Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Attempts on Adolf Hitler's life were made even prior to this assassination attempt that would later be dubbed the July Plot. For instance, Operation Flash on 13 Mar 1943 had Hans von Dohnanyi set up a time bomb on Hitler's plane as he flew over Minsk; the altitude of the plane froze the fuse and the bomb failed to detonate. Another such attempt actually took place only a week after Operation Flash. Colonel Rudolf von Gersdorff wanted to carry explosives in his own overcoat, sacrificing himself to kill Hitler as he toured an exhibition of captured Russian equipment in Berlin; that attempt failed because Hitler decided to shorten the visit to a mere two-minute one, leaving Gersdorff drenched in cold sweat afterwards trying to disarm the bomb and flush it down a toilet before he gathered too much suspicion.
A handful of German officers, including many who planned the previous assassinations, drew up another attempt for 20 Jul 1944. By this time, the conspirators were rather desperate as the Gestapo was on the verge of identifying them while the Allies were tightening their grip on Nazi Germany with the initial (and eventual) success of the Normandy invasion. Lieutenant Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, aide to another conspirator Henning von Tresckow, wrote to Claus von Stauffenberg that
Stauffenberg was named the assassin that was to make the next attempt on Hitler in Jul 1944. Some of the others directly involved in the planning include General Ludwig Beck, General Friedrich Olbricht, Carl Goerdeler, Alfred Delp, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bernardis, Carl Szokoll, Count Hans-Jürgen von Blumenthal, Adam von Trott zu Solz, Gottfried von Bismark, and Princess Marie Vassiltchikov. Colonel General Friedrich Fromm of the Reserve Army was in contact with the conspirators, but did not fully commit himself to the operation. Many other high-ranking officers in the German Army such as Erwin Rommel and Günther von Kluge were also implicated with this plot. The plan called for Stauffenberg to utilize a briefcase containing explosives rigged with a timed fuse as the weapon to eliminate Hitler.
On 11 Jul Stauffenberg made his first attempt. The conspirators set the condition that he was to detonate the bomb when it was possible to kill Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Hermann Göring altogether; the assassination was aborted because Himmler did not show. On 15 Jul he tried yet again, this time without regard to the presence of Himmler or Göring, but the mission was likewise aborted either because Hitler concluded the meeting early or due to reasons left unknown.
Finally, Stauffenberg got his chance on 20 Jul 1944. At 1210 that day, Stauffenberg entered a conference room at Wolfsschanze, Wolf’s Lair, in Rastenburg in East Prussia where Hitler was to hold a meeting with military leaders. As Hitler leaned over a heavy oak table as he and his staff discussed the latest news from the Russian front, Stauffenberg stood next to Hitler and slipped the briefcase under the table without gathering any suspicion from the others. After slipping out of the room with an excuse to make a phone call, a sudden deafening explosion shook the room at 1242; the heavy table flew into the air, knocking back everyone in the room. Four men die immediately after the explosion, but Hitler escaped death after receiving very light injuries.
Outside, Werner von Haeften drove Stauffenberg away from Wolfsschanze under the cover of the immediate chaos. He firmly believed that Hitler had died and his objective completed. He was airborne for Berlin by 1300; he thought by the time he reached Berlin, he would learn the news that Operation Walkuere would progress nicely.
As originally planned, Operation Walkuere ("Valkyrie") was to take place immediately after the assassination of Hitler; the plan called for the conspirators to use the reserve army (which was under the command of conspirator Colonel General Fromm with staff officer Stauffenberg) to seize control of the major branches of the SS, the SD, and the Gestapo during the brief power vacuum. Radio and signal stations controlled by the Nazi regime were on the target list as well. However, uncertainty of the success delayed the launch of the operation.
At 1500, Stauffenberg reached Berlin. The first thing he did was make a phone call to Bendlerstrasse, the seat of the General Office of the Army, to announce Hitler's death. But around the same time, conspirator General Erich Fellgiebel at Rastenburg called Fromm at Bendlerstrasse and informed him that Hitler had survived with only minor injuries. The conspirators did not know who to believe, and further delayed Operation Walkuere. The truth was that Fellgiebel was right, Hitler did indeed survive the blast; Fromm confirmed that after calling Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel at Rastenburg. By a stroke of luck, after Stauffenberg had left the conference room, Colonel Heinz Brandt moved the briefcase to the far side of one of the oak table's wide legs, thus just enough force from the blast was deflected away from Hitler. Brandt, however, would not survive the explosion; it was interesting to note that Brandt had been involved in another assassination attempt against Hitler, having unknowingly carried bombs (which failed to detonate) aboard a plane that he and Hitler traveled aboard in 1943.
Finally at 1600, Olbricht gave the order to launch the operation regardless of the failed assassination. Squads of reserve troops arrested key Nazi Party leaders. With a working phone line, which was a failure on the part of the conspirators, Minister of Propaganda Goebbels remained in charge of the media and used it to disseminate the news of Hitler's survival. When regimental commander Major Otto Remer came to arrest Goebbels, Goebbels arranged a phone call with Hitler, convincing Remer that it was a Coup d'etat. Over the phone, Hitler promoted Remer to the rank of colonel, and instructed his troops to strike down the conspirators.
Then, the leadership of the assassination began to fall apart. Fromm decided that that the plot stood no chance, and switched sides by issuing the order to have Stauffenberg arrested. Olbricht and Stauffenberg were able to counter that move by arresting Fromm and those who wished to give up, but that process wounded several leaders who were still pressing on with the operation, including Stauffenberg. But it was all too late. Knowing that the German leader was not dead, many of the reserve army soldiers simply refused to carry out their orders. At 2240, Remer’s troops besieged the Bendlerstrasse building complex and ended Operation Walkuere.
Knowing the cruelty the Nazi Party was capable of, Beck was the first to commit suicide to avoid worse fate. As the conspirators lost control of Bendlerstrasse, Fromm once again turned on his once comrades, court marshaling the others on the spot and sentenced them to immediate execution, probably to silence the others so he could save himself. Stauffenberg, Haeften, Olbricht, and Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim were executed in the courtyard at 0010 on 21 Jul 1944. At 0030, Otto Skorzeny arrived at Bendlerstrasse with SS men, stopping further executions. Fromm boldly went to see Goebbels to establish his own loyalty, but he was immediately arrested. Tresckow, so far free, knew his chances were slim and took his own life with a grenade.
All remaining conspirators were nearly without exception arrested, cross-examined, and tortured. The discovery of letters and diaries at the homes of the conspirators led to the exposure of the entire conspiracy which dated back to 1938. New pursuits aimed at breaking all military and civilian resistance against the regime began with the final goal to not only eliminate the resistance but also to completely destroy its roots. Men suspected of being a part of the resistance were brought to court presided by the notorious judge of the People's Court Richter Roland Freisler. Hitler said he wanted to see the leaders hung "like slaughtered cattle", and so they did at the Plötzensee prison, hanging by piano wire or hemp rope from meat hooks. Because of the lack of scaffolding at Plötzensee, the men endured agonizing strangulation before they died. The deranged Hitler even sent cameramen to film the executions for his enjoyment later, but the cameramen refused to continue after only filming the first two executions.
High ranking figures were not excluded in the prosecutions. Men such as Rommel and Kluge who were in the know were driven to commit suicide.
For Stauffenberg's family, an ancient Teutonic punishment of Sippenhaft was enacted, holding them liable for imprisonment for Stauffenberg's betrayal because Heinrich Himmler believed that the blood of treason flowed through the veins of Stauffenberg's entire family. Himmler even went as far as announcing that "the family Stauffenberg will be extinguished to the last member"; fortunately for the Stauffenberg family, Himmler was unable to carry out this plan before the fall of Germany.
In total, it was estimated that 4,980 were arrested and 200 of them executed as a direct result of this failed assassination. Some of those arrested were not connected with the plot; the SS took the opportunity to eliminate some potential threats under the guise of their investigation.
The failed assassination attempted had great consequences. With the anti-Semitic policies still in effect, between Jul 1944 and May 1945 countless more people were murdered at concentration and extermination camps, and thousands upon thousand more would continue to die on the frontlines. It had also made Hitler a very cautious leader within his country, a sign of a Germany in disharmony.
Anthony Read and David Fisher, The Fall of Berlin
William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
July Plot Interactive Map
July Plot Timeline
|22 Aug 1939||Adolf Hitler said that even though he was important for Germany, but he could be killed by anybody at any time.|
|3 May 1942||Adolf Hitler spoke of his habit of keeping an irregular schedule to throw off any potential assassination attempts.|
|13 Mar 1943||Adolf Hitler visited Günther von Kluge's field headquarters. Anti-Hitler conspirators spoke to Kluge beforehand, but they could not convince Kluge to take action to arrest Hitler. Without Kluge's help, the conspirators acted on their own, sneaking fused bombs disguised as brandy bottles aboard Hitler's aircraft, which took off for Berlin, Germany after dinner. The bombs failed to explode, and the conspirators had to take the risk, successfully, to retrieve the bottles before they were discovered.|
|21 Mar 1943||Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, and Wilhelm Keitel attended a ceremony for a Heroes Memorial Ceremony in Berlin, Germany. An anti-Hitler conspirator wore an overcoat with explosives hidden inside, aiming to conduct a suicide mission to assassinate Hitler and perhaps take out some of his top command. A unexpected early departure, however, led to the abandonment of this mission.|
|26 Dec 1943||Claus von Stauffenberg made an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a bomb, but the mission was aborted when Hitler left early to return to Berchtesgaden in southern Germany to celebrate the holidays.|
|15 Jul 1944||Claus von Stauffenberg met with Adolf Hitler at Rastenburg, East Prussia, Germany at 1300 hours. General Friedrich Olbricht activated Valkyrie in Berlin, Germany two hours prior to the meeting, expecting his troops to be in position to seize key positions in the capital at about the same moment Hitler was to be killed by a bomb that Stauffenberg brought into the meeting. Hitler departed the meeting early unexpectedly, and Olbricht hastily called off the operation, announcing that the troop movement was simply a drill.|
|19 Jul 1944||Claus von Stauffenberg was summoned to see Adolf Hitler at Rastenburg, East Prussia, Germany on the following day.|
|20 Jul 1944||Operation Valkyrie was launched to assassinate Hitler and to overthrow the Nazi German government. It failed, leading to the arrest and execution of many who became implicated in the plot.|
|23 Jul 1944||Hitler required that the Wehrmacht use the Hitler Gruß, the Nazi salute, in the aftermath of July Plot.|
|12 Oct 1944||Colonel Rudolf von Margona-Redwitz, head of German military intelligence in Vienna (Abwehrstelle Wien) until Apr 1944, was sentenced to death and executed in connection with the July Plot against Adolf Hitler.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945