Berlin, Germany August 7, 1944

On July 20, 1944, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg left a bomb in his brief­case in a con­ference room at the East Prussia head­quarters of Adolf Hitler, the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfs­schanze), before excusing him­self to take a call in the tele­phone exchange hut. In the con­ference room were Hitler and his senior officers, exa­mining opera­tions maps spread over an oaken table. It is thought that one of the parti­ci­pants, seeking leg room, moved the brief­case behind a mas­sive support leg almost as wide as the map table itself. When the bomb exploded, the table leg deflected the blast from its intended victim. The deto­na­tion was the start of Opera­tion Wal­kuere (Val­kyrie), the code­name of the officers’ coup. As did most people in the conference room, Hitler over­came the effects of the blast—singed hair and trou­sers, perfo­rated ear­drums, and injuries to an arm and leg—to thwart the coup and, in con­cert with Reichs­fuerher-SS Hein­rich Himm­ler’s Gestapo and the Nazis’ poli­ti­cal courts, extracted a savage revenge in the final stages of the war in Europe

Beginning on this date, August 7, 1944, Nazi Judge-Presi­dent Roland Freis­ler of Berlin’s People’s Court (Volks­gerichts­hof) opened a series of show trials against the con­spi­rators rounded up in the drag­net. The trials were held in the swas­tika-bedecked Great Hall of the Berlin Cham­ber Court. Selected civil ser­vants, party func­tion­aries, mili­tary officers, and jour­nalists were among the 300 or so in atten­dance. Behind Freis­ler on the dais was a film camera. Nazi Minister of Public Enlighten­ment and Propa­ganda Joseph Goeb­bels filmed the pro­ceedings to strike terror in poten­tial dissi­dents within Germany and to allow Hitler to view the pro­ceedings in private. The defen­dants that day—two jurists and six army officers—were pre­vented from con­sulting with their law­yers and forced to stand before the court in shabby clothes. Freis­ler shouted down their attempts to address the court at any length and with a stri­dency that made it diffi­cult for the film crew to record the defen­dants’ testi­mony so that their words could be heard by a film audi­ence. All eight were con­demned to death and hanged immediately. There was no possibility of appealing the verdict.

Four more show trials were held in August, and in every instance the accused was sen­tenced to death. Of the 7,000 alleged plot­ters—mili­tary and civil­ian—arrested by the Gestapo, nearly 5,000 were exe­cuted—among them two field marshals, 19 gen­erals, 26 colo­nels, two am­bas­sadors, seven diplo­mats, one cabi­net minis­ter, three secretaries of state, as well as the head of the Reich Police.

Operation Valkyrie and Defendants in Roland Freisler’s “People’s Court”

Operation Valkyrie mastermind Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, 1907–1944Berlin’s “hanging judge” Roland Freisler, 1893–1945

Left: Claus von Stauffenberg (1907–1944) was a colonel in the Ersatz­heer (Replace­ment Army) and the driving force behind the July 20, 1944, plot to assas­si­nate Hitler and take control of Ger­many. For his involve­ment in the failed bomb plot known as Opera­tion Val­kyrie, he and several co-con­spi­ra­tors were shot by a firing squad in the Bendler­block (head­quarters of the Ersatz­heer) in Berlin on the night of July 21, 1944, their bodies dumped in a shallow grave. A cine­matic retelling of the officers’ plot to assas­sinate Hitler and replace his regime with a new German govern­ment was released in late 2008, starring the Amer­ican actor Tom Cruise. Bendler­strasse, the street on which army headquarters was located, has been renamed Stauffenbergstrasse.

Right: Roland Freisler (1893–1945). As then-Secretary of State for the Reich Minis­try of Jus­tice, Freis­ler attended the January 1942 Wann­see Con­fer­ence at the Villa Minoux out­side Berlin. Rein­hard Hey­drich, chief of the Reich Secu­rity Head (or Main) Office and head of the German secret police appara­tus, had called the par­ti­ci­pants together as part of the Nazis’ quest to find a “final solu­tion to the Jewish Question,” i.e., how to the murder Europe’s Jews. In August 1942 Freis­ler was appointed “President of the People’s Court” in the German capital.

Freisler’s "People's Court," August 1944Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben shortly before sentencing

Left: Freisler (center) in the Great Hall of the Berlin Cham­ber Court, August 1944. Freis­ler’s kan­ga­roo “People’s Court” had been set up to judge “poli­tical crimes” and was unequi­vocally an instru­ment of Nazi terror. Begin­ning in August 1944 Freis­ler presided over the trials of those charged in connec­tion with the July 20 bomb plot to assas­si­nate Hitler. Freis­ler was killed in his court­room during an Allied air raid in Febru­ary 1945 when he was hit on the head by falling masonry. Luise Jodl, wife of German Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Opera­tions Staff of the Armed Forces High Com­mand, was working at Luet­zow Hos­pital when Freis­ler’s body was brought in. “It is God’s ver­dict,” some­one commented. As Luise Jodl recalled: “Not one person said a word in reply.”

Right: Sixty-two-year-old Field Marshal Erwin von Witz­leben, shown in this photo from August 7, 1944, was the first to stand before Freis­ler, who imme­di­ately chas­tised him for returning a fleeting Nazi salute. Witz­leben was further humil­i­ated by being forced to hold his trousers at his waist, for he had been deprived of a belt or sus­pen­ders. Freis­ler shouted at one defen­dant struggling to keep his trousers on his hips: “You dirty old man. Why do you keep fiddling with your trousers?” Next to face Freis­ler was former Col. Gen. Erich Hoep­ner, com­mander of the Ersatz­heer to which Stauf­fen­berg belonged. Freisler addressed the defen­dant as “Schweine­hund.” When Hoep­ner corrected Freis­ler, saying he was not a Schweine­hund, Freis­ler asked him what zoo­logical cate­gory he fitted into. During the 1947 Judges’ Trial, one of twelve U.S. trials collec­tively known as the “Subse­quent Nurem­berg Trials,” Goeb­bel’s films of the 1944 show trials were used against the highest-ranking offi­cials of the Nazi judi­cial system. Freis­ler escaped indict­ment and punish­ment, having been killed in a 1945 bombing raid on Berlin. The Judges’ Trial was the inspiration for the 1961 Academy Awards-winning movie Judgment at Nuremberg.

History Channel Documentary on the Rise of Adolf Hitler and Operation Valkyrie—The Failed Officers’ Plot to Assassinate the German Leader (Multiple Episodes)

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