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German Resistance in World War II: The July Plot of 1944

The conference room at the Wolfsschanze (“Wolf’s Lair”) in East Prussia after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler.

In 1944, World War II was fully underway: Hitler was in power, the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, and the Soviets were pushing against the Germans at the Eastern Front. Nevertheless, in the chaos of war, another event occurred that challenged the Third Reich’s power from within Germany itself: the July Plot of 1944, planned under the code name of “Operation Valkyrie.” German resistance, though not successful, was evident in the July Plot. It was a planned attempt by senior-level German military officials to assassinate Hitler and take over the government in an effort to preserve German values and culture from destruction in the war.[1] This plot, although unsuccessful, was used by Hitler as a promotion of his and Germany’s invincibility, while also marking the decline of the Third Reich.

Behind every movement is a leader. The leaders of the July Plot were many, including the retired colonel general Ludwig Beck, Major General Henning von Tresckow, Colonel General Friedrich Olbricht, and many others.[2] One of the plot’s most adamant supporters was Lieutenant Colonel Claus, Count Schenk von Stauffenberg, the man who eventually planted the bomb meant to kill Hitler. With Germany’s major defeat at Stalingrad at the hands of the Soviets taking place between 1942 and 1943, Stauffenberg and the other conspirators were increasingly dissatisfied, believing that Hitler’s leadership would lead Germany to destruction. For instance, in a meeting in which Stauffenberg was questioned about “who was responsible for withholding the urgently needed replacements from the field army [...] Stauffenberg jumped to his feet and shouted: ‘Hitler is responsible. No fundamental change is possible unless he is removed. I am ready to do it.’”[3] Stauffenberg, a nationalist who had supported Hitler in the beginning in the belief that Germany could be vindicated and restored to its former glory, now believed that the very leader he had supported was now the problem that needed to be “removed.”

Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg

Nevertheless, Stauffenberg did not officially join the other members of the July Plot until after his tour in North Africa. In 1943, Stauffenberg was sent to the 10th Panzer Division in North Africa to help guard Erwin Rommel’s retreat.[4] Stauffenberg lost his right eye, right hand, and two fingers on his left hand, yet he declared his wish to “save the Reich.”[5] He continued to insist that he wanted to kill Hitler and wanted to plant the bomb.

Finally, on July 20th, 1944, Stauffenberg left a bomb in a briefcase in the conference room at the Wolfsschanze field headquarters at Rastenburg, East Prussia, where Hitler was meeting with him and other German officers and staff.[6] Stauffenberg left the room early, witnessing the bomb’s detonation at 12:42 PM.[7] Believing Hitler to be dead, Stauffenberg flew to Berlin to initiate “Operation Valkyrie,” where, “in order to maintain law and order [...] the Reich Government [would declare] a state of martial law and [transfer] the executive power to [Field Marshal von Witzleben, Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht] together with the supreme command of the Wehrmacht.”[8] In other words, the military was meant to stage an uprising and place Germany under martial law, putting Stauffenberg and the others into positions of leadership within the military. Nevertheless, what the plotters did not know was that nothing had gone to plan.

For starters, Hitler was not dead. He had suffered small injuries, but had survived the blast very much intact. When Stauffenberg had left the room, another officer had accidentally nudged the briefcase into a different position. Furthermore, nothing had been done by the other conspirators until Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin.[9] By this time, news that Hitler had survived spread, and General Friedrich Fromm, who had known about and supported the plot, turned on the conspirators in an effort to prove his allegiance to Hitler.[10] Some, like Stauffenberg, were shot, others forced to commit suicide, while others were rounded up and tortured by Gestapo, hung with piano wire or meat hooks, or were sent to be denounced in the People’s Court at the hands of Roland Freisler.[11] Despite his efforts, even Fromm was eventually executed.

After the failed July Plot, Hitler became convinced that he had been spared for a reason, and took a firmer hold on Germany and its war machine, stating: “I am more convinced than ever that the great cause which I serve will survive its present perils and that everything can be brought to a good end.”[12] Rather than crushing Hitler and his regime in an assassination attempt, Stauffenberg and the others failed, instead reinforcing Hitler’s opinions about his indestructibility and success. However, it was only a year later that Hitler committed suicide in 1945.

Although the plot was a failure, it marked the decline of Hitler’s regime in that some of Hitler’s most senior military officials had turned against him. Hitler relied on his military to win the war and preserve the Reich. If the military officials were turning against him, it was a sign of the military’s distrust in his judgement, and an effort to protect German morals they believed Hitler was destroying. It is true that some of the military leaders in the July Plot, like Stauffenberg, were not in favor of a democracy and believed in creating something like a military dictatorship. They nevertheless trusted that they were doing it for the good of the German nation, a sign that Hitler and his reign were being perceived as a bad and destructive influence. With rising suspicion and distrust in the military ranks that Hitler so depended on, the Third Reich was, in fact, in decline. Even today, the July Plot continues to resonate, represented in films like Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg. The July Plot still demonstrates the importance of taking a stand for what is right, standing bravely against dictators and tyrants who would destroy all those around them, and emphasizing the need to question in the pursuit of truth and humanity.

[1] “July Plot.” HISTORY, Nov. 9, 2009. [2] “July Plot.” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 13, 2020. [3] Peter Hoffman. Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944. Vol. Third edition (Montréal, Québec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 152. [4] “Stauffenberg und das Attentat vom 20. Juli 1944.”, 2016. Translation mine. [5] Ibid. [6] “July Plot.” Encyclopedia Britannica. [7] “July Plot.” HISTORY. [8] Telex Message by the Conspiratorial Stauffenberg Group to the Holders of Executive Power (July 20, 1944). From German Historical Institute. [9] “July Plot.” Encyclopedia Britannica. [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] “July Plot.” HISTORY.


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