The attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944, was the seventeenth known occasion that someone had tried to kill Hitler. Unlike other attempts however this, the 20 July Bomb Plot, was the most intricate, and involved plans for a new Germany following the successful accomplishment of the mission.
Count Stauffenberg loses faith
A fervent supporter of Hitler, 36-year-old Count Claus von Stauffenberg had fought bravely during the Second World War for the Fuhrer. Fighting in Tunisia in 1943, Stauffenberg was badly wounded, losing his left eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left. Once recovered, Stauffenberg was transferred to the Eastern Front where he witnessed the atrocities firsthand which made him question his loyalty. As it became increasingly apparent that Germany would not win the war, Stauffenberg lost faith in Hitler and the Nazi cause.
At some point in early 1944, Stauffenberg joined a group of German officers intent on bringing the war to a quick end and negotiating a peace with the Allies. Their biggest obstacle was of course Hitler.
But the plotters received a bit of luck when Stauffenberg was appointed onto the staff of the Reserve Army, reporting directly to General Friedrich Fromm, another officer who had lost faith in the Nazi cause. When Stauffenberg was invited to a meeting in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, East Prussia, for 20 July, the opportunity seemed perfect.
The conspirators hatched their plan, codenamed Valkyrie, and crucial to its success was Stauffenberg’s proximity to Hitler.
‘I Am Alive, I Am Alive’
About to attend the meeting, Stauffenberg, lacking time to prepare two devices, only managed to prepare one bomb. With it set to detonate after ten minutes, Stauffenberg entered the meeting room at the Wolf’s Lair and found Hitler poring over a large air reconnaissance report from the Eastern Front spread across a table. The Count placed his briefcase beneath the map table and, as prearranged, received a phone call, necessitating his immediate attention and departure. (Picture: five days before the event, a photo taken at the Wolf’s Lair with Stauffenberg, far left, Hitler, and Wilhelm Keitel, right. Click to enlarge).
Whilst Stauffenberg made good his escape, an attendant, with his foot, pushed the briefcase further under the heavy oak table so that when, at 12.42, the two pound bomb went off, the thickness of the wood spared Hitler the main thrust of the explosion.
Billows of black smoke poured from the windows of the meeting room, and staggering out leaning on each other were two men, their clothes torn to shreds, their skin blackened, and their hair singed. One of them was General Wilhelm Keitel, the other was Hitler himself, muttering “What was that? I am alive, I am alive!”
Arrest him immediately
Hitler was examined – contusion on the left arm, damage to his eardrums and wooden splinters in his legs from the floorboards. (His trousers were torn to shreds, as seen in the photograph). Considering his proximity to the bomb his survival was miraculous. So superficial his injuries he was able to keep an appointment that afternoon with Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, meeting him in person at the local railway station and shaking Il Duce’s hand with his left. Hitler himself put his survival down to the hand of providence. Germany, the fates dictated, would win the war and Hitler’s life had been spared to ensure it.
Others had been more seriously injured and taken to hospital. Four of them later died. The movements of all were scrutinised and it soon became apparent that Stauffenberg, seen leaving hurriedly in his car, was the culprit. “Arrest him immediately!” bellowed Hitler.
Hitler is dead
Early afternoon, Thursday 20 July 1944 – Count Claus von Stauffenberg, believing that he had successfully killed Hitler, returned to Berlin. The first part of the operation had been successfully completed. Now he issued the codeword, Valkyrie, the instruction for the Reserve Army to place Germany under a state of emergency. General Friedrich Fromm, Stauffenberg’s senior officer within the Reserve Army, informed local commanders that a new administration would be formed.
However, one of those commanders, Major Remer, received a telephone call directly from Hitler where the Fuhrer informed the Major that, contrary to popular rumour, he was still very much alive – and in control.
When it became obvious that the coup had failed, Fromm, in an attempt to distance himself from the conspirators, ordered the arrest and immediate execution of Stauffenberg. The Count was detained and duly shot, along with three others, at one in the morning, just over 12 hours after the bomb had gone off, and hastily buried in the grounds of the War Ministry.
Himmler takes control
But it did Fromm little good. Once Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s SS boss, had arrived in Berlin, he re-established control of the city and the mass arrests began, and among the first to be arrested was Fromm. He also ordered the exhumation of Stauffenberg’s body. The Count’s final resting place has since remained a mystery - until now.
Many committed suicide rather than face Nazi justice. The ringleaders were rounded up and hanged by piano wire, their deaths recorded onto film and the films sent to the Wolf’s Lair for Hitler to watch at his pleasure. Over the coming months more than 7,000 were arrested, of whom 4,980 were executed. Fromm remained imprisoned until 12 March 1945, when he too was shot.
Rommel’s fateful choice
The highest-ranking victim of this post-July purge was one of Hitler’s favourite and most-ablest generals, Erwin Rommel. Rommel, who shared the same birthday as Stauffenberg, 15 November, although not directly involved, had previously voiced sympathy for the plan. Once his endorsement came to light, he was given the option of honourable suicide or subjecting himself to the humiliation and the kangaroo court of Nazi justice, and his family deported to a concentration camp. He chose the former and, on 14 October 1944, accompanied by two generals sent by Hitler, poisoned himself. He was, as promised, buried with full military honours, his family pensioned off.
Those who had been at Hitler’s side in the conference room on 20 July were awarded a specially-made ‘Wounded Medal’, either in black, silver or gold, that bore Hitler’s signature and the date (pictured). It was, for the remaining months of the war, the ultimate badge of loyalty and honour.
The buildings that made up the Wolf’s Lair were demolished soon after the war but today, on the site, is a memorial stone dedicated to Stauffenberg – the “bravest of the best” as Churchill described the fallen Count.
See also Rupert’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria.