A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
Valkyrie was the name given to the WW2 Nazi operation (under the control of the Reserve Army) focused on protecting Hitler, or at least the government in Berlin, in special circumstances such as:
- should communications be cut off from the Fuhrer or
- should the Fuhrer die
Operation Valkyrie was modified and put into motion by a select group of German military officers opposed to Hitler’s Nazi ideologies and practices. They also questioned his abilities in maintaining a sustainable German state in the future. They felt it necessary to remove Hitler and his top Nazi officials (Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering) by assassination and over throw the government. Several attempts were actually aborted because all three Nazis weren’t present, and eventually the plot kill three was dropped in favour of just killing Hitler.
Why Hitler could not be taken alive
Killing the Fuhrer was essential - The conspirators realised that if they managed to imprison Hitler, the entire German army would still be bound to the Fuhrer by their oath of allegiance (Reichswehreid). Only a dead Hitler would free the military ranks (including the Reserve Army under Operation Valkyrie) from their oath and be able to assist in the coup against the Nazis. Notably the conspiring officers too had taken oaths of allegiance to the Fuhrer, but they weren’t Nazis and some had clashed with Hitler on occasion.
How Hitler established control over an otherwise independent German army
This oath came into effect after a coup among radical German politicians that occurred on 30th June 1934. Traditionally German politicians and military officers stayed out of each others way. Hitler realised that even as the leader of Germany, his government would always have to keep an eye on the army, who would remain a potential but constant threat. To get the army on his side Hitler executed Ernst Rohm, a radical politician who was considered dangerous by the army, and whose policies the army opposed. Hitler’s popularity shot through the roof and he used it to change the wording of the oath taken by all soldiers. From then on the army owed personal allegiance to Hitler, along with Germany. Hitler made the officers bound to him by their honour and established a vice-like grip on the nation.
Hitler survived several assassination attempts in his lifetime and died by his own hands at the end of World War 2. He was one of the most hated men in the world, even amongst his fellow countrymen, and he knew it. His paranoia saved him from all would be assassins – he rarely stuck to schedules and refused to divulge his plans to anyone before hand. His strategy typically involved reaching and leaving from his destination much before planned. Like Charles De Gaulle he survived all of the several assassination attempts. Unlike De Gaulle who died in his own home watching television, Hitler committed suicide.
Out of many attempts on Hitler’s life only two came close to killing the ‘Fuhrer’. The first was by an ace handyman Johann Georg Esler on November 8th 1939. The second was the final attempt by the conspirators of Operation Valkyrie on July 20th 1944.
Officers behind the 1944 attempt had been trying to kill Hitler for some time but their target always eluded them. Bombs placed on Hitler’s plane failed to work, at other times the Fuhrer left early from or simply failed to attend the meeting.
All these attempts on his life made the Fuhrer more cautious. His public appearances became rare, as did his presence in Berlin. Instead he chose to spend more time at his Wolf’s Lair (Wolfschanze) in East Prussia.
The plot and conspirators
Old hands at conspiracies to kill Hitler included Brigadier-General Hans Oster, General Ludwig Beck and Colonel Henning Von Tresckow. Their two most important recruits were Claus Von Stauffenberg (for reasons mentioned below) and General Friedrich Olbricht for his control over communications systems.
The final attempt was spearheaded by Lieutenant-Colonel Klaus Phillip Schenk, Graf (Count) Von Stauffenberg, who was the Chief of Staff to General Friedrich Fromm of the Wehrmacht’s Reserve Army.
Von Stauffenberg had been injured in North Africa and had lost an eye, right hand and two fingers from his left hand. Ironically, his war injuries made him more popular with Hitler and allowed him to access the top echelons of the Nazi regime (including the Fuhrer) through light security checks. Naturally this made him an ideal candidate to plant the bomb.
However Von Stauffenberg’s rank and importance in the plot made it impossible for the attempt to be a suicide mission. Only two people could mobilize the Reserve Army – Hitler and General Fromm. Once Hitler was removed it was up to General Fromm to play his part, but the General had not committed himself to the coup. Killing Fromm in that case remained an option, as by rank Von Stauffenberg would then be in charge of the Reserve Army.
Von Stauffenberg disliked Hitler, and referred to him as a ‘buffoon’ and ‘enemy of the world’ in private conversation. According to him Hitlers actions and murderous excesses had ruined Germany’s reputation and any association the war effort had with honour. Aware of past attempts at overthrowing Hitler and supportive if not participative in their efforts, he remained outside the resistance till 1942. It was at that time that atrocities inflicted on Jews, Poles and Russians made him actively turn against the regime and simultaneously see the opportunity for establishing a new German government. Rumours of the fate of German aristocracy if the war was won by Hitler also may have motivated the man. He was about as liberal as any to be found among the officers, and intended to replace Hitler with a socialist leader.
The motives behind other conspirators remain just as complex.
Other conspirators to the plot had varied reasons, but basically their faith in Hitler had failed. Unlike Von Stauffenberg though, several officers (including Von Stauffenberg’s immediate superior General Fromm) sat on the fence and decided to see what success the plot had before committing. One reason for the fence-sitting could be the officers’ oath. Alternatively some historians claim that the oath was just an excuse for officers who were afraid of joining the resistance. Resisters were at risk not just legally and socially (the Nazis gained popular support once the war began) but also faced the danger of arrest, torture and execution.
If the assassination was successful, the plan was to overthrow the Nazi government, kill or imprison its members, open negotiations with the Allied Forces and salvage what they could of Germany.
Visit http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~epf/2002/pemberton.html for an understanding of the conspirators’ not necessarily democratic political views.
The Wolf’s Lair (or the Wolfschanze) was selected as the location. It was where Von Stauffenberg attended a meeting of Nazi officials including Hitler. A suitcase bomb was planted under the conference table and some time before detonation Von Stauffenberg excused himself and escaped with a car and colleague (Werner Von Haeften) waiting outside. When the bomb went off three other officials were killed but Hitler survived. That the Fuhrer was injured was no consolation.
After Von Stauffenberg left the meeting (but before the explosion), an official shifted the position of the suitcase. This protected Hitler from direct impact, most of which was absorbed by the huge oak desk that separated the bomb and its target. Another reason for Hitler’s survival was that the original location of the meeting was changed from a bunker to a room. The force of the explosion easily dissipated in the room, whereas if it had gone off in the bunker the contained explosion would have proved far more lethal.
Hitler played down the incident. He described the conspirators as amateur and associated his survival with divine intervention. He did this to hide the rot that had spread in his armed forces and to further the myth of his invincibility. Allied forces however recognised this rot, and were happy that the Germans were killing each other.
Nothing saved the conspirators though.
After the explosion Von Stauffenberg raced back to Berlin and claimed to have assassinated the Fuhrer. His immediate superior General Fromm had heard otherwise from two other sources including another survivor at the Wolf’s Lair – Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. Fromm refused to budge with further confirmation and tried to arrest the conspirators but was overpowered. Fighting broke out between the conspirators and Hitler loyalists in Fromm’s office, but outside the building Hitler’s forces had secured control. All this despite contradicting reports of Hitler’s fate and Nazi officials and strongholds being under siege.
Eventually the conspirators were suppressed. General Ludwig Beck committed suicide and Von Stauffenberg was wounded. No sooner had General Fromm regained control that Von Stauffenberg, Von Haeften and General Friedrich Olbricht were summarily tried and executed.
Hitler’s fury not only punished the conspirators to the plot but also their family and relatives. Unscrupulous elements in the Gestapo used this purge as an opportunity to settle scores and vendettas. Thousands were killed and hundreds executed.
Colonel Henning Von Tresckow also committed suicide as did General Erwin Rommel, who was accused of knowingly not exposing the plot. Executions were filmed for Hitler’s viewing pleasure and shown to cadets, few of whom could stomach what they saw.
The survivors of the assassination attempt were awarded an extremely rare Wound Badge of 20th July 1944.
Also see: Hitler Trivia
References & Further Reading
1. Encyclopedia of Assassinations by Carl Sifakis
2. How to Stage a Military Coup by David Hebditch & Ken Connor
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