The Von Stauffenberg Plot

 

Mike Nicholas, BRLSI Member

11 November 2013

 

Operation Valkyrie was a highly audacious plan drawn up by senior German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler during the latter stages of World War 2. The plot was the last of 27 known attempts on Adolf Hitler’s life during the course of the Second World War; amazingly, Hitler survived all of the attempts against his life.

One of the key members of the plot was Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg.  Stauffenberg’s given name was Claus Phillip Maria Justinian with the noble titles of Graf (which means Count) and Schenk (which means cupbearer) added to the start of his name i.e Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg.  He was born into one of the oldest and most prominent Catholic aristocratic families in the Stauffenberg castle, hence his last name, between Ulm and Augsburg, which at that time, was in the Kingdom of Bavaria.  However, despite popular belief to the contrary, von Stauffenberg was not a true Nazi, he never became a party member but instead, was truly impressed by the military succeses of the German Army during the first stages of World War 2 but found that the Nazi ideology was contradicting his Catholic beliefs.  He took part in the invasion of Poland in 1939, saw action in France in 1940 and was involved in the invasion of Russia in 1941.  However, his time in Russia proved to be the turning point in his belief in what the Nazi led German Army was doing, he had witnessed first hand the shocking and disturbing brutality of the Holocaust and this forever altered his perception of the war.

In November 1942, the Allies had successfully landed in North Africa and Stauffenberg, newly promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel of the General Staff, was sent to Tunisia to join the 10th Panzer Division.  On the 7th April 1942, Stauffenberg was responsible for driving up and down the columns of vehicles and infantry, directing movement, when the columns were strafed by Kittyhawk P-40 fighter-bombers, most likely belonging to No.3 Squandron, Royal Australian Airforce, who were operating in the region.  Following the attack, von Stauffenberg had suffered horrific wounds: he had lost his left eye, his right hand and two fingers on his left hand. Back in Germany, his recovery was unsurprisingly slow; however, during this time he was approached by men heavily involved in the German Resistance Movement against Hitler, men such as Henning von Trescow

and Friedrich Olbricht

Realising that Stauffenberg had excellent organisational skills and a cool head, the other conspirators moved him to a position of prominence within the German Resistance Movement.

By the 1st July 1944, Stauffenberg was promoted and placed in charge of the Replacement Army in Berlin; this gave him unprecedented access to Hitler, this was the closest his fellow conspirators had ever got to being close to Hitler and his schedules.  Following this, Stauffenberg went about re-writing Operation Valkyrie, an existing directive, which passed executive powers to the Wehrmacht in the event of Hitler’s death, it was designed to halt any internal unrest but Stauffenberg rather cleverly re-wrote it to ensure that the Replacement Army (which he now commanded) rather than the Wehrmacht, would seize control of Berlin and ensure that all SS and Gestapo troops were arrested too, this would effectively eliminate any opposition from the die hard Nazi fanatics and throw them off balance before they were able to react.

Over the course of time since the assassination attempt, historians have debated the reasons why the conspirators had gone to great lengths to eliminate Hitler. The most convincing of these is that the conspirators wanted to preserve their idealised image of Germany, a high-minded, less nationalistic version of the country before World War 1. Furthermore, as the war was fast approaching their homeland, they wanted to prevent the destruction of their estates and families at the hands of the marauding, revenge seeking, Russians, although, they must have realised it was now far too late.  Ultimately, their overriding motive had become a moral compulsion to eliminate Hitler; however, they also knew that there wouldn’t be much in the way of support for this act as the country was living in perpetual fear of Hitler and his Nazi thugs.

Some might consider Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators to be incredibly naïve for thinking that, if Hitler was removed, the Allies would willingly seek peace with Germany. In fact, this couldn’t have been further from the truth, the Allies; the British in particular, were far from convinced that the removal of Hitler would be advantageous. His direction of military affairs, most notably during the Battle of Stalingrad had clearly demonstrated his lack of grip on military tactics and the battle had been disastrous for the Wehrmacht.

On the 14th July 1944, Hitler had moved from his private residence in the Berghof to the Wolfschanzze (Wolf’s Lair) in Poland to oversee military affairs on the Eastern Front.  The Wolf’s Lair was a top secret, highly fortified compound in the Masurian Woods, 5 miles from the small Polish village of Rastenberg, now known as Ketrzyn. Three security zones surrounded the central compound where a huge bunker was built to protect VIPs.  Upon hearing that Hitler had relocated to the Wolf’s Lair, the conspirators altered their plans so that Hitler would be assassinated within the confines of the bunker.

The conspirators approached Phillip von Boeselager, a man heavily involved in the German Resistance Movement, who acquired captured British time pencils and plastic explosives for the Stauffenberg to use in his assassination attempt.  Before the 20th July 1944, von Stauffenberg had attempted to assassinate Hitler in two separate attempts, the first on the 6th July, was unsuccessful and another on the 15th July was also aborted.  On the 20th July, another opportunity had presented itself; von Stauffenberg was called away to the Wolf’s Lair to attend a meeting and this time, he knew the attempt had to be a success, otherwise suspicion would mount.

Upon arriving in the compound, Stuaffenberg was stunned to discover the meeting was not taking place in the concrete bunker, due to the heat of the day and construction works going on within the bunker, the meeting was relocated to a long conference hut a short walk away.  Before the meeting, von Stauffenberg excused himself, stating that he had to change, in reality; he was intending to arm the bombs in his briefcase, however, he was interrupted and presumably due to a time issue and his obvious physical disabilities, he was only able to arm one of the two bombs in his briefcase.  He placed the bomb as close to Hitler as he could and a few tense minutes passed before a pre-arranged phone call excused him from the meeting, he then made his way to a waiting staff car.

At 12.50 pm, a terrific explosion ripped through the meeting room, Stauffenberg was convinced Hitler was killed in the explosion, miraculously; he managed to bluff his way through all three security zones and made it to the airfield.  However, terrible confusion now reigned back in Berlin, as it was unclear as to whether the attempt had been a success and thus Operation Valkyrie had not been activated. To make matters worse, no plane was waiting to take Stauffenberg back to Berlin; this was to delay his return to the capital for a further hour.   In the afternoon, Stauffenberg had finally arrived back in Berlin, however, the plot was beginning to unravel, the conspirators were ill-prepared to deal with the questions that were now facing them; was the Fuhrer dead, why had executive powers passed to the Replacement Army and not the Wehrmacht?

The final conclusive evidence that Hitler had indeed survived came when Joseph Goebbels, who was about to be arrested, received a telephone call from the Wolf’s Lair, with Hitler’s unmistakable voice on the other end, he passed the phone over to the officer who was intending to arrest him.  Rapidly, the Replacement Army released all detained SS troops and seized the Bendlerblock, where the conspirators were based.  A brief fire fight ensued within the confines of the building, following which; all of the conspirators were arrested.  Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were taken to the courtyard of the Bendlerblock and executed via firing squad.

Hitler used the assassination attempt to remove anyone he feared would oppose him, a huge purge swept through the German military and civilian population, these purges lasted until the end of the war.  At least 20,000 German people were tried in courts and executed.  This dramatically altered the public perception of Hitler to which the Third Reich never recovered, which was now seeing its final couple of months in power.