In early September 1944, Ulrich Wilhelm Schwerin von Schwanenfeld prepared to die. As he was about to face his executioners, the young aristocrat involved in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life of 20 July 1944 wrote one final – and timelessly beautiful – letter to his beloved wife. Reflecting on the experiences that had turned him into an anti-Hitler conspirator, he also composed his will. In the face of his own imminent death, he wanted to ensure for all time that the world would remember the mass executions that the SS and auxiliary forces had carried out on his West Prussian estate in 1939: ‘Ich bestimme ferner’, he wrote, ‘daß an der Stelle im Kieslager meines Sartowitzer Forstes, wo die Ermordeten aus dem Spätherbst 1939 ruhen, sobald die Zeitumstände es erlauben, ein sehr hohes Holzkreuz aus Eiche gesetzt wird mit folgender Inschrift: Hier ruhen 1400-1500 Christen und Juden. Gott sei ihrer Seele und ihren Mörden gnädig.’
Just over two weeks earlier, Schwerin’s judge Roland Freisler had tried to belittle him, insinuating that he lacked any moral compass. Before condemning him to death, Freisler had shouted at Schwerin. He had told him that he was a ‘schäbiger Lump’ and that at best he had been driven by a ‘perverse Liebe für Deutschland’. It is unsurprising that Freisler would defame the conspirators of 20 July 1944 in this way.
What is more surprising is the degree to which voices in the public debate about the 20 July 1944 plot on its seventy-fifth anniversary still inadvertently follow Freisler’s lead in questioning whether the resistance fighters of 1944 had been driven by ethical considerations. In the debate about the 2019 publication of Thomas Karlauf’s Stauffenberg: Porträt eines Attentäters (Blessing, 2019), we still find unwitting variations of Freisler’s ‘perverse love for Germany’ theme. Karlauf’s central claim in his biography of Schwerin’s co-conspirator and failed assassin Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg is indeed that the men of 20 July had not been driven by their ‘Gesinnung’, i.e., by ethical considerations. ‘Nicht Entsetzen über die Verbrechen des Nationalsozialismus, sondern die Entschlossenheit, den Krieg möglichst rasch zu einem für Deutschland einigermaßen glimpflichen Ende zu bringen’, writes Karlauf, ‘gab ihrem Denken die Richtung’.
On one level, Karlauff’s take on the 20 July plot, as well as the applause he has received for his book, is simply a result of a rather idiosyncratic take on the surviving pieces of evidence. Karlauf, for instance, brushes aside testimony from after the event and selectively reads surviving contemporary sources. He, for instance, does not trust the testimony given by one of Stauffenberg’s friends. When interrogated by the Russians, that friend had stated that Stauffenberg was principally driven by what later generations would call the Holocaust. Karlauf, however, does trust a letter Stauffenberg had written to his wife in 1939 which repeats negative stereotypes of Poles and Jews, not appreciating that we find similar stereotypes, for instance, in the description by Nahum Goldmann, the future founder and president of the World Jewish Congress, of Jewish life from his 1914 visit to Palestine.
On a different level, his criticism of the plotters of 20 July 1944 and his belief that Stauffenberg is ill-suited as a role model for our own times is based on an underestimation of how democratisation has worked historically. It is also a result of a misapprehension of the values that underpin our own world. It is, of course, perfectly true that Stauffenberg was not a champion of liberal democracy. Nor was he propagating equality. However, his rejection of the Third Reich was driven by a principled belief in liberty, right (i.e., the rule of law), and justice, as well as his commitment to establish a ‘Gemeinschaft der abendländischen Völker’. In that he stood on diametrically opposite sites from Hitler’s belief that liberty was only possible if people appreciated that there was no right, only might.
Crucially, in his steadfast worshiping of liberty, justice, and the rule of law, rather than equality, Stauffenberg stands surprisingly close to the world of ideas of late nineteenth-century British conservatives. This provides a crucial insight into the role Stauffenberg would likely have played had he lived. Historically, democratisation did not occur where future leaders were born as democrats. Rather it took place where future leaders subscribed to values that made their eventual transition to being democrats possible. As the Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt brilliantly demonstrated in his Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (Cambridge University Press), many Conservative statesmen in Britain initially did not believe in equality either, and yet they ultimately bought into (modern) democracy.
And indeed many of the surviving co-conspirators of Stauffenberg and Schwerin, including the 1950s President of the Bundestag Eugen Gerstenmaier, were at the forefront of the democratisation of post-1945 West Germany. It is thus as mistaken as it is distasteful to belittle Stauffenberg’s moral belief in liberty, justice and the rule of law. If we want to foster democratisation in countries that are not democratic yet, we should celebrate rather than dismiss people with the values of Count Stauffenberg.
Yet there is an even more important lesson to draw from why Stauffenberg and Schwerin’s action make them role models for the twenty-first century. And we need them as much for today’s world as we need, for instance, the legacy of the brave resistance of Sophie and Hans Scholl, the Munich’s students who wrote and circulated anti-Nazi flyers and paid the ultimate price for their actions. The Scholls and Stauffenberg are role models and inspirations for different contexts. The actions of Sophie and Hans Scholl inspire civil disobedience and the need to start anti-regime social movements, which is important but unlikely to bring regime change.
Stauffenberg is a role model who can inspire regime loyalists in states around the world that turn to tyranny to listen to their conscience and trigger regime change. The message to the world that comes from the actions of the Scholl siblings, as well as of Stauffenberg and Schwerin, is to listen to one’s moral convictions and that it is never too late to do the right thing. The world can learn from them how to be an upstander and not a bystander in the face of tyranny and injustice.
By Thomas Weber
Read The German Riveter here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Thomas Weber is an historian and writer. Born in Westphalia, Germany, he studied in Oxford and is now Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of Aberdeen.
Karlauf, p. 226
Goldmann, Reisebriefe, p. 116.