Military history

THE MISSION OF COUNT VON STAUFFENBERG

This was a man of astonishing gifts for a professional Army officer. Born in 1907, he came from an old and distinguished South German family. Through his mother, Countess von Uxkull-Gyllenbrand, he was a great-grandson of Gneisenau, one of the military heroes of the war of liberation against Napoleon and the cofounder, with Scharnhorst, of the Prussian General Staff, and through her also a descendant of Yorck von Wartenburg, another celebrated general of the Bonaparte era. Klaus’s father had been Privy Chamberlain to the last King of Wuerttemberg. The family was congenial, devoutly Roman Catholic and highly cultivated.

With this background and in this atmosphere Klaus von Stauffenberg grew up. Possessed of a fine physique and, according to all who knew him, of a striking handsomeness, he developed a brilliant, inquisitive, splendidly balanced mind. He had a passion for horses and sports but also for the arts and literature, in which he read widely, and as a youth came under the influence of Stefan George and that poetic genius’s romantic mysticism. For a time the young man thought of taking up music as a profession, and later architecture, but in 1926, at the age of nineteen, he entered the Army as an officer cadet in the 17th Bamberg Cavalry Regiment—the famed Bamberger Reiter.

In 1936 he was posted to the War Academy in Berlin, where his all-round brilliance attracted the attention of both his teachers and the High Command. He emerged two years later as a young officer of the General Staff. Though, like most of his class, a monarchist at heart, he was not up to this time an opponent of National Socialism. Apparently it was the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1938 which first cast doubts in his mind about Hitler, and these increased when in the summer of 1939 he saw that the Fuehrer was leading Germany into a war which might be long, frightfully costly in human lives, and, in the end, lost.

Nevertheless, when the war came he threw himself into it with characteristic energy, making a name for himself as a staff officer of General Hoepner’s 6th Panzer Division in the campaigns in Poland and France. It was in Russia that Stauffenberg seems to have become completely disillusioned with the Third Reich. He had been transferred to the Army High Command (OKH) early in June 1940, just before the assault on Dunkirk, and for the first eighteen months of the Russian campaign spent most of his time in Soviet territory, where, among other things, he helped organize the Russian “volunteer” units from among the prisoners of war. By this time, according to his friends, Stauffenberg believed that while the Germans were getting rid of Hitler’s tyranny these Russian troops could be used to overthrow Stalin’s. Perhaps this was an instance of the influence of Stefan George’s wooly ideas.

The brutality of the S.S. in Russia, not to mention Hitler’s order to shoot the Bolshevik commissars, opened Stauffenberg’s eyes as to the master he was serving. As chance had it, he met in Russia two of the chief conspirators who had decided to make an end to that master: General von Tresckow and Schlabrendorff. The latter says it took only a few subsequent meetings to convince them that Stauffenberg was their man. He became an active conspirator.

But he was still only a junior officer and he soon saw that the field marshals were too confused—if not too cowardly—to do anything to remove Hitler or to stop the grisly slaughter of Jews, Russians and POWs behind the lines. Also the needless disaster at Stalingrad sickened him. As soon as it was over, in February 1943, he asked to be sent to the front and was posted as operations officer of the 10th Panzer Division in Tunisia, joining it in the last days of the battle of the Kasserine Pass in which his unit had thrown the Americans out of the gap.

On April 7 his car drove into a mine field—some say it was also attacked by low-flying Allied aircraft—and Stauffenberg was gravely wounded. He lost his left eye, his right hand and two fingers of the other hand and suffered injuries to his left ear and knee. For several weeks it seemed probable that he would be left totally blind, if he survived. But under the expert supervision at a Munich hospital of Professor Sauerbruch, he was restored to life. Almost any other man, one would think, would have retired from the Army and thus from the conspiracy. But by midsummer he was writing General Olbricht—after much practice in wielding a pen with the three fingers of his bandaged left hand—that he expected to return to active duty within three months. During the long convalescence he had had time to reflect and he had come to the conclusion that, physically handicaped though he was, he had a sacred mission to perform.

“I feel I must do something now to save Germany,” he told his wife, the Countess Nina, mother of his four young children, when she visited his bedside one day. “We General Staff officers must all accept our share of the responsibility.”10

By the end of September 1943, he was back in Berlin as a lieutenant colonel and chief of staff to General Olbricht at the General Army Office. Soon he was practicing with a pair of tongs how to set off one of the English-made Abwehr bombs with the three fingers of his good hand.

He was doing much more. His dynamic personality, the clarity of his mind, the catholicity of his ideas and his marked talents as an organizer infused new life and determination into the conspirators. And also some differences, for Stauffenberg was not satisfied with the kind of stodgy,conservative, colorless regime which the old rusty leaders of the conspiracy, Beck, Goerdeler and Hassell, envisaged as soon as National Socialism was overthrown. More practical than his friends in the Kreisau Circle, he wanted a new dynamic Social Democracy and he insisted that the proposed anti-Nazi cabinet include his new friend Julius Leber, a brilliant Socialist, and Wilhelm Leuschner, a former trade-union official, both deep and active in the conspiracy. There was much argument, but Stauffenberg rapidly achieved dominance over the political leaders of the plot.

He was equally successful with most of the military men. He recognized General Beck as the nominal leader of these and held the former General Staff Chief in great admiration, but on returning to Berlin he saw that Beck, recovering from a major cancer operation, was only a shell of his former self, tired and somewhat dispirited, and that moreover he had no concept of politics, being in this field completely under the spell of Goerdeler. Beck’s illustrious name in military circles would be useful, even necessary, in carrying out the putsch. But for active help in supplying and commanding the troops which would be needed, younger officers who were on active duty had to be mobilized. Stauffenberg soon had most of the key men he needed.

These were, besides Olbricht, his chief: General Stieff, head of the Organization Branch of OKH General Eduard Wagner, the First Quartermaster General of the Army; General Erich Fellgiebel, the Chief of Signals at OKW; General Fritz Lindemann, head of the Ordnance Office; General Paul von Hase, chief of the Berlin Kommandantur (who could furnish the troops for taking over Berlin); and Colonel Freiherr von Roenne, head of the Foreign Armies Section, with his chief of staff, Captain Count von Matuschka.

There were two or three key generals, chief of whom was Fritz Fromm, the actual commander in chief of the Replacement Army, who like Kluge, blew hot and cold and could not be definitely counted on.

The plotters also did not yet have a field marshal on active duty. Field Marshal von Witzleben, one of the original conspirators, was slated to become Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces but he was on the inactive list and had no troops at his command. Field Marshal von Rundstedt, who now commanded all troops in the West, was approached, but declined to go back on his oath to the Fuehrer—or such, at least, was his explanation. Likewise the brilliant but opportunistic Field Marshal von Manstein.

At this juncture—early in 1944—a very active and popular Field Marshal made himself, at first without the knowledge of Stauffenberg, somewhat available to the conspirators. This was Rommel, and his entrance into the plot against Hitler came as a great surprise to the resistance leaders and was not approved by most of them, who regarded the “Desert Fox” as a Nazi and as an opportunist who had blatantly courted Hitler’s favor and was only now deserting him because he knew the war was lost.

In January 1944 Rommel had become commander of Army Group? in the West, the main force with which the expected Anglo–American invasion across The Channel was to be repelled. In France he began to see a good deal of two old friends, General Alexander von Falkenhausen, the military governor of Belgium and northern France, and General Karl Heinrich von Stuelpnagel, military governor of France. Both generals had already joined the anti-Hitler conspiracy and gradually initiated Rommel into it. They were aided by an old civilian friend of Rommel, Dr. Karl Stroelin, the Oberbuergermeister of Stuttgart, who like so many other characters in this narrative had been an enthusiastic Nazi and now, with defeat looming and the cities of Germany, including his own, rapidly becoming rubble from the Allied bombing, was having second thoughts. He, in turn, had been helped along this path by Dr. Goerdeler, who in August 1943 had persuaded him to join in drawing up a memorandum to the Ministry of the Interior—now headed by Himmler—in which they jointly demanded a cessation of the persecution of the Jews and the Christian churches, the restoration of civil rights and the re-establishment of a system of justice divorced from the party and the S.S.-Gestapo. Through Frau Rommel, Stroelin brought the memorandum to the attention of the Field Marshal, on whom it appears to have had a marked effect.

Toward the end of February 1944, the two men met at Rommel’s home at Herrlingen, near Ulm, and had a heart-to-heart talk.

I told him [the mayor later recounted] that certain senior officers of the Army in the East proposed to make Hitler a prisoner and to force him to announce over the radio that he had abdicated. Rommel approved of the idea.

I went on to say to him that he was our greatest and most popular general, and more respected abroad than any other. “You are the only one,” I said, “who can prevent civil war in Germany. You must lend your name to the movement.”11

Rommel hesitated and finally made his decision.

“I believe,” he said to Stroelin, “it is my duty to come to the rescue of Germany.”

At this meeting and at all subsequent ones which Rommel had with the plotters, he opposed assassinating Hitler—not on moral but on practical grounds. To kill the dictator, he argued, would be to make a martyr of him. He insisted that Hitler be arrested by the Army and haled before a German court for crimes against his own people and those of the occupied lands.12

At this time fate brought another influence on Rommel in the person of General Hans Speidel, who on April 15, 1944, became the Field Marshal’s chief of staff. Speidel, like his fellow conspirator Stauffenberg—though they belonged to quite separate groups—was an unusual Army officer. He was not only a soldier but a philosopher, having received summa cum laude a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Tuebingen in 1925. He lost no time in going to work on his chief. Within a month, on May 15, he arranged a meeting at a country house near Paris between Rommel, Stuelpnagel and their chiefs of staff. The purpose, says Speidel, was to work out “the necessary measures for ending the war in the West and overthrowing the Nazi regime.”13

This was a large order, and Speidel realized that in preparing it closer contacts with the anti-Nazis in the homeland, especially with the Goerdeler–Beck group, were urgently necessary. For some weeks the mercurial Goerdeler had been pressing for a secret meeting between Rommel and—of all people—Neurath, who, having done his own share of Hitler’s dirty work, first as Foreign Minister and then as the Reich Protector of Bohemia, was also experiencing a rude awakening now that terrible disaster was about to overtake the Fatherland. It was decided that it would be too dangerous for Rommel to meet with Neurath and Stroelin, so the Field Marshal sent General Speidel, at whose home in Freudenstadt the conference was held on May 27. The three men present, Speidel, Neurath and Stroelin, were, like Rommel himself, all Swabians and this affinity appears not only to have made the meeting congenial but to have led to ready agreement. This was that Hitler must be quickly overthrown and that Rommel must be prepared to become either the interim head of state or Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces—neither of which posts, it must be said, Rommel at any time ever demanded for himself. A number of details were worked out, including plans for contacting the Western Allies for an armistice, and a code for communication between the conspirators in Germany and Rommel’s headquarters.

General Speidel is emphatic in his assertion not only that Rommel frankly informed his immediate superior in the West, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, as to what was up, but that the latter was “in complete agreement.” There was a flaw, however, in the character of this senior officer of the Army.

During a discussion on the formulation of joint demands to Hitler [Speidel later wrote] Rundstedt said to Rommel: “You are young. You know and love the people. You do it.”14

After further conferences that late spring the following plan was drawn up. Speidel, almost alone among the Army conspirators in the West, survived to describe it:

An immediate armistice with the Western Allies but not unconditional surrender. German withdrawal in the West to Germany. Immediate suspension of the Allied bombing of Germany. Arrest of Hitler for trial before a German court. Overthrow of Nazi rule. Temporary assumption of executive power in Germany by the resistance forces of all classes under the leadership of General Beck, Goerdeler, and the trade-union representative, Leuschner. No military dictatorship. Preparation of a “constructive peace” within the framework of a United States of Europe. In the East, continuation of the war. Holding a shortened line between the mouth of the Danube, the Carpathian Mountains, the River Vistula and Memel.15

The generals seem to have had no doubts whatsoever that the British and American armies would then join them in the war against Russia to prevent, as they said, Europe from becoming Bolshevik.

In Berlin General Beck agreed, at least to the extent of continuing the war in the East. Early in May he sent through Gisevius a memorandum to Dulles in Switzerland outlining a fantastic plan. The German generals in the West were to withdraw their forces to the German frontier after the Anglo–American invasion. While this was going on, Beck urged that the Western Allies carry out three tactical operations: land three airborne divisions in the Berlin area to help the conspirators hold the capital, carry out large-scale seaborne landings on the German coast near Hamburg and Bremen, and land a sizable force across the Channel in France. Reliable anti-Nazi German troops would in the meantime take over in the Munich area and surround Hitler at his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg. The war against Russia would go on. Dulles says he lost no time in trying to bring the Berlin conspirators down to earth. They were told there could be no separate peace with the West.16

Stauffenberg, his friends in the Kreisau Circle and such members of the conspiracy as Schulenburg, the former ambassador in Moscow, had come to realize this. In fact most of them, including Stauffenberg, were “Easterners”—pro-Russian though anti-Bolshevik. For a time they believed that it might be easier to get a better peace with Russia—which through statements from Stalin himself had emphasized in its radio propaganda that it was fighting not against the German people but against “the Hitlerites”—than with the Western Allies, who harped only of “unconditional surrender.”* But they abandoned such wishful thinking in October 1943, when the Soviet government at the Moscow Conference of Allied Foreign Ministers formally adhered to the Casablanca declaration of unconditional surrender.

And now, as the fateful summer of 1944 approached, they realized that with the Red armies nearing the frontier of the Reich, the British and American armies poised for a large-scale invasion across the Channel, and the German resistance to Alexander’s Allied forces in Italy crumbling, they must quickly get rid of Hitler and the Nazi regime if any kind of peace at all was to be had that would spare Germany from being overrun and annihilated.

   In Berlin, Stauffenberg and his confederates had at last perfected their plans. They were lumped under the code name “Valkyrie”—an appropriate term, since the Valkyrie were the maidens in Norse-German mythology, beautiful but terrifying, who were supposed to have hovered over the ancient battlefields choosing those who would be slain. In this case, Adolf Hitler was to be slain. Ironically enough, Admiral Canaris, before his fall, had sold the Fuehrer the idea of Valkyrie, dressing it up as a plan for the Home Army to take over the security of Berlin and the other large cities in case of a revolt of the millions of foreign laborers toiling in these centers. Such a revolt was highly unlikely—indeed, impossible—since the foreign workers were unarmed and unorganized, but to the suspicious Fuehrer danger lurked everywhere these days, and, with almost all the able-bodied soldiers absent from the homeland either at the front or keeping down the populace in the far-flung occupied areas, he readily fell in with the idea that the Home Army ought to have plans for protecting the internal security of the Reich against the hordes of sullen slave laborers. Thus Valkyrie became a perfect cover for the military conspirators, enabling them to draw up quite openly plans for the Home Army to take over the capital and such cities as Vienna, Munich and Cologne as soon as Hitler had been assassinated.

In Berlin their main difficulty was that they had very few troops at their disposal and that these were outnumbered by the S.S. formations. Also there were considerable numbers of Luftwaffe units in and around the city manning the antiaircraft defenses, and these troops, unless the Army moved swiftly, would remain loyal to Goering and certainly make a fight of it to retain the Nazi regime under their chief even if Hitler were dead. Their flak guns could be used as artillery against the Army detachments. On the other hand, the police force in Berlin had been won over through its chief, Count von Helldorf, who had joined the conspiracy.

In view of the strength of the S.S. and Air Force troops, Stauffenberg laid great stress on the timing of the operation to gain control of the capital. The first two hours would be the most critical. In that short space of time the Army troops must occupy and secure the national broadcasting headquarters and the city’s two radio stations, the telegraph and telephone centrals, the Reich Chancellery, the ministries and the headquarters of the S.S.-Gestapo. Goebbels, the only prominent Nazi who rarely left Berlin, must be arrested along with the S.S. officers. In the meantime, the moment Hitler was killed his headquarters at Rastenburg must be isolated from Germany so that neither Goering nor Himmler, nor any of the Nazi generals such as Keitel and Jodl, could take over and attempt to rally the police or the troops behind a continued Nazi regime. General Fellgiebel, Chief of Signals, who was stationed at the Fuehrer’s headquarters, had undertaken to see to this.

Only then, after all these things had been accomplished within the first couple of hours of the coup, could the messages, which had been drawn up and filed, be sent out by radio, telephone and telegraph to the commanders of the Home Army in other cities and to the top generals commanding the troops at the front and in the occupied zones, announcing that Hitler was dead and that a new anti-Nazi government had been formed in Berlin. The revolt would have to be over—and achieved—within twenty-four hours and the new government firmly installed. Otherwise the vacillating generals might have second thoughts. Goering and Himmler might be able to rally them, and a civil war would ensue. In that case the fronts would cave in and the very chaos and collapse which the plotters wished to prevent would become inevitable.

All depended for success, after Hitler had been assassinated—and Stauffenberg personally would see to this—on the ability of the plotters to utilize for their purposes, and with the utmost speed and energy, the available Army troops in and around Berlin. This posed a knotty problem.

Only General Fritz Fromm, the commander in chief of the Home or Replacement Army, could normally give the order to carry out Valkyrie. And to the very last he remained a question mark. All through 1943 the conspirators had worked on him. They finally concluded that this wary officer could be definitely counted upon only after he saw that the revolt had succeeded. But since they were sure of its success, they proceeded to draft a series of orders under Fromm’s name, though without his knowledge. In case he wavered at the crucial moment, Fromm was to be replaced by General Hoepner, the brilliant tank commander who had been cashiered by Hitler after the battle for Moscow in 1941 and forbidden to wear his uniform.

The problem of another key general in Berlin also plagued the plotters. This was General von Kortzfleisch, an out-and-out Nazi, who commanded Wehrkreis III, which included Berlin and Brandenburg. It was decided to have him arrested and replaced by General Freiherr von Thuengen. General Paul von Hase, the commandant of Berlin, was in on the plot and could be counted upon to lead the local garrison troops in the first, all-important step of taking over the city.

Besides drawing up detailed plans for seizing control of Berlin, Stauffenberg and Tresckow, in collaboration with Goerdeler, Beck, Witzleben and others, drafted papers giving instructions to the district military commanders on how they were to take over executive power in their areas, put down the S.S., arrest the leading Nazis and occupy the concentration camps. Furthermore, several ringing declarations were composed which at the appropriate moment were to be issued to the armed forces, the German people, the press and the radio. Some were signed by Beck, as the new head of state, others by Field Marshal von Witzleben, as Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht, and by Goerdeler, as the new Chancellor. Copies of the orders and appeals were typed in great secrecy late at night in the Bendlerstrasse by two brave women in the plot, Frau Erika von Tresckow, the wife of the general who had done so much to further the conspiracy, and Margarete von Oven, the daughter of a retired general and for years the faithful secretary of two former commanders in chief of the Army, Generals von Hammerstein and von Fritsch. The papers were then hidden in General Olbricht’s safe.

The plans, then, were ready. In fact, they had been perfected by the end of 1943, but for months little had been done to carry them out. Events, however, could not wait on the conspirators. As June 1944 came they realized that time was running out on them. For one thing, the Gestapo was closing in. The arrests of those who were in on the plot, among them Count von Moltke and the members of the Kreisau Circle, were mounting with each week that passed, and there were many executions. Beck, Goerdeler, Hassell, Witzleben and others in the inner circle were being so closely shadowed by Himmler’s secret police that they found it increasingly difficult to meet together. Himmler himself had warned the fallen Canaris in the spring that he knew very well that a rebellion was being hatched by the generals and their civilian friends. He mentioned that he was keeping a watch on Beck and Goerdeler. Canaris passed the warning on to Olbricht.17

Just as ominous for the conspirators was the military situation. The Russians, it was believed, were about to launch an all-out offensive in the East. Rome was being abandoned to the Allied forces. (It fell on June 4.) In the West the Anglo–American invasion was imminent. Very soon Germany might go down to military defeat—before Nazism could be overthrown. Indeed, there was a growing number of conspirators, perhaps influenced by the thinking of the Kreisau Circle, who began to feel that it might be better to call off their plans and let Hitler and the Nazis take the responsibility for the catastrophe. To overthrow them now might merely perpetrate another “stab-in-the-back” legend, such as that which had fooled so many Germans after the First World War.

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