July 20, 2008
The Day Hitler Should Have DiedBy Dylan Gwinn
Claus had to move quickly. The meeting with the Fuhrer had been moved up by a half hour due to an unwelcome visit from Mussolini. Timing was going to be crucial on this day, the 20th of July 1944. He had only hours to fuse 2 bombs, use them to assassinate the crazed ruler of Nazi Germany, then fly back to Berlin and initiate the rest of the coup that would deliver the Germany of his forefathers from the brink of catastrophe.
Location would be key as well. Hitler's "Wolfsschanze"(Wolf's Lair) had been built near Rastenberg in Eastern Prussia, so that the Fuhrer could more carefully direct and oversee the disaster befalling his army in the Soviet Union. Hitler had chosen this particular heavily wooded area because it offered great natural defenses against detection from aircraft and attacks from airborne infantry. However, today's attack would come from a place, and a person, that Hitler would not have suspected.
But, the late July heat was entirely too oppressive for the briefing to be held in the Fuhrer's bunker. Under the thousands of pounds of concrete, temperatures could reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit. After all, Heaven forbid the Fuhrer should have to withstand the fiery, cauldron-like conditions that millions of young Germans were facing as the Red Army poured in from the East, and the Americans and British from the West.
No, today's meeting would be held in the comparatively cool briefing hut, a pleasant alternative for Hitler, but not so good for Claus von Stauffenberg and his aid Werner von Haeften: The enclosed area of the bunker would have made the blast from their nearly 2,000 grams of Plastik-W all the more deadly, but the open windows of the ground-level briefing hut would allow the blast to dissipate in a way that would heighten Hitler's chances of survival. But that couldn't be helped now. As Claus and Werner continued preparing the bombs, they represented Germany's last chance before the inevitable fall they and their fellow conspirators had seen coming.
But, Count Claus Phillip Maria Schenk Graf Von Stauffenberg was no ordinary assassin. He was not bent on anarchy, ideological revolution, or a raw thirst for power. In fact, in many ways, the evolution of thought that turned this German nobleman into would-be assassin mirrored the emotional and psychological roller coaster of the German people themselves.
The third of three surviving sons of Alfred Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and Caroline Schenk Grafin von Stauffenberg, Claus was born at Griefstein Castle in Jettingen on November 15, 1907. As a von Stauffenberg, Claus was the scion of one of the most aristocratic and wealthiest Catholic families in all of Southern Germany. In his younger days, Claus had been very interested in the arts and literature. He had even contemplated careers in both music and architecture. But, in 1926 Claus joined his family's traditional regiment the Bamberger Reiter-und Kavallerieregiment 17 (17th Cavalry regiment) as a cadet officer.
In 1933, already a very successful soldier, Claus married Baroness Nina von Lerchenfeld, another child of Bavarian nobility. But, 1933 would prove to be a pivotal year for the von Stauffenbergs in more ways than one: Hitler became Chancellor and the Nazis took full control of the German state. As the Nazi's tightened their grip on power, Claus von Stauffenberg looked on in great interest.
Claus' aristocratic upbringing made him dubious of Hitler's modest background, and Claus would have much rather preferred a Germany led by German elites, like himself. However, like so many of his countrymen, Claus von Stauffenberg's patriotic zeal and strong desire to see a German resurgence after the humiliation at Versailles makes him at the very least willing to see where this Nazi revival would take them.
But sitting there, fusing the bombs that would send Hitler back to the fiery hell he came from, von Stauffenberg is proof of where the "Nazi revival" has taken them. Having served in Poland, France, Russia, and North Africa, Claus had a front-row seat to the horrible mismanagement of the German Army and brutal repression of the conquered peoples, which convinced him that Hitler was not only incompetent but also evil. The crushing defeat of the German Army in the Soviet Union had been the final straw. Now, with the Allies charging in from the West, Germany stood at the eye of the storm as the great armies of the world converged and prepared to devour her whole. Only these two bombs might prevent that.
"Mach schnell der Fuehrer ist hier. Die Treffnung faengt an!"
The shouted warning at the door breaks Claus' concentration. The Fuehrer was there and the meeting was about to begin. But, only one of the two bombs had been fused to detonate. It would have to do. For his cover, Claus had told the other officers that he wanted to change his shirt before the Fuehrer arrived for the meeting, his aide's help was understandable given Claus' loss of his left hand and two fingers on his right during his service in North Africa. But any further delay, especially with the Fuehrer already there, might raise suspicion.
Claus hands the unfused bomb to von Haeften, puts the fused bomb in a briefcase, and sets out alone on the 400-yard walk to the briefing hut. He walks briskly. The chemical fuse will allow him 10-15 minutes before detonation. In that time he will have to strategically place the bomb, excuse himself, and get far enough away to avoid injury.
Entering the small room, Claus sees that it is packed with Hitler and 23 others crowded around a huge wooded table. Claus moves into position a few feet to Hitler's right. His status as war hero, nobleman, and his position as Colonel and Chief of Staff to the Army Reserve make it easy for him to go places where others may not dare to go. Those credentials will also make him able to rally the German Army to seize power back from the Nazis after Hitler is dead, and negotiate some kind of peace with the Allies. But first, he must make Hitler dead.
Poring over maps of the Eastern Front, few notice as Claus places his bomb-laden briefcase on the inside of a large table leg. Satisfied, Claus tells a fellow officer that he must make an urgent call to Berlin. He then exits the room, leaving the fate of his country in a briefcase with 975 grams of high explosive. At 12:42 am, the briefcase-bomb explodes. Observing this from a safe distance of 200 meters, Claus sees a body, appearing to be covered in the Fuerher's coat, taken from the hut.
Having done all they can, Claus and Werner drive away using rank and skill to bluff their way out of the compound, and head to the airport. Werner tosses the second bomb out of the car window, believing that the first had done the job. This delusion would give them the only peace they would have for the rest of their very short lives.
You see, while few had taken notice of Claus placing the briefcase on the ground, one unfortunate German officer kept kicking the briefcase as he was standing in the crowded room. Eventually, he moved the briefcase to the other side of the huge table leg, resulting in much of the blast being absorbed by this huge piece of wood, and not by the leader of Nazi Germany. The body that Claus von Stauffenberg saw being taken out of the hut was one of the four men not named Adolph Hitler killed in the briefing hut. The Fuerher only suffered a sprained wrist, shredded pants leg, and a punctured eardrum.
But, Hitler makes good use of his remaining parts. At 4:30 pm, Claus arrives at Army Headquarters. Instead of confident men taking control, he finds his co-conspirators racked with fear and indecision. "Is he alive? Do you know for sure that he is dead?" Claus throws himself into righting the ship and maintaining discipline. But, it's too late. Starting at 5 o'clock there are various reports that Hitler has survived the attack. At 7 pm, Hitler himself delivers a message on State Radio.
Late that evening it is plain that the madman lives. By 10:30 pm loyal Nazi forces arrest Claus von Stauffenberg and all other conspirators at the headquarters. At 12:30 am, on July 21st, Claus von Stauffenberg is executed by firing squad, while crying out, "Es lebe unser heiliges Deutschland!"(Long live our Holy Germany!)
Twelve million more people would die in the ten remaining months of the war. How many might have been saved if von Stauffenberg and von Haeften had been successful? We do not know, but what we do know is that the history of Europe was forever altered on this day, sixty-four years ago, by a table leg.