IT WAS the plot that came closest to bringing down Adolf Hitler and saving hundreds of thousands of lives, ending his murderous tyranny by blowing him up with a bomb in a briefcase.
The Stauffenberg conspiracy almost succeeded; if it hadn’t been for a thick table leg, the Fhrer could have died and the Nazi regime collapsed.
But the plot failed; Hitler escaped virtually unscathed and all the conspirators were shot or hanged.
On Tuesday, the 60th anniversary of the bomb plot, Germany will remember its most celebrated modern-day martyr, Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg. Gerhard Schrder, the chancellor, will lead the tributes at a ceremony at the Bendlerblock memorial, the former military headquarters planned as the nerve centre of the revolt following Hitler’s death. It became instead the execution site for Stauffenberg, who was summarily shot in the early hours of 21 July, 1944, by SS men loyal to Hitler. Many of his co-conspirators suffered a slow, bloody death, hanging from meat-hooks at Pltzensee Prison, where there will be a service of remembrance on Tuesday.
At face value, Stauffenberg seemed an unlikely assassin of the Fhrer. Not only was he a war hero and a favourite of Hitler but he had been badly wounded at the front in North Africa. An Allied fighter-bomber attack in Tunisia the previous year had cost him his left eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left hand.
But in the desperate, dangerous world of the German resistance, a sparse and disparate collection of dissidents whose members by 1944 were under intense surveillance by the Gestapo - many had already been arrested - there was no-one else with the nerve and the charisma and, perhaps more importantly, the opportunity. Recently appointed as chief of staff to General Fromm, the chief of army equipment and commander-in-chief of the reserve army, Colonel Stauffenberg was required to attend regular briefings with Hitler, either at the Berghof, Hitler’s HQ in the Obersalzburg, or at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia. Hitler trusted him.
A series of abortive attempts had already been made from within to rid Germany of its dictator, most notably the putsch planned and led by General Ludwig Beck, who in August 1938 resigned as the army’s chief of the general staff in protest at Hitler’s plans to invade Czechoslovakia.
Over the early years of the war, other attempts on Hitler’s life were mooted and abandoned, or thwarted by last-minute changes of plan by the intended victim. Hitler had an uncanny knack of leaving early or failing to turn up at all.
But after a long series of abortive operations, finally it fell to Stauffenberg to inject renewed vigour into efforts to eliminate the tyrant. Like other army officers, he initially supported some of Hitler’s actions - the reintroduction of conscription, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland and the Anschluss - but was gradually sickened by the excesses of National Socialism. It later emerged that he said in late 1942: "It’s not a question of telling the Fhrer the truth but of killing him and I’m ready to do the job."
Through contacts in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere, the conspirators tried repeatedly but in vain to gain support for a putsch from the UK and United States. But it was what would now be described as a "Catch 22": the Allies might have been better convinced of the worth of the opposition if more senior generals had come on board, while a critical mass of generals might have joined the plot if Allied support had been evident. The insistence on unconditional surrender, formally adopted at Casablanca, was a huge obstacle that the plotters were unwilling for a long time to accept. Many on the other side believed there were "no good Germans".
But as the Allies landed in France and embarked on their march eastwards, heading towards the Red Army forging west, the Gestapo was also closing in on the dissidents, making the need to act swiftly doubly urgent. Weeks before the eventual attack, Stauffenberg made up his mind fully to kill Hitler himself. He told his intimates: "It is now time something was done, but he who has the courage to do it must do so in the knowledge that he will go down in German history as a traitor. But if he does not do it, then he will be a traitor to his own conscience."
The conspirators planned to subvert a carefully set up cover plan, an exercise to mobilise reliable sections of the reserve army to suppress a potential revolt by the millions of foreign workers in Germany. The reserve army would then itself be used to topple the Nazi government. The operation was codenamed Valkyrie and after two false starts, on 11 July and 15 July, Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Werner von Haeften, boarded an aircraft in Berlin on the morning of 20 July, 1944, to fly east to brief Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair. They carried two bombs, only one of which Stauffenberg managed to activate on arrival, because he was interrupted by a phone call.
To make matters worse, a colleague insisted on helping the disabled Stauffenberg by carrying the briefcase containing the live bomb into the room, placing it on the floor with a massive table leg between it and Hitler.
Stauffenberg left the room on the pretext of taking a phone call and shortly afterwards, heard an ear-splitting explosion. As he and Haeften were driven away from the scene, they saw a body covered with Hitler’s cloak carried from the wrecked briefing room.
Stauffenberg was certain Hitler was dead - but although his eardrums were perforated and his uniform shredded, the Fhrer was very much alive.
Two things saved Hitler’s life: the position of the briefcase behind the thick table leg, and the fact the conference was held in a hut, not a concrete bunker.
At army HQ in the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin, the conspirators responsible for galvanising the reserve army into action sweltered in the July heat, bombarded by conflicting messages and arguing about whether to blow their cover by ordering up the troops.
The communications blackout designed to silence loyal Nazi officers failed to prevent faithful General Keitel telling the reserve army chief Fromm in a telephone call that Hitler was alive and barely hurt at all.
Even with Hitler alive, the plot might have succeeded, but lack of rapid decisive action during Stauffenberg’s many hours of absence in East Prussia allowed Valkyrie to drift, a process aided later in the day by the conspirators’ failure to neutralise Goebbels, who cleverly turned the putsch-supportive commander of the Berlin Guard Battalion around by suggesting a quick phone call to Hitler to ascertain his state of health.
As night fell, despite Stauffenberg’s efforts to rally his troops, the increasingly isolated rebels began to realise all was lost. The building was occupied by loyalist troops after only token resistance from the plotters, and General Beck, designated head of state in a new government, was told by Fromm to use his pistol and take the honourable way out. He tried twice before being finished off by a staff sergeant.
In no time at all, Stauffenberg, Haeften and two other senior army conspirators, General Olbricht and Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim, were sentenced to death by Fromm, escorted into the courtyard and shot by a hastily convened firing squad. Stauffenberg is said to have died with the words "long live our sacred Germany" on his lips.
For the other conspirators, retribution was not slow to follow. A vengeful Hitler ordered that they be hunted down to the last man and slaughtered like livestock.
After ritual humiliation and condemnation by Roland Freisler, the president of the People’s Court in Berlin and a Hitler darling, they were taken straight to the prison out at Pltzensee. Within two hours, the victims were strung up from a row of meat hooks, hoisted and left to dangle on thin cord designed to do its job as slowly and as painfully as possible.
Each met death bravely, led into the execution shed and presented, as almost his last living vision, with the sight of the previous victim’s legs thrashing in death throes beneath a short black curtain, while the executioner and his helpers refreshed themselves in readiness for their next task with brandy from a bottle on the table nearby.
The authorities turned the execution shed into a film studio for the event, recording the suffering for the Fhrer to enjoy later. Some took 20 minutes to die, hanging side by side on their hooks while the cameras whirred. Even Goebbels was said to have made a rapid exit from the film-show in order to vomit.
A few of the conspirators managed to kill themselves before the Gestapo got to them. The national hero Rommel, who had taken part in preparations for the plot, was forced to take poison.
Hitler’s vindictiveness extended even to the plotters’ children, who were removed and placed in orphanages under false names, to be recovered only when the war ended.
Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist is one of the few survivors of what the Gestapo called the "Schwarze Kapelle" - the Black Orchestra, its name for the conspirators. He never thought he would survive questioning at the hands of the Nazi torturers. "I thought of the lines from The Divine Comedy: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’," he said.
Kleist, then an army lieutenant, said the conspirators felt they "had to do something because the things being done by those criminals in Germany’s name were simply appalling".
Kleist does not talk about how he escaped death, but acknowledges his debt to comrades who refused to betray him under torture. He says: "Of course it helped me. Some talked, and as a result some people were unnecessarily sent to the gallows."
But what if Allied support had been forthcoming? What if the coup d’tat had succeeded and a government of decent men had managed to take over the Germany of July 1944? Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives could have been saved: in the cities later bombed, in the death camps, on the battlefields.
If Germany at that stage had surrendered on all fronts, as the Allies wanted, and the war had ended before the Red Army overran eastern and much of central Europe, how different might the maps have looked in the second half of the 20th century?
But the putsch failed and the conspirators’ sacrifice was derided by the western Allies as merely an attempt to save something from the ruins. The Times of 22 July, 1944, described the generals who had rebelled as "champions not of liberty but of militarism". In Parliament Churchill said dismissively: "The highest personalities in the Reich are murdering one another."
But viewed with the balance allowed by the passing of 60 years, at the very least their rebellion restored some measure of honour to Germany. A recent nationwide poll by ZDF television on the "best German" of all time featured a number of prominent resistance fighters in its top 50, including Stauffenberg.
"The history of 20 July is one of the few things that makes the history of the Third Reich bearable," said Hartmann von der Tann, editor-in-chief of the German public broadcaster ARD.
It was not always so, according to Christian Hartmann from the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich. "For years after the war, the plotters were regarded as betrayers of the Fatherland," he said. "Now, though, I think they’ve become a fixed part of the German consciousness - but it did take a while."
Sandy Critchley is writing a novel on the German resistance movement.