Reichsminister Hermann Göring surveys the destroyed conference room at the Wolfsschanze, July 1944.
Stauffenberg, left, with Hitler (centre) and Wilhelm Keitel, right, in an aborted assassination attempt at Rastenburg on 15 July 1944.
The German military resistance existed in an extremely difficult environment. Not only was it plotting against the head of a well-organized police state, but it was doing so during a war in which the nation’s very survival appeared to be at stake. Moreover, it was operating from within a culture that stressed honor, duty, and strict obedience to authority above all else. In this harsh terrain, it is perhaps surprising that its treacherous, if high-minded, notions took root at all.
There were further handicaps. Most of the plotters were far from revolutionary in their political outlook. Indeed, many of them had welcomed the early years of Hitler’s rule, bringing as it did a German renaissance on the political stage and an expunging of the stigma of Versailles. Even Stauffenberg had been “enthusiastic” about Hitler’s appointment in 1933 and had quite naturally and wholeheartedly supported the policies of rearmament and the expansion of the military.
Perhaps because of this ambivalence, some elements of the resistance held a wildly unrealistic vision of what could be salvaged from the wreckage of Nazism. One extreme was demonstrated by Carl Goerdeler, one of the leading lights of the civilian resistance and the prospective post-coup chancellor. He envisaged a postwar Germany within the frontiers of 1914, with the addition of Austria, the Sudetenland, and a “modified” Polish Corridor. Not only did he hope to turn the clock back to 1938–39, therefore, he even aspired to wish away the German defeat in World War I as well. Others, though more realistic, nonetheless shared some of Goerdeler’s profound misconceptions. The socialist Julius Leber, for example, accepted the probable cession of East Prussia, the Sudetenland, and even his own native Alsace as inevitable. But he never abandoned hope of finding an honorable peace by which something of Germany could be saved.136 Clearly, some among the resistance had not fully thought through the consequences of the Allied doctrine of unconditional surrender.
At heart, therefore, the plotters of the German resistance were conservative and patriotic, and though it had been these noble sentiments that had driven them to resist, those same sentiments had also to some extent clouded their worldview, and crucially had deterred them from striking unless order and continuity of government could be ensured. Thus, they were effectively seeking to achieve the nearly impossible. They wanted a surgical excision of Hitler as head of state without provoking a wider political and military collapse and while simultaneously preserving many of the benefits that their target had brought.
Inevitably, perhaps, they failed. The would-be assassins raised by Henning von Tresckow were foiled by a combination of Hitler’s security measures, their target’s capricious, unpredictable nature, and, crucially, their own bad luck. Stauffenberg’s attack, meanwhile, in coming to fruition, allowed a number of other deeper failings to come to light. His first mistake, of course, was his failure to kill Hitler on that hot summer’s day in Rastenburg. Many reasons have been put forward for this. It is often suggested that Stauffenberg’s briefcase was inadvertently moved to the far side of the heavy oak table support, thereby shielding its target from its full force. This was disputed, not least by Colonel Brandt, who was alleged to have moved it. Others suggest that had the briefing taken place in one of Rastenburg’s concrete bunkers, rather than a less substantial briefing room, then the blast would have had more concentrated, and lethal, effects. While both these factors may well be important, Stauffenberg’s most crucial mistake was surely his failure to fuse the second explosive charge, or at least to place it unfused in his briefcase. Numerous historians and experts have argued that, had that second charge been included, no one in the briefing room would have survived. In that instance, the exact position of the bomb or the construction of the room would have mattered little.
Despite having failed to kill Hitler, the conspiracy as a whole was not necessarily doomed to failure. However, in reality, the entire Valkyrie plan was predicated upon Stauffenberg’s mission being successful. There was no Plan B. This aspect explains, in part at least, the failings of the plotters in the Bendlerstrasse. While waiting for confirmation of Hitler’s death, they wasted fully four precious hours that might otherwise have swung events in their favor. Their apparent timidity and lack of ruthlessness might also be seen as evidence that they already considered themselves to have failed. They hesitated to occupy the radio stations and only halfheartedly sought to neutralize their opponents. When Gisevius demanded some action and suggested the elimination of Goebbels, for example, he was given short shrift. Schlabrendorff, though less of a hothead, would have agreed. In retrospect, he conceded: “Blood should have run. Instead the men of 20 July said to all and sundry: Have a seat.”
Some, in their critique of the conspirators, have gone further. One author dismissed the men around Stauffenberg as “dilettantes,” outlining their failings as assassins despite their being “professional soldiers…[and] General Staff officers who had been trained in handling weapons…and knew the tools of the soldier’s trade.” This is harsh, but there is something in it. Stauffenberg, for example, was an experienced soldier and (as all are agreed) a man of tremendous ability and intelligence. Yet, maimed as he was, he lacked the dexterity necessary for the task and, in the heat of the moment, failed to construct his bomb correctly. Moreover, he might have spared himself some stress and uncertainty if he had employed one of the more reliable fuses, such as the L-delay fuse, that were then available. Gersdorff, too, was forced to use an unsuitable fuse when the resistance was unable to supply him with anything more appropriate. The bravery and moral integrity of these men are incontrovertible, but perhaps their abilities in the nefarious business of assassination were more questionable.
Predictably, perhaps, Goebbels’s verdict on the plotters was also damning. He told Speer:
If they hadn’t been so clumsy! They had an enormous chance. What dolts! What childishness! When I think how I would have handled such a thing. Why didn’t they occupy the radio station and spread the wildest lies? Here they put guards in front of my door. But they let me go right ahead and telephone the Führer, mobilize everything! They didn’t even silence my telephone. To hold so many trump cards and botch it—what beginners!
If one is honest, it is hard to disagree with that assessment. It would appear to be a cruel paradox that the plotters’ excessive reliance on obedience and legality was to be their downfall. One could say that they sought less to seize power than to inherit it by assassination.
It is, of course, an open question whether Stauffenberg’s assassination of Hitler would, if successful, have resulted in the downfall of the Nazi regime at all. Some contemporaries were very positive and believed that the war would have come to an end. Hitler’s secretary was one. She recalled her feelings in the aftermath of the bomb plot:
I don’t know what would have happened if the assassination had succeeded. All I see is millions of soldiers now lying buried somewhere, gone forever, who might instead have come home again, their guns silent and the sky quieter once more. The war would have been over.
This assumption has persisted into our own era. A recent television documentary, for example, calculated that over ten million soldiers and civilians died in Europe in the ten months from Stauffenberg’s attempt in July 1944 to the final German surrender the following May. The subtext is unspoken but nonetheless clear: these are lives that would have been saved had Stauffenberg succeeded.
However, a note of caution and indeed realism should be sounded. Even if the plotters had enjoyed better luck, had succeeded in murdering Hitler, and had prosecuted their coup with more vigor, it is far from clear that they would have achieved their wider aim. They enjoyed precious little popular support and even less international sympathy, and they still had to face down the massed ranks of the Gestapo and SS, as well as countless ordinary Germans who still felt bound by their oath of loyalty. One could conclude that even if their military collaborators had succeeded in rousing their troops for a showdown with Nazism, the best that the resistance might have expected was a bitter and bloody civil war. An early end to the battles then raging on the front lines was a pipe dream.
The fact that the resistance ultimately failed, however, should not blind us to the nobility of their cause. Without exception, they were motivated not by ambition, vainglory, or any craven fear of defeat. Rather they were inspired to act by their revulsion at the atrocities being committed in Germany’s name. When they finally made their attack on 20 July, they did so not only to kill Hitler and strike a blow against Nazism but also, as Tresckow acknowledged, to demonstrate to the world that another, nobler Germany still existed. They were committing high treason for the sake of German honor.
In Stauffenberg, they found a leader of exemplary vigor, dynamism, and moral force. Arguably, he drove the resistance to its bloody conclusion on 20 July after its previous efforts had come to naught. Without him, it has been suggested, it is unlikely that the attempt would have been made at all. Understandably, therefore, that tall, elegant officer, with his eye patch, maimed arm, and penchant for poetry, has attracted all the plaudits and most of the attention. But, as we have seen, he did not and indeed could not act alone.
Space in the pantheon of the German resistance should therefore be made for the other assassins who, prior to Stauffenberg, sought to target Hitler. Gersdorff, Bussche, and Breitenbuch all ran the same risks as Stauffenberg and were driven by the same moral outrage, but they have been largely forgotten by history. Given that they did not enjoy the access to Hitler of their more illustrious colleague, their opportunities were more fleeting, but they were arguably no less significant. Crucially, they did not expect to leave the scene of their attack alive. As one of their number noted many years later and with some regret, “Our only fault is to have survived.”
Another of Stauffenberg’s confederates who deserves special praise is Henning von Tresckow. Tresckow was the original spiritus movens of the German resistance. Despite being a graduate of the same conservative nationalist milieu that had nurtured Nazism, he recognized the criminal nature of the regime with absolute clarity. In 1938, for example, when Stauffenberg disapproved of the nascent resistance movement, Tresckow was already advocating Hitler’s removal, with violence if necessary. He went on to organize three attempts on Hitler’s life and formed his staff headquarters into a vital cell of the military resistance. To fellow conspirators he was calm and confident: an “extraordinarily strong personality,” wrote one, “who combined military ability with an exceptional political spirit.” Most importantly, Tresckow had the gift of persuasion. As Eberhard von Breitenbuch wrote of him: “I have never met someone [like Tresckow], who was able, clearly and soberly, to convince his listeners of his opinion and to inspire them by his inner calm and his belief in his task.” In retrospect, it is hard to imagine Stauffenberg operating as he did, and coming so close to achieving his goal, without the essential practical and psychological preparation that had been done by Tresckow.
The military resistance is often viewed, in the popular mind at least, as a Johnny-come-lately, stung into action by the fear of defeat when the war on the Eastern Front turned against Germany. However, the experiences that drove Tresckow and his confederates to resist show beyond all doubt that the road to Rastenburg did not begin at Stalingrad; it had begun at Dubno and a thousand other sites like it. The men of the resistance recognized Hitler’s bestial racial war for the crime that it was, and were resolved to act—if not to end it, then at the very least to testify that not all Germans had lost their moral compass. Despite their failure, they personified all that was best of Germany.