Heroes, Traitors, and History

Today is July 21--the 68th anniversary of the execution of Claus von Stauffenberg, a key player in the plot against Hitler's life that was dramatized in the movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise. I watched the movie last night on Amazon on demand--it's very good. And Tom Cruise and von Stauffenberg look eerily alike. It was, according to Wikepedia, the last plot to kill Hitler.I was thinking about the contingencies of history. If von Stauffenberg had succeeded, he would have been a hero. Having failed, he was viewed as a traitor to the regime he intended to betray. The Allies having won, he is a hero again.It is a truism to say that history is written by the victors. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson are the fathers of our country--heroes--because the Patriots won the war. (I have a friend who makes a surprisingly good argument that the Revolutionary War didn't meet the criteria of the just war theory. He's English, but it is still a surprisingly good argument.)Stauffenberg and the Patriots both invoked some version of a natural law argument to justify their actions. But so, I believe, did some of the Confederacy in rebelling against the Union. It's not the structure of the argument that makes it right. It's the substance.History went the right way in the case of Nazis, and the Civil War, and (I still think) the Revolutionary War. But how many examples of when it went the wrong way do we learn about? And unless you believe history will always go the right way, sometimes the substance won't be widely known until Judgment Day.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads