July 20th Plot

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The plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944 was an attempt to overthrow his Nazi regime and end World War II. "Operation Valkyrie" was a plot to take power once the news of Hitler's assassination was confirmed. The bomb meant to kill Hitler was placed in his military headquarters in Rastenberg in East Prussia by a staff officer, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. It went off, but its force was muffled by a heavy wooden desk, which saved the Führer's life. Communications from Hitler's headquarters were not severed, and though Stauffenberg made it back to Berlin and tried to rally support, his efforts were doomed from the start. He and the other ringleaders of the plot were quickly caught and shot in the German Ministry of War. Thereafter hundreds of their associates were arrested; most were tortured or executed. For his own enjoyment, Hitler ordered films to be made of their slow deaths by strangulation with piano wire.

This one failed attempt on Hitler's life symbolized the elite character of this part of the German resistance. Most of the plotters were conservative men from prominent families. Many had religious origins and convictions, and they saw it as their mission not only to get rid of Hitler as an abomination but also to save some vestiges of honor for the German people as a whole. Carl-Friedrich Goerdeler was a conservative mayor of Leipzig, who resigned in protest over the Nazi decision in 1937 to remove a statue of the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn from the town square. Alfred Delp was a Jesuit priest. Count Helmuth James von Moltke, whose family included two German chiefs of staff, and Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg organized a series of meetings in von Moltke's east German estate at Kreisau, in which like-minded men and women imagined a future Germany after the demise of the Nazi regime. One of the Kreisau circle was Adam von Trott, a lawyer and former Rhodes scholar, who used his international contacts to try to garner Allied support for the German resistance. Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to pass on word to the Allies of the plans of the resistance through his fellow clergyman Bishop G.K.A. Bell of Chichester, England. In every case the Allied response was hostile or indifferent. The German resistance could have gained popular support if it had been able to negotiate an armistice with the Allies. But the reply of Anthony Eden, British foreign secretary, was categorical. The only way to peace was through unconditional surrender. This left the resistance isolated and without a hope of ending the war before the total destruction of Germany.

This set of cultivated and well-placed individuals was in touch with, though separate from, a core of resistance to Hitler within the army. General Ludwig Beck had been chief of staff of the German army in the early days of the Nazi regime. Like Beck, General Erwin von Witzleben had served in World War I; as general he commanded the First Army in the campaign in France in 1940. He served on the eastern front as a field marshal but was dismissed for criticizing Hitler. General Günther von Kluge, another World War I veteran, commanded the German Fourth Army in Poland in 1939 and then in the breakthrough in the Ardennes forest in 1940 that led to the defeat of France. These three men were well aware of the plans to kill Hitler; all three were arrested and executed after the plot failed. Henning von Tresckow was chief of staff of German Army Group Center on the eastern front. He committed suicide when he learned that Hitler had survived.

A penumbra of military men surrounded these individuals and provided them with cover and indirect support. Admiral Franz von Canaris was head of the Abwehr, military intelligence. His movements and those of his circle were shielded by his role in German espionage. He provided fake passports to Adam von Trott and other conspirators. His role and that of other military figures was revealed only when the Gestapo found their secret papers in a safe in the Army High Command headquarters in Zossen.

There was a second facet of the military conspiracy to kill Hitler and overthrow the regime. On 20 July 1944 in Paris, General Karl Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the commander of occupied France, arrested all the Gestapo and SS men in the city and tried to persuade his superior General Hans Günther von Kluge to join the coup. Kluge refused to do so, since he knew that Hitler was still alive. Stülpnagel was arrested and sent back to Berlin. En route he asked to stop at Verdun, where he too had fought in World War I. He tried to commit suicide and succeeded only in injuring himself. He was tried in Berlin and shot. Kluge was implicated in the plot and took poison. The other major figure on the fringes of the plot was General Erwin Rommel. He was nearly killed in a car accident on 17 July and was hospitalized during the coup. When his name came out as one of the conspirators, he was given the option of suicide. He took it on 14 October 1944.

These two events—one in Prussia and one in Paris—represented the desperate gamble of a large group of German men and women to kill Hitler and overthrow the regime. The Allies treated their plans with suspicion. Was their plan simply a face-saving gesture on the part of people who had gone along with the regime when its military outlook was good? This is a view hard to support. The risks Stauffenberg and Stülpnagel took were enormous, and they paid for them with their lives. Their Germany had been turned into a slaughterhouse run by racists, sadists, and madmen. To strike, even when the chances of success were small, was simply a way of representing another Germany, one that people of goodwill could honor and rebuild.

See alsoHitler, Adolf; Resistance.


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Galante, Pierre, with Eugène Silianoff. Operation Valkyrie: The German Generals' Plot against Hitler. Translated by Mark Howson and Cary Ryan. New York, 1981.

Hamerow, Theodore S. On the Road to the Wolf's Lair: German Resistance to Hitler. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

Heuss, Theodor, et al. Reflections on July 20th 1944. Translated by Larry Fischer. Mainz, Germany, 1984.

Hoffmann, Peter. German Resistance to Hitler. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

Jacobsen, Hans-Adolf, ed. July 20, 1944: The German Opposition to Hitler as Viewed by Foreign Historians, an Anthology. Bonn, Germany, 1969.

Large, David Clay, ed. Contending with Hitler: Varieties of German Resistance in the Third Reich. Washington, D.C., 1991.

Manvell, Roger, and Heinrich Fraenkel. The July Plot: The Attempt in 1944 on Hitler's Life and the Men behind It. London, 1964.

Roon, Ger van, German Resistance to Hitler: Count von Moltke and the Kreisau Circle. Translated by Peter Ludlow. London, 1971.

Zeller, Eberhard. The Flame of Freedom: The German Struggle against Hitler. Translated by R. P. Heller and D. R. Masters. Coral Gables, Fla., 1969.

Jay Winter