Wolf’s Lair, Rastenburg, East Prussia, Germany July 20, 1944

Adolf Hitler had been the target of four assassi­na­tion attempts before he became Germany’s head of state in January 1933 and perhaps two dozen after­wards. On July 11, 1944, Lt. Col. Claus von Stauf­fen­berg arrived at the Berg­hof on the Ober­salzberg, Hitler’s Bava­rian retreat near Berch­tes­gaden, carrying a bomb in his brief­case. Stauf­fen­berg, a staff officer to the head­quarters of the Ersatz­heer (Replace­ment Army), was part of a resis­tance group in the highest levels of the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) that had been planning Hitler’s assas­si­nation since at least 1938. Because the second-most power­ful man in the Third Reich, Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, chief of the Gestapo (secret police) and, from 1943, Minis­ter of the Interior, was absent that day, the plan was aborted. The plotters worried about a “civil war” breaking out between the power­ful police ser­vices under Himm­ler and the Wehrmacht if both men could not be killed at the same time.

Four days later Stauffenberg reappeared in Ras­ten­burg at the “Wolf’s Lair” (Wolfs­schanze), Hitler’s East Prus­sian head­quarters (now in Kętrzyn, Poland). Again the plan to kill Hitler was nixed because Himmler was not present. Finally, on this date, July 20, 1944, a hot and humid summer day, an exas­per­ated Stauf­fen­berg crossed the Rubi­con and planted a two-pound bomb in a briefcase under a marble-topped map table in a wood-frame con­fer­ence room at the Wolf’s Lair. The power­ful explo­sion had the unin­tended con­se­quence of killing thou­sands of people. By a quirk of furni­ture design, the “legs” at each end of the long table were one con­tin­uous piece of wood running width­wise from table edge to table edge; thus, the bomb blast was deflected away from its intended target standing to the other side of the single support. The explo­sion killed four indivi­duals, injured eight, and destroyed the conference room. But Hitler, his uni­form in tatters, miracu­lously sur­vived, sus­taining an injury to his arm, ear­drums, and leg. Hitler shipped his ruined uni­form to his long-standing girlfriend and future wife, Eva Braun, as a memento.

The detonation was the start of Operation Val­kyrie (Wal­kuere), the code­name for the mili­tary coup that began taking shape in Ber­lin upon Stauffen­berg’s return flight to the capi­tal. There the con­spir­a­tors briefly believed their water­tight plans to kill Hitler had suc­ceeded. At 1 a.m. the next morning, Hitler addressed the nation by radio, telling his lis­teners that his sur­vi­val was a provi­den­tial sign that he must surely continue in his role as Germany’s Fuehrer (leader).

Among the Allies the July bomb plot encouraged a delu­sional end-of-war eupho­ria. Many imagined Hitler’s Thou­sand Year Reich to be teetering on the brink of death. In London war planners set Decem­ber 31, 1944, as the likely date by which hostil­ities would end. And in Washing­ton, D.C., the War Produc­tion Board began cancelling mili­tary con­tracts despite the fight against the Japa­nese in the Pacific heating up. States in active or passive coali­tion with Nazi Germany such as Fin­land, Slova­kia, Roma­nia, and Bul­garia were begging for peace. Roma­nia defected to the Allied side on August 23, 1944, several weeks after Anglo-American armies had pushed out of their Normandy salient. In Nazi-occupied Poland, resi­dents of Warsaw staged a two-month uprising in August and Septem­ber 1944 against their oppres­sors. In bomb-battered Berlin, brazen anti­war protesters erected a banner in a rail­road station that read, “We want peace at any price,” an act of desper­a­tion compar­able to the decom­posing rot that spread internally in 1918 Germany, which forced Kaiser Wilhelm II’s govern­ment to agree to an armis­tice in Novem­ber. Hitler, too, had plans for an armis­tice, but they miscarried in the frigid, snow-decked forests of the Ardennes in December 1944.

Some Conspirators in the Plots to Kill Adolf Hitler

Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, German Resistance member Gen. Henning von Tresckow, German Resistance member Gen. Hans Oster, German Resistance member

Left: Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (November 15, 1907–July 21, 1944) was a 36-year-old Ger­man Army offi­cer and aristo­crat who, along with Gen. Maj. Henning von Tresc­kow and Gen. Maj. Hans Oster, was a leading mem­ber of the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assas­si­nate Hitler and remove the Nazi Party from power. For his in­volve­ment Stauf­fen­berg was shot shortly after the failed attempt known as Operation Valkyrie.

Middle: Four-star general Henning von Tresc­kow (Janu­ary 10, 1901–July 21, 1944) helped orga­nize resis­tance within the Wehr­macht against Hitler. He attempted to assas­si­nate Hitler in March 1943, and he drafted the Val­kyrie plan. On learning of the failure of the July 20 plot, he committed suicide on the Eastern Front.

Right: Gen. Hans Oster (August 9, 1887–April 9, 1945) was deputy head of the Ab­wehr (Ger­man mili­tary intel­li­gence) under Adm. Wil­helm Cana­ris and a leading figure in the Ger­man resis­tance move­ment from 1938 to 1943. Oster’s Ab­wehr group sup­plied British-made bombs to Tresc­kow’s group in their vari­ous bids to kill Hitler in 1943. Oster was exe­cuted on the same day Canaris was executed at Flossenbuerg prison in Bavaria.

Col. Gen. Ludwig Beck, German Resistance member Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, German Resistance member Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin, German Resistance member

Left: Col. Gen. Ludwig Beck (June 29, 1880–July 20, 1944) was Chief of the Ger­man Gene­ral Staff during the early years of the Nazi regime. In 1943 Beck planned two abor­tive attempts to kill Hitler using a bomb. In 1944 he was one of the driving forces of the July 20 plot with Stauf­fen­berg and Carl Goer­deler. Beck was tapped to head the pro­vi­sional Ger­man govern­ment that would assume power after Hitler had been killed.

Middle: Carl Friedrich Goerdeler (July 31, 1884–Febru­ary 2, 1945) was a con­ser­va­tive poli­ti­cian, the ex-mayor of Leip­zig. He was an execu­tive, eco­no­mist, civil ser­vant, and oppo­nent of the Nazi regime. Had the July 20 plot suc­ceeded, Goer­deler would have been named chancellor in the new government.

Right: With his father’s blessing, 22-year-old Ewald-Hein­rich von Kleist-Schmen­zin (July 10, 1922–March 8, 2013) unsuc­cess­fully attempted a sui­cidal assas­si­na­tion against Hitler in Janu­ary 1944 at the Wolf’s Lair. After the failure of July 20 plot, he managed to cover up his resis­tance acti­v­ities. Many of his fellow plotters, including his father, were brought before Roland Freisler’s kangaroo People’s Court in Berlin and sentenced to death.

Lead-Up to Operation Valkyrie: The Plot to Kill Hitler, July 20, 1944

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