I have just had the greatest piece of luck in my life.
HITLER TO MUSSOLINI, 20 JULY 1944
It may have been a piece of luck for the Führer. It was not for those who caused him to say it. The attempt to assassinate Hitler at Wolfsschanze, his headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia, had failed, and his retribution was terrible. During his military conference there, little comfort was to be found in reviewing the situation. The strategic position of the Third Reich was, if not hopeless, critical in the extreme. The Wehrmacht was having a rough time of it on all fronts in the summer of 1944. As we have just recorded, although the skilful and relentless generalship of Kesselring in Italy had enabled him to hold the Winter Line until May, Alexander’s offensive had obliged the Germans to withdraw and allow the Allies to enter Rome on 4 June. There was nothing for it now but to establish a further – and as it turned out formidable – defensive zone on the Gothic Line. In Normandy Montgomery not only had won a firm foothold, but was also winning the battle of the build-up, for by 18 June he had twenty divisions ashore and opposing him were eighteen, some so under strength that their fighting capacity was but three-quarters of that number. Hitler, as was customary with him, refused to acknowledge the realities of the situation when on the previous day he conferred with Rommel and von Rundstedt at Margival, in the command post which had been specially constructed for the Führer to supervise the invasion of England four years earlier.
Rommel’s Chief of Staff, Speidel, was present at this meeting and reported that Hitler appeared ‘worn and sleepless, playing nervously with his spectacles and an array of coloured pencils which he held between his fingers’. While Hitler sat on a stool, the two Field-Marshals stood and were treated to a condemnation of their conduct of the defence. The Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht could not yet see there was no question of throwing the invaders back into the sea so that he could turn back once more to deal with the Red Army. It was annihilation he wanted, and meanwhile every foot of territory was to be contested while the V weapons brought England to its senses. When Rommel urged Hitler to end the war, he was sharply told to look to his own front and leave the war’s future to the Supreme Commander. Later that month both Rommel and von Rundstedt renewed their efforts to persuade Hitler to end the war. But facts and reason had no interest for Hitler and certainly could not prevail upon him to the extent of making him change his mind. When the battle of the Odon removed any chance the Germans might have had to split the Allied invasion force by striking at Bayeux, von Rundstedt warned OKW that the battle for Normandy was lost. Keitel was in despair. ‘What shall we do?’ he wailed. ‘Make peace, you fools,’ was von Rundstedt’s uncompromising reply. He was replaced by von Kluge. Hitler could not admit that he was in the wrong: in his view just one more of the ‘gentlemen who write von in front of their names’ had let him down. But neither von Kluge nor any other soldier could alter the realities of the situation, and von Kluge himself was obliged to concede a few weeks later that ‘in the face of the enemy’s complete command of the air, there is no possibility of our finding a strategy which will counterbalance its truly annihilating effect, unless we give up the field of battle’. He added that in spite of his determination to stand fast, as the Führer had ordered, the price to be paid was the destruction of his armies and the dissolution of the front. Events were to prove his prediction all too accurate.
With things going so badly in the south and the west, was there any comfort to be derived from those operations being conducted by the bulk of the Wehrmacht – on the Eastern Front? None whatsoever! June 1944 heralded the Red Army’s summer offensive. The German army’s attempt to hold lines which were far too extended to defend properly and which Hitler would not agree to shorten led to an inevitable result. In July Minsk, Vilna, Pinsk and Grodno were all taken. Even East Prussia was threatened. The Eastern Front had disintegrated. No wonder there were those in the Wehrmacht and outside it who once more plucked up the courage to get rid of the man as a result of whose disastrous military policies Germany was heading for total defeat.
Ever since 1938 there had been conspiracies hostile to the Nazi régime. Among the conspirators were General Ludwig Beck, former Chief of Staff, Dr Karl Goerdeler, who had been Oberbürgermeister of Leipzig, Ulrich von Hassel, ex-Ambassador to Rome, and Colonel, later General, Hans Oster of the Abwehr, the counter-intelligence branch of OKW. One use of this last organization was to try to discover what sort of peace the Western Allies would be willing to make after Hitler’s overthrow, but attempts to do so met with no response. It has to be remembered that at the Casablanca meeting in January 1943 Roosevelt had called for ‘Unconditional Surrender’ and thus if the conspirators were to act, it would be without any reassurances from outside. Beck and Goerdeler had hoped to recruit the support of senior commanders in the field, among them Field-Marshal von Kluge, who in the early part of 1943 was in command of Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front, but Kluge, like others, was only willing to cooperate after Hitler’s death or arrest. Any attempt to proceed therefore had to be made without support from the Army High Command. Proceed it did with the assistance of General Olbricht, who was Deputy Commander of the Home Army, and two more converts to the plot – General von Tresckow, a senior staff officer at von Kluge’s headquarters, and one of his subordinates, Lieutenant Schlabrendorff. On 13 March 1943 these two men secreted a time-bomb on the aeroplane which flew Hitler from von Kluge’s headquarters at Smolensk back to East Prussia. Hitler’s luck was in that day, for the bomb failed to explode. The attempt was not discovered, however, as Schlabrendorff flew to Hitler’s headquarters and calmly removed the bomb before it was found. Hitler’s luck was to continue, for although further plots were hatched, they came to nothing until in July 1944 Count von Stauffenberg stepped on to centre-stage.
Von Stauffenberg had been in the wings for some time. He was a gallant front-line soldier, who had been gravely wounded in the Tunisian campaign. Before that, while serving on the staff in the Russian campaign, he had been made privy to the conspiracy by Tresckow and Schlabrendorff, and in June 1944, having recovered from his wounds – which had cost him his left eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left hand – he was appointed Chief of Staff to General Fritz Fromm, Commander-in-Chief, Home Army, whose deputy was a leading conspirator, General Olbricht. Von Stauffenberg became a key player in the plot, and in his new appointment was well placed to act as he would be required to attend Hitler’s staff conferences at times when Home Army matters were on the agenda. Together with Olbricht, von Stauffenberg prepared plans – under the pretext of emergency measures to be taken should there be a revolt by the millions of foreign workers in Germany or landings by enemy airborne troops – by which the army would take control of the country both at home and on the various battlefronts, once Hitler had been removed from the scene. There would then be no question of interference by any ‘private’ forces loyal to Göring or Himmler, and with the German armies still intact in the field, there would be some grounds for hoping to negotiate a compromise peace. All the necessary orders and signals were drawn up and distributed. The code word Walkyrie would be transmitted to field commanders and headquarters at home that the Führer was dead and that the army was forming a new Government with Beck at his head, Goerdeler as Chancellor and von Witzleben as Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht.
The conspirators had agreed that von Stauffenberg, because of his key position in being able to attend Führer conferences and having drawn up the Walkyrie plans, should play a dual role, both assassinating Hitler and returning to Berlin to supervise the plot’s execution. He would therefore have to escape from the conference room, having planted the bomb and set it to go off, then return at once to Berlin. There was still the question of when all this was to be done, and on this vital point there was some hesitation. It was the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy that decided the issue, coinciding as it did with the Red Army’s summer offensive and Alexander’s offensive in Italy. Had the Normandy invasion been defeated and the Allies thrown back into the sea, so some of the conspirators believed, Germany’s negotiating position with the West would have been much stronger. But by the end of June, it was clear that the Western powers were firmly established and growing ever more powerful. So paradoxically the case for acting now was strengthened by the very progress of the Allies, since it made the support of senior commanders in the field, like Rommel, more likely.
On the day of von Stauffenberg’s attempt to do the deed, Chance played a leading part. ‘The putsch would almost certainly have succeeded,’ wrote Chester Wilmot,
if Hitler had not been saved by what can only be regarded as a miracle. It was mere chance that on July 20th the midday conference should have been held in a flimsy wooden hut and not in the usual concrete bunker, where the explosion would have been deadly. It was equally fortuitous that the table in the hut should have been so constructed that the main force of the blast was taken up by the solid understructure. Even as it was, three of the officers standing on Hitler’s side of the table and only a yard nearer the explosion lost their lives. Yet Hitler himself survived.
Hitler’s escape showed him at his most remarkable and most vile. Nothing seemed able to shake his conviction that he had been chosen to shape the world’s destiny. That in military failure, in defeat, when utterly doomed, he still exercised the ability – and not through fear or tyranny alone – to control events and people speaks much for his unbreakable will-power, however diabolical. Such iron resolution is rare indeed. Yet how vindictive and how appallingly comprehensive was his revenge. In his incomparable study of The Last Days of Hitler Hugh Trevor-Roper describes the blood-purge which followed the assassination attempt as even more drastic than that of 1934 when Hitler rid himself of Röhm, the SA leader, von Schleicher and others. In this later purge there were at least 160 victims, either executed or committing suicide. Among them were von Hassell, von Witzleben, Rommel, Beck, von Stauffenberg, even Fromm. Two Field-Marshals, seventeen Generals and more than fifty other officers died. Those members of the Offizierkorps who did not know it already – and there could not have been many of them – thus had it brought home to them once and for all that the Führer was mad, bad and dangerous to know. Churchill, when exasperated by what he regarded as the caution or pusillanimity of his generals, might talk of shooting a few of them. Hitler did it. ‘I’m beginning to doubt,’ he declared on the afternoon of 20 July, ‘whether the German people are worthy of my great ideals. No one appreciates what I have done for them.’
What had he done? He had brought Germany to the brink of total defeat in the field and there was worse to come. But what if the 20 July plot had succeeded and Hitler had been killed in the blast of von Stauffenberg’s bomb? Further, what if the Walkyrie plans had been successfully carried out with Beck as head of state, Goerdeler as Chancellor, von Witzleben as Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht and von Kluge, who had agreed to cooperate after Hitler’s death, still in command of the German armies in the West? What if the German armed forces as a whole had rallied to the conspirators, and the forces likely to be hostile and adhere rather to such leading Nazis as Himmler and Göring had been neutralized? And what if Goebbels, that master of propaganda and manipulator of opinion, who in both 1943 and 1944, seeing clearly enough the disaster Germany faced, had tried to persuade Hitler to make a compromise peace, had also come down on the side of the by then successful putsch-makers and used all his skills to win over the German people? Finally, what if Albert Speer had added his not inconsiderable weight to the new rulers of the Third Reich and wholeheartedly supported the notion of approaching the Western Allies with offers of an armistice? Then we may be sure that von Kluge and others would have made such offers, either through diplomatic channels or directly to Montgomery’s headquarters in the field. What then would have been the Allied response? Beck, Goerdeler, von Witzleben, von Kluge, von Stauffenberg and the others all knew well enough about ‘Unconditional Surrender’ but they were of the opinion that an offer to withdraw the German armies in the West, thus allowing the Allies an unopposed advance to Berlin, would be too alluring to be refused.
It was in January 1943 at Casablanca that the Allied leaders, Roosevelt and Churchill, had called for ‘Unconditional Surrender’. This announcement had not been the result of previous inter-Allied consultation. The phrase itself had been used in a State Department paper to brief Roosevelt before he attended the conference, and it was on the third day of the meeting that the President first brought it out in discussions over lunch with the Prime Minister, who endorsed the idea of making an announcement to the press. Churchill then obtained the agreement of the War Cabinet, and at the end of the conference on 24 January the so-called Unconditional Surrender Declaration was given to journalists. It included what it called a ‘simple formula of placing the objective of this war in terms of an unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy and Japan’. In commenting on how this declaration affected German attitudes, Trevor-Roper dismisses the idea that it frightened Germans into further compliance with Hitler’s regime, for he argues that few of those Germans who would rather tolerate the tyranny of the Third Reich than endure Unconditional Surrender would have been persuaded to rebel by promises of moderate treatment by the Allies. Indeed, given Hitler’s absolute grip on power, enhanced still further by the measures he took after the failed assassination attempt to complete the subservience of the army to National Socialism, it may confidently be said that Unconditional Surrender did not prolong the war. It did, however, provide Stalin with some assurance that the Western powers would not make a compromise peace with Germany, and even as late as February 1945, when Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin conferred at Yalta, they reiterated their determination to pursue a policy of Unconditional Surrender and maximum pressure to finish the war quickly. Yet it was clear even then that as long as Hitler was alive there would be no surrender of any sort. Only two months earlier he had lectured his Generals: ‘Wars are finally decided by one side or the other recognizing that they cannot be won. We must allow no moment to pass without showing the enemy that, whatever he does, he can never reckon on a capitulation. Never! Never!’
But the chance we are dealing with here is a successful putsch, a Third Reich freed from the iron grip of Adolf Hitler, a Germany headed by soldiers and statesmen who recognized only too well that the war could not be won, and who could show the enemy a willingness to capitulate, but it would be a conditional surrender – withdrawal by the Western group of armies and continued defence on the Eastern Front. However tempting such an offer might have been – and we must bear in mind that in November 1944 Eisenhower was asking the Combined Chiefs of Staff for a modification of Unconditional Surrender as he could detect no sign of an early collapse of German morale in the West – it may be supposed that the Western powers would have rejected it and stuck to their resolution of unconditional surrender. But suppose that von Kluge and his armies in the West had then simply conducted a general withdrawal – first to the Rhine, then to the Elbe, then even to the Oder – while still holding off the Red Army in Poland. What then? Montgomery’s Army Group, rapidly reinforced no doubt by all the divisions still waiting in the United Kingdom and the United States, would have had little option but to follow up, so occupying Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and certainly causing Kesselring in Italy to throw his hand in with von Kluge and the others. Such events would have put paid to Churchill’s ever-growing fear about Russian designs on Central Europe. At this time – late summer and early autumn of 1944 – the Yalta meeting which decided how the Third Reich was to be partitioned had not even taken place. A wholly new and unexpected strategic situation would have emerged, with the Western powers in a very much more powerful bargaining position than was the case in the spring of 1945 when the Anglo-American and Red Armies agreed a junction on the Elbe–Mulde rivers. It is hardly to be thought that Stalin would lightly accept such a division of Germany as now confronted him. At the same time the Western powers, while supporting wholeheartedly a general capitulation of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front as well, would have wished to ensure that Churchill’s great belief – ‘In Victory, Magnanimity’ – was the watchword. We must remember too Isaiah Berlin’s contention that Churchill never hated Germany as such.
Germany is a great, historically hallowed state; the Germans are a great historic race and as such occupy a proportionate amount of space in Mr Churchill’s world picture. He denounced the Prussians in the First World War and the Nazis in the Second; the Germans scarcely at all.
Whether the Prime Minister would have prevailed against the combined wills of Roosevelt and Stalin is, like this hypothesis itself, a matter of conjecture. Conjecture may be entertained endlessly, but we must come back to earth and face the fact that Hitler survived the July 1944 plot.
It is ironic that less than a month after the failed attempt on Hitler’s life von Kluge, the very man about whom some of this conjecture has been, who was aware of the plot but not actively part of it, caused the Führer to call 15 August ‘the worst day of my life’. He was referring not to the military disasters which were overtaking his armies in the West as a result of his own direction, but to his fear that von Kluge had been planning to surrender these armies to the Allies. After Montgomery’s offensive Goodwood had pinned down the bulk of German panzer forces in the eastern part of the Normandy bridgehead at the end of July, the Americans under Bradley and Patton broke through in the western part. Patton’s armoured columns swept eastwards and the German armies were threatened with encirclement at Falaise. Now was the moment to temper valour with discretion and withdraw these armies east of the Seine and fight again another day. Just the contrary was what the Führer decided to do. He ordered von Kluge to counter-attack the American corridor through Avranches and Mortain. What is more, he laid down exactly what was to be done – all this from Rastenburg, the plan made from large-scale French maps, detailing formations, routes, objectives. The attack failed as a matter of course. It was stopped and overwhelmed by Allied air power. No explanation of the difficulties satisfied Hitler, who pronounced that ‘the attack failed because Field-Marshal von Kluge wanted it to fail’. Nothing could have been more petulant, perverse or self-delusive.
A week later on 15 August, not only did the Allied landings take place in the south of France – far too late to influence the battle for Normandy – but von Kluge, visiting the front, was out of touch with his headquarters for twelve hours. It was this that led Hitler to believe that von Kluge was trying to make contact with the enemy in order to negotiate a surrender. Having made up his mind that von Kluge was bent on treachery, he was not slow to find reasons to fit in with all the related events. It was only by chance, by accident, he argued, that von Kluge’s plan of surrender had not come off. ‘It’s the only way you can explain everything the Army Group did; otherwise it would all be incomprehensible.’ Hitler was continuing to make pictures to fit his own distorted vision. So von Kluge was dismissed, Model took his place, and on his way back to Germany von Kluge committed suicide, sending one last plea to the Führer to put an end to the hopeless struggle.
Far from doing so, on the very day of the Falaise battle, 19 August, Hitler was sowing the seeds for one last throw of the dice. Jodl, Chief of Operations, OKW, noted in his diary:
The Führer discussed the equipment and manpower position in the West with Chief of OKW, Chief Army Staff and Speer. Prepare to take the offensive in November when the enemy’s air forces can’t operate. Main point: some 25 divisions must be moved in the next one to two months.
Hitler was about to throw away his last reserves. In 1940 he had won a startling victory by smashing through the Ardennes. What he could do once, he could do again.