Political mutiny and clandestine plots against Adolf Hitler are the subject of this week’s episode as we compare history with 2008’s Valkyrie.
Hugh Laurie’s anti-social doctor attracted viewers around the world for almost a decade. I’m speaking, of course, about the show House that ran from 2004 to 2012.
Today, the Executive Producer for TV’s House is perhaps best known as the Director for the X-Men movies, including the most recent film in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse. At least, that’s the most recent one as of this recording.
Or maybe you know him as the man who hopped from the Marvel universe over to DC as he took a break from House and wrote and directed Superman Returns. That was one of only two films Bryan Singer directed while House was still on the air.
Well, two films that were released in theaters, anyway—he also directed two made-for-TV movies in that time.
Other than 2006’s Superman Returns, the other film that Bryan Singer directed as a break from House’s near decade-long run was the movie we’ll be looking at today.
With a budget of $75 million, 2008’s Valkyrie tells the story of something we don’t see a lot of in World War II movies—Germans who tried to stop their own leader.
And since we’re coming up on the 73rd anniversary of the events in the movie, let’s take a couple moments this week to compare Valkyrie with history.
The true story behind Valkyrie
The movie opens with an oath being chanted by a multitude of people. It’s spoken in German, so the text on screen explains what is being said:
I swear by God this sacred oath:
That I shall render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler
Führer of the German Reich and people,
Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces,
And that I shall at all times be ready, as a brave soldier,
to give my life for this oath…
Looking back through the pages of history it’s easy, now, to think this sort of oath seems silly—almost obviously bound to fail. Why would you swear your life over to Adolf Hitler?
But it’s important to understand this sort of oath and why people would make such an oath. When you start to put this oath into context, all of a sudden things get a little more real.
Let’s start with the fact that most countries today have an oath similar to this. The United Kingdom has the Oath of Allegiance which, although it’s been altered over the years, in its most recent form that was updated with the Promissory Oaths Act of 1868 states:
I, (insert your full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.
In the United States we call it the Pledge of Allegiance, and it states:
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The reason I mention these is because there’s a fundamental difference between the oaths of countries today and the one in Hitler’s Oath. Did you catch it?
The key difference is that Hitler’s Oath swears loyalty to Adolf Hitler, the man, without any conditions. It is, as the oath states, unconditional loyalty. At least the Oath of Allegiance for the United Kingdom pledges loyalty to the Queen according to the law. So, theoretically, if the government would try to do something against the law, that’d free you from the oath.
But the German Oath of Allegiance wasn’t always that way. It used to be a lot like the oaths of the United Kingdom or the Pledge of Allegiance in the United States today.
This was Germany’s Oath of Allegiance before August 2nd, 1934:
I swear by almighty God this sacred oath:
I will at all times loyally and honestly
serve my people and country
and, as a brave soldier,
I will be ready at any time
to stake my life for this oath.
It sounds very similar to the updated oath swearing loyalty to Hitler. But there were some very minor changes made…changes that perhaps some people swearing the oath didn’t even really think were a big deal at the time.
So what happened on August 2nd, 1934, and why the change? Well, that’s the date that Paul von Hindenburg passed away from lung cancer at the age of 86. He was, up until the moment of his death, the President of Germany. Hitler had already put in place a plan to take over the office of both President and Chancellor, so as soon as Hindenburg died, Hitler officially combined those roles into a new role: Guide. Leader. Or, in German, Führer.
And with this change, the Oath of Allegiance officially changed to become what we now know as Hitler’s Oath:
I swear to God this sacred oath that to the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.
Why so much focus on this oath? Because, simply put, it’s an important part to the plot of the movie.
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was a very real person, and he joined the German Army in 1938, so that means he would’ve pledged Hitler’s Oath.
Just like the brave men and women who pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America today, this oath wasn’t something they took lightly.
But sometimes…sometimes, there are those who start to recognize that the oath isn’t as it should be. Sometimes you have to protect your country from enemies, both foreign and domestic.
Back in the movie, we first join Tom Cruise’s character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, as he’s serving in the 10th Panzer Division in Tunisia, North Africa. He’s in his tent, writing about a conflict welling up within him. On one hand, he swore his allegiance to Adolf Hitler. On the other hand he feels Hitler is destroying more than his homeland. He’s destroying the world.
And he feels he needs to do something about it.
Soon after this introduction to the doubt inside Colonel Stauffenberg’s mind, a British airplane surprises the troops and attacks the camp. One of the bombs goes off right next to Tom Cruise’s version of the Colonel, and after the plane comes around for another pass he gets hit. The camera doesn’t show much here other than a closeup of Tom Cruise and while we can’t see his left eye, there’s blood seeping into the sand.
While we don’t know the specifics of how it happened, we know that the spirit of the story here is true.
Before we join the movie’s timeline, let’s learn a little bit about the background of Colonel Stauffenberg. After joining the Army in 1938, his first major task was to serve during the conquest of Poland in 1939. Then while stationed as a staff officer at the Army High Command Headquarters, he helped with the invasion of France in 1940, and the invasion of Russia the following year.
As 1942 rolled around, the Colonel started to question some of the events that we saw Tom Cruise’s character mention in the beginning of the movie. In particular it was the mass murder of Jews and the butchering that took place in the lands they conquered in and around Poland. It made the Colonel feel sick—how could anyone care so little for human life?
On top of that there was the growing reckless abandon that Hitler seemed to have for good, military strategy. It seemed he was running his country into the ground.
But still he continued to do his duty, even though there are some reports of him declaring in September of 1942 that he’d be willing to kill Hitler himself. Of course, those sort of things weren’t words he’d shout from the rooftops, but it gives you an idea of where his head was at.
With the dawn of a new year, Colonel Stauffenberg found himself in a new role. Just like the movie shows, he was assigned to the 10th Panzer Division in Tunisia. It was a theater of war that had been raging for years, championed by the brilliant Field Marshal Erwin Rommel for the Germans and Generals Bernard Montgomery and George Patton for the Allied forces.
Tunisia is a country in northern Africa sandwiched between Algeria on their western border and Libya to the east. It’s also only about 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, from Sicily across the Mediterranean Sea.
The attack on the camp we saw in the movie took place on April 7th, 1943 near a place called Sebkhet en Noual, which is in central Tunisia. It was during this attack when he was seriously wounded.
Oh, and as a little side note, the two airplanes attacking the camp in the movie are Curtiss P-40s. Originally, director Bryan Singer wanted to use visual effects to make the attack seem like much more than just two airplanes strafing ground troops, because they had to use extra VFX for making Tom Cruise look like his injuries were real, they ended up having to use two, real P-40s for this scene—which was actually the last scene in the movie they shot, even though it was one of the first scenes in the movie.
Even though the airplanes are moving quickly, if you look closely you can clearly see the P-40s flying over in the movie have British insignia on them and the shark teeth paint job. It was during the North African Campaign that the #112 Squadron of the Royal Air Force first flew the P-40 aircraft, and they did so as the first Allied aircraft to showcase the shark mouth. That was a paint job they copied off of the Luftwaffe’s own Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters.
Anyway, that may be a very minor detail but it’s little things like that that help add to the authenticity of the film.
Of course, we don’t really know exactly what sort of Allied explosion caused Colonel Stauffenberg’s injuries. So we don’t know if it was two P-40s attacking the camp, but it certainly could have been.
All of this is interesting because even though the movie doesn’t talk about the timelines, the very next scene in the movie shows an airplane landing in the German Eastern Front at Smolensk, Russia. The date, according to the movie, is March 13th, 1943.
That mixes up the timeline because, as we learned a moment ago, Colonel Stauffenberg suffered his injuries on April 7th, 1943. So that’s a little backward.
But then, maybe that’s because the opening sequence almost didn’t even make it into the film. There were some edits of the movie that didn’t include Tom Cruise’s version of the Colonel getting injured. The reason for that, according to director Bryan Singer, is because they didn’t want to make it seem like Colonel Stauffenberg getting injured was a reason for his eventual decision to try to kill Hitler later on in the movie.
Which, historically speaking, is very true.
But ultimately, as we can obviously tell, the filmmakers decided to leave that opening sequence in the movie. They just don’t mention that, again historically speaking, that opening sequence happened after the next scene.
Anyway, back in the movie, the man getting out of the airplanes that landed in the German Eastern Front is none other than Adolf Hitler. After a brief meeting with his generals, Hitler is headed back out.
Before he goes, though, actor Kenneth Branagh’s character, Major General Henning von Tresckow, stops one of the men on Hitler’s plane and offers him a bottle of liquor. It’s meant to look like a gift but inside is a bomb, meant to go off while Hitler is in the air.
This whole plot with Major General Tresckow is actually quite true. Although the movie doesn’t mention it, Tresckow was a man born of an old German family who thoroughly believed that Hitler’s leadership was doing nothing but leading Germany to utter embarrassment.
Not only that, but it’s not the first time Tresckow plotted to kill Hitler. His first attempt was way back in the summer of 1941. There, he had hoped to simply arrest the Führer while he was visiting the Soviet Union. But when Hitler showed up surrounded by a bodyguard of SS soldiers, Tresckow wasn’t able to get anywhere near Hitler and it was clear he’d have to go back to the drawing board.
His next opportunity came when he found out about a pit stop Hitler would be making. That pit stop would be while Hitler was returning to Germany from a trip to the USSR and it was, of course, in Smolensk, where the conspirators happened to be stationed. It seemed the perfect opportunity.
And so it was, like the movie shows, on March 13th, 1943, when the General tried his second attempt to kill Hitler. It was codenamed Operation Spark because they believed Hitler’s death would spark other Germans who disliked their leader into revolting against the Nazi Party.
Assisting him in this plot, the General teamed up with who we can assume is the unnamed soldier helping Kenneth Branagh’s version of Tresckow. That’s the man with him in the tent as Trescow builds the bomb just before Hitler takes off. And we know from history that man was Trescow’s staff officer, Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff. And there were a couple of other conspirators, but those two were the primary ones involved.
And the method by which they planned to carry out their assassination of the Nazi Party leader was exactly like what we saw in the movie. Plant a bomb inside a bottle of liquor.
Just like the movie shows, that bottle of liquor was given to someone on board the plane with Hitler under the guise of being a gift. That someone was Lieutenant Colonel Heinz Brandt, and in the movie Brandt is played by Tom Hollander. The basic idea was that Lieutenant Schlabrendorff would secretly activate a 30 minute fuse and hand the box to Lieutenant Brandt, claiming it was the payment of a bet that General Tresckow had lost to his good friend, General Helmuth Stieff.
General Stieff wasn’t a part of the conspiracy, but that shouldn’t matter because the bomb was supposed to go off mid-flight. They were just using his name because everyone who knew the two generals knew them to be friends, so it wouldn’t set off alarms to send gifts to each other.
As soon as the bomb went off, Tresckow had ensured that some co-conspirators in Berlin would be ready to take over control of the government there in Germany’s capital as soon as they heard of Hitler’s death.
If you’re a fan of history, you’ll know that Adolf Hitler didn’t die on a plane over the Soviet Union in 1943. So I probably don’t even really have to tell you that the movie is correct in showing that the bomb in the gifted liquor box never went off.
Most historians agree that the probable cause for this was the extreme low temperatures.
Oh, and if you pause the movie like I did to find out what type of liquor it was you’ll see the movie shows the bottle of alcohol as being Cointreau, which is a brand of triple sec out of France. That is the correct type of alcohol that the real Major General Tresckow used in his attempt to assassinate Hitler.
Remember, the real box was supposed to go to General Stieff, who was not a part of the plot. So when the bomb didn’t go off, General Tresckow knew if he wanted to have a shot at another chance at Hitler he’d have to retrieve that box before the bomb was discovered.
Can you imagine what that must’ve been like? To retrieve a bomb that was on a plane Hitler was on? Sure, no one else knew there was a bomb in there—yet. But if they did, they’d clearly know Hitler was your target.
It had to have been incredibly tense. Although I think the movie makes things a little extra tense for the sake of the film. Except there’s one big difference between what we saw in the movie and what actually happened.
We don’t know what it was really like for Major General Tresckow to retrieve the bomb because Major General Tresckow did not retrieve the bomb. It was his co-conspirator Lieutenant Schlabrendorff who did this for him.
We don’t know his real reasons for this, but I think you and I can both speculate as to the reason why the General might send someone else in his stead for such a dangerous task.
Something the movie doesn’t mention, though, is that about a week after the failed attempt with the bomb on the plane, General Tresckow tried to assassinate Hitler again. This time it was while Hitler and two other high ranking officials, Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring, were to visit a museum in Berlin. They were celebrating Heroes’ Memorial Day, which is much like the Memorial Day celebrations we have in the United States today.
One of the conspirators involved in the plot was Colonel Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff.
That’s a mouthful.
Colonel Gersdorff was the tour guide for the Nazi leadership, and the plan was basically that Colonel Gersdorff would sacrifice himself as a suicide bomber. He had bombs with ten minute fuses, which should’ve been plenty of time since Hitler was scheduled to be there for at least 30 minutes.
Right before he got there, the tour guide Colonel was notified that, as a security precaution, Hitler would only have about eight minutes to tour the museum. In actuality, he only spent about two minutes there.
The plot failed and Colonel Gersdorff barely managed to make it out himself and defuse the bombs before they went off.
None of that is mentioned in the movie. But then again, neither is the attempt on Hitler’s life in November of 1943 or the one in February of 1944 or the one the following month, in March. In all, we know of at least four attempts on Hitler’s life between the one we saw at the beginning of the movie and the one involving Operation Valkyrie.
Speaking of which, back in the movie, the next scene we see is Tom Cruise’s version of Colonel Stauffenberg at the hospital. His wife Nina, who’s played by Carice van Houten, visits and the doctor says that they had to amputate his right hand. He’s also lost two fingers on his left hand and they couldn’t save his left eye.
All of that is true.
We know that Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s injuries in Tunisia left him without a left eye, a right hand, and he also lost the last two fingers of his left hand.
Well, we don’t know if Nina’s visit to her husband’s hospital bed was like what we saw in the film, but we can imagine what it’s like to find your husband coming home from the battlefront with major injuries—but at least he’s alive. So Nina’s brief but emotional visit to her husband in the hospital makes sense, even if we can’t prove it historically.
With all of this set up, the next major plot point in the movie happens after Tresckow picks up the liquor. That’s when we see Bill Nighy’s version of General Friedrich Olbricht and they both mention that Oster’s been caught.
He’s not seen on screen in the movie, but the man they’re referring to here is real. General Hans Oster was another conspirator in the plot against Hitler. His own opposition against the Nazi Party started after an event in 1934 we now refer to as the Night of the Long Knives. Basically it was a coup d’état where members of the SS went around and murdered anyone who was opposed to the Nazi Party, including many leaders within the Nazi Party itself at the time.
We know of at least 85 people who were killed with thousands more arrested, but it’s very possible there could’ve been more. Of course, they didn’t call it murder at the time.
But it effectively removed anyone stopping Hitler from rising to power.
Anyway, that’s a whole other story, but for the purposes of our story today it was after that political cleansing that Hans Oster started to feel the Nazi Party wasn’t as great as it was cracked up to be.
Looking back through the lens of history, we know that General Oster was a key member of the German resistance against Hitler from 1938 to 1943. That’s when, like the movie shows, he was arrested. Although the movie doesn’t really mention the charges brought against him. General Oster was arrested not for his conspiracy against Hitler’s life, but for helping Jews escape Germany.
In fact, it wasn’t until after the plot we’re learning about today that General Oster’s help with the resistance against Hitler came to light for the Nazi Party. After that, of course, Oster’s fate was sealed and he would be executed on April 9th, 1945.
But that’s getting ahead of our story.
Going back to the movie, there’s something I think you already know but it’s worth mentioning anyway just to shine a light on it.
So if we take a step back here, this whole movie is about a secret plot to kill Hitler. That means the very nature of the story in the movie, or really any resistance against a government in power, means that a lot of things were intentionally kept secret and clandestine.
Yes, we learned a lot after the Third Reich fell, but there is still a lot we don’t know. There was a lot that they specifically didn’t want to communicate in writing or in some way that could be tracked or traced.
A great example of that happens next in the movie when we see an air raid and a bomb hit near Stauffenberg’s home causing the record to skip and play Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” over again, thereby giving Tom Cruise’s version of Stauffenberg the idea to use Operation Valkyrie in their plot.
We just don’t know if this happened.
However, with the bits and pieces of evidence we do have, it’s probably safe to assume that didn’t happen. If for no other reason than the simple fact that most historians don’t believe it was Stauffenberg who came up with the plan at all. Instead, they think it was the real person who Bill Nighy played in the film, General Olbricht, who came up with the plan.
Despite this, the overall gist of the plot to assassinate Hitler using Operation Valkyrie was pretty spot on.
The basic idea was to use a pre-existing plan that the Reserve Army in Berlin had called, of course, Operation Valkyrie. Using Valkyrie, Olbricht devised that they could essentially mobilize the Reserve Army to get the forces they’d need to deal with the SS and the rest of the Nazi leadership once Hitler was assassinated.
To add a little more back story to all of this conspiracy to take down Hitler that’s not mentioned in the movie, the second in command to Adolf Hitler in the Nazi Party was Heinrich Himmler. As the war raged on, it was only a matter of time before many of the German military leaders started to see the writing on the wall.
We don’t know this for sure, but some historians think Himmler might’ve known about a plot brewing to take out Hitler thanks to a meeting he had with a known member of the resistance in August of 1943 about getting support from the resistance if Himmler turned against Hitler. After this meeting, Himmler didn’t arrest the man he met with—it was Johannes Popitz, by the way, the Prussian Finance Minister. In fact, Himmler didn’t really do anything.
For a man who did so many horrible things to so many people, it wasn’t really like Himmler to do nothing in the face of a plot against Hitler. That’s why historians have speculated that Himmler might’ve decided to let the plot run its course. If Hitler was killed, after all, Himmler would be the successor to take over as Führer. And Himmler could’ve then began peace talks—something we know from history that he did anyway in 1945.
If Himmler did have such a plan, it’s something he kept very close to his chest. So because of that, all of this just an educated guess at what might have been, but I thought it was fascinating because it adds yet another layer to the already complex plots and conspiracy that was going on behind Hitler’s back.
Anyway, what we do know is that the movie gets the gist of the plot correct.
To be able to use Operation Valkyrie, it’d have to be rewritten to fit in with their plan. In the movie, we see Colonel Stauffenberg with an unnamed assistant typing up the changes to the plan.
As we learned about earlier, it was most likely not Stauffenberg who did this, but rather General Tresckow himself. For a couple of months, in August and September of 1943, Tresckow took a lot of sick leave from his duties and worked on their revised plan.
Along with his wife, Erika Tresckow, and his secretary, the General not only rewrote Operation Valkyrie but carefully typed up plenty of other bulletins and documents that they could use to make it seem like the Nazi Party was responsible for an uprising. All of this very similar to what we saw in the movie, just we saw the wrong people typing it up in the film.
As a side note, these documents would end up getting captured by the Soviet Union after the fall of the Third Reich so we didn’t even know about them until decades later.
Back in the movie, we see Hitler arriving at a fortress. The text on the screen says it’s Rastenburg, East Prussia at 12:00 PM.
The movie doesn’t mention a date, but we know from history it’s July 20th, 1944. Oh, and the fortress was the Wolf’s Lair, a super-secret site about five miles, or eight kilometers, into the dense woods around the small town of Rastenburg. That’s near modern-day Kętrzyn in Poland.
Oh, and something else the movie doesn’t mention was that there were even more attempts on Hitler around this time.
Remember the guy who General Tresckow was sending the liquor to in the attempt we saw at the beginning of the movie? Well, he might not’ve been a part of the plot then but General Tresckow tried to turn anyone he could, and it’d seem that General Tresckow was successful with his good friend. We know this because on July 7th, 1944, General Stieff was supposed to kill Hitler as he was looking at some new uniform designs at Klessheim castle.
That’s near Salzburg, Austria.
But General Stieff didn’t do it. He never found the right timing, I guess. Upset at General Stieff’s inability to get it done, Colonel Stauffenberg took matters into his own hands. It was about this time that he decided to not only manage the implementation of Operation Valkyrie in Berlin, but to also assassinate Hitler himself.
About a week later, on July 14th, the Colonel attended a meeting with Hitler and Hermann Göring. Inside his briefcase, Stauffenberg carried a bomb and was all set to continue when he noticed Heinrich Himmler wasn’t there.
Stauffenberg was sure the plan would only work if they could kill not only Hitler, but also Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring. Basically the top three Nazi officials. So we can get a sense for why there were so many failed attempts—they weren’t trying to kill just one, but three.
The movie does elude to this, but it makes it seem like it’s sort of a last minute thing that Bill Nighy’s version of General Olbricht forces on Stauffenberg. We know from the Colonel deciding not to use the bomb on July 14th that he must’ve believed it to be true as well.
So that plan didn’t work, either.
The next day, Colonel Stauffenberg flew to the Wolf’s Lair and planned to again plant the bomb in his briefcase inside Hitler’s conference room. It was set with a timer, so he’d set down the briefcase and walk out, flying back to Berlin to help orchestrate the implementation of Operation Valkyrie.
Himmler was there this time. So was Göring. Hitler was there but at the last minute, he was called out. Without Hitler, the plan wouldn’t work, so Stauffenberg managed to walk out with his briefcase unnoticed.
All of these attempts are important to mention because if you saw how intense things were for Tom Cruise’s version of Stauffenberg on the July 20th plot, now imagine that wasn’t the first time he’d done it.
But there was something different about the attempt.
Another major plot point, at least I think, that the movie failed to mention was that three days after the last failed plot, Colonel Stauffenberg caught drift of some rumors floating around that the Gestapo might arrest him for his attempts on Hitler’s life.
Looking back at it through history, there’s no evidence to support those rumors, but that didn’t really matter at the time. Stauffenberg felt that if he was to assassinate Hitler it was now or never. He might not get another chance.
And so it was that, just like the movie shows, on July 20th, 1944, Colonel Stauffenberg flew back to the Wolf’s Lair for another meeting.
The movie does a pretty good job of showing what happened that July afternoon.
Hitler’s conference began at about 12:30 PM, and almost immediately Stauffenberg excused himself to use the restroom. While in there, he crushed the end of the detonator connected to the plastic explosives inside his briefcase. That gave him about ten minutes. Going back into the conference, he put his briefcase beneath the table within line of sight and just a few feet from Hitler.
There were about twenty other officers in the room at the time, too.
A few minutes later, just like we saw in the movie, a messenger came into the room to let Colonel Stauffenberg he had a phone call. That was, of course, all planned. It got the Colonel out of the room. From there, he didn’t return to the room but instead left the bunker.
To be completely honest, we don’t know exactly what happened in the bunker. Most historians believe that the account we saw in the movie is pretty accurate to what actually happened. That would be that Colonel Heinz Brandt, who’s played by Tom Hollander in the film, pushed Stauffenberg’s briefcase to the side with his foot. This moved the bomb from line of sight and put it behind the leg of the conference table. Again, this is all speculation, but the common thought is that this little movement was enough to deflect the blast from Hitler, thereby saving his life.
For the religious among the Nazis who believed Hitler was sent by God, surely they must’ve thought this little movement was more than an accident—it must’ve been providence that saved Hitler’s life that day.
At 12:42 PM, the bomb went off. Four people were killed, including Colonel Brandt.
Oh, and as a little side note, before he joined the German Army, Heinz Brandt won a gold medal as a part of the German equestrian team in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. That’s a fun little trivia fact for you.
Just like we saw in the movie, upon seeing the bomb go off, Stauffenberg assumed that Hitler was dead. After all, he’d seen the briefcase placed next to Hitler. It probably would have killed him if it hadn’t been moved.
And, just like we saw in the movie, Stauffenberg promptly left the chaotic scene. We don’t know if he used a fake phone call like we saw in the movie to get past the checkpoint, but we know that he must’ve made it past not one, but the three checkpoints out of the Wolf’s Lair because at about 1:00 PM, he was on board a plane headed back to Berlin.
Until he landed, Colonel Stauffenberg was out of contact. We can only imagine what that two hour flight must’ve been like. What sort of adrenaline must’ve been pumping through his veins and what thoughts must’ve been rushing through his head.
According to the movie, back on the ground there’s a lot of chaos after Eddie Izzard’s version of General Erich Fellgiebel cuts off communications from the Wolf’s Lair to the outside world as a part of the plan. With no confirmation that Hitler is dead, Bill Nighy’s General Olbricht refuses to move forward on Operation Valkyrie.
Again, this is pretty close to what actually happened.
After the bomb went off, the soldiers at the Wolf’s Lair were trying to figure out what happened. Most of the men inside the bunker, including Hitler, had suffered ruptured ear drums from the sound of the blast. Many had injuries, some had died. It was chaos.
Probably the biggest inaccurate thing would’ve been that by the time Colonel Stauffenberg’s plane landed in Berlin, General Fellgiebel had already phoned the Bendlerblock and let the conspirators know that Hitler had survived the blast.
By the way, the Bendlerblock is the name of an office building complex in Berlin that held offices for many of the Army officers involved in the German resistance. Because of that it served as an unofficial headquarters for the German resistance.
When Colonel Stauffenberg landed in Berlin at about 3:00 PM, he only confused matters when he called the Bendlerblock immediately with the news that Hitler was dead.
Now there were conflicting reports.
In the movie, when he arrives back in Berlin, Tom Cruise’s version of Colonel Stauffenberg takes charge as he convinces General Olbricht to enact Operation Valkyrie in General Fromm’s name. Like it or not, they’re in it until the end.
The spirit of this, as well as what happens next is all depicted fairly accurately in the movie.
With the chaos that followed, no one knew who to believe. We don’t know what the conversations were like between the conspirators in the resistance, but we know that finally General Olbricht issued the orders for Operation Valkyrie almost immediately after Stauffenberg landed.
Meanwhile, General Fromm, wasn’t quite sure. Just like we saw Tom Wilkinson’s version of the General do in the movie, General Fromm called the Wolf’s Lair to find out what had happened. And just like we saw in the movie, it was Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel who Fromm talked to.
Keitel is played by Kenneth Cranham in the film.
Anyway, Keitel told Fromm that Hitler was most certainly still alive. And he also asked about the whereabouts of Colonel Stauffenberg. Immediately, this told General Fromm two things. First, that Operation Valkyrie was doomed to fail because there’s no way the officers in the Reserve Army would continue to follow the military leaders involved in the plot once they found out Hitler was still alive, and secondly it told him that Keitel suspected the source of the plot came from the building he was standing in at that moment.
Or maybe he was sitting, we don’t know. But that meant he was in danger.
Fromm feigned confusion. Colonel Stauffenberg? Isn’t he there with you?
Back in the movie, it didn’t take long for the Nazi Party to hunt down the conspirators.
And that is true.
About 40 minutes after his plane landed, Colonel Stauffenberg arrived at the Bendlerblock and immediately General Fromm tried to have him arrested.
But that didn’t work, because Colonel Stauffenberg and General Olbricht overpowered Fromm, holding him at gunpoint and dismissing him of his duties.
There’s a moment in the movie where we see conflicting orders come through. We see this in an intelligence office that the movie jumps to a few times. One of the orders is from Stauffenberg ordering the Reserve Army to arrest Joseph Goebbels. The other order comes from the Wolf’s Lair ordering the arrest of Colonel Stauffenberg.
According to the movie, the man who receives both of these orders is the officer in charge of the Reserve Army, Major Otto Ernst Remer. He’s played by Thomas Kretschmann in the film.
While we don’t know what it was like in the intelligence office at the time like we saw in the movie, those contradictory orders did happen.
But they didn’t come from the people the movie says they did. The movie implies one order comes from General Keitel at the Wolf’s Lair and the other order comes from Tom Cruise’s version of Stauffenberg.
In truth, it was Heinrich Himmler who was at the Wolf’s Lair as a part of the attack and had taken over the search for the conspirators. We don’t know if his orders made their way directly to Major Remer like we saw in the movie, but Himmler issued orders to stop the initiation of Operation Valkyrie.
We do know that Major Remer got an order, though, from General Paul von Hase to arrest Joseph Goebbels. General Hase isn’t in the movie, but Joseph Goebbels is played by Harvey Friedman.
If you’re not familiar with who Joseph Goebbels was, he was the Nazi Propaganda Minister. A very powerful man in the Nazi regime.
A couple hours later, another scene we saw in the movie actually happened. That’s when Ian McNeice’s character comes into the building and then starts screaming, “The Führer is alive! The Führer is alive!”
In the movie this character is just cast as “Pompus General” and he’s played by Ian McNeice.
The real man who did this was General Joachim von Kortzfleisch who was one of the commanders of a district in Berlin. Like the movie shows, he was arrested by the conspirators and put under guard after his outburst.
Soon after this, at about 7:00 PM, Adolf Hitler had apparently recovered from the injuries he’d sustained because this is when he made his first phone call after the attack.
That was the phone call we saw in the movie when Joseph Goebbels had Hitler on the phone to convince Major Remer to not arrest him, and instead to arrest Stauffenberg.
And just like we saw in the movie, it worked. Goebbels was not arrested and Major Remer and the Reserve Army made their way around Berlin, regaining any of the control that had been lost.
At the end of the movie, the plot crumbles faster and faster around the conspirators. We see a gunfight break out in the hallways of the Bendlerblock building and ultimately, Stauffenberg and the rest of his allies lose control.
All of that is true, as is the way the movie comes to a close.
There actually was a gunfight that broke out in the hallway of the building. In that gunfight, Stauffenberg was wounded, like we saw in the movie.
By the time 11:00 PM rolled around, General Fromm had been released, he was in control of the building and Colonel Stauffenberg and the conspirators were all under arrest.
Oh, and in the movie there’s a moment where Terence Stamp’s character, Ludwig Beck, committed suicide by shooting himself after being captured by General Fromm’s men. That’s sort of true. He tried, but the shot didn’t kill himself, so one of the soldiers nearby shot him in the neck.
Just like we saw in the movie, General Fromm convicted five of the conspirators to death on the spot. Most historians believe he did this partially because he himself was afraid of Hitler’s reaction to the situation. Perhaps if Hitler saw that Fromm had taken care of the attempted assassins, he’d deal kindly with the General.
But that’s just speculation, we don’t know the reason why General Fromm conducted an immediate court martial.
Now I know last week we did an episode on World War II, so this week’s episode makes two in a row. But there’s a reason for that. If you’re listening to this on the week it’s released, then all of this would’ve taken place exactly 73 years ago this week.
On Thursday to be more precise. That’s July 20th, 1944.
At 12:10 AM on July 21st, 1944, General Olbricht and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg along with three other members of the plot were executed in a courtyard just outside the Bendlerblock building. Twenty minutes later, at 12:30 AM, the SS showed up and stopped any further executions of members of the plot. Hitler had, after all, ordered all of the conspirators be captured alive.
Despite failing to end the grasp of Nazi fanatics over Germany, I think if there’s one statement that encapsulates the essence of the repeated attempts to assassinate Hitler, it comes from a letter that General Tresckow sent to Colonel Stauffenberg many months before he would be executed for trying to see the plan to fruition. After Stauffenberg asked whether or not there would really be a benefit to killing Hitler so late in the war when the end of Nazi Germany was near—the writing was on the wall.
This was General Tresckow’s reply:
“The assassination must be attempted, whatever the cost. Even if it fails, we must take action in Berlin. For the practical purpose no longer matters; what matters now is that the German resistance movement must take the plunge before the eyes of the world and of history. Compared to that, nothing else matters.”
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Books & Resources
- Valkyrie (2008) – IMDb
- Valkyrie (film) – Wikipedia
- Valkyrie (2008) – Synopsis
- Claus von Stauffenberg – Wikipedia
- Claus Von Stauffenberg | HistoryNet
- Claus von Stauffenberg
- The German officer who tried to kill Hitler – BBC News
- The day my dad tried to kill Hitler | History | News | Express.co.uk
- The History Place – Holocaust Timeline: Hitler Becomes Fuehrer of Germany
- Hitler oath – Wikipedia
- The Fuehrer Oath
- Rudolf Hess Speech (25 February 1934)
- Hitler becomes fuhrer – Aug 02, 1934 – HISTORY.com
- Oath of allegiance – Wikipedia
- Death of Paul von Hindenburg | World History Project
- Another plot to kill Hitler foiled – Mar 21, 1943 – HISTORY.com
- Assassination plot against Hitler fails – Jul 20, 1944 – HISTORY.com
- Henning von Tresckow – Wikipedia
- Hans Oster – Wikipedia
- 20 July plot – Wikipedia
- The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945 by Peter Hoffmann — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists
- Hoffmann on , ‘Stauffenberg’ | H-German | H-Net