So Close: How German Generals Almost Killed Hitler and Saved Countless Lives

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March 5, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Kill HitlerAdolf HitlerOperation ValkyrieCoupNazi Germany

So Close: How German Generals Almost Killed Hitler and Saved Countless Lives

The true story of Operation Valkyrie.

When the bomb exploded, Hitler had been laying almost prone across the table, following a detailed report on Russian troop movements being given by Gen. Adolf Heusinger. The fact that an officer had moved the briefcase to the other side of the oak table support (thereby putting the support between the bomb and Hitler), plus the open windows and flimsy walls and roof, had saved Hitler’s life.

The bomb had gone off with a deafening roar. The windows were blown out, the roof buckled and part of it collapsed. One officer was actually blown out of the building altogether, landed on his feet and ran for help! Smoke and debris mingled in the air with the cries of the wounded and dying.

Inside, Army Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel began calling out, “Wo ist der Führer?” (Where is the Leader?) In his excellent 1964 book, Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-45, British author Sir John W. Wheeler-Bennett gives a detailed account of what happened to Hitler:

“His hair was set on fire, his right arm was temporarily and partially paralyzed, his right leg was badly burned. Both eardrums were damaged and his hearing affected. His trouser legs were blown off at the belt, and a heavy object from the roof had fallen across his back and buttocks, tearing a great piece of cloth from his tunic and bruising him that, as he later announced, he had ‘A backside like a baboon.’

“Hitler’s first impression was that they had been bombed from the air, then that a bomb had been thrown from the outside through the window or that it had been planted under the floor. According to all accounts, he behaved with calmness. Having extricated himself from the debris of the table and put out the flames in his hair and clothing, he allowed himself to be led by Keitel from the shattered hut to his own quarters, his right arm hanging slack at his side, his hair singed and a livid scarlet burn upon the sallow pallor of his face.”

It should here be recalled that, as an infantryman in the German Army during WW I on the Western Front, Hitler had experienced a full four years of intensive shelling and other combat conditions, winning the Iron Cross lst and 2nd Class.

Burned Trousers and Jacket Revered as Holy Relics

Twenty-four people were present in the hut at the time of the explosion. One died on the spot, three others died later of their wounds, two were severely wounded and others slightly, such as Hitler himself and Col. Gen. (U.S. equivalent to a four-star general) Alfred Jodl, who appears in several photographs taken later that day with his head bandaged.

As Hitler emerged from the wrecked hut, one of Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Josef Goebbels’ aides who was present reportedly heard the Führer mutter, “Oh! My best trousers! I only put them on yesterday!” These trousers—as well as Hitler’s torn tunic jacket—were later considered by the Nazis to be holy relics, and the Führer had them sent to his mistress, Eva Braun, for safekeeping. At the war’s end, as Hitler’s mountain chalet, The Berghof, was overrun by U.S. Army troops, his partially destroyed uniform was discovered. Two years later, it was burned.

The Duce’s Train is on Time; Hitler Doesn’t Miss a Beat

Later that same afternoon, right on schedule, the Duce’s train from Italy slid up to the Gorlitz railway platform, and Hitler—cleaned and changed, his hair trimmed to hide the burning and a cape thrown over his shoulders (despite the stifling heat) to conceal his condition—greeted Mussolini with the startling news. The Duce—who had been overthrown the previous July in a palace coup in Italy—was stunned, and noticed that the Führer shook hands with his left hand.

The two men walked to the compound’s tea house with Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goring, Reichsleiter, Secretary to the Führer Martin Bormann, Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and a coterie of other lesser aides.

A Less than Congenial Tea Party

At 5 that evening, joined by German Navy Grand Adm. Karl Donitz, the bizarre tea party began. As Mussolini and the embarrassed Italian Fascist entourage looked on in amazement, and while Hitler sat silent and morose, the Nazi leaders began berating one another for their individual failures of war leadership, and Goring even reportedly took a swing at von Ribbentrop with his swagger stick Reich Marshal’s baton.

By chance, someone mentioned the 1934 anti-Storm Troop “Blood Purge,” almost an exact decade before this day’s events, and Hitler jumped up in a furious rage. “I will show them no mercy! I will put their wives and children into concentration camps!” He ordered Himmler to fly to Berlin immediately and put down the now-unmasked military revolt there. “If anyone offers any resistance, shoot him, regardless of who it is! Be pitiless,” he shouted at the Reichsfuhrer, who was only too happy and willing to agree, enmeshed as he himself was—as I believe—in the knowledge of this event beforehand.

Following the conclusion of this spectral scene, Hitler and his entourage escorted the departing Duce and his party back to their train for the return trip to German-occupied northern Italy, the Fascist Salo Republic of which the Duce was the nominal head as Hitler’s puppet satellite ruler. The two men would never meet in person again; the war’s end less than a year later would see the Duce murdered and the Führer dead by suicide.

Operation Valkyrie in Full Swing

Meanwhile—in Berlin, Paris and on the Western Front in France—the codeword of the conspiracy, Valkyrie, had been given and the long-planned attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime and end the war was well under way in spite of what was then happening at far-off Rastenburg.

In the Reich’s capital, Col. Gen. Ludwig Beck and the other dissident army conspirators at the War Ministry Building arrested Home Army General Fritz Fromm (who was wavering between loyalty to both Hitler and the plotters) and his aides. Von Stauffenberg arrived by air from East Prussia, asserted that the Führer was dead, and the order was given for the arrest of Dr. Joseph Goebbels.

In Paris, the German Military Governor, Gen. Karl von Stulpnagel, ordered the arrest of the local SS and Gestapo officials, which was actually accomplished both speedily and with surprise. Despite all these developments, however, the German Commander-in-Chief of the Western Armies, Field Marshal Hans von Kluge, refused to surrender his troops to the Western Allies without official confirmation of the Führer’s demise. The plotters in Berlin were saying that this was, indeed, the case, and his own staff officers were urging him to act even if it was not, but the telephone lines from Rastenburg—amazingly uncut—were stating categorically that Hitler lived.

Uncut Telephone Wires and What Might Have Been

And so it was that the conspirators’ plans to install Field Marshal Erwin Rommel as the new Reich President, Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben as the new Wehrmacht (Armed Forces) Commander, and Dr. Karl Goerdeler as the next Reich Chancellor came to naught because of uninterrupted communications from Fort Wolf to the outside world. Some historians have felt that, had Rommel not been seriously wounded by Allied aircraft fire on the 17th—just three days before the bomb explosion—the plot would have succeeded anyway, but that remains open to conjecture.

What actually happened is known, however, and, as Goebbels later sneered contemptuously, “They didn’t even know enough to cut the telephone wires!” This fact, and the Führer’s survival, were the two key elements in the plot’s overall failure.

Sometime around 7 that evening in Berlin, an army battalion loyal to the plotters was ordered to the Propaganda Ministry to seize Dr. Goebbels, who was then in conference with Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and Nazi Minister of Armaments and War Production. Major Otto Remer commanded the troops, and demanded to see Dr. Goebbels, who in turn insisted that Hitler lived and that Remer, not he, was a traitor if he obeyed the orders of the rebels to arrest him.

“Do You Recognize My Voice?”

Next, Goebbels asked if Remer wanted to talk with the Führer. Stunned, the major agreed, and Dr. Goebbels immediately called Rastenburg. Hitler asked Remer, “Do you recognize my voice?” The major did, and from that moment on the plotters were doomed. Hitler ordered Remer to obey only Goebbels and Himmler, who arrived in Berlin around 8 pm. Joined by SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner and SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny, the Nazis now launched their own counterattack against the plotters.

Meanwhile, at the War Ministry on the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin, the news of both Hitler’s survival and von Kluge’s refusal to join the foundering revolt was known, and the conspirators wavered. Fromm and his officers were released and took over the building themselves.

General Beck committed suicide, and, in order to hide his own complicity, General Fromm had von Stauffenberg and other conspirators placed before a wall in the garden and shot by a firing squad that very evening. In Paris, the detained Nazi officials were also released, and the plot collapsed. By 11:30 pm, it was all over.