Military history

THE COUP OF JULY 20, 1944

Toward the end of June the plotters received one good stroke of fortune. Stauffenberg was promoted to full colonel and appointed chief of staff to General Fromm, the commander in chief of the Home Army. This post not only enabled him to issue orders to the Home Army under Fromm’s name but gave him direct and frequent access to Hitler. Indeed, the Fuehrer began to summon the chief of the Replacement Army, or his deputy, to headquarters two or three times a week to demand fresh replacements for his decimated divisions in Russia. At one of these meetings Stauffenberg intended to plant his bomb.

Stauffenberg had now become the key man in the conspiracy. On his shoulders alone rested its only chance for success. As the one member of the plot who could penetrate the heavily guarded Fuehrer headquarters it was up to him to kill Hitler. As chief of staff of the Replacement Army it would have to be left to him—since Fromm had not been won over completely and could not be definitely counted on—to direct the troops that were to seize Berlin after Hitler was out of the way. And he had to carry out both objectives on the same day and at two spots separated by two or three hundred miles—the Fuehrer’s headquarters, whether on the Obersalzberg or at Rastenburg, and Berlin. Between the first and the second acts there must be an interval of two or three hours while his plane was droning back to the capital during which he could do nothing but hope that his plans were being energetically initiated by his confederates in Berlin. That was one trouble, as we shall shortly see.

There were others. One seems to have been an almost unnecessary complication that sprang up in the minds of the now desperate conspirators. They came to the conclusion that it would not suffice to kill Adolf Hitler. They must at the same time kill Goering and Himmler, thus ensuring that the military forces under the command of these two men could not be used against them. They thought too that the top generals at the front who had not yet been won over would join them more quickly if Hitler’s two chief lieutenants were also done away with. Since Goering and Himmler usually attended the daily military conferences at the Fuehrer headquarters, it was believed that it would not be too difficult to kill all three men with one bomb. This foolish resolve led Stauffenberg to miss two golden opportunities.

He was summoned to the Obersalzberg on July 11 to report to the Fuehrer on the supply of badly needed replacements. He carried with him on the plane down to Berchtesgaden one of the Abwehr’s English-made bombs. It had been decided at a meeting of the plotters in Berlin the night before that this was the moment to kill Hitler—and Goering and Himmler as well. But Himmler was not present at the conference that day and when Stauffenberg, leaving the meeting for a moment, rang up General Olbricht in Berlin to tell him so, stressing that he could still get Hitler and Goering, the General urged him to wait for another day when he could get all three. That night, on his return to Berlin, Stauffenberg met with Beck and Olbricht and insisted that the next time he must attempt to kill Hitler, regardless of whether Goering and Himmler were present or not. The others agreed.

The next time was soon at hand. On July 14 Stauffenberg was ordered to report the next day to the Fuehrer on the replacement situation—every available recruit was needed to help fill the gaps in Russia, where Army Group Center, having lost twenty-seven divisions, had ceased to exist as a fighting force. That day—the fourteenth—Hitler had moved his headquarters back to Wolfsschanze at Rastenburg to take personal charge of trying to restore the central front, where Red Army troops had now reached a point but sixty miles from East Prussia.

Again, on the morning of July 15, Colonel Stauffenberg set out by plane for the Fuehrer’s headquarters* with a bomb in his briefcase. This time the conspirators were so certain of success that it was agreed that the first Valkyrie signal—for the troops to start marching in Berlin and for the tanks from the panzer school at Krampnitz to begin rolling toward the capital—should be given two hours before Hitler’s conference, scheduled for 1 P.M., began. There must be no delay in taking over.

At 11 A.M. on Saturday, July 15, General Ulbricht issued Valkyrie I for Berlin and before noon troops were moving toward the center of the capital with orders to occupy the Wilhelmstrasse quarter. At 1 P.M. Stauffenberg, briefcase in hand, arrived at the Fuehrer’s conference room, made his report on replacements, and then absented himself long enough to telephone Olbricht in Berlin to say—by prearranged code—that Hitler was present and that he intended to return to the meeting and set off his bomb. Olbricht informed him that the troops in Berlin were already on the march. At last success in the great enterprise seemed at hand. But when Stauffenberg returned to the conference room Hitler had left it and did not return. Disconsolate, Stauffenberg hurriedly rang up Olbricht with the news. The General frantically canceled the Valkyrie alarm and the troops were marched back to their barracks as quickly and as inconspicuously as possible.

The news of still another failure was a heavy blow to the conspirators, who gathered in Berlin on Stauffenberg’s return to consider what next to do. Goerdeler was for resorting to the so-called “Western solution.” He proposed to Beck that both of them fly to Paris to confer with Field Marshal von Kluge on getting an armistice in the West whereby the Western Allies would agree not to push farther than the Franco–German border, thus releasing the German armies in the West to be shunted to the Eastern front to save the Reich from the Russians and their Bolshevism. Beck had a clearer head. The idea that they could now get a separate peace with the West, he knew, was a pipe dream. Nevertheless the plot to kill Hitler and overthrow Nazism must be carried out at all costs, Beck argued, if only to save Germany’s honor. Stauffenberg agreed. He swore he would not fail the next time. General Olbricht, who had received a dressing down from Keitel for moving his troops in Berlin, declared that he could not risk doing it again, since that would unmask the whole conspiracy. He had barely got by, he said, with an explanation to Keitel and Fromm that this was a practice exercise. This fear of again setting the troops in motion until it was known definitely that Hitler was dead was to have disastrous consequences on the crucial following Thursday.

On Sunday evening, July 16, Stauffenberg invited to his home at Wannsee a small circle of his close friends and relatives: his brother, Berthold, a quiet, introspective, scholarly young man who was an adviser on international law at naval headquarters; Lieutenant Colonel Caesar von Hofacker, a cousin of the Stauffenbergs and their liaison man with the generals in the West; Count Fritz von der Schulenburg, a former Nazi who was still deputy police president of Berlin; and Trott zu Solz. Hofacker had just returned from the West, where he had conferred with a number of generate—Falkenhausen, Stuelpnagel, Speidel, Rommel and Kluge. He reported an imminent German breakdown on the Western front but, more important, that Rommel would back the conspiracy regardless of which way Kluge jumped, though he still opposed killing Hitler. After a long discussion the young conspirators agreed, however, that ending Hitler’s life was now the only way out. They had no illusions by this time that their desperate act would save Germany from having to surrender unconditionally. They even agreed that this would have to be done to the Russians as well as to the Western democracies. The important thing, they said, was for Germans—and not their foreign conquerors—to free Germany from Hitler’s tyranny.26

They were terribly late. The Nazi despotism had endured for eleven years and only the certainty of utter defeat in a war which Germany had launched, and which they had done little to oppose—or, in many cases, not opposed at all—had roused them to action. But better late than never. There remained, however, little time. The generals at the front were advising them that collapse in both the East and the West was probably only a matter of weeks.

For the plotters there seemed to be only a few more days left to them to act. The premature march of the troops in Berlin on July 15 had aroused the suspicions of OKW. On that day came news that General von Falkenhausen, one of the leaders of the plot in the West, had been suddenly dismissed from his post as military governor of Belgium and northern France. Someone, it was feared, must be giving them away. On July 17 they learned that Rommel had been so seriously wounded that he would have to be left out of their plans indefinitely. The next day Goerdeler was tipped off by his friends at police headquarters that Himmler had issued an order for his arrest. At Stauffenberg’s insistence Goerdeler went, protesting, into hiding. That same day a personal friend in the Navy, Captain Alfred Kranzfelder, one of the very few naval officers in on the conspiracy, informed Stauffenberg that rumors were spreading in Berlin that the Fuehrer’s headquarters were to be blown up in the next few days. Again it seemed that someone in the conspiracy must have been indiscreet. Everything pointed to the Gestapo’s closing in on the inner ring of the conspiracy.

On the afternoon of July 19 Stauffenberg was again summoned to Rastenburg, to report to Hitler on the progress being made with the new Volksgrenadier divisions which the Replacement Army was hurriedly training to be thrown in on the dissolving Eastern front. He was to make his report at the first daily conference at Fuehrer headquarters the next day, July 20, a 1 P.M.* Field Marshal von Witzleben and General Hoepner, who lived some distance outside Berlin, were notified by Stauffenberg to appear in the city in good time. General Beck made his last-minute preparations for directing the coup until Stauffenberg could return by air from his murderous deed. The key officers in the garrisons in and around Berlin were apprised that July 20 would be Der Tag.

Stauffenberg worked at the Bendlerstrasse on his report for Hitler until dusk, leaving his office shortly after 8 o’clock for his home at Wannsee. On his way he stopped off at a Catholic church in Dahlem to pray. He spent the evening at home quietly with his brother, Berthold, and retired early. Everyone who saw him that afternoon and evening remembered that he was amiable and calm, as if nothing unusual was in the offing.

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