Why we should remember the plot to assassinate Hitler and install a new German government
Mary Fulbrook considers the importance of Count von Stauffenberg's attempted assassination of Hitler in July 1944
On 20 July 1944, Colonel Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler, an act for which he has long been honoured in his homeland, first in West Germany and later in the unified nation. Yet while Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators, who planned to establish a new regime, were undoubtedly brave, this was hardly the act of democrats. Rather, this was an unsuccessful plot hatched by conservative nationalist aristocrats, pragmatists who feared impending defeat and harked back to older authoritarian traditions. Why, we might well ask, should we celebrate their actions?
In answering that question, we should of course recognise the conspirators’ bravery. Stauffenberg, a man disabled by war wounds (blind in one eye, missing his right hand and two fingers on his left), had the courage to plant two bombs in a briefcase, timed to go off as Hitler addressed his entourage in his East Prussian headquarters, the Wolf 's Lair. But Stauffenberg detonated only one bomb and, as he left, the briefcase was pushed under a heavy wooden table.
While others lost their lives, Hitler escaped with minor injuries and a ruined pair of trousers. Unaware of this failure, Stauffenberg flew back to Berlin. On arrival, he and close associates were arrested and put to death. Fellow conspirators were perfunctorily executed; others killed themselves. In the ensuing months, thousands more paid with their lives for any sign of dissent.
Yet, looking back, questions linger about why those in elite positions were so slow to act. These were people who had previously sworn an oath of obedience, sustained the Nazi regime, and then claimed it was against their honour to oppose Hitler. A few discussed resistance plans in the late 1930s, but fell silent with early military successes. By the time they acted, tens of millions had died in a senseless war of aggression, and the majority of European Jews had been murdered.
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Might it be more fitting to remember the tens of thousands incarcerated for political resistance from 1933? Or individuals such as Georg Elser, a humble Swabian cabinet-maker, who in November 1939 planted a bomb in the Munich beer hall where Hitler annually commemorated the 1923 putsch attempt? Or the Munich students Hans and Sophie Scholl, members of the White Rose group executed in 1943 for their courageous attempts to whip up opposition?
Ultimately, these are false choices. We should remember the July plot not only to pay respects to the courage of those who, belatedly, did stand up against Hitler, but also as a way to consider broader questions about the willingness to resist. About what it takes to have the courage of one’s convictions, to speak truth to power, and to say that this is a path down which no civilised nation should go – before it is too late.
Mary Fulbrook is the author of Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (OUP, 2018)
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine