Key point: It is a shame the plot failed. Had it succeeded, it may have ended the war early and have limited the suffering.
For Nazi Party Führer (Leader) and German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler, July 20th, 1944 dawned as a routine working day at his principal wartime military headquarters, the Wolfsschanze (Fort Wolf) in the East Prussian forest of Rastenburg, some three hundred air miles from Berlin, in what is today Poland. He was to have his daily military situation conference at 1 pm.
That summer the news delivered to him at those sessions was always bad, as both the Western Allied armies and those of the Soviet Union were pressing in relentlessly on the long-secure borders of the “Thousand Year” Nazi Third Reich created by Hitler in 1933, barely 11 years earlier.
Would Mussolini’s Train be on Time?
The Führer’s Axis Pact partner-in-arms—former Duce (Leader) of Fascist Italy Benito Mussolini—was expected for a meeting with Hitler. His pending visit—the last the two dictators would ever have—meant that the German officers’ briefing of the Führer would be convened at 12:30 instead of at 1:00, in order to complete business in case of an early arrival of the Duce’s train at the nearby Gorlitz railway platform.
Other than this, there was no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary—let alone that Hitler himself would be almost killed that day by a time-bomb explosion engineered by his own officers!
On the Run, but Still Lethal
The importance of the failed anti-Hitler bomb plot of July 20, 1944 can hardly be overestimated. As former Wehrmachtsoldier and Towson University history professor Armin Mruck wrote, “Most of the American G.I.s who died in World War II died after July 20, 1944. Most of the material destruction in Europe occurred after July 20, 1944. While the German armies in the East were retreating, they were still capable of rendering the Soviet Army effective resistance. As a matter of fact, German troops were still in control of much of Europe.”
Had the plot succeeded and Hitler been either killed or removed, or the Nazis overthrown without his death, history might have been very different. The war possibly would have ended with no enemy troops on German soil, the Russians contained in Eastern Europe alone and many thousands more Jews, political internees and Allied prisoners-of-war liberated from various Nazi camps strewn across the length and breadth of occupied Europe.
But this was not to be, and the failure of the anti-Hitler plot became one of modern history’s great tragedies.
Into the Woods
Fort Wolf—so-called because of the Führer’s predilection for the wolf—was located in a damp, murky, mosquito-ridden pine forest on the eastern edge of the German Reich. Hitler’s war was conducted there under the tall, forbidding trees in an aura of both secrecy and seclusion, a sort of hidden Nazi Camp David.
There were three concentric rings of security in the area, with entrances guarded by stationed SS troops armed with submachine guns. Besides quarters for top Nazi Party and Wehrmacht(military) officials in the barbed wire-enclosed compound, there was a kitchen, theater, air-raid shelter and tea house, all encased in concrete and above—not below—ground (because of the shallow, watery soil).
This was the situation and the locale at Rastenburg at 10:15 am on July 20 when an airplane carrying Lt. Col. Claus Schenck von Stauffenberg traveling from Berlin to report to the Führer landed at a military airfield called Rangsdorf nine miles from Fort Wolf.
Would Hitler’s Luck Finally Run Out?
The handsome von Stauffenberg was the driving force behind a large military and civilian conspiracy against Hitler, which had begun as early as 1938, and included several nearly successful attempts to either arrest or kill the Führer. The plots had always failed, however, either because of Hitler’s almost incredible good luck (such as changing his travel plans at the last moment, or the occasion, in 1943, when a bomb placed aboard his Kondor aircraft failed to detonate), or the reluctance of anyone to actually approach him with a pistol and simply shoot him. The latter course meant, naturally, death—either being shot on the spot by SS guards if one was lucky, or slow torture later if not.
Von Stauffenberg was a most unlikely candidate for the melodramatic role of political assassin. The scion of a landed gentry military family, the count, at 37, had lost his right forearm, his left eye and two fingers of his left hand, plus injuries to his left knee and ear in an enemy land-mine explosion in 1942 in North Africa as part of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps.
A Tenuous Alliance of Assassins
Like other conspirators, however, von Stauffenberg had come to believe that only Hitler’s murder would set in motion their long-planned putsch against the Nazi regime that they all detested. He, like they, believed that Adolf Hitler was leading Germany to destruction, and they were determined to replace both him and his infamous regime with a more moderate government that could win a reasonable peace from the Western Allies, and so prevent the Red Army of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin from overrunning their country, and much of the rest of Europe as well.
The conspiracy to depose Hitler and his minions included several diverse strains within German society: soldiers, labor leaders, churchmen and intellectuals.
Among the soldiers there were Field Marshals Erwin von Witzleben and “Clever Hans” von Kluge; Generals Ludwig Beck, Friedrich Olbricht, Hans Oster, Karl Heinrich von Stulpnagel, Friedrich Fromm, Erich Fellgiebel and Helmuth Stieff. All these men believed that Germany had already lost the war militarily.
The conspirators, joined together in a loose alliance against the Nazis that was in constant danger of being discovered by the SS and Gestapo (as, indeed, this writer believes it was), lacked a leader to pull all the threads to one end—the assassination of the Führer. In the handsome von Stauffenberg they had finally found that man, and so it was that he arrived that hot and sultry morning at Rastenburg to meet his destiny.
(It is this author’s opinion—after decades of research on this topic and its relevant personalities—that both SS Reichsfuhrer [National Leader] Heinrich Himmler and his rival, Reich Marshal and LuftwaffeCommander-in-Chief Hermann Goring knew well in advance that something was in the works. Himmler had at his command the entire security apparatus of the Third Reich, while Goring had his telephone wiretapping Research Office, established by him in 1933 and not given over to Himmler the following year with the Gestapo. I believe both men realized that the war was lost and wanted to be Hitler’s successor. They knew about the plot but stood aside, did nothing, and were prepared to let events take their course. Neither was at the conference at which the bomb exploded but arrived later in response to the news about the assassination attempt. Also not present at Fort Wolf at the time were Dr. Josef Goebbels and Albert Speer; they had scheduled a meeting in Berlin.)
Today: Kill a Dictator, Lead a New Government
In order to destroy Hitler, von Stauffenberg had to fly to East Prussia, enter the conference room and—using a pair of ice tongs to break an acid capsule that would provide a 10-minute fuse—place the time bomb (wrapped in a shirt) in his briefcase as close to Hitler as possible.
Following the explosion (which he somehow must avoid), he would then find a way to leave Fort Wolf, fly back to Berlin, and there lead the revolt in person! In one day von Stauffenberg would thus overthrow one government and start another—or so the plan went until fate intervened.
A Change of Venue and of Fate
The Count learned of the conference schedule change upon his arrival in Rastenburg and, in addition (a crucial fact) that the meeting site itself had been moved from a huge concrete bunker—Hitler’s own—to the Lagebaracke, or Conference Hut. An explosion in the bunker would, due to the enclosed, encased area, kill everyone immediately, while the wooden, thinly walled Conference Hut, with its entrance and windows, would allow much of the explosion’s pressure to escape the building, thus giving the occupants a fair chance of survival. This is, in fact, what occurred.
At 12:30, Hitler stood with 23 generals, officers and aides poring over maps spread out on a heavy oak tabletop, listening to several reports. At 12:32, von Stauffenberg broke the acid capsule of the two-pound bomb and placed the briefcase at the base of the table support a few feet away from the Führer. At 12:35 he left the hut to make an imaginary phone call. At 12:42 pm, the bomb exploded.
Don’t Count Your Dead Führers Until the Smoke Clears
To the watching von Stauffenberg outside, it seemed as if a 150-mm howitzer shell had hit the hut directly. Utilizing the ensuing confusion, he bluffed his way past the startled guards, out of Rastenburg and was airborne for Berlin by 1:15 pm, convinced that he had, indeed, killed Adolf Hitler. But Hitler lived.