On This Day | 20 July 1944: Stauffenberg and the plot to kill Hitler

20 July 1944: On this day in Berlin history, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg – along with the help of a number of other co-conspirators – attempted to assassinate the Nazi dictator and launch a coup d’état in “The 20th of July Plot”, a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie, a.k.a. The Plot to Kill Hitler.

At this time, Allied forces were stalled in Normandy and several members of the German Army General Staff and Army High Command feared that Hitler was leading Germany and its people into the abyss.

Claus von Stauffenberg was executed for his part in Operation Valkyrie: the plot to kill Hitler.
Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (1907-1944)

Over the course of WWII, senior staff officer Stauffenberg came to realize the criminal character of National Socialist policy. Following a severe injury that cost him an eye, his entire right hand, and two fingers on his left hand, Stauffenberg was transferred to the General Army Office of the Army High Command in September 1943. This is when he came in contact with a circle of opponents of the Nazi regime, including his new superior, General Friedrich Olbricht, who’d been a driving force behind the military efforts toward staging a coup against Hitler since 1938.

Olbricht informed Stauffenberg of his plans of a coup and put him in contact with Ludwig Beck and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler who, by July 1944, had created a circle of a range of senior German soldiers and officials committed to the idea that only the murdering of Hitler would create the conditions for a successful takeover of power.

So on this day – 74 years ago – Stauffenberg made his way to the so-called “Wolf’s Lair” in East Prussia (current day Poland) and was able to smuggle a time bomb in his briefcase. He succeeded in taking it into the meeting with Hitler, which had been transferred from a concrete bunker (where the effects of the blast would have been deadly) to a small wooden building on ground level. Stauffenberg primed the bomb to go off with his three remaining fingers, pushed his briefcase under the oak map table and left the meeting (and building) to answer a fictitious telephone call.

Unfortunately, someone else present around the table, possibly irritated at stubbing his foot on the case, pushed it further under the table where it stopped behind a thick oak support just before the bomb went off.
The explosion killed four people, destroyed the building, but left Hitler dazed, deaf, his clothes in shreds, and with an injured arm.

By this point, Stauffenberg was on his way to catch a flight back to Berlin, but had seen the explosion from a distance and assumed right away that the assassination had worked. He arrived at the War Ministry where he and his co-conspirators tried to take over the building; but as news began to filter through that Hitler was not dead, the situation was suddenly reversed. Stauffenberg was soon shot – but not killed – arrested and then taken with his co-conspirators to the War Ministry courtyard and executed by firing squad.

Unfortunately, Hitler’s power would now reach a new peak in Germany. The Nazis’ wrath of revenge for this attempt on his life was initially aimed at those directly involved in the attempted coup with more than 170 people – in at least 55 trials before the People’s Court – sentenced to death.

Upwards of another 150 people involved in the coup attempt, or merely “suspected”, were initially imprisoned without trial and eventually murdered as late as April 1945.

The destroyed Wolfsschanze after the plot to kill Hitler
The Wolfsschanze, after the explosion. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-025-12 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Moreover, in August 1944, this attempt on Hitler’s life prompted him and Heinrich Himmler to launch “Operation Thunderstorm” which called for the arrest of all politicians from the former Weimar Republic, in order to prevent a potential democratic reconstruction in Germany. This resulted in the imprisonment of more than 5,000 people – many of whom did not survive.

Stauffenberg, and all of those who helped him in the plot to kill Hitler, put their lives on the line to end the National Socialist dictatorship of Germany in July 1944. And if the war had stopped shortly thereafter (and it’s quite possible that it may not have – but if it had), millions of military casualties and innocent lives could possibly have been saved, as it’s very likely that it would’ve provoked the Allies to at least reconsider their Unconditional Surrender demand of Nazi Germany.

At any rate, Stauffenberg and those who assisted him, are heroes for trying to end the life of the most ruthless, blood-thirsty, evil men in history.

Today, in the courtyard where Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were brutally murdered on July 20, 1944, is the entrance to the Memorial of the German Resistance Museum, which informs us about those individuals and the network of peoples who risked their lives standing up to National Socialism during the Third Reich.

James McDonough

This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member, Jim McDonough

and originally appeared on our Facebook page.