Of the many successes the German Wehrmacht had during World War II there were just as many spectacular failures, but none more significant than the failure of the Nazi military to clean its own house of the real problem: Adolf Hitler.
During Hitler’s reign as Germany’s warlord, several attempts to assassinate him were executed, but none as dramatic as the one on July 20, 1944. Hitler’s death would be the beginning of a well orchestrated coup d’etat designed by rogue elements of the Nazi high command who hoped to end the war and save what was left of Germany. The coup would begin by killing Hitler with a bomb, and the man who would attempt the daring feat was an unlikely candidate: Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a highly-decorated German war hero.
The Black Orchestra
German-born conspiracies to overthrow Hitler began in the 1930s. Admiral Canarais, the head of Germany’s military intelligence, Abwehr, recognized the danger of Hitler as early as 1934. Canaris became one of the earliest and most influential anti-Nazi conspirators. Though the anti-Hitler conspirators never attached a moniker to their cause, the Gestapo eventually called them the Schwarze Kapelle (Black Orchestra).
As time went by the conspirators realized only the German Army’s high command would have the power to stop Hitler. There were many men available. Chief players were General Ludwig Beck, Chief of the Army’s General Staff; Major General Tresckow, a member of Army Group North; Major Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a lawyer who became a confident of Tresckow. There were also influential men in civilian life like Ulrich von Hassell, the German ambassador to Rome; Johannes Propitz, Prussian Minister of Finance; and the ex-mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeler, who at one time was the prime choice for Hitler’s replacement.
Through the 1930s these men worked diligently to end Hitler’s criminal grip on Germany. When war erupted the conspirators became more determined to undermine Hitler’s Third Reich, but it became clear that the only way the Nazi hold on Germany and most of Europe could end would be through the death of Hitler.
Count Claus von Stauffenberg was born in 1907 to a distinguished South German family; his great grandfather was a military hero in German’s liberation from Napoleon. Stauffenberg was assigned to the Russian front where he witnessed the brutality of the Schutzstaffel (SS). He saw the execution of Bolshevik commissars per Hitler’s orders, and the barbaric slaughter of Jews, Russians, and POWs behind the lines as well as the Nazis’ disaster at Stalingrad. Stauffenberg slowly realized he was serving a madman who must be stopped. While in Russia he met Tresckow and Schlabrendorff who gradually persuaded Stauffenberg to join the growing movement to oust Hitler’s regime.
On April 7, 1943 Stauffenberg was a passenger in a car that drove over a mine and subsequently attacked by Allied aircraft. He lost his left eye, right hand, and suffered numerous other injuries. While he convalesced in the hospital, he set his resolve to stop Hitler, telling his wife, “I feel I must do something now to save Germany. We General Staff officers must all accept out share of the responsibility.” He returned to Berlin in September 1943 ready for active duty as a Lt. Colonel and a chief of Staff of General Olbricht at the General Army Office. Olbricht was an active conspirator and introduced Stauffenberg to others who were part of the conspiracy to kill Hitler, Himmler, and Goering under the codename Valkyrie. Stauffenberg was quickly promoted to a full colonel, which gave him access to high level meetings attended by Hitler and his staff. He worked close with many Generals who worked as conspirators: Stieff, head of the Organization Branch of OKH; Wagner, First Quartermaster General of the Army; Has, chief of the Berlin Kommandantur who could furnish troops for taking over Berlin; Rommel, who wished Hitler to be put on trial instead of assassinated, which might martyr his name.
The Plot Realized
Claus von Stauffenberg had been prepared to kill Hitler at two earlier meetings, one on July 11 at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden, and at Rastenburg on July 13. The colonel was unable to complete the task; Himmler and Goering did not attend these meetings and the co-conspirators insisted that the bomb kill them as well. Each time Stauffenberg traveled to these high-level meetings, he carried a British-made bomb, wrapped in shirts within a briefcase. The bomb was made for the French Resistance by British intelligence and confiscated in Paris by the Gestapo. On July 20 a meeting would be held at the Fuhrerhauptquartier in East Prussia, Rastenburg, a heavily-wooded compound of fortified buildings. Besides the absence of Goebbels, who was in Berlin, the meeting would be attended by the highest Nazi officials: Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Ribbentrop, Heusinger, Jodl, and Keitel.
At nine o’clock in the morning Stauffenberg and his aid Lt. Colonel von Haeften flew from Berlin to Rastenburg, a three hour trip in a Ju-52 trimotor transport plane loaned to Stauffenberg by one of the conspirators. Both men carried bombs in their briefcases. Though security was very thorough, neither man’s cases were searched during the 10 mile motor trip into the Wolf’s Lair. The coup wouldn’t succeed without the inside help of General Erich Fellgiebell and his aid Arntz, who were responsible for cutting all communication to and from the Fuhrerhauptquartier as soon as the bomb was detonated.
Mussolini would arrive at Rastenburg at 2:30 that afternoon. The Fuhrer wanted to conduct the meeting before he met Mussolini, so the 1:00 p.m. time was moved to 12:30 p.m. Keitel met with Stauffenberg before the meeting and insisted Stauffenberg brief him on his report. On their way to the map room, where the meeting was to be held, Stauffenberg claimed he had forgotten his cap and belt and told Keitel that he must retrieve them from the room where they had just met.
The Plot Executed
Stauffenberg returned to the room and quickly opened his briefcase, handled a pair of tongs with the only three fingers he had, and broke an acid capsule. The acid would eat through the wires and detonate the bomb in ten minutes.
Hitler’s daily military conferences at Rastenburg were held in an underground bunker. It was here that Stauffenberg had hoped the meeting would take place; the underground placement of the bunker would increase the intensity of the explosion. However, repairs were being made to the bunker and the meeting was moved above ground to a heavily fortified conference room, 15×30 feet in the guest barracks. But to the consternation of Stauffenberg, the bunker had windows which would dissipate the power of the explosion, and due to the summer heat they were open.
When Stauffenberg hurried into the conference room, Hitler and eighteen officers, two stenographers, and three assistants surrounded a long, oak table full of maps. Himmler and Goering were not in the room. General Heusinger, Chief of Operations and Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, was in the middle of a melancholy report on the Russian front. Stauffenberg took a seat between General Korten and Colonel Brandt a few feet from Hitler. He placed the briefcase under the table, leaning it against the inside of a sturdy oak support, just six feet from Hitler’s legs. A few seconds later Colonel Brandt found the briefcase under his feet, so he moved it behind the heavy oak support, an act which might have saved Hitler’s life. Ironically, Brandt had handled another bomb intended for Hitler. In March of 1944, Tresckow and Schlabrendorff had constructed a bomb that looked like a bottle of brandy. Brandt was given the bomb who unknowingly took it onto Hitler’s plane. The bomb was designed to explode while the plane was in mid-air, but the detonation device failed and Hitler’s reign of terror continued.
As Hitler and his staff closely studied the maps, Stauffenberg left the room but before he did he whispered to Brandt, “I must go and telephone. Keep an eye on my briefcase, it has secret papers in it.” As Heusinger concluded his report the bomb exploded at 12:42 p.m.
The explosion was so powerful that several officers were thrown through the open windows. Stauffenberg and General Fellgiebel saw the explosion, and it appeared that no one could have survived the ferocity of the blast. Confident that Hitler was dead and the coup could begin, Stauffenberg left for his plane assured that Fellgiebel would cut communications.
Stauffenberg’s next job was to get to his plane and return to Berlin to help conduct the new German government. The gates were immediately closed around the compound but Stauffenberg was able to bluff his way through the first two of three guarded gates. By the time he reached the third gate, a full alarm had been set off in the compound. Stauffenberg told the gate’s sergeant that he was needed in Berlin urgently and could not miss his plane. But the sergeant wanted clearance from Captain Moellendorff, the adjutant camp commander, before he would let Stauffenberg pass. The sergeant called Moellendorff and to Stauffenberg’s surprise allowed him exit from the compound.
The bomb shattered the huge table and injured almost everyone in the room. One of two stenographers, Berger, was killed instantly and Generals Korten and Schmudt, and Colonel Brandt eventually died of their injuries. Hitler suffered only minor injuries, which included burns to his head when his hair caught on fire. Hitler believed a bomb had been dropped by a British Mosquito, which had a reputation for eluding radar due to its unique wooden construction. Jodl suspected a bomb planted by construction workers. When Himmler arrived he immediately suspected Stauffenberg and departed to Berlin to begin his investigation.
The Disastrous Aftermath
When Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin the coup had barely begun to show any life. Fellgiebel was able to cut communication at the Wolf’s Lair and confuse matters, but no one was totally convinced in Berlin that Hitler was dead. The leaders of Valkyrie, Generals Olbricht, Beck, and Fromm, were never sure whether they should continue with the plot. Their indecision ended up in their arrest. The Fuhrer was alive, and upon hearing the fact Tresckow committed suicide at the Russian front. Schlabrendorff was put on trial and executed. In the following days, weeks, and months execution came to Stauffenberg, Olbricht, Fromm, Canaris, and 5,000 others who were involved or unfortunate enough to know someone who was involved. Though Hitler was never able to prove that his star General Rommel was involved with the conspirators, two months later Rommel was forced to commit suicide.
Propaganda Minister Goebbels called the plot a childish “telephone putsch.” The New York Herald Tribune claimed, “Let the generals kill the corporals or vice-versa; both would suit us.” The war dragged on, not to be ended until Hitler’s suicide nine months later. Those nine months of additional horror ended millions of lives.
The summer of 2008 will see the release of the movie Valkyrie, the story of the plot to kill Hitler by the Black Orchestra. Tom Cruise will play Stauffenberg.
Baigent, Michael and Leigh, Richard. Secret Germany, Stauffenberg and the Mystical Crusade Against Hitler, Penguin, London, 1994.
Brown, Anthony Cave. Bodyguard of Lies, Harper Row, New York, 1975.
Bullock, Allan. Hitler, A Study in Tyranny, Harper Row, New York, 1962.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris, Norton, New York, 1998.
Kramerz, Joachim. Stauffenberg, MacMillan, New York, 1967.