Claus von Stauffenberg is most associated with the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Stauffenberg and others were involved in a very dangerous mission as the July Bomb Plot had to work in its entirety if the conspirators had any chance of surviving. As it was, the plan failed and Stauffenberg, who had the principle part in ‘Operation Valkyrie’, was arrested and executed.
Claus von Stauffenberg was born on November 15th 1907. He came from an aristocratic family and was born at the family’s castle in Jettingen, Swabia. While a youth Stauffenberg developed a taste for literature. However, family history effectively dictated that he joined the army, which he did in 1926. He joined the regiment that he family was most associated with – the 17th Cavalry Regiment – and received his commission in 1930. The 17th Cavalry Regiment became part of the German 1st Light Infantry Division.
In November 1933, Stauffenberg married.
As was true with many German army officers, Stauffenberg was not a supporter of Hitler and at no stage in his career in the army did he seem interested in the Nazi Party. However, one event did determine that he was to follow Hitler in the early stages of World War Two. Pre-war, all men in the German military had sworn an oath of loyalty to Hitler – not to the Nazi state but to Hitler in person. To many, this was a very serious, almost physical, pledge and one to uphold without question. Stauffenberg was also swept along with the nationalistic tide after the quick victory in Poland and the equal success in the attack on Western Europe in Spring 1940. While senior army officers had expressed their doubts that Western Europe could be conquered with ease, Hitler proved them all wrong. In this sense, any resistance movement within the military itself was stultified simply because Hitler claimed to have a golden touch with military decisions – and the victories in Poland and Western Europe were used to support this boast. There was a planned army coup in 1938 but Hitler’s victory at Munich and the occupation of the Sudetenland ended this. There is little doubt that Stauffenberg was as impressed with the early military victories as most other German officers.
While the aristocratic and educated Stauffenberg may not have supported Nazi ideology, he had little love for the Poles as letters to his wife indicated. In one letter he referred to the defeated Poles as a “rabble” who needed to be “put under the lash”.
So what pushed Stauffenberg into outright resistance? The huge attack on the Soviet Union – Operation Barbarossa – in June 1941 was initially a great success. Once again, Hitler seemed to have proved his doubters wrong. What greatly angered Stauffenberg was the treatment of the Soviet people by the non-combatant arm of the Nazi regime. However, he also witnessed unacceptable behaviour by the German army that he reported back to his superiors. Stauffenberg held strong Catholic beliefs and believed in decency, treating others with respect etc. This for Stauffenberg was true even in warfare. His logic was that if there was no war, there would be no appalling treatment of other human beings. As Germany was at war, the only way to extract the country from this was to kill Hitler.
In 1943, Stauffenberg was transferred to North Africa to join the 10th Panzer Division with the rank of lieutenant colonel. On April 7th 1943, he was seriously injured by an Allied aeroplane that attacked his scouting mission. Stauffenberg spent three months in hospital recovering from his wounds but the attack had cost him his right hand, two fingers on his left hand and he had lost the sight in his left eye. Clearly incapable of a combat role, Stauffenberg became an administrator within the army. By September 1943, Stauffenberg was working in Berlin. One of his commanding officers was General Friedrich Olbricht – a member of the resistance movement – and he brought Stauffenberg into the ranks of the conspirators that also included civilians.
There had been a plan to assassinate Hitler in 1943 but this came to nothing. The success of D-Day on June 6th 1944 convinced Stauffenberg that the war was lost and that the sooner it was brought to an end the better for Germany. He defended his right to break his oath of loyalty to Hitler by claiming that resistance was part of “natural law”.
While a resistance movement of sorts had been in existence since the mid-1930’s, it had obviously not been successful. Stauffenberg decided that he had to make the movement more dynamic.
Stauffenberg had two great advantages over many. He had been promoted to colonel in June 1944 and appointed Chief of Staff to General Fromm, commander of the Home Army. Fromm was also a conspirator. This post meant that Stauffenberg would have to attend Hitler’s military briefings. His disabilities also made him a highly unlikely assassin.
On July 20th 1944, Hitler held a briefing at his military headquarters in East Prussia, the Wolf’s Lair. Stauffenberg managed to get a bomb into the briefing room but while the explosion killed four men and injured almost all the survivors, Hitler was only slightly wounded. Photos taken in the immediate aftermath of the explosion show a small plaster over the back of one hand. Hitler’s hearing also temporarily suffered as a result of the blast.
Stauffenberg had left the meeting having made an excuse that he had to make a phone call to Berlin. Having witnessed the explosion, he concluded that no one could have survived it and flew back to Berlin to put the second part of the plan into operation – taking over the key points on the city as laid out in Operation Valkyrie and to put the city in the control of the conspirators. However, there had been a fatal delay in decision making in Berlin by fellow conspirators and for two hours nothing happened.
At 19.00 on that day, Hitler spoke to the German people over state radio. It was only then that Stauffenberg realised that the plan had failed. He was arrested in his office in Berlin by fellow conspirator, General Fromm, who was trying to protect himself and show loyalty to Hitler. Fromm went through the motions of a court martial and Stauffenberg was found guilty of treason. He was shot at about 01.00 on July 21st. General Fromm ordered that Stauffenberg (and three others who were also shot) should be buried in a church in his uniform. The next day, SS men dug up Stauffenberg’s body, took off his medals and other insignia on his uniform and burned the body.
Four of his five children were placed in foster homes and were made to use new surnames.
In 1980, a Berlin road known as the Bendlerstrasse was renamed the Stauffenbergstrasse and a memorial was erected in the Bendlerblock – the offices where Stauffenberg worked and where he was arrested. The German government also placed a memorial in the courtyard where he was executed.