Military and political leaders who were opposed to the Nazis hoped to engage in advance bargaining with the Allies over peace terms in the event of a German defeat. It was their wish to parlay the terms of such a deal into additional support within the military. Although the Allies were willing to consider whatever information resisters supplied, they held to their publicly announced policy of unconditional surrender. In the end, military resisters decided to act, even late in the war, to prevent the complete destruction of their homeland and to salvage some honor – to show that not all Germans supported the crimes and all-encompassing military objectives of the Nazi regime.
The leader of the famous July 20, 1944, assassination and coup attempt was Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg (1907-1944), a member of the Swabian-Catholic nobility and a descendant of the early nineteenth-century Prussian general August Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau (1760-1831), a reformer and hero from the Napoleonic Wars. In April 1943, while fighting in North Africa, Colonel Stauffenberg had been severely wounded – his injuries left him without his left eye, his entire right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. After his recovery, he was first appointed chief of staff in the General Army Office; in June 1944, he was appointed chief of staff to General Friedrich Fromm (1888-1945), commander of the Replacement Army, a reserve force stationed in Germany.
Stauffenberg and other military resisters transformed existing plans – codenamed “Operation Valkyrie” – to use the Replacement Army to crush potential internal revolts against the Nazi regime. In their hands, Valkyrie became a plan for a coup camouflaged by orders to suppress a revolt. General Fromm was aware of the plot but refused to commit to it. Stauffenberg was one of the very few people who could actually carry out an assassination, since he had direct access to Hitler. Starting in mid-1944, he attended military briefings at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters. On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg brought a bomb to the Wolf’s Lair in his briefcase and detonated it. After watching the blast, which he believed had killed Hitler, he hurried off to Berlin to lead the planned coup.
The story of the near success and ultimate failure of both the assassination attempt and the coup has been told and retold many times (12). Hitler survived the 12:42 p.m. explosion with only minor injuries. After waiting several hours for conclusive information from Stauffenberg, his co-conspirators in Berlin went ahead with their plans and issued an “official order” via telex. The call for certain measures, such as the incorporation of the Waffen SS into the army and the neutralization of the SD, suggested that these orders were not meant to uphold the Nazi regime.
Hitler’s survival, subsequent radio announcements, and his own radio broadcast that same evening eliminated whatever chance the coup had of succeeding, since army officers who might have fought against Himmler or Goebbels would not venture their lives against Hitler. The coup also lacked popular support. Its failure and the ensuing executions of Nazi opponents meant that the war and the racial policies of the Nazi regime persisted for nearly ten more months.
(12) See Peter Hoffmann, Stauffenberg und der 20. Juli 1944 (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1998); and Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance, translated by Bruce Little (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996).