The 20 July plot of 1944 was an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the German dictator, and overthrow the Nazi regime. The conspirators, primarily comprising Wehrmacht officers, were part of the German resistance movement.
Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the conspiracy, devised a plan to kill Hitler using an explosive hidden in a briefcase. However, the explosion only managed to injure him slightly, and the subsequent coup attempt also failed.
Before this event, as early as 1938, German military officers had been plotting to remove Hitler from power, but due to indecisive leadership and global events unfolding at various paces, their actions were hindered. 1943 the urgency increased after Germany’s defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad and the advancing Russian forces.
Under Stauffenberg’s guidance, the conspirators made several attempts to assassinate Hitler between 1943 and 1944. The final attempt was organized in July 1944 when Stauffenberg brought a briefcase filled with explosives to a conference at the Wolf’s Lair.
However, the bomb was inadvertently moved behind a table leg by Heinz Brandt, saving Hitler’s life. The explosion resulted in casualties and injuries, but Hitler survived with minor injuries.
Unaware of the failure to assassinate Hitler, the conspirators proceeded with a coup d’état plan. Shortly after the blast, they employed Wehrmacht units to take control of various cities, including Berlin, by deceiving them with false information about their orders.
This phase of the coup attempt was referred to as “Operation Valkyrie,” which has become synonymous with the entire event. However, the Nazi regime quickly regained control of Germany, thwarting the coup. Subsequently, several members of the conspiracy, including Stauffenberg, were executed by firing squad on the same night.
The Gestapo arrested over 7,000 people in the aftermath of the coup attempt, and nearly 5,000 of them were executed.
The main objective of the coup was to seize political and military control of Germany from the Nazi Party, including the SS, and to establish peace with the Western Allies at the earliest opportunity. Although the specifics of the conspirators’ peace initiatives remain unknown, it is believed that their demands would have included unrealistic requests for confirming Germany’s extensive annexations of European territories.
What Was the 20 July Plot?
By the summer of 1944, a significant segment of the German population, including senior military leaders, had begun to lose faith in Germany’s chances of winning the war. They held Hitler responsible for leading the nation towards catastrophe.
In response, prominent politicians and senior military officials devised a plot to assassinate Hitler during a meeting at his military headquarters known as the Wolfsschanze (the Wolf’s Lair). The plan, codenamed Operation Valkyrie, aimed to trigger a political consolidation and coup d’état.
Under Operation Valkyrie, the conspirators intended to plant a bomb during the meeting, resulting in Hitler’s death. They would then exploit the situation by portraying the assassination as an attempted coup orchestrated by the Nazi Party.
The Reserve Army would swiftly move to seize crucial installations in Berlin and arrest high-ranking Nazi leaders. The conspirators planned to establish a new government, with Carl Friedrich Goerdeler as Chancellor and Ludwig Beck as President.
The primary objective of this new government was to negotiate an end to the war, ideally securing favorable terms for Germany.
According to Philipp Freiherr Von Boeselager, one of the last surviving members of the July Plot, the motivations of the key conspirators varied. Some aimed to avert the impending military defeat, while others sought to preserve at least a semblance of the country’s moral standing. The conspirators chose Claus von Stauffenberg, a young German army colonel, to carry out the assassination attempt.
Despite not being an official member of the Nazi party, Stauffenberg was a devoted German nationalist. He eventually came to believe that it was his patriotic duty to rid Germany of Adolf Hitler if the nation was to be saved.
Indeed, Adolf Hitler faced numerous assassination attempts throughout his tenure as Germany’s leader. From the late 1930s, when he rose to power, such attempts became relatively routine. Hitler’s paranoia grew over time, leading him to frequently alter his schedule at the last moment and without prior notice to thwart potential threats.
The constant danger posed by these assassination plots contributed to Hitler’s heightened sense of security and mistrust, making it difficult for anyone to predict his movements or plan an attack with certainty. This atmosphere of uncertainty and fear further solidified his grip on power and contributed to the challenges faced by those who sought to remove him from office.
By the summer of 1944, the Gestapo was closing in on the conspirators involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Amidst the mounting risks, Claus von Stauffenberg sought advice from Lieutenant Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, who relayed the question to General Henning von Tresckow.
Given the bleak political prospects, Stauffenberg questioned the purpose of attempting to assassinate Hitler. In response, Tresckow was resolute, stating that the assassination must be attempted at any cost.
Even if it failed, the German resistance movement needed to take decisive action in Berlin to make a bold statement before the world and history. The practical outcomes were deemed less critical than the symbolic significance of the resistance’s actions.
In a separate instance, in August 1943, Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz, involved in the resistance network led by Goerdeler, had a conversation with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS. Popitz offered Himmler the support of the opposition if he would make a move to replace Hitler and negotiate an end to the war.
Popitz was not alone in considering Himmler as a potential ally. General von Bock suggested that Tresckow should seek Himmler’s support, but there is no evidence to suggest that this occurred. It is also suggested that Goerdeler had indirect contact with Himmler through a mutual acquaintance, Carl Langbehn.
Some speculate that Wilhelm Canaris and Himmler may have been working together to bring about a change of regime, but this remains uncertain.
Despite these discussions with potential allies within the Nazi hierarchy, Tresckow and the inner circle of plotters did not intend to remove Hitler and allow Himmler to take his place. The plan was to eliminate them both if possible, as evident from Stauffenberg’s first attempted assassination on July 11, which was aborted due to Himmler’s absence.
The conspirators were determined to bring an end to the Nazi regime and pursue a negotiated resolution to the war, even if it meant facing grave risks and uncertainty.
The 20 July Plot: Everything Goes Wrong
On July 18, Stauffenberg received rumors that the Gestapo might be aware of the conspiracy and that his arrest could be imminent. Although these rumors were later found to be untrue, they created a sense of urgency among the plotters that they might not have another opportunity to assassinate Hitler.
Despite the risks, Stauffenberg decided to make another attempt on July 20 during a Hitler military conference at the Wolfsschanze.
Stauffenberg faced difficulties priming the second bomb due to his war injuries, which had left him with only one functional hand and limited mobility. Interrupted by a guard warning him that the meeting was about to begin, he was unable to arm the second bomb and entrusted it to von Haeften.
On July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg arrived at the Wolfsschanze bunker as planned. The conspirators had carefully chosen this location for the meeting because it was a concrete, windowless underground bunker with a heavy steel door.
The intention was to ensure that any explosion caused by the planted bomb would be contained within the bunker, and the resulting shrapnel would immediately eliminate anyone in close proximity to the explosive device. This calculated strategy maximized the chances of assassinating Adolf Hitler during the meeting and potentially triggered the planned political consolidation and coup d’état.
Unfortunately, on July 20, the day of the assassination attempt, the weather was oppressively hot. As a result, the organizers of the meeting decided to relocate it from the intended concrete underground bunker to a wooden bunker above ground, which had better air circulation.
This change meant that the room had several windows and contained wooden furniture, significantly reducing the potential impact of an explosion as the energy would be absorbed and dispersed.
Despite being aware of these unfavorable conditions, Claus von Stauffenberg proceeded with the plan, believing that even with the reduced effect of one bomb, the combined force of two explosive devices would still be sufficient to cause significant damage and eliminate those inside the room.
At around 12:30 pm, as the meeting was about to begin, Stauffenberg excused himself to use a washroom in Wilhelm Keitel’s office, claiming he needed to change his sweat-soaked shirt due to the extreme heat. With the assistance of his aide-de-camp, Werner von Haeften, Stauffenberg prepared a bomb concealed inside a briefcase.
The bomb was connected to a pencil detonator, which, when activated, would take approximately ten minutes to trigger the explosion silently.
During his absence, it is believed that Colonel Heinz Brandt, standing next to Hitler, inadvertently moved the briefcase by pushing it behind the leg of the conference table, unintentionally saving Hitler’s life but causing the loss of Brandt’s leg and resulting in his death when the bomb exploded.
At precisely 12:42 pm, the bomb detonated, causing significant damage to the conference room. A stenographer was killed instantly, and over 20 people in the room were injured, with three officers eventually succumbing to their wounds.
Miraculously, Hitler survived the blast, as did others who were shielded from the explosion by the conference table leg. However, Hitler suffered injuries, including singed and tattered trousers, a perforated eardrum, and conjunctivitis in his right eye. Hitler’s physician, Theodor Morell, treated him with penicillin from captured Allied soldiers.
In the aftermath of the explosion, conflicting reports about Hitler’s fate reached different individuals. Nevertheless, the Reserve Army proceeded to arrest high-ranking Nazi leaders in Berlin.
At 4:00 pm, General Olbricht gave the orders for Operation Valkyrie to be activated, which was meant to be the signal for the coup to commence. However, General Fromm, who had been indecisive about his allegiance, contacted Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel at the Wolf’s Lair and was informed that Hitler was indeed alive.
Keitel demanded to know Stauffenberg’s whereabouts, indicating that the plot had been traced back to Fromm’s headquarters, putting him in grave danger. Fromm claimed that he believed Stauffenberg was with Hitler at the time.
Meanwhile, Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the military governor of occupied France, managed to disarm the SD and SS forces and capture many of their leaders. He then went to Günther von Kluge’s headquarters and requested him to contact the Allies, only to be informed that Hitler was alive.
At 4:40 pm, Stauffenberg and Haeften returned to the Bendlerblock. General Fromm, likely trying to safeguard himself, switched sides and attempted to have Stauffenberg arrested. In response, Olbricht and Stauffenberg confronted him at gunpoint, effectively restraining Fromm, and Olbricht appointed General Erich Hoepner to take over Fromm’s responsibilities.
By this time, Heinrich Himmler had taken control of the situation and issued orders to countermand Olbricht’s activation of Operation Valkyrie. However, the coup was already underway in various locations, led by officers who believed that Hitler had been killed.
General Paul von Hase, a conspirator, ordered the Wachbataillon Großdeutschland, under the command of Major Otto Ernst Remer, to secure the Wilhelmstraße and arrest Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. In other places like Vienna and Prague, troops occupied Nazi Party offices and apprehended Gauleiters and SS officers as part of the unfolding coup attempt.
Germany in Chaos after Operation Valkyrie
At around 6:10 pm, General Joachim von Kortzfleisch, commander of Military District III in Berlin, was summoned to the Bendlerblock. He vehemently refused to comply with Olbricht’s orders, continuously shouting, “The Führer is alive.”
As a result, Kortzfleisch was arrested and placed under guard. General Karl Freiherr von Thüngen was appointed as his replacement but proved to be of little assistance. General Fritz Lindemann, who was supposed to make a radio proclamation to the German people, failed to show up, and Beck had to work on a new one.
At 7:00 pm, Hitler had recovered enough to make phone calls. He contacted Joseph Goebbels at the Propaganda Ministry, who then arranged for Hitler to speak to Major Remer, the commander of the troops surrounding the Ministry.
Hitler assured Remer of his survival and ordered him to regain control of the situation in Berlin. Remer’s forces surrounded and sealed off the Bendlerblock but were ordered not to enter the buildings.
Around 8:00 pm, a furious General Erwin von Witzleben arrived at the Bendlerblock and argued with Stauffenberg, who persisted in believing that the coup could still proceed. Witzleben departed shortly afterward.
At this time, the planned seizure of power in Paris was also called off when Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, recently appointed commander-in-chief in the west, learned that Hitler was alive.
As Major Remer regained control of the city and news spread that Hitler was alive, some of the less resolute members of the conspiracy in Berlin began to change sides. Fromm was released from his room, and a conflict broke out within the Bendlerblock between officers supporting and opposing the coup.
Stauffenberg was injured during a shootout. While the fighting continued, Remer and his forces arrived at the Bendlerblock, overwhelming the conspirators, who were then arrested. By 11:00 pm, Fromm and Remer had regained control of the building.
Possibly in the hope that displaying zealous loyalty would save him, Fromm conducted an impromptu court martial consisting only of himself and sentenced Olbricht, Stauffenberg, Haeften, and another officer, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, to death. Beck was placed under arrest.
Realizing the futility of the situation, Beck asked for a pistol and shot himself, initially only wounding himself. He was then shot in the neck and killed by soldiers. Despite objections from Remer, whom Hitler had ordered to arrest the conspirators, the four officers were executed in the courtyard outside at 12:10 am on July 21, possibly to prevent them from revealing Fromm’s involvement.
While others were also slated for execution, at 12:30 am, Waffen-SS personnel led by Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny arrived, and further executions were halted.
Horrible Aftermath of 20 July Plot
In the aftermath of the failed plot, Himmler’s Gestapo launched an extensive crackdown under the furious direction of Hitler, targeting anyone remotely associated with the conspiracy. Letters and diaries discovered in the homes and offices of those arrested exposed previous plots from 1938, 1939, and 1943, leading to further rounds of arrests.
The retribution was severe, with over 7,000 people arrested and a staggering 4,980 executions carried out. Not all of those targeted were directly connected to the plot, as the Gestapo seized the opportunity to settle scores with others suspected of opposition sympathies.
The extent of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s involvement in the military resistance against Hitler or the 20 July plot remains a subject of historical debate, as documentation on the conspirators’ plans and Rommel’s intentions is limited.
Some historians believe that Rommel had become a resolute opponent of Hitler and supported the coup, while others view his participation as ambiguous.
Efforts to bring Rommel into the anti-Hitler conspiracy began in early 1944, but the exact nature of his involvement is unclear. Some accounts suggest that he was willing to support discussions and preparations for surrender negotiations in the West, but he opposed assassinating Hitler.
After the failed assassination attempt on 20 July, Rommel came under suspicion due to his connection to Kluge and his name appearing in confessions made under torture. Some sources claim that he knew of the plot but was not actively involved, while others maintain that he had limited and superficial knowledge.
Hitler used the failed plot as an opportunity to implicate Rommel, as publicly branding the popular general as a traitor would cause a major scandal. Given the choice between suicide via cyanide or facing a trial by the infamous People’s Court, Rommel chose suicide to spare his family from persecution.
He committed suicide on 14 October 1944, and his cause of death remained hidden until after the war. He was buried with full military honors.
Many Germans, who did not necessarily support Hitler but believed he was crucial for the country’s survival during precarious military circumstances, welcomed the punishments imposed on the conspirators.
Allied radio stations speculated about the identities of possible remaining suspects, and some of those mentioned were eventually implicated in the plot as well.
When captured, very few of the plotters attempted to escape or deny their involvement. The survivors faced perfunctory trials before the People’s Court, a biased tribunal that always ruled in favor of the prosecution. The court’s president, Roland Freisler, an ardent Nazi, berated and insulted the accused during the trials filmed for propaganda.
The plotters were deliberately humiliated by the cameras by being stripped of their uniforms and forced to wear old, shabby clothing. The officers involved in the plot faced proceedings before the Court of Military Honor, a drumhead court-martial that merely considered evidence provided by the Gestapo before expelling the accused from the Army in disgrace and handing them over to the People’s Court.
The outcomes of these trials were almost certain: death sentences for those convicted, further sealing the tragic fate of those who dared to challenge Hitler’s regime.
A String of Hangings
The first trials related to the July 20 plot were conducted on August 7 and 8, 1944, following Hitler’s order that those found guilty should be “hanged like cattle.” Many individuals chose to end their own lives before facing trial or execution. Among them was Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, who was accused of having prior knowledge of the plot and failing to disclose it to Hitler. Kluge attempted suicide but survived and was later hanged.
Colonel Henning von Tresckow, who played a significant role in the conspiracy, committed suicide the day after the failed plot using a hand grenade in no man’s land between Russian and German lines. Before his death, Tresckow expressed his conviction that their actions were justified as a struggle against Hitler, whom he saw as the archenemy of Germany and the world. He believed he would be able to justify his actions before God when he accounted for them.
General Friedrich Fromm’s attempt to curry favor by executing Stauffenberg and others on the night of July 20 only revealed his previous inaction and apparent failure to report the plot. After his arrest on July 21, Fromm was convicted and sentenced to death by the People’s Court.
Despite his knowledge of the conspiracy, the official charge against him was poor performance in his duties. He was executed by firing squad in Brandenburg an der Havel. Erwin Planck, the son of the renowned physicist Max Planck, was also executed for his involvement in the plot.
The condemned were sent to Plötzensee prison in Berlin and were subjected to a gruesome execution method. They were hanged using piano wire, suspended from butcher’s meat hooks, which resulted in slow strangulation. The piano wire would deeply cut into the flesh of their necks due to the weight of their bodies on the gallows.
This horrifying process caused immense suffering as the victims bled and their faces turned a sickening blue. Their features became distorted, and their neck flesh protruded and bulged. The death was slow and agonizing, with the possibility of their legs being tied together, leading to twitching and shaking from both the intense pain and nerve/muscle spasms.
Interestingly, the Kaltenbrunner Report to Adolf Hitler on November 29, 1944, alleged that Pope Pius XII, specifically naming Eugenio Pacelli, was somehow involved in the conspiracy. It claimed that members of the plot were involved in foiling an alleged plot by Hitler to kidnap or murder Pope Pius XII in 1943.
One of the individuals convicted of participating in the plot was Obergruppenführer Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, the Orpo Police Chief of Berlin, who had been in contact with members of the resistance since before the war.
He was supposed to direct all police forces in Berlin to stand down and not interfere in the military actions to seize the government, but his actions had minimal impact on the events of July 20. He was arrested, convicted of treason, and ultimately executed for his involvement in the conspiracy.
After the death of Roland Freisler in an American air raid on February 3, 1945, formal trials related to the July 20 plot ceased. However, as late as April, new evidence emerged when Wilhelm Canaris’ diary was found, leading to the implication of many more individuals.
Hans von Dohnanyi, accused of being the “spiritual leader” of the conspiracy, was executed on April 6, 1945. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, recruited by Von Dohnanyi into the Abwehr, was executed on April 9, 1945, along with Canaris, Oster, and four others. Executions continued until the final days of the war.
Major Remer, who played a crucial role in stopping the coup, was promoted to colonel and ended the war as a major general. After the war, he co-founded the Socialist Reich Party and remained a prominent neo-Nazi and advocate of Holocaust Denial until his death in 1997.
As a consequence of the failed coup, every member of the Wehrmacht was required to re-swear loyalty oaths, by name, to Hitler. On July 24, 1944, the military salute was replaced throughout the armed forces with the Hitler Salute, in which the arm was outstretched, and the salutation “Heil Hitler” was given.
Next, read about the Terrifying Story of What Happened to the Beaumont Children, and then, about the Nazino Tragedy, the Real Life Battle Royale!
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