It is accepted that had Hitler never existed, history would have been entirely different. This is perhaps why we seldom pause to consider, what would have happened if he had been assassinated. Would Germany have continued with the war? Would they have surrendered to the Allies? If so, then the suffering of tens of millions would have been shortened, and the lives of many would have been spared, from the brutality of the war and the inhumanity of the fanaticals who still believed in Hitler’s ideas of supreme race. Could this have happened on the 20th July 1944, when Hitler was almost blown to bits? Had the conspirators, led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, succeeded in killing the tyrant, would the course of history have been dramatically altered?
1# Opposition to Hitler
That doesn’t mean the opposition evaporated. Some remained dormant at the wait for an opportunity, while others who had been skeptical of Hitler at first, were converted after the streak of military victories, and would not go back to their initial dislike him until the final victory, appeared to become further and further removed from their grasp. The reprisals on the Eastern Front against civilians, with mass shootings and ethnic cleansing that the SS Einsatzgruppen, as well as some of their colleagues in the regular Armed Forces (Wehrmacht), made some of the officers turn their faces in disgust. Amongst them, the most prominent was Henning von Tresckow, who organised several attempts against Hitler’s life, and almost succeeded in killing him himself on 13th March 1943.
Since 1933 there had been some opposition to Hitler in Germany, specially within the Armed Forces, whom initially greeted his expansionist policies with equal joy and fear. The crisis of the Sudetenland brought for the first time talks amongst the German officers to remove him from power, talks that materialised into nothing when the early successes of 1940 and 1941, gave Hitler his peak of popularity, and the army, his long-awaited revenge over the injustice and humiliation they saw in the Treaty of Versailles that had partitioned German territories and colonies after 1918.
2# Stauffenberg and the conspirators
The key figure in this plotter’s club became the Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who after being seriously wounded in 1943 in the North African theatre, and in view of worsening situation in all fronts, was convinced of the necessity to eliminate Hitler, if Germany was to have a future. Other important members of the conspiracy were former Chief of Staff of Army High Command (OKH) Ludwig Beck, Chief of the General Army Office and Chief of the Armed Forces Reserve Office, Friedrich Olbricht, and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig and the envisoned figure to occupy the post of Chancellor in the post-Hitler Germany. In addition to, there were many who knew or were suspected to know of the plot, including the Field Marshalls Fedor von Bock, Günther von Kluge, Erich von Manstein, and Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, all having been approached by the conspirators. Although none of them joined, neither they reported their plans to the Gestapo, the Nazi political police.
But the conspirators themselves couldn’t even agree whether it was better to arrest and put Hitler to trial, or murder him, an act they all regarded as hedonious, for they all had sworn an oath of allegiance to him. They knew, whomever commited the treasonous murder of their head of state, would be branded as the worst scum ever, and despised by the generations to come. Nevermind that, the conspirators still lacked two essential elements to get rid of Hitler, first was access to the man himself, the other was the loyalty of one person in particular, Friedrich Fromm.
3# Planning Operation Valkyrie
The importance of Fromm, lay on his position, that of head of the Reserve Army stationed in Berlin. The city was also headquarters of the Party, SS, and Gestapo, and once Hitler was removed, whomever controlled Berlin, would give the orders. That’s why the conspirators also planned to eliminate Himmler, head of the SS and of the RSHA (Reich Main Security Office) which included the Gestapo, the Security Police (SiPo), and SD (intelligence agency). In short, a police state within the German state. What was the point of killing Hitler, if the ruthless Himmler took his throne? The envisoned role of Fromm and his Reserve Army therefore, was to arrest all Party and SS members. To do that, the conspirators had lain their eyes in Operation Valkyrie, a contingency plan to mobilise the Reserve Army in case of internal unrest or revolt in the Reich’s territory, and recycle it for their own purposes. Basically, they intended to blame the SS of a coup against Hitler and then use the Reserve Army to crush them.
Only Fromm could mobilise the Reserve Army, so he was approached by Stauffenberg and Olbricht, but refused to collaborate. However, being the fence-sitter that he was, he neither reported them, waiting to see which side would ultimately be victorious. Only then would he commit himself. He however, appointed Stauffenberg as his Chief of Staff for the Reserve Army on the first of July, giving him acces to Hitler in the briefings that were regularly conducted in his headquarters in East Prussia, the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze). The game was on.
Stauffenberg had several opportunities to blow up his supreme commander-in-chief on the 6th, 11th, and 15th July when he met him for briefings, but whether because Himmler wasn’t present, or whether because he had no time to set the fuse for the bombs he carried on his briefcase, the mission was aborted. It didn’t help either that Hitler’s schedule was unpredictable and constantly changing. In addition to, the conspirators commited a fatal mistake when Olbricht put the Reserve Army in standby on the 15th (only Fromm could mobilise it though), a movement that could have exposed them. As a result, Fromm turned his back to the conspirators. He wouldn’t denounce them this time either.
Not all was lost. A new briefing in the Wolffschanze was scheduled by 20th July. Once there, Stauffenberg and his aide-de-camp, Herner von Haeften, went to the bathroom with the pretext of changing the former’s shirt (it was a clammy and steamy day) and begun the laborious task of setting the time fuses of the bombs inside Stauffenberg’s briefcase. In 15 to 30 minutes it was estimated that the explosion would happen. A guard was sent to hurry Stauffenberg for the briefing had already begun, almost discovering them red-handed, and interrupting their attempt to set the fuse for the second bomb. Had it been activated, the resulting explosion would have been doubled, almost certainly to have killed Hitler. But the most damaging factor in the conspirators’ bad luck, was the sudden decision of changing the briefing scheduled to take place in the bunker, to a conference hall. This was to prove fatal, for the explosion in a bunker with no windows would have been greatly magnified and likely to have left no survivors. However, the bomb fuse was already set so Stauffenberg decided to go on with the plan.
He asked to be close to Hitler because of the hearing disability triggered by his African wounds (he had lost an eye, the right hand, and three fingers of his left hand). His wish was granted and he was allocated almost immediate by Hitler’s right, his briefcase stored under the table, against the leg. Immediately after arriving, he made a sudden request to leave the room and this proved no difficult or suspicious, since there was much going to and fro in the daily conferences, to attend regular phone calls and summons. Stauffenberg left the briefcase behind to suggest he was returning, and reunited with Haeften outside, who was making preparations for the car to rush them to the airfield, when a detonation was heard. The alarm didn’t go off immediately for landmines were constantly exploded in the adjacent fields by wild animals. This gave time to Stauffenberg and Haeften to clear the inner perimeter, but the alarm caught them when they reached the outer perimeter. Stauffenberg made a call and his exit was authorised, with Haefner disposing of the second unused bomb before they reached the airfield and took off for Berlin. They were convinced Hitler was dead.
5# Hitler’s luck
Of a total of 24 men present in the briefing, only four ended up dead, with several seriourisly injured and others suffering from concussions, broken bones, bruises, and burnts. But Hitler had incredibly survived. Bruised, blistered, and with the ear drums burst, but alive. Soon it was clear that Stauffenberg was guilty, but nothing was yet known of the usurpation of Operation Valkyrie by the plotters. Erich Fellgiebel, another of the conspirator in charge of cutting the communications from the Wolffschanze, had sent a message to Olbricht and the conspirators in the Bendlerblock in Berlin, telling them Hitler was alive, but no further details were clarified. When Stauffenberg landed in Berlin around 4pm, he discovered to his horror, that Operation Valkyrie had not been launched due to Olbricht’s indecision, so taking matters into hand himself, he drove to Fromm with Olbricht. Fromm, knowing first-hand from Field Marshall Keitel in the Wolffschanze that Hitler had survived, refused to join the coup. Stauffenberg had him arrested and Operation Valkyrie was finally launched.
Not only crucial time had been lost, but it soon turned out that the operation was flawed. No plans had been made to secure the radio stations, or to permanently disable all communications in the Wolffschanze (after all, Keitel had just spoken with Fromm), which might have ensured their success. Furthermore, none of the conspirators had seemed to think about dealing with Goebbels, the ministry of propaganda. Even worst, there was much hesitancy and uncertainty amongst the conspirators, and those less resolved started to falter and change sides, once the rumours of Hitler survival were suspected to be more than mere attempts of the SS to save their necks.
6# The failure of Operation Valkyrie
Back in the Wolffschanze, Hitler insisted on keeping on with his scheduled meeting with Mussolini, whom he showed the tattered trousers he had worn at the time of the explosion with pride, and they toured the wrecked conference room. Once details of the arrests of several Party and SS leaders reached him, he moved to appoint Himmler as the new Reserve Army commander, while Keitel informed army district commanders that Hitler was alive and no orders from the conspirators were to be obeyed. The ebbing coup was given its mortal wound when Major Otto Remer talked with Goebbels in the Ministry of Propaganda. Initially, he had gone there with orders from the conspirators to arrest the minister, however, he suspected that indeed there might not exist any coup from the SS, and that the office of the Reserve Army that had given him the orders, might be the authentic coup perpetrators.
Around 7pm Goebbels put Remer on the phone with Hitler himself. Remer clicked his heels in soldiery fashion when hearing the Führer’s voice, who proceded to confirm his survival and gave him orders to reestablish order in Berlin and keep the conspirators alive, until Himmler would arrive to take charge. Remer did so, liberating the Party and SS leaders arrested, and heading afterwards to the Bendlerblock, effectively sealing it before he and his men walked in. In the meantime, Fromm had been liberated by a group of loyalists inside, around 10pm, who then proceeded to engage in a gunfight with the conspirators, in which Stauffenberg was wounded in the arm. Fromm, together with Remer, arrested them, and against Remer’s protestations, Fromm dictated they would be executed by firing squad. The former chief of staff of the OKH, Ludwig Beck, asked for a pistol for personal use. He would botch his suicide with the first two shots, and was finally put out of his misery by one of Fromm’s men.
In acting against the orders that Hitler gave to Remer, Fromm sought to cover his passive role in the coup, in that he had known of it all along. He thought that by swiftly killing the coup leaders, he would destroy damaging evidence and redeem himself in the eyes of the Führer. Quirnheim, Olbricht, Haeften, and Stauffenberg, were led to the courtyard and shot in that order. Before the bullets killed him, Stauffenberg cried: long live holy Germany! It was the end of the last attempt to murder Hitler. The Gestapo followed up with a cleaning operation, with close to 5000 executions and many more arrestst of those involved in the plot, their friends and relatives, and many more who had no relation to the plot, but simply were people whose opinions clashed with those of Nationalsocialism. The opportunist Fromm wouldn’t get off lightly this time. He was arrested shortly after, and on 12th March 1945, he was executed. Nazi Germany and its blood-thirsty leaders would follow their victims shortly after.
7# What if had Stauffenberg had succeeded?
Today the spot in the Bendlerblock where Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were executed, is commemorated with a memorial statue and plaque, and they are remembered as the resistance in Germany. But a series of really uncomfortable questions arouse. Were they really righteous heroes opposed to the barbarity of Nazism? Or were they desperate officers trying to salvage what they could from a sinking ship, in which the all-or-nothing mentality of Hitler had put them? Did they seek a democratic and peaceful Germany, removed from the discriminatory and authoritharian Nazi state? Or did they envisoned a military and expansionist Germany out of the clutches of Hitler and his clique, just as it had been on the eve of the First World War?
It is of course, oversimplistic to say that all Germans were sympathetic to Nazi boundless expansionism and genocide, but the truth is, many didn’t protest and even approved of the injusticies perpetrated during the first half of the war, when the Wehrmacht seemed nigh-invincible. Specially the officer corps, was extremely fawning of the Führer after the Polish campaign, and their astounding victories over France in 1940. And long before that they had seen in Hitler a benefactor, he who had torn apart the treaty of Versailles, and made the reconstruction of the German army his number one priority.
The truth is, several of the officers involved in the conspiration too had taken part of the Nazi atrocities in the Eastern Front, or turned the blind eye, as long as the wind blew in Germany’s favour. Only once it was clear that Hitler was steering them into disaster, specially after Stalingrad, they decided to do something about it. Even then, all the conspirators, including Stauffenberg, entertained dreams of keeping the territorial gains, by surrendering to the western Allies but keeping the fight against the Soviet Union. They naively believed that by just killing Hitler and removing his Nazi camarilla from power, the U.S. and Britain would side with them and fight against the Red Army. Only the Normandy landings seemed to dispel that belief, when they realised that the prospects, even with Hitler dead, were then dire. That is not to say their motives for wanting to overthrown him were purely militaristic. They might have grown genuinely disgusted with Nazi and SS barbarity, and how it conflicted with the traditional standarts of chivalry and gentleman’s warfare that the German officers entertained. Had it been otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone forward with the plot after learning of the Normandy landings. It was specially then, when Tresckow insisted that the world had to see that in Germany there was more than Nazis.
All in all, it’s very unlikely that the Allies would have accepted other than inconditional surrender, and a peace settlement dictated by them, including the return of all of Germany’s territorial gains and the payment of reparations. Having done otherwise, would have perpetrated once again, the myth of the stab on the back, which virulent nationalists like the Nazis, had exploited to justify Germany’s defeat in 1918. With the murder of Hitler, a new myth of backstabbing would have emerged, blaming the conspirators for the eventual defeat, and thus sowing the seeds for the future repetition of German expansionism in Europe. The problem therefore, wasn’t simply Hitler, but also the Prussian militarism that had supported him, and still did in large measure. With Hitler and the Nazis, the old world of Prussia and their army, their dreams of European domination, had to die as well. And this could doubty have happened with Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators in a new government.
All this said, it is important to remember that flawed as we all are, we still need heroes, examples of virtue and selflessness to inspire and give us hope. Stauffenberg and the plotters, flawed and a product of the pre-war Germany as they were, filled that role. It is little surprise then that today they are regarded as an example of resistance against tyranny and injustice. We must make an effort to understand that the Germany that idolised them, at the time was on its knees, destroyed, and occupied, lacking any other befitting heroes. Humilliation and despair were everything they could see, and that’s why the authors of the 20th July Plot became the heroes that the post-war Germany needed, although maybe not the heroes they deserved.