Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Saturday, 24 January 2009

The national hero dividing Germans

The film Valkyrie tells the story of an attempt on Hitler's life by an army colonel, Claus von Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise. In Germany the question whether it does justice to the German Resistance is being fiercely debated, as Dan Payne discovered.

Claus von Stauffenberg
Stauffenberg planted a briefcase bomb in a staff meeting to kill Hitler

If you are getting off a train while on your way to meet a contact in an historic part of Stuttgart, it is a good idea not to graze your right hand against a door hinge so hard that you lose most of the skin from your middle knuckle.

I know, because this is just what happened as I was struggling to reach an appointment with Christopher Dowe.

Luckily, he was very understanding when we met, and even helped to dress the wound, though I can't help wondering what went through his mind as he saw a flustered and cold British reporter wading through the snow with a suitcase in one hand and blood dripping from the other.

Dr Dowe works with the Baden-Württemberg Stauffenberg Association, a group aiming to maintain the memory of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.

The 36-year-old soldier, portrayed in Valkyrie by Tom Cruise, planted the bomb that so nearly killed Hitler on 20 July 1944, and perhaps could have brought World War II to an early end.

In the event, the coup attempt failed. Stauffenberg and his co-plotters were still seen as traitors by most Germans even after the war and the collapse of the Nazi state.

In an opinion poll in 1956, only 20% of people agreed with the idea of naming a school after Stauffenberg.

Speaking to me at an exhibition on the Colonel's life in Stuttgart's Altes Schloss, Dr Dowe said it was an uncomfortable time for many Germans.

The perception in German minds of the conspirators changed from that of traitors to heroes.

"From the 1950s onwards," he explained, "people who lived through 1933 to 1945 were tackling the question, 'Were you part of the Resistance?'"

Honouring the plotters

Eventually, the perception in German minds of the conspirators changed from that of traitors to heroes. In the exhibition room Dr Dowe even showed me special Stauffenberg Medals from the 1960s, which were given to the winners of a hill-walking tournament.

The publicity surrounding Valkyrie has brought up the topic of the anti-Nazi resistance as a whole, not just the soldiers and officers who had access to Hitler.

Not far from Berlin's Tiergarten is the German Resistance Memorial Centre, in an imposing light-grey building called the Bendlerblock, formerly the headquarters of the German High Command.

It tells the stories of numerous people who dared to make their own stand against Hitler and his government.

"We get 100,000 visitors every year," the Memorial Centre's director, Dr Johannes Tuechel, explained to me. "The Centre aims to show there are limitations to order and obedience."

If a murderous dictator took over your country, what would you do? We can never stop asking that question
Johannes Tuechel

Around 16,000 people were executed by order of the so-called People's Courts for resistance activity during the war, and a further 30,000 were put to death by military tribunals.

In one example, the Munich students Hans and Sophie Scholl were tried, convicted, and guillotined for high treason on the same day in February 1943.

Their crime? Distributing leaflets that told of how huge numbers of Jews were being murdered in concentration camps. In another, an Austrian farmer called Franz Jaegerstaetter was beheaded in August 1943 for saying publicly the war was wrong and for refusing to serve in the German army.

Inside the Resistance

One German who won't be seeing Valkyrie is 65-year-old Peter Thunsdorff from Weinheim near Frankfurt.

"It is a Hollywood action movie," he said, "not a serious historical picture."

A former insurance rep, Peter has an understandable interest in the German Resistance - his mother distributed Communist Party pamphlets in the 1930s, criticising the government.

Elfriede Thunsdorff-Mollenhauer
As a Communist, Elfriede risked being sent to a concentration camp

Elfriede Thunsdorff-Mollenhauer made up her mind about the Nazis right from the start.

"She joined the Communists because no other anti-government group was so organised," her son explained.

Elfriede was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937, but managed somehow to bluff her way to freedom. Peter told me of a heart-stopping moment on the day of the Stauffenberg bomb.

"I was a year old," he said, "and my mother took me to meet my father at the railway station, when he yelled 'Damn that bomb - why didn't it work?' Amazingly, neither of them was reported or arrested."

Unworthy hero

Peter Thunsdorff is critical not just of the Valkyrie movie, but also generally of how the German Resistance is remembered. He feels that maybe too much attention is given to Stauffenberg and the officers.

"Stauffenberg was a royalist and a nationalist," he said. "The parties he supported originally backed Hitler and helped him form his first government. If my mother could see in 1933 how bad the Nazis were for Germany, why couldn't others?"

But however many Germans choose to watch Tom Cruise portray one of their national heroes, they'll be giving a thought also to those not so famous but equally brave compatriots who risked all in the fight against Nazism.

Dr Johannes Tuechel at the Memorial Centre puts it like this: "People are very interested in the resistance movement, because it helps them to ask themselves, 'If a murderous dictator took over your country, what would you do?' We can never stop asking that question."


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