Valkyrie: The July Bomb Plot to Kill Hitler

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler. Wikimedia Commons

By 1944 there was a long list of Germans who had reason to want to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and there had been attempts on the lives of several senior German officers. There had also been threats to Hitler from the German military itself, and with World War Two not going well for Germany (especially not on the Eastern Front) some leading figures began to realize that the war was doomed to end in failure and that Hitler intended to lead Germany into total destruction.

These commanders also believed that if Hitler was murdered, then the allies, both the Soviet Union and the western democracies, would be willing to negotiate peace with a new German government. No one knows what would have happened if Hitler had been killed at this point, and it looks unlikely Stalin would have backed off from marching into Berlin to stake his claim to a satellite empire.

The Problem with Killing Hitler

Hitler knew he was increasingly unpopular and took steps to safeguard himself from assassination. He disguised his movements, not letting his travel plans be known ahead of time, and tended to prefer residing in safe, heavily fortified buildings. He also strictly controlled the number of weapons which surrounded him. What was needed was someone who could get close to Hitler, and kill him with an unconventional weapon.  Plans of attack were developed, but Hitler managed to avoid all of them.

He was incredibly lucky and survived multiple attempts, some of which descended into farce.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg

The disaffected clique of military figures who were looking to kill Hitler found the man for the job: Claus von Stauffenberg. He had served in several key campaigns of World War Two, but while in North Africa had lost much of his right arm, his right eye, and digits on the other hand and been returned to Germany.

The hand would be a rather important problem later in the bomb plot, and something which should have been better planned for.

There had been other plans involving bombs and Hitler. Two army officers had been lined up to commit a suicide bombing of Hitler by Baron Henning von Tresckow, but the plans had fallen through because of Hitler changing plans to stop this danger. Now Stauffenberg was transferred from his hospital to the War Office, where Tresckow worked, and if the pair had not formed a working relationship before they did now. However Tresckow had to go fight on the Eastern Front, so Friedrich Olbricht worked with Stauffenberg. However, in June 1944, Stauffenberg was promoted to full Colonel, made a Chief of Staff, and had to regularly meet with Hitler to discuss the war. He could easily arrive carrying a bomb and not make anyone suspicious.

Operation Valkyrie

After a new front was opened with the successful D-Day landings, the situation looked even more desperate for Germany, and the plan was put into effect; a series of arrests also pushed the conspirators—a group involving leading regular army commanders—on before they were caught. Hitler would be killed, a military coup would take place, loyal army units would arrest SS leaders and hopefully a new military command would avoid a civil war and negotiate an immediate end to the war in the west, a forlorn hope.

After several false attempts, when Stauffenberg had carried explosives but not had the chance to use them against Hitler, Operation Valkyrie went into effect on July 20th. Stauffenberg arrived for a meeting, sneaked out to use acid to begin dissolving a detonator, entered the map room Hitler was using, put a briefcase containing the bomb against a table leg, excused himself to take a telephone call, and left the room.

Instead of the phone, Stauffenberg went to his car, and at 12:42 the bomb went off. Stauffenberg then managed to talk his way out of the Wolf’s lair compound and headed for Berlin. However, Hitler had not died; in fact he’d hardly been injured, with just burnt clothes, a cut hand and ear drum problems. A number of people did die, then and after, from the blast, but Hitler had been shielded.

However, Stauffenberg had actually carried two bombs, but he’d had massive difficulty priming both given he only had two fingers and a thumb, and he and his assistant had been interrupted as they tried to prime, meaning only one bomb was in the briefcase Stauffenberg carried into Hitler with him. The other bomb was spirited away by the assistant. Things would have been different if he’d been able to leave both bombs together: Hitler would most certainly have died. The Reich would probably then have fallen into civil war because the plotters were not prepared.

The Rebellion is Crushed

Hitler’s death was to be the start of a seizure of power which, in the end, turned into a farce. Operation Valkyrie was the official name for a set of emergency procedures, allowed by Hitler, which would transfer power to the Home Army to react if Hitler was indisposed and unable to govern. The plotters planned to use the laws because the head of the Home Army, General Fromm, was sympathetic to the plotters. However, whereas the Home Army was supposed to seize key points in Berlin and then move outwards across Germany with the news of Hitler’s death, few were willing to act without explicit news. Of course, it couldn’t come.

The news Hitler survived was soon out, and the first batch of conspirators – including Stauffenberg – were arrested and shot. They were the relatively lucky ones, because Hitler had anyone else tangentially connected arrested, tortured, brutally executed and filmed. He may even have watched the video. A thousand were executed, and relatives of key figures were sent to camps. Tresckow left his unit and walked towards Russian lines, whereupon he set off a grenade to kill himself. Hitler would survive for another year, until he killed himself as the Soviets approached his bunker.