europe to a Dutch military attaché in Berlin; General Tresckow orchestrated a 1943 attempt to blow up Hitler’s airplane mid-flight using an explosive device hidden in a package of cognac.  

Clerics were involved, with the most famous being Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Jesuit priest Alfred Delp played no less an active part in the underground, coordinating subversive efforts with opposition leader Count Helmuth James von Moltke and meeting with Stauffenberg to discuss at length the possible course a post-Hitler Germany might take.  As intellectual as he was passionate, Delp’s particularly dreaded a dystopian age of “mass-men,” which he saw heralded by Nazi “leveling”—that is, the state-sanctioned subjugation of intermediate political structures, social groups, and associations.

The critical moment for the Valkyrie plot came on July 20, 1944, when Stauffenberg planted a time bomb in a conference room where Hitler was holding council.  The earlier bombing attempt by General Tresckow had been carried out using captured British explosives that had failed to detonate due to the cold temperatures of high altitudes.  This time things went differently, and an enormous blast reduced the conference room to wreckage.  

Yet as the dismayed conspirators soon learned, Hitler had somehow survived the explosion, shielded by the heavy table under which the bomb had been placed.  The embryonic uprising was squashed and hundreds rounded up for carefully calculated torture.  In this respect Stauffenberg was among the more fortunate, because fear of being implicated himself led Stauffenberg’s commanding officer to have him executed by firing squad before the Gestapo could interrogate him.  For others, macabre show trials awaited.  Defendants like Stauffenberg’s cousin Graf Yorck von Wartenburg testified to their participation in the plot and sought to explain their actions, all the while being heckled by the bizarre, shrill Judge Freisler – a former Bolshevik turned flamboyant National Socialist.  They were then hanged.  

Not everyone today is willing to pay tribute to Stauffenberg and his colleagues.  For instance, liberal critic of the German Resistance Richard Evans has conceded that Stauffenberg was an impressive character driven by “a complex mixture of Catholic religious precepts, an aristocratic sense of honour, Ancient Greek ethics, and German Romantic poetry,” but concludes that Stauffenberg’s “contempt for parliamentary democracy” renders the count “ill-fitted to serve as a model for the conduct and ideas of future generations.”

Evans is certainly right about Staufenberg’s attitude toward democracy:  “We scorn the lie of equality” is but one of the reactionary barbs found in the oath Stauffenberg composed for the conspiracy’s inner circle.  For that matter, even those conspirators who did have democratic inclinations would have meant by the word democracy something decentralized, human-scaled, and organic – which is to say something entirely different from the omni-regulating, transnational bureaucratic regime Americans now take for granted.  By rights Father Delp should be as controversial a figure as Stauffenberg, for Delp’s political vision was derived from Quadragessimo Anno.

One need not share Stauffenberg’s romantic devotion to the Holy Roman Empire to see how small-minded it is to simply write him off. Yes, his ideals and assumptions differed from those of 21st-century America, and it is precisely because of this that he and the other conspirators might have something to teach us.  If we trust our own infallibility so much that we reflexively stop up our ears whenever we encounter a figure who does not think like we do, what is the point in studying history at all?  The conspirators believed that the brutality of the Nazi regime was intrinsically tied to the very traits Nazism had in common with liberal democracy—i.e., a commitment to a “leveled,” classless society, a preference for theory over living tradition, and a repudiation of Christian culture. 

In light of the conspirators’ point of view, we might find the pro-E.U. intelligentsia’s incessant invocation of the argumentum ad hitlerum somewhat ironic, especially considering this revealing complaint from Stauffenberg’s target:  “Generals think wars should be waged like tourneys of the Middle Ages.  I have no use for knights; I need revolutionaries.”  Whether they are repudiating chivalry and the medieval legacy, or promoting an insatiable ideology of revolution, Western elites have more in common with their favorite bogeyman than they care to admit.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Jerry Salyer 42 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.