There were those in the German Military, at the Foreign Office, and within the Civil Service for whom Nazism was a crude and brutal ideology but one they were willing to tolerate as long as the threat from communism was suppressed and pride restored following their humiliation in the Great War but they never reconciled themselves to the New Order and its leader, the vulgar ‘Little Corporal’ Adolf Hitler.
Many of those critical of the regime in private descended from a deeply conservative landed aristocracy who barely disguised their contempt for the urban louts who had in large part removed them from the levers of power and murmurings of dissent and even talk of plots against the Fuhrer were nothing new in the gilded drawing rooms of many a country house.
The early success of the German Army however, was to put any thought of plots to bed but as the tide of the war began to turn against Germany the old enmities soon re-emerged.
In December 1942, the previously invincible German Army was first halted and then turned back from the gates of Moscow and this was followed soon after in February 1943, by a catastrophic defeat on the banks of the River Volga at Stalingrad and the news from other fronts was hardly any better.
In May 1943, the Axis powers were forced to surrender in North Africa, two months later Italy was invaded and forced out of the war, and the attempt to turn the tide of the war in the East had been defeated at the Battle of Kursk. It was clear to many that the war was lost long before the Allies ever landed on the beaches of Normandy and that to continue it could only end in the destruction of Germany.
The opposition to Hitler however was divided and uncertain how to respond.
Those in the military rallied around the dignified figure of General Ludwig Beck, the former Chief of the German General Staff, and men such as General Hans Oster, Deputy Head of the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) and Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben.
The traditional Right of German politics that had been sidelined under the Nazi’s looked towards the outspoken ex- Gauleiter of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler, who had earlier been forced to resign after he criticised the decision to dismantle a statue of the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Neither grouping could be considered liberal in their views nor particularly democratic in their aims but rather they sought a return to a more traditional Germany with some wishing to see the return of the Kaiser whilst others wanted to continue the exclusion of Jews from German society.
Among a myriad of opposition groups many of which were little more than dinner party dissenters was the Kreisau Circle, named after the Country Estate of one of its members Helmuth von Moltke where meetings were held and their number read like a roll call of the old ruling elite with its leadership including prominent diplomats such as Adam von Trott du Solz and Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg. Indeed, some who had studied at Oxford University tried to use their contacts in England to forge links between the resistance in Germany and the Allies but the British not believing that they could deliver on their promises declined to take them seriously even though they had professed a vision for the new post-Nazi Germany they wished to create, a decentralised country of small communities firmly wedded to Christian values. But despite actively plotting Hitler’s downfall since 1938 as men of honour they were torn by their personal oath of loyalty to the Fuhrer. As such, they talked and talked but did little seeming to confirm British scepticism.
The only serious attempt to assassinate Hitler during this time was carried out not by one of their circle, or any other opposition group, but by Johann Georg Elser, an itinerant carpenter who planted a bomb in the Burgerbraukeller in Munich on 8 November 1938, that killed 8 people and wounded 63 others. Unfortunately for Elser, Hitler had completed his speech in haste due to the inclement weather and the urgent requirement he return to Berlin leaving 30 minutes earlier than had been anticipated.
The Catholic Church in Germany had also spoken out against the Euthanasia Programme forcing its cancellation and certain prominent Churchmen such as Clemens August Graf von Galen and the Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer continued to be critical of the regime but neither would countenance murder as a response to its iniquities.
None of the Military, the Conservative opposition or the Kreisau Circle were willing to co-operate with the underground Communist and Trade Union resistance and would certainly not agree to their participation in any future Government.
The early success of Hitler’s military campaigns had also dampened the enthusiasm of the conspirators to take action for not only had the Fuhrer never been more popular it seemed to many as if the war was as good as won; but as we have seen by 1943 this had all changed particularly following the Casablanca Conference in February of that year where President Roosevelt announced that the Allies would accept nothing less than the unconditional surrender of Germany.
The organised resistance however continued to be embarrassed by others who lacking their resources, and influence still actively strove to oppose Hitler.
The White Rose Movement, a small student group consisting of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and Christoph Probst based at the University of Munich distributed anti-Nazi literature before they were betrayed by a fellow student, arrested and guillotined on 18 February 1943.
A month earlier, in January the Conservative opposition and the Kreisau Circle met for the first time with the intention of unifying the resistance, it was not a success and it seemed as if they were as implacably opposed to each other as they were the Nazis.
The Kreisau Circle wanted to see Hitler arrested and put on trial for his crimes so that he along with the other leading Nazi’s could be condemned as individuals and Germany be cleared of all guilt in the eyes of the world. This they deemed a moral imperative. As far as Carl Goerdeler was concerned this was palpably absurd – the Kreisau Circle, were utopian dreamers and totally unrealistic – Hitler had to die. Many within the Kreisau Circle believed the Conservative opposition to be political reactionaries little better than the Nazi’s minus the mass genocide but it was Goerdeler who won the day.
The opposition to Hitler was invigorated by General Henning von Tresckow, the man the Nazi’s would later accuse of being the prime mover and evil genius behind the plots to remove the Fuhrer. He was a man of action who had told his cousin Fabian von Schlabrendorff as early as 1939 that:
“Both duty and honour demand from us that we should do our best to bring about the downfall of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.”
In March 1943, the conspirators at last made a serious attempt upon Hitler’s life when they planted a bomb on his plane as he travelled to a conference in Smolensk but it failed to go off due to the freezing temperature in the planes baggage department and the bomb later had to be hastily retrieved so as not to reveal the plotters identity.
It seemed yet another example of the Fuhrer’s apparent invulnerability and some began to believe as Hitler himself did that he was protected by destiny though in truth he had always been a difficult man to get close to, constantly under guard, often changing his routine at very short notice, and rarely punctual.
In early 1944, General Friedrich Olbricht, Chief of the Armed Forces Replacement Office, approached Tresckow with the idea of using the Reserve Army which existed to maintain control on the home front should there be a break down in law and order as a result of Allied bombing or any uprising among the millions of slave labourers present in Germany, to seize control of Berlin and other major cities following the assassination of the Fuhrer – the plan to mobilise the Reserve Army was known as Valkyrie.
Tresckow seized upon the idea of using the Reserve Army in what would become known to history as the July Bomb Plot to take control of the levers of power once Hitler had been assassinated and he got to work right away putting the building blocks of the plan in place, recruiting others he could trust, and informing the members of the Opposition of his intentions.
However, he was still a serving front-line Officer and was liable to be re-assigned and called away at any moment so he handed over the implementation of Valkyrie to the 36 year old Staff Officer Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a man only recently recruited to the cause but one in which he had absolute faith.
Claus Philipp Maria Justinian Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was every bit as aristocratic as the other conspirators within the Kreisau Circle and he likewise shared many of their views agreeing that the war in the East against the Russians must be continued not just for the sake of Germany but Western Civiisation but he remained in no doubt that the ideology of Nazism was evil to its core and must be destroyed.
His devout Catholicism and lifelong interest in philosophy had taught him to consider issues of morality in all things and he had long ago decided that the Concentration Camps and the murder of the Jews was an affront to God but he was no liberal, he was a soldier and deeply patriotic and had like many been happy to follow Hitler as long as it appeared that he would win the war. He had previously expressed his support for the policy of Lebensraum and of Germany’s further expansion East to achieve it. He also believed in the inferiority of the Slav races and did not oppose the use of them and other subjugated peoples as slave labour if by doing so it guaranteed German prosperity.
These were not the views of a democrat or ones we might expect of a Christian but an authoritarian bigot does not necessarily make a murderer.
On 26 September 1933, he had married Nina Lerchenfeld by whom he was to have 5 children and she would later say in his defence that he was often deliberately provocative in conversation:
“Claus really loved playing devil’s advocate. Conservatives were convinced he was a ferocious Nazi and ferocious Nazi’s were convinced he was an unreconstructed conservative. In fact, he was neither.”
Having been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel he was serving in Tunisia when on 7 April 1943, his staff car was strafed by Allied planes and seriously wounded he was evacuated back to Germany where he spent three months recuperating in a Munich hospital. He had lost his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. In truth, he had been lucky to survive.
Stauffenberg had become disillusioned with Hitler’s Germany and had expressed his discontent with the course of the war and the atrocities he had witnessed in the Occupied Territories saying that:
“The war had become monstrous with the killing of the Jews.”
His views were not unknown among his inner-circle and he was now approached by members of the Conservative opposition many of whom he knew personally. He was eager to participate in any plot to remove Hitler and Friedrich Olbricht arranged for him to be posted to the General Staff of the Reserve Army where he would be under his direct command and in a position that might in the future give him access to Hitler.
Made aware of Valkyrie, Stauffenberg believed that it provided the means by which not only would Hitler be assassinated but a new Government could be installed but it had to be re-written so as to enable it to respond to any apparent coup attempt, and this he proceeded to do:
The plan was for Hitler to be assassinated at his Headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia from where all communications would then be temporarily cut allowing the conspirators to announce the Fuhrer’s death. The Reserve Army would then be mobilised to prevent an alleged SS coup, all major communication centres and Government buildings would be occupied, and leading Nazis arrested.
Similar was to happen in other German cities and in those centres of control in areas under occupation. The formation of a new Government would then be broadcast to the people.
The problem was that though General Olbricht could mobilise the Reserve Army only it’s Commander General Friedrich Fromm or Adolf Hitler himself could actually initiate Valkyrie.
Fromm would have to be persuaded to join the conspiracy.
Friedrich Fromm was an ambitious career soldier who was neither much liked nor trusted but the conspirators had little choice but to approach him and so he was made aware of a plot but denied the details of it.
Fromm vacillated sometimes appearing to support the conspirators on other occasions seeming to threaten them with the Gestapo, but most of the time he simply remained silent. When he was offered a leading role in any future Government however he did not decline it and so as far as the conspirators were concerned he was with them, but they could not be sure.
On 1 July 1944, Stauffenberg was appointed Chief-of-Staff to the Reserve Army and so he was now one of the few among the conspirators who had direct access to Hitler. Indeed, he was due to present a report to him on the military preparedness of the Reserve Army but he did not want to carry out the assassination himself as he feared the consequences of his absence from Berlin at a pivotal time. But he was to have little choice.
It was agreed, that once in Hitler’s inner-sanctum he would place a bomb he carried in his briefcase beneath the table where Hitler was standing before being called away to answer a telephone call by his Adjutant Werner von Haeften. In his absence the bomb would explode killing all inside and amid the confusion that followed he would make his way to the airfield and fly back to Berlin. In the meantime, General Erich Fellgiebel, Head of Communications at the Wolf’s Lair, would inform Army High Command that the Fuhrer was dead before cutting the phone lines.
In Berlin Carl Goerdeler would take over as the leader of a new Civil Administration working alongside General Fromm as Commander of the Reserve Army whilst Field-Marshal Erwin von Witzleben would take over the Wehrmacht.
This was a role that would almost certainly have gone to Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel had fate not taken a hand.
Rommel, though never a Nazi had been a long-time admirer of Hitler whom he had considered a military genius but a meeting with the Fuhrer where he wouldn’t listen to the facts, banged his fists on the table, ranted and screamed and refused to listen to reason had convinced him that he had lost his mind. The Field-Marshal was therefore a late recruit to the plot but where others may have lacked the courage of their conviction this could never be said of Erwin Rommel – once he made up his mind he acted.
So when on 17 July 1944, just three days before the plot was due to begin his staff car was strafed leaving him hospitalised with serious head injuries it was a devastating blow but the plot would go ahead regardless and on 20 July, Stauffenberg flew to the Wolf’s Lair as expected the bomb in his briefcase sat upon his lap.
The Conference was due to start at 12.00 pm and upon his arrival he asked to use Field-Marshal Keitel’s bathroom where he began priming the bombs but with only three fingers on his one available hand this was to prove more problematic than perhaps he had first thought. It wasn’t long before a guard was knocking on the door telling him to hurry because the meeting was about to begin and unable to keep the Fuhrer waiting he was able to prime only one the bombs. It was to prove fatal to the plot.
Stauffenberg placed the briefcase under the table near where Hitler was standing reviewing some maps. He was then informed that he had an urgent phone call, made his excuses, and left. He was on his way to the airfield when at 12.40 pm the bomb exploded.
Hearing the explosion he looked back to see the bunker shattered and in flames and as far as he was concerned no one could have survived the devastation.
But unknown to him just prior to the bomb detonating Colonel Heinz Brandt had moved the briefcase up against the other side of the table leg cushioning its effect. Against the odds Hitler, despite his blackened face and torn clothes had survived shaken but physically unscathed.
Six men were to die and many more were severely injured but the Fuhrer had been saved – destiny had once again intervened.
Arriving back in Berlin around 3.00 pm Stauffenberg found the conspirators in a state of confusion and was furious that nothing had been done to advance the coup. He confirmed to them that Hitler was dead but the rumour had already begun to circulate that the Fuhrer was in fact alive and still in charge.
Erich Fellgeibel had only been partially successful in initiating the communications blackout and some lines of contact from the Wolf’s Lair to Berlin were still open and they had earlier received a panic-stricken phone call from him during which he told them:
“Something awful has happened, the Fuhrer Lives!”
If this was indeed the case then it was more urgent than ever that they act before these rumours spread to the Officers and men of the Reserve Army. Even so, it wasn’t until 4.00 pm that Hans Olbricht at last ordered the Reserve Army to mobilise. He addressed them thus:
“The Fuhrer Adolf Hitler is dead! A treacherous group of party leaders has attempted to exploit the situation by attacking our embattled soldiers from the rear to seize power for themselves.”
Though Olbricht could mobilise the Reserve Army only Fromm could authorise its use and he now lost his nerve.
He had earlier called Field-Marshal Keitel at the Wolf’s Lair who had confirmed to him that Hitler was indeed alive. It was the conspirators who were now in mortal danger.
Meanwhile in Paris, General Carl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel had already carried out his part of the coup and arrested the local SS and Gestapo. With the city secured he now visited the Headquarters of his Commanding Officer Field-Marshal Gunther von Kluge, a fellow conspirator, and suggested he open negotiations with the Allies. Instead, Kluge informed him that the coup in Berlin had failed and had him placed under arrest.
Back in Berlin Stauffenberg arrived at the conspirators Bendlerblock Headquarters demanding to know why the Reserve Army had not been, mobilised? Informed that Fromm had refused to initiate Valkyrie he hastened to the General’s office to confront him.
When Fromm refused to co-operate and instead demanded that he and the others should place themselves in his custody Stauffenberg had him restrained at gun point. He now appointed General Erich Hoepner to replace Fromm and ordered General Paul von Hase to secure the Wilhelmstrasse and arrest the Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
This duty fell to Major Otto Remer, an Officer for whom an oath of loyalty could not be broken under any circumstances and that obedience to orders without question far out-weighed all other considerations and by now the rumour that Hitler was in fact alive had become widespread and many of those Officers and troops of the Reserve Army summoned to the Bendlerblock were refusing to obey orders.
The need to broadcast to the nation the news of the Fuhrer’s death and the formation of a new Government was now paramount but General Fritz Lindermann, the man assigned to capture Berlin Radio and make the announcement had disappeared taking the only copy of the proclamation with him so General Beck now frantically began working on a new one.
In the meantime, at the Wilhelmstrasse, Otto Remer had arrested the Propaganda Minister as ordered but a surprisingly calm Goebbels reminded Remer that his personal oath of obedience to the Fuhrer remained in force.
Remer replied that the Fuhrer was dead but Goebbels insisted that he was not and should he wait a while he could speak to the Fuhrer in person.
At 5.00 pm Hitler spoke to Remer on the telephone:
“Remer do you recognise my voice, do you know who I am?”
Remer stiffened up, replied that he did, and gave the Nazi salute.
Hitler told him that Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels was now in charge and that he was only to obey his commands. Remer was now ordered to regain control of the city and surround the Bendlerblock.
Meanwhile, inside the Bendlerblock the conspirators were arguing amongst themselves.
General Witzleben shouted at Stauffenberg that the coup had failed and that they must make their escape as best they could but Stauffenberg refused to give up – too much was at stake; but by this time the forces surrounding the Bendlerblock had forced their way in and in an exchange of fire Stauffenberg was wounded.
General Fromm having earlier escaped custody now ordered the Reserve Army to assist Remer to round up those remaining in the Bendlerblock. With no forces at their disposal the conspirators knew that any further resistance was futile and so surrendered themselves to Fromm with Stauffenberg still hoping to persuade him to change his course of action and join them but the General, now more fearful now for his own safety was eager to eradicate those who could implicate him in the plot.
At 11.00 pm he established a hastily convened court-martial and sentenced the conspirators to death despite Hitler’s express orders that they should be kept alive.
General Beck now requested that he be allowed to take his own life to which Fromm consented providing the General with a pistol but with his hand shaking uncontrollably he fired twice on both occasions only grazing his skull. In the end Fromm ordered a corporal to administer him the coup-de-grace.
The remaining conspirators, Stauffenberg, Olbricht, von Haeften, and Albrecht von Quirnheim were then led out into the courtyard of the Bendlerblock and shot by firing squad.
If Fromm believed that his betrayal of the conspiracy he had tacitly been willing to support would save his own skin then he was to be mistaken. Expecting to be lauded as a hero, the man who had crushed the coup, he was instead greeted ominously by Goebbels with the words:
“So how quickly you have put the witnesses underground.”
He was arrested two days later and though there was no direct evidence to link him to the plot, Fromm was stripped of his rank and imprisoned. In a further purge of the conspirators on 12 March 1945, he was tried, sentenced to death, and executed.
Those who had lost their lives in the coup attempt were the fortunate ones, and many of those under suspicion of supporting it committed suicide rather than face Nazi justice.
Those who were brought to trial would endure a terrible ordeal, horribly tortured in captivity to exact confessions and implicate others they were then dragged before the People’s Court to endure a public humiliation, harangued and abused by its President, the fanatical Nazi Roland Freisler.
The trials began on 7 August 1944, with the first to appear the 62 year old Field-Marshal Erwin von Witzleben.
Dressed in the clothes of a vagrant without either buttons or braces he was made to stand contrite before his accusers head bowed and holding up his trousers throughout in a vain attempt to preserve some semblance of dignity.
When he tried to speak in his own defence he was shouted down by the increasingly hysterical Freisler. When he objected being referred to as a schweinhund, Freisler demanded to know what zoological category he thought he fitted into? Even his own defence team, for what it was, declared him guilty and joined in the abuse.
Witzleben’s treatment set the template for future proceedings and the trials of the conspirators were filmed for public consumption but despite the conspirators being widely viewed as traitors so rabid were Freisler’s tirades and so horrid the humiliations they were forced to endure that the film was hastily withdrawn from circulation should it elicit sympathy for the conspirators.
All those who were brought before the People’s Court were found guilty and sentenced to death.
The executions that were carried out at Plotzensee Prison were to be by slow strangulation with piano wire and with the prisoners hanging on meat hooks the executions were filmed for Hitler’s private viewing. The film was later destroyed.
Among those killed in this way were Erich Hoepner, Erich Fellgiebel, Paul von Hasse, Helmuth von Moltke, Carl Goerdeler, Erwin von Witzleben, Carl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel, and Stauffenberg’s brother, Bernd.
Under torture Stulpnagel, who had blinded himself in a failed suicide attempt had blurted out the name – Erwin Rommel. Rommel had long been lauded as a national hero and this presented the Nazi’s with a dilemma.
To humiliate him in the manner they had the others would cause outrage and undermine morale so it was decided to offer him the opportunity of an honourable death and so on 14 October 1944, he was visited at his home by General Wilhelm Burgdorf and General Ernst Maisel who told him that he was to be arrested and charged with treason but that if he took his own life he would be granted a State Funeral and his family would remain unmolested and be provided with full pension rights. If not then he would be dragged before the People’s Court with his family charged as co-conspirators alongside him.
Rommel was at first inclined to contest the charges but realising his position was hopeless he soon relented. A few hours later he said his farewells to his wife and son before being driven away from his home. The car was then parked a mile or so away and the Field-Marshall was left alone to take a cyanide tablet.
It was announced to the public that Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel had succumbed to wounds suffered in the line of duty and he was to be buried with full military honours. The centrepiece of the funeral which was used to great propaganda effect was a wreath from Adolf Hitler expressing his deep sense of regret and loss.
Henning von Tresckow was serving on the Russian Front when he learned that the coup had failed.
He had been the prime mover in Operation Valkyrie and the man who had convinced so many that Hitler must die but much to his frustration his duties as a front-line soldier had removed him from any operational involvement with the plot itself. When he learned of the fate of his co-conspirators he told his Adjutant that Hitler was not just the enemy of Germany but of the whole world:
“When in a few hours time I go before God to account for what I have done I will be able to justify myself. God promised Abraham that he would not destroy Sodom if ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake that God will not destroy Germany. No one amongst us can complain of our own death. A man’s moral worth can be established only at the point where he is ready to give up his life for his convictions.”
A few hours after speaking these words he walked out into no-man’s-land and blew himself up with a hand-grenade.
In the immediate aftermath of the failed coup more than 7,000 people were arrested of whom 4,980 were executed.
It was the moment when the Nazi Regime turned on itself and the paranoia that it induced now seeped into every aspect of German society and conspiracy, treason, and cowardice were to be seen everywhere.
In the few remaining months of the war the madness with continue with more than 30,000 German soldiers and civilians were to be charged with treason and executed for disobedience, expressing a desire for peace, or merely seeming to speak out of turn.