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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Plot to Kill Hitler, July 20, 1944

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On July 20, 1944, a group of conspirators made an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler during a military staff meeting at his Wolf's Lair field headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia. . This was the German Resistance movement’s last attempt to overthrow the Nazis and make a separate peace with the Western allies.

A plot to overthrow Hitler and his henchmen began to emerge in the German Army as early as 1938. Several high-ranking officers (including a former Army Chief of Staff) supported the idea of a coup as a means of preventing the Nazis from embroiling Germany in another world war, the second in a little over 20 years. But as a plan moved forward, many of the active duty officers began questioning the soundness of the plan. One of the requirements of success was outside support once the current government collapsed. Unfortunately, the rest of the Europe seemed uninterested in stopping Hitler. Another war was only a matter of time.

Plans were put on hold until 1941, when a new group of conspirators came to the fore. This was a tough year to plan a coup, for the German Army was still victorious everywhere it went and Hitler was immensely popular both in the military and among German civilians. But by late 1942, cracks began to show in the armor of the Third Reich. That was when a plan was hatched to place a bomb on Hitler’s plane when he made a trip to the headquarters of Army Group Centre fighting on the Eastern Front. The trip was made in March, 1943, but the bomb failed to explode, as did one set a few days later in Berlin.

By the end of 1943, it was clear to most high-level German officers that the Axis powers were going to lose the war. Their biggest fear was a Soviet invasion of Germany, for they knew that the Soviets would not be as magnanimous in victory as the Americans, British and French. The coup plotters thought that if they could overthrow Hitler and establish a new government in Berlin, they might be able to negotiate an end to the war before the Soviets reached the German border. It was during this time that the conspirators brought on board a new member----Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.

Von Stauffenberg was born into an aristocratic Bavarian family in 1907. As was traditional for the males in his family, he pursued a military career. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, von Stauffenberg was not immediately set against him. He abhorred the Nazis' anti-semitism, but liked Hitler's strong nationalism. The German Army's successes early in the Second World War convinced von Stauffenberg that Hitler was a bold military leader. After the invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, von Stauffenberg began to hear rumors concerning the activities of the SS troops in captured areas. Jews were being executed by the thousands along with anyone who was considered “undesirable” to the German state. While von Stauffenberg had long clung to the Teutonic concept of German colonization of Eastern Europe, his Catholic faith told him there was a higher law that all men must obey.

Von Stauffenberg was badly wounded in North Africa in April, 1943, and after months of recuperation received orders as a staff officer to the Replacement Army, the German army reserve. This put him in an advantageous position to help stage a coup, for the Replacement Army was in charge of quelling any internal unrest occurring inside Germany’s borders. If unrest occurred, Operation Valkyrie would be put into effect. Valkyrie called for the Replacement Army to take over the policing of cities and towns until order was restored. General Friedrich Fromm, head of the Reserve Army, was the only officer that could put the operation into play; thus he would have to join the conspirators or be moved out of the way.

By July, 1944, Adolf Hitler had become a difficult target for assassination. He was distrustful of nearly everyone around him and spent very little time in Berlin. The Gestapo knew that plotters were working to take over the government and were on the case. It is suspected by many historians that Henrich Himmler, head of the SS and the Gestapo, knew more about the plot to kill Hitler than he let on and did little about it. However, since Himmler committed suicide in May, 1945, the truth of what he knew will never be known.

As chief-of-staff of the Reserve Army, Colonel von Stauffenberg attended all of Hitler’s military conferences. This put him in the position of actually being able to kill the dictator when the time came. Von Stauffenberg carried a bomb in his briefcase to meetings with Hitler at least twice in early July, but the plan was not carried out because it had been decided that Henrich Himmler needed to be assassinated as well. But since Himmler rarely attended military conferences, von Stauffenberg was able to convince the other conspirators that Hitler would have to be attacked at the next available opportunity, with or without Himmler.

On July 20 just after noon, another military conference began at Rastenburg. Von Stauffenberg placed his loaded briefcase under the large table; Hitler and more than 20 officers were in the room. After 10 minutes, the Colonel excused himself and left. The bomb exploded at 12:40PM, killing several officers. Hitler was spared, possibly by one of the table’s thick legs. Von Stauffenberg made it to a local airfield and was airborne before the alarm was sounded.

By the time he reached Berlin three hours later, the conspirators were already beginning to hear rumors that Hitler had survived the blast. Many of them lost their nerve and began to take action in order to save themselves. Operation Valkyrie was ordered into action, but a short time later Himmler countermanded the order. Some reserve troops did muster and were led by officers who assumed Hitler was dead. SS officers were arrested throughout Europe and even the Propaganda Ministry was surrounded. But as word of Hitler’s survival spread, the troops were dispersed and their officers were arrested.

General Fromm, head of the Reserve Army, turned against the conspirators and had von Stauffenberg and others arrested. In order to have no witnesses to his own involvement, he set up a court-martial, found the men guilty and had them immediately shot. Fromm then told his superiors that he had suppressed the coup, but was promptly arrested.

Over 5,000 people were eventually arrested by the Gestapo. More than 200 of those were executed. Some of the people arrested had nothing to do with the plot, but were either in the wrong place at the wrong time or were on the Gestapo’s watch list for another reason entirely. The search for conspirators continued well into 1945, even as Germany collapsed as allied forces advanced on Berlin from east and west. Executions took place until the very last days of the Third Reich.

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