Friday, December 25, 2009

Valkyrie’s Heroes

On this very day last year Bryan Singer released his motion picture Valkyrie—based on a true story of a cabal of Nazi officers who conspired to assassinate Adolf Hitler during the latter days of the war. July 20th 1944 represented the fifteenth known attempt by Germans to assassinate an evil tyrant propelling them into global shame.

You may be wondering why I’ve chosen to discuss this film today of all days. It’s Christmas Day, after all, the birthday of Jesus Christ, our savior. It is a day about birth, hope, wonder and joy; not death, shame and murder. Well, hear me out. Bryan Singer may have randomly chosen a Christmas Day release following several delays from the initial June release date. But I think the Christmas Day release was very appropriate. And fateful. And I’ll give you my reasons…after I discuss the motion picture and the German Resistance, that is.

Despite its obvious outcome, the historical thriller, written by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Nathan Alexander, runs tautly (for one, you wonder how they fail; but a part of you also roots for an alternative reality aka Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards). Claus von Stauffenberg’s (Tom Cruise) bold yet brilliant plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler and arrest key SS officers using Hitler’s own Operation Valkyrie National Emergency Plan—effectively taking control of the country—required unmitigated commitment and precise action by his associate plotters. His associates included a prestigious inner circle of Nazi officers such as General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), Colonel General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Dr. Carl Goerdeler (McNally), Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben (Schofield), and General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson). Wikipedia gives a good in-depth summary of the real events of the July 20th coup attempt, faithfully rendered in the movie.

Many reviewers of Valkyrie focused on whether Tom Cruise redeemed himself in this “well-crafted thinking person’s action movie” (Rotten Tomatoes) at the expense of the significance of the movie’s content. For instance, Kam Williams of NewsBlaze pretty much dismissed the film as “an interminable costume drama strictly for Tom Cruise fans or World War II buffs.” I don’t think he got it. His review incited several comments including this one by Wayne B., who replied with, “Nonsense. The rest of the country is out making cartoons about toy robots, vampires and car chases and Tom Cruise is making a movie about history. We don’t learn much from the majority of movies out there, but Valkyrie takes us inside the terror of Nazi Germany and shows us the history of some real heroes most of us never think of [or even know of, I would add]. Valkyrie was an amazing glimpse into history that matters and unfortunately most of us are too busy trying to be entertained than to actually learn anything.”

And what we learned was this: there was an active German resistance to Hitler’s brutality, intolerance and racial hatred. Many opposed his evil mania for eugenics and the creation of a super-race of “normal” Aryan heterosexuals. This, despite the horrible shadow cast by the Hitler Youth, Gestapo, and the SS to maintain national order. People were shot or disappeared for just thinking wrong thoughts or worse yet for someone else thinking they did or just being what they were. Those caught actively resisting the Third Reich were imprisoned, tortured and executed. Active resistance spanned from acts of sabotage to publicly denouncing actions of the regime to assassination attempts. Between 1933 and 1945 more than 3.5 million Germans had been interred in concentration camps or prison for political reasons. An estimated 77,000 Germans were killed by Special Courts, courts martial, and the civil justice system for subversion and conspiracy against the Nazi regime. Many had served in government, the military, or in civil positions.

The German Resistance was not a united organized movement so much as a common sentiment shared by many disparate and isolated individuals and loose groups. Resistance comprised of opposition by underground political and ideological networks like the banned Social Democrats (SPD) and Communists (KPD); public protest of Catholic and Protestant clergy against mistreatment of minorities (e.g., the T4 euthanasia program, deportation of Jews, Kristallnacht and other atrocities); and perhaps the most heroic—resistance of individual Germans who acted on their own moral principles, at risk of death, to evade serving in the Nazi regime (e.g., military or Hitler Youth), and to defy or subvert government policies. This included helping Jews survive the Nazi Holocaust by hiding them, obtaining papers for them, etc.; spreading news about and protest material against Nazi atrocities; and other forms of passive resistance. The stories of brave women and men who resisted are many.

Elisabeth von Thadden, a private girls' school principal, disregarded official edicts and continued to enroll Jewish girls at her school until May 1941 when the school was nationalized and she was dismissed (she was executed in 1944, following the Frau Solf Tea Party).

A Berlin Protestant Minister, Heinrich Grüber, organised the smuggling of Jews to the Netherlands. Many of us know about Schindler’s act of altruism from the movie, Schindler’s List, starring Liam Neeson.

Many Germans rallied against the program of so-called “euthanasia” – in fact a campaign of mass murder – directed at people with mental illness and/or severe physical disabilities started in 1939 under the code name T4. By 1941 more than 70,000 people had been killed under this program, many by gassing, and their bodies incinerated.

The "White Rose" was a Munich-based student resistance, formed in 1941 in response to a sermon by August von Galen the archbishop of Munster and to claims that the Nazis were killing undesirables and calling the practice euthanasia. They published radical leaflets rejecting fascism and militarism, and called for justice. Six members of the White Rose were executed on February 22, 1943.

Catholic Bishop of Münster in Westphalia, Clemens August Graf von Galen publicly denounced the “euthanasia” program in a sermon, and telegrammed his text to Hitler, calling on “the Führer to defend the people against the Gestapo.” Kiel Professor Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt saved most of his patients from death through Action T4 ; he "re-diagnosed" them so that they no longer met the T4 criteria, although this ran the risk of exposure when the Nazi zealots from Berlin conducted inspections. After the Kristallnacht (the first organized Nazi pogrom in Germany), German Catholic priest, Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg prayed publicly for Jews at Evening prayer. He and Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber of Munich also protested against the T4 “euthanasia” program.

On August 9, 1943 Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded by the Nazis for refusing to fight for them. It was the very same day (though not the same year) that Edith Stein was brutally gassed (along with hundreds of other Jews) in Auschwitz. Both were canonized as Saints by the Catholic Church (though much later).

I only recently learned that over forty-two separate plots to kill Hitler were identified by German historians. Hitler’s would-be-assassins ranged from “simple craftsmen to high-ranking soldiers, from the apolitical to the ideologically obsessed, and from enemy agents to his closest associates,” wrote British historian Roger Moorhouse in his 2007 book Killing Hitler, who went on to observe that “inexplicably, few of these men are known beyond the narrow confines of academic history…Their greatest failing was that they were unable to carry out their allotted task—that of ridding the world of Adolf Hitler—but they nonetheless deserve greater recognition.”

Among those who tried but failed to stop the madness of a brutal dictator were:
Swiss university student Maurice Bavaud, whose three easily thwarted tries in November 1938 to shoot Hitler got him guillotined. Johann Georg Elser, a Swabian carpenter who tried to kill Hitler with a bomb on November 8, 1039 (the Nazi leader left the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich only 13 minutes before detonation). Elser died in the Dachau concentration camp.

Claus von Stauffenberg and other high officials of the German Military attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler inside his "Wolf's Lair" field headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia on July 20, 1944. The plot was the culmination of the efforts of the German Resistance to overthrow the Nazi regime. The failure of both the assassination and the military coup d'état which was planned to follow it led to the arrest of at least 7,000 people by the Gestapo According to records of the Führer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 4,980 people were executed, resulting in the destruction of the resistance movement in Germany (Wikipedia).

When Singer began filming Valkyrie in 2008, Germans were initially reluctant to cooperate due to Cruise’s practice of Scientology (viewed with suspicion in the country). When they were convinced of the film’s serious intent, they whole-heartedly supported the film to spread global awareness of von Stauffenberg’s plot and his fellow officers’ heroics.

"It has always aggrieved me,” said Frank Schirrmacher in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany “that it's nearly impossible to make people in foreign countries aware of the fact that in Germany there were also people who risked their lives to oppose the Nazi order. … With his decision to lend Graf von Stauffenberg a face, Tom Cruise will change the image that the world has of us Germans.”

Bryan Singer gained permission to film at Bendlerblock, the building in Berlin that served as the seat of the Reichswehr command and Ministry of Defence—and, under the leadership of Infantry General Friedrich Olbricht, was the focus of military resistance to the Nazi regime. It was in its courtyard that a firing squad assembled the night of July 20, 1944 and executed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, First Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim. Just as Stauffenberg was about to be shot, he raised his head high and shouted, “Long live sacred Germany!”

In the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, south of the Tiergarten in western Berlin, stands a statue of a naked man and a plaque where the July 20th plotters were shot: a memorial to the entire German Resistance (Deutscher Widerstand) that reads: “You did not bear the shame. You resisted, sacrificing your life for freedom, justice and honor.” According to archives documenting anti-Nazi resistance in Austria, German military courts condemned over 70,000 people to death, two thirds of whom were members of its own forces.

Nature produces many heroes; those among us who willingly (whether hard-wired, subconsciously or consciously) sacrifice something for the benefit of our world. This does not necessarily mean our lives either; but something we usually value that belongs to us or resides in us. Anything from giving away what little wealth one has to compromising one’s position in society; anything from risking one’s health or security to incurring the ridicule or wrath of one’s cherished community for adhering to a principle or personal truth or defending an outsider. To be a hero is to stand out and make oneself a target. Like the Vervet monkey crier. Real heroism, like real altruism, isn’t often recognized or valued for its true virtue. We all recognize the Hollywood stereotype, the Die Hard types that blow up a city to save a world. But who recognizes the quiet heroism of Louis, the young school kid who refuses to join in with his friends to bully and ridicule René for smelling funny because she has poor hygiene and rotten hand-me-down clothes?

Christmas is a time to celebrate the wisdom of the child (and the child in us all). Children are often surprisingly resilient about the deeper ills of the world; they often show a simpler, more healthy perspective on humanity that supersedes arbitrary and shallow prejudices, demonstrating an inner wisdom many of us "forget" as we grow older and distracted by the trappings of peer pressure and consumerism. Christmas is ultimately a time to celebrate and strive for innocence and childlike virtues such as faith, optimism, courage, enthusiasm, cheerfulness and the simple joy of being. It is a time of tolerance and acceptance; a time of forgiveness, of healing and reconciliation. A time to set aside our differences and fears and embrace our humanity, foibles and all. A time to walk deep into one’s soul and find one’s inner calling, one’s gift to the world. It is a time surely for giving. A time of service and love.

Victor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and lost virtually his whole family in Nazi concentration camps, wrote that he had finally grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: “The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

So, today, when Christians all over the world (myself included) are celebrating the birth of the child-gift, our savior Jesus Christ, I dedicate my gratitude to the heroic men and women who gave their lives to save us from the violence of prejudice, racist hatred and genocide such as The Final Solution. I give thanks to their noble spirit, altruism and bravery to speak out and act selflessly for a noble cause. Every one I list below was a light in the darkness; each one gave his or her life to make a better world for you and me. Each one acted in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Each one acted out of selfless love with hope and faith for a better world, a better humanity. Many were executed in the Third Reich's Volksgerichtshof or thrown into concentration camps. There are many many more, I know. But these are some notable ones I found:

• Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, the Kreisau Circle and the Abwehr
• Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg
• Adam von Trott zu Solz
• Otto Carl Kiep
• Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg
• General Henning von Tresckow
• General Helmuth Stieff
• Colonel Hans Oster
• Admiral Wilhelm Canaris
• Colonel General Ludwig Beck
• General Friedrich Olbricht
• First Lieutenant Werner von Haeften
• General Erich Fellgiebel
• Abwehr Colonel Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim
• Edith Stein
• Franz Jägerstätter
• Richard Kuenzer
• Walter Cramer
• Professor Alfred Delp
• Hans von Dohnanyi
• Albrecht von Bernstorff
• Klaus Bonhoeffer
• Georg Elser
• Helmuth Hübener. At age 17, he was the youngest opponent of the Third Reich to be executed.
• Members of the White Rose resistance movement: Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and Kurt Huber.
• Julius Fučík.
• Karlrobert Kreiten
• Max Josef Metzger
• Erwin von Witzleben
• Johanna "Hanna" Kirchner
• Lieutenant-Colonel Caesar von Hofacker
• Carl Friedrich Goerdeler
• Elisabeth von Thadden, and other members of the anti-Nazi Solf Circle.
• Julius Leber
• Klaus Bonhoeffer and Rüdiger Schleicher

Be at Peace. See light in darkness. Spread Hope. Create Joy and Celebrate the Wonder of Christmas.
“The Word was the source of life, and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” –John 1.4-5 (GNT).

"He has shown you … what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

Photos:1. cast of Bryan Singer's 2008 film Valkyrie
2. Claus von Stauffenberg
3. Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg in Valkyrie
4. Friedrich Olbricht
5. Erwin Witzleben
6. Henning von Tresckow
7. Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen
8. Franz Jagerstatter
9. Bernhard Lichtenberg
10. The Bendlerblock courtyard where Stauffenberg and other were shot
11. The Valkyrie of Norse Legend
12. Victor Frankl

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Anonymous said...

Great analysis!
Merry Christmas!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

An excellent history lesson.

Happy Christmas

Nina Munteanu said...

Kam, Jean-Luc... Many thanks for your wishes. I hope your Christmas was a wonderful time of sharing... It is indeed a season to contemplate our ability to give and change the world.

If you haven't seen this movie, go see it... and remember...

Unknown said...

I've download free movies online at http;// like this, that somewhat kinda interesting to watched what was happened during this time.