Though a notorious scheme to kill Hitler failed, the plot had stunning—if brief— success in Paris.
Paris was stuffy that day in late July 1944. Overhead, thunder cracked. Colonel Eberhard Finckh, deputy chief of General Staff West, was in his office near the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Élysées. His telephone had been ringing all morning, every caller demanding: “Send more munitions, more parts, more ammunition, more gasoline. Immediately!” Wearily, he picked up the handset again. “This is Finckh,” he said in his strong Swabian accent. After a pause, a voice said one word: “Übung”—“exercise”— and the line went dead. Finckh laid down the handset, opened his safe, and retrieved the plans for seizing Paris. He called Luftwaffe Lieutenant Colonel Cäsar von Hofacker. “Is everything ready for the exercise?” Finckh asked.
“Of course,” Hofacker replied. Finckh signed off and waited. The action was taking place five days later than planned, but it was on. Around 2 p.m., the phone rang again. “It’s done,” this caller said. “It’s done.”
“It” was the implementation of a plot by German military officers to blow Adolf Hitler to pieces and overthrow the Nazi regime. The plotters named their action “Operation Valkyrie” after the mythical figures who determined which warriors would live, which would die, and which would be brought to Valhalla. When the bomb that Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted at Hitler’s eastern headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, exploded at 12:45 p.m. on July 20, 1944, the blast triggered coordinated moves by like-minded Germans against the Nazi establishment in Berlin and in Paris.
The anchors of the Paris putsch were military governor of France Lieutenant General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel and the Luftwaffe man Hofacker, Stülpnagel’s subordinate and a cousin of plotter Claus von Stauffenberg.
Like many in the resistance, Hofacker had emerged from World War I a nationalist. He had passed through a period of bitter anti-democratic and anti-Semitic sentiment, and welcomed Hitler’s arrival. However, the brutal exploitation of occupied France had transformed Hofacker into a resister, though one markedly different from his superior and ally. Stülpnagel was an introspective intellectual; Hofacker a realist and man of action. Just the day before, he had told Stülpnagel and others that their coup had only a 10 percent chance of success but if they wanted to end the slaughter, they had no choice but to pursue the action.
Stülpnagel and Hofacker had many sympathizers, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, leader of Army Group B. But when an Allied aerial attack on Rommel’s car three days earlier left him incapacitated, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, commander of all German forces in the west, took over Army Group B. And Kluge was on the fence about the coup.
Finckh slowly hung up. He got in his car and drove past the lush parkland of the Bois de Boulogne, across Neuilly, past Fort Mont-Valérien, then along the Seine to Saint-Germainen-Laye, where a street lined with villas and patrolled by troops housed the General Staff West. At one of the villas Finckh reported to Lieutenant General Günther Blumentritt, a large and jovial Bavarian who had helped plan the Polish and French occupations and had taken part in Operation Barbarossa. Finckh told Blumentritt what was going on, disingenuously claiming the information came from Stülpnagel.
Blumentritt phoned Kluge at Army Group B headquarters at La Roche-Guyon, 45 miles northwest of Paris. Kluge’s chief of staff, Major General Hans Speidel, a Rommel intimate and the man who had facilitated Rommel’s connections to the coup, answered. Speaking in vague whispers, Blumentritt tried to alert Speidel, but Speidel either did not understand or was feigning incomprehension. Blumentritt ended the conversation and headed to the front to look for Kluge.
At 4 p.m. a phone rang at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, where Stülpnagel’s staff worked. Hofacker reached to answer. His cousin Claus was on the line. “Hitler is dead,” Stauffenberg said. Hofacker said goodbye and summoned a civilian friend and administrative advisor, Friedrich von Teuchert. “Hitler is dead,” Hofacker, bright-eyed, told Teuchert. “Maybe Himmler and Göring too. The explosion was massive. The putsch is under way; the government quarter in Berlin is being occupied as we speak.” Teuchert ran to give the news to Walter Bargatzky, a lawyer and administrator at the Majestic. Bargatzky already had heard, and the two threw their arms around each other. Their joy was short-lived, however; when they turned on the radio they heard that Hitler was injured but alive. Hofacker, Stülpnagel, and Stülpnagel’s chief of staff, Colonel Hans Otfried von Linstow, who was set to help implement the Paris uprising, heard the same news. They agreed to proceed with the action anyway, in hopes that they would be able to convince Kluge to surrender on the Western Front.
Stülpnagel told his orderly to summon his other officers, all of whom were with him on this crusade: Major General Eugen Oberhäußer, Stülpnagel’s communications chief; Dr. Elmar Michel, head of economic affairs; and Major General Hans von Boineburg-Lengsfeld, commander of Paris. As each arrived Stülpnagel gave him the code word. Everything was ready.
Finally Stülpnagel’s orderly asked, “What’s going on here?”
What was going on was nothing less than the resisters’ total occupation of Paris. Stülpnagel ordered all communications except his own with Berlin blocked. He then gave his most important order to Boineburg and handed him a fresh map.
Boineburg had his orderly, Second Lieutenant Dankwart von Arnim, summon Lieutenant Colonel Kurt von Kraewel, the boisterous commander of the 1st Regiment of Boineburg’s 325th Security Division. But Kraewel was nowhere to be found; he had donned civilian clothing and informed his driver he would call for a pickup. When Arnim reported this to Boineburg, the general choked. Arnim then fetched Kraewel’s adjutant, who had no idea where his commander was either. Boineburg ordered the adjutant to alert the regiment, prepare barricades, and distribute ammunition.
Two hours later, Kraewel reappeared, in uniform. In a tense meeting he saw Stülpnagel and received new orders. At 8 p.m., Kraewel and the regiment prepared to march. Accompanied by Boineburg and Arnim, they moved through lengthening shadows toward the grand Avenue Foch, residential and professional home in Paris of the SS and its intelligence arm, the SD.
AVENUE FOCH IS ONE of Paris’s widest, most exclusive streets, its posh houses made more private by parkland along access lanes that parallel the thoroughfare. Dr. Helmut Knochen, head of the SD, had his headquarters at No. 84; SD officers occupied Nos. 82 and 86. (See “Occupying Paris,” July/August 2014.) The avenue has a roundabout at either end. The southwest circle, adjoining the Bois de Boulogne, connects to the Boulevard Lannes, where Carl Oberg, Knochen’s boss and head of the SS and security police in France, had his offices at No. 57. Elsewhere on the boulevard, the SD billeted recruits. Along the rough L of the two thoroughfares clustered the core of Nazi terror in Paris: the Gestapo, the SD, and the SD’s feared police force. That night German soldiers would envelop them all.
At 9:30 p.m., a line of trucks transporting Kraewel’s 1st Regiment crept up Avenue Foch, where SS guards dozed at several doors. As Kraewel’s soldiers spread along the avenue, taking cover behind the park’s thick bushes and trees, shock troops commanded by Brigadier General Walther Brehmer advanced through the Bois de Boulogne. Boineburg was among them. At the Gestapo billets, lights were on, the imposing buildings quiet, a few sentries pacing out front.
At 10:30, Brehmer gave the order. The operation unfolded with absolute precision. A whistle pierced the night. Cars and trucks moved into position along the street. Another whistle. Hundreds of men hit the street at once and rushed the buildings. Disoriented, the sentries laid down their weapons; as one attempted to salute, he let off an accidental but ultimately harmless burst from his machine gun. Ordered by Stülpnagel to shoot anyone who resisted, officers and shock troops burst into the Gestapo billets. They dashed up staircases, kicked open doors, and screamed, “Hands up!” The troops herded their prisoners into the courtyard and loaded them onto waiting trucks. One convoy set off for a prison at Fresnes, south of Paris. A second convoy rolled toward the old Fort de l’Est in Saint-Denis, north of the capital.
As his men went about their work, Brehmer, pistol drawn, moved toward No. 57 Boulevard Lannes. He wanted to arrest Oberg personally. He found the SS leader in shirtsleeves at his desk, on the phone. Oberg jumped up and demanded that Brehmer explain himself. The SS in Berlin had launched a putsch, Brehmer said; he was there to place Oberg under arrest. Aghast and confused, Oberg handed over his weapon.
Outside, Kraewel’s units advanced along Avenue Foch. Rather than storm the three grand houses that held SD officers, Kraewel first seized the rooms of the officer on duty. On Kraewel’s order, the SD commander summoned his men to his office. As they arrived, Kraewel disarmed them. Kraewel’s troops flooded the building, arrested the remaining SD men, and locked down the three mansions.
The plotters had arrested the entire SS and SD contingents in Paris—some 1,200 men—without a shot being fired in anger. Only the senior SD officer, Dr. Knochen, remained at large. A junior officer explained that Knochen was out for the evening at a nightclub and offered to retrieve him.
When the underling arrived with his superior, Kraewel arrested Knochen, and the plotters corralled the SD chief with senior SS officers in the Hotel Continental. As midnight approached, men of the army’s 1st Security Regiment sandbagged the courtyard at their headquarters, the École Militaire. That was where Oberg, Knochen, and key SS and SD officials were to be executed after summary courts martial. In only a few hours, the plotters had neutralized the Nazi military and political machinery of Paris. The world’s most famous city was in the hands of the German resistance.
WHEN BOINEBURG REACHED Stülpnagel’s rooms on the fourth floor of the Hotel Raphael, the military governor was gone; he had been summoned along with Hofacker by Speidel to La Roche-Guyon in order to meet with Kluge. Colonel Linstow, Stülpnagel’s chief of staff, was running things at the Raphael. Linstow had set up a makeshift office in a room with a billiard table. Officers, mostly older men, were streaming into an adjoining room, where alcohol flowed in a festive atmosphere. The men spoke of the war ending, of Nazism’s demise, of returning home.
Next door, where the inner circle had gathered, the mood was entirely different. Stülpnagel and his closest associates felt a somber mix of emotions. They still hoped that their putsch would cascade into a German surrender along the western front and an Allied rush on Berlin.
At midnight, everyone went quiet. The Führer was to speak. As Goebbels’s shrill voice crackled through the radio, Arnim saw Stülpnagel enter. The general said nothing; his meeting with Kluge had not gone well. Stülpnagel had appealed to Kluge, who oscillated between embracing and condemning the putsch. When a message arrived insisting Hitler was dead, Kluge spoke sternly about the “historic hour” and with Blumentritt discussed a ceasefire on the western front. Then Kluge received a telex sent by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel from the Wolf’s Lair. Keitel had been in the conference room when the bomb went off, had helped rescue Hitler, and was standing firm against the uprising. Kluge about-faced, muttering about “a bungled assassination attempt.”
Stülpnagel, Hofacker, Boineburg, and Linstow moved toward the radio as Hitler spoke of a “small clique of ambitious, unconscionable, and criminally stupid officers.” Stülpnagel stood expressionless, wringing his gloves behind his back. The only question for him now was who would go down with him.
STÜLPNAGEL’S FIRST MOVE was to bow to the inevitable by releasing the men who had been arrested. He ordered Boineburg to do so and to bring Carl Oberg to him. While Boineburg, feigning bonhomie, was approaching the SS leader, Boineburg’s men were telling the prisoners at Saint-Denis and Fresnes they were free to go. Many, fearing a murderous ruse, refused to leave their cells. When Oberg arrived at the Hotel Raphael there was, to put it mildly, a certain tension, which was broken unexpectedly by Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to France.
Francophile, looter of Jewish property, and co-organizer of the Final Solution in France, Abetz by July 1944 had turned against Hitler, and now he was trying to save Stülpnagel.
“Do you want to know why the General arrested you and the SD?” Abetz asked Oberg. “He thought [the coup in Berlin] had something to do with some ambitious scheme of Himmler’s and wanted to keep you out of it. You cannot accuse the general of having broken his oath of loyalty. He simply, and in good faith, did what he thought was his duty.”
Abetz appealed for unity, and all raised champagne glasses as Stülpnagel stared dumbfounded.
Blumentritt remained at La Roche-Guyon, not departing for Paris until well after midnight. He visited naval headquarters, shook hands, patted backs, and casually dismissed the whole affair. Admiral Theodor Krancke, commander of Naval Group West, was threatening to use his men to free the SS and SD prisoners. Blumentritt told the admiral he, Krancke, had been the “victim of a misunderstanding,” then visited Knochen, who, with vengeful satisfaction, told the general that Oberg was en route to the Majestic.
“I’m just going there,” Blumentritt replied in an inspired stroke. “Come with me.” Blumentritt and Knochen got into a car with an SS man. As they drove, Knochen turned to Blumentritt. “We must get our stories straight!” the SD man said. That was just what Blumentritt wanted to hear.
In time, Blumentritt and Knochen arrived at the Raphael where in room 405 they found the heads of the SS and the army. Stülpnagel, Oberg, Boineburg, Linstow, Finckh, and Abetz sat at the table. Other men stood in groups chatting. Everyone was well lubricated. The only one missing was Hofacker, who had slipped into an adjoining room to destroy documents.
Oberg unconsciously echoed Knochen: “We must get our stories straight.” The more that emerged about July 20, the more likely Oberg was to come under suspicion. In hushed tones, he and Blumentritt outlined an agreement to present a united front, particularly to SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s people. Blumentritt then urged both sides to put the matter behind them. Oberg and Knochen made clear they would be good sports. They may have been acting out of soldierly solidarity or a shared sense of vulnerability, but the coup also had made them look like complete asses. A single security regiment had arrested Hitler’s finest before they could fire a single shot. The SS and SD had as much of an interest as the army did in a cover-up. Over dinner, Blumentritt took Stülpnagel aside and gently informed him of Kluge’s order to “keep away from your headquarters for three or four days until things have cleared up a bit.” It was an invitation to flee.
PARIS’S OPERATION VALKYRIE could not, however, go unremarked upon, and both sides needed to get on the same page. Blumentritt had a document drawn up to be read the next morning to troops in the capital. “The SS and army units in Greater Paris organized a surprise exercise with live ammunition,” the paper stated. “The exercise went well. I extend my thanks to all participants.” Below appeared the signatures of Oberg and Boineburg.
At 9 a.m. the next day, July 21, Stülpnagel received a summons to Berlin. He spurned the offer of an airplane, asking to be driven. The car, accompanied by troops, headed east past Verdun and the Meuse, where Stülpnagel had fought more than two decades before. Five miles north of Verdun, the general ordered his driver to stop, saying he needed a walk, and that the car should go on ahead. At the edge of the Meuse canal Stülpnagel knelt, put a pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger. The bullet severed the optic nerve behind his right eye and exited through his left eye. The soldiers accompanying him found him floating in the canal. Doctors revived him and sent him on to Berlin.
The Gestapo came for Linstow on July 24, for Hofacker the next day, and Finckh the day after. “What were you thinking? You have a wife and five children,” an interrogator barked at Hofacker. “What’s a wife and child to me?” Hofacker shot back, paraphrasing lines by the 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine. “This is about my Fatherland!”
National Socialist justice required that the army expel the plotters so the People’s Court could try them on criminal charges. This was done. Fanatic Nazi Roland Freisler, Hitler’s personal choice for a magistrate, presided over trials that began on August 7, 1944. The red-cloaked Freisler, arms flailing, face contorted with rage, screamed at the defendants, who conducted themselves with defiant dignity. When Freisler interrupted him, Hofacker snapped, “Be silent, Herr Freisler! Today it is my head that is at stake. In a year it will be yours!”
Freisler pronounced a sentence of death by hanging for Finckh, Hofacker, Linstow, Stülpnagel, and many others; in all, 89 were executed at Plötzensee prison, the first wave of a spasm of Nazi vengeance that would take many more lives and stiffen resolve in the army against any temptation to negotiate with the Allies. However, thanks to Blumentritt’s phony memorandum about that “live-fire exercise,” the fortitude shown by the few resisters arrested and tortured, and the determination of the rest to close ranks, many Paris putschists outlived the Nazi regime to wonder whether one of the war’s great “what ifs” could have gone another way.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.