On July 20, 1944, Adolf Hitler and senior Nazi military officers met at the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, Eastern Prussia. As the Nazi military leaders took their seats to discuss troop movements on the Eastern Front, an explosion ripped through the humid conference room — and, through the thick black smoke, Hitler’s body was seen strewn across the table. The Führer was dead, and Europe was potentially freed from the Nazi scourge. Or so it initially seemed.
For a brief moment in history, Claus von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators thought they had succeeded in turning the tide of World War II and potentially saving thousands of additional lives. Unfortunately, the most well-known assassination plot on Hitler’s life, popularly known as the July Plot or Operation Valkyrie, proved unsuccessful for reasons that could have been avoided, and others that are unexplained to this day.
The July Plot Is Hatched
By the summer of 1944, a sizable portion of the German populace, including a number of Germany’s senior military leaders were beginning to lose hope that Germany could win the war. Many blamed Hitler for leading Germany to disaster. Several notable politicians and senior military officials hatched a plot to assassinate the Führer by planting a bomb during a meeting at the Wolfsschanze (the Wolf’s Lair, one of Hitler’s military headquarters) and by doing so, to trigger a political consolidation and coup d’état. The plan was known as Operation Valkyrie. The idea was that, once Hitler was dead, the military would claim that the assassination was part of an attempted coup by the Nazi Party and the Reserve Army would seize key installations in Berlin and arrest high-ranking Nazi leadership. A new government would be established with Carl Friedrich Goerdeler as Chancellor of Germany and Ludwig Beck as president. The new government had the aim of negotiating an end to the war, preferably with favorable terms for Germany.
According to Philipp Freiherr Von Boeselager, one of the last surviving members of the July Plot, the motivations of the key conspirators varied. For many of them, it was simply a way to avoid military defeat, while others wanted to salvage at least a part of the country’s morality. They selected a young German army colonel by the name of Claus von Stauffenberg to carry out the attempt. Stauffenberg was a committed German nationalist, despite not being an official Nazi party member. He ultimately came to believe that it was his patriotic duty to rid Germany of Adolf Hitler if the country was to be saved.
However, Hitler was no stranger to assassination attempts. Since the late 1930s and his meteoric rise to the top of Germany’s political scene, assassination attempts against him had become somewhat routine. Growing increasingly paranoid, Hitler routinely changed his schedule at the last minute and with no prior notice.
What Went Wrong
On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg arrived to the bunker at Wolfsschanze. The conspirators had counted on the meeting taking place in a concrete, windowless underground bunker sealed by a heavy steel door. By ensuring it took place within such a facility, the blast would be contained and the shrapnel would instantly kill anyone in the proximity of the explosive device.
According to Pierre Galante’s Operation Valkyrie: The German Generals’ Plot Against Hitler, July 20 was an unbearably hot day and the meeting planners decided to move the meeting to a wooden bunker, above ground, which had greater air circulation. The room had numerous windows as well as a wooden table and other decorative pieces of furniture, meaning the potential explosion would be significantly reduced as the energy of the blast would be absorbed and dissipated.
Even though Stauffenberg knew this was the case, he pushed forward, believing that two bombs would still be adequate to level the room and kill anyone inside of it.
When he arrived, Stauffenberg excused himself to a private chamber with the premise of having to change his shirt. He needed to prime and arm the two explosive devices. However, an unexpected phone call, as well as hurried knocking on his door, meant he only had time to arm one of the two devices. The potential for a larger blast was thus reduced by half.
Stauffenberg understood that, as a result, the explosive device had to be as close to Hitler as possible in order to do any sort of damage. Under the pretext that his hearing was damaged because of his injuries, he was able to secure a seat as close to Hitler as possible, with only one other person between him and the Führer. Stauffenberg placed the suitcase as close to Hitler as he could, and under the pretext of a personal phone call, exited the room.
In the interim, another official took his seat and unwittingly moved the briefcase to a position on the other side of a heavy wooden leg supporting the meeting-room table.
At precisely 12:42pm, the bomb detonated and panic ensued. A stenographer was instantly killed, and 20 people were injured, including three officers who later perished from their wounds.
Believing that Hitler was truly dead, Stauffenberg and his aide Werner von Haeften jumped into a staff car and bluffed their way past three separate military checkpoints to escape the chaos at the Wolfsschanze complex.
But Hitler, along with everyone else shielded by the heavy wooden table leg, survived with a few minor scrapes and a perforated eardrum. His trousers were completely tattered and Nazi leadership would later use photographs of the pants as part of a propaganda campaign.
According to historian Ian Kershaw, conflicting reports arrived about the fate of Hitler during the explosion. Despite the confusion, the Reserve Army began arresting high-ranking Nazi leadership in Berlin. However, delays and a lack of clear communication, along with the broadcasting of the fact that Hitler was alive, ultimately unraveled the entire plan.
That same night, General Friedrich Fromm convened an impromptu court martial and sentenced all of the conspirators to death. Ludwig Beck committed suicide whilst Stauffenberg, von Haeften, Olbricht and another officer, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, were executed by a makeshift firing squad in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock. Stauffenberg’s brother Berthold was slowly strangled at Plötzensee prison in Berlin while the entire ordeal was filmed for Hitler’s viewing pleasure.
Several factors playing in concert ended up being decisive in saving Hitler’s life that day, but the conspirators were correct that Germany was on its way to defeat. The Nazi leader and his closest aides died by suicide less than a year later.