After 1919 dispossessed royalty and their courtiers deluged the public with memoirs whose absurdity was matched by their banality. Cecil Beaton decided to write a spoof that was illustrated with sumptuous photographs and drawings. It purported to be by a penniless exile in New York called Baroness von Bülop. Beaton got his friend Tony Gandarillas to pose in drag as the Baroness and the beautiful Tilly Losch to pose as her aunt, the Grand Duchess, whose confidante the Baroness became. To von Bülop’s dismay she found that her aunt had a penchant for stout guardsmen, midnight escapades, intrigue, and had been “coquetting with the Revolutionary Party.” The Grand Duchess tired of the dull, homely creature and married her off to a vieille tante. Later, to cover her tracks at the time of an insurrection, she let slip that it was the Baroness who had sold an incriminating locket to the Communists, and she dismissed von Bülop from the court.
The effect of this camp masterpiece is to make any account of pre-1914 European royalty inescapably comical. Hannah Pakula’s excellent life of “little Vicky,” Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, who married Frederick, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and was the mother of Kaiser William II, is no lightweight book. Its copious footnotes and flowing index flank a “selected” bibliography of some 302 items—though why some were selected is a bit puzzling. Even so, one has the sensation, as in Beaton’s satire, of stepping into a bizarre world where bushels of jewels are showered on royal brides; where etiquette and the number of quarterings on a coat-of-arms are obsessions; where ladies change their dresses four times a day and a reigning monarch paying courtesy calls on another first changes into the uniform of one of his host’s regiments. Patriotism is expressed in interminable parades, and entertainment consists of battues of thousands of birds and of balls that last in asphyxiating heat until three in the morning. Operas are endured, books unknown, and for light relief there are always practical jokes. Still one sympathizes with little Vicky for laughing, as Baroness von Bülop would have done, when the train on which she was traveling gave a sudden jolt and old Field Marshal Wrangel fell onto the seat opposite her and sat in an enormous meringue apple tart that loyal burghers had just presented her. (Things don’t seem to have changed much. In the Grand Duchess’s manipulation of public opinion and her financial extravagance she reminds one strangely of a pair of royal highnesses today.)
Vicky had all too little to laugh at. From the moment she arrived in Prussia she was regarded with suspicion. The wife and sister of her father-in-law, King William I, snubbed and insulted her. When her father, Prince Albert, died, she was forbidden to attend his funeral on the grounds that she was two months pregnant. Queen Victoria’s court was hardly sociable or easygoing but by comparison with the Prussian court of the Hohenzollern dynasty it was a gas. Great was the rage there when it was announced that a Battenberg was to marry Vicky’s niece. The Hohenzollerns considered that this mésalliance had contaminated German royalty: in Prussia only royals could marry royals. But the root of the trouble was politics. Vicky, plain but charming, was the favorite child of the Prince Consort, who had educated her well and gave her a mission to convert Prussia to the principles of constitutional monarchy. The trouble was that in 1848 there had been an experiment of a kind in parliamentary government in Prussia. It had been defeated and Prussia had reverted to autocracy.
Frederick was known to follow the Prince Consort’s line, and therefore from the start his wife was suspected of intriguing to impose alien English ways upon Prussia. Perhaps Hannah Pakula overlooks how much Queen Victoria’s overpowering sense of rectitude grated upon her German cousins. In the early days of Vicky’s marriage Victoria battered her with letters reminding her of her duty to enlighten the Prussians—so much so that the Prince Consort had to intervene. (Vicky wrote to her mother every day, sometimes three times a day.) In Prussia she came up against her father-in-law, a die-hard who had fled to London in 1848 when the windows of his Berlin palace were stoned. Then in 1862 the worst occurred. The King became so embroiled with the elected assembly over military expenditure that he appointed Bismarck prime minister against his better judgment. Bismarck told the assembly that great matters of state would be solved not by speeches and votes but by iron and blood. From that time on the King was in his thrall, and little Vicky faced in Bismarck an implacable enemy.
For thirty years Bismarck dominated European politics, and many of Pakula’s pages describe the way in which he imposed his will upon the King; upon the Crown Prince; upon Denmark, Austria, and France through war; and upon the German political parties in what became after 1871 the Reichstag. Cunning, mendacious, devious, and imperious, Bismarck revenged himself on anyone who opposed him. He invented crises for himself to solve. This passionate man, emerging from an audience with the King, whom he had forced to accept his advice, would smash china and burst into a fit of sobbing. He sacked a thousand civil servants, judges, and deputies, never forgave an opponent, and despised most of his supporters. Yet his charming voice and manner enabled him to play the courtier and disarm even Queen Victoria when they met.
Bismarck rarely lost an opportunity to humiliate Vicky. Like the Baroness von Bülop, she was victim of one intrigue after another. She found an ally in Count Seckendorff, so Bismarck arranged for Count Radolinski to tell Queen Victoria that her daughter was rumored to be having an affair with Seckendorff. Could she not advise her daughter to dismiss him? The Queen was not fooled, but Bismarck’s story was accepted by the German Foreign Office.
As those who have read editions of Victoria and Vicky’s letters will know, they are full of good sense, affection, and vitality, and the wail of misery in the extracts Pakula quotes is dispiriting. Nevertheless Vicky had other miseries in store. The birth of her first child, the future Kaiser William II, was a nightmare. As soon as her labor pains began a note was sent to the obstetrician; but a servant posted it and the doctor did not arrive until eleven hours later to find his patient exhausted by what was a breech birth. He managed to extract the child and after some minutes’ delay get it to breathe, but the left arm was damaged for life. The future Kaiser was to hold this injury against his mother.
Meanwhile his father, Crown Prince Frederick, who had commanded the Second and Third Armies with distinction in the wars against Austria and France, was stricken with cancer of the throat. By the time Frederick became Emperor on William I’s death, in March 1888, he could barely speak, and he reigned for only three months. An English doctor who had already operated on Frederick resisted a Berlin surgeon’s advice to remove the larynx, so when Frederick died after months of suffering, more stories were spread of the Crown Princess’s malign influence. (The Berlin surgeon subsequently removed another patient’s larynx to prove that the English surgeon had bungled; the patient died.) Finally Vicky herself three months after Bismarck’s death contracted breast cancer. Within two years she was in agony: the sentinels assigned to her asked to mount guard further away so as not to hear her screams. Her English doctor brought morphine but the German doctors, under orders from her son, the Kaiser, administered it only in minute quantities.
The Kaiser behaved abominably toward her. Was it partly her fault? When Willy was fifteen he told his mother how in his dreams he kissed her hands and felt her warm embrace. Her letter in reply was affectionate but distant. Like Queen Victoria she was not one to hug her children. Besides, his father had engaged a fault-finding petty tyrant as a tutor. Then in Willy’s first year in university came the adolescent revolt not only against his mother but against anything that did not go his way. Defeated in tennis, he threw down his racket. Defeated in love by a cousin who rejected him, he married a dull girl who reinforced his hatreds and prejudices. And so began the disastrous career that earned him the reputation of being the silliest, the most preposterous, the most vain, ambitious, unstable—and therefore the most dangerous—of all the European monarchs. For years William spread stories, concocted by Bismarck and courtiers, of his mother’s disloyalty to Prussia. When he became Kaiser he banished her to a castle near Frankfurt. He rarely saw her until, of course, she was on her deathbed, when he appeared—as he had with Queen Victoria, when he arrived uninvited to see her die—and put on a great show of affection and sorrow. In doing so he had a special purpose in mind.
That purpose was to seize her papers and fabricate evidence of her disloyalty to Germany. As she lay dying in her castle her brother, by now King Edward VII, came to bid her farewell. She asked his secretary, Frederick Ponsonby, to stay behind and told him that that night he would receive her letters to Queen Victoria (which had been returned to her on the Queen’s death). She asked him to take them back to England. At one in the morning four grooms from her stables (not from her entourage, which was riddled with spies) staggered into the bedroom bearing two enormous cases. Ponsonby labeled them “China” and “Books with care” and, while the Kaiser was as usual claiming everyone’s attention, the boxes were loaded up and got safely to Ponsonby’s house in England.
When Vicky died, there was consternation that none of her correspondence was to be found. Enraged, the Kaiser then put it about that she had given instructions to be buried at Windsor wrapped in a Union Jack and at once enquired whether her papers were in the archives at Windsor Castle. The librarian could truthfully say they were not; and in 1928 Ponsonby edited and published the letters so that at last Vicky’s side of her story could be told and the Kaiser’s memoirs discredited.
This was, says Pakula, “her one and only triumph over Bismarck and her son.” Hannah Pakula does not analyze the political system under which nearly the whole of Europe lived. Under that system the sovereign ruled, and on foreign affairs often exchanged letters with his fellow monarchs. By his side stood a chancellor or prime minister whom the sovereign chose. He too communicated with the ministers of foreign states, not infrequently on a different wavelength from his sovereign. (Just how disastrous this could be became clear in 1914, when monarchs sent frantic messages to each other while their ministers were sending signals of a very different kind.) The elected assembly could usually be persuaded to vote the necessary funds for the army and for government. If its members turned ugly, it could be cajoled, subverted, or ignored. The police took care of independent critics. Prussia boasted of being a Rechtstaat, but the rule of law was twisted whenever its rulers pleaded that the security of the State or the honor of the army was at stake.
What counted was not parliamentary support but the consent of the King. William I often clashed with Bismarck. “I don’t know why, I don’t manage to please the king…. I only want to obey him,” Bismarck complained to General Albrecht von Roon, who answered, “Certainly you want to, but you don’t do it.”1 He got his way by persuasion, but when the King’s grandson came to the throne Bismarck was out in less than two years.
The grandson replaced Bismarck—with himself. John Röhl has written a masterly series of essays on the Kaiser, as William II came to be called throughout the West. German historians used to discount him as a “shadow Kaiser” who hardly affected the decisions taken by German governments. They preferred to pin the responsibility for those decisions upon the impersonal forces of history: on imperialism, or the militant left, or the military-industrial complex, on oligarchies or what they called the “authoritarian polyarchy.” Röhl will have none of it. It was, he argues, the Kaiser who made Germany, which had been economically the most successful nation and administratively the most efficient, into the worst governed country in Europe.
The chancellors appointed by the Kaiser now became his chiefs of staff. In his submissiveness, Count Bernard von Bülow, who lasted until 1909, foreshadowed Hitler’s bullying relationship with Field Marshal Keitel. His successor, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, advised the Kaiser to consider the British proposal that Germany should sign a non-aggression pact with France and Russia and slow down—but not stop—Admiral Tirpitz’s policy of building German battleships that could challenge the British fleet. The Kaiser refused to listen. In 1912 he ordered yet a further expansion of the army and navy, and brought upon himself the unequivocal declaration of the British war secretary, Viscount Haldane, that if France was attacked Britain would fight on her side.
The whole apparatus of military and government power was in William II’s hands and he demanded total subservience. Inevitably, frank and independent advice vanished. Ministers no longer put suggestions to the Kaiser: they received his commands. Thus emerged a system of government that Röhl calls the “Kingship mechanism,” in which the Kaiser, the state bureaucracy, and the court took effective decisions for the nation.
The court was a byword for pomp, claustrophobic boredom, and extravagance: it cost twice as much as the British court. All marriages at court had to receive the Kaiser’s sanction. Civil servants, industrialists, and parliamentarians were excluded. The old guard who had served Bismarck were appalled but powerless—all the more appalled as they saw the Kaiser replacing Bismarck’s appointees with the choices of a shady favorite. Philipp von Eulenburg adored the Kaiser with all the ardor of a schoolgirl with a crush on her games mistress. He and his friend Axel “Dachs” von Varnbühler called the Kaiser “Liebchen”; and indeed Eulenburg gave him the soothing devotion William had always craved. Eulenburg became the crisis manager of the court. The early crises arose between the Kaiser and his chancellors until eventually, in 1900, Bülow was appointed. The old guard chattered with rage when Eulenburg was made a prince, and a Serene Highness (Erlaucht).
Then fate struck. In 1900 the wife of Eulenburg’s brother left him and she left others in no doubt why. Next, his friend Kuno von Moltke was divorced, and finally in 1908 Philipp himself was charged with homosexuality—though his doctors convinced the court that he was too ill to stand trial. The reign of “Phili,” “Dachs,” and Kuno was over. Röhl points out that they were vigorous bisexuals—Eulenburg had eleven children—but their persecutors always had a card up their sleeves: by threatening to implicate the Kaiser in their homosexual activities.
Röhl’s book is written for other historians and is not always easy reading because he expects one already to know, for instance, the details of the Eulenburg downfall. But his documentation is impressive, not least in his last chapter. There he shows that Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was prefigured by the Kaiser’s anti-Semitic outbursts, whose language would have done credit to Der Stürmer. Paradoxically, when he was a student at the Gymnasium at Kassel, the one close friend he made was a Jew (incidentally the grandfather of the Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton). Yet, when he was Kaiser, his diatribes became each year more violent against the Jews and “Juda-England.” (“One cannot have enough hatred for England.”)
Was he deranged? When one reads of his cutting with a pen knife the suspenders of a general who was doing his exercises on the royal yacht, or forcing the chief of his military cabinet to dance wearing a tutu and a large feather hat (which induced a fatal heart attack), one recalls Stalin ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak after a Kremlin dinner. Röhl speculates that when William was born and the doctor could not get him to breathe at once, he might have suffered brain damage.
Röhl is not the first to speculate on what might have happened if William I had died at seventy instead of ninety. Would Frederick and little Vicky have been able to establish a constitutional monarchy and vanquish Bismarck? For if they had, even the Kaiser would have had difficulty in reverting to absolutist government.
Possibly. But Bismarck, even before he provoked Napoleon III to declare war in July 1870, had created in Prussia a war psychology. If Germany had an internal or external crisis, Bismarck’s tendency was to threaten a war. At the height of the Eulenburg scandal, people seemed to assume that it would be solved one of two ways: the Kaiser’s abdication or a trumped-up war. Bismarck left a legacy to his successors: any crisis could always be met by the threat of war.
There was always one center of power that could be guaranteed to do the sovereign’s will: the Army’s General Staff. The Kaiser inherited a formidable machine (which he weakened by promoting his favorite young officers in the Potsdam guard’s regiment). The Prussian army had been transformed by General Roon’s genius in administration and by a great chief of staff, Helmut von Moltke. The late Otto Friedrich, who was an evocative and judicious writer, has traced the fortunes of the Moltke family through three generations (no mention of Kuno.) In Bismarck’s day armies and corps were still commanded by members of the royal family. Moltke therefore attached to each a senior staff officer responsible to himself alone. No one suspected how gifted he was.
His career was odd. He transferred from the Danish to the Prussian army, and played a part in putting down the disturbances of 1848; but he never held field command. He put into effect Clausewitz’s principle of war: concentrate your forces and strike with speed. Manpower and firepower were important—the Prussian army was equipped with a breech-loading rifle—but the commander was most important of all. He must understand the fog of war—messages are not delivered or are misinterpreted, chance, not planning, rules. All the more need to plan flexibly, to encourage each unit to develop initiative. Boldness did not mean defying the laws of probability but it did mean sticking to your main strategic decision through thick and thin. Moltke was the first to understand that railways enabled an army to mobilize swiftly. When Bismarck picked a quarrel with Austria the Prussian army was ready to fight in three weeks; Austria took six weeks. Moltke was certainly bold. He also broke Clausewitz’s rules. Instead of concentrating all his force against the Austrians, one of his armies advanced from the west and a second army, commanded by the Crown Prince, struck from the north. Had the Crown Prince’s advance been delayed, the Austrian army might have won the battle. As it was, the Austrians were encircled.
Friedrich gives a masterly account of Moltke’s first great victory over the Austrians at Königgrätz in 1866. He doubts whether some of the well-known remarks about the battle were ever made. When the King grumbled during the battle that Moltke was over-confident, did Moltke say, “Vienna lies at your feet”? Did Bismarck in the middle of the battle really offer Moltke his cigar case, and was he really reassured when Moltke chose the best cigar?
Otto Friedrich had Gordon Craig’s book on the war2 to hand but he does not seem to have consulted the Austrian historian Heinrich Friedjung,3 who recalls the best remark. When it looked as if the whole Austrian army would be encircled, Benedek, the Austrian commander in chief, ordered his cavalry commander, Prince Holstein, to keep a gap open to enable the army to escape. According to Friedjung, Holstein, with an elegant and delicate wave of the hand towards first the west and then the north, replied, “Hier steht der Feind, und dort steht der Feind—wo befehlen, Exzellenz, dass ich attaquiere?” (“The enemy’s here and the enemy’s over there—where does Your Excellency order me to attack?”) You can hear the Viennese drawl and the Frenchified choice of words that so exemplified the distinction between the Austrian and Prussian armies.
Holstein’s charge enabled Benedek to escape the German trap, but his army was shattered. Moltke then found that he had a new enemy—Bismarck. The King and Moltke wanted to enter Vienna in triumph. Why stop there? said Bismarck sardonically. Why not Buda-Pest or Constantinople? He was determined not to humiliate Austria but to keep it neutral or even an ally in the future. But Moltke got back at him. Bismarck was prey to nerves. He wanted a categorical assurance that if Prussia fought France, victory was certain. Moltke reminded him that battles were won and lost by chance.
Historians today are apt to forget that the German invasions of France in 1870 and 1914 were fuelled by revenge for the dismemberment and financial ruin that Napoleon imposed upon Prussia after the battle of Jena. It was fuelled also by the puritanical Lutheran loathing of France, a country that flaunted its cultural superiority and was synonymous with loose living and frivolity. Worse still, the Junkers hated the ideas of 1789 popularizing democracy and revolution. The idea that the king and the army should be at the mercy of political parties seemed to Bismarck and Moltke as subversive of morality and security as communism was felt to be in our times. Moltke was six years old when Napoleon sacked his home town of Lübeck. He shared Bismarck’s indignation that after the German victory at Königgrätz, Napoleon III still expected every change in the status of Europe to be submitted to France for agreement.
In the Franco-Prussian War Moltke seemed to win a decisive victory at Sedan. But it was not decisive. The French continued to resist and Moltke vowed to impose peace terms that would make Jena seem mild. Bismarck once again intervened. Moltke had to be satisfied with France’s cession of Alsace-Lorraine, a five-billion-franc indemnity paid in three years, and a parade down the Champs Elysées. Once again William I had to bow to Bismarck’s will. To his fury he had to accept the title of Emperor of a united Germany; for him to be King of Prussia was the ultimate dignity. When a hundred and twenty years later the Wall in Berlin fell and Chancellor Kohl gloried in the reunification of Germany, Günter Grass rebuked him for reviving the nationalist euphoria of Bismarck’s days. German as well as other European historians now see Bismarck as responsible for the failure of Germany to develop stable government through political parties.
Moltke had encircled the French armies at Sedan. The word “encirclement” began to take on sinister meanings. Germans now felt that having won, they themselves were being encircled by foes. Moltke was succeeded as chief of staff by Alfred von Schlieffen, who took the view that the French inevitably would launch a war of revenge. He accordingly devised his famous plan for an even more devastating encirclement of the French armies when war came. Neutral Belgium would be invaded. The right wing of the German army would sweep through Belgium past the Channel ports, wheel to the south of Paris, and envelop the French. When the time came for Schlieffen to retire, the question arose who was to succeed him. By this time the Kaiser was dabbling in spiritualism, so he was intrigued to find that old Moltke’s nephew was deep into the spirit world. It was part of William II’s endemic folly to insist that this nephew, Helmuth Johannes von Moltke, should succeed Schlieffen even though the War Ministry had sent the Kaiser a memorandum setting out Moltke’s unsuitability. Indeed Helmuth Johannes Moltke himself begged not to be appointed. He knew he hated to take decisions.
August 1914 proved how right he was. The story of the battle of the Marne has often been told, not least by Barbara Tuchman. What should have been the apotheosis of Helmuth Johannes’s life ended in disgrace. Schlieffen had envisaged telegrams arriving hourly from the front telling of success or obstruction and the chief of staff imperturbably moving pieces on the chess board. But as the battle developed the commanders of the German First and Second Armies, uncertain about the situation, sent no messages to supreme headquarters. Moltke pondered, went on pondering, and dithered. Instead of seeing for himself what the situation was he sent Colonel Richard Hentsch to report; when Hentsch returned he again failed to issue clear orders. Off went Hentsch again, this time with the power to issue orders to the army commanders. He ordered the first and second armies on the right wing to retreat. Moltke then ordered a general retreat, and the battle of the Marne was lost. He was eased out of his post, held communications with the dead, and, as soon as he himself died, entered into prolonged discourse from another world with his widow.
The Moltkes seem to encapsulate the ethos of their social class in each generation. The old field marshal, handsome, reactionary, modest, longed only to live in peace on his estate at Kreisau; his nephew exemplified the lack of imagination that characterized nearly all the generals in the First World War. In the Second World War Helmuth James Moltke, descended from the old field marshal’s eldest brother and living at Kreisau, was a Hamlet. Like so many he could not make up his mind how to oppose the Nazi Party once Hitler had seized power. He spent months preparing to emigrate to England. The preparations almost became a substitute for actual departure. Visiting Kreisau from London in September 1939 to tidy things up, he was caught by the war. What was he to do? He got a job in the Abwehr, the German secret intelligence service. Its chief, Admiral Canaris, was anti-Nazi and ran a service as inefficient as the Gestapo and Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst) were deadly.
But then what was any opponent of Hitler to do? Pastor Niemoeller was arrested in 1937 and spoke for many about the dilemma facing anti-Nazis:
They came first for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew…. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Some chose exile: not so difficult for Thomas Mann but degrading for Germans who would be destitute and without connections. The Soviet-backed underground group called the Rote Kapelle disintegrated after the Nazi-Soviet pact. The mighty generals Halder, Fritsch, Brauchitsch, and Beck thought they could thwart Hitler’s mad schemes by reasoned professional arguments. Hitler called them cowards and cunts. No one had ever treated them in that way; they collapsed. In 1940 Hitler overruled the high command and adopted General von Manstein’s plan of driving through Ardennes, and the generals lost the will to resist. In a clandestine letter Moltke told a friend in London how insurmountable were the obstacles to organizing resistance, and how terrorized by the guillotine and the concentration camps decent people were—especially since the German masses did not wish to know of atrocities and applauded Hitler’s successes. Moltke thought it was ludicrous to imagine that the Nazis would be swept aside by popular rebellion, least of all by the generals.
So he considered that the best policy was to wait for the Allies to defeat Hitler. In the meantime why not meet with friends at Kreisau to plan what kind of Germany should arise after the war? The Gestapo was later to refer to the “Kreisau Circle,” but it was no more a coherent group than the British Cliveden set, an invention of the journalist Claud Cockburn. Some of these friends were monarchists and several were dedicated socialists. Some like Hans Gisevius, a former Gestapo chief who survived the war, came round to the view that Hitler must be killed; a trade unionist spoke of his network of anti-Nazi cells. But most agreed that they should set up a shadow administration that could take over and govern the country on Christian principles once the Allies had occupied it.
Moltke was not merely a talker. He took part in warning the Jews in Denmark that they were to be deported, and thousands were hidden and survived. He was involved in exploratory talks with the Allies in Oslo and later was intended by Canaris to go to Istanbul to continue them; but each time he met with the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. Eventually the security service discovered that he had warned some dissidents that their telephones were being tapped; he was arrested in January 1944, months before Count Stauffenberg’s July plot to blow up Hitler. Moltke regarded plans to assassinate Hitler as disastrous. He opposed them on religious grounds and also because he did not believe the military would act even if the conspirators had succeeded. Not that his opposition to the plot saved him. He was hanged in January 1945. To envisage a Germany without the Führer, or governed other than by the Nazi party, was treason.
Moltke irritated Stauffenberg beyond endurance. Each was convinced he was right, and by the end of 1943, when Stauffenberg stormed out of a meeting with the Kreisau group, his own plan to assassinate Hitler was well advanced. Peter Hoffmann’s study of Stauffenberg is the most fascinating of the books under review because it explores the mind of an energetic, attractive, and outstandingly efficient officer who step by step is driven by his upbringing both to honor and to break the code of the German General Staff. The closest modern equivalent of that General Staff today is France’s énarques: whether in the German War Academy or the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, an elite had their brains honed and their loyalties to each other cemented. Stauffenberg shone. He was first in his class, praised for his papers on defense against parachutists and massed tank assault.
But Stauffenberg also belonged to an elite within an elite. He and his brothers were members of the Georgekreis, the tiny circle of devotees of the poet Stefan George (among them some of Jewish descent such as Ernst Kantorowicz, the future historian of the medieval Emperor Frederick II). They modeled their ideas and chose their careers according to the elderly poet’s commands. George’s life and his poetic style changed when in 1901 he met a boy, Maximin, of exceptional gifts, radiant affection, and astonishing beauty. But in this story it was not Aschen-bach but the boy who died. George mourned him in poems of desolating intensity. Whereas George had begun as a symbolist he now believed he must teach and instruct. Maximin became the symbol of a new elite who would purify the gross Germany of Kaiser William II by developing not only the pursuit of higher things but spiritual qualities and love.
Among George’s models was ancient Greece, Sparta as much as Athens. He conceived a “secret Germany,” a select band who would enter public service and transform it. Nobility of character came before kin-ship or class. Claus Stauffenberg got George’s permission to join the army, but George reprimanded his brothers Berthold and Alexander, who failed to convince him that they would achieve something in life.
In the early days of the Nazis Stefan George was equivocal about them, but when the party showed its hand in street-fighting, George was revolted. The Nazis could not be the secret elite he idealized: in contempt he went into exile to die on Lake Maggiore. Stauffenberg, like most of his contemporaries on the General Staff, despised the brown scum when they appeared on the streets of German cities. But he had some sympathy for parts of the original Nazi program: regeneration of rural industry, full employment, even racial purity.4 He went along with Hitler so long as he was clearly winning. For a time he was convinced that in the Polish campaign of 1939 and still more the French campaign of 1940, Hitler had shown skill as a strategist though he had made the mistake of halting the Panzers before Calais and Dunkirk; perhaps he had been badly advised. Even when Hitler declared war on the Americans he still considered the war might be won. From the earliest days of the war, however, Stauffenberg considered the General Staff officers wearing the broad red stripes on their trousers the leaders of the nation, indeed its conscience. (When an officer had two Polish women shot on suspicion that they were signalling to Polish batteries, Stauffenberg did not rest until the officer was court-martialed and demoted.)
Hoffmann describes Stauffenberg’s career in great detail. In 1940 he was a brilliant quartermaster to a Panzer division, renowned for his energy in making sure that the fighting troops lacked nothing. When did he become convinced that Hitler must be killed and why? It was during 1942 that profound disillusion set in. He was appalled by Hitler’s military blunders and when he begged Manstein to assume command of the war he was disheartened when he refused. Anger superseded disillusion. He saw Goering take over troops that were intended to be replacements for casualties in order to set up his own air force army.5 Most damaging of all, he saw what the SS and the special units were doing in the rear of the armies: mass murder of Jews, prisoners of war, and civilians. He petitioned to go to the front; and in North Africa he was badly wounded, losing a hand, an eye, and two fingers of his left hand.
Stauffenberg had been in touch with high military commanders after he recovered from his North African wounds. He had argued that the war was lost and that the oath of loyalty to Hitler that all officers were obliged to swear was invalid because Hitler had betrayed the army and the nation. Hoffmann does not say that the oath deterred many from accepting Stauffenberg’s plans; but the German writer Joachim Fest,6 in his excellent account of the plot, gives far greater importance to the oath and the seriousness with which many officers took the obligation of loyalty that the State imposed.
Stauffenberg was also in touch with civilian anti-Nazis such as Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, the former Mayor of Leipzig who resigned in protest against Nazi policies. Stauffenberg preferred the Socialist leader Julius Leber to the old nationalist Goerdeler, and relations between him and Goerdeler became even more strained than those with Moltke. Goerdeler had ambitions to be the next Chancellor of Germany and considered that Stauffenberg, a mere soldier, had no right to have political pretensions. What was this masterful young officer doing, ordering about his elders in the resistance? Indeed, were not his political instincts somewhat suspect? Peter Hoffmann concludes that for Stauffenberg the integrity of the state of Germany came first; the Treaty of Versailles must be torn up; the Allies must be brought to accept an armistice. Goerdeler himself assumed that Germany after the peace would retain Alsace-Lorraine.
The conspirators had bad luck. No fewer than six attempts were made to kill Hitler. In March 1943 General Henning von Treschkow and Fabian von Schlabrendorff succeeded in getting a bomb placed in Hitler’s aircraft: but the (British-made) detonator failed to go off. (Considerable ingenuity was required to retrieve the bomb from Hitler’s headquarters.) Then, when Hitler was to be shown a new combat uniform for the Russian front, a young giant, a Hanoverian aristocrat, Axel von dem Bussche, volunteered to wear it, fill the pockets with explosives, throw himself upon Hitler, and kill both him and himself. The meeting was postponed, Bussche returned to his unit on the Russian front and lost a leg in the fighting.
Nevertheless, to judge from Hoffmann’s account, the mystery is why the Gestapo had not got wind of the plot long before July 1944. Goerdeler was garrulous, and Stauffenberg a compulsive talker. He had asked dozens of officers where their sympathies lay; any one of two dozen generals who regarded oath-breakers as traitors to the army might have given the game away. When Goerdeler was arrested after the assassination attempt failed, the Gestapo found both on his person and in his Berlin apartment lists containing the names of those slated to govern when Hitler had been toppled. Stauffenberg and his accomplices deserve to be saluted as heroes; but they were reckless conspirators.
It is sometimes argued that the Allies were to blame for rebuffing all the feelers that the conspirators put out. Adam von Trott, a friend of Moltke, realized that the relentless Allied reply demanding unconditional surrender would never be modified. The conspirators took some encouragement from the Soviet sponsored “National Committee for a Free Germany.” If the Western Allies would not budge, Trott and others wondered whether perhaps Stalin would make a deal. But most of the military leaders dreaded a Russian occupation. There was much more talk of surrendering the western front, provided that the eastern front was stabilized along a line from Tilsit to Lwow. Rommel agreed to surrender in the west if Hitler refused to end the war, for “we must see to it that the Anglo-Americans are in Berlin before the Russians.” But as Hoffmann says, no one wanted to negotiate with the conspirators. They had no conception how much Germany was hated.
It was not just Hitler who was hated; the very efficiency of the German army and its General Staff had long ago wiped out any guilt the Western Allies felt for Versailles. I remember when the news of the failure of the July 20 plot reached the War Cabinet Offices in London there was almost a feeling of relief. The Foreign Office officials on the Joint Intelligence Staff shuddered to think that the Allies might have had to negotiate with German generals who, as in 1918, were determined to insist that, though the war had been lost, the German army had not been defeated. In those days the officers of the German General Staff were regarded almost as much as war criminals as the Nazi bosses. What were they but cynics trying to pull as many chestnuts out of the fire as they could?
When Roosevelt at Casablanca announced off the cuff the policy of unconditional surrender, which Churchill endorsed, he gave a hostage to fortune. The policy did not succeed in Italy or even in Japan when the Japanese negotiators insisted on preserving the status of the Emperor. It did not placate Stalin, who angrily accused the Allies of attempting to make a separate peace—as he indeed at one time himself considered doing. It was a gift to Goebbels; and possibly the extraordinary resistance of German army units even after the crossing of the Rhine may have been inspired by the propaganda that unconditional surrender meant the enslavement of the German people.
And yet there is no clear evidence to suggest that the German resistance movement, fragmented and disunited in its aims and objectives, would have succeeded if only the Allies had been more “flexible.” Moltke was right in thinking that the Allies must defeat the German army in the field and occupy the country; but there was never any chance of the Allies’ accepting Moltke’s shadow administration as the legal government of the country.
On one matter Moltke was indeed right. He predicted that if there was a plot to assassinate Hitler and it was discovered, those named in that shadow administration and nearly everyone associated with the plotters would be executed. If there had been no plot, surely Konrad Adenauer would have been challenged on his way to becoming chancellor. As it was, his rivals had been hanged.
But Stauffenberg was determined to prove that some Germans would go to any lengths to atone for the Nazis’ crimes. In his life and in his death he embodied Stefan George’s ideal of young Germany.
Du schlank und rein wie eine flamme
Du wie der morgen zart und licht
Du blühend reis vom edlen stamme
Du wie ein quell geheim und schlicht
You pure and slender as a flame
You like the morning light and tender
You flowering shoot of a noble line
You like a secret simple spring
from Das Neue Reich (1928)
Fifty years since Stauffenberg died, Germany holds sway in Europe. Her Chancellor looks to a time when the bankers of Frankfurt will mastermind the economics of other European countries and their defense and foreign policies will be controlled by an unchallengeable European bureaucracy. The British, with a long tradition of challenging ministers and bureaucrats, and with a system of law at variance with the Code Napoléon, look fearfully at the future. Has Germany, as Stefan George hoped, been transfigured by Stauffenberg’s death?
June 6, 1996
A.J.P. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (Knopf, 1955) p. 146. ↩
Gordon A. Craig, The Battle of Königgrätz: Prussia’s Victory of Austria, 1866 (1964; reprinted by Greenwood Press, 1976). ↩
Heinrich Friedjung, Der Kampf um die Vorherrschaft in Deutschland l859 bis 1866 (Stuttgart:Cotta, 1910), Volume II, pp. 311-312. ↩
But not in the sense of expelling, let alone exterminating, Jews. His brother Alexander married a woman of Jewish descent, Melitta Schiller, whose family managed to conceal their origins. She became an intrepid test pilot, flew two thousand missions in dive-bombers, won an Iron Cross and the Gold Pilot’s badge with Diamonds, visited and intervened on behalf of Claus and Berthold Stauffenberg’s children. In the last weeks of the war an American aircraft shot her down flying a slow trainer on her way to see her imprisoned husband. ↩
David Welch, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda (Routledge, 1993), p.122. The egoism of the Nazi bosses knew no bounds. When Soviet forces were penetrating East Prussia Goebbels withdrew 187,000 soldiers and 4,000 sailors from active service to make Kolberg, a propaganda film about the Napoleonic wars in which a Prussian city fought to the end and was saved by a miraculous victory. ↩
Joachim Fest, Staatsstreich: Der Lange Weg zum 20. Juli (Siedler, 1994), p. 244. ↩