The July 20th Plot was not the first attempt to assassinate Nazi Germany’s Führer or even the first by the particular set of conspirators. But unlike most previous efforts, this one came close.
By 1944, the war was going badly for Germany. Victory seemed impossible. A number of German military officers and civilians decided they’d had enough of Hitler and Nazism. Rather than suffer another devastating defeat at the hands of the allies, they wanted a negotiated peace. Hitler’s death, they felt, was a necessary step to get there.
The leaders among the military officers—including General Friedrich Olbricht and Major General Henning von Tresckow—tended to have in common that they were German nationalists, conservatives, and aristocrats. The civilians included former Leipzig mayor Carl Friedrich Goerdeler.
Opposition to Nazism’s policies towards Jews may be been secondary in their minds to just ending the calamitous war by any means necessary. But it was a factor. Both Tresckow and Goerdeler expressed such opposition. Some of the participants were part of the Kreisau Circle.
The key figure in the plot was a 36-year-old career officer, Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg—a serious Catholic, conservative and aristocrat. It was he who carried the briefcase containing the bomb into Hitler’s secret headquarters in East Prussia where daily briefings were held. Stauffenberg set it down near where Hitler was to sit and excused himself for a telephone call.
Stauffenberg thought he’d been successful. He headed straight to Berlin, where he had hoped to help execute an elaborate plan to take over the reins of government. But he was mistaken. The bomb killed four individuals in the room. An additional 20 were injured, some seriously. But Hitler’s injuries were only slight. The briefcase is believed to have been moved a bit before it went off.
The conspirators—often including those with only remote connections to the plot—were rounded up. Stauffenberg, Olbricht, and Tresckow were dead by the next day. Altogether, more than 7000 were arrested, and 4980 executed.
Among the dead was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who may or may not have been an active participant of the plot. He was reportedly given the option of (1) pleading his case to Hitler himself; (2) being tried by the so-called People’s Court; or (3) suicide. He chose suicide. The public was told that he had died of a heart attack or a cerebral embolism. He was given a state funeral.
Footnote to history: Stauffenberg’s son, just a boy at the time, went on to become a general in the West German army. “For me,” he said, “there is no question that the plot has saved a little of the honour of Germany.”