On July 20, 1944, with the Russians fewer than a hundred miles to the east and the Western Allies known by the Wehrmacht to be on the verge of a breakthrough in Normandy, a professional German army officer of great courage and determination, Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, left his briefcase in the hut at the East Prussia headquarters (Wolfschanze) where Hitler and his generals were assembling for the noonday briefing, and went out, ostensibly to make a telephone call. Minutes later a captured British-made explosive in the briefcase went off with a terrific bang, killing four officers but leaving Hitler physically more or less undamaged. It was Stauffenberg’s third try.
In Berlin, meantime, Stauffenberg’s fellow conspirators at the headquarters of the German Replacement (i.e., Reserve) Army on the Bendlerstrasse, Lieutenant-General Fritz Thiele and General Friedrich Olbricht, were waiting to set in motion the troops, seize the installations, make the arrests, and dispatch the messages calling for similar action throughout the shrinking German empire which would oust the Nazis and establish military rule by the Wehrmacht. But the news they now got from East Prussia seemed confusing, so they went out to lunch and did not get back until 3 PM.
Court Stauffenberg, not without luck and difficulty, got by the perimeter guards around Hitler’s headquarters and back to Berlin in a special plane which he had standing by. On arriving, he had some trouble getting a car, but in late afternoon arrived at the Bendlerstrasse, since renamed the Stauffenbergstrasse. Here, as chief of staff of the Replacement Army, he managed for a while to make things move. Two of the major Berlin radio stations were occupied, although, unfortunately, by men who did not know how to turn off the broadcasts. An officer was sent to arrest Goebbels, the highest Nazi currently in town, but was talked out of the action. Telexes were dispatched to the headquarters of the Wehrkreise (regional defense districts) into which Germany and Austria were divided and to Brussels, Paris, and Prague. These alerted the scratch forces there available to the regional military commanders and ordered the arrest of Gauleiters, top SS officers, Gestapo officials, and other inimical types. Unfortunately it seemed only proper that orders overthrowing a government should go out TOP SECRET, though it was hardly something that could be kept quiet for very long, and this meant major coding and decoding delays and, at the points of receipt, the need to find officers of sufficient rank to read them.
It was early evening before the messages were in hand, and by then most of the headquarters had shut shop for the day and the responsible officers were variously attending receptions, shooting dice, having a drink, or en route and unavailable. The Gauleiters had similarly bunged off. One was celebrating his tenth and visibly last anniversary in office, another was at a funeral, and Frank, the Nazi minister in Prague, was at a ceremony opening an SS training school, as was the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.