JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT following the events of July 20, 1944, Adolf Hitler's hoarse voice broke through on German radio to announce "a crime unparalleled in German history." An attempt had been made upon his life. A bomb had exploded in his war room, which had left him bruised and burned but "entirely unhurt," and a treasonous plot was under way to usurp authority. Hitler tried to conceal the extent of the plot, describing it as merely "a very small clique of ambitious, irresponsible and, at the same time, senseless and stupid officers . . . a gang of criminal elements which will be destroyed without mercy." But, in fact, thousands of estimbale Germans were involved in the failed coup. It was to be the only serious revolt ever marshaled against Hitler in the 11 1/2 years of the Third Reich.
Paul West's novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg , is a fictionalized insider's account of the German resistance to Hitler from 1933 to 1945, focusing with particular sympathy and detail upon the character, temperament and motivation of Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg, who assumed leadership of the abortive July 20, 1944 effort. Stauffenberg was a fundamentally good and noble man, in West's view, driven by circumstances to a desperate, last-ditch effort to save his people from what he regarded would be the judgment of history: universal condemnation and infamy.
The novel follows the transformation of Stauffenberg's allegiance from nominal support of Hitler in the early days of the Reich, to ambivalence and doubt (as he learned more), to active dislike, to loathing and hatred of everything Hitler stood for and was doing to his country, to mobilization, "after which there was the whole business of an ethics that transcended ethics, culminating in a deed of homicidal saintliness, not an end in itself, but the prelude to a just polity, a decent polity, a new Germany."
As a young man, Stauffenberg was clearly prepared by his ancestry and sumptuous education for some important role, if not quite adequately for the brutal tasks his life required of him, though he did come very close to succeeding. He came from an old, congenial and distinguished South German family, born to "a responsibility to care for others," the descendant of generals and military heroes of the war of liberation againt Napoleon. He grew into a cultured, balanced, energetic man whose idealism was nourished by his friendship with poets, a man who might have become the leader Germany needed, West implies, had he had the chance; and his life poses a persuasive counterargument to the example of Nazi Germany as proof of the failure of the once-assumed values of culture and the civilizing and humane influence of a liberal education. "I wanted a Germany," Stauffenberg says in the novel, "led by men from all classes of society, men committed to selfless high-mindedness."
West shows how difficult it must have been to strike out against an enfranchised authority, especially at a time of siege when the instincts of the majority of the duped populace were tuned to defending the barricades, when one was surrounded by Hitler's fanatical loyalists and henchman, and when the foe was a maniac of such overweening dominance, decisiveness and apparent strength, who had succeeded in identifying himself as synonymous with the fatherland. The novel helps us imagine and therefore comprehend how so many reasonable and civilized German citizens could have been swept along into seeming collaboration with such as oppressive, tyrannical force.
Stauffenberg's story shows further that an idealist with convictions and an ability to act on his beliefs can change the world. Stauffenberg's main failing was apparently a lack of luck: his briefcase containing the all-important bomb was inadvertently moved after he had left the war room, thus saving Hitler. Communications snafus and the lack of commitment of some of his co-conspirators also contributed to the failure.
Most of them paid dearly, for Hitler carried out his threatened revenge with grotesque thoroughness, convening a kangaroo court for the purpose of humiliating the conspirators publicly, then having them tortured and hanged, while selected executions were committed to film for viewing by the Fuehrer and members of the military elite. Hitler vowed to exterminate even the wives, children and near relatives of the accused. Before the purge was over, the Gestapo had made 700 arrests and the death roll numbered nearly 5000 names. The only stroke of luck for poor Stauffenberg -- then only 36 years old -- seemed to be that he was summarily dispatched by firing squad under the auspices of a fence-straddling officer, later executed himself, who hoped to cover his own complicity in the affair.
West occasionally seems overwhelmed by his material, or too concerned with sheer weightiness or the turgid accumulation of names and facts. There is little attention to conventional plotting and suspense, to the aspects that could have made the novel "a thriller." But a rich, textured style and metaphorical inventiveness are the dividends of this same essential conception of the task -- West's struggle to articulate the enormity and complexity of his vision. West obviously does not conceive of the work as a mere entertainment but as a serious and deep meditation on the life of a unique and altruistic man who, but for quirks of fate, might have changed the world for the better. It is not an historical novel, that is, not merely an historical novel, though quite convincing in its attention to historical accuracy, but prose with a conscience, work that might most aptly be identified by the current catch phrase "moral fiction."
West uncovers and explores one of the great, unheralded acts of heroism of World War II (and its attendant failings and atrocities). Speaking for dead men in an impressive feat of ventriloquism, his novel attempts to find what message these wasted lives might have for us now.