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 more after­wards. On July 11, 1944, 36‑year-old 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 that their water­tight plans to kill Hitler had suc­ceeded, and that a new govern­ment of their making could success­fully con­clude an armi­stice with the Allies, thereby averting, as it turned out, a cata­clys­mal ending to the Father­land. 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

Operation Valkyrie plotter: Lt. Col. Claus von StauffenbergOperation Valkyrie plotter: Gen. Henning von TresckowOperation Valkyrie plotter: Gen. Hans Oster

Left: Lt. Col. Claus Schenk Graf 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 in the court­yard of the General Army Office (Bendler­block) shortly after the failed attempt known as Ope­ra­tion Val­kyrie. Hitler person­ally made sure of Stauf­fen­berg’s death by having his body exhumed to view it for himself.

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.

Operation Valkyrie plotter: Col. Gen. Ludwig BeckOperation Valkyrie plotter: Carl Friedrich GoerdelerOperation Valkyrie plotter: Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin

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