Anyone who has seen Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008)—the tale of the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler—will have been struck by the contrast between the conspirators and those against whom they are conspiring. There is would-be assassin Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a paragon of medieval chivalry, played by Tom Cruise; Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), principled, courageous, and suave; General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), sensitive and polite; and General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), courteous and dignified. Ranged against them is a pip-squeak colonel, a Cockney-accented Field Marshal Keitel, and a Dr. Goebbels who looks like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The point the film is making is not simply that the conspirators are the “goodies” and the Nazis the “baddies” but that the plotters were patricians and the Nazis plebs.
As far as this celebrated instance goes, there is little to quarrel with. Many of the most significant of the July plotters were members of the old German nobility. But it would be a major error to extrapolate this fact and assume that the German aristocracy was intrinsically opposed to National Socialism. On the contrary, as Stephan Malinowski, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on the subject, shows in his meticulously researched book, the majority of the German nobility were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler’s regime and played a key role in its establishment.