Events

Monday, August 3, 2009

20 July 1944: Failed Assassination Attempt Against Hitler

The bomb plot against Hitler is well known, and thanks to the popular media, even the details are becoming more familiar among the general public. The difference between success and failure was so slight as to be maddening. As distinguished historian István Déak recently summarized some of the points of the memoir by Philip von Boeselager, on which the recent film, "Valkyrie," was based:
Stauffenberg's plot, Operation Valkyrie, failed because he was half-blind and had only three fingers, which did not allow him to activate the detonators on both of his bombs. Also, the officers met with Hitler not in the Fuhrer's bunker but in a wooden building that easily flew apart at the explosion. Moreover, an adjutant inadvertently pushed the briefcase containing the bombs behind a heavy table leg: again, Hitler's luck. No less importantly, the conspirators in Berlin did not dare act without Stauffenberg's presence, and he brought the mistaken information that Hitler was dead. When the opposite turned out to be the case, the Fuhrer's legendary charisma triumphed even in his absence: those waiting to hear of Hitler's death before daring to act now quickly defected.
The film, whatever its historical and aesthetic failings, effectively conveyed something of the chaos in the wake of the event as plotters and regime supporters attempted to outmaneuver or overawe one another, and those caught in the middle kept their heads down and hedged their bets.

Historians find evidence of the same atmosphere even in the forgotten documents of daily life. Just one day after the event, a loyal German soldier, explaining that he had neither newspapers nor first-hand information, dashed off a Field Post note to his father, asking anxiously for details, e.g.:
  • Who was involved in the plot?
  • Who was wounded or killed?
  • What positions at HQ did the plotters occupy?
  • What were their plans in the event of a successful Putsch?
  • Who stood behind them?
  • What became of them?
The net that caught the plotters eventually swept up thousands of others, most not even remotely connected with the assassination attempt. A military truck driver in Kaiserslautern was arrested for sabotaging morale after he was denounced for having said, first in mid-July and then a few days after the coup: The war would soon be over (perhaps even in the coming week). The little people would then avenge themselves on those who had caused the war, and uniforms would no longer be permitted in Germany.

Ultimately, what continues to fascinate us most is not the drama and uncertainty of the course of events, but the moral certainty of the leading resisters. In the farewell letter to his mother, Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg wrote, "Perhaps the time will come one day when people gain a different appreciation of our attitude, when I will not be considered a scoundrel but an admonisher and a patriot."

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