Mission Impossible?
Tom Cruise to Play German Catholic Hero

R. Cort Kirkwood
Guest Columnist

Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg
Photograph: Frank Connor/AP

Adolf Hitler was given to such fits of anger, William Shirer reported in The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich, that he would fall to the floor and chew the rug.  Der Fuhrer’s conniption fits may well have been the result of tertiary syphilis, but whatever their cause, German officialdom is rug-biting mad about Tom Cruise being cast as the lead in a film about German hero Claus Philip Schenk von Stauffenberg.

Stauffenberg was the devout Catholic army colonel who planted the bomb in the attempt to kill Hitler in 1944. Official German angst has nothing to do with Cruise’s skills as a thespian or its love for the Catholic faith. Rather, the Germans fervidly oppose Scientology, which they view as a dangerous, totalitarian cult. Cruise is the world’s foremost Scientologist.

Scientology, cooked up in the brain pan of science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, isn’t so much a totalitarian cult as a childish, New Age fantasy world of aliens and spooks. But German officials believe it is tantamount to Nazism; thus, Cruise is anathema, particularly in dealing with the touchy subject of Hitler and one of his most heroic German enemies. As well, one of Stauffenberg’s children, a former general in the post-World War II German army, likewise opposes the choice of Tom Cruise. Yet Cruise may well do a fine job as Stauffenberg in the film, called Valkyrie, and regardless of the opinions of the Germans and Cruise’s acting ability, the upcoming film occasions telling the story of the Catholic hero who attempted to end the Nazi regime.

Von Stauffenberg

Born in 1907, Von Stauffenberg “was a man of astonishing gifts for a professional Army officer,” Shirer wrote. Why Shirer thought his gifts “astonishing” because Stauffenberg was an Army officer is unclear, but the count was descended from a long line of German noblemen going back as far as 1255. One was a military hero who fought against Napoleon. His father was privy chamberlain for the last King of Wuerttemberg. “The family,” Shirer wrote, “was congenial, devoutly Roman Catholic and highly cultivated.”

So Stauffenberg was a German aristocrat learned in poetry, literature and art. He was “possessed of a fine physique … [and] of striking handsomeness” with a “brilliant, inquisitive, splendidly balanced mind.” He was also an athlete and a surpassing equestrian. Given his background, and like many of his class, Shirer writes, he was “a monarchist at heart.”

Stauffenberg rose through the ranks of the German Army, and, although he did not oppose the Nazis early on, Kristallnacht and Hitler’s treatment of the Jews repelled him, and he began wondering what kind of man had risen to Germany’s pinnacle of power. Hitler’s brutality, especially to Soviet prisoners of war on the Eastern Front, also appalled him, and it was during his service there that he met two brother officers who drafted him into the conspiracy to assassinate the failed artist.

In 1943, Stauffenberg landed in Tunisia, and on April 7, was nearly killed when British aircraft strafed his car. Shirer reports that Stauffenberg’s car may have driven into a minefield, but in any event his wounds were grievous. Whatever struck the car knocked out his right eye and blew off his right hand and two fingers on his left. Convalescence offered the officer the chance to ponder his future: “I feel I must do something now to save Germany,” he told his wife, Nina. “We General Staff officers must all accept our share of the responsibility.” As well, Stauffenberg said in 1944, "Fate has offered us this opportunity, and I would not refuse it for anything in the world. I have examined myself before God and my conscience. It must be done because this man is evil personified."

When the Allied invasion at Normandy “threw the conspirators … into great confusion,” Shirer writes, for fear that the time to assassinate the Austrian corporal had passed, conspirator Maj. Gen. Henning Von. Tresckow, whom Stauffenberg met on the Russian front, inspired his colleagues with this explanation of why the plan must go forward: “The assassination must be attempted at any cost…. We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German Resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it.”

So the group sallied forth. Stauffenberg and his courageous colleagues code-named their plot Valkyrie, after the beautiful maidens in Norse-German mythology who, watching over battlefields, decided which combatants would live and which would die. Valkyrie was also the codename of the Nazi regime’s official plan to use the Home Army to control cities in the event of an uprising. When the conspirators killed Hitler, they would use the Home Army as Hitler would have used it, to seize control of Berlin and other cities. But they would control the troops and declare a new government. 

The many conspirators involved in the plot against Hitler makes one wonder how the attempt got as far as it did, and the plan was nearly derailed completely when they disclosed it to the Communist underground, which the Gestapo had penetrated with double agents. When two of the conspirators, one of whom was a dear friend of Stauffenberg’s, were arrested after that disclosure, the anti-Hitler plotters decided to act.

July 20, 1944

In June, Stauffenberg was promoted to full colonel, a fortuitous turn for the conspirators because his new position, chief of staff to General Friedrich Fromm, permitted direct contact with Hitler. As well, Fromm was commander of the Home Army, the unit that would be used to seize Berlin after Stauffenberg dispatched Hitler. As Fromm’s executive officer, Stauffenberg could issue orders to the army. So he “had now become the key man in the conspiracy,” even though he was not its highest ranking officer.

The weapon of choice to kill Hitler was a simple British bomb that would detonate after “breaking a glass capsule, whose acid then ate away a small wire, which released the firing pin against the percussion cap.” Such a bomb had failed to detonate when Tresckow and another officer planted one disguised as two bottles of brandy on Hitler’s plane. The latter escaped, sometimes narrowly, nearly four dozen attempts on his life. He cheated the Grim Reaper twice more between July 11 and July 20, 1944, but just barely.

The first, on July 11, occurred at the Berghoff, Hitler’s home in Obersalzberg. Stauffenberg was supposed to plant a bomb, but he didn’t because the conspirators had sought to eliminate SS Chief Heinrich Himmler and Luftwaffe boss Hermann Goering as well. Himmler wasn’t at the meeting, and when Stauffenberg left the conference for a moment to telephone his co-conspirators, they instructed him to abort the mission.

On July 15, Stauffenberg barely missed killing Hitler again, this time at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s headquarters in Rastenburg. The meeting was set for 1 p.m. Stauffenberg arrived, then left the room to telephone his co-conspirators with news that he was about to plant and activate the bomb, but when he returned, Hitler was gone. The conspirators, thinking Hitler would be killed, complicated the near miss by calling out the Home Army to occupy Berlin. They quickly cancelled the order.

So Stauffenberg had to make yet another attempt. The opportunity presented itself when he received orders to give a report to Hitler on July 20, again at Rastenberg. The night before, after preparing his report, Shirer wrote, Stauffenberg “stopped off at a Catholic Church to pray” about the task at hand: tyrannicide. The question for Stauffenberg and the other Catholic conspirators was whether assassinating Hitler would jeopardize their souls, the latter’s abject evil notwithstanding. “It is believed,” Shirer quotes another author, “that he had previously confessed, but of course absolution could not be granted.” When Stauffenberg informed the Bishop of Berlin, Cardinal Peysing, of the plan, “the bishop replied that he honored the young man’s motives and did not feel justified in attempting to restrain him on theological grounds.” Another priest, Army chaplain Father Hermann Wehrle, told one of the conspirators that the Church did not condone tyrannicide.

Next day, the bomb concealed in a shirt inside his briefcase, Stauffenberg arrived at the Wolf’s Lair a little after 10 a.m.. He first met with one of the vital plotters, the man who would cut communications to Rastenburg and inform the mutineers in Berlin that Hitler was dead so that the Home Army could in turn occupy the city. A little after noon, Stauffenberg arrived at the office of the notorious Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Reich’s armed forces, and hung his belt and cap in an anteroom outside Keitel’s office. Keitel told Stauffenberg the meeting would be held 30 minutes early because the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, would soon arrive for a conference with Hitler.

So Stauffenberg’s briefing, Keitel told him, must be concise. The news worried Stauffenberg, who reckoned he must arm his bomb before entering the meeting with Hitler, a risky plan allowing just minutes for him to escape and head back to Berlin. Another complication emerged as well. The meeting would be held in the Lagebaracke, or conference barracks, not in Hitler’s underground bunker. The windowed barracks would not contain the power of the blast and intensify its killing force as the bunker would have.

Just before 12:30 p.m., the pair left Keitel’s office to head for the meeting, but Stauffenberg left his cap and belt hanging outside Keitel’s office and excused himself to retrieve them. “Keitel, as much a bully with his subordinates as he was a toady with his superiors,” Shirer wrote, “was aggravated at the delay and turned back to the building to shout to Stauffenberg to get a move on. They were late, he yelled.”

Unknown to Keitel, who “no doubt realized that it took a man as maimed as the colonel a little extra time to put on his belt,” Stauffenberg was arming the bomb in his briefcase. With his three remaining fingers, he used a pair of tongs to break the capsule, which released the acid that would eat the wire and set off the bomb. It was 12:32. In 10 minutes it would explode, perhaps killing a mass murderer who helped bring the world to war. The bomb armed, Stauffenberg and Keitel went to the meeting, which had begun and included another of Hitler’s generals giving a briefing. As Stauffenberg entered the room, he told the sergeant manning the telephones at the building’s entrance that he was expecting an important telephone call.

On entering the meeting room, Stauffenberg moved to Hitler’s right, and placed the bomb-laden briefcase under the heavy, oaken conference table, which was supported by two thick supports. The bomb was just six feet from Hitler’s legs. Der Fuhrer was scrutinizing maps while listening to his general’s briefing. It was 12:37 p.m. Stauffenberg excused himself from the room, telling Col. Heinz Brandt to watch his brief case because it held secret papers.

Brandt, the same man, ironically enough, who unknowingly carried Tresckow’s failed brandy bomb onto Hitler’s plane, moved closer to the table to hear the briefing, but bumped into the briefcase, then reached down to move the obstruction. He placed it on the other side of the table’s sturdy oaken socle.

Hitler survived this devastating blast

Keitel looked up to see Stauffenberg gone, then left to fetch him, remembering what Stauffenberg had told the telephone operator. But Stauffenberg wasn’t there. As Keitel re-entered the room, he heard the general finish his briefing: “If our army around Lake Peipus is not immediately withdrawn, a catastrophe ….” At that precise word, 12:42 p.m., Stauffenberg’s bomb obliterated the room. Four people were killed, but Hitler himself survived. When Brandt moved the bomb to the far side of the table support, it dissipated the bomb’s power because the support absorbed the brunt of the blast.

Having witnessed the smoke from the demolition, Stauffenberg, thinking no one had survived, bluffed his way out of the compound and boarded his plane to Berlin, knowing the conspirators in Berlin had triggered their part of Operation Valkyrie. By the time he arrived, the Home Army should have taken Berlin.

It hadn’t. The plotters failed. Hitler gave Mussolini a tour of the wreckage as Stauffenberg was in the air to Berlin, where he landed at 3:45 p.m. It wasn’t long before his own commander, Fromm, betrayed the conspiracy, arrested Stuaffenberg and some others and ordered them shot. “It was much too late for this,” Shirer reports, “but Fromm did not realize it,” for he, too, would meet an ignominious end.

In the courtyard of the Bendlerstrasse, Stauffenberg and his companions faced the firing squad. The Catholic officer died a hero and in his last words, uttered a fitting cry: “Es lebe unser heiliges Deutschland! (Long Live Our Holy Germany!)”

Soon thereafter, Hitler and his myrmidons began another reign of terror: “This time we shall settle accounts with them in the manner to which we National Socialists are accustomed,” Der Fuhrer said. “This time, too,” Shirer wrote, “Hitler kept his word. The barbarism of the Nazis toward their own fellow German reached its zenith.” Some victims were lucky; they landed in concentration camps later liberated by allied troops. Stauffenberg’s wife, Countess Nina, pregnant with her fifth child, went to Ravensbruck.

But about 5,000 were done to death, and the Gestapo records, Shirer wrote, recorded 7,000 arrests. A typical method of execution was strangling the victims with piano wire attached to meat hooks slowly raised from the ground. Two of the unfortunates were priests, the Jesuit martyr, Father Alfred Delp, and Father Hermann Wehrle, who advised one of the conspirators, also executed, that Church teaching forbade killing Hitler. Fromm, who tried to turn the tables on Stauffenberg at the last minute, died by firing squad.

Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, another conspirator, was permitted to commit suicide and given a state funeral. Dragged naked to the gallows was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who conceived and persuaded Hitler to accept the faux Valkyrie defense of German cities. Two more victims were Stauffenberg’s brother, Berthold, and their cousin, Peter Yorck, the latter hauled before the Nazis’ kangaroo court. Never, reported Shirer, did Yorck “hide his contempt for National Socialism.”

 “Why didn’t you join the party?” the judge asked him.

“Because I am not and never could be a Nazi,” he replied.

“You didn’t agree with the National Socialist conception of justice, say, in regard to rooting out of the Jews?”

“What is important, what brings together all these questions,” Yorck replied, “is the totalitarian claim of the State on the individual which forces him to renounce his moral and religious obligations to God.”

“Nonsense!” the judge cried.

Pray For Cruise

So now comes Tom Cruise, a former Catholic from a “dysfunctional” family, who aspired to the priesthood before falling prey to the insidious wiles of a crazy cult. But perhaps the Stauffenbergs who oppose Cruise might reconsider. What if, in playing Stuaffenberg, Cruise were to recover his faith, especially upon learning that what ultimately made Stauffenberg the man he was wasn’t just his aristocratic and noble lineage, but the profound and scrupulous faith that inspired an attempt at confession for what he thought might be the sin of murder.  In addition, Cruise’s kooky beliefs aside, he might well provide an inspiring portrait of this Catholic hero, just as non-Catholic Hollywood moguls and actors occasionally offered inspiring portraits of Catholic heroes in bygone days.

Whatever the root of the actor’s problems, it isn’t for the German government to stop a man from practicing his craft. Maybe Cruise and his backers will fumble the project; maybe they won’t. In either case, the former seminarian may well appreciate the truths of the Faith that formed the subject of his film. The Lord works in mysterious ways, so all Catholics should pray not only for a fine film about Stauffenberg, but also for the conversion of the actor who sees the Catholic nobleman for the hero and martyr he was.

R. Cort Kirkwood is the author of Real Men: Ten Courageous Americans to Know and Admire (Cumberland House, 2006).  His articles have appeared in The Remnant, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, The New American and Taki’s Top Drawer online magazine.