On July 20, 1944, a one-eyed, one-armed man tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler
Colonel Claus Schenk von Stuaffenberg had served with the Wehrmacht in Poland (1939), France (1940) and the Soviet Union (1941). And he had been seriously wounded in its service.
Colonel Claus Schenk von Stuaffenberg
Nevertheless, he now acted as the prime mover for the conspiracy among a growing number of German high command officers to arrest or assassinate Germany’s Fuehrer.
Most of the conspirators wanted to arrest Hitler and surrender to British and American forces–well before the much-feared Russians gained a foothold in Germany.
But Stauffenberg wanted him dead: A live Hitler might eventually be rescued by his Nazi colleagues.
But–how to do it?
Hitler was a closely-guarded target. He was surrounded by fanatical bodyguards who were expert marksmen. He often wore a bulletproof vest and a cap lined with three pounds of laminated steel.
But his single greatest protection–he claimed–was an instinct for danger. He would often suddenly change his schedule–to drop in where he was least expected. Or to suddenly depart an event where he was scheduled to stay a long time.
On November 9, 1939, this instinct saved his life. He had been set to give a long speech at a Munich beer hall before the “Old Fighters” of his storm troopers.
Sixteen years earlier on that day, in 1923, Hitler had led them in a disastrous attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government. Police had put down the effort, killing and wounding about a score of storm troopers in the process.
Hitler himself had later been arrested, tried and convicted for treason–and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.
But instead of proving to be the end of Nazism, the “Beer Hall Putsch” turned Hitler into a national celebrity. And it launched his career as a legitimate, ultimately successful politician.
So Hitler was expected to speak to his longtime supporters for a long time that evening. Instead, he suddenly cut short his speech and left the beer hall.
Forty-five minutes later, a bomb exploded inside a pillar–before which Hitler had been speaking.
Since then, a series of other assassination attempts had been made against Hitler. All of them involved time-bombs. And all of the would-be assassins were members of the German General Staff.
In one case, a bomb secretly stashed aboard Hitler’s plane failed to explode. In another, an officer who had a bomb strapped to himself unexpectedly found his scheduled meeting with Hitler called off. He had to rush into a bathroom to defuse the bomb before it went off.
So now it was the turn of von Stauffenberg. He would carry his bomb–hidden in a briefcase–into a “Hitler conference” packed with military officers.
But Stauffenberg didn’t intend to be a suicide bomber. He meant to direct the government that would replace that of the Nazis.
His bomb–also rigged with a time-fuse–would be left in the conference room while he found an excuse to leave. After the explosion, he would phone one of his fellow conspirators with the news.
Then, the coup–“Operation Valkyrie”–would be on.
Anti-Nazi conspirators would seize control of key posts of the government. The British and Americans would then be informed of Germany’s willingness to surrender. Provided, of course, that the Russians did not have a say in its postwar future.
The Wehrmacht and Schutzstaffel (SS) had killed millions of Russians. Many had died in combat. Others had been murdered as captives. Still more had been allowed to die by starvation and exposure to the notorious Russian winter.
So the Germans–both Nazi and anti-Nazi–knew what they could expect if soldiers of the Soviet Union reached German soil.
On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg appeared at Hitler’s well-guarded military headquarters in East Prussia. Like all his other outposts, Hitler had named it–appropriately enough–“Wolf’s Lair.”
Stauffenberg entered the large, concrete building while the conference was in session. He placed his yellow briefcase next to Hitler–who was standing with his generals at a heavy oaken table.
Then Stauffenberg excused himself to take an “urgent” phone call.
At 12:42 p.m. on July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg’s briefcase bomb erupted.
But the Third Reich didn’t come to an end–because, as if miraculously, Hitler had survived.
Hitler shows off the site of the explosion
What had happened?
First, the conference location had been changed–from a wooden building to a concrete one. The concrete absorbed much of the blast.
Second, owing to the summer’s heat, Hitler had ordered all the windows–about ten–opened to let in a breeze. This allowed much of the force of the blast to be dispersed.
Third, and perhaps most important: Stauffenberg had carefully placed his briefcase near Hitler, who was standing next to a heavy oaken support of the conference table.
But after Stauffenberg left the room, Colonel Heinz Brandt, who stood next to Hitler, found the briefcase blocking his legs. So he moved it–to the other side of the heavy oaken support.
When the bomb exploded, Hitler was partially shielded from its full blast. Brandt died, as did two other officers and a stenographer.