In this blog post, I will talk about the July plot, and I will cover its causes, what actually happened, and its aftermath
A war on two fronts
Early on in the year of 1944, it appeared that Germany was fighting a losing war. The beaches of Normandy were under assault by the Canadians, the British, and the Americans, and the Soviet forces were gradually breaking the German advances in the east. Things didn’t look too well for Germany, but, despite all this, Hitler refused to surrender. Fed up with this, several German officers, including Colonel General Ludwig Beck, Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, General Erwin Rommel, and Hans Gisevius, decided that removing Hitler from power was the only way to ensure that Germany was not completely destroyed. A few of the conspirators, including Stauffenberg, believed that Hitler’s policies towards Slavs and Jews were too brutal, and wished to put an end to those. Almost all of the conspirators also possessed a desire to show the rest of the world, especially the allied powers, that not all Germans were like Hitler. Out of the collective anger of Stauffenberg, Rommel, and the others, the July 20 Plot, otherwise known as Operation Valkyrie, was born.
Operation Valkyrie was to be a coup d’état against Hitler and the Nazi party, which would have consisted of two parts. The first part was to be an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life, and, as was initially planned, attempts on the lives of Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler. During the time of the actual assassination attempt, however, it was decided that the plotters should only attempt to kill Hitler, as neither Goering nor Himmler were present at the site of attempted murder. It should also be noted that, in the early stages of the conspiracy, many of the conspirators, including Rommel, believed that it would be better to put Hitler on trial, instead of killing him. This, they believed, would prevent him from becoming a martyr to the rest of the Nazi party. The second stage of Valkyrie was to be a military takeover of Germany using the forces of the German Reserve Army. After establishing control over the government, the conspirators were to try and make peace with the Allied powers, especially the Soviet Union.
The first stage of the plan was put into motion by Claus von Stauffenberg on July 20th, 1944, after a conversation between Stauffenberg and a fellow schemer, Henning von Tresckow, where it was decided that Hitler must be killed as soon as possible to “prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German Resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it”, as Tresckow put it. Stauffenberg armed a crudely made bomb inside a briefcase, setting the fuse to go off after 10 minutes. He then entered a room known as the Wolfschanze, or Wolf’s Lair, where a meeting between Hitler and several German officers was under way. After setting the briefcase underneath a large, wooden table, where Hitler was examining a large map of the Eastern front, the Count excused himself under the premise of a phone call and exited the room. However, a short while after Stauffenberg had made his escape, an attendant nudged the briefcase under the wooden table. At around 12:42, the Count’s bomb went off, killing four people. Hitler, however, was barely injured, as he was shielded from the blast by the wooden table. In fact, on the same day as the assassination attempt, he met with the leader of Italy, Bennito Mussiloni, even giving him a tour of the bomb site.
Shortly after leaving the Wolf’s Lair, Stauffenberg saw a cloud of billowing smoke, signifying that his bomb had in fact gone off. After hurriedly jumping into his car, the Count rushed towards the airport, where he boarded a flight for Berlin. Mistakenly believing that Hitler was dead, Stauffenberg called the rest of the conspirators, and gave the go ahead for the second stage of the plot. The German Reserve Army, under the command of General Friedrich Fromm-a man who was not part of the plot, but simply knew about and condoned it-, was to begin to round up and arrest key German officials. Fromm, however, had recently learned that Hitler did survive the assassination attempt, and, perhaps desperate to distance himself from the conspirators, ordered that Count Stauffenberg and three other men by the names of General Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, and Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, be shot and killed. He then went to the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s most devout followers, and tried to claim that he suppressed the coup. Fromm was immediately arrested.
The aftermath of the July 20 Plot saw large numbers of people rounded up and killed by the Gestapo. Some estimates point to around 4980 people killed, while others point to around 200. It is worth noting that many of the people arrested were not directly involved in the plot, but they were either involved in other assassination attempts, or, as per the Sippenhaft (Blood Guilt) laws, were family members of the plotters. An example of someone who was not a German Officer, but was still arrested, is Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and influential preacher who advocated for resistance against the Nazis. Many of the conspirators, including General Ludwig Beck and General Erwin Rommel, simply committed suicide, the latter of which chose to do so in order to protect his family. During the executions, the principle plotters were strangled with piano wire, while others, as per the wishes of Adolf Hitler, were “hung like cattle”. Many of these executions were filmed, and these films were later watched in public showings. A few of the prisoners, including Pastor Bonhoeffer, were sent to concentration camps in the latter years of the war.