At 12:42 p.m. on July 20, 1944, a massive explosion destroyed a conference room at Wolfsschanze (“Wolf ’s Lair”), Adolf Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler’s miraculous survival of the assassination attempt has long been seen as one of the most agonizing near-misses of the war. Many have argued that but for the tiniest quirks of chance, Hitler would have died that day, the war in Europe would have ended nearly a year sooner, and millions of lives would have been saved.
But there is a counterintuitive and surprisingly strong case that even if Hitler had been killed in the July 20 blast, the coup it was to have set in motion would have failed—and Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command, and Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS and Gestapo, would have emerged firmly in control of a Nazi regime every bit as fanatical and determined to fight on as the one the führer himself created and led. Consider the following scenario:
As soldiers rush into the conference room to pull survivors from the rubble, only four men know for sure what has taken place. Two of them, Gens. Helmuth Stieff and Erich Fellgiebel, are high-ranking members of the OKH, the high command of the Wehrmacht. The third is Lt. Werner von Haeften, aide-de-camp to Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, chief of staff of Germany’s Replacement Army. The last is Stauffenberg himself. All four men are part of the conspiracy aimed not only at killing Hitler but also toppling his regime and negotiating an end to the war before Germany’s complete destruction.
Stauffenberg had placed his briefcase, containing a time bomb, beneath a large oak table only a few feet from Hitler, then quietly excused himself on the pretext of making a phone call. Within moments of the blast, he and Haeften had leapt into a Mercedes that sped them to a nearby air field, where a plane waited to take them on the 350-mile flight back to Berlin.
Stieff and Fellgiebel remain at Wolfsschanze. Stieff ’s role in the plot is complete—he provided Stauffenberg with the two pounds of explosives needed to create the bomb—but Fellgiebel’s role is just beginning. With Hitler dead, his task is to alert the conspirators in the German capital that the assassination has succeeded. As chief of army signals, he is ideally positioned to do so. To his astonishment, however, Field Marshals Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, both of whom survived the blast, immediately order a complete communications blackout. Only calls to Göring and Himmler are permitted.
In Berlin, Gen. Friedrich Olbricht waits impatiently for word on the assassination attempt. As chief of the General Army Office, he is the conspirator best positioned to transform the event from simple tyrannicide to coup d’état. Ironically, the individual who did the most to place Olbricht in this position was Hitler himself. Months before, Olbricht persuaded Hitler of the danger of an uprising by the millions of foreign laborers and prisoners of war within the borders of the Third Reich. Such an uprising could be quelled, he pointed out, by using the Replacement Army, a reserve force consisting of trainees, cadets, and soldiers who were lightly wounded or on sick leave. Hitler accepted Olbricht’s proposal and approved a contingency plan to foil an uprising. The plan is code-named Operation Valkyrie.
Since then, Olbricht and the other conspirators have recrafted Valkyrie into a plan to neutralize SS and Gestapo installations and capture communications facilities. The plotters have decided their best chance of success is to persuade military commanders and the German public that a cabal within the SS and Gestapo has assassinated Hitler and that their coup is in reality a countercoup. By the time the true story emerges, they will have a new government in place and will have secured the backing of the army leadership. Former chief of staff Ludwig Beck, still much respected by the officer corps and one of the original members of the conspiracy, is to serve as head of state, with Olbricht as minister of war and Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben as head of the German army.
Stauffenberg’s appointment as chief of staff of the Replacement Army was a stroke of luck. This not only gave him direct contact with Hitler, but allowed him, along with Olbricht, to place many sympathetic officers in key positions.
Although Olbricht knows the approximate time the bomb should have gone off, he cannot act until he hears for certain that the assassination has taken place. He orders several attempts to contact the Wolfsschanze. None get through until 3:00 p.m.; even then, the officer who answers indicates only that an explosion has occurred, saying nothing about whether the führer has been killed or even wounded. But since the bomb clearly has been detonated, Olbricht and Beck agree that Valkyrie must be set in motion.
Olbricht contacts fellow conspirator Lt. Gen. Paul von Hase, the city commandant in Berlin. Hase sends a battalion to sur round a number of key government buildings. Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf, the Berlin police president and fellow Valkyrie conspirator, is told to place his force in readiness to arrest high-ranking Nazi officials. Olbricht himself arrests Gen. Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Replacement Army. Soon thereafter a carefully prepared message is sent out from Berlin over Witzle ben’s signature, announcing that subversives within the SS have killed Hitler, the army has taken control, and it has begun the arrest of SS security forces in Berlin.
Almost nothing goes right. Helldorf ’s police make no move to arrest the high party officials. The message announcing the countercoup is sent out classified top secret, so that instead of flashing around the country, the cover story takes literally hours to be decrypted and understood. The place that decodes the message most efficiently is the headquarters at Wolfsschanze. The more the conspirators try to put their coup in motion, the more their blizzard of dispatches reveal to Hitler loyalists their activities and ultimate purpose.
Most fatally, thirty-one-year-old major Otto Remer now almost single-handedly wrecks the last hope for the coup’s success. It is Remer who commands the battalion Hase had sent to surround the government buildings. At first he follows Hase’s orders, but one of his officers becomes suspicious and goes to see Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. Goebbels says he has heard nothing of the assassination attempt, but a call to Wolfsschanze convinces him that his beloved führer is dead, and the murderers are at that moment trying to seize control of the Third Reich.
Goebbels quickly summons Remer and explains the situation. He puts Remer on the line to Keitel, who orders Remer to take charge of all forces in Berlin, arrest the leaders of the coup (whose own messages have revealed that they are concentrated at Office of the Army headquarters on Bendlerstrasse), and shoot anyone who tries to stop him. These instructions, not Hase’s, are the ones Remer now vigorously obeys. He promptly surrounds the Bendlerstrasse headquarters. By 10:30 p.m. an SS unit arrives to relieve him. Within two hours, Beck, Olbricht, Stauffenberg, and Haeften are dead. The roles played by Stieff, Fellgiebel, and Witzleben are soon discovered, and within weeks they too have paid with their lives. So do some five thousand others involved—or imagined to be involved—in the conspiracy.
This scenario departs from historical reality in only three major respects. The July 20 blast left Hitler only slightly wounded. It was Hitler himself, not Keitel and Jodl, who ordered the communications blackout. And it was he, not Keitel, who ordered Remer to stop the coup.
But it strains credulity to believe that Keitel or Jodl—both of whom, as Hitler stalwarts, had also been intended targets of the time bomb—would have reacted any differently than did Hitler himself, or that Remer ultimately would ever have followed orders from the plotters.
The Valkyrie conspirators quite rightly recognized that Hitler retained a strong hold on the loyalty of the German people; for that reason they believed they could succeed only by portraying themselves as Hitler’s avengers, using that bluff to buy enough time to gather the reins of power. They also rightly feared the police state created by Heinrich Himmler—hence the emphasis on seizing SS and Gestapo facilities. Most of all, they counted on the unquestioning obedience of the German officer corps, particularly at the junior level, to carry out whatever orders it received. But as Remer demonstrated, to their extinction, that unquestioning obedience was a double-edged sword.