On von Stauffenberg & the George Circle

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg in 1926, 17th cavalry regiment in Bamberg.
© Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)

Have abstained from catching Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise flick on von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assasinate Hitler, but came across an interesting article by British historian Richard Evans speaking of von Stauffenberg’s connections to the poet Stefan George and his circle, and its influence on the aristocratic (and in no way democratically inclined) German Graf. Here are the opening paras of the article; the rest can be read here on the signandsight site.

Why did Stauffenberg plant the bomb?

Whatever his motives for killing Hitler, Stauffenberg was no role model for future generations, says British historian Richard Evans.

Few incidents in the domestic history of Germany during the Second World War are more dramatic than Colonel Claus Schenk, Graf von Stauffenbergs attempt to assassinate the German “Leader” Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944. The hushed conversations and secret debates of the conspirators beforehand, the near-misses of their previous attempts, the breathtaking audacity of the final bombing, the chance circumstances behind Hitler’s survival, the violent and desperate confusion of the final hours at army headquarters in the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin, the stark tragedy of Stauffenberg’s summary execution, the mystery of his final exclamation – “long live sanctified Germany!” – all of this has become the stuff of legend. It is not surprising that the conspiracy of 20 July 1944 is now to be the subject of a Hollywood movie.

Yet Stauffenberg was much more than an action hero driven by the kind of simple moral imperative that suits Hollywood’s desire to portray everything in terms of starkly opposed opposites of good and evil. He found moral guidance in a complex mixture of Catholic religious precepts, an aristocratic sense of honour, Ancient Greek ethics, and German Romantic poetry. Above all, perhaps, his sense of morality was formed under the influence of the poet Stefan George, whose ambition is was to revive a “secret Germany” that would sweep away the materialism of the Weimar Republic and restore German life to its true spirituality. Inspired by George, Stauffenberg came to look for a revival of an idealized medieval Reich, in which Europe would attain a new level of culture and civilization under German leadership. A search of this kind was typical of the Utopianism that inhabited the wilder shores of Weimar culture – optimistic and ambitious, but also abstract and unrealistic. It was ill-suited to serve as the basis for any kind of real political future.

Such influences set Stauffenberg apart from many of the longer-standing members of the military resistance, whose multifarious projects and plans to overthrow Hitler dated from as early as 1938, and were driven above all by a belief that the war the National Socialists were aiming for was unwinnable. To launch it, they believed, would cause incalculable harm to Germany. It was this, rather than any fundamental opposition to National Socialism as such, that motivated the leading members of the military-aristocratic resistance in the late 1930s and at the beginning of the 1940s. Like them, Stauffenberg thought of himself first and foremost as a soldier, in the centuries-old tradition of his family, and for a long while, this military identity outweighed the influences he had imbibed through his membership of the George circle. But even in the late 1930s, he was markedly more sympathetic to National Socialism than were many more senior officers. His relatives were wont to describe him as the only “brown” member of the family. While he was later to lose altogether his enthusiasm for National Socialism, he never lost his contempt for parliamentary democracy. This alone would make him ill-fitted to serve as a model for the conduct and ideas of future generations.

In the 1930s, Stauffenberg was at first enthusiastic about National Socialism’s promise of spiritual renewal, and supported Hitler in the Reich presidential elections of 1932. He welcomed Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor, and took part in a street demonstration in its support on the night of 30 January 1933. His enthusiasm never led him to join the Party – for him, the George circle was the only party -, but he considered the National Socialists were leading a movement of national renewal that was sweeping away the shabby parliamentary compromises of Weimar. More than this, he also believed that a policy of purifying the German race and eliminating Jewish influences from it was an essential part of this renewal, and although he regarded open antisemitic violence with distaste, the only time he protested was when the vulgar anti-Semitic Hetzblatt Der Stürmer accused George’s poetry of being “Jewish” and “Dadaistic” in character. For Stauffenberg, Hitler’s achievements in revising the Versailles Treaty remained paramount.

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  1. Martin Walker says:

    There’s an unfortunate elision after “German race” in the above where the Der Stürmer reference cuts in. I would like to know what follows here. – Of course, Stauffenberg was not alone in his espousal of George’s hieratic interpretation of the causes of German decadence; Rudolf Borchardt, who was Jewish, had similar ideas until the Nazis began persecuting him – and then he discovered America in the form of Edna St. Vincent Millay!

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