Oster, Stauffenberg, and Valkyrie

I haven’t yet seen “Valkyrie,” but I’m pretty familiar with the relevant history, and will be interested to see how accurately it is reflected in the film.

It appears that–as is the case with almost all writing/video dealing with the German military conspiracy against Hitler–the film is strongly focused on the activities of Colonel Count Stauffenberg. It’s easy to see why filmmakers would want to emphasize Stauffenberg’s role and story–with his aristocratic lineage, his good looks, his attractive wife, and his love of poetry (he was a devotee of Stefan George), the man makes a fine dramatic hero. Stauffenberg was a complex individual and a man of many quirks, some of them likeable–like his habit of lying on the rug with his wife and reading English novels together, each waiting for the other to finish the page–and some not so likeable, like his tendency to lose his temper if his boots weren’t lined up precisely by his adjutant. One can see why he would be attractive to writers and movie-makers.


There were quite a few German officers involved in the plot against Hitler, and some of them committed themselves much earlier than Stauffenberg did. Hans Oster, in particular, could reasonably be considered as the driving force behind the whole enterprise. It’s interesting to note that no one playing the Oster role shows up in the cast list for “Valkyrie”–there may be legitimate dramatic reasons for this, but I hope that the movie at least gives credit in some form to Oster’s very important role.

Hans Oster was born in 1887, the son of a Protestant pastor and a highly cultivated mother (who had a great influence on him but who died when he was seventeen.) He grew up as an excellent horseman and a good cellist. Joining the army in 1907, he fought with distinction in the First World War. After the peace was signed, Oster was one of those chosen for retention in the army, which was reduced to 100,000 men by the provisions of the Versailles Treaty.

After his promotion to major, his career suffered a serious blow when he was found to be conducting a flirtation–perhaps an actual affair–with the wife of a senior officer. Oster offered the man a duel “to save honor,” but this was declined, and he was thrown out of the army. In 1933, he accepted a new job in the Abwehr (military intelligence) and his opposition to Hitler quickly solidified as he learned more about what was going on in the new concentration camps and about Hitler’s plans for war. He began to recruit others to the cause. One of his most important targets for conversion was General Ludwig Beck, the Army chief of staff. Like Oster, Beck was a devoted horseman, and on their long rides together, Oster worked to persuade Beck of the evil of Naziism, the absolute catastrophe that would be represented by a new war, and the moral necessity of taking direct action.

Some of those officers who began to consider resistance to the Nazis were motivated–like Oster–by their revulsion at Hitler’s tyrannical and barbarous policies; others were motivated more by practical concerns: they didn’t believe Germany could win a major war. Even among those in the first category, many were opposed–on “moral” grounds or based on their expectations of public reaction–to killing Hitler: one idea was to arrest him and have him declared insane. Oster, though, came very early to the concusion that Hitler must be killed if a coup was to have any chance of success.

In 1938, as the crisis over Czechoslovakia deepened, there was great concern among the German populace and military over the dangers of a new war. Beck, the chief of staff, was not necessarily opposed to German expansionism, but did not believe that Germany was militarily strong enough to take on Britain and France combined, and moreover, he did not believe that the issue of Czechoslovakia was worth a world war. He attempted to organize a “general’s strike,” under which the senior officers would refuse to participate in the planning and execution of an invasion of Czechoslovakia. In a memo to Walther von Brauchitsch, the CinC of the army, he wrote:

Now at stake are final decisions regarding the fate of the nation. History will burden those leaders with blood guilt if they do not act according to their professional and statesmanly principles and knowledge. Their soldierly loyalty must end at the boundary where their knowledge, conscience, and sense of responsibility forbid the execution of an order. In case their advice and warnings fall on deaf ears in such circumstances, then they have the right and the duty, before the people and history, to resign their offices. If they all act together, then it will be impossible to carry out military action.

However, Beck was unable to convince a critical mass of officers to participate in his plan, and he resigned alone in July 1938.

Oster and his circle believed that if Hitler moved to invade Czechoslovakia, and if France and Britain were resolute in their committment to defend that country, the time would be right for a coup. Erwin von Witzleben, a general commanding substantial troops in the Berlin area, agreed to support the forceable removable of Hitler, and Wolf Helldorf, the police president of Berlin, promised neutrality on the part of his police. Another army unit, under the command of Erich Hoepner, was assigned to neutralize the large SS garrison in Munich, The intention was to arrest Hitler and have him declared insane: Oster officially went along with the majority of his co-conspirators on this but secretly planned to have the fuehrer killed “by accident” in the course of the arrest.

The conspirators sent emissaries to Britain, to inform the British government about the strength of the anti-Hitler movement and to emphasize the importance of a strong stand re Czechoslovakia–however, they were unable to overcome the appeasement orientation of the Chamberlain government. The Munich agreement, signed in late September, caused much of the support for an immediate coup to disintegrate. Oster, though, remained resolute in his intention to destroy Naziism.

In the fall of 1939, the diplomat Erich Kordt–who had frequent access to Hitler–came to Oster and offered his services as an assassin. It was decided that a bomb would offer a better chance of success than would a pistol, and Oster undertook to procure explosives and a detonator. Unbeknownst to the military conspirators, a man named Georg Elser–a clockmaker and a socialist–was pursuing his own independent plan to kill Hitler. Elser’s bomb did go off, but owing to a change in plans Hitler was not among those killed. The incident led to greatly increased security around Hiter, making it impossible for Kordt’s plan to be carried out.

In late 1939, Oster began to pass military information about Germany’s plans for an invasion of Western Europe to his friend Bert Sas, who was the Dutch military attache. Sas assured him that this information would be passed to his Belgian opposite number, and Oster surely expected that the information would also reach the French and the British.

The decision to pass detailed military information to an enemy state was extremely painful to Oster, despite his loathing of Naziism–he knew that if the Allies acted effectively on the information he was giving them, it would likely mean the deaths of tens of thousands of German soldiers, among them many of his friends. Nevertheless, he did it. After one session with Sas, Oster unburdened himself to a friend:

It’s much easier to take a pistol and shoot someone down, it’s much easier to storm a machine-gun emplacement, than to do what I have decided to do. And if I should die, I beg you to remain my friend after my death–a friend who knew the circumstances under which I took this decision, and what drove me to do things which perhaps others will never understand, or at least would never have done themselves.

On May 9, 1940, Oster provided Sas with a final update: a massive German attack was about to begin. Using a prearranged code, Sas notified his superiors. An hour and a half later, he was called back by the Dutch chief of intelligence who said, doubtingly: “I have just received the very bad news about the operation on your wife. Have you now spoken to all the doctors?” Sas, irritated at the unbelieving attitude that was being taken toward his information, snapped back: “I don’t understand why you bother me now under these circumstances. You know now. Nothing can be done any more about this operation. I have spoken to all the doctors. Tomorrow morning, at dawn, it takes place.” It wasn’t until 3:00 AM the next day that the Dutch blew up the first of their frontier bridges, and it appears that the Oster/Sas intelligence never reached the French or British commanders.

Throughout the war years, Oster (who was promoted to Major General in 1941) did what he could to assist Jews in getting out of Nazi Germany. In some instances, Abwehr funds were used to pay for the escape of Jews under cover of intelligence operations. These activities led to a detection of financial irregularities on Oster’s part, and he was removed from office in April 1943. The Gestapo does not seem to have been aware that he was helping Jews escape–they believed the financial manipulations were about personal enrichment–and were certainly unaware of his deep involvement in an anti-Hitler conspiracy. Nevertheless, he fell under enough suspicion and surveillance that it became impossible for him to continue is central role in the conspiracy. It was at about this time that Stauffenberg became heavily involved in the affair: to a substantial extent, he took on what had previously been Oster’s role.

In his book To The Bitter End, Hans Bernd Gisevius (a close friend of Oster’s) gives his own view of the characters of Oster and Stauffenberg:

Oster was the officer who had fought most clear-headedly, most resolutely, most indomitaby against the Brown tyranny–and fought it longest. There was a vast gulf between his mentality and that of Stauffenberg, who had shifted to the rebel side only after Stalingrad. These two army men were representative of two different worlds.

I don’t think the above is entirely fair to Stauffenberg—but it certainly is true that that Oster took resolute action againt the Nazis earlier than Stauffenberg and most of the other conspirators, and that his motivations were broader and deeper than those of many.

Following the unsuccessful bomb plot and coup attempt of July 1949, Oster was arrested along with dozens of others. He was executed on April 9, 1945, in the Flossenburg concentration camp. The camp was liberated a few days later by American forces.

Oster’s friend Fabian von Schlabrendorff described him as a man such as God meant men to be, lucid and serene in mind, imperturbable in danger.

There were many in the senior German military ranks who understood what Hitler was and what Naziism was doing to the world, but were unwilling to wholeheartedly commit themselves to doing what needed to be done. Hans Oster stands in strong contrast to such individuals.

In attempting to persuade Halder (his replacement as chief of staff) to take action against Hitler, Ludwig Beck used an equestrian metaphor: as an experienced horseman, Halder should know that he had to throw his heart over the fence.

Hans Oster threw his heart over the fence and he never looked back.

33 thoughts on “Oster, Stauffenberg, and Valkyrie”

  1. “It appears that … the film is strongly focused on the activities of Colonel Count Stauffenberg.”

    David — go see the movie. It is very good, worth seeing. Tom Cruise is very good as Stauffenberg.

    More to the point, the film shows Stauffenberg joining a large, pre-existing network of officers and civilians involved in the plot. Beck is a major character. Oster is mentioned by name.

    “Hans Oster threw his heart over the fence and he never looked back.”


    And Count von Stauffenberg put a bomb next to Hitler’s chair, came this/close to killing him and set a coup in motion to throw the Nazi regime out of power.

    Bottom line: Most people went along with Hitler until the end either because they wanted to, or they were afraid. Oster earlier, Stauffenberg later, put their lives and the lives of their families on the table and rolled the dice. Both failed, both died.

    We can probably say, from the safety of our chairs, that Oster was a better man, yet one who did not come as close to succeeding in his aim as Stauffenberg did. We can also say: Better later than never.

    I bought this book about the 1938 Oster conspiracy, but have not read it yet. It was reviewed in the Australian Defense Journal, scroll down to p. 124.

  2. David, no criticism of your very good post was intended.

    I just wanted to make it clear that the movie really does address the points you make, while focusing on the July 20, 1944 plot.

    Another angle on the Anti-Hitler faction can be found in the excellent book Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945 by Marie Vassiltchikov. She moved in a circle of German fellow aristocrats, most of whom were hostile to Hitler, but who also served in the military during the war. Many of her friends were executed after the July 20 Plot failed. One of her friends was Prince Heinrich von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who flew night fighters against Allied bombers and would sometimes go directly from parties to the airfield, and fly in his tuxedo. Before he was shot down, he was given a medal by Hitler in person. He commented afterward that the guards had forgotten to take his pistol, and that if he had thought of it at the time, he would have shot Hitler. Perhaps he would have, though fear of sippenhaft against his family was probably what stayed his hand. One can only wonder what such a random assassination of the Fuhrer, with no political process in place to deal with the sudden vacuum, would have led to.

  3. Tom Cruise is no Stauffenberg. In fact, given Tom Cruise’s political views and allegiance (or lack of it) to his own nation, this is a rather pointed insult against the man.

  4. “Tom Cruise is no Stauffenberg.”

    Right. Stauffenberg was a military officer, Cruise is an actor.

    Cruise, like most artists, should not be consulted for his political views, or for any other serious matter unrelated to his profession.

    But, rather to my surprise, he delivered a solid acting job portraying Stauffenberg.

    Also, he looks like Stauffenberg.

  5. “…Cruise has only a dense mass of tiny Styrofoam balls.”

    That is apparently all he needs to be an actor.

    Also, to his credit, he was apparently the driving force behind making this movie, and it is a good movie.

    I may be unique in this, but I totally disregard all nonprofessional comments from artists and entertainers. That way, I don’t waste my time with their stupidity, and I am not prevented from enjoying their work when they do what they actually know how to do.

  6. I don’t think I can watch a movie with Tom Cruise in it any more. His off stage antics have made it difficult for me to separate his characters and not the actor. I think it would be difficult specifically in this case because Stauffenberg was a serious warrior (of the pre-industrial school) and I have trouble seeing Captain Hollywood playing him.

    I really wish actor would shut up off stage.

  7. “I really wish actor would shut up off stage.”

    I achieve the same effect by never looking at them or listening to them except when they are performing. Not having a TV helps.

    Shannon, the movie is worth seeing. Very well done. My third favorite movie of the year after Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire.

    Just pretend you have never heard of the actor before.

  8. Wow. Cruise must have really behaved badly. I have never paid any attention to his offstage behavior, and I have never watched any of his movies after seeing his first one where he was a teenager who schtupped the absurdly good looking prostitute on the El — a stupid movie. I have absolutely no idea what he has said or done, and I like it that way.

    I do really think it is a good idea to ignore these people.

  9. It is a pity that the offscreen conduct of the actor, mere “cattle” as Alfred Hitchcock noted, is the focus of people’s responses on this post.

    The actual events and their participants, and a remote second, the movie itself, seem far more interesting topics.

    C’mon ChicagoBoyz, rise above that People Magazine mindset.

  10. Lexington Green,

    I guess I am rather sensitive to the effect of knowledge of the actor as a person contaminating my enjoyment of their work. I make it a point not to read or watch interviews, bios etc of actors whose work I enjoy. I only know of Cruises idiocy because he exploded in a very public fashion.

    I also associate him with bad/annoying movies. “Mission Impossible” with its virus that required fresh air and sunshine. “The Last Samurai” in which the wife of high status Samurai traditionalist worked their own food gardens. I have a problem knowing that part of the price of ticket ends up in the coffers of the Church of Scientology and any support of Cruise’s celebrity supports their recruitment.

    I have trouble disassociating these factors from Cruise on the screen. It’s unconscious and uncontrollable.

  11. Well then, allow me to lower the tenor of the discourse in a different way. Several recent films have been clumsy Bush metaphors. Having seen this plot, is it likely that there is any intent to put forward the German military conspiracy as a model for American officers to emulate? Short version, Bush=Hitler? Iraq=Czechoslovakia? France=well, France?

    Point two, also low-minded: A former colleague of mine, supposedly adequately educated, and an upper level manager in federal service, watched “Pearl Harbor” and closed out the lease on her Lexus. She told her husband she did not want any more Japanese goods in their home. She did not know, you see, until she saw that film…

    I’ve known about Stauffenberg since I was in the fourth grade in 1961. Will the new knowledge of the “Good Nazis” result in an epiphany on the part of those who get their history only from current films? And–to raise my sights a notch–what will be the nature of that epiphany? You could scare yourself with that question.

  12. I had better declare my “interests”: if I never see another WWII film (apart from the great ones from the past that I shall see again) I shall be quite happy. Get over it, already.

    Having said that I must support Lex in his assertions that actors’ opinions must be ignored. Unless they happen to be Ronald Reagan or John Wayne. Tom Cruise probably has no connecting brain cells. So what? Can he act? The jury is largely out but he may well make a good Stauffenberg. Mind you, how much do we really, really know about Stauffenberg?

    More to the point Lex, how do they deal with the Otto John conundrum?

  13. ” Bush=Hitler?” I wondered if there would be any of that. I did not see any. I know the history pretty well, and the movie played the history pretty straight. I think Cruise is trying to segue his career into a path that will sustain him in middle age, when being a buff, young hottie won’t work anymore, hence an attempt at seriousness at all levels.

    “…trouble with Ron Howard movies?” I don’t know if I have seen any, other than Apollo 13, which was pretty good. Ed Harris is reliable. Is Ron Howard a Leftist shill? If so, I did not know it because, as I say, I resolutely ignore political pronouncements, or in fact any non-professional pronouncement, from musicians, chanteuses, painters, actors, jugglers, mimes, etc. Ignoring academics when they talk about anything outside nejcessarily the narrow scope of their expertise is usually a good idea, too. Repudiating the idea that a Ph.D. in anything is a generic “smart person” badge is a practice that needs to be spread more widely.

    Helen, actually, when Reagan was actually working as an actor, he was a down-the-line New Deal liberal. Later, he did some reading, got out and saw the world, and woke up. So, the rule still holds. Tom Cruised did a solid acting job as von Stauffenberg. As I mentioned, I have not seen him in anything in over twenty years, so I had no preconceptions. “…the Otto John conundrum?” Never heard of him, until now, and read this. Sounds intriguing, but I have no basis for an opinion about any conundrum. I cannot agree that no further World War II movies are needed. Too many great stories have not yet been told, too many excellent books could be made into movies. Plus every actor knows that if looks good now, he will look even better in a German World War II-era uniform. Most actors at some point play a Nazi or wear a Wehrmacht uniform on screen. Off the top of my head: Michael Caine, Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Robert Shaw, Frank Sinatra … . It is the great epic of the last century, and it will be a long time before people “get over it”.

  14. Didn’t an important part of Reagan’s education in world realities come from his experiences with Hollywood communists when he was active in the actors’ union? How many prominent people in the modern entertainment industry have a comparable record in opposing the malign influence of today’s Hollywood Left?

  15. “…when he was active in the actors’ union?” Yes.

    I said “…when Reagan was actually working as an actor, he was a down-the-line New Deal liberal.” By the time he was working for the union his acting career was pretty much over.

    “How many prominent people in the modern entertainment industry have a comparable record in opposing the malign influence of today’s Hollywood Left?” I don’t know. I try to pay no attention to Hollywood and its antics, and I watch very few of its movies and none of its TV shows. Note, however, that in Reagan’s day the communists would literally make death threats and use violence against people who took them on. The current crop are not as tough.

  16. Has anybody ever done a serious alt-history treatment (either fiction or essay) of what the world would be like if Valkyrie had worked? I am not aware of any. I have tried to think it out many times, and the answer is always “Fascinating. Needs more research. Got to write something on this some time.” Probably, it’s a question of who makes the separate peace first, Stalin or the Allies? My guess is Stalin would — he’d expect the Allies to do it to him, and he’d figure he needed to pre-empt them. His mind seemed to work that way.

    Is anybody aware of a serious work that lays out the plans of the Valkyrie conspirators in detail? I know they wanted to round up the Nazis and negotiate an end to the war, but I wonder what they would have done with the concentration camps and the survivors, what would have happened to the collaborationist governments, what would have happened in the East, etc. etc. It’s a huge topic.

    I agree with Lex. We haven’t even begun t scratch the surface of the effects of WW1 and WW2 on history, and each generation will make their own take on it, artistically and politically, for centuries to come.

  17. “Is anybody aware of a serious work that lays out the plans of the Valkyrie conspirators in detail?”

    They all got killed before the could write much of anything down. “Make peace with the Anglo-Saxons” was probably the main thing.

    “My guess is Stalin would — he’d expect the Allies to do it to him …”

    People use words like “shocked” and “stunned” pretty easily. But I was truly shocked and stunned when I read, buried in the footnotes of Gerhard Weinberg’s most recent book that there has been some recenty discovered documentary evidence that Molotov met with German representatives in Finland in 1943 to discuss an armistace. I do not have the exact language in front of me. This had long been rumored, but it was always dismissed as a fantasy. So, the prospect of a German-Soviet armistace was possible.

  18. That doesn’t surprise me at all. I have always assumed that Stalin would have negotiated a separate peace with the Nazis whenever he felt it would have been in his interests, assuming the Nazis had made him a suitable offer. Certainly Roosevelt and Churchill were constantly aware of tat possibility.

    It’s not as if the fact that Hitler had killed millions of Russians would have been some kind of problem for Soso.

  19. The noble warrior culture of the Amerindians in Last Samurai is also a rather anachronistic “noble savage” lie. A propaganda message that has force when combined with this pure and native portrayal of the samurai class in Japan. The fact that samurai were using arquebuses and European style plate armor before even the Meiji era is conveniently forgotten in favor of a re-written history to better suit contemporary themes of Western imperialist corruption and noble traditional life styles.

    Every movie Cruise is in has something like that. If that’s acting and making historical movies, sign me up for the propaganda subscription.

  20. Thanks, David. In particular, I am looking for discussions of their post-coup plans for political reconstruction, dealing with the Nazis, and what they might have been willing to propose/accept in terms of peace settlements. Any specific links that people could provide would be welcome.

  21. > Shannon, the movie is worth seeing. Very well done. My third favorite movie of the year after Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire.

    What, no Iron Man? C’mon, that’s the fun movie from this summer. Damn, I want one of those suits, and the means for upkeep of it.


  22. > Is Ron Howard a Leftist shill?
    Generally, yes. One reason I refuse to see Nixon/Frost is Howard’s idiotic comparison of Nixon and Bush, and his insistence on re-vomiting the idiotic Iraq==Vietnam meme.

    > I cannot agree that no further World War II movies are needed

    What IS needed is a lot more stories about conditions in the USSR from 1920 to 1990. For such a large nation, and such a long span, and one in which both the nation and the events transpiring around the world have had such far reaching effects, it’s nothing less than absurd that so very few movies have been made. I’m sure there are others, but the only ones coming to mind are “Dr. Zhivago”, “Citizen X”, and “The Inner Circle”, and few have seen or heard about the last two.

    Yeah, there’s “Enemy at the Gates”, but that’s hardly the kind of information I’m talking about — that’s a war picture which could have taken place anywhere.

    There should also be a lot more about China’s transgressions against civil rights, too. The media could care less about what is happening in Tibet. But they’ll do all manner of fluff pieces decrying the awful events at Gitmo. Hollywood can make dozens of movies about the inequities inflicted on the poor black man by whites in the US and South Africa, but nothing about barbaric practices of blacks in South Africa (e.g., “necklacing”) or about what yellow men inflict on other yellow men.

    > Has anybody ever done a serious alt-history treatment (either fiction or essay) of what the world would be like if Valkyrie had worked? I am not aware of any. I have tried to think it out many times, and the answer is always “Fascinating. Needs more research. Got to write something on this some time.”

    Not that I know of, but the obvious person to do so would be Harry Turtledove.

  23. I’m not sure how useful a Turtledove treatment would be. When he does alt-history treatments set in our physical world (i.e., no magic, no time travel, no extra continents, etc.) he tends to make a simple transposition and then do a straight-line extrapolation of it; e.g., “if the South had become independent, the history of North America subsequently would be an analogue to Europe’s”, or “If the Nazis had won, the next fifty years would be like our history, except with the Reich taking the place of the Soivet Union”. In each case every person, country, and historical phenomenon in our world has a close analogue in his fictional one. Entertaining, but not likely to have been accurate. I don’t think a Turtledove-style treatment of Valkyrie would be all that useful for the kind of speculation that case could inspire. Also, it’s essential that anybody doing a serious cut at that be able to work with source documents in German. I don’t know whether Turtledove has that or not. Byzantine Greek, I absolutely trust him!

  24. Intelligence services stratify motives as money, ideology, conscience, and ego. Mr Cruise’s von Stauffenberg appears to be motivated primarily by conscience, with a healthy dash of ego. The motives of the other conspirators never come out. Perhaps the studio thinks it obvious to any modern viewer why Hitler ought be bumped off: that’s not likely to provide much intellectual protection against future tyrants.

    Something about all those red flags at those Berlin ministries bothers me. By the summer of 1944, those would be obvious BOMB ME markers for the Eighth Air Force.

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