On June 20, 5704/1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg left his briefcase, which contained a bomb, under Hitler’s map-table, and rushed out. A few minutes later, at 12:42 p.m., he saw Hitler’s briefing room explode as if smashed by an artillery shell. Bodies and debris flew skyward and Stauffenberg was convinced that Europe’s biggest criminal was dead. Racing to a nearby airfield, he jumped aboard a plane and headed to Berlin to help a group of rebel generals topple the remaining Nazi dictatorship.
HOW HITLER WAS SAVED
Somehow, however, Hitler survived. Once again, a quirk of “fate” had saved him at the last moment. Stauffenberg had placed his briefcase bomb a few feet to the right of Hitler, next to a strong table support. Minutes after Stauffenberg left the room, Colonel Heinz Brandt – the same person who had unwittingly carried bombs that failed to explode onto Hitler’s plane a year earlier – leaned over the map table. Finding Stauffenberg’s briefcase in his way, he moved it to the other side of the table support. This simple act probably saved Hitler’s life.
The Führer’s hair was singed, his legs were burned, his right arm was bruised, his eardrums were punctured and his back was lacerated. But the table leg absorbed most of the blast and he survived to fight for another year.
“What happened here today is the climax!” he boasted to Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, soon afterwards. “Having now escaped death, I am more than ever convinced that the great cause which I serve will be brought through its present perils and that everything can be brought to a good end.”
However, the conspirators still had a chance. A radio operator in the Wolf’s Lair was doing his best to prevent news of Hitler’s survival leaking out to the outer world hoping that with cunning, they could perhaps bluff their way through. But they acted too slowly.
By the time Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin, he found that the conspirators there had not lifted a finger. Unsure whether Hitler was dead or not, they had waited three hours for Stauffenberg to come and confirm Hitler’s death before doing anything. Three crucial hours were lost.
Now, at last, the rebel generals swung into action and sent a battalion of soldiers, headed by Major Otto Remer, to seal off the government ministries and the main S.S. security office. Bursting into the office of the Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, Major Remer informed him that he was under arrest.
“What about your oath of allegiance to Hitler?” Goebbels challenged him.
“Hitler is dead!” Major Remer retorted.
In reply, Goebbels picked up his phone and put a call through to the Wolf’s Lair. After a short interval, Hitler was on the line and Major Remer snapped to attention as Hitler’s hoarse and clearly recognizable voice ordered him to put down the rebels.
Soon after 6:30 p.m., German radio announced that an attempt to kill Hitler had failed and the rebel generals throughout Europe realized that the game was up. Hitler’s cohorts sprang into action. Stauffenberg and a few chief conspirators were executed, and dozens of others were rounded up to stand trial and execution.
Just before 1:00 a.m., Adolf Hitler made a broadcast and announced:
“My German comrades! If I speak to you today, it is in order that you hear my voice and should know that I am unhurt and well and, secondly, that you should know of a crime unparalleled in German history…
“The bomb planted by Colonel Stauffenberg exploded two meters to the right of me… I myself am entirely unhurt aside from some very minor scratches, bruises and burns. I regard this as a confirmation of the task imposed upon me by Providence.”
From now on, almost no one was allowed to enter Hitler’s presence without being searched and the task of deposing him became more difficult than ever.
THE PROBLEM WITH ROMMEL
B. H. Liddell Hart describes in his 1953 book, The Rommel Papers, how the Gestapo were faced with a problem when they discovered that Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel was also among the conspirators. It would be embarrassing for the Germans to know that their most beloved general, who almost conquered Egypt, had plotted against the Führer. To solve the dilemma,
Rommel was ordered to participate in a grim masquerade. His son, Manfred, who was fifteen at the time, related what happened:
“At about twelve o’clock, a darkgreen car with a Berlin number stopped in front of our garden gate… The only men in the house, apart from my father, were Captain Aldinger (Rommel’s aide), a badly wounded war-veteran corporal, and myself. Two generals – Burgdorf, a powerful, florid man, and Maisel, small and slender – alighted from the car and entered the house. They were respectful and courteous, and asked my father’s permission to speak to him alone. Aldinger and I left the room. ‘So they are not going to arrest him,’ I thought with relief, as I went upstairs to find myself a book.
“A few minutes later, I heard my father come upstairs and go into my mother’s room. Anxious to know what was afoot, I got up and followed him. He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. ‘Come outside with me,’ he said, in a tight voice. We went into my room. ‘I have just had to tell your mother,’ he began slowly, ‘that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour.’ He was calm as he continued, ‘To die by the hand of one’s own people is hard. But the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason. ‘In view of my services in Africa,’ he quoted sarcastically, ‘I am to have the opportunity of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It’s fatal within three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family; that is, against you. They will also leave my staff alone…’
“My father now spoke more quickly. He again said how useless it was to attempt to defend ourselves. ‘It’s all been prepared to the last detail. I’m to be given a state funeral. I have asked that it should take place in Ulm (near Rommel’s home). In a quarter of an hour, you, Aldinger, will receive a telephone call from the Wagnerschule reserve hospital in Ulm to say that I’ve had a brain seizure on the way to a conference.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I must go, they’ve only given me ten minutes.’ He quickly took leave of us again. Then we went downstairs together…
“The car stood ready. The S.S. driver swung the door open and stood to attention. My father pushed his Marshal’s baton under his left arm and, with his face calm, gave Aldinger and me his hand once more before getting in the car…
“Twenty minutes later the telephone rang. Aldinger lifted the receiver and my father’s death was duly reported.”
SPEER’S HALF-HEARTED PLOT
By February 5705/1945, when the war was in its final acts, one last attempt was made to assassinate the dictator. This time the plot was orchestrated by Hitler’s closest friend, Albert Speer, who wanted to draw the war to a conclusion before Germany was bombed to pieces. As Minister of Armament, he knew better than anyone else that the war was hopelessly lost. To make things worse, Speer knew that Hitler was planning a scorched earth policy that would paralyze Germany for years to come. Speer began to plot the tyrant’s death:
“Even at this late date, I still occasionally sat opposite him at the table, occasionally even leafing through old building plans with him (Speer was originally Hitler’s private architect). All the while, I was thinking how to obtain poison gas to destroy the man who, in spite of our many disagreements, still felt some liking for me and treated me with more forbearance than he did anyone else…”
What was Speer’s plan?
“On my walks in the Chancellery gardens, I had noticed the ventilation shaft for Hitler’s bunker. Camouflaged by a small shrub, level with the ground and covered by a thin grating, was the opening of the air intake.”
Speer busied himself trying to get hold of poison gas to put down the vent but, within a short time, he found that his scheme was no longer feasible:
“When I invented some pretext at this time to inspect the ventilation shaft, I found a changed picture. Armed S.S. sentries were now posted on the roofs of the entire complex, searchlights had been installed and, where the ventilation shaft had been at ground level, there now rose a chimney more than ten feet high… Hitler, temporarily blinded by poison gas during the First World War, had ordered the building of this chimney because poison gas is heavier than air… The whole idea of assassination vanished from my consideration as quickly as it had come.”
Ironically, after all the extreme protective measures he took, Hitler finished his own life deep underground, beneath his Chancellery, when Russian troops were no more than five hundred meters away.