Killing Hitler would exempt members of the Wehrmacht from their oath of allegiance and make a coup d'état possible. And even if this move would not secure better terms from the Allies, at least there would be a moral victory. In early 1944, a new leader instilled the movement with renewed hope. Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg became disillusioned with Nazi occupation policies on the Eastern Front. He had been badly wounded in Tunisia that year, losing his left eye, right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. While recovering in Germany, he dedicated himself to the task of killing Hitler. Appointed chief of staff of the Reserve Army in July, Stauffenberg developed a daring scheme to assassinate the Führer.
Stauffenberg openly developed a plan, under the code name valkyrie, for the Berlin garrison to impose military control on the city in case of a rebellion by the millions of foreign workers employed there. This plan provided cover for the plot to suppress the Schutzstaffel (SS) after Hitler had been removed. The police chief and commandant of Berlin supported the plan, and Stauffenberg carefully coordinated with sympathetic military officials in Paris and Vienna. He hoped to carry off the coup before any Allied invasion could occur and then negotiate an end to the war.
D day occurred before an attempt could be made, however, and many conspirators argued that the invasion rendered the question of assassination moot. Stauffenberg remained determined. Twice he carried explosives to meetings where Hitler was to appear; twice circumstances stayed the event. Then, on 20 July 1944 at a meeting of Hitler and the General Staff near Rastenburg, East Prussia (Ketrzyn, Poland), Stauffenberg armed the bomb concealed in his briefcase and set it down 6 feet from the Führer, and slipped from the meeting to signal the start of the coup d'état.
Through an accident, the bomb was moved, and it only wounded Hitler. Meanwhile, while waiting for confirmation that the Führer was dead, Stauffenberg's coconspirators hesitated and then divided. When news came that Hitler was still alive, the plot collapsed as SS leader Heinrich Himmler and the head of the Armed Forces High Command (OKW), Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, moved quickly to crush it. Troops loyal to Hitler arrested the leading conspirators. Beck was permitted to commit suicide, whereas Stauffenberg and Olbricht were shot out of hand. Further investigation by the Gestapo revealed the breadth of the activity, which came as a surprise to the regime. Ultimately, some 7,000 people were arrested. The leaders were tortured and subjected to farcical "trials" before the People's Court and then executed in the most hideous fashion, with the event filmed for the amusement of Hitler and other Nazi leaders. In all, perhaps 5,000 opponents of the regime, no matter what the level of their involvement in the plot, were executed.
As the best-known act of resistance in Nazi Germany, the unsuccessful attempt of military leaders to kill Hitler remains controversial. Some scholars hail it as an act of conscience that laid the foundations for a new Germany, but others note that the attempt did not come until Germany was on the brink of defeat. They interpret it, moreover, simply as a repudiation of Hitler himself and not of Nazi principles in general. Whether an act of conscience or a simple coup attempt, the only serious, internal attempt to end Nazi power in Germany resulted in failure.
Timothy C. Dowling
Gallante, Pierre, with Eugène Silanoff. Operation VALKYRIE: The German Generals' Plot against Hitler. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.; Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.; Mason, Herbert Molloy, Jr. To Kill the Devil: The Attempts on the Life of Adolf Hitler. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.; Toland, John. Adolf Hitler. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.