What would have happened if Adolf Hitler had been assassinated in July 1944? Well, there was an attempt on his life, but the plot failed. Here, Nick Tingley looks at the story behind the plot – and how the twentieth century could have looked very different if it had succeeded.
You can read Nick’s first article on what would have happened if D-Day did not happen in 1944 here.
“The Führer, Adolf Hitler, is dead. An unscrupulous clique of non-combatant party leaders have used this situation and attempted to stab our fighting forcers in the back and seize power for their own purpose.”
At 7:30PM on July 20, 1944, Field Marshal von Witzleben sent out this directive as head of the Wehrmacht, effectively marking the start of a new era in Nazi Germany. Early that afternoon, at 12:42PM, a British made bomb had exploded inside a conference hut at the Wolfsschanze, Hitler’s primary Eastern Front Headquarters located near the small East Prussian town of Rastenburg. The explosion killed the Nazi dictator and several others who had attended the briefing, including Field Marshal Keital. Whilst the feeling on the ground was that the laborers who had built the conference barracks had built the bomb inside the structure, Berlin was beginning to send out reports that the SS and leading Party officials were behind the mysterious blast.
What followed next was a well-executed military take-over of Berlin, Paris and Vienna in which high profile Nazis and military leaders were arrested. The operation, under the command of a well-organized German officer, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, saw the chief of the General Army Office, General Friedrich Olbricht, rise to the role of de facto leader of Germany in what many saw as a return to the pre-Nazi Weimar politics that had effectively crippled Germany during the early 1930s. Although the German population didn’t know it at the time, Stauffenberg and Olbricht had just enacted a coup d’état, completely overthrowing the Nazi Party.
The war, which had begun to turn against Germany with the invasion of Normandy only a month earlier, was placed under the command of a group of ambitious officers who had effectively seized power in the Reich. German troops were immediately pulled out of France and back to the German Frontier and the new German government began sending messages to the Western Allies in an effort to sue for peace and prevent the inevitable occupation of Germany by Soviet troops. By September 1944, the war was effectively over and the Nazi regime had all but been eliminated.
But none of this came to pass.
There was an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944 and there was an attempt to seize control of the Reich by a group of German conspirators. But Hitler survived the explosion, escaping without so much as a scratch, and over the next few hours the German High Command worked diligently to bring the coup to a swift end. By the early morning of July 21, Stauffenberg, Olbricht and several other important members of the conspiracy had been shot dead and hundreds of others would commit suicide or be tried by kangaroo courts in the months that followed.
But when the question of assassinating Hitler had first been discussed by the conspirators, known widely as the German Resistance or “Secret Germany”, there was a feeling that the removal of Hitler and subsequent take over of Germany was a very real possibility. With the tide of war turning against Germany, many high ranking members of the army, including some of the most famous Germany military commanders, like Erwin Rommel, were willing to explore the option of a peaceful resolution to what was undoubtedly a vicious war. The disastrous Battle of Kursk on the Eastern Front in 1943 had already demonstrated that Germany could not hope to win the glorious war that Hitler had envisaged and many believed that defeat under the Führer’s command was inevitable.
From September 1943, the resistance movement made several attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The belief had been that, with Hitler gone, the way would be paved for Goering or Himmler to take control of Nazi Germany. Hitler had made many enemies in the Wehrmacht as he enforced a policy of refusing to allow the army to make tactical withdrawals from battles that they couldn’t hope to win. With Hitler removed from power, it was hoped that his replacement would be more tactful with his use of German resources and, as such, the war might be fought more wisely.
After various failed attempts to kill Hitler, Stauffenberg joined the conspirators and, by the end of 1943, had managed to persuade most of the resistance that the assassination of Hitler would not be enough. He reasoned that Hitler was, by all accounts, a moderate Nazi and that Himmler, one of the next in line to replace him, was far more extreme in his ideals of Nazism. The atrocities that took place under Hitler’s reign would almost have certainly been made worse by the rise of Himmler. Thus, he convinced the other members of the resistance that if they were to save Germany from annihilation, they had to not only kill Hitler, but also follow it up with a well-planned military take-over that would remove any possibility of Nazism surviving.
By June 1, 1944, the operation was ready to be launched. Its name was Operation Valkyrie.
Operation Valkyrie was already an established military plan. It was designed to ensure the continuity of government in the event of a general breakdown in civil order of the nation. The idea had been that, in the event of an uprising by foreign forced laborers or civil unrest as a result of Allied aerial bombing of German cities, the Territorial Reserve Army could be implemented to bring order back to the Fatherland without the need to interfere with or divert troops that were fighting on the front.
Stauffenberg, Olbricht and Major General Henning von Tresckow, another of the conspirators, modified the plan so that it could be used to take control of key cities, disarm the SS and arrest members of the Nazi leadership in the event of Hitler’s death. The operation was only to be activated in the instance of Hitler’s death on the grounds that every German soldier was required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Führer and it was believed that many would refuse to obey the orders as long as he was still alive.
The assassination was to take place at the Wolfsschanze. Stauffenberg himself, as chief of staff to the commander of the General Army Office in Berlin, was called on to give several briefings to Hitler and it was he who was to plant the bomb that would kill him. Stauffenberg’s superior, Reserve Army General Friedrich Fromm was flirting with the idea of joining the resistance movement and was aware of Stauffenberg’s plan. Whilst preparing for the assassination, the Resistance attempted to get Fromm on side as Operation Valkyrie could not be launched without his authority. But Fromm carefully refused to reveal his hand until he could confirm that Hitler was dead.
On two separate occasions, Stauffenberg prepared to plant the explosives but had to call off the mission at the last minute. On the first occasion, July 11, 1944, Himmler, who was now also considered a target, had not arrived at the briefing. When Stauffenberg phoned Olbricht for orders on how to proceed, the general decided not to go ahead with the operation.
Four days later Stauffenberg got his second chance and, to ensure that no one could back out, Olbricht issued orders for Operation Valkyrie using Fromm’s authority two hours before the scheduled meeting. As German troops advanced on Berlin and readied to take control, Stauffenberg prepared to set off the explosive. When he returned to plan the bomb, he discovered that Hitler had left early. With the Führer still alive, the operation had to be cancelled and Olbricht was forced to order the Territorial Army to quickly and inconspicuously retreat.
Finally, on July 20 1944, the operation was given the go ahead. Stauffenberg planted the bomb, in a brown briefcase, under the table right next to Hitler and made his excuses to leave. After insuring that a fellow conspirator, General Fellgiebel, would radio Olbricht with the news that the assassination had succeeded, Stauffenberg waited for the explosion before driving for the airfield to make a speedy return to Berlin.
Secret Germany Fails
The operation was doomed from the start. During the briefing, one of Hitler’s aides found that a brown briefcase was getting in his way. He picked up the briefcase and moved it to the other side of the heavy oak table beside a table leg. When the bomb exploded, the table leg shielded Hitler from the blast leaving the Führer with little more than tattered trousers.
Back in Berlin, the conspirators received mixed reports about the explosion. On the one hand, Fellgiebel had left a garbled message saying Hitler was dead. On the other hand, official sources were reporting that Hitler had survived. By the time Stauffenberg had arrived back in Berlin, Valkyrie had still not been launched. After hasty discussions, Olbricht implemented the plan under General Fromm’s authority. On discovering this, Fromm telephoned the Wolfsschanze and received the personal assurances from Keital that Hitler was very much alive and well. To prevent Fromm from exposing the plot, Stauffenberg had him arrested.
But it was already too late. The Resistance had already lost the initiative and, after a few small successes, it became evident that Hitler had the advantage. By the time of Stauffenberg and Olbricht’s impromptu execution in the early hours of the following morning on Fromm’s orders, Operation Valkyrie had failed.
Secret Germany Succeeds
But what would have happened if the operation had been a success? Would the new government of Germany have been able to reach a peace settlement? And what impact may there have been on the Cold War that came to dominate the world throughout the second half of the twentieth century?
In the first instance, we must look to the policies of the Allies at that time. The Western Allies were only just beginning to break out of Normandy and the Russians were making steady advances in the East. The Americans had committed to defeating Germany before turning their attention to the Japanese threat and the British were likewise attempting to protect their interests in that arena. It seems plausible that these two powers may have been willing to at least negotiate with the new German government for no other reason than it would allow them to focus their attention on the Japanese threat.
The Soviets, however, had lost a great deal in the fight with Germany and it seems highly unlikely that, regardless of any ideological change, Stalin would have allowed Germany to surrender so easily. Likewise the French, who had been living under Nazi occupation since 1940, would have been unwilling to allow the Western Allies to simply allow Germany to leave France without any serious ramifications. With the Russians refusing to allow peace, the war in Europe would almost have certainly dragged on.
However, such an event may have had a lasting impact on the history of the latter part of the twentieth century.
As the thought of Russian occupation was a lot harder for the Germans to stomach than an Anglo-American one, it seems likely that Olbricht would have gone ahead with his idea of pulling out of France to allow for a speedy advance by the Western Allies. If this had happened, the Western Allies would have gained solid control of Germany within a few months of Valkyrie’s success.
This scenario of a German occupied exclusively by the Western Allies would have predated the Yalta conference, in which the Allies carved up Europe for the post-war agreements, by a matter of months. One can imagine that the strenuous negotiations over the future of Europe may have swung in an entirely different direction had Roosevelt and Churchill been able to use the occupation of Germany as ammunition against Stalin’s desires for Eastern Europe.
The single act of assassinating Hitler could have prevented the Cold War from occurring or, just as likely, it may have caused a bitter feud that turned it very hot…
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And remember, you can you can read Nick’s first article on what would have happened if D-Day did not happen in 1944 here.