Erich Fellgiebel, his role in “Valkyrie”, and how it was misrepresented in the movie

The Hollywood movie “Valkyrie”, featuring Tom Cruise as Col. von Stauffenberg, is a pretty good dramatization of the abortive July 20, 1944 plot. The movie scores high marks for historical accuracy by Hollywood standards — but that would ordinarily be damning with very faint praise. It is not an easy tale to compress into a 2-hour movie without at least some dramatic license: the latter included having some composite characters, such as Henning von Tresckow (played by Kenneth Branagh) carrying out some actions that in real life were those of his adjutant Fabian von Schlabrendorff (one of the few survivors). The single weakest point about the movie was the portrayal of Gen. Erich Fellgiebel, the head of the Signals Corps, as a weak, hesitant drunkard who had to be strong-armed by Stauffenberg into going along with the plot. (It appears the script made a composite of Fellgiebel, Helmut Stieff, and some others.)

I just got hold of a German-language volume entitled “Stauffenberg’s Gefährten: Das Schicksal der unbekannten Verschwörer” (S.’s companions: the fate of the unknown conspirators), edited by the former deputy chair of the Bundestag, Antje Vollmer, and the chief archivist of the Springer publishing house, Lars-Broder Keil. It consists of ten short biographies of co-conspirators: the one about Fellgiebel [a secondary character in my alternate history series “Operation Flash”] was written by Keil himself. Let me give you my summary in English: you will see this man was very unlike his cartoonish portrayal by Eddie Izzard.

General Erich Fellgiebel (Picture credit: Memorial for the German Resistance, public domain)

Youth and career

Erich Fellgiebel (EF) was born Oct. 4, 1886 as oldest of four children of landowner Albert Fellgiebel, on the Buchenhagen estate near Posen [presently Poznan, Poland]. The children loved the outdoors and the flat, wide open spaces. Fellgiebel was a quick and precocious learner. That and his introvert demeanor got him the nickname “Herr Professor”. Only later his character evolved to be more extrovert.

EF became a Prussian Army cadet in 1905. With his technical interests, he was attracted to telegraphy and thus quickly gravitated in the emerging Signals direction, but horseback riding also became a lifelong passion.

Seeing the total failure of communications during WW I, EF devoted himself in the Weimar-era Reichswehr to intensive development in this regard. He worked more like a modern industrial manager than like a traditional officer: teamwork, a knack for picking good people, delegating day-to-day business to trusted subordinates to focus on unsolved problems, without losing sight of the whole. He was one of the first people in Germany to own a[n experimental] TV set. Open, convivial, charismatic, he loved entertaining people: his weaknesses were impulsivity, impatience, and a degree of adrenalin addiction.

His first marriage failed 1919, shortly after his first son Walther-Peer Fellgiebel was born: the latter would be raised largely by foster parents, become a highly decorated front officer in WW II and after the war had a dual career as an industrial manager and the chair of the Association of Knight’s Cross Awardees (Ordensgemeinschaft der Ritterkreuzträger). 1920 EF remarried to his cousin Cläre, an intellectual, studious woman who became fluent in French and English. Two more children from that marriage, daughter Susanne and son Gert, who idolized their father.

EF’s nickname, as the Wehrmacht’s most senior communications officer, was “Strippenpapst” ([paper] strips pope). He introduced many innovations: long-distance field cables, UHF transmissions, radios in every tank,… aside from [Keil does not discuss this] making the Enigma system the primary means of encrypted radio communications.

Disgust with National Socialism and recruitment into the conspiracy


Like his superior officers, Army Chief of Staff Col.-Gen.[*] Ludwig Beck [forced into retirement 1938], and the latter’s successor Col.-Gen. Franz Halder, EF held the opinion Germany should not conduct a war of aggression. Through them EF makes contact with the military resistance, but flinches from overt insubordination until 1942. He changed his mind after seeing how Hitler [y”sh] degrades seasoned general staff officers to flunkies and gives ever more nonsensical directives. EF begins to openly make critical, even derogatory statements, even in the presence of junior officers fed on NS propaganda. On one occasion somebody chided him, “General, if somebody were to hear this.” EF answered, “Well, one has to risk one’s neck sometimes.”

Himmler tells one of his aides: “This Fellgiebel is a peculiar man. He is actually a pacifist.” Aide: “He never hid his opinion about war.” “Well, then he shouldn’t have become a general.”

Yet EF is tolerated, since he seems indispensable. But Hitler no longer tolerates his presence. One Lt.-Col. Ludolf Sander becomes EF’s liaison officer at the Wolf’s Lair/Wolfsschanze, while Fellgiebel sits at the Army HQ in Mauerwald, 20 km away by trolley. But he still has the run of the place, and comes over regularly.

At the wedding of Walther-Peer in March 1944 he even says: “From this happy officer’s couple you will go in a year to a family of acre coachmen — if you’re lucky.” No later than February 1943, he was himself recruiting resistants together with his chief of staff, Col. Kurt Hahn, and his own deputy Lt.-Gen. Fritz Thiele. His team gets people in place in five branches of Armed Forces Signals (Heeresnachrichtenwesen, HNW).

Fellgiebel was involved in planning troop movements for the coup, together with Stauffenberg and Olbricht, and has direct contact with some others, under cover of a shared passion for horseback riding.

Why he didn’t blow up the switchboard

The claim that the July 20 coup failed “because Fellgiebel didn’t blow up the switchboard at the Wolf’s Lair as he was supposed to” was first made in a February 1945 OSS report to FDR, presumably written by the OSS Chief of Station for Europe, future CIA director Allen Dulles. The latter’s primary source of information was his friend and asset Hans-Bernd Gisevius,

Blowing up the switchboard at Rastenburg would have been pointless because of all the backups and redundancies in the system. Better to block all transmissions from the NS and let all communications from the conspirators through.

Fellgiebel, after he sees H. stumbling about alive, places a creatively-ambiguous phone call out “Something terrible has happened! The Führer is alive!” (Etwas furchtbares ist passiert. Der Führer lebt!) — in order to give the conspirators a heads-up that their target is still alive. When no ‘stand down’ response follows, he tells his own underlings in the conspiracy to proceed as planned.

His deputy Thiele shows nerves though, as he knows Fromm won’t cooperate now.

Arrest, trial, and death

Fellgiebel is arrested on the 21st. His aide-de-camp Arntz offers him his pistol, but he declines [to commit suicide[: “One stands up, one does not do such a thing”. This Arntz was actually a linguist, and had been thoroughly NSDAP until he had a falling out over disagreement with the “official” rune-ology (that facetiously tried to ‘prove’ that writing was invented by the ancient Germans). Postwar, Arntz became the main source about the Fellgiebel group.

Fellgiebel and Hahn claimed to the Gestapo that they had not made any major planning — because if they revealed such, their co-conspirators would be sought and found. Perversely, the Gestapo transcripts of these interrogations were later cited by Dulles

His relatives were arrested and placed in Sippenhaft (kin imprisonment): wife and son for 2.5 months, after which Gerd (who apparently was the only one other than EF himself who knew something about the coup) was sent to a penal unit and did not survive the war. Even the half-estranged son Walther-Peer, was kept in solitary confinement in the cell next to his father. He heard him walk around — since a severe car accident in 1928 he wore a metal brace on the lower thigh, which made the sound of his walk unmistakable. Eventually, Walther-Peer was released following intercession by his superiors.

Aftermath

Daughter Susanne married in March 1945.

After the war, Cläre needs endurance. The Gestapo took away her house and everything she owned, even clothing. But she has trouble getting compensation or a widow’s pension after the war, as EF was not recognized as a resistant. She survives on odd jobs, acting as interpreter for the British Red Cross etc. In the end, even Adenauer’s chancellery gets involved to assist her in navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth. The various procedures in Nordrhein-Westfalen and Berlin dragged out until the late 1950s.

When in September 1952 the Bundeszentrale für Heimatdienst (Federal Central Bureau for Home Service) issues a brochure “The Truth About July 20” and paints EF derogatorily there, she files a formal objection including testimony from contemporaries, and three days later is issued a formal letter of apology.

Even under severe torture, EF had not betrayed names or details. Those who survived because of that now come to the widow’s aid.

After EF was sentenced to death by the Volksgericht (People’s [Kangaroo] Court), the notorious “hanging judge” Roland Freisler paints in graphic detail how he will die. EF answers Freisler on behalf of the condemned, “Your [dis]honor, you’d better hurry up with the hanging, or you’ll be hanged before us.” (Herr Richter, beeilen Sie sich mit dem Aufhängen, sonst hängen Sie eher als wir.)

These are the words of an unbroken man, not of a coward.

[*] Generaloberst (Colonel-General, or if you like Senior General) was a Wehrmacht rank senior to General and junior to Field Marshal/Generalfeldmarschall

One thought on “Erich Fellgiebel, his role in “Valkyrie”, and how it was misrepresented in the movie

  1. Nice to see the truth come out. And no, war movies never get it right. Too much compression in too little time.

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