The plot was code named “Operation Valkyrie.” The date and place were 20 July, 1944 at the Wolfsschanze, or Wolf’s Lair, headquarters in East Prussia. The leader was the German aristocrat and army officer Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. Two high ranking men who collaborated with him were General Friedrich Olbricht and General Ludwig Beck of the German general staff. Leading up to this event, there had been a widespread anti-Nazi resistance in Germany that sought to overthrow Hitler and end the rise of the Third Reich. This is the most famous assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler.
Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was born in 1907 into the German aristocracy and began his military career in the 1920’s before the Nazis came to power in 1933. Although he was never a member of the Nazi party, he did support Hitler’s invasion of Poland at the outbreak of WWII in 1939. After years of service, he was severely wounded in action in Africa in 1942. He lost his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. It was not until 1942-43 that Stauffenberg became one of the central figures of the German resistance movement within the Wehrmacht and by July 1944 he was the main driving force behind the plot to assassinate Hitler.
There were several failed attempts to assassinate Hitler, nearly fifty through his political career from 1933-44, before Stauffenberg finally went ahead with Operation Valkyrie on 20 July, 1944. Few leaders, in any century, can have been the target of so many assassination attempts. It’s incredible to think that much of the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust might have been avoided with a single bullet or bomb…
Accompanied by his aide, Lieutenant Werner Von Haeften, Stauffenberg attended Hitler’s military conference at the Wolfsschanze, Wolf’s Lair, in East Prussia, carrying two bombs in his briefcase. The location of the conference was unexpectedly changed at the last minute from the underground Fuhrerbunker, which would have insulated the blast of the bomb and made it more devastating, to the main briefing room above ground due to the hot weather. At around 12:30 pm, Stauffenberg made an excuse to use a nearby bathroom and armed the first bomb. In his attempt to arm the second bomb, a guard knocked, urging him to hurry as the Fuhrer had arrived and the meeting was about to begin. So, he left behind the second bomb with Von Haeften. He returned to the briefing room and placed the briefcase under the conference table next to Hitler. After a few minutes, he took a pre-arranged telephone call and left the room. Colonel Heinz Brandt, having some difficulty accessing the table, moved the briefcase. At around 12:45 pm, the bomb exploded, destroying the conference room and killing three officers and a stenographer. Hitler survived, shielded from the blast by the solid-oak conference table leg. His trousers were in tatters and he suffered a perforated eardrum, but beyond some bruising, he was otherwise unharmed.
Stauffenberg and Von Haeften swiftly drove to a nearby airfield, convinced that Hitler was dead, as no one could have possibly survived the explosion. On his return to Berlin, Stauffenberg, General Friedrich Olbricht, and General Ludwig Beck of the German general staff put their military coup into action. When Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, later announced by radio that Hitler had survived, and when Hitler himself personally spoke on state radio that same evening, the conspirators realized that the coup had failed. They were hunted down to their Bendlerblock offices in Berlin, where they surrendered after a brief shoot-out.
Hitler exacted a terrible retribution for the events of 20 July, 1944. General Friedrich Fromm convened an impromptu court martial on that very same night and condemned the leaders of the conspiracy to death. Beck committed suicide whilst Stauffenberg, von Haeften, Olbricht, and a fourth officer were executed by a makeshift firing squad in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock. Stauffenberg was third in line to be executed, but his aide, von Haeften, placed himself between Stauffenberg and the firing squad and took the bullets meant for Stauffenberg. Then, Stauffenberg was shot.
Over the coming months, it is estimated that over 7,000 Germans were killed or sent to concentration camps as Hitler took revenge on the enemies of the Third Reich. The conspirators, however, had the final victory. Less than a year later, Hitler had committed suicide and the Second World War in Europe soon came to an end. To this day, the memory of Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators lives on in the sacrifice they made for a country they loved.
Noble. Operation Valkyrie 1944. Cambridge University Library. 2016
Moorhouse, Roger. Killing Hitler. Bantam Dell. 2006.