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A Moral Duty

July 20, 2007

Graf von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Hitler 63 years ago on Friday. DW-WORLD.DE spoke to his eldest son, retired Major General Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, about the plot and its significance.

Major general Berthold Graf von Stauffenberg
Stauffenberg's family was torn apart following the attackImage: AP

On July 20, 1944, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a colonel in Hitler's army, took the fate of the German people into his own hands. Increasingly disillusioned with Adolf Hitler, Stauffenberg and numerous other co-conspirators within the German military plotted to assassinate the dictator and seize the reins of power. Stauffenberg smuggled an explosives-filled briefcase into a meeting at Hitler's hideaway. Miraculously, the dictator survived the blast and Stauffenberg and others involved in the plot were executed.

A movie about the events of July 20, 1944, is currently being filmed in Berlin starring Hollywood actor and prominent Scientologist Tom Cruise, and it has stirred controversy. Over the years, some have raised questions about the attack itself, with debate about the motives and the political persuasion of Stauffenberg. DW-WORLD.DE talked to his eldest son about the assassination plot and its consequences for the family and Germany as a whole.

DW-WORLD.DE: You were only 10 years old when your father died. Did you know anything about his oppositional activities? What about the rest of your family?

Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg: I didn't know anything naturally. Everything had to be kept secret. If children find out about something like that there is always the danger that they're going to spill the beans. My mother knew something about it and also approved, but we didn't get wind of any of that.

When did your mother find out what was happening?

She noticed there was something going on relatively early and brought it up with my father. I don't know how much he told her. She knew that he was going to do something. What she didn't know was that he was going to plant the bomb himself.

When and how did you find out about attack?

I heard in the radio that there had been an assassination attempt. But it was not until the following day that my mother told me and my next-youngest brother that our father had carried it out. It was a big shock for us. After this lengthy conversation, she was picked up at night. We didn't see her again until June '45.

You talked about shock. Were you shocked because this was the first time that you'd heard your father was dead or the fact that he was involved in the resistance? Or both?

Both. People today might not be able to believe it, but death was nothing unusual at that time. A third of my classmates had lost their fathers and the threat was always there. You could also be killed in different ways as a result of bombing raids and so on. It was, of course, the fact that he had committed this act against the head of state. That didn't fit into our world view. We asked how he could do something like that to the Führer. Our mother told us that he believed that he had to do it for Germany.

Were you brought up in a way that was typical of the time?

We were not brought up to be out-and-out Nazis, but we encountered it in our surroundings. As I said, my parents did not make critical remarks, but they also didn't express any enthusiasm either. But there was Nazi indoctrination in the school.

How did things proceed after your mother was picked up?

The family was torn apart. Most of the adults were then sent to concentration camps, including those who were obviously not involved. Under the Nazis there was a practice of punishing family members as well as the perpetrator. My mother and my aunt were, of course, held for questioning for a long time. We were then taken to a children's home that had been especially cleared out to take us. And we stayed there until after the invasion -- in this case by the Americans.

Was your later career shaped by the attack?

Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg
Stauffenberg was executed for his actImage: dpa

Shaped is perhaps not the right expression. However, it was strongly influenced. If you have a well-known name and, of course, we had become well-known among those people who were against the attack -- some because they were Nazis and some because they rejected violence as a matter of principle, and it's a bit different living under those circumstances than if you can live anonymously. But it is like that in almost any profession when you go into the same profession as your father. I did it because I thought I would enjoy it. Not because I wanted to follow in a family tradition, or because of my father. Rather in spite of my father.

Are there any misapprehensions about your father that particularly upset you?

Well, there is one theory. It is always said that he was a Nazi at the start and that this only changed later. That sounds good to those people who were themselves Nazis. And I wouldn't object if that was how things were, but that is not factually correct. At the start, my father was neither pro- nor anti-Nazi. He just wanted to see how things developed and then judge things for himself. It may have been that at the time he disagreed with Nazi supporters and Nazi opponents. Independence was something that he always valued highly.

What do feel is missing from the conventional image of your father?

Of course, I can't really judge that properly because I didn't know him well enough. It doesn't serve him well to be made into a superman, or a superstar, as people would say today. But he also wasn't just any ordinary person. I do believe that he was especially talented.

There have been around seven films, including documentary films on the topic, and now Hollywood and Tom Cruise are tackling the subject. Do you feel that your family history has become public property?

My father's story has quite clearly become public property. Apart from the films that are, on the whole, benevolent, there has also been literature that was deprecatory or base.

But your family has, nevertheless, not shut out the public.

No, we think that it is not the business of the family to honor my father or not. It should not interfere there. That doesn't mean we are against it, or that we don't give our support when we are asked. But we don't pursue it actively.

What about your comments on Tom Cruise?

None of us has taken active steps. I was contacted by the [daily] Süddeutsche Zeitung and asked to give an interview. I stated my opinion. In a democracy you should be able to express your opinions, your personal opinion, without intending to make any demands. I never called for the film to be stopped. I also never said that Tom Cruise shouldn't act the part or that it shouldn't be permitted. I said that I didn't like it. And I think that is legitimate.

Over the years the historical reception of the resistance led by your father has changed significantly. Do you think the more recent interpretations get any closer to the truth?

Sixty years is a long time. There are only few people left alive who were active in the war. Even their children are old people now. It's natural that the image that we have should change. It has shifted from being first-hand experience and has become history. Of course, a lot of mistakes have also crept in. However things were, the history that we know definitely contains a lot of mistakes that we don't know about and that we are no longer in a position to recognize.

What is the significance, in your opinion, of the events of July 20 for Germany and the world -- and for you personally?

I don't want to draw any lessons for the German people or the whole world. But perhaps you can say one thing. If you feel a sense of moral duty then you have to act upon that. This isn't a political issue. It also isn't about whether you are a democrat or not. It's a question of morality. If you have the opportunity to do something about it, can you allow a people to be governed by criminals -- even if they have been elected by the people?

Actor Tom Cruise
Cruise as Stauffenberg: Filming began ThursdayImage: AP Photo/Studio Babelsberg AG, Frank Connor

Julie Gregson interviewed Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg