Frank Johnson

The Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler failed — and a good thing too

The Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler failed — and a good thing too

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If only the assassination attempted 60 years ago last Tuesday had succeeded, we have heard all this week. But what was the conspirators’ idea of success? In particular, what did the awesome man whose sonorous name we have heard this week really believe? Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg was of his time and his class, we are told. What then was his attitude to, say, Slavs and Jews?

But first, to recount what happened 60 years ago last Tuesday. It is untrue that Stauffenberg and the other leading conspirators resolved to kill Hitler only once they knew that Germany was going to lose the war. They had long been anti-Hitler. By 1944, Stauffenberg, aged 37, was chief of staff to Colonel-General Fromm, head of the reserve army. Stauffenberg had been called from Berlin — to brief Hitler — on 20 July at Hitler’s eastern headquarters, the luridly named Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, now Poland. Stauffenberg rose early that day at his Berlin home. A staff car took him to a Berlin airstrip. A bomb was in his briefcase.

On arrival in East Prussia, he was driven the ten miles to the Wolf’s Lair. He had breakfast, and set out with the chief of defence staff, Keitel, for Hitler’s conference. Stauffenberg asked Keitel to excuse him for a moment, since he wanted to ‘freshen up’. In fact, he went to prepare the bomb for detonation and put it back into the briefcase. Nothing could now prevent it exploding ten minutes later.

Hitler returned their salute as they entered the room. Stauffenberg placed the briefcase under the table. He had told Keitel that, while awaiting Hitler’s order to speak, he might have to leave the room to take a call from Berlin connected with the briefing. He left the room and stood several yards away, smoking.

At the table a general was ending a briefing on the deteriorating situation on the Eastern front. Keitel, who liked these meetings to go smoothly, whispered irritably to a junior officer, ‘Where’s Stauffenberg? It’s his turn now.’ The officer went to look, but reported that he could not find him. This was later to set up a suspicion in Keitel’s mind. Another junior officer then made perhaps history’s most famous or fateful shift of an inanimate object. Finding that Stauffenberg’s briefcase prevented him standing comfortably at the table, the officer pushed it to the side of a heavy wooden support, thus protecting Hitler from the full blast.

The gist of the briefing officer’s remarks were eerily prophetic. ‘The Russians are pressing in towards the north with strong forces west of the Duna.... If our forces are not finally withdrawn from Peipussee [near the Russians] then we face a catastrophe.’ The bomb exploded. Keitel shouted through the smoke, ‘Where is the F