50 years later, why plot against Hitler failed

July 20, 1994|By Blaine Taylor

TODAY MARKS the 50th anniversary of the most famous of the numerous attempts made on the life of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, then 55.

On June 20, 1944, German Army Colonel Count Claus Schenck von Stauffenberg put his yellow leather briefcase containing a bomb under Hitler's conference table, just a few feet from the fuhrer, then was called from the meeting to take a prearranged telephone call from an assistant. The bomb detonated killing two of Hitler's staff and seriously injuring a half-dozen others. Though battered, Hitler survived the blast.

The colonel and a half-dozen fellow conspirators were executed by firing squad later that day. Still others were killed later.

Had the assassination attempt been successful, it would have changed the course of history. Scores of Allied troops, German soldiers and civilians would have been spared.

Plots against Hitler were drawn up by the German dissidents almost as soon as he assumed power in early 1933; indeed, the night before he was named chancellor, there was an Army plot to thwart his elevation by kidnapping the German President, senile Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, but it died stillborn.

He was almost removed by the German Army in 1938 when the Munich Conference aborted the plotters' aims by giving Hitler Czechoslovakia without the general European war they all dreaded as the ruin of Germany.

In November 1939, after the German conquest of Poland, still more dissidents upset by the SS atrocities committed there against Jews, Poles and gypsies -- a harbinger of the coming Holocaust that would begin in earnest in the summer of 1941, after the Nazi invasion of the-then Soviet Union.

Ironically, it was not the Army, but an obscure handyman named George Elser in 1939 who almost killed the fuhrer with a homemade bomb that worked remarkably well. However, Hitler cut his speech short, left the Munich Beer Hall early and survived the carnage left behind by the explosion -- not for the first or last time in his career, either.

By the summer of 1944, the conspirators -- both military and civilian -- were desperate to remove Hitler from power, dead or alive, before the Third Reich (as yet uninvaded) was overrun, particularly by the Red Army. The secret Holocaust weighed on many minds as well, and it was already known that the victorious Allies planned to try accused war criminals after the war was won, as they did during 1945-46 at Nuremberg.

The de facto leader of the plot -- von Stauffenberg -- had already attempted to kill Hitler twice. The attempts had been called off at both The Berghof in Berchtesgaden in Bavaria (the fuhrer's mountain chalet) and at Wolfschanze (Wolf's Lair) his headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, now known as Poland.

The actual attempt was made at the mid-day military situation conference. There are several myths associated with the attempt that need to be dispelled.

First, the conference was not held in an underground bunker because there were none at Rastenburg -- the underground Fuhrerbunker was in Berlin, beneath the Reich Chancellery building (where Hitler would commit suicide the next year.)

Second, the meeting was not held in a wooden map room, but in a brick building reinforced by concrete with steel-shuttered windows. Had the trio of windows been closed instead of open, the results would have been graver.

Third, since the Fuhrerbunker (above-ground) at Rastenburg had been under repair since February -- a fact fully known to Count von Stauffenberg -- the selection of the Lagebaracke (map room) at Wolfschanze was not a last-minute choice for the military conference, as many writers have suggested.

Why did Hitler survive the blast? For several reasons, including: The three windows were open, allowing much of the force of the shock wave to escape the building; the wooden map table, as well as the table support (a colonel moved the bomb behind it and thus away from Hitler just before the explosion) also undoubtedly contributed to Hitler's survival.

There was, finally, Hitler's incredible good luck, which had served him well as a soldier in the trenches of World War I, as a struggling politician with communists and others trying to kill him, and later, during his 12-year reign over the Third Reich. Early on July 20, 1944, he had told his devoted secretaries, "There is something in the air today." He was right.

Still, he might have been assassinated, but for the bungling of the plotters and the swift action of the Nazis in crushing it. The Allies' own failure to respond to the attempted coup in any positive way must also be weighed in the balance 50 years on. What would have been the situation had the plot been successful?

The Yalta Conference had not yet been held, nor was the Red Army yet established in Central Europe; a negotiated surrender might've prevented this, thus Austria, Hungary and other states might have been spared devastation. The Cold War might have been averted -- or a hot one started sooner, with Germany fighting on the side of the Western Allies, as Hitler always desired. He was, after all, the first cold warrior.

Blaine Taylor, who writes from Towson, is author of "Guarding the Fuhrer: Sepp Dietrich, Johann Rattenhuber and the Protection of Adolf Hitler."

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