Adolf Hitler single-handedly started the Second World War in Europe.
While the allies were desperately trying to end the Third Reich and Hitler personally, they weren’t the only ones trying to bring Hilter’s reign to an end.
Inside Nazi Germany, a small but committed group sought to remove Hitler from power, and they took action in July 1944.
Learn more about Operation Valkyrie and the plot to assassinate Hitler on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
By the summer of 1944, things were not looking good for Nazi Germany. The western allies had finally landed in France, opening up a second front in the war.
On the eastern front, things weren’t looking good either. The Soviets were on the march, and German forces were retreating.
While Hitler managed to lay the blame for all of Germany’s problems on the feet of his many generals, those in the know realized the problem was not with Germany’s generals. The problem was with Hitler himself.
Despite successes early in the war, Hitler was not a great military strategist.
The higher-ups in the German Wehrmacht saw Hitler as the problem, and the only way to avoid a complete defeat for Germany was to eliminate Hitler.
I should note that while we tend to paint history with a very broad brush, there were many officers in the German military who were not members of the Nazi party. The German officer corps had traditionally been made up of aristocrats who viewed themselves as being professional.
Plans to remove Hitler from within the German military had been around since at least 1938. All of the plots and plans eventually went nowhere for a variety of reasons. Some plotters were indecisive, some plans leaked out, and plans just failed.
There was a bomb placed in Hitler’s plane in 1943 that didn’t detonate. Another attempt weeks later in Berlin also failed.
Just finding other conspirators was difficult, given the pervasive presence of the Gestapo and the SS.
By 1944, a new plot to eliminate Hitler started coalescing. The plotters in the new plan were united only in their desire to see Hitler gone. They all had different visions for Germany after the war. Regardless of what they wanted for Germany, step one was removing Hitler.
The general consensus was that with Hitler gone, it would be possible to negotiate with the allies, to hopefully preserve their pre-1939 boundaries and avoid the punishing reparations which were handed down after the first world war.
The initial organizers of the plot were Major General Henning von Tresckow and General Friedrich Olbricht. Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben was also a part of the plot.
In August 1943, Tresckow met a young Lieutenant Colonel by the name of Claus von Stauffenberg.
Stauffenberg had been severely wounded in Tunisia in April 1943 when his car was strafed by a British fighter plane. He lost his left eye, right hand, and two fingers on his left hand.
Stauffenberg was a German nationalist and a Catholic. He had very ambivalent views of Hitler. He supported the nationalistic part of Hitler’s program but abhorred his treatment of Jews and other minority groups.
Eventually, he came to the conclusion that eliminating Hitler was for the greater good. That if Hitler were killed, millions would be saved.
The conspirators faced a problem. First, they had to kill Hitler. Capturing him and putting him on trial was not an option. Members of the SS took a personal vow of loyalty to Hitler, and the only thing which could break that vow was Hitler’s death. So long as Hitler was alive, they would face active resistance from within Germany.
The second problem was that killing Hitler wasn’t sufficient. So let’s say you assassinate Hilter. Then what? How do you take control of the German government in the vacuum that Hitler’s death would create?
Thankfully, the answer to that question was provided by Hitler himself. It was an emergency plan which was created for the continuity of the German government in the event of a general civil breakdown. It was known as Operation Valkyrie.
Operation Valkyrie is often thought to be the name of the plan to assassinate Hitler, and it was not. It was the name of the plan which would be implemented after the assassination of Hitler.
Operation Valkyrie would be implemented by the German Reserve Army, which was their equivalent of the National Guard. The Reserve Army would assume control in all the various localities after it was announced that the Nazi party had killed Hitler in an attempted coup.
This was the mechanism they would use to claim control of the country once Hitler was dead.
Then the question was, how exactly did you kill Hitler? There had been other plots that had been exposed, so by 1944, Hitler no longer appeared in public. A sniper taking him out at a public appearance wasn’t an option.
Poisoning him also wasn’t an option because all his food was prepared specially for him, and he had a food taster.
This led the conspirators to conclude that the best option to kill Hitler would be a bomb.
The plan developed by Tresckow and Stauffenberg was to plant a bomb at a meeting that was to be held at a venue called the Wolf’s Lair.
The Wolf’s Lair was Hitler’s military headquarters located in what was then East Prussia. Today, the location is in the Polish town of K?trzyn.
There were several reasons why the Wolf’s Lair was selected. The first was that it could be assured that Hitler would be there. Hitler often changed his plans at the last minute, but he regularly held briefings in a reinforced bunker at the Wolf’s Lair.
The other reason was the bunker itself, where the meetings were held. The bunker was an ideal place for a bomb. It was heavily fortified with no windows and only one reinforced door. The blast wave from a bomb would be contained in the bunker, amplifying its damage.
On July 1, 1944, Stauffenberg was appointed chief of staff to General Friedrich Fromm, the head of the German Reserve Army. The man who would have the authority to initiate Operation Valkyrie.
This position gave Stauffenberg access to the briefings with Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair. As such, Stauffenberg decided that he would deliver the bomb himself so he could be sure that it was done properly.
The plan was for Stauffenberg to have two explosives in a satchel which he would bring into a briefing in the bunker. He would get the satchel as close to Hitler as possible and then excuse himself, step out of the bunker, and it would blow up, killing everyone inside.
In theory, this plan would have worked.
It was decided to enact it on July 20, 1944, when both Himmler and Göring would be in attendance. Stauffenberg would be presenting a status report on the Reserve Army.
At 11 am, Stauffenberg arrived at the Wolf’s Lair along with two of his conspirators, Major General Helmuth Stieff and First Lieutenant Werner von Haeften.
At 11:35, Stauffenberg excused himself to change his shirt, where he armed one of the explosives with the aid of First Lieutenant Haeften. This was the first thing to go wrong. They were supposed to arm two explosives, not one.
Then at 12:37 pm, Stauffenberg enters the briefing room and meets Hitler. However, it wasn’t in the bunker. Due to warm weather, the meeting was moved to an above-ground wooden building with windows and a breeze. This was the second major deviation from the plan.
Stauffenberg placed his satchel with the bomb close to Hitler underneath the table. His excuse for getting close to Hitler was that his hearing was damaged due to his injuries.
At 12:40, Stauffenberg excused himself to make an important phone call minutes before the bomb was scheduled to detonate.
However, as soon as he left the room, the satchel with the bomb was moved to the other end of the table where Hitler was standing. This was the third major deviation from the plan.
At 12:42 pm, the bomb inside the satchel detonated.
While everything did not go according to plan, this was still a bomb in an enclosed area.
The walls of the building were blown out, as was the roof. Part of the wooden structure was on fire.
Stauffenberg, hearing the explosion and assuming Hitler was dead, jumped into a car and headed for an airplane waiting to take him to Berlin, where Operation Valkyrie would be initiated.
Hitler, of course, was not dead. In fact, other than being shaken up, his pants being shredded from splinters, and some damage to his arm, he survived mostly unscathed.
One stenographer was killed instantly, and four of the 20 other people in the room later died from their wounds, but no senior officials were killed.
Things began to unravel for the plotters immediately. Stauffenberg, seen fleeing the scene, was immediately suspected.
General Fromm, who had to give the order to initiate Operation Valkyrie, was contacted by General Keitel, who informed him that Hitler was alive.
Fromm, who probably knew about the plot but wasn’t actively involved, now came down hard on the suspected conspirators. When he confronted them in person, they put him in a prison cell.
Meanwhile, General Friedrich Olbricht had gone around Fromm and initiated Valkyrie without him. This caused confusion around the Reich as local officials disarmed SS units.
As the chaos died down by the evening, Fromm was freed from his cell and commenced to court martial and execute several of the conspirators, including General Olbricht, Colonel Stauffenberg, and Lieutenant Haeften.
Needless to say, Hitler was furious and now even more paranoid. The Gestapo began arresting anyone and everyone who had any association with the conspirators. Their investigations found evidence of past plots, which lead to more arrests.
The Gestapo also used the assassination attempt to pretty much arrest anyone they had an issue with.
Over 7,000 people were arrested in association with the assassination attempt, and almost 5,000 were executed.
Even General Fromm, who executed the immediate people responsible for the plot, was eventually executed. The fact that he killed the plotters so quickly was seen as a sign he was trying to get rid of any who could testify against him.
Most of the people involved in the plot didn’t try to escape or deny their guilt.
General Tresckow, one of the original men behind the plot, had been sent to the Eastern Front. When news got out, he killed himself with a hand grenade.
The assassination attempt only made Hitler more paranoid in the last months of the war. He was constantly assuming that his top generals were plotting against him, making him unable to trust his most competent commanders.
In a roundabout way, it probably shortened the war simply by making Hitler make bad decisions.
None of the men in the inner circle of the plot to kill Hitler seemed to have any regrets for what they tried to do. They knew they would be considered traitors, but they also knew that posterity would look kindly on them.
In hindsight, they were right. Hitler has become the epitome of evil, and now they are considered heroes.
If only one of the three things which went wrong had gone right, Hitler probably would have been killed, and the trajectory of the war, and the history of the world, would have changed.
Before he took his own life, General Tresckow told another member of the German resistance, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, about his decision. He said
The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in (a) few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. None of us can bewail his own death…A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.