Living with the legacy of Operation Valkyrie

Claus von Stauffenberg (far left) was executed for his part in the Valkyrie plot AKG Images

Her father famously tried to assassinate Hitler but it was to clear her mother’s name that Zurich-based Konstanze von Schulthess chose to write about her family.

This content was published on April 1, 2011 minutes
Mathieu van Berchem in Paris,

The portrait of her mother Nina von Stauffenberg was first published in 2008 in Germany where it was a bestseller for six months. A French version – Nina Schenk von Stauffenberg, un portrait - has now been released.

Von Schulthess never knew her father. Claus von Stauffenberg’s dramatic attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944 under Operation Valkyrie has been well documented. He was executed for his actions, dying six months before his daughter was born.

While her father was feted, there has been a negative portrayal of her mother over the years, and so von Schulthess decided to pen her own version.

A 2004 film directed by Jo Baier and broadcast on German television depicted Nina von Stauffenberg as a rather "moody and indifferent" wife, her daughter says. In the film, she is a coquettish woman unaware of her husband's plans and who, the day before the July 20 attack, reproaches him for wanting to play the hero.

"That’s false," says von Schulthess, who took on Swiss nationality after her marriage.

“My mother was fully aware of the involvement of her husband Claus von Stauffenberg in the resistance to Hitler. She shared his commitment. The only thing she didn’t know was that her husband would be carrying out the attack himself."

Fatal repercussions

When her husband was executed, Nina was placed in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, but was moved to a Nazi maternity centre before the birth of her daughter on January 27, 1945.

In the aftermath of the failed coup, the plotters behind it were quickly hunted down. All those who participated, directly or indirectly, in the event were killed.

"Every last member of von Stauffenberg’s family will be destroyed," warned leading Nazi party member Heinrich Himmler on August 3, 1944. Claus’ elder brother, Berthold, was hanged, as well as his uncle, Nikolaus von Üxküll-Gyllenband.

No one was spared. Claus and Nina’s four children were placed in an orphanage in the German town of Bad Sachsa under a false surname. Nina's own mother was deported to Ravensbrück and died in detention.

After the birth of Konstanze, Nina was moved to an Italian province where she was held hostage in return for the exchange of Nazi property. After the war she was finally reunited with her family and returned to the von Stauffenberg castle in the southern German district of Lautlingen.

Lasting friendships

After the war, Swiss families offered to host holidays for children of those involved in Operation Valkyrie and during the summer of 1947, around 40 children of German officers came to Switzerland. Among them, the children of Caesar von Hofacker, von Stauffenberg’s cousin, and those of Lieutenant Werner von Haeften Karl and General Henning von Tresckow.

A Zurich family, the Hirzels, was among the Swiss hosts and took in one of the von Stauffenberg children.

“My mother readily agreed that my brother Franz Ludwig, who was then in poor health, could spend the summer in Switzerland," recalls von Schulthess.

A long-lasting friendship was born. It was also while living with the Hirzels that Konstanze would complete her schooling and meet her Swiss husband. She has lived in Switzerland for the past 46 years, dividing her time between Zurich and Silvaplana in the Engadine.

How does she view her father now? "An officer who was passionate about his work. But also a man who was deeply shocked by the violence of the Hitler regime."

Biographers of von Stauffenberg have recognised his extraordinary courage but talk about his very conservative views and his late "conversion" to the fight against Nazism.

"It’s true that in 1933, my father was rather in favour of Hitler coming to power. The Weimar Republic was faltering and the Versailles treaty was weighing down the country. And also, remember that my father was very young at the time!”

“But after Kristallnacht in 1938 [during which there were a series of attacks against Jews] and the violent persecution of the Jews, he became more and more critical of the regime."

Rejection of anti-Semitism

The historian Ian Kershaw says as much in his book on Operation Valkyrie: "Like many young officers, von Stauffenberg was first attracted to certain aspects of Nazism, notably the value of a powerful armed forces... However, he rejected its racial anti-Semitism and was increasingly critical of Hitler and his warmongering."

He notes that it was late when he was persuaded to join the resistance.

But his daughter elaborates that “he did not wait until everything was planned to join the other plotters”. “Besides, he was very close to his uncle von Üxküll and his brother Berthold,  who had been involved in the resistance for a long time.”

Critics also point to von Stauffenberg's somewhat anti-democratic views.

But as another major historian of Nazism, Karl Dietrich Bracher, wrote in “La dictature allemande”, von Stauffenberg was unhappy with the limited nature of the conservative revolt and “soon began to seek out connections to the most active leftwing opposition, especially [resistance politician] Julius Leber.”

“As of 1942, he became convinced that the policies so carefully crafted by many opposition groups would have to yield to the overriding objective - to overthrow Hitler."


1907 Birth of Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg in Jettingen-Scheppach, Swabia, into one of the oldest Catholic families of southern Germany.

1926 Stauffenberg joins the Reichswehr military organisation.

1933 Stauffenberg welcomes the arrival of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of the Reich. Marries Nina von Lerchenfeld with whom he has five children.

1940 He participates, as an officer, in the Battle of France. On May 31, he receives the Prussian military decoration, the Iron Cross.

1943 Von Stauffenberg is transferred to the Tenth Armoured Division, which covers the retreat of the army of Marshal Erwin Rommel against the Allies who have landed in North Africa. During a reconnaissance mission, his vehicle is hit by an Allied fighter-bomber. He’s severely wounded, losing his left eye and his right hand.

1944 Together with General Olbricht, Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim and General von Tresckow, von Stauffenberg works on plans for Operation Valkyrie. As a cover, a strategy is drawn up for suppressing possible internal revolts. Von Tresckow and von Stauffenberg then modify the orders, turning Operation Valkyrie into the plan for a coup.

20 July, 1944 Failed assassination attempt on Hitler in the "den of wolves", the Führer's headquarters in East Prussia.

Von Stauffenberg is shot on the night of July 21 in Berlin.

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