There was a time when they were simply a beautiful young couple in love. Nina and Claus von Stauffenberg were favored by fortune. They were aristocrats. They were patriots, dedicated to the nation from whom they sprung.
Through twists of fate they could never have imagined, Claus von Stauffenberg would become a historic figure. If anyone merits characterization as a “hero,” even in our post-heroic age, it’s he. No less a personage than Winston Churchill rendered the verdict that none could overturn: Stauffenberg was the “bravest of the best.”
It takes nothing away from Stauffenberg’s example to note that he was not alone in his heroism. In the run-up and follow-up to his crowded hour, Stauffenberg’s journey was undertaken with his family. Those who would learn from his example may benefit from the larger picture.
Thursday, July 20, 1944
Stauffenberg’s name is garlanded in virtue for his leadership and courage in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
As recounted in a popular motion picture, Valkyrie, Hitler’s personal confidence in Stauffenberg earned him rare access to the Führer’s inner circle. On Thursday, July 20, the young colonel attended a high-level military strategy conference at Hitler’s Eastern Front headquarters. Wending his way through the strict security protecting the most sought-after official in a world at war, Stauffenberg planted a bomb in a briefcase mere feet from the warlord.
As intended, the ensuing blast was powerful. Four would die; others would be seriously injured. An oblivious colleague had moved the briefcase to the outer side of a table partition, redirecting the concussive force. Incredibly, Hitler was injured but not severely.
Hitler’s Ravenous Revenge
Hitler eluded numerous attempts on his life, over many years. This one was particularly troubling, from his point of view. It had come very close to succeeding. The conspirators had effectively penetrated his inner sanctum. With the impending destruction of the Third Reich universally recognized, the Führer’s judgment was more and more open to question. It was immediately clear that his assassination was intended to be the first step in an elaborately planned coup.
With savage, blood-thirsty intensity, Hitler declared:
I will crush and destroy the criminals who have dared to oppose themselves to Providence and to me. These traitors to their own people deserve ignominious death, and this is what they shall have. This time the full price will be paid by all those who are involved, and by their families, and by all those who have helped them. This nest of vipers who have tried to sabotage the grandeur of my Germany will be exterminated once and for all.
Hitler delivered on his vow. Nearly five thousand people were executed. Approximately seven thousand were arrested.
Psychopaths in robes and uniforms were loosed, with legal license, upon the citizens of a nation facing imminent destruction from foreign forces advancing simultaneously, inexorably from East and West.
Hostages to Fortune
Claus von Stauffenberg was executed summarily on the evening of July 20, 1944. He was among a group of officers who faced immediate death on the orders of superiors who were eradicating evidence of their own culpability in the plot.
Now, it was Stauffenberg’s family who would suffer. The Nazi regime had officially exhumed an ancient legal doctrine, Sippenhaft, holding families liable for the criminal acts of any of their members. The practical effect was to chill prospective resistance throughout the Nazi empire.
Nina von Stauffenberg, having lost her husband, would soon be arrested and questioned by the Gestapo, then transported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. That winter, in confinement, she gave birth to her last child, sired by Claus.
The children of Nina and Claus Stauffenberg were slated for Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp. They were spared only by the arrival of American forces.
Claus’s brother and fellow conspirator, Berthold, met a horrific fate. He was arrested on the evening of July 20. He faced the full fury of the Gestapo, acting on Hitler’s personal directive. He was tried in the “people’s court” of the notorious Roland Freisler, a hysteric, hyena-like sadist reputed to be Hitler’s favorite judge. He was sentenced to death. Berthold Stauffenberg was repeatedly hanged and revived, in inconceivable agony. The grotesque spectacle was filmed for Hitler’s private viewing.
Leaders and Their Families
Four centuries ago, Sir Francis Bacon spoke of the challenge of reconciling leadership with family obligations:
He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.
Nelson Mandela poignantly posed the question in our time:
I have often wondered whether a person is justified in neglecting his own family to fight for opportunities for others.
What About You?
What do you think?
In what circumstances do you comprehend service to outsiders—to the world, the nation, the community; to customers and employees and other stakeholders—as necessarily at variance with your service to your family?
How do you negotiate those tensions?
Who do you see, in your personal observation or through study, that has successfully served their family and the wider world? What did you learn?
Stauffenberg Family | Hostages to Fortune