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Hitler's close brush with death

Valkyrie

Hitler showing Mussolini the room where he almost died (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

77 years ago today, a bomb exploded in the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's bunker complex in East Prussia, almost killing the Führer. Today's article takes a look at the details of the famous "Valkyrie plot".
 
Adolf Hitler's rise to power and the ascension of the Nazi Party had opponents from the very beginning, even within the ranks of the German military. As early as 1938, there have been German officers, including some very high-ranking ones, who were willing to risk their own lives to kill or arrest the dictator. A coup plan has been hatched as early as 1938 in a failed attempt to pre-empt World War II.
 
Additional plans were developed in 1940-41, once the war was already underway, and one officer who became central to these was General Henning von Tresckow. Tresckow came from an aristocratic military family, but had a strong independent streak. He eschewed uniforms whenever it was possible, spoke English and French and liked to quote poetry. During World War I, his commander once remarked that Tresckow "will either become chief of the General Staff or die on the scaffold as a rebel."

Tresckow at the rank of Colonel in 1943 (Photo: tracesofwar.com)
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He became disillusioned with Nazism in 1934, when the SS attacked the SA (Sturmabteilung, an older and rival paramilitary organization within the Nazi Party) during the Night of the Long Knives, killing many SA leaders and political opponents. His disgust with the regime grew when Hitler took personal command of the military, and when the Kristallnacht ("Crystal night", also called "Night of Broken Glass" in English) pogroms targeted Jews all over the country in 1938. He became the chief operations officer of Army Group Center during the invasion of Russia, and witnessed the mass murder of Jewish women and children.

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Tresckow gradually made contact with other groups opposing Hitler both within and outside the military, and started looking for likeminded officers whom he had arranged to be posted to his unit. This way, the HQ of the army group slowly turned into a center of anti-Hitler conspirators. Physically, the group was concentrated on the Eastern Front, and in the Bendlerblock in Berlin, a building complex that housed several departments of the German High Command of the Armed Forces, the High Command of the Army, and the Abwehr military intelligence service.

Southern façade of the Bendlerblock today. (Photo: Jörg Zägel)

A number of attempts were made on Hitler's life (or at least considered), but each was foiled by chance or the Führer’s unpredictability. As one plan failed after another, the group started focusing on Operation Valkyrie. Valkyrie was originally conceived as an operation to preserve the continuity of government in case of heavy Allied bombing campaigns or an uprising by forced laborers. The tool of this operation was the Ersatzheer, the "Replacement (or Reserve) Army". This force was part of the Army, and was stationed inside Germany with training and guard duties. The original Operation Valkyrie planned for the mobilization of the Ersatzheer to take control of infrastructure and preserve public order in case of a hypothetical chaotic breakdown.

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German recruits. The Ersatzheer also played an important role in training soldiers. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Tresckow and his co-conspirators realized that the operation could be modified: if Hitler died, "restoring order" could include arresting whoever was responsible for his death, even high-ranking Nazi officials. All they had to do was modify the operational plan, kill Hitler, and blame it on Hitler's most powerful supporters. Once the regime's chief supporters and controllers were out of the way, the new government, staffed by the conspirators, could sue the Allies for peace. This part of the plan became especially important in 1943, when the Western Allies made landfall in continental Europe first in Italy in 1943, followed by D-Day the next year.
 
All this, however, was easier said than done. Only two people had the authority to initiate Valkyrie: Hitler himself, and General Friedrich Fromm, Chief of the Replacement Army. Tresckow tried to recruit Fromm to his cause, but the latter refused to participate in the coup. He did, however, turn a blind eye to it, and allowed it to proceed without informing Hitler. In fact, Tresckow reached out to several prominent German officers at various times regarding the coup with similar results: Field Marshals Erich von Manstein and Gerd von Rundstedt both refused. Neither reported Tresckow's planned treason.

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1939 photo of General Fromm (right) with Soviet General Maxim Purkajew (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Between August and September 1943, Tresckow greatly expanded the Valkyrie plans and added new orders to it. The additions included a secret declaration that began: "The Führer Adolf Hitler is dead! A treacherous group of party leaders has attempted to exploit the situation by attacking our embattled soldiers from the rear to seize power for themselves." Popular culture often states, largely based on the 2008 film Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise, that the plans were rewritten by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. In fact, it was done by Tresckow, his wife Erika, and his secretary Margarethe von Oven. Stauffenberg was long believed to have been behind the revision, and the truth only saw the light of day thanks to documents that were captured by the Soviets after the war and only made public in 2007.

A further piece of trivia regarding the Valkyrie movie: the Junkers Ju 52 aircraft used as Hitler’s plane in the movie also appeared in the 1968 war film Where Eagles Dare. The plane came to a tragic end in the Swiss Alps in 2018, when it crashed due to poor maintenance and reckless piloting, killing all 20 people on board.

The Junker Ju 52 used in the film (Photo: Internet Movie Plane Database)

But back to history! The revised plan would have had the Ersatzheer seize and remove Germany's civilian (Nazi) government under the pretext that the SS killed Hitler. As long as the orders came from a legitimate source, the Reserve Army High Command, the rank-and-file soldiers would have been carrying out the coup believing that they're the ones removing the traitors and restoring legitimacy.
Though Stauffenberg did not draft the plan, he was nevertheless an important figure in the conspiracy. Born to one of the oldest and most distinguished aristocratic Catholic families in southern Germany, he was a conservative nationalist. He was a complicated figure. On one hand, he agreed with the nationalistic and racist aspects of Nazism, but at the same time the poor treatment of Jews and the general suppression of religion offended his Catholic sense of morality. Two of his brothers had contacts with anti-Nazi groups, and Claus himself seemed to grow more and more disillusioned with the Nazis when he witnessed genocide on the Eastern Front.

Stauffenberg with his wife, Nina in 1933 (Photo: bodwyn.wordpress.com)

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In April 1943, Stauffenberg's car was strafed by British warplanes in North Africa. He lost his left eye, his right hand and two finders on his left hand. The conspirators contacted him in September, after a lengthy recovery. He proved willing to participate in the plot, and was placed in the Ersatzheer as a staff officer.

Events picked up steam in the summer of 1944, with Tresckow's circle fearing that the Gestapo was closing in on them. On the 1st of July, Stauffenberg was appointed Chief of Staff to General Fromm, which allowed him to attend Hitler's conferences. On the 7th, another conspirator, General Hellmuth Stieff, was supposed to assassinate Hitler at a display of new uniforms, but he didn't have the willpower to go through with it. This was a problem, since Stauffenberg was only supposed to stay at the Bendlerblock in Berlin and control the coup from there; the actual assassination was to be carried out by Stieff. Since the latter couldn't go through with it, Stauffenberg decided to play both roles at the same time.

On July 14, Stauffenberg flew from Berlin to Hitler's "Wolf's Lair" bunker complex in East Prussia and attended a conference. He actually had a bomb in his briefcase, but he flew home with his mission undone: the conspirators wanted to kill Himmler and Göring along with Hitler to make sure they wouldn't throw a wrench in the works during the coup, but the two were not present. (In fact, Himmler rarely attended military conferences.)
 
He flew to the Wolf's Lair again the next day. By now, the plotters gave up on killing Himmler and Göring from the get-go, and were content to only blow up Hitler. Ironically, both Himmler and Göring were present for this conference, but Hitler was called out of the room at the last moment. Stauffenberg scrambled to recover the bomb before it was discovered.

Hitler at the Wolf's Lair on July 15, the day of the last aborted attempt. Stauffenberg is on the left. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Stauffenberg finally took his shot on July 20, 1944, at yet another conference in the Wolf's Lair. Again, something went wrong. The conference was supposed to be held in an underground room, where the pressure of the explosion would have been trapped, causing much greater damage. The event was moved to the ground floor at the last minute, where much of the blast could escape through the windows.
 
 At 12:30 p.m., just as the conference was to begin, Stauffenberg went to a nearby washroom, ostensibly to change out of his sweat-soaked shirt. Once inside, he took out a 2.2 lbs (1 kilogram) block of plastic explosive wrapped in brown paper, inserted a captured British-made "pencil detonator," and crushed its end with a pair of pliers. This caused an acid to start eating through a wire that was securing the timer's firing pin. In about ten minutes, the wire would be severed, the pin would come loose, and the bomb would explode.

"No. 10 delay switch" pencil detonators similar to the ones used by Stauffenberg. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Stauffenberg also had a second block of explosives and a second detonator, but he never got to prime it. Only having three fingers due to his war wounds in Africa, the precision work of setting up the bomb went very slowly; he was disturbed and told that the conference was starting before he could get to work on the second explosive. He slid the bomb in his briefcase and entered the conference room. Once inside, he surreptitiously slid the briefcase under the table, close to Hitler. A few minutes later, he left the room to answer a phone call which he had arranged in advance, "accidentally" leaving the briefcase under the table. He strode out of the building and waited. Unknown to Stauffenberg, one conference participant wanted to get closer to Hitler and pushed the briefcase to the other side of the table's sturdy legs.
 
The bomb detonated at 12:42 p.m. Seeing the explosion and the smoke from outside, Stauffenberg assumed Hitler was dead. He drove away with his aide-de-camp, the latter throwing the second, unused bomb into the forest along the way. Shortly before 1:00 p.m., Stauffenberg was already in the air and flying back to Berlin, ready to lead the coup.

German officers including Martin Bormann and Hermann Göring inspecting the remains of the conference room. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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Only Hitler didn't die. One man in the room died immediately, and three others later. Everyone else was injured. The Führer had his trousers torn to shred by the detonation and suffered a puncture eardrum, but was otherwise fine. Had the bomb gone off in the basement, had Stauffenberg armed both bombs, or had the briefcase been left on the other side of the table leg, Hitler almost certainly would have died; but with these many small details going awry, he survived.

Hitler's tattered trousers after the explosion (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Stauffenberg landed in Berlin at 4:00 p.m. By this time, the plotters at Bendlerblock had already been informed by phone that Hitler survived an assassination attempt. Stauffenberg, however, phoned from the airport claiming the opposite, leaving the conspirators in confusion. They decided to go ahead with Operation Valkyrie, but General Fromm, still sitting on the fence, refused to give the order. Once Stauffenberg arrived at the building 40 minutes later, the conspirators captured Fromm at gunpoint and had someone else give the order instead of him. Meanwhile, these 40 long minutes were enough for the German military governor in Paris, another participant in the coup, to disarm the local SS and its intelligence agency, only to learn that Hitler was, in fact, alive.
 
The coup went ahead in many parts of Germany, with the Reserve Army securing local Nazi Party offices and arresting governors and SS officers. Meanwhile, everything was going wrong in Berlin. The city's military commander refused to follow the operational plan, shouting that the Führer was alive. A proclamation was to be read over the radio, but the only copy of its text disappeared. At 7:00 p.m., Hitler started making phone calls from the Wolf's Lair, quickly rallying Goebbels. Goebbels, in turn, passed on the call to the Ersatzheer commander of the forces surrounding his Ministry, so the man could get first-hand proof of the Führer's survival. The officer, Major Remer, promptly changed sides and ordered his troops to seal of the Bendlerblock instead.

The conspirators started panicking as the "legitimate" Nazi authorities started to rapidly regain control of the city. Some tried to save themselves by changing sides. General Fromm, who was locked up in his room, was freed, leading to a firefight between those who wanted to go ahead with the coup and those wanted to escape. Stauffenberg was wounded in the shooting. By 11:00 p.m., General Fromm and Major Remer had full control of the building. The coup attempt was crushed.

Soldiers and Waffen-SS men at the Bendlerblock (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Fromm knew that his neck was on the line: though he did not actively participate in the coup, he knew about it and did not report it to Hitler or the Gestapo. This was enough for a death sentence. He held an impromptu court martial, sentencing Stauffenberg and three other officers to death. A fifth officer, also arrested, tried to commit suicide with a gun. He survived the self-inflicted wound and was shot dead by soldiers. Fromm did this both to demonstrate his loyalty to the regime, and to silence those who could have testified to his foreknowledge of the attempt. The four men were executed in the building's courtyard at 10 minutes past midnight. Waffen-SS troops, led by the infamous commando Otto Skorzeny, arrived on the scene 20 minutes later, preventing further executions. The street the Bendlerblock stands on is called Stauffenbergstraße (Stauffenberg street) today, and part of the complex holds a memorial and museum dedicated to German resistance against Hitler's rule.  

Today, the courtyard where Stauffenberg and three others were executed has a statue of him and a line for the imaginary firing squad (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Gestapo's inevitable dragnet rounded up almost everyone who had even the most tenuous ties to the plot. Confiscated letters and diaries also implicated officers in previous attempts on Hitler's life. Out of the 7,000 people arrested, 4,980 were executed, including some who had nothing to do with the coup but whom the Gestapo suspected of being opposition sympathizers. Stauffenberg’s pregnant wife was also arrested and taken to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. Luckily, she survived and was reunited with her four children after the war. One of the children, Berthold, became a general in the West German army. As you have read in one of our recent newsletters, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was forced to commit suicide, even though his connection to the Valkyrie plot was tangential at best. Fromm's maneuvering failed to save him from retribution. He was arrested the next day, and sentenced to death and executed later.

A session of the People's Court, a kangaroo court, during the conspirators' trials (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

General Tresckow, who was on the Eastern Front when the coup went down, avoided arrest by walking into no man's land between German and Russian lines and holding a primed grenade to his neck until it went off. Before doing so, he reportedly said these words:
 
"The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours' time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. None of us can bewail his own death; those who consented to join our circle put on the robe of Nessus ["a poisoned robe"]. A human being's moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions."

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