Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The July Plot or July 20 Plot was an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the dictator of Germany, on July 20, 1944. It was the culmination of the efforts of the German Resistance to overthrow the Nazi regime. Its failure led to the arrest of more than 5,000 people, to the execution of about 200 people and the destruction of the resistance movement. The July 20 conspiracy was fueled by a German patriotic desire to spare their country further catastrophe and rid themselves of a dictator.
Conspiratorial groups planning a coup of some kind had existed in the German Army and the military intelligence organization (the Abwehr) since 1938. Early leaders of these plots included Brigadier-General Hans Oster, head of the Abwehr Military Intelligence Office, a former Army Chief of Staff, General Ludwig Beck, and Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben. Plans to stage a coup and prevent Hitler from launching a world war were developed in 1938 and 1939, but were aborted because of the vacillations of the Army leaders, Generals Franz Halder and Walter von Brauchitsch, and the failure of the western powers to take a stand against Hitler’s aggressions until 1939.
In 1941, a new conspiratorial group was formed, led by Colonel Henning von Tresckow, a member of the staff of his uncle, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, who was commander of Army Group Center during the invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. Tresckow systematically recruited oppositionists to the Group’s staff, making it the nerve center of the Army resistance. Little could be done while Hitler’s armies advanced triumphantly into the western regions of the Soviet Union through 1941 and 1942—even after the setback before Moscow in December 1941 that brought about the dismissal of both Brauchitsch and Bock.
During 1942, Oster and Tresckow nevertheless succeeded in rebuilding an effective resistance network. Their most important recruit was General Friedrich Olbricht, head of the General Army Office headquartered at the Bendlerblock in central Berlin, who controlled an independent system of communications to reserve units all over Germany. Linking this asset to Tresckow’s resistance group in Army Group Center created what appeared to a viable structure for a new effort at organizing a coup.
In late 1942 Tresckow and Olbricht formulated a plan to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup during Hitler’s visit to the headquarters of Army Group Centre at Smolensk in March 1943, by placing a bomb on his plane. The bomb did not go off, and a second attempt a few days later, when Hitler visited an exhibition of captured Soviet weaponry in Berlin, also failed. These failures demoralized the conspirators. During 1943, they tried without success to recruit senior Army field commanders such as Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, to support a seizure of power.
Planning a Coup
By mid 1943, the tide of war was turning decisively against Germany. The Army plotters and their civilian allies became convinced that Hitler must be assassinated so that a government acceptable to the western Allies could be formed and a separate peace negotiated in time to prevent a Soviet invasion of Germany. In August 1943, Tresckow met a young staff officer, Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, for the first time. Badly wounded in North Africa, Stauffenberg was a political conservative and a zealous German nationalist with a taste for philosophy. He had at first welcomed the Nazi regime but had become rapidly disillusioned. By 1942, he shared the widespread conviction among Army officers that Germany was being led to disaster and that Hitler must be removed from power. For some time his religious scruples had prevented him from coming to the conclusion that assassination was the correct way to achieve this. After Stalingrad, however, he decided that not assassinating Hitler would be a greater moral evil. He brought a new tone of fanaticism to the ranks of the resistance.
Olbricht now put forward to Tresckow and Stauffenberg a new strategy for staging a coup against Hitler. The Reserve Army had an operational plan called Operation Walküre (Valkyrie), which was to be used in the event that the disruption caused by the Allied bombing of German cities caused a breakdown in law and order, or a rising by the millions of slave laborers from occupied countries now being used in German factories. Olbricht suggested that this plan could be used to mobilize the Reserve Army to take control of German cities, disarm the SS and arrest the Nazi leadership, once Hitler had been successfully assassinated. Operation Valkyrie could only be put into effect by General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army, so he must either be won over to the conspiracy or in some way neutralized if the plan was to succeed. Fromm, like many senior officers, knew in general about the military conspiracies against Hitler but neither supported them nor reported them to the Gestapo.
During late 1943 and early 1944, there were a series of attempts to get one of the military conspirators near enough to Hitler for long enough to kill him with a bomb or a revolver. But the task was becoming increasingly difficult. As the war situation deteriorated, Hitler no longer appeared in public and rarely visited Berlin. He spent most of his time at his headquarters at the Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair) near Rastenburg in East Prussia, with occasional breaks at his Bavarian mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. In both places he was heavily guarded and rarely saw people he did not already know and trust. Heinrich Himmler and the Gestapo were increasingly suspicious of plots against Hitler, and specifically suspected the officers of the General Staff, which was indeed the place where most of the young officers willing to sacrifice themselves to kill Hitler were located. All these attempts therefore failed, sometimes by a matter of minutes.
By the summer of 1944, the Gestapo was closing in on the conspirators. There was a sense that time was running out, both on the battlefield, where the eastern front was in full retreat and where the Allies had landed in France on D-Day, and in Germany, where the resistance’s room for maneuver was rapidly contracting. The belief that this was the last chance for action seized the conspirators. By this time the core of the conspirators had begun to think of themselves as doomed men, whose actions were more symbolic than real. The purpose of the conspiracy came to be seen by some of them as saving the honor of themselves, their families, the Army and Germany through a grand, if futile, gesture, rather than actually altering the course of history.
One of Tresckow’s aides, Lieutenant Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, wrote to Stauffenberg: “The assassination must be attempted, coûte que coûte [whatever the cost]. Even if it fails, we must take action in Berlin. For the practical purpose no longer matters; what matters now is that the German resistance movement must take the plunge before the eyes of the world and of history. Compared to that, nothing else matters.”
In retrospect, it is surprising that these months of plotting by the resistance groups in the Army and the state apparatus, in which dozens of people were involved and of which many more, including very senior Army officers, were aware, apparently totally escaped the attention of the Gestapo. In fact the Gestapo had known since February 1943 of both the Abwehr resistance group under the patronage of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and of the civilian resistance circle around former Leipzig mayor Carl Goerdeler. If all these people had been arrested and interrogated, the Gestapo might well have uncovered the group based in Army Group Center as well and the July 20 assassination attempt would never have happened. This raises the possibility that Himmler knew about the plot and, for reasons of his own, allowed it to go ahead.
Himmler had at least one conversation with a known opposition member when, in August 1943, the Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz, who was involved in Goerdeler’s network, came to see him and offered him the support of the opposition if he would make a move to displace Hitler and secure a negotiated end to the war. Nothing came of this meeting, but Popitz was not arrested and Himmler apparently did nothing to track down the resistance network which he knew was operating within the state bureaucracy. It is possible that Himmler, who by late 1943 knew that the winning the war was no longer possible, allowed the July 20 plot to go ahead in the knowledge that if it succeeded he would be Hitler’s successor, and could then bring about a peace settlement. Popitz was not alone in seeing in Himmler a potential ally. General von Bock advised Tresckow to seek his support, but there is no evidence that he did so. Goerdeler was apparently also in indirect contact with Himmler via a mutual acquaintance Carl Langbehn. Canaris’s biographer Heinz Höhne suggests that Canaris and Himmler were working together to bring about a change of regime. All of this remains speculation.
On July 1, 1944 Stauffenberg was appointed chief-of-staff to General Fromm at the Reserve Army headquarters on Bendlerstrasse in central Berlin. This position enabled Stauffenberg to attend Hitler’s military conferences, either in East Prussia or at Berchtesgaden, and would thus give him a golden opportunity, perhaps the last that would present itself, to kill Hitler with a bomb or a pistol. Conspirators who had long resisted on moral grounds the idea of killing Hitler now changed their minds—partly because they were hearing reports of the mass murder at Auschwitz of up to 250,000 Hungarian Jews, the culmination of the Nazi Holocaust. Meanwhile new key allies had been gained. These included General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the German military commander in France, who would take control in Paris when Hitler was killed and, it was hoped, negotiate an immediate armistice with the invading Allied armies.
The plot was now ready to put into action. Twice in early July, Stauffenberg attended Hitler’s conferences carrying a bomb in his briefcase. But because the conspirators had decided that Heinrich Himmler and probably Herman Goring must also be assassinated if the planned mobilization of Operation Valkyrie was to have any chance of success, he had held back at the last minute because Himmler was not present. In fact, it was unusual for Himmler to attend military conferences. By July 15, when Stauffenberg again flew to East Prussia, this condition had been dropped. The plan was for Stauffenberg to plant the briefcase with the bomb in Hitler’s conference room with a timer running, excuse himself from the meeting, wait for the explosion, then fly back to Berlin and join the other plotters at the Bendlerblock. Operation Valkyrie would be mobilized, the Reserve Army would take control of Germany and the other Nazi leaders would be arrested. Beck would be appointed head of state, Goerdeler would be Chancellor and Witzleben would be commander-in-chief. The plan was ambitious and depended on a run of very good luck, but it was not totally fanciful.
Again on July 15, the attempt was called off at the last minute, for reasons which are not known because all the participants in the phone conversations which led to the postponement were dead by the end of the year. Stauffenberg, depressed and angry, returned to Berlin. On July 18 rumors reached him that the Gestapo had wind of the conspiracy and that he might be arrested at any time—this was apparently not true, but there was a sense that the net was closing in and that the next opportunity to kill Hitler must be taken because there might not be another. At 10:00 a.m. on July 20, Stauffenberg flew back to Rastenburg for another Hitler military conference, once again with a bomb in his briefcase. It is remarkable in retrospect that despite Hitler’s mania for security, officers attending his conferences were not searched.
Around 12:10, the conference began. Stauffenberg had previously activated a pencil detonator, inserted it into a two pound block of plastic explosive, organized by Wessel von Freytag-Loringhoven, and placed it inside his briefcase. He then entered the room and placed his briefcase bomb under the table around which Hitler and more than 20 officers had gathered. After ten minutes, Stauffenberg made an excuse and left the room. At 12:40 the bomb went off, demolishing the conference room. Three officers were killed along with at least one other person, but Hitler survived, suffering only minor injuries. One possibility is that he had been saved because the briefcase had been moved behind the heavy oak leg of the conference table, which deflected the blast. Another theory is that the briefcase was moved by an officer to the other end of the massive table from where Hitler was, because it was in the way, and so the main force of the blast did not reach Hitler. Stauffenberg, seeing the building collapse in smoke and flame, assumed that Hitler was dead, leaped into a staff car with his aide Werner von Haeften, and made a dash for the airfield before the alarm could be raised. Twenty minutes after the explosion he was airborne.
By the time Stauffenberg’s plane reached Berlin two hours later, General Erich Fellgiebel, an officer at Rastenburg who was in on the plot, had phoned the Bendlerblock and told the plotters that Hitler had survived the explosion. This was a fatal step (literally so for Fellgiebel and many others), because the Berlin plotters immediately lost their nerve, and judged, probably correctly, that the plan to mobilize Operation Valkyrie would have no chance of succeeding once the officers of the Reserve Army knew that Hitler was alive. There was more confusion when Stauffenberg’s plane landed and he phoned from the airport to say that Hitler was in fact dead. The Bendlerblock plotters did not know whom to believe. Finally an hour later at 4:00 PM Olbricht issued the orders for Operation Valkyrie to be mobilized. The vacillating General Fromm, however, phoned Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel at the Wolfs Lair and was assured that Hitler was alive. Keitel demanded to know Stauffenberg’s whereabouts. This told Fromm that the plot had been traced to his headquarters, and that he was in mortal danger. Fromm replied that he thought Stauffenburg was with Hitler.
At 16:40 Stauffenberg and Haeften arrived at the Bendlerblock. Fromm, from either political expedience or a change of heart, attempted to have Stauffenberg arrested, but Olbricht and Stauffenberg restrained him at gunpoint. By this time Himmler had taken charge of the situation and had issued orders countermanding Olbricht’s mobilization of Operation Valkyrie. In many places the coup was going ahead, led by officers who believed that Hitler was dead. The Propaganda Ministry on the Wilhelmstrasse, with Joseph Goebbels inside, was surrounded by troops—but Goebbels’s phone was not cut off, another fatal error. In Paris, Stülpnagel issued orders for the arrest of the SS and SD commanders. In Vienna, Prague, and many other places troops occupied Nazi Party officers and arrested Gauleiters and SS officers.
The decisive moment came at 19:00, when Hitler was sufficiently recovered to make phone calls. He was able to phone Goebbels at the Propaganda Ministry. Goebbels arranged for Hitler to speak to the commander of the troops surrounding the Ministry, Major Otto Remer, and assure him that he was still alive. Hitler ordered Remer to regain control of the situation in Berlin. At 20:00 a furious Witzleben arrived at the Bendlerblock and had a bitter argument with Stauffenberg, who was still insisting that the coup could go ahead. Witzleben left shortly afterwards. At around this time the planned seizure of power in Paris was aborted when Kluge, who had recently been appointed commander-in-chief in the west, learned that Hitler was alive, changed sides with alacrity and had Stülpnagel arrested.
The less resolute members of the conspiracy in Berlin also now began to change sides. Fighting broke out in the Bendlerblock between officers supporting and opposing the coup, and Stauffenberg was wounded. By 23:00 Fromm had regained control, hoping, by a show of zealous loyalty, to save his own skin. Beck, realizing that they had failed, shot himself—the first of many suicides in the coming days. Fromm declared that he had convened a court-martial consisting of himself, and had sentenced Olbricht, Stauffenberg, Haeften, and another officer, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, to death. At 00:10 on July 21, they were shot in the courtyard outside, possibly to prevent them from revealing Fromm’s involvement. Others would have been executed as well, but at 00:30 on July 21, the SS led by Otto Skorzeny arrived on the scene and further executions were forbidden. Fromm went off to see Goebbels to claim credit for suppressing the coup. He was immediately arrested.
Over the coming weeks Himmler’s Gestapo, driven by a furious Hitler, rounded up nearly everyone who had had the remotest connection with the July 20 plot. The discovery of letters and diaries in the homes and offices of those arrested revealed the plots of 1938, 1939, and 1943, and this led to further rounds of arrests, including that of Halder, who finished the war in a concentration camp. Under Himmler’s new Sippenhaft (blood guilt) laws, all the relatives of the principal plotters were also arrested. Many people killed themselves, including Tresckow and Kluge. Stülpnagel also tried to commit suicide, but survived and was subsequently hanged.
Very few of the plotters tried to escape, or to deny their guilt when arrested. Those who survived interrogation were given perfunctory trials before the People’s Court and its judge Roland Freisler. Eventually some 5,000 people were arrested and about 200 were executed. Not all of them connected with the July 20 plot, since the Gestapo used the occasion to settle scores with many other people suspected of opposition sympathies. After February 3, 1945, when Freisler was killed in a USAAF bombing raid, there were no more formal trials, but as late as April, with the war weeks away from its end, Canaris’s diary was found, and many more people were implicated. Executions continued down to the last days of the war.
The first trials were held in the Peoples Court on August 7 and 8, 1944. Hitler had ordered that those found guilty be “hung like cattle”. The treatment that had been dealt out to those executed as a result of the Rote Kapelle was that of slow strangulation using suspension from a rope attached to a slaughterhouse meathook. For the July 20 plotters, piano wire was used instead.
The executions and trials were reportedly filmed and later reviewed by Hitler and his entourage. A version of these films was later combined into a 30 minute movie by Josef Goebbels and also shown to cadets at the Lichterfelde cadet school, but viewers supposedly walked out of the screening in disgust.
- Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler’s Death: The German Resistance to Hitler 1933-1945, 236
- Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler’s Death, 228
- Peter Padfield, Himmler, 419-424
- William L. Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, ch. 29
- Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis, 693
- Shirer ch. 29
- Fest, Joachim. Plotting Hitler’s Death: The German Resistence to Hitler 1933-1945. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996.
- Kershaw, Ian. Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris. W.W. Norton, 1998.
- Kershaw, Ian. Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis. W.W. Norton, 2000.
- Manvell, Roger and Heinrich Frankel. The Canaris Conspiracy: The Secret Resistance to Hitler in the German Army. 1969.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 05.26.2014, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.