1514: György Dózsa, Transylvanian Braveheart Themed Set: Thermidor

1944: Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, for the plot to kill Hitler

July 21st, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1944, four senior Wehrmacht officers who had come within an ace of murdering Adolf Hitler less than 12 hours earlier were summarily shot in Berlin — the first of thousands executed for the most famous assassination attempt on the Fuhrer.

One of those rare moments where historical epochs (arguably) turn on the minutest exigencies of chance, the so-called July 20 plot had seen Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg insinuate a bomb into Hitler’s conference room in modern-day eastern Poland, then fly back to Berlin to mount a coup d’etat.


Stauffenberg had every reason as he left Wolfsschanze to believe the devastating blast at 12:42 p.m. must have killed the Nazi dictator. Little did he know that another officer at the table where the high command was plotting strategy for the eastern front had, in the name of legroom, shifted the deadly satchel to the other side of a heavy oak table support — shielding Hitler from the brunt of the explosion.

Four men died. Hitler had hearing loss, an injury to his right arm, and one hell of a grudge.

Stauffenberg weaseled out of the confused bunker and flew back to Berlin, expecting that his confederates were even then launching Operation Valkyrie — a contingency plan for martial law in the case of civic disturbance that the conspirators intended to use to mount a coup.

Failure to Communicate

Control and distribution of information was not the least of the many threads in the tapestry of July 20, 1944. Hitler had risen to power on his artful grasp of propaganda; today, his headquarters’ mastery of communications would overpower the putschists’ rank amateurism.

While en route, Stauffenberg had no ability to communicate to the wider world. Landing in Berlin three hours after the not-quite-deadly-enough blast at Wolfsschanze, he must have been stunned to find that Valkyrie had not been launched. Apparently, fragmentary reports from the east were unclear as to whether Hitler had survived; everyone was reluctant about committing himself.

Frantically, Stauffenberg — already deeply committed — rallied his comrades and set the treasonable gears into motion. But by this time, communications with Hitler’s headquarters had been re-established and contradictory reports of the assassination attempt’s success were flying in Berlin. Stauffenberg’s sincere but incorrect eyewitness testimony of Hitler’s death became increasingly untenable. Compounded by the sluggish and ill-coordinated action of the conspirators, officers of a more opportunist bent soon began lining up with the bad guys.

Joseph Goebbels, the senior Nazi in Berlin and Hitler’s wizard of public relations, was inexplicably left unmolested for hours — long enough to phone the radio station (also never seized) an announcement of Hitler’s survival. “To think that these revolutionaries weren’t even smart enough to cut the telephone wires! My little daughter would have thought of that.”

Conspirators’ orders to military units around Berlin went out late, piecemeal, and far too often fell on ears already deaf to the appeals. In some cases, the proclamations that should have been queued up for inundating the airwaves instantaneously were with some other officer not on the scene, and consequently were haphazardly redrafted on the fly — for telex operators who had caught the day’s drift themselves and intentionally delayed or ignored them.

From the perspective of a radio editor it was tragic. Tragic because the way in which details were handled made it obvious that this revolt had had very lithe chance of succeeding. (Source)

The coup fell apart almost as soon as it began.

Fromm Here to Eternity

Most decisively of all, timely information had prevented any participation by Gen. Friedrich Fromm, Stauffenberg’s commanding officer and the head of the Reserve Army — it was that position that allowed his aide access to Hitler’s person, and it was under his authority that the putschists were issuing their Valkyrie orders.

Fromm fell in the “opportunist” camp, and would have been ready to strike had the Fuhrer been demonstrably killed. But a telephone connection straight from the scene of the crime assured him that Hitler had survived … and that his adjutant was a wanted man.

Fromm the potential collaborator quickly turned the tables on Stauffenberg and company late on the night of the 20th.

The Schwein Abides

Before advancing to our heroes’ foreordained fate, take a moment to appreciate this newsreel rushed into production to assure the German public that everything was under control. It’s an impressive advance on statist slick-talking from Germany’s World War I clunkers (like this):

Notice Hitler greeting Mussolini — the two had been scheduled to meet that day; it would be their last encounter in this world. His maimed right arm hanging concealed beneath a greatcoat, Hitler shakes left-handed.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Now that Fromm saw which way the wind was blowing, he acted with alacrity: many executions in the days to come were the product of Hitler’s vengeance, but this night, Claus von Stauffenberg, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, Friedrich Olbricht, and Werner von Haeften were shot on Fromm’s orders for Fromm’s benefit. Here’s Shirer’s description of the fatal scene:

Fromm … had quickly made up his mind to eliminate these men and not only to cover up the traces — for though he had refused to engage actively in the plot, he had known of it for months, sheltering the assassins and not reporting their plans — but to curry favor with Hitler as the man who put down the revolt. In the world of the Nazi gangsters it was much too late for this, but Fromm did not realize it.

He … announce[d] that “in the name of the Fuehrer” he had called a session of a “court-martial” (there is no evidence that he had) and that it had pronounced death sentences on four officers: “Colonel of the Genera Staff Mertz, General Olbricht, this colonel whose name I no longer know [Stauffenberg, his aide], and this lieutenant [Haeften].”

In the courtyard below in the dim rays of the blackout-hooded headlights of an Army car the four officers were quickly dispatched by a firing squad. Eyewitnesses say there was much tumult and shouting, mostly by the guards, who were in a hurry because of the danger of a bombing attack — British planes had been over Berlin almost every night that summer. Stauffenberg died crying, “Long live our sacred Germany!”

The courtyard of the Bendlerblock on modern-day Stauffenbergstrasse in Berlin, where Col. Stauffenberg and three compatriots were shot. Photo by Daniel Ullrich, licensed by CC-by-sa.

Minutes after they died, the SS arrived on the scene and forbade any further executions of potential witnesses.

Fromm’s gambit didn’t work any better than Stauffenberg’s had: he was arrested right away, and was himself later shot.

What If?

While the afternoon’s theatrics may have been doomed from the moment Hitler arose unkilled from the bomb’s debris, his miraculous escape from death — “confirmation of the task imposed upon me by Providence,” he told the nation in a radio address an hour after Stauffenberg’s execution — is an inexhaustible mine for historical hypothesizing.

That the bomb could have, and would have with the least change in the principle variables, slain the dictator is widely accepted; a 2005 reconstruction of the blast scene by the Discovery Channel supports that belief in the context of the cable-documentary-friendly format* of Adolf Hitler plus slow-mo explosives. (Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series set up the episodes excerpted here with the plot’s historical background and the crew’s investigation into the precise dimensions of the blast space — a combination of file footage, modern recreation shots, talking heads, and tromping about the forest in the modern remains of Wolfsschanze.)

But that’s the easy what-if.

More problematic — and well into the realm of bar-stool dickering — are the questions of what would have happened if the explosive had hit its target.

Stauffenberg enjoys latter-day popularity in Germany — the street where he was shot bears his name — in no small measure because of the confessedly quixotic nature of the attempted murder. Indeed, he probably died at the height of his potential popularity for history.

But it’s not for nothing that this attempt (though it did have many botched antecedents) took place in the weeks when Germany’s military position went from desperate to disastrous. Over the preceding two months, Soviet offenses had pushed the front back to the prewar Polish border, and the Normandy landing had opened a rapidly expanding western front. The assassination had a healthy dose of self-interest … and therefore was at least potentially antithetical to other interests at play in the great conflagration.

The motivation of sparing the Fatherland the ravages of war on its own soil is not ignoble of itself, of course. But given this opposition circle’s years-long failure to take effective action against Hitler while he went from successful crime to successful crime, one might ask a little more than a late-breaking suicidal gambit for unreserved historical vindication.

The German military’s deal with the devil had seen Europe’s greatest armed forces squandered by its dumbest commander. The end result would bleed the Nazi state white at unspeakable human cost … but also, arguably, towards one of the better postwar outcomes imaginable.

And would the coup even have achieved the goal of leaving Germany unoccupied? It seems impossible to think that any outcome would have been worse than Hitler, and the last year of the war was also its bloodiest … but among the spectrum of counterfactual alternatives, the appealing possibilities mostly seem to work out in spite of the plotters, rather than because of them.

1. Civil War?

Countercoups, or even outright civil war, might very likely have erupted between rivals for succession. This might have worked out as the best-case situation — fragmenting German resistance and hastening the inevitable — but it might also have given Germany a leaner, meaner fascism with a path to enduring long-term. Predicting any particular arrangement of players to emerge from this black box is a just-so story, and any of them probably leads to one of the other three alternatives; certainly the plotters weren’t banking on their own subsequent overthrow.

2. Status Quo Ante?

The coup might have utterly failed to obtain peace. German was close to defeat; the Allies were demanding unconditional surrender, and the entire point of the plot was to surrender on better terms than that. Had no quarter been offered, the putschist government might then have fought on (either by choice, or by the compulsion of internal politics) to much the same end, although quite plausibly with much less gratuitous bloodletting in the camps. Accidentally abating the Holocaust would be a very significant plus, of course, but probably not what posterity has in mind when it goes naming streets for the man.

3. World War Against Russia?

The new government might have successfully made peace with the western Allies, which was its fervent hope. Under the circumstances of the summer of 1944, that practically implied the continuation of the global war with the capitalist and fascist powers aligning against the USSR. The horrors of the eastern front up to the summer of 1944 then would likely pale in comparison to what followed. You could tell the story so that it all works out in the end, but replacing the long Cold War with an immediate hot war, especially with the United States less than a year away from its first successful A-bomb test, isn’t exactly a presumptive improvement.

4. 1918 Redux?

In the all but unimaginable case that the post-Hitler government successfully sued for peace on both its fronts (or accepted unconditional surrender), it would have had to give up to a Soviet buffer zone much of what the Soviets ultimately conquered. Millions who died fighting for it, and millions more who died in concentration camps while the fighting played out, and millions of women raped by the conquering Red Army, would have considered that arrangement an improvement; still, the peace itself could have ensconced a less crazy and therefore more durable military dictatorship in central Europe, which wouldn’t necessarily seem like an altogether positive outcome vis-a-vis the actual postwar history. More worryingly, this might have horribly recapitulated the post-World War I scenario in which the liberal politicians who accepted defeat, and not the crazed reactionaries who caused it, were blamed for the loss, fueling the subsequent rise of some unattractive revanchist successor state. Precisely because that example would have been uppermost in the officers’ own minds, it’s hard to believe this least-bloodthirsty path would have been the actual consequence of the coup.

And so on …

Second-order effects from any of these possibilities generate a novelist’s trove of alternative histories. What would the map of eastern Europe have looked like? Whither European Jewry … and therefore the postwar state of Israel … and therefore the political chessboard in the Middle East? What would an early resolution in Europe have meant for the Pacific theater, or for the Chinese revolution? How would decolonization movements have been affected had the war concluded earlier, or had it transformed into a worldwide anti-Communist war?


Somewhere in those alternate realities, staff at the re-education camp are bantering over happy hour about what would have happened if Stauffenberg had failed.

Who knows if “internally peacable European social democracies” are a bullet point for the pie-eyed optimists, or the incorrigible pessimists?

A few of the books about Stauffenberg and Operation Valkyrie

Poor Col. Stauffenberg is due to be played by a smirking Tom Cruise in the biopic Valkyrie, a role that has drawn some slightly overheated controversy in Germany over Cruise’s adherence to Scientology.

* And, let’s face it, blog-friendly, too.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Poland,Political Expedience,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wartime Executions

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25 thoughts on “1944: Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, for the plot to kill Hitler”

  1. Goodstreet says:

    Oh yes, and let us not forget Admiral Canaris German patriot and spy extraordinaire. Admiral Canaris was hung on April 9th, 1945 only days before Hitler committed suicide and the allies liberated the prison in which the Admiral was interrogated and eventually hanged.

  2. Goodstreet says:

    Oh good grief! Get a grip on yourselves, people! Regardless of one’s personal opinion which is shaped by hearsay not experience, Tom Cruise is an excellent actor. As far as authenticity goes, are you forgetting that Valkyrie is a big budget Hollywood movie? Uniform authenticity? Oh please, it’s Hollywood! Do you actually believe the cotton candy brouhaha pumped out by Hollywood? Valkyrie memorializes a scandalous moment in time and portrays the horror conmensuarate with a people giving up free thought and allowing a charismatic oligarch to reign in terror from the tip of his delusional pyramid of plutocracy. Hitler’s inveterate sadism was not lampooned; the movie’s portrayal of der fuhrer brought a human quality to history’s most notorious fiend and one comes to understand how a nation of otherwise sane people could be duped into allowing a paranoid sociopath to lead them down the primrose path to hell on earth. By choosing to portray von Stauffenberg Cruise, in his “lunatic” scientologist manner, reminds us not to passively sit back and “enjoy” allowing sociopaths to dictate our lives, government, or spirituality. To hell with uniform accuracy! Valkyrie portrays a doomed nation of decent people tyrranized by violence and lies and one comes to realize that not all Germans thought der fuhrer was a real cool guy. Hollywood attempts a movie of conscience so we might not repeat the insanity of the 20th century and all you guys can think of to do is to nitpick at stupid little trivialities; and this petty tyrrany over a good turn is what allows uber creeps like Hitler, il Duce, and Stalin, the three very dangerous stooges, to pull the rug out from under an entire nation. What a bunch of petty, back biting, dreck.

  3. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    I spent some time in Berlin in the summer of 1972, and as a student of the Second World War, I was happy to see that the Bendlerblock was still standing and apparently in pretty good shape. I believe it was being used as an apartment complex at the time, as there was a small child running around the courtyard.
    And of course, it was still a divided city at the time with many bomb damaged building still visible over the wall in the eastern sector, and you didn’t have to look very far to find evidence of the conflict in the western portion of the city either. A very interesting place indeed.

  4. Frederick Borchers says:

    I just finished watching the movie “Valkyrie” with Tom Cruise. I didn’t pay that much attention to his acting of Col. Stauffenberg as I did to the uniforms for authenticity. It surprises me to see a big budget Hollywood war movie and yet not much research seems to be applied to the uniforms, awards, decorations etc. Where was the Authenticiyt office? Col. Stauffenberg was wounded and lost an eye and right hand. He should have worn a “Gold wound Badge.” Further, I noticed he wore Jodphurs with a red stripe. Generals? The German Generals had many ribbon loops but no ribbon bars above the left breast pocket. There’s more but don’t want to bore you.

  5. Fiz (UK) says:

    I think it’s an insult to Von Stauffenberg that the talentless religious-nut mad dwarf is about to be rolled out across the UK. I’ve seen a couple of clips, and I wonder how Tom Cruise could even possibly think he could play this man!

  6. tom chastain says:

    the oster conspiracy by terry parssinen is about the first plot agaist adoph hitler led by hans oster it happened in 1938. it is a very hard to put down book

  7. ShanghaiJohnnyP says:

    It might’ve been interesting if’Good Germans’like Rommel and Von Stauffenberg had succeeded in vanquishing Hitler on that July Day
    in 1944.
    However,the question remains”If Hitler Had Been Sent To Hell Not Quite a Year Earlier,What If Himmler;Goering;Eichmann and The Rest Of His Henchmen Had Remained to Run The Country??”.
    A really good Alternative History*(*The Good Kind.Not Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s SoSo Kind or Harry Turtledove’s Boring Kind!!)Novel is”Fox On The Rhine”and The Sequel”Fox At The Front”by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson.
    In Them,The Assassanation Attempt Succeeds,But The Head Nazis Survive.
    They Then Offer a Seperate Peace Treaty and Alliance Between Nazi Germany and The USSR,leading to an all out Civil War between the Nazis and Russians Against The Allies and The Wermacht!!
    FYI:Patton and Rommel Get To Meet Each Other!!

  8. I lived and worked in the Federal Republic of Germany for 27 years. I built a house in the small town of Felsberg by Kassel. A rumor circulated at the time that a close relative of Stauffenberg lived in a house just across the street. The name of the street was Theodor Heuss Ring. Is there any possible truth to this rumor.
    The was an elderly woman who lived there but kept very much to herself. I think I saw her once or twice in her garden.
    At the time (1971-1987) I didn’t think much of the connection. Today is different.
    Can anyone in the U.S. or Germany give me an answer?
    I would appreciate it very much!

    Peter M. Olsen
    Palm Springs. CA 92264

  9. Helga says:

    Know the story–old enough–lived through it–but to cast that short statured— maybe in just a quick profile glanze–Tom Cruise–bad acting to boost–ruined the whole expirience of the affair and for sure the movie.—for the viewers–I heard it said over and over again–Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg–what a joke—a small man in mind and statur he is–why I ask was that done .???

  10. Headsman says:

    Thanks for that great comment, Lloyd. You make a lot of excellent points.

    I don’t have a specialist’s expertise, more’s the pity, and would love to know more about what the denazification plan was before the end of the war — what was non-negotiable, what was flexible, and when it took shape. But it seems inherently plausible (without having the slightest direct evidence) that anything that *wasn’t* a collapse would have changed the successor German state(s)’s role in the US/USSR settlement, and the form and extent of denazification would then have been conditioned on the resulting exigencies of that relationship.

    None of which, I admit, implies the necessary recurrence of the Dolchstosslegende.

  11. Lloyd says:

    One of the best of all your articles on this blog. Many kudos to you for such a clear review of the events and discussion of the aftermath.

    I think in one place I can add to the discussion– the alternative endings to the war and aftermath of 1945 on. I think you underplay the damage done to Germany already at this point. The Germany of 1918 was much less damaged than Germany already was in 1944, and that lack of physical damage played into the myth of betrayal. The Germans of 1944 knew that they had been hit hard and that their enemies’ power was what was winning the war, not treason from within.

    You also don’t take into account the potentially similar case of real-life Japan in 1945-46. What I mean is that Japan was ripe for the stab-in-the-back scenario just as your Hitler-killed Germany would be.

    But the Allies knew all about that line of argument, and had taken steps already to counteract it in the post-war world. The first step in that plan was the Unconditional Surrender demand.

    Under the conditions of unconditional surrender, a Japan that had not been invaded had her entire government dismantled at every level. Economic activity was under military government as well. In the end, as we know, General MacArthur was not only Shogun, he wrote the new Japanese constitution.

    Plans to do similar things to Germany at the end of the war were already in place and all the Allies lacked was the opportunity. The de-Nazification of Germany was not a result of its complete conquest in May of 1945, but the result of implementation of existing plans.

    So had the death of Hitler in the plot led to Germany’s immediate collapse, the occupation, partition, military government, martial law and de-Nazification of 1945 would merely have commenced in 1944.

    P.S. Just as General Fromm tried to cover up his complicity by executing the chief plotters, I believe that the reason Hitler is regarded as so dumb a general is due to a similar intent. Hitler is the “blundering general” because of the surviving ones having a chance to blame him for every defeat and miscalculation that they themselves made.

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