This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine
On 20 July 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg took a bomb to a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s eastern front military headquarters in what is today Poland. His aim was to assassinate the German leader.
A career officer in the army, Stauffenberg had seen combat in many major campaigns and been dismayed by reports of German atrocities. He decided Hitler had to die but he couldn’t act alone. He was just one player in a wide-ranging plot of senior-level officials who were increasingly disillusioned with Hitler and his directing of the war. Once the leader was dead, they would launch Operation Valkyrie – a coup that would take control of the government and seek to end the war.
Stauffenberg hid the bomb in a briefcase and carefully positioned it on the floor while he left the room to take a pre-arranged phone call. The bomb exploded, killing four men. Hitler was injured but survived, apparently because the briefcase had been moved. The plot unravelled and the coup was not put into place. Stauffenberg was executed that night. Thousands of people thought to be implicated in the conspiracy were arrested, and nearly 5,000 were eventually executed.
Hitler survived to inflict far more pain on the world for a further 10 months. But would his death in July 1944 have proved even more catastrophic?
Roger Moorhouse: It is, perhaps, too much to suggest that we should be ‘glad’ that the July Plot failed. But I would argue that we should acknowledge that, for the greater political good, Stauffenberg’s brave attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 needed to fail.
Have no doubt, Stauffenberg was a courageous man, and Nazism was a thoroughly odious political system that richly deserved every insult hurled at it. But the problem for Stauffenberg was that Nazism was also a brutally effective political religion, which had succeeded in seducing and controlling a generation of Germans.
A key part of that seduction – and of the Nazi founding myth – was the ‘stab-in-the-back’: the idea that Germany had been betrayed at the end of the First World War by a shadowy cabal of Jews and socialists, who had brought about the collapse of the kaiser’s regime [that of German emperor Wilhelm II]. It was the ‘stab-in-the-back’ that fostered in the German people an alluring sense of eternal victimhood, a feeling that they were forever the playthings of ‘unseen forces’ and sinister conspiracies.
Fast forward to 1944, and whatever Stauffenberg’s chances of success in his undertaking, the wider point is that the attack on the German chancellor would only ever be interpreted by the German people as yet another ‘stab-in-the-back’, yet more proof that nefarious forces were again seeking to undermine Germany. Hitler would be seen as a martyr; the Nazis as the new saviours. The result would be that, far from being undermined, Nazi rule would be strengthened.
The uncomfortable truth is that for Nazism’s spell over the German people to be broken, it had to run its bloody course; it had to be seen to fail – utterly, completely and catastrophically. For all its heroism, Stauffenberg’s plot risked preventing that.
So, while we applaud it, we should also applaud its failure.
Nigel Jones: Although I do have some sympathy with the idea that the failure of
the Stauffenberg bomb plot and Germany’s subsequent utter destruction has prevented
a resurgence of Nazism in postwar
Germany, the nub of this argument
is a question of numbers.
A huge number of deaths in Europe in the Second World War took place between the failure of the plot in July 1944 and Germany’s capitulation in May 1945. These casualties included the western Allies killed in the liberation of France, Benelux and Germany itself; Soviet and German dead on the eastern front; and civilian deaths by bombing in Germany and, for example, in the V-weapon raids on Britain. Above all, perhaps, many of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust died in the war’s final months. All these deaths would have been prevented had Stauffenberg’s bomb killed Hitler and his Operation Valkyrie putsch on the same day successfully ended the Nazi regime.
Moreover, the plot’s failure almost certainly had a disastrous effect on postwar European history. It enabled the Red Army to impose Stalinist communism on the whole of eastern Europe, a tyranny that divided the continent and only ended in 1989. The resulting poverty in those countries that languished for so long under totalitarian rule is still having an adverse drag on our continent.
Had the plot succeeded and the politically broad-based regime envisaged by the plotters replaced the criminal Nazi rule, then Germany would have remained united, the Berlin Wall would never have been built, and the flower of the German nation murdered by the Nazis in revenge for the plot would have survived to build a better Europe.
Roger Moorhouse: It is certainly true that the death toll, both military and civilian, in the last year of the war increased significantly as the blood-letting seemingly accelerated towards the conflict’s end. And, it is natural, perhaps, that we should view those countless deaths as a regrettable consequence of Count Claus von Stauffenberg’s failure.
Though understandable, this is a triumph of emotion over reality. In truth it is extremely unlikely, even had Stauffenberg succeeded, that the war would have neatly come to an end in the summer of 1944. There were simply too many obstacles to any swift return to peace – not least the entrenched forces of Nazi resistance.
A further complicating factor was the curiously unrealistic attitudes of some of Stauffenberg’s co-conspirators. Carl Goerdeler, for instance, who was earmarked to assume the role of chancellor, envisaged a postwar Germany retaining both Austria and the Sudetenland. With such people in charge, Stauffenberg’s plotters would have had a very hard time negotiating peace at all.
In addition, the Sovietisation of Europe would hardly (as Nigel suggests) have been halted by a German surrender in the summer of 1944; if anything it would have been accelerated. With German troops laying down their arms, there would have been nothing to stop Stalin’s Red Army from advancing unopposed through Germany and into France, where it would have met the still-comparatively puny forces of the British and Americans.
Paradoxically then, it is arguably only Stauffenberg’s failure, and Germany’s costly fighting retreat on the eastern front, which enabled Allied armies to liberate western Europe and so ensure that liberty and democracy had the toehold that they did in Europe after 1945. Another reason, I suggest, to welcome the brave count’s failure.
Nigel Jones: It is, of course, impossible to know for certain what would have happened in Germany and in Europe had Count von Stauffenberg succeeded in his heroic
endeavour – we can only speculate. However, we do know for certain what did happen in the last terrible year of the war: millions of unnecessary deaths and displacements, the ruin of much of Europe, and the forced imposition of a new totalitarian tyranny – communism – over half the continent. It is more than likely that these evils would have been mitigated, if not entirely prevented, had the bomb killed Hitler.
The Nazi regime was so identified with the personality of the führer that his elimination at the hands of his own military would have had a terminally catastrophic effect on Germany’s national morale and led to a speedy surrender of Germany’s forces fighting in France, which were already crumbling anyway. Paris was the one place where Stauffenberg’s putsch briefly succeeded and the SS Nazis were arrested by the Wehrmacht [armed forces]. Only when it became clear that Hitler had survived did the coup collapse.
On the eastern front, the well-justified fears of Soviet rapes and atrocities might have kept the German army in being, intent on defending their families as the new regime negotiated with the Allies. The postwar division of the country into Soviet and western zones would thus have been less likely. Even if the plotters’ government had been compelled to surrender unconditionally, that would still have been infinitely preferable to the ghastly events of 1944–45 that Hitler’s survival guaranteed.
Roger Moorhouse: While I appreciate the optimistic sentiments behind these suggested scenarios, I cannot share them. Stauffenberg’s plot, though in many ways admirable and the closest to achieving its goal, was nonetheless fundamentally flawed, and, I think, doomed to failure. Killing Hitler was never enough. One also had to mount a coup to bring down the government. This meant that Stauffenberg – whose allies, for all their moral bravery, were largely wavering and indecisive – had to be in two places at once; in Rastenburg to kill Hitler and then in Berlin to lead the coup.
In the event he managed to do neither, and the attempt collapsed. However, I would argue that even had he succeeded in killing Hitler, the Nazi government would have been very difficult to dislodge, not least because the coup plotters were regrettably rather less brutally determined than they might have been. A swift Nazi collapse, and a silencing
of the guns, is – sadly – wishful thinking.
Moreover, I think we fall in to the trap of assuming that Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators – because they were seeking to bring the Nazis down – were somehow ‘on our
side’. They were not. They were German nationalists first and foremost, who wanted
to salvage something from the wreckage of Nazism. In lionising Stauffenberg as a saint, we overlook the fact that – for all his valour and morality – he was politically closer to Hitler than he was to Churchill.
Nigel Jones: Stauffenberg was certainly no saint – but he was a genuine hero, and in our distinctly unheroic age, we may be unable to recognise his rare qualities.
The July plotters, energised and inspired by Stauffenberg’s charisma, were by no means the narrow nationalists that Roger suggests. They were in fact a broad front, ranging from ultra-conservatives like Carl Goerdeler; old fashioned Prussian military men like Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben, adhering to antiquated but honourable codes and values; idealistic internationalists such as Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and his Kreisau Circle; Catholic and Protestant clergy such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Social Democrats and trade unionists including Julius Leber; and even communists. Unrealistic in their political aims they may have been; Nazi-lite they definitely were not. Stauffenberg was typical of them in having himself moved from a position of aristocratic elitism to favouring a post-Hitler government embracing strands of political opinion ranging from reactionaries to Marxists. About the only point dividing them by July 1944 was whether Hitler should be assassinated or arrested and put on trial.
Most of the conspirators were Christians. Some had admittedly sympathised with the Nazis as firm anti-Bolsheviks in the early days of the regime, but by 1944 all were appalled enough by the atrocities of the Nazis and the criminal nature of the Hitler regime to take armed action – however ineptly executed – against it. And they did this knowing full well that in the event of the plot’s all too likely failure, they risked arrest, horrifying torture, a humiliating public trial, disgrace in the eyes of many of their brainwashed compatriots, and a lonely, painful, and prolonged death.
If that is not courage to admire and emulate,
I do not know what it is. The failure of Stauffenberg’s brave attempt to destroy Hitler and his evil regime was one of the worst tragedies of the whole tragic war. But it set an example of supreme moral and physical courage that has rarely been surpassed.
Roger Moorhouse is a historian and author
with a particular interest in Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and the Second World War
. Nigel Jones is a historian, biographer and journalist who has written several books
about the two world wars.
Killing Hitler: The Third Reich and
the Plots Against the Fuhrer by
Roger Moorhouse (Jonathan Cape, 2006)
Countdown to Valkyrie: The July Plot
to Assassinate Hitler by Nigel Jones (Frontline, 2009)