15 November 2007

Valkyrie Hundred

Today is the 100th birthday of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, the German colonel who planted the bomb that nearly killed Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944. Von Stauffenberg (apologies if I spoil the end of Tom Cruise's next big film) was shot that night in Berlin, effectively on the orders of a general who wanted to conceal his own sympathies for the plotters.

Von Stauffenberg's reputation remains quite lustrous, in spite of his coming somewhat late to anti-Hitler plotting. Hans Oster, Wilhelm Canaris, Hans-Bernd Gisevius all preceded Von Stauffenberg into organizing a conspiracy against the German dictator, but are largely forgotten by all except by those taking a closer interest into resistance to the Nazi regime. This is a shame, in part because they came closer to success than one might have imagined at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938.

As usual when it comes to laying blame for responsibility for the Second World War, the British government's own inability to decide whose side it was on during the interwar period bears the greatest blame. Theodor Kordt, the German ambassador to London, alerted the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, to the existence of the conspiracy on September 7, 1938. Six days later, Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister, announced he would negotiate with Herr Hitler. Although, this in itself did not puncture the balloon created by the plotters, it set in motion the events that did. On September 28, Chamberlain agreed to the Munich conference, that apologists for Britain's interwar governments always characterize as having bought vital time for the organization of the Royal Air Force and rearmament. The conspirators, faced with another of Hitler's lucky breaks, put their plans on hold.

Whether the plotters would have succeeded in 1938 is of course open to some degree of doubt. Certainly, the knowledge that a conspiracy had existed at that time encouraged the British belief that almost randomly dropping bombs on German cities at night would eventually rouse the conspirators to action once again. (It didn't, by the way.) Furthermore, Halifax and Chamberlain could not necessarily regard Kordt's statements as reflecting a powerful conspiracy, as opposed to some talking circle Kordt sought to inflate all out of proportion to its real strength.

Yet even with these caveats, the fact remains that there was a chance for the war to be delayed, if not averted, in 1938, and that from time to time we should recall that German opposition to Hitler had a long gestation period.

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