The German Government has honoured a group of Third Reich-era Wehrmacht officers who tried to kill Adolf Hitler on this day, 70 years ago… In a sombre ceremony in Berlin, German president Joachim Gluck called the bombing of Hitler’s ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in Eastern Prussia on July 20th 1944 a: “significant day in German history for showing the world that there were Germans who opposed the Nazi regime, as it was from this legacy that the newly founded Federal Republic, (once it belatedly recognized the significance of the military resistance), was able to draw legitimacy…”
The ‘July Bomb Plot’ as recently depicted in the Hollywood movie ‘Valkyrie’ (with Tom Cruise in the leading role), was actually not the first attempt to kill Hitler, but it was the one that came the closest to success: after the German disaster at the hands of Russian Forces at Stalingrad in 1942, many senior military figures believed that a greater German defeat was only a matter of time and by the summer of 1944 this feeling had grown to such an extent that these self-same senior Wehrmacht officers felt that only by opening secret peace negotiations with the Allies could Germany be saved from total & utter disaster… but they realised that the Allies would only take them seriously, once Adolf Hitler had been successfully assassinated..!
Following the previous assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich in Prague in 1942, then a failed attempted on Goebbels life, Hitler had often warned his immediate inner circle that all of them were open to such attacks and he himself took great personal steps to avoid being liquidated by his enemies. So it was that he frequently changed his itineraries and kept all but his closet aides in the dark when it came to his movements around Germany and increasingly spent a great deal of time either secure within in the Reichschancellery in Berlin or up at his favourite mountain-top retreat, the ‘Eagles Lair’ at Berchtesgarten in Bavaria in Southern Germany.
However from 1944, he took further steps with his security by increasingly basing himself within the heavily fortified bunkers of the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ at Rastenburg in East Prussia from where he ran the war with his military high command, safe behind the thickest of concrete walls and with an elite SS guard permanently on duty…as such, any assassin would have found it the most difficult of tasks getting anywhere close to the Führer to launch an assassination attempt.
However plans were indeed being laid down with a view to effecting exactly this, led by the Wehrmacht career-officer Claus von Stauffenberg, a veteran of the 1940 campaigns in Poland & France, before suffering serious wounds in the North African campaign as the result of a low-level Allied fighter attack, resulting in the loss of his right arm, three fingers on his left hand and his right eye. Upon his eventual recovery he was promoted Chief of Staff on the Army Reserve in Berlin whereupon, as a noted patriot, he was approached by a growing band of senior Wehrmacht plotters against Hitler and he agreed to join with them to plan the assassination of the Fuhrer and then open up negotiations with the Allies.
Previous attempts onAdolf Hitler’s life had failed, but in June of 1944 the conspiracy took a major step forward when Stauffenberg was promoted to full colonel and made the Chief-of-Staff to General Fromm, whereupon it was now necessary for him to actually attend meetings that were headed by Hitler, whom he first met on June 7th, 1944, just one day after the Allied Invasion of Europe on the Normandy coast-line on ‘D-Day’.
Now the German Army was facing defeat on both the Eastern & Western Fronts, speed was of the essence if the conspirators were to put their deadly plan into effect and open peace negotiations with the Allies while Germany was still putting up a fierce & stiff rear-guard action.
However in early July the Gestapo got wind of things and starting rounding up those they believed were involved with a potential assassination plot, allied to which a number of senior army officers involved in the plot were being posted away from the capital to both Fronts in France & Russia, whilst former Afrikakorps Commander Erwin Rommel, a senior figure in the plot, was badly injured when his staff car was bounced by a low flying Allied fighter… so with matters going badly astray, Stauffenberg decided to act..!
Knowing that a major military staff conference was being organised at the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in Rastenburg, as a severely disabled war hero above suspicion, Stauffenberg would be the perfect officer to carry a bomb… So carrying an attaché case in which a timed capsule full of acid would eat through a wire detonator when broken, thus activating a firing pin on a bomb, Stauffenberg went into a map room with Field Marshall Keitel and placed the bag against a leg of the table top upon which Hitler was looking at various campaign maps; after which Stauffenberg made an excuse that he had to take a telephone report from Berlin and left the map-room.
Instead he went straight to his staff car and as he reached it the bomb went off but Stauffenberg was able to bluff his way through the Lair’s main gates, past the SS guards who thought an air-raid was in progress, and a short while later reached the nearby air-strip and was on a Luftwaffe transport Ju-52 flying back to Berlin.
Unknown to Stauffenberg, just before the bomb exploded, another officer attending the briefing had moved the briefcase to the other side of the table leg he had chosen and the blast was directed away from Hitler who survived with his just clothes burned, a cut hand and damaged ear drums.
The planned coup d’état in Berlin that was due to follow the assassination was now thrown into complete disarray with nobody sure whether Hitler had been killed or not, with the only senior Nazi in Berlin at the time being Joseph Goebbels. A Major in the ‘Grossdeutschland’ Wachbataillon, Otto Remer, was sent to arrest Goebbels by the conspirators directing the doomed uprising in the capital, but Remer, a dedicated Nazi was put him in direct telephone contact with Hitler by Goebbels to prove that the Führer was still alive.
Promoted on the spot by Hitler to a full Colonel, Remer was ordered to round up the conspirators and, following a radio broadcast that there had been a failed attempt on Hitler’s life and the Fuhrer was still alive, all of the conspirators, including Stauffenberg, were identified and arrested.
The assassination attempt had failed in a clumsy & spectacular fashion and after a number of speedy courts-martial, the leaders of the coup were immediately executed on the spot by firing squad… but these men got off lightly in comparison as Adolf Hitler’s revenge was then most terrible to behold!
A nation-wide hunt across the Reich then ensued for anybody even faintly conected to the July 20th Bomb Plot and many individuals faced arrest and an immediate sentence of death, but not before enduring a most degrading public show-trial in front of the notorious Nazi Judge, Roland Freisler.
In the most terrifying & unjudicial of court-like like proceedings, this publicity-seeking judge and fervent Nazi publicly harangued & crucified many honourable & long serving senior Wehrmacht officers before also finding them guilty and pronouncing the death sentence on them.
Whilst a firing squad bullet was the ultimate fate for many of the convicted officers, a number of them were summarily hanged by piano-wire hastily thrown over beam in a nearby shed in brutal retaliation for this attempt on the Fuhrer’s life! (Though fate ultimately caught up with Freisler and he was killed in an Allied bombing raid on Berlin not long after!)
Today’s official recognition of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, (alongside 200 other plotters either executed or who committed suicide), as a symbol of the war-time resistance, some 70 years after the July 20th Bomb Plot, finally honours all the brave German patriots who stood up to the tyrannies of the Third Reich and gave their lives in an attempt to prevent Germany’s destruction in the ashes of the Second World War…
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014
Images Courtesy of Tomahawk Films & Reuters