Vox Nova at the Movies: Valkyrie

Vox Nova at the Movies: Valkyrie January 14, 2009


Valkyrie tells the story of the 20 July plot to kill Hitler carried out by German officers in the summer of 1944. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the central figure in both the organization and execution of the plot.

I thought the film was executed well. It manages to maintain suspense despite the fact that for most of the movie not that much is actually happening, and while I can’t call the film especially insightful or moving, the compelling nature of the subject matter does a lot to carry the film forward.

Watching the film did raise two issues , neither of which (for understandable reasons) were explored in the film, but which may warrant further reflection.

The first has to do with the nature of oaths. After Hitler came to power in 1933, he required all German officers to swear an oath of loyalty to him personally. In many cases, it appears that one of the things holding a given officer back from joining one of the many anti-Hitler plots was the knowledge that this would require violating their oath. The oath is alluded to several times in the film, but the moral issues involved are never really explored, presumably because having characters agonize over whether it was right to kill Hitler would not have worked dramatically. Still, the matter does raise some interesting questions. St. Thomas More, for example, was canonized largely based on his firm position on the moral sacredness of oath taking, and while I have little doubt that one can reconcile treating both More and Stauffenberg as heroes, exactly how one goes about doing so could have profound moral implications.

The other issue has to do with speculation on what would have happened had the coup gone off successfully (I trust I won’t be spoiling the ending for anyone if I reveal that the plot is unsuccessful). After seeing the movie, a friend opined that perhaps it was a good thing the 20 July plotters were not able to kill Hitler. His reasoning was that if the plotters had succeed and ended the war just after the Normandy invasion, this would have left them vulnerable to the charge that Germany had once again been “stabbed in the back” and the whole cycle would have repeated itself again.

Maybe. I’m inclined to think, though, that a phenomenon like Hitler was not likely to recur again. Ending the war in 1944 would have saved Europe from a great deal of death and destruction, and would likely have prevented Eastern Europe from falling under Soviet domination for the next 40 years. Avoiding these certain evils seems worth the uncertain risk of other evils down the road.

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