Biographies & Memoirs


Luck of the Devil


The attempt to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944 had a lengthy prehistory, dating back as far as the Sudeten crisis of 1938. The complex strands of this prehistory contained in no small measure profound manifestations and admixtures of high ethical values and a transcendental sense of moral duty, codes of honour, political idealism, religious convictions, personal courage, remarkable selflessness, deep humanity, and a love of country that was light-years removed from Nazi chauvinism. The prehistory was also replete – how could it have been otherwise in the circumstances? – with disagreements, doubts, mistakes, miscalculations, moral dilemmas, short-sightedness, hesitancy, ideological splits, personal clashes, bungling organization, distrust – and sheer bad luck.

The actions of a lone assassin, the Swabian joiner Georg Elser, who shared none of the hesitancy of those within the power-echelons of the regime, had come within a whisker of sending Hitler into oblivion in the Bürgerbräukeller on the night of 8 November 1939. Good fortune alone had saved Hitler on that occasion. With the left-wing underground resistance groups, though never eliminated, weak, isolated, and devoid of access to the corridors of power, the only hope of toppling Hitler thereafter lay with those who themselves occupied positions of some power or influence in the regime itself.

On the fringes of the conspiracy, the participation in Nazi rule in itself naturally created ambivalence. Breaking oaths of loyalty was no light matter, even for some whose dislike of Hitler was evident. Prussian values were here a double-edged sword: a deep sense of obedience to authority and service to the state clashed with equally profound feelings of duty to God and to country. Whichever triumphed within an individual: whether heavy-hearted acceptance of service to a head of state regarded as legitimately constituted, however detested; or rejection of such allegiance in the interest of what was taken to be the greater good, should the head of state be leading the country to ruin; this was a matter for conscience and judgement. It could, and did, go either way.

Though there were numerous exceptions to a broad generalization, generational differences played some part. The tendency was greater in a younger generation of officers, for example, than in those who had already attained the highest ranks of general or field-marshal, to entertain thoughts of active participation in an attempt to overthrow the head of state. This was implied in a remark by the man who would lead the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944, Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg: ‘Since the generals have so far managed nothing, the colonels have now to step in.’ On the other hand, views on the morality of assassinating the head of state – in the midst of an external struggle of titanic proportions against an enemy whose victory threatened the very existence of a German state – differed fundamentally on moral, not simply generational, grounds. Any attack on the head of state constituted, of course, high treason. But in a war, distinguishing this from treachery against one’s own country, from betrayal to the enemy, was chiefly a matter of individual persuasion and the relative weighting of moral values. And only a very few were in a position to accumulate detailed and first-hand experiences of gross inhumanity at the same time as possessing the means to bring about Hitler’s removal. Even fewer were prepared to act.

Beyond ethical considerations, there was the existential fear of the awesome consequences – for the families as well as for the individuals themselves – of discovery of any complicity in a plot to remove the head of state and instigate a coup d’état. This was certainly enough to deter many who were sympathetic to the aims of the plotters but unwilling to become involved. Nor was it just the constant dangers of discovery and physical risks that acted as a deterrent. There was also the isolation of resistance. To enter into, even to flirt with, the conspiracy against Hitler meant acknowledging an inner distance from friends, colleagues, comrades, entry into a twilight world of immense peril, and of social, ideological, even moral isolation.

Quite apart from the evident necessity, in a terroristic police state, of minimizing risks through maximum secrecy, the conspirators were themselves well aware of their lack of popular support. Even at this juncture, as the military disasters mounted and ultimate catastrophe beckoned, the fanatical backing for Hitler had by no means evaporated and continued, if as a minority taste, to show remarkable resilience and strength. Those still bound up with the dying regime, those who had invested in it, had committed themselves to it, had burnt their boats with it, and were still true believers in the Führer, were likely to stop at nothing, as adversity mounted, in their unbridled retribution for any sign of opposition. But beyond the fanatics, there were many others who – naïvely, or after deep reflection – thought it not merely wrong, but despicable and treacherous, to undermine one’s own country in war. Stauffenberg summed up the conspirators’ dilemma a few days before he laid a bomb in the Wolf ’s Lair: ‘It is now time that something was done. But the man who has the courage to do something must do it in the knowledge that he will go down in German history as a traitor. If he does not do it, however, he will be a traitor to his own conscience.’

As this implies, the need to avoid a stab-in-the-back legend such as that which had followed the end of the First World War and left such a baleful legacy for the ill-fated Weimar Republic was a constant burden and anxiety for those who had decided – sometimes with a heavy heart – that Germany’s future rested on their capacity to remove Hitler, violently or not, from the scene, constitute a new government, and seek peace terms. They worried about the consequences of removing Hitler and seeming to stab the war effort in the back after a major disaster, even when final victory had become no more than a chimera. Rather than controlling the moment for a strike, the conspirators let it rest on external contingencies that, in the nature of things, they could not orchestrate.

When the strike eventually came, with the invasion consolidated in the west and the Red Army pressing towards the borders of the Reich in the east, the conspirators themselves recognized that they had missed the chance to influence the possible outcome of the war through their action. As one of their key driving-forces, Major-General Henning von Tresckow, from late 1943 Chief of Staff of the 2nd Army in the southern section of the eastern front, put it: ‘It’s not a matter any more of the practical aim, but of showing the world and history that the German resistance movement at risk of life has dared the decisive stroke. Everything else is a matter of indifference alongside that.’


All prospects of opposition to Hitler had been dimmed following the astonishing chain of military successes between autumn 1939 and spring 1941. Then, following the promulgation of the notorious Commissar Law, ordering the liquidation of captured Red Army political commissars, it had been Tresckow, Field-Marshal von Bock’s first staff officer at Army Group Centre, who had been instrumental in revitalizing thoughts of resistance among a number of front officers – some of them purposely selected on account of their anti-regime stance. Born in 1901, tall, balding, with a serious demeanour, a professional soldier, fervent upholder of Prussian values, cool and reserved but at the same time a striking and forceful personality, disarmingly modest, but with iron determination, Tresckow had been an early admirer of Hitler though had soon turned into an unbending critic of the lawless and inhumane policies of the regime. Those whom Tresckow was able to bring to Army Group Centre included close allies in the emerging conspiracy against Hitler, notably Fabian von Schlabrendorff – six years younger than Tresckow himself, trained in law, who would serve as a liaison between Army Group Centre and other focal points of the conspiracy – and Rudolph-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, born in 1905, a professional soldier, already an arch-critic of Hitler, and now located in a key position in the intelligence section of Army Group Centre. But attempts to persuade Bock, together with the other two group commanders on the eastern front, Rundstedt and Leeb, to confront Hitler and refuse orders failed. Any realistic prospect of opposition from the front disappeared again until late 1942. By then, in the wake of the unfolding Stalingrad crisis and seeing Hitler as responsible for the certain ruin of Germany, Tresckow was ready to assassinate him.

During the course of 1942, a number of focal points of practically dormant opposition within Germany itself – army and civilian – had begun to flicker back to life. The savagery of the warfare on the eastern front and, in the light of the winter crisis of 1941–2, the magnitude of the calamity towards which Hitler was steering Germany, had revitalized the notions, still less than concrete, that something must be done. Ludwig Beck (former Chief of the Army General Staff), Carl Goerdeler (one-time Reich Price Commissar), Johannes Popitz (Prussian Finance Minister), and Ulrich von Hassell (earlier the German Ambassador in Rome) – all connected with the pre-war conspiracy – met up again in Berlin in March 1942, but decided there were as yet few prospects. Even so, it was agreed that Beck would serve as a central point for the embryonic opposition. Meetings were held soon after with Colonel Hans Oster – head of the central office dealing with foreign intelligence in the Abwehr, the driving-force behind the 1938 conspiracy, who had leaked Germany’s invasion plans to Holland in 1940 – and Hans von Dohnanyi, a jurist who had also played a significant part in the 1938 plot, and, like Oster, used his position in the foreign section of the Abwehr to develop good contacts to officers with oppositional tendencies. Around the same time, Oster engineered a close link to a new and important recruit to the oppositional groups, General Friedrich Olbricht, head of the General Army Office in Berlin. Olbricht, born in 1888 and a career soldier, was not one to seek the limelight. He epitomized the desk-general, the organizer, the military administrator. But he was unusual in his pro-Weimar attitude before 1933, and, thereafter – driven largely by Christian and patriotic feelings – in his consistent anti-Hitler stance, even amid the jubilation of the foreign-policy triumphs of the 1930s and the victories of the first phase of the war. His role would emerge as the planner of the coup d’état that was to follow upon the successful assassination of Hitler.

Already as the Stalingrad crisis deepened towards the end of 1942, Tresckow – later described by the Gestapo as ‘without doubt one of the driving-forces and the “evil spirit” of the putschist circles’, and allegedly referred to by Stauffenberg as his ‘guiding master’ – was pressing for the assassination of Hitler without delay. He had become convinced that nothing could be expected of the top military leadership in initiating a coup. ‘They would only follow an order,’ was his view. He took it upon himself to provide the ‘ignition’, as the conspirators labelled the assassination of Hitler that would lead to their removal of the Nazi leadership and takeover of the state. Tresckow had already in the summer of 1942 commissioned Gersdorff with the task of obtaining suitable explosives. Olbricht, meanwhile, coordinated the links with the other conspirators in Berlin and laid the groundwork for a coup to take place in March 1943. The plans to occupy important civilian and military positions in Berlin and other major cities were, in essence, along the lines that were to be followed in July 1944.

One obvious problem was how to get close enough to Hitler to carry out an assassination. Hitler’s movements were unpredictable. An undependable schedule had in mid-February 1943 vitiated the intention of two officers, General Hubert Lanz and Major-General Hans Speidel, of arresting Hitler on an expected visit to Army Group B headquarters at Poltava. The visit did not materialize. Hitler’s personal security had, meanwhile, been tightened considerably. He was invariably surrounded by SS bodyguards, pistols at the ready, and was always driven by his own chauffeur, Erich Kempka, in one of his limousines, which were stationed at different points in the Reich and in the occupied territories. And Schmundt, Hitler’s Wehrmacht adjutant, had told Tresckow and Gersdorff that Hitler wore a bullet-proof vest and hat. This helped persuade them that the possibilities of a selected assassin having time to pull out his pistol, aim accurately, and ensure that his shot would kill Hitler were not great.

Nevertheless, preparations were made to shoot Hitler on a visit to Army Group Centre headquarters at Smolensk on 13 March. This plan was abandoned, since there was a distinct possibility of Field-Marshal von Kluge, commander of Army Group Centre, and other senior officers being killed alongside Hitler. Tresckow reverted to the original plan to blow up Hitler. During the meal at which, had the original plans been carried out, Hitler would have been shot, Tresckow asked one of the Führer’s entourage, Lieutenant-Colonel Heinz Brandt, travelling in Hitler’s plane, to take back a package for him to Colonel Hellmuth Stieff in Army High Command. The package looked like two bottles of cognac. It was, in fact, two parts of a bomb that Tresckow had put together.

Schlabrendorff carried the package to the aerodrome and gave it to Brandt just as he was climbing into Hitler’s Condor ready for take-off. Moments before, Schlabrendorff had pressed the fuse capsule to activate the detonator, set for thirty minutes. It could be expected that Hitler would be blown from the skies shortly before the plane reached Minsk. Schlabrendorff returned as quickly as possible to headquarters and informed the Berlin opposition in the Abwehr that the ‘ignition’ for the coup had been undertaken. But no news came of an explosion. The tension among Tresckow’s group was palpable. Hours later, they heard that Hitler had landed safely at Rastenburg. Schlabrendorff gave the code-word through to Berlin that the attempt had failed. Why there had been no explosion was a mystery. Probably the intense cold had prevented the detonation. For the nervous conspirators, ruminations about the likely cause of failure now took second place to the vital need to recover the incriminating package. Next morning, Schlabrendorff flew to Army High Command with two genuine bottles of cognac, retrieved the bomb, retreated to privacy, cautiously opened the packet with a razor-blade, and with great relief defused it. Mixed with relief, the disappointment among the opposition at such a lost chance was intense.

Immediately, however, another opportunity beckoned. Gersdorff had the possibility of attending the ‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’, to take place on 21 March 1943 in Berlin. Gersdorff declared himself ready to sacrifice his own life in order to blow up Hitler during the ceremony. The attempt was to be made while Hitler was visiting an exhibition of captured Soviet war-booty, laid on to fill in the time between the ceremony in the Zeughaus (the old armoury in the centre of Berlin), and the wreath-laying at the cenotaph outside. Gersdorff positioned himself at the entry to the exhibition, in the rooms of the Zeughaus. He raised his right arm to greet Hitler as the dictator came by. At the same moment, with his left hand, he pressed the detonator charge on the bomb. The best fuse he had been able to come up with lasted ten minutes. He expected Hitler to be in the exhibition for half an hour, more than enough time for the bomb to go off. But this year, possibly fearing an Allied air-raid, Hitler raced through the exhibition, scarcely glancing at the material assembled for him, and was outside within two minutes. Gersdorff could follow Hitler no further. He sought out the nearest toilet and deftly defused the bomb.

Once again, astonishing luck had accompanied Hitler. The depressed and shocked mood following Stalingrad had probably also offered the best possible psychological moment for a coup against him. A successful undertaking at that time might, despite the recently announced ‘Unconditional Surrender’ strategy of the Allies, have stood a chance of splitting them. The removal of the Nazi leadership and offer of capitulation in the west that Tresckow intended would at any rate have placed the western Allies with a quandary about whether to respond to peace-feelers.

Overtures by opposition groups to the western Allies had been systematically rebuffed long before this time. The resistance was regarded by the British war-leadership (and the Americans shared the view) as little more than a hindrance. A successful coup from within could, it was felt, endanger the alliance with the Soviet Union – exactly the strategy which the conspirators were hoping to achieve – and would cause difficulties in establishing the post-war order in Germany. With the war turning remorselessly in their favour, the Allies were less than ever inclined to give much truck to an internal opposition which, it appeared, had claimed much but achieved nothing, and, furthermore, entertained expectations of holding on to some of the territorial gains that Hitler had made.

This was indeed the case, certainly with some of the older members of the national-conservative group aligned to Goerdeler whose break with Hitler had already taken place in the mid-1930s. These despised the barbarism of the Nazi regime. But they were keen to re-establish Germany’s status as a major power, and continued to see the Reich dominating central and eastern Europe. Internally, their ideas were essentially (despite differences of emphasis) oligarchic and authoritarian. They favoured a restoration of the monarchy and limited electoral rights in self-governing communities, resting on Christian family values – the embodiment of the true ‘national community’ which the Nazis had corrupted.

The notions of Goerdeler and his close associates, whose age, mentality, and upbringing inclined them to look back to the pre-1914 Reich for much of their inspiration, found little favour among a group of a younger generation (mainly born during the first decade of the twentieth century) which gained its common identity through outright opposition to Hitler and his regime. The group, whose leaders were mainly of aristocratic descent, came to be known as ‘the Kreisau Circle’, a term coined by the Gestapo and drawn from the estate in Silesia where the group held a number of its meetings. The estate belonged to one its central figures, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, born in 1907, trained in law, a great admirer of British traditions, a descendant of the famous Chief of the General Staff of the Prussian army in Bismarck’s era. The ideas of the Kreisau Circle for a ‘new order’ after Hitler dated back in embryo to 1940, when they were first elaborated by Moltke and his close friend and relative Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, three years older, also trained in law, a formative figure in the group, and with good contacts to the military opposition. Both had rejected Nazism and its gross inhumanity from an early stage. By 1942–3 they were drawing to meetings at Kreisau and in Berlin a number of like-minded friends and associates, ranging across social classes and denominational divisions, including the former Oxford Rhodes Scholar and foreign-policy spokesman of the group, Adam von Trott zu Solz, the Social Democrat Carlo Mierendorff, the socialist pedagogical expert Adolf Reichwein, the Jesuit priest Pater Alfred Delp, and the Protestant pastor Eugen Gerstenmaier.

The Kreisau Circle drew heavily for its inspiration on the idealism of the German youth movement, socialist and Christian philosophies, and experiences of the post-war misery and rise of National Socialism. Moltke, Yorck, and their associates – unlike the Goerdeler group – had no desire to hold on to German hegemony on the continent. They looked instead to a future in which national sovereignty (and the nationalist ideologies which underpinned it) would give way to a federal Europe, modelled in part on the United States of America. They were well aware that major territorial concessions would have to be made by Germany, along with some form of reparation for the peoples of Europe who had suffered so grievously under Nazi rule. Their concept of a new form of state rested heavily upon German Christian and social ideals, looking to democratization from below, through self-governing communities working on the basis of social justice, guaranteed by a central state that was little more than an umbrella organization for localized and particularized interests within a federal structure.

Such notions were inevitably utopian. The Kreisau Circle had no arms to back it, and no access to Hitler. It was dependent upon the army for action. Moltke, who opposed assassination, and Yorck, quite especially, pressed on a number of occasions for a coup to unseat Hitler. This still left out of the equation how to remove Hitler, and who should do it. Rather than utopian visions of a future social and political order, this was the primary issue that continued to preoccupy Tresckow and his fellow officers who had committed themselves to the opposition. The problem became, if anything, more rather than less difficult during the summer and autumn of 1943. Any expectation that Manstein might commit himself to the opposition was wholly dashed in the summer. ‘Prussian field-marshals do not mutiny,’ was his lapidary response to Gersdorff ’s probings. Manstein was at least honest and straightforward. Kluge, by contrast, blew hot and cold – offering backing to Tresckow and Gersdorff, then retreating from it. There was nothing to be gained from that quarter, though those in the opposition continued to persist in the delusion that Kluge was ultimately on their side.

There were other setbacks. Beck was meanwhile quite seriously ill. And Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg – a lawyer by training, who after initially sympathizing with National Socialism and holding a number of high administrative positions in the regime, had come to serve as a liaison between the military and civilian opposition – was interrogated on suspicion that he was involved in plans for a coup, though later released. Others, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the radically minded evangelical pastor, were also arrested, as the tentacles of the Gestapo threatened to entangle the leading figures in the resistance. Even worse: Hans von Dohnanyi and Hans Oster from the Abwehr were arrested in April, initially for alleged foreign currency irregularities, though this drew suspicion on their involvement in political opposition. The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, a professional obfuscator, managed for a time to throw sand in the eyes of the Gestapo agents. But as a centre of the resistance, the Abwehr had become untenable. By February 1944, its foreign department, which Oster had controlled, was incorporated into the Reich Security Head Office, and Canaris, dubious figure that he was for the opposition, himself placed under house arrest.

Tresckow, partly while on leave in Berlin, was tireless in attempting to drive on the plans for action against Hitler. But in October 1943, he was stationed at the head of a regiment at the front, away from his previously influential position in Army Group Centre headquarters. At the same time, in any case, Kluge was injured in a car accident and replaced by Field-Marshal Ernst Busch, an outright Hitler-loyalist, so that an assassination attempt from Army Group Centre could now be ruled out. At this point, Olbricht revived notions, previously entertained but never sustained, of carrying out both the strike against Hitler and the subsequent coup, not through the front army, but from the headquarters of the reserve army in Berlin. Finding an assassin, with access to Hitler, had been a major problem. Now, one was close at hand.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg came from a Swabian aristocratic family. Born in 1907, the youngest of three brothers, he grew up under the influence of Catholicism – though his family were non-practising – and of the youth movement. He became particularly attracted to the ideas of the poet Stefan George, then held in extraordinary esteem by an impressionable circle of young admirers, strangely captivated by his vague, neo-conservative cultural mysticism which looked away from the sterilities of bourgeois existence towards a new élite of aristocratic aestheticism, godliness, and manliness. Like many young officers, Stauffenberg was initially attracted by aspects of National Socialism – not least its renewed emphasis on the value of strong armed forces and its anti-Versailles foreign policy – but rejected its racial antisemitism and, after the Blomberg–Fritsch crisis of early 1938, was increasingly critical of Hitler and his drive to war. Even so, serving in Poland he was contemptuous of the Polish people, approved of the colonization of the country, and was enthusiastic about the German victory. He was still more jubilant after the stunning successes in the western campaign, and hinted that he had changed his views on Hitler.

The mounting barbarity of the regime nevertheless appalled him. And when he turned irredeemably against Hitler in the late spring of 1942, it was under the influence of incontrovertible eye-witness reports of massacres of Ukrainian Jews by SS men. Hearing the reports, Stauffenberg concluded that Hitler must be removed. Serving in North Africa with the 10th Panzer Division, he was badly wounded in April 1943, losing his left eye, his right hand, and two fingers from his left hand. Soon after his discharge from hospital in August, speaking to Friedrich Olbricht about a new post as chief of staff in the General War Office in Berlin, he was tentatively asked about joining the resistance. There was little doubt what his answer would be. He had already come to the conclusion that the only way to deal with Hitler was to kill him.

By early September, Stauffenberg had been introduced to the leading figures in the opposition. Like Tresckow, he was a man of action, an organizer more than a theoretician. He deliberated with Tresckow in autumn 1943 about the best way to assassinate Hitler and the related but separate issue of organizing the coup to follow. As a means of taking over the state, they came up with the idea of recasting an operational plan, code-named ‘Valkyrie’, already devised by Olbricht and approved by Hitler, for mobilizing the reserve army within Germany in the event of serious internal unrest. No later than mid-October, Tresckow had produced an elaborate draft. It envisaged a strike to be carried out by the 18th Artillery Division of Army Group Centre, not just against Hitler, but also against Himmler, Göring, and Ribbentrop, to take place at their respective headquarters in East Prussia. The coup was to be unleashed by the declaration that ‘treacherous elements from the SS and the party are attempting to exploit the situation to stab the [army] fighting hard on the eastern front in the back, and to seize power for their own purposes’, demanding the proclamation of martial law. The aim of ‘Valkyrie’ had been to protect the regime; it was now transformed into a strategy for removing it.

Unleashing ‘Valkyrie’ posed two problems, however, once Tresckow’s new stationing in mid-October meant that the coup would have to be directed from Berlin, not from Army Group Centre. The first was that, in the changed circumstances, the command had to be issued by the head of the reserve army. This was Colonel-General Friedrich Fromm, born in 1888 into a Protestant family with strong military traditions, a huge man, somewhat reserved in character, with strong beliefs in the army as the guarantor of Germany’s status as a world-power. Fromm was no outright Hitler loyalist, but a fence-sitter who remained non-committal in his cautious desire to keep his options open and back whichever came out on top, the regime or the putschists – a policy which would eventually backfire upon him. The other problem was the old one of access to Hitler. Tresckow had concluded that only an assassination attempt in Führer Headquarters could get round the unpredictability of Hitler’s schedule and the tight security precautions surrounding him. The difficulty was to find someone prepared to carry out the attempt who had reason to be in Hitler’s close proximity in Führer Headquarters.

Stauffenberg, who had brought new dynamism to the sagging momentum of the opposition, wanted a strike against Hitler by mid-November. But who would carry it out? Two officers approached by Stauffenberg declined. The attempt had to be postponed. Meanwhile, Stauffenberg had been introduced to Captain Axel Freiherr von dem Bussche, whose courage in action had won him the Iron Cross, First Class, among other decorations. Witnessing a mass shooting of thousands of Jews in the Ukraine in October 1942 had been a searing experience for Bussche, and opened him to any prospect of doing away with Hitler and his regime. He was prepared to sacrifice his own life by springing on Hitler with a detonated grenade while the Führer was visiting a display of new uniforms.

Bad luck continued to dog the plans. One such uniform display, in December 1943, had to be cancelled when the train carrying the new uniforms was hit in an air-raid and the uniforms destroyed. Before Bussche could be brought back for another attempt, he was badly wounded on the eastern front in January 1944, losing a leg and dropping out of consideration for Stauffenberg’s plans.

Lieutenant Ewald Heinrich von Kleist, son of the Prussian landowner, and long-standing critic of Hitler, Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, expressed himself willing to take over. Everything was set for Hitler’s visit to a uniform display in mid-February. But the display was once again cancelled.

Yet another chance arose when Rittmeister Eberhard von Breitenbuch, aide-de-camp to Field-Marshal Busch (Kluge’s successor as Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Centre) and already initiated in plans to eliminate Hitler, had the opportunity to accompany Busch to a military briefing at the Berghof on 11 March 1944. Breitenbuch had declared himself ready to shoot Hitler in the head. His Browning pistol was in his trouser pocket, and ready to fire as soon as he came close to Hitler. But on this occasion, ADCs were not permitted in the briefing. Luck was still on Hitler’s side.

Even Stauffenberg began to lose heart – especially once the western Allies had established a firm footing on the soil of France. The Gestapo by now had the scent of the opposition; a number of arrests of leading figures pointed to the intensifying danger. Would it not now be better to await the inevitable defeat? Would even a successful strike against Hitler be anything more than a largely empty gesture? Tresckow gave the answer: it was vital that the coup took place, that the outside world should see that there was a German resistance movement prepared at the cost of its members’ lives to topple such an unholy regime.

A last opportunity presented itself. On 1 July 1944, now promoted to colonel, Stauffenberg was appointed Fromm’s chief of staff – in effect, his deputy. It provided him with what had been hitherto lacking: access to Hitler at military briefings related to the home army. He no longer needed look for someone to carry out the assassination. He could do it himself.

The difficulty with Stauffenberg taking over the role of assassin was that he would be needed at the same time in Berlin to organize the coup from the headquarters of the reserve army. The double role meant that the chances of failure were thereby enhanced. It was far from ideal. But the risk had to be taken.

On 6 July, Stauffenberg was present, for the first time in his capacity as chief of staff to Fromm, at two hour-long briefings at the Berghof. He had explosives with him. But, it seems, an appropriate opportunity did not present itself. Whatever the reason, he made no attempt on this occasion. Impatient to act, Stauffenberg resolved to try at his next visit to the Berghof, five days later. But the absence of Himmler, whom the conspirators wanted to eliminate along with Hitler, deterred him. Again, nothing happened. On 15 July, when he was once more at Führer Headquarters (now moved back to the Wolf ’s Lair in East Prussia), Stauffenberg was determined to act. Once more, nothing happened. Most probably, it seems, he had been unable to set the charge in time for the first of the three briefings that afternoon. While the second short briefing was taking place, he was telephoning Berlin to clarify whether he should in any case go through with the attempt in the absence of Himmler. And during the third briefing, he was himself directly involved in the presentation, which deprived him of all possibility of priming the bomb and carrying out the attack. This time, Olbricht even issued the ‘Valkyrie’ order. It had to be passed off as a practice alarm-drill. The error could not be repeated. Next time, the issue of the ‘Valkyrie’ order could not go out ahead of the assassination attempt. It would have to wait for Stauffenberg’s confirmation that Hitler was dead. After the bungling of the opportunity on the 15th, the third time that he had taken such a high risk to no avail, Stauffenberg prepared for what he told his fellow conspirators, gathered at his home in Berlin’s Wannsee on the evening of 16 July, would be a last attempt. This would take place during his next visit to the Wolf ’s Lair, in the briefing scheduled for 20 July.


After a two-hour flight from Berlin, Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, landed at Rastenburg at 10.15 a.m. on 20 July. Stauffenberg was immediately driven the four miles to the Wolf ’s Lair. Haeften accompanied Major-General Stieff, who had flown in the same plane, to Army High Command, before returning later to Führer Headquarters. By 11.30 a.m. Stauffenberg was in a pre-briefing, directed by Keitel, that lasted three-quarters of an hour. Time was pressing since Hitler’s briefing, owing to the arrival of Mussolini that afternoon, was to take place half an hour earlier than usual, at 12.30 p.m.

As soon as the meeting with Keitel was over, Stauffenberg asked where he could freshen up and change his shirt. It was a hot day, and an unremarkable request; but he needed to hurry. Haeften, carrying the briefcase containing the bomb, met him in the corridor. As soon as they were in the toilet, they began hastily to prepare to set the time-fuses in the two explosive devices they had brought with them, and to place the devices, each weighing around a kilogram, in Stauffenberg’s briefcase. Stauffenberg set the first charge. The bomb could go off any time after quarter of an hour, given the hot and stuffy conditions, and would explode within half an hour at most. Outside, Keitel was getting impatient. Just then, a telephone call came from General Erich Fellgiebel, head of communications at Wehrmacht High Command and commissioned, in the plot against Hitler, with the vital task of blocking communications to and from Führer Headquarters following an assassination attempt. Keitel’s adjutant, Major Ernst John von Freyend, took the call. Fellgiebel wanted to speak to Stauffenberg and requested him to call back. There was no time for that. Freyend sent Sergeant-Major Werner Vogel to tell Stauffenberg of Fellgiebel’s message, and to hurry him along. Vogel found Stauffenberg and Haeften busy with some object. On being told to hurry, Stauffenberg brusquely replied that he was on his way. Freyend then shouted that he should come along at once. Vogel waited by the open door. Stauffenberg hastily closed his briefcase. There was no chance of setting the time-fuse for the second device he and Haeften had brought with them. Haeften stuffed this, along with sundry papers, in his own bag. It was a decisive moment. Had the second device, even without the charge being set, been placed in Stauffenberg’s bag along with the first, it would have been detonated by the explosion, more than doubling the effect. Almost certainly, in such an event, no one would have survived.

The briefing, taking place as usual in the wooden barrack-hut inside the high fence of the closely guarded inner perimeter of the Wolf ’s Lair, had already begun when Stauffenberg was ushered in. Hitler, seated in the middle of the long side of the table nearest to the door, facing the windows, was listening to Major-General Adolf Heusinger, chief of operations at General Staff headquarters, describe the rapidly worsening position on the eastern front. Hitler absent-mindedly shook hands with Stauffenberg, when Keitel introduced him, and returned to Heusinger’s report. Stauffenberg had requested a place as close as possible to the Führer. His hearing disability, together with the need to have his papers close to hand when he reported on the creation of a number of new divisions from the reserve army to help block the Soviet breakthrough into Poland and East Prussia, gave him a good excuse. Room was found for him on Hitler’s right, towards the end of the table. Freyend, who had carried Stauffenberg’s briefcase into the room, placed it under the table, against the outside of the solid right-hand table-leg.

No sooner had he arrived in the room, than Stauffenberg made an excuse to leave it. This attracted no special attention. There was much to-ing and fro-ing during the daily conferences. Attending to important telephone calls or temporarily being summoned away was a regular occurrence. Stauffenberg left his cap and belt behind to suggest that he would be returning. Once outside the room, he asked Freyend to arrange the connection for the call which he still had to make to General Fellgiebel. But as soon as Freyend returned to the briefing, Stauffenberg hung up and hurried back to the Wehrmacht adjutants’ building, where he met Haeften and Fellgiebel. Lieutenant Ludolf Gerhard Sander, a communications officer in Fellgiebel’s department, was also there. Stauffenberg’s absence in the briefing had meanwhile been noted; he had been needed to provide a point of information during Heusinger’s presentation. But there was no sinister thought in anyone’s mind at this point. At the adjutancy, Stauffenberg and Haeften were anxiously making arrangements for the car that had been organized to rush them to the airfield. At that moment, they heard a deafening explosion from the direction of the barracks. Fellgiebel gave Stauffenberg a startled look. Stauffenberg shrugged his shoulders. Sander seemed unsurprised. Mines around the complex were constantly being detonated by wild animals, he remarked. It was around quarter to one.

Stauffenberg and Haeften left for the airfield in their chauffeured car as expeditiously as could be done without causing suspicion. The alarm had still not been raised when Stauffenberg bluffed his way past the guards on the gate of the inner zone. He had greater difficulty leaving the outer perimeter. The alarm had by then been sounded. He had to telephone an officer, Rittmeister (cavalry captain) Leonhard von Möllendorf, who knew him and was prepared to authorize his passage. Once out, it was full speed along the bending road to the airfield. On the way, Haeften hurled away a package containing the second explosive. The car dropped them 100 yards from the waiting plane, and immediately turned back. By 1.15 p.m. they were on their way back to Berlin. They were firmly convinced that Hitler was dead.

Hitler had been bent over the heavy oaken table, propped up on his elbow, chin in his hand, studying air reconnaissance positions on a map, when the bomb went off – with a flash of blue and yellow flame and an ear-splitting explosion. Windows and doors blew out. Clouds of thick smoke billowed up. Flying glass splinters, pieces of wood, and showers of paper and other debris flew in all directions. Parts of the wrecked hut were aflame. For a time there was pandemonium. Twenty-four persons had been in the briefing-hut at the time of the explosion. Some were hurled to the floor or blown across the room. Others had hair or clothes in flames. There were cries of help. Human shapes stumbled around – concussed, part-blinded, eardrums shattered – in the smoke and debris, desperately seeking to get out of the ruins of the hut. The less fortunate lay in the wreckage, some fatally injured. Of those in the barrack-hut, only Keitel and Hitler avoided concussion; and Keitel alone escaped burst eardrums.

Hitler had, remarkably, survived with no more than superficial injuries. After the initial shock of the blast, he established that he was all in one piece and could move. Then he made for the door through the wreckage, beating flames from his trousers and putting out the singed hair on the back of his head as he went. He bumped into Keitel, who embraced him, weeping and crying out: ‘My Führer, you are alive, you are alive!’ Keitel helped Hitler, his uniform jacket torn, his black trousers and beneath them long white underwear in shreds, out of the building. But he was able to walk without difficulty. He immediately returned to his bunker. Dr Morell was summoned urgently. Hitler had a swollen and painful right arm, which he could barely lift, swellings and abrasions on his left arm, burns and blisters on his hands and legs (which were also full of wood-splinters), and cuts to his forehead. But those, alongside the burst eardrums, were the worst injuries he had suffered. When Linge, his valet, panic-stricken, rushed in, Hitler was composed, and with a grim smile on his face said: ‘Linge, someone has tried to kill me.’

Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, had been composed enough, despite the shock and the lacerations to his face through glass shards, to rush to the signals hut, where he demanded a block on all communications apart from those from Hitler, Keitel, and Jodl. At the same time, Below had Himmler and Göring summoned to Hitler’s bunker. Then he made his way there himself. Hitler was sitting in his study, relief written on his face, ready to show off – with a tinge of pride, it seemed – his shredded clothing. His attention had already turned to the question of who had carried out the assassination attempt. According to Below, he rejected suggestions (which he appears initially to have believed) that the bomb had been planted by Organisation Todt workers who were temporarily at Führer Headquarters to complete the reinforcement of the compound against air-raids. By this time, suspicion had turned indubitably to the missing Stauffenberg. The search for Stauffenberg and investigation into the assassination attempt began around 2 p.m., though it was not at that point realized that this had been the signal for a general uprising against the regime. Hitler’s rage at the army leaders he had always distrusted mounted by the minute. He was ready to wreak terrible vengeance on those whom he saw as stabbing the Reich in the back in its hour of crisis.


Stauffenberg was by now well on his way back to Berlin. The conspirators there were anxiously awaiting his return, or news of what had happened to him, hesitating to act, still unsure whether to proceed with ‘Operation Valkyrie’. The message that Fellgiebel had managed to get through, even before Stauffenberg had taken off from Rastenburg, was less clear than he thought. It was that something terrible had happened; the Führer was still alive. That was all. There were no details. It was unclear whether the bomb had gone off, whether Stauffenberg had been prevented (as a few days earlier) from carrying out the attack, or whether Stauffenberg had been arrested, whether, in fact, he was even still alive. Further messages seeping through indicated that something had certainly happened in the Wolf ’s Lair, but that Hitler had survived. Should ‘Valkyrie’ still go ahead? No contingency plans had been made for carrying out a coup if Hitler were still alive. And without confirmed news of Hitler’s death, Fromm, in his position as commander of the reserve army, would certainly not give his approval for the coup. Olbricht concluded that to take any action before hearing definitive news would be to court disaster for all concerned. Vital time was lost. Meanwhile, it had only proved temporarily possible to block communications from the Wolf ’s Lair. Soon after 4 p.m. that afternoon, before any coup had been started, the lines were fully open again.

Stauffenberg arrived back in Berlin between 2.45 and 3.15 p.m. There was no car to meet him. His chauffeur was waiting at Rangsdorf aerodrome. But Stauffenberg’s plane had flown to Tempelhof (or possibly another Berlin aerodrome – this detail is not fully clear), and he had impatiently to telephone for a car to take him and Haeften to Bendlerstraße. It was a further delay. Stauffenberg did not reach the headquarters of the conspiracy, where tension was at fever-pitch, until 4.30 p.m. Haeften had in the meantime telephoned from the aerodrome to Bendlerstraße. He announced – the first time the conspirators heard the message – that Hitler was dead. Stauffenberg repeated this when he and Haeften arrived in Bendlerstraße. He had stood with General Fellgiebel outside the barrack-hut, he said, and seen with his own eyes first-aid men running to help and emergency vehicles arriving. No one could have survived such an explosion, was his conclusion. However convincing he was for those anxious to believe his message, a key figure, Colonel-General Fromm, knew otherwise. He had spoken to Keitel around 4 p.m. and been told that the Führer had suffered only minor injuries. That apart, Keitel had asked where, in the meantime, Colonel Stauffenberg might be.

Fromm refused outright Olbricht’s request that he should sign the orders for ‘Valkyrie’. But by the time Olbricht had returned to his room to announce Fromm’s refusal, his impatient chief of staff Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim, a friend of Stauffenberg, and long closely involved in the plot, had already begun the action with a cabled message to regional military commanders, beginning with the words: ‘The Führer, Adolf Hitler, is dead.’ When Fromm tried to have Mertz arrested, Stauffenberg informed him that, on the contrary, it was he, Fromm, who was under arrest.

By now, several of the leading conspirators had been contacted and had begun assembling in the Bendlerstraße. Beck was there, already announcing that he had taken over command in the state; and that Field-Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, former commander-in-chief in France, and long involved in the conspiracy, was new commander-in-chief of the army. Colonel-General Hoepner, Fromm’s designated successor in the coup, dismissed by Hitler in disgrace in early 1942 and forbidden to wear a uniform again, arrived around 4.30 p.m. in civilian clothes, carrying a suitcase. It contained his uniform, which he donned once more that evening.

Scenes in the Bendlerstraße were increasingly chaotic. Conspiring to arrange a coup d’état in a police state is scarcely a simple matter. But even in the existential circumstances prevailing, much smacked of dilettante organization. Too many loose ends had been left dangling. Too little attention had been paid to small but important details in timing, coordination, and, not least, communications. Nothing had been done about blowing up the communications centre at Führer Headquarters or otherwise putting it permanently out of action. No steps were taken to gain immediate control of radio stations in Berlin and other cities. No broadcast was made by the putschists. Party and SS leaders were not arrested. The master-propagandist, Goebbels himself, was left at bay. Among the conspirators, too many were involved in issuing and carrying out commands. There was too much uncertainty; and too much hesitation. Everything had been predicated upon killing Hitler. It had simply been taken for granted that if Stauffenberg succeeded in exploding his bomb, Hitler would be dead. Once that premiss was called into question, then disproved, the haphazard lines of a plan for the coup d’état swiftly unravelled. What was crucial, in the absence of confirmed news of Hitler’s demise, was that there were too many regime-loyalists, and too many waverers, with too much to lose by committing themselves to the side of the conspirators.

Despite Stauffenberg’s intense avowals of Hitler’s death, the depressing news for the conspirators of his survival gathered strength. By mid-evening, it was increasingly obvious to the insurrectionists that their coup had faltered beyond repair.

It rapidly became plain in Führer Headquarters that the assassination attempt was the signal for a military and political insurrection against the regime. By mid-afternoon, Hitler had given command of the reserve army to Himmler. And Keitel had informed army districts that an attempt on the Führer’s life had been made, but that he still lived, and on no account were orders from the conspirators to be obeyed. Loyalists could be found even in the Bendlerstraße, the seat of the uprising. The communications officer there, also in receipt of Keitel’s order, was by the evening, as the conspirators were becoming more and more desperate, passing on the message that the orders he was having to transmit on their behalf were invalid. Fromm’s adjutants were meanwhile able to spread the word in the building that Hitler was still alive, and to collect together a number of officers prepared to challenge the conspirators, whose already limited and hesitant support, inside and outside Bendlerstraße, was by now rapidly draining away. Early instances where army units initially supported the coup dwindled once news of Hitler’s survival hardened.

This was the case, too, in Paris. The military commander there, General Karl Heinrich von Stülpnagel, and his subordinate officers, had firmly backed the insurrectionists. But the supreme commander in the west, Field-Marshal von Kluge, vacillated as ever. In a vain call from Berlin, Beck failed to persuade him to commit himself to the rising. Once he learnt that the assassination attempt had failed, Kluge countered Stülpnagel’s orders to have the entire SS, SD, and Gestapo in Paris arrested, dismissed the general, denounced his actions to Keitel, and later congratulated Hitler on surviving a treacherous attack on his life.

By this time, the events in Berlin had reached their denouement. In the late morning, Goebbels had been hosting a speech about Germany’s armaments position, attended by ministers, leading civil servants, and industrialists, given by Speer in the Propaganda Ministry. After he had closed the meeting, Goebbels had taken Walther Funk and Albert Speer back with him into his study to talk about mobilizing remaining resources within Germany. While they were talking, he was suddenly called to take an urgent telephone call from Führer Headquarters. Despite the swift block on communications, he had his own hot-line to FHQ, which, evidently, still remained open. The call was from Press Chief Otto Dietrich, who broke the news to Goebbels that there had been an attack on Hitler’s life. This was within minutes of the explosion taking place. There were few details at this stage, other than that Hitler was alive. Goebbels, told that Organisation Todt workers had probably been responsible, angrily reproached Speer about the evidently over-casual security precautions that had been taken.

The Propaganda Minister was unusually quiet and pensive over lunch. Somewhat remarkably, in the circumstances, he then retired for his usual afternoon siesta. He was awakened between 2 and 3 p.m. by the head of his press office, Wilfried von Oven, who had just taken a phone-call from an agitated Heinz Lorenz, Dietrich’s deputy. Lorenz had dictated a brief text – drafted, he said, by Hitler himself – for immediate radio transmission. Goebbels was little taken with the terse wording, and remarked that urgency in transmitting the news was less important than making sure it was suitably couched for public consumption. He gave instructions to prepare an adequately massaged commentary. At this stage, the Propaganda Minister clearly had no idea of the gravity of the situation, that army officers had been involved, and that an uprising had been unleashed. Believing a breach of security had allowed unreliable OT workers to perpetrate some attack, he had been told that Hitler was alive. More than that he did not know. Even so, his own behaviour after first hearing the news, and then during the afternoon, when he attended to regular business and showed unusual dilatoriness in putting out the broadcast urgently demanded from Führer Headquarters, was odd. Possibly he had decided that any immediate crisis had passed, and that he would await further information before putting out any press communiqué. More probably, he was unsure of developments and wanted to hedge his bets.

Eventually, after this lengthy interval, further news from the Wolf’s Lair ended his inaction. He rang Speer and told him to drop everything and rush over to his residence, close to the Brandenburg Gate. There he told Speer he had heard from Führer Headquarters that a full-scale military putsch in the entire Reich was under way. Speer immediately offered Goebbels his support in any attempt to defeat and crush the uprising. Within minutes, Speer noticed armed troops on the streets outside, ringing the building. By this time, it was early evening, around 6.30 p.m. Goebbels took one glance and disappeared into his bedroom, putting a little box of cyanide pills – ‘for all eventualities’ – into his pocket. The fact that he had been unable to locate Himmler made him worried. Perhaps the Reichsführer-SS had fallen into the hands of the putschists? Perhaps he was even behind the coup? Suspicions were rife. The elimination of such an important figure as Goebbels ought to have been a priority for the conspirators. Amazingly, no one had even thought to cut off his telephone. This, and the fact that the leaders of the uprising had put out no proclamation over the radio, persuaded the Propaganda Minister that all was not lost, even though he heard disquieting reports of troops moving on Berlin.

The guard-battalion surrounding Goebbels’s house was under the command of Major Otto Ernst Remer, thirty-two years old at the time, a fanatical Hitler loyalist, who initially believed the fiction constructed by the plotters that they were putting down a rising by disaffected groups in the SS and party against the Führer. When ordered by his superior, the Berlin City Commandant, Major-General Paul von Hase, to take part in sealing off the government quarter, Remer obeyed without demur. He soon became suspicious, however, that what he had first heard was untrue; that he was, in fact, helping suppress not a putsch of party and SS leaders against Hitler, but a military coup against the regime by rebellious officers. As luck had it, Lieutenant Hans Hagen, charged with inspiring Nazi principles among the troops, had that afternoon lectured Remer’s battalion on behalf of the Propaganda Ministry. Hagen now used his fortuitous contact to Remer to help undermine the conspiracy against Hitler. He persuaded Goebbels to speak directly to Remer, to convince him of what was really happening, and to win him over. Hagen then sought out Remer, played on the seeds of doubt in his mind about the action in which he was engaged, and talked him into disregarding the orders of his superior, Hase, and going to see Goebbels. At this point, Remer was still unsure whether Goebbels was part of an internal party coup against Hitler. If he made a mistake, it could cost him his head. However, after some hesitation, he agreed to meet the Propaganda Minister.

Goebbels reminded him of his oath to the Führer. Remer expressed his loyalty to Hitler and the party, but remarked that the Führer was dead. ‘The Führer is alive!’ Goebbels retorted. ‘I spoke with him only a few minutes ago.’ The uncertain Remer was visibly wavering. Goebbels offered to let Remer speak himself with Hitler. It was around 7 p.m. Within minutes, the call to the Wolf ’s Lair was made. Hitler asked Remer whether he recognized his voice. Standing rigidly to attention, Remer said he did. ‘Do you hear me? So I’m alive! The attempt has failed,’ he registered Hitler saying. ‘A tiny clique of ambitious officers wanted to do away with me. But now we have the saboteurs of the front. We’ll make short shrift of this plague. You are commissioned by me with the task of immediately restoring calm and security in the Reich capital, if necessary by force. You are under my personal command for this purpose until the Reichsführer-SS arrives in the Reich capital!’ Remer needed no further persuasion. All Speer, in the room at the time, could hear, was ‘Jawohl, my Führer … Jawohl, as you order, my Führer.’ Remer was put in charge of security in Berlin to replace Hase. He was to follow all instructions from Goebbels.

Remer arranged for Goebbels to speak to his men. Goebbels addressed the guard-battalion in the garden of his residence around 8.30 p.m., and rapidly won them over. Almost two hours earlier, he had put out a radio communiqué telling listeners of the attack on Hitler, but how the Führer had suffered only minor abrasions, had received Mussolini that afternoon, and was already back at his work. For those still wavering, the news of Hitler’s survival was a vital piece of information. Between 8 and 9 p.m. the cordon around the government quarter was lifted. The guard-battalion was by now needed for other duties: rooting out the conspirators in their headquarters in Bendlerstraße. The high-point of the conspiracy had passed. For the plotters, the writing was on the wall.


Some were already seeking to extricate themselves even before Goebbels’s communiqué broadcast the news of Hitler’s survival. By mid-evening, the group of conspirators in the Bendlerblock, the Wehrmacht High Command building in the Bendlerstraße, were as good as all that was left of the uprising. Remer’s guard-battalion was surrounding the building. Panzer units loyal to the regime were closing in on Berlin’s city centre. Troop commanders were no longer prepared to listen to the plotters’ orders. Even in the Bendlerblock itself, senior officers were refusing to take orders from the conspirators, reminding them of the oath they had taken to Hitler which, since the radio had broadcast news of his survival, was still valid.

A group of staff officers, dissatisfied with Olbricht’s increasingly lame explanation of what was happening, and, whatever their feelings towards Hitler, not unnaturally anxious in the light of an evidently lost cause to save their own skins, became rebellious. Soon after 9 p.m., arming themselves, they returned to Olbricht’s room. While their spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Franz Herber, was talking to Olbricht, shots were fired in the corridor, one of which hit Stauffenberg in the shoulder. It was a brief flurry, no more. Herber and his men pressed into Fromm’s office, where Colonel-General Hoepner, the conspirators’ choice as commander of the reserve army, Mertz, Beck, Haeften, and the injured Stauffenberg also gathered. Herber demanded to speak to Fromm and was told he was still in his apartment (where he had been kept under guard since the afternoon). One of the rebel officers immediately made his way there, was admitted, and told Fromm what had happened. The guard outside Fromm’s door had by now vanished. Liberated, Fromm returned to his office to confront the putschists. It was around 10 p.m. when his massive frame appeared in the doorway of his office. He scornfully cast his eye over the utterly dispirited leaders of the insurrection. ‘So, gentlemen,’ he declared, ‘now I’m going to do to you what you did to me this afternoon.’

What the conspirators had done to Fromm had been to lock him in his room and give him sandwiches and wine. Fromm was less naïve. He had his neck to save – or so he thought. He told the putschists they were under arrest and demanded they surrender all weapons. Beck asked to retain his ‘for private use’. Fromm ordered him to make use of it immediately. Beck said at that moment he was thinking of earlier days. Fromm urged him to get on with it. Beck put the gun to his head, but succeeded only in grazing himself on the temple. Fromm offered the others a few moments should they wish to write any last words. Hoepner availed himself of the opportunity, sitting at Olbricht’s desk; so did Olbricht himself. Beck, meanwhile, reeling from the glancing blow to his head, refused attempts to take the pistol from him, and insisted on being allowed another shot. Even then, he only managed a severe head-wound. With Beck writhing on the floor, Fromm left the room to learn that a unit of the guard-battalion had entered the courtyard of the Bendlerblock. He knew, too, that Himmler, the newly appointed commander of the reserve army, was on his way. There was no time to lose. He returned to his room after five minutes and announced that he had held a court-martial in the name of the Führer. Mertz, Olbricht, Haeften, and ‘this colonel whose name I will no longer mention’ had been sentenced to death. ‘Take a few men and execute this sentence downstairs in the yard at once,’ he ordered an officer standing by. Stauffenberg tried to take all responsibility on his own shoulders, stating that the others had been merely carrying out his orders. Fromm said nothing, as the four men were taken to their execution, and Hoepner – initially also earmarked for execution, but spared for the time being following a private discussion with Fromm – was led out into captivity. With a glance at the dying Beck, Fromm commanded one of the officers to finish him off. The former Chief of the General Staff was unceremoniously dragged into the adjacent room and shot dead.

The condemned men were rapidly escorted downstairs into the courtyard, where a firing-squad of ten men drawn from the guard-battalion was already waiting. To add to the macabre scene, the drivers of the vehicles parked in the courtyard had been ordered to turn their headlights on the little pile of sand near the doorway from which Stauffenberg and his fellow-conspirators emerged. Without ceremony, Olbricht was put on the sand-heap and promptly shot. Next to be brought forward was Stauffenberg. Just as the execution-squad opened fire, Haeften threw himself in front of Stauffenberg, and died first. It was to no avail. Stauffenberg was immediately placed again on the sand-heap. As the shots rang out, he was heard to cry: ‘Long live holy Germany.’ Seconds later, the execution of the last of the four, Mertz von Quirnheim, followed. Fromm at once had a telegram dispatched, announcing the bloody suppression of the attempted coup and the execution of the ringleaders. Then he gave an impassioned address to those assembled in the courtyard, attributing Hitler’s wondrous salvation to the work of Providence. He ended with a three-fold ‘Sieg Heil’ to the Führer.

While the bodies of the executed men, along with Beck’s corpse, which had been dragged downstairs into the yard, were taken off in a lorry to be buried – next day Himmler had them exhumed and cremated – the remaining conspirators in the Bendlerblock were arrested. It was around half an hour after midnight.

Apart from the lingering remnants of the coup in Paris, Prague, and Vienna, and apart from the terrible and inevitable reprisals to follow, the last attempt to topple Hitler and his regime from within was over.


Hours earlier on this eventful 20 July 1944, shortly after arriving back in his bunker following the explosion, Hitler had refused to contemplate cancelling the planned visit of the Duce, scheduled for 2.30 p.m. that afternoon, but delayed half an hour because of the late arrival of Mussolini’s train. It was to prove the last of the seventeen meetings of the two dictators. It was certainly the strangest. Outwardly composed, there was little to denote that Hitler had just escaped an attempt on his life. He greeted Mussolini with his left hand, since he had difficulty in raising his injured right arm. He told the shocked Duce what had happened, then led him to the ruined wooden hut where the explosion had taken place. In a macabre scene, amid the devastation, accompanied only by the interpreter, Paul Schmidt, Hitler described to his fellow-dictator where he had stood, right arm leaning on the table as he studied the map, when the bomb went off. He showed him the singed hair at the back of his head. Hitler sat down on an upturned box. Schmidt found a still usable stool amid the debris for Mussolini. For a few moments, neither dictator said a word. Then Hitler, in a quiet voice, said: ‘When I go through it all again … I conclude from my wondrous salvation, while others present in the room received serious injuries … that nothing is going to happen to me.’ He was ever more convinced, he added, that it was given to him to lead their common cause to a victorious end.

The same theme, that Providence had saved him, ran through Hitler’s address transmitted by all radio stations soon after midnight. Hitler said he was speaking to the German people for two reasons: to let them hear his voice, and know that he was uninjured and well; and to tell them about a crime without parallel in German history. ‘A tiny clique of ambitious, unconscionable, and at the same time criminal, stupid officers has forged a plot to eliminate me and at the same time to eradicate with me the staff practically of the German armed forces’ leadership.’ He likened it to the stab-in-the-back of 1918. But this time, the ‘tiny gang of criminal elements’ would be ‘mercilessly eradicated’. On three separate occasions he referred to his survival as ‘a sign of Providence that I must continue my work, and therefore will continue it’.

In fact, as so often in his life, it had not been Providence that had saved him, but luck: the luck of the devil.

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