Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Redemption of the Valkyrie

Some historical events can only really be understood with the perspective that comes with time.

World War II -- with its broad range of incredibly complex issues and events -- is certainly one of those events. One of the widely-disputed topics is the level of involvement of the German populace.

Books such as Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners dispute the notion that the German citizenry participated in atrocities such as the holocaust only under the duress of government coercion.

Even if the German populace's level of participation in the war was greater than previously estimated -- and according to Goldhagen's work it certainly was -- this doesn't overshadow the direct resistence that many Germans offered to Hitler's machinations, and even to his rule of the country.

Valkyrie is the story of the last of more than a dozen plots to depose Hitler and bring as peaceful an end to the war as possible.

The film opens with Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), serving in Northern Africa, protesting the execution of the war. Germany has lost Northern Africa, and the forces deployed their could be better deployed in Germany's defense.

Upon being wounded in an allied attack -- he loses his right hand and two fingers off of his left -- Stauffenberg is reassigned to Germany, where he serves as a staff officer.

Stauffenberg becomes widely known for his criticism of the war and is quickly approached by a group of dissidents led by retired General Ludwig Beck about deposing Hitler. In a bombed-out church, Stauffenberg confesses his distress at the current state of Germany.

The only way for Germany to recover its soul, Stauffenberg concludes, is for Hitler to die and be replaced.

He hitches a plot in which Operation Valkyrie -- Hitler's plan to use the reserve army to quell a potential civilian uprising -- would be used to frame the SS and the Nazi party for a coup d'etat after the planned assassination of Hitler.

Stauffenberg quickly gains Hitler's confidence, but finds navigating the rest of the web of intrigue surrounding the Fuhrer's inner circle to be exceedingly difficult. As should be expected with any such plot, the eventual failure of the plot hinges on Stauffenberg's inability to control his fellow conspirators and sway the necessary individuals to his side.

As one would expect in a movie about a coup d'etat in a police state, a mood of fear hangs heavy over the entire film. As afraid as most of the characters seem of Hitler and his regime, they seem even more fearful once the coup begins. As frightening as Hitler and his cohorts were, most of the characters are even more afraid of what may replace him.

Whatever else it may be, it could be expected that a coup d'etat against Hitler and the Nazi party will not go entirely peaceably.

Yet even as Operation Valkyrie goes off without a shot, so nearly does the Nazis'$ counter-coup.

The film takes the audience from the thrilling triumph of deposing a despot to the dejection of a decisive defeat -- worse yet, a decisive defeat when the stakes are the highest, when the conspirators are fighting to redeem their entire country.

On the journey, the film even makes a brief stopover with bureaucrats deciding which orders to relay -- those coming from Stauffenberg in Berlin or from Hitler at his private residence -- and with a reserve commander trying to figure out which side of the conflict is the coup and which side is legitimate.

In the end, it takes direct communication with Hitler for the commander -- a "committed National Socialist" to, sadly, support the existing regime.

Valkyrie shies away from none of the terrible consequences of the defeated coup. Stauffenberg tells General Olbricht to look his executioners in the eyes as he is shot.

He does so, as does Stauffenberg himself after him. Simply, it isn't enough for the viewer to understand that the conspirators died for their principles. The film forces the audience to witness it, and know in unequivocal terms the price these brave men paid for their courageous act.

Valkyrie serves as a powerful and important reminder of the role the German resistance played, and the price they paid for it.

Sadly -- and perhaps even necessarily -- Germany still lives under the shadow of Hitler and the horrors perpetrated under his regime. The preoccupation with preventing a repeat of the events of the second world war -- especially the holocaust -- continues to permeate German politics to its very core.

Movies such as Valkyrie should serve as a reminder to the German people of the oppressive environment that Hitler created in the German state and used to perpetrate his historical acts. Even if the holocaust should never be forgotten, the war should one day be forgiven.

Most importantly, however, the German people have to someday forgive themselves.

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