Stauffenberg, Claus von (1907–1944)

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German soldier and conspirator in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

The leading figure in the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944, Stauffenberg was then a thirty-six-year-old career officer who had risen to the rank of colonel. He was raised in an aristocratic Catholic family, and one of his ancestors, August von Gneisenau, was a legendary leader in the Prussian struggle against Napoleon. A century later, Claus von Stauffenberg gave his life to rid Germany of Hitler and his tyranny.

He was a very unlikely revolutionary and assassin. Raised to take on the aristocratic calling of serving his country, Claus joined his family's Seventeenth Cavalry Regiment in 1926 and followed the conventional path toward military leadership others in his family had forged. Hitler's ascent to power in 1933 and restoration of German national pride were initially attractive to Stauffenberg, but the glow of the early days of the regime wore off quickly. In September 1934 he walked out of an anti-Semitic party lecture to which his men were obliged to go. By 1938 and the Kristallnacht, the first organized nationwide pogrom against Jews in Germany, Stauffenberg registered his disgust at the vulgarity and stupidity of the regime and its cruelties. His cousin Count Helmuth James von Moltke drew a number of those hostile to the regime together in the Kreisau circle, named after his estate, in which they debated the future of Germany after the Nazi regime had gone.

In 1936 Stauffenberg had graduated first in his class from the Army Staff College and had been promoted to the rank of captain. With the rest of his regiment, he joined the Sixth Panzer Division, which occupied the Sudentenland in 1939. He served in Poland and France during the first two years of the war.

Transferred to North Africa, Stauffenberg, now a colonel, was severely wounded in early 1943. He lost his left eye, his right hand, and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand. After his convalescence he was posted to the reserve army in Berlin, from which vantage point he began actively to plan the murder of Hitler and the overthrow of the regime.

Stauffenberg knew his fellow conspirators well. They represented the Germany he loved and for which he was prepared to lay down his life. His attitude toward the regime could not be doubted. It stood for everything he detested, as a soldier and as a Catholic. But armed resistance was another matter. Like every other officer in the German army, Stauffenberg had taken a personal oath to Hitler. By 1944 he was ready to strike. But in order to decapitate the regime, he and his fellow officers in the resistance had to offer the German army an alternative—a set of prominent officers who would seize power in Berlin after the death of Hitler. Stauffenberg was in an ideal place to do that, since one of his military responsibilities was to fashion an emergency plan in the event of a break in communication between Berlin and the high command.

The plotters set their plan in motion in July 1944, when the war was already lost. On 20 July in Hitler's military headquarters in Rastenburg in East Prussia, Stauffenberg placed an attaché case with an explosive charge in the room where Hitler and two dozen staff officers and aides were surveying the military situation. The case was moved slightly away from Hitler, and when it exploded, he survived. Eleven men were wounded, of whom four were killed. Stauffenberg had made his escape and returned to Berlin to gather military units to seize power. He initially thought that Hitler was dead, but the failure of co-conspirators to cut the radio lines from Rastenburg allowed Hitler to broadcast to the nation, making his survival both undeniable and fatal to the plot. Stauffenberg continued to try to rally support, but it was futile to do so. He was arrested after a brief exchange of fire and, after a summary court-martial, shot by firing squad.

What sort of Germany did he envision after the overthrow of Hitler? There are indications that Stauffenberg saw the force of a social democratic approach to the future of Germany. But his cast of mind bore all the traces of his aristocratic and military bearing and background. He was a leader on horseback with a bomb in his damaged hand, a man of Christian conscience whose sense of a calling brought him to try to strike the blow that would kill Hitler and his circle and thereby end Germany's (and the world's) nightmare. His failure is less significant than the courage and dignity of the attempt.

See alsoGermany; July 20th Plot.


Baigent, Michael, and Richard Leigh. Secret Germany: Claus von Stauffenberg and the Mystical Crusade against Hitler. London, 1994.

Bentzien, Hans. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg: Zwischen Soldateneid und Tyrannenmord. Hannover, 1997.

Hoffmann, Peter. Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905–1944. 2nd ed. Ithaca, N.Y., 2003.

Kramarz, Joachim. Stauffenberg, the Architect of the Famous July 20th Conspiracy to Assassinate Hitler. Translated by R. H. Barry. Introduction by H. R. Trevor-Roper. New York, 1967.

Venohr, Wolfgang. Stauffenberg: Symbol der deutschen Einheit: Eine politische Biographie. Frankfurt, 1986.

Zeller, Eberhard. Oberst Claus Graf Stauffenberg: Ein Lebensbild. Paderborn, Germany, 1994.

Jay Winter