The Stauffenberg conspiracy against Adolf Hitler can help us reflect on how regime change can happen when an autocrat is in charge. Historian Thomas Weber writes that resistance to figures like Putin — not assassination plots — must come specifically from those loyal to the regime.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to believe that the actions of Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators offer no positive lessons for the 21st century. But 78 years after the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, on July 20, 1944, this view is no longer tenable – if it ever was.
With Russian bombs falling down on Ukraine, Stauffenberg's spirit – and not his concrete actions – offers a lead into how Ukraine can be free again and how Russia can be welcomed back into the family of nations.
At a time when many Germans and other Western Europeans were under the illusion that they were living in a post-heroic age, the deeds of young patriotic officers like Stauffenberg became incomprehensible.
Admiration was increasingly directed to figures like Sophie and Hans Scholl, the Munich students who courageously wrote and circulated anti-Nazi pamphlets and paid the ultimate price for their deeds.
Stauffenberg and his friends, on the other hand, have been wrongly characterized as rats who abandoned the sinking ship: anti-Semitic and militaristic nationalists and Nazis who turned against Hitler only after the war was lost.
Never too late to do the right thing
In reality, both the Scholls and Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators are role models for the 21st century, albeit in different contexts.
The actions of Sophie and Hans Scholl inspire civil disobedience, the need to create social movements against the regime and to stand up — and not stand by — vis-a-vis tyranny and injustice. These are important lessons, though they are unlikely to bring about regime change.
Nor are similar actions of civil disobedience alone likely to end the war of aggression against Ukraine.
Precisely because Stauffenberg had put himself in the service of Hitler and his regime for years, the July 20 plot offers an inspiration for how both Ukraine and Russia can return to peace, dignity and freedom.
Stauffenberg is an example of how regime loyalists in Russia might listen to their conscience
Some of Stauffenberg's co-conspirators were former supporters of Nazism. They were loyal to the regime, either out of conviction or through compromise, and that is why the legacy of their actions is so timely today.
It takes pro-regime figures to turn against Putin and take action if we are to avoid a long and brutal war of attrition and years of misery, poverty and death.
That is why Stauffenberg is an example of how regime loyalists in Russia — and in all states that turn to tyranny — might listen to their conscience and initiate regime change. The message of the July 20 plot for regime loyalty in Russia is that you should follow your moral convictions and that it is never too late to do the right thing.
The aftermath of the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler in July 1944
Don't make Putin a martyr
To be clear, the lesson of July 20, 1944 for July 20, 2022 is not to assassinate Vladimir Putin. This would likely give Putin martyr status, making it more difficult to end the war in Ukraine and restore Russia to a respected member of the family of nations.
The lesson is to do everything possible to undermine the respective function of those loyal to the regime. For some, it will mean saying "nyet" to Putin and their own superiors when they receive immoral orders.
For others, it will be taking proactive decisions and actions aimed at undermining the Russian war effort and the Russian government structure wherever possible.
And it's about spreading the message that at certain times, defying orders is a moral and patriotic duty, and that the time has come.
The problem we still face, however, is that we know little about the mechanisms of turning regime loyalists against tyrants and how to inspire regime loyalists to do so. Therefore, beyond the war in Ukraine, we need to rediscover the 20th of July conspirators and their ethical considerations.
In doing so, we must ask ourselves, even more wisely than has often been the case in the past, why they turned against Hitler. We need neither hagiographies about them nor incitement against them. We need to understand their mindset and take seriously the ideas and beliefs that inspired their actions.
*Thomas Weber teaches history at the University of Aberdeen.
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