Remembering History: July 20 Plot to Kill Hitler

Bomb damage
Bomb Damage To Conference Room, July 1944
German Federal Archives
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-025-12 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

On 20 July 1944 a plot to kill German leader Adolf Hitler was undertaken. It has become known as Operation Valkyrie though that was originally part of the overall plan. The goal was to take control of Germany from the Nazi’s and to seek peace with the Allies. It failed in killing Hitler and resulted instead with thousands arrested and many executed as a result. One of the conspirators turned out to be Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was forced to commit suicide to avert a public court martial and save his family from being arrested as conspirators.

Plans to kill Hitler went back to 1938 when officers in the German Army and Military Intelligence began formulating plans to assassinate Hitler. Soon it joined with others in the civilian, intellectual, and political leadership to become known as Kreisauer Kreis (Kreisau Circle). Some disagreed about killing Hitler; others wanted to overthrow him to prevent plunging Germany into a disastrous world war. Attempts to kill Hitler had failed in the past leading to loss of morale. While many high-ranking German officers were involved in discussions (many of them Field Marshals), they did not report it to the Gestapo.

If the goal had been achieved, a restored government would not necessarily been like the previous Weimar Republic. It would likely would have been a conservative-authoritarian government with elections but skewed more towards the old elite class. There might have been even the restoration of a monarchy though in a limited manner.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (1907-1944)
Unknown author
Public Domain

By mid-1943, it appeared to many the tide had turned against Germany. Many in the German high command had become convinced Germany was being led to disaster. Both the military and civilian plotters realized Hitler had to be removed to prevent a likely invasion of Germany by the Soviet Union. Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, severely wounded in North Africa was recruited to the group. He like many were swept up in the nationalist goals of the Nazi Party and was a supporter though never a member of it. He did express views that were sympathetic to the Nazi position on Polish Jews. But by 1943, he had seen what the Hitler had done to Germany. His strong Catholicism opposed Hitler’s suppression of it and other religions. And he had come to see what the persecution of Jews looked like and did not like it either.

Stauffenberg was not the designer of Valkyrie but certainly had a hand in some of its components. By 1944 several attempts to assassinate Hitler had failed and Hitler was rarely seen in public. The Gestapo was now starting to dig deeper into the conspirators. Even so a few thought Heinrich Himmler might be persuaded to come over to them. He did not report a conversation when he was approached by a conspirator. It is likely Himmler had deemed the war unwinnable and saw himself as the successor if Hitler was removed from power. With Hitler now out of the public eye, killing him became more difficult. When Stauffenberg was appointed Chief of Staff to General Fromm of the Reserve Army, he would be attending military conferences where Hitler would be present.

On 20 July 1944 he set off with a bomb in a briefcase to Hitler’s Eastern Front military headquarters Wolf’s Lair. After priming one bomb in the bathroom before the conference (he had to handle a second one to his aide Werner von Haeften). Once inside the briefing, he placed the briefcase under the table near Hitler. Colonel Heinz Brandt likely moved it aside with his foot which deflected the blast but resulted in his death from injuries sustained when the bomb detonated at 12:42 pm.

The blast destroyed the conference room and killed the stenographer. Everyone else was severely injured and hurt (some like Brandt would die later). Hitler and the others had their legs singed, trousers tattered, and a perforated eardrum. Stauffenberg bluffed his way out of Wolf’s Lair thinking Hitler was dead. Confused reports about whether Hitler was dead or alive resulted in confusion with the plotters. They could not move forward if Hitler was still alive. A call to Field Marshal Keitel by General Fromm confirmed Hitler was still alive. Operation Valkyrie was now being done in many places believing Hitler was dead. Arrests were being done as if Hitler was dead. Himmler took control and shut down Valkyrie. At 7 pm Hitler made phone calls and it was clear he was quite alive.

The coup quickly fell apart. Orders were issued to secure areas and arrest the plotters. Conspirators turned on each other in some cases rather than face arrest by Gestapo. By midnight some of the top conspirators, including Stauffenberg, had been arrested and tried quickly by a court martial and executed. Further executions were halted as Hitler wanted them alive for trial.

Aftermath
The Gestapo rounded up nearly all the conspirators and through seized documents learned of others as well. Some included former German Army Chief of Staff Franz Halder. He was not involved in the 20 JulyPlot but was involved in several earlier ones. He was arrested and was imprisoned in Flossenbürg and Dachau concentration camps. Under new Blood Guilt laws by Himmler, family members of plotters were also arrested and sometimes executed as well. Erwin Rommel’s name came up since his chief of staff, Hans Spiedel, had connections to the conspirators.

It is not truly known to what extent Rommel was involved in 20 July Plot. He certainly did not support Hitler by 1944 and would have supported a coup to remove him. However it is not certain what his involvement was. His chief of staff Hans Spiedel was connected to the plotters and may have learned of their plans from him but that is not clear either. At best he may have had a general idea of what they wanted to do but opposed assassination as it would result in a civil war. However some plotters said he was involved (under torture) and would be part of the new government.

Branding Rommel, a very popular figure in Germany, a traitor would have been a major shock and caused serious questions about the stability of the regime. Rommel knew that public trials were rigged for the prosecution and he would have no chance of winning. And his family would suffer as well by being imprisoned. He was offered a chance to commit suicide (a honorable practice from ancient Rome that allowed important people to take their lives to spare their families) which he did by taking cyanide. He was buried with full military honors and the true circumstances of his death not revealed until after the war.

Sources

This Day in History:Assassination Plot Against Hitler Fails
Holocaust Encyclopedia:The July 20, 1944, Plot to Assassinate Adolf Hitler
War History Online:The Six Men Who Were Behind the July 20th Plot to Assassinate Hitler

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