The July 20th Plot to Kill Hitler


A memorial to von Stauffenberg and co-conspirators in Berlin.

Claus Graf von Stauffenberg was born on 15th November 1907 into a distinguished East Prussian landowning family of Junkers, ancestrally rooted in their estates and farmlands. They were paternalistic towards their tenants, and patriotic, with a tradition of military service in the cavalry regiments of the German army. Stauffenberg’s family were pious Catholics, steeped in the traditions of both the European Enlightenment and the German Romantic Movement. In 1926, Claus joined the family’s traditional cavalry regiment in Bamberg. He took part in the annexation of the Czech Sudetenland, objecting only to the methods used rather than the principle of the action itself.

Like many Germans of his class, he detested Hitler the man but admired his early military success. He took part in the invasion of Poland and approved the colonisation of its territory. It was the invasion of Soviet Russia and the catastrophe at Stalingrad together with the execution of Russian prisoners which finally persuaded Stauffenberg to move from private misgivings to active conspiracy.

D-Day, 6th June, 1944, was a turning point for Stauffenberg. He realised that Germany could no longer win the war. Unfortunately, though the German resistance said they wanted to negotiate with the Allies, they would not do so with Russia. And that was unacceptable to both Britain’s Churchill and America’s Roosevelt. The conflict would continue until something changed.

On 20th July, 1944, Stauffenberg entered the briefing room at Hitler’s HQ in East Prussia, with two small bombs in his suitcase. Hitler’s luck would hold, however, as the conference he had been due to attend there had been moved from its original underground bunker location to a wooded building overground because of the sweltering summer weather. The briefcase was moved to a different part of the room just prior to the explosion. Hitler was shaken and his trousers burned, but he was alive. Stauffenberg had left the room before the blast and flew back to Berlin. Events then moved decisively and inevitably against the conspirators, and Hitler spoke on the radio. The plot had failed.

In an attempt to save his own life, General Fromm, a co-conspirator, had Stauffenberg shot. Those loyal to the plot were soon arrested. Stauffenberg’s brothers were tortured to death in Plotsensee Prison. His mother was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, though she would at least survive the war.

In hindsight we can see that the whole enterprise was flawed from the start. The conspirators’ contacts were so wide and diverse that the Gestapo had no difficulty rounding them up. They failed to appreciate that no peace deal was possible without the full participation of Russia, either. Nor would they have been prepared to relinquish the German conquests in Poland or to agree a thorough cleansing of German society after the war. And they would not have permitted the required root and branch reform of the German army on surrender.

Finally, it was in truth not even in the interests of the Allies to have Hitler killed at the time. He was doing a fine job of losing the war as it was.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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