February 28, 2008
Every now and then I am forced to retch with disgust as I read some choice slander in the neoconservative press. Such a reaction occurred recently while I was looking at a picture of Tom Cruise in the New York Post. Cruise was dressed in a German Wehrmacht uniform and obviously shown in his cinematic role as the Swabian Catholic aristocrat and resistance fighter against the Nazi regime Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg (1907-1944). As everyone but crazed Teutonophobes employed at neocon publications and self-hating German leftists must know, Stauffenberg was a highly principled and courageous officer, who gave his life (knowing that he would do so) for the purpose of removing Hitler from power. Stauffenberg was connected to a plot against the Nazis, some of whose members had been involved in anti-Hitlerian activities for years. Although a devout Catholic and a traditional European conservative, the circle to which Stauffenberg belonged also included such Social Democrats as the former concentration camp inmate Julius Leber and the onetime mayor of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler. The Leipzig mayor Goerdeler, who is the subject of a massive biography by the German historian Gerhard Ritter, had been outspokenly anti-Nazi from the early 1930s onward.
When the bomb that Stauffenberg placed in Hitler’s headquarters on July 20, 1944 failed to detonate as expected, Stauffenberg and other conspirators were rounded up and executed”sometimes in gruesome fashion. Claus’s brother Berthold, who had been close to the poet-seer Stefan George, was also among those put to death; and Claus’s wife Nina, and the mother of his five children, was deported to a concentration camp, with her mother. Curiously a Polish Jewish sister-in-law, who had been Aryanized by the Nazis for designing German warplanes, tried to get Nina and her mother released. But unfortunately this influential sister-in-law, Melitta, died before her efforts could bear fruit, when the British shot down a plane she was on, late in 1944. Stauffenberg’s mother-in-law died in Ravensburg, and his wife was removed to Bavaria, where SS officers were given orders to execute her. But the Americans reached her first and released Nina, who was properly viewed as a Nazi victim. Stauffenberg’s widow spent the remainder of her long life (she died last April at the age of 92), writing about her husband and other resistance fighters against Hitler, and working for the cause of international peace. When Nina passed away, the British Telegraph published a long, admiring obituary celebrating her courage and decency, while recalling the heroic deaths of her husband and brother-in-law.
But the neocon New York Post sees history differently. The editors attached to a photograph of Cruise, dressed as Stauffenberg, the caption “Tom Cruise playing a Nazi.” In the twisted world of neoconservative letters most Germans are Nazis, most Russians are anti-Semites, and most white Southerners fascistoid racists. The exceptions to these generalizations are apparently those few Germans and Russians who support neoconservative imperialism, while apologizing nonstop for their politically incorrect pasts. Southerners are allowed into the neocon club, providing they loudly bewail their ancestors” sins of segregation and slavery. Southern whites, seeking absolution from the neocons, must also worship at the altar of Martin Luther King and must naturally hold unfailingly sensitive opinions.
The implied attack on Stauffenberg this week recalls more explicit invectives against the German resistance fighters by the ever intemperate loudmouth and Post columnist, Ralph Peters. When Peters is not pushing for president his favorite pol Joe Lieberman or calling for the bombing of Iran, he beats up on the Germans, from Luther to Hitler, and not surprisingly, the “phony” opposition to Hitler. Although Peters has something less than a nodding acquaintance with European history, he does treasure his predictable hates. On more than one occasion he has opined that the German resistance opposed Hitler only because he was losing the war, an enterprise that the July 20 conspirators, all supposedly good Nazis, had previously backed. These figures ditched the Nazi government, however, according to Peters, as soon as they thought they could get better peace terms from the Western democracies, without Hitler.
Peters’s charges are unrelated to historical facts. Most of the resistance figures had loudly lamented the Nazi regime for many years before their failed coup, and such conspirators as Leber, Goerdeler, and General Ludwig Beck had been trying to overthrow the Nazis since the 1930s. While Stauffenberg had been initially positive about Hitler, from 1940 on his conversations and letters reveal his profound contempt for the Nazi regime. The idea that Stauffenberg had embraced the conspiracy as a clever Nazi in 1944, trying to pull Germany’s chestnuts out of the fire, does not correspond to the heavily documented record of the last four years of his life. His failure to act against the regime earlier was based on his concern as a German patriot about seeing his country destroyed by the Soviets and their Western Allies, particularly after the demand for unconditional German surrender, proclaimed by Churchill and Roosevelt in January 1943, became known. But the attempts of the German resistance to extract more lenient peace terms through secret negotiations with Stalin’s Western Allies had failed even before the attempted overthrow was launched. The resistance fighters tried to bring down what they considered a wicked government in the face of a hopeless international situation and in the face of the inflexibility of the anti-Nazi coalition.
One final point seems necessary in order to contextualize my reaction to the smearing of the German opponents of Hitler. In the mid-1980s, I endured a sharp verbal assault on the pages of Commentary by that global democratic polemicist Joshua Muravchik. It seems that my critic decided on the basis of my comments about Russian socialist dissenter Andrei Sakharov that I should never again be allowed “into civil discourse,” (whatever the hell that means!). It seems that I had shown the temerity of having noticed Sakharov’s early devotion to Stalin’s government, a fact that according to Muravchik (and no doubt other neocons), it was inexcusably rude to bring up. But why is the fact unmentionable that Sakharov, a nuclear physicist, developed a Soviet atomic bomb and worked on a Soviet hydrogen bomb both under Stalin. Why should his early history be thrown into a memory hole because he later supported bilateral arms agreements between the Soviets and the US and because Sakharov became a neoconservative hero while a Soviet reformer in the 1970s? Why is any mention of his early association with Stalin’s murderous regime less noteworthy than the fact that Stauffenberg for a relatively short period of time had held out hope for Hitler as a political leader. Stauffenberg sacrificed much more fighting a totalitarian regime, without hope of outside assistance, than Sakharov suffered as a Soviet dissenter. And, as far as I know, photos of Sakharov have not appeared in the Post or in other neocon house organs decorated with the caption “here’s a Stalinist.” Yes I fully know the reason for this distinction, and so do you, gentle readers. Leftist democrats with Stalinist pasts offend neocons far less than do German patriots, even those Germans who gave their lives fighting Hitler.