But the assassination attempt and the following coup d’état to overthrown the Nazi Government failed, and seven thousand people were arrested by the Gestapo in the investigation process. From those, almost five thousand people were executed.
I learned about the July 20th 1944 plot in 2008 when I watched a Tom Cruise movie called Operation Valkyrie. This is the name of the operation plan to be executed in case of a general breakdown of the government in Nazi Germany. This was just a part of Hitler’s assassination conspiracy, but it became the name primarily associated with the entire event.
So, in 2008, I watched this Tom Cruise movie, and I was intrigued about this act of German Resistance to overthrow the Nazi German government. Until that moment, I don’t think I have known any resistance story against Hitler and his party in Germany, and I remember that I started researching everything I could about it. I’ll be blaming the Brazilian school system for that.
Fast forward a couple of years, and here I’m living in Berlin when I remembered that movie and decided to watch it again. After the movie was over, I figured out that I could visit some of Operation Valkyrie’s critical locations in Berlin and share this story of resistance to fascism in the Second World War.
But before I start with the pictures, I have to explain a bit more about Operation Valkyrie and the entire July 20th plot.
A little of the history behind the July 20th plot
According to my research, people in the German Army plotting about overthrowing Hitler and the Nazi Party since 1938. Most of these plots and plans didn’t go anywhere due to the indecision of some generals and the lack of action against Hitler before the invasion of Poland.
In 1942, a new group started plotting an opposition to Hitler, led by Colonel Henning von Tresckow. During that year, Tresckow and Major General Hans Oster rebuilt a resistance network that included General Friedrich Olbricht, the head of the General Army Office headquarters at the Bendlerblock here in Berlin. He was a key recruit since he had control over an independent communications system to reserve army units throughout Germany. If there was a way to overthrown Hitler, the reserve army could be it.
In 1943, there was another attempt on Hitler’s life during an exhibition of capture Soviet armoury in Berlin, but it failed. Those failures demoralised that resistance network, but Colonel Henning von Tresckow continued trying to recruit senior army commanders and officers to his side. At the end of 1942, Olbricht and Tresckow planned on taking down Hitler on a visit to Smolensk by placing a bomb on his plane, but the bomb failed to detonate.
In the middle of 1943, the Second World War looked like it was turning against Nazi Germany. And the resistance network within the German Army was convinced that the best thing for the country would be the death of Hitler so that a new government would be formed and peace terms could be agreed on with the Western Forces. Also, this could prevent a Soviet invasion of Germany.
It was then that Tresckow met with Claus von Stauffenberg for the first time. Von Stauffenberg was severely wounded in the North Africa Campaign and, after the defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, he came to believe that the Führer’s assassination would be best for the country.
You might be asking yourself now, who were these people trying to depose Hitler? It seems like the majority of the people behind the July 20th plot was not so much pro-democracy.
They were conservative nationalists that carried some resentment towards Hitler and the Nazi Party. This happened because these conservatives were significant in the first years of the Nazi Government due to their political influence. Still, they lost this political power during the Second World War and were eager to regain it. Also, it seems that there was a fear of what might happen to them after the war was over. Since they were fighting in the war and turning a blind eye to the atrocities, their war crimes would be brought to justice.
The only exception to this seems to be on Claus von Stauffenberg since he considered the war crimes and atrocities caused by Nazi Germany to dishonour the nation and its military. But we can never be 100% sure about his motives.
Planning the Operation Valkyrie with Von Stauffenberg, Olbricht and Tresckow
Operation Valkyrie was the name of an operational plan from the Replacement Army that would be used in the event of a breakdown in law and order caused by Allied bombing of German cities and an uprising of slave labour from the occupied territories being used across many German factories. This plan was suggested by General Friedrich Olbricht as a way to mobilise the Reserve Army and take over the government as the final step of the coup against Hitler. For Operation Valkyrie to work, the conspirators had to add the commander of the Reserve Army, General Friedrich Fromm, on their side.
July 1944, Operation Valkyrie goes into action
On July 1st, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg was appointed Chief of Staff to General Fromm at the Reserve Army headquarters on Bendlerstraße; this new job was vital since it enabled Von Stauffenberg to attend Hitler’s military conferences wherever they happened. This would allow him the opportunity to kill Hitler with a pistol or a bomb.
Before the infamous attempt on July 20th, a few other ones were attempted and aborted. One of them changed the course of the plot, and it happened on July 7th when General Helmuth Stieff was supposed to kill Adolf Hitler near Salzburg. Stieff was unable to do it, and Von Stauffenberg decided to take action and manage the plot and kill Hitler as well. This is how Operation Valkyrie came to act as it did.
On the morning of July 20th, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg flew from Berlin to Wolfsschanze, the Wolf’s Lair complex built for the start of Operation Barbarossa. Von Stauffenberg had a military conference to attend, and he flew with a bomb in his briefcase and the goal to kill Hitler.
The conference began in the afternoon, and Von Stauffenberg asked to use a washroom to change his shirt since it was a scorching day. That was the excuse used to put the bomb into action and start the detonator, leaving him with ten minutes to place the device and leave the Wolf’s Lair.
This was a slow process for him due to war wounds that Claus von Stauffenberg carried. During the campaign in North Africa, he lost his right hand, two fingers on his left hand and an eye. So, preparing a bomb and changing his shirt in a tiny washroom wasn’t as simple as it could be.
After a few minutes in the conference, a planned phone call took Claus von Stauffenberg out of the room. After Von Stauffenberg prepared the bomb, he joined the meeting again and positioned the briefcase under a table close to where Hitler was standing. After leaving the meeting, someone must have moved the suitcase carrying the bomb slightly and placed it behind the table leg. It is presumed that this was done by Colonel Heinz Brandt, who was standing next to Hitler.
At 12:42, the bomb detonated and practically destroyed the conference room, killing the stenographer instantly. Everyone that was in that room was injured, and three officers died from their wounds later. But Hitler survived.
Without knowing that the plot had failed, Claus von Stauffenberg witnessed from afar the explosion, and the smoke going out of the conference room and assumed that Hitler was dead. He climbed into his car and went in the direction of an airfield, passing by three different checkpoints before taking a plane back to Berlin.
From 13:00 to 16:00, no orders to start Operation Valkyrie were issued, and nobody was 100% sure if Hitler was dead or not. An officer from Wolf’s Lair called the people at the Bendlerblock in Berlin and confirmed that Hitler was hurt but alive. But when Claus von Stauffenberg landed at Flugplatz Rangsdorf, he called his conspirators and confirmed that Hitler was dead.
From this moment, the coup started to fail, but General Friedrich Olbricht issued orders, to begin with, Operation Valkyrie even though Hitler was still alive. A hesitant General Friedrich Fromm got in touch with Wolf’s Lair and was informed that Hitler was alive and that the plot to kill him was traced back to the Bendlerblock and that he was in danger.
By 16:40, Claus von Stauffenberg arrived at the Bendlerblock. This was the time when General Friedrich Fromm changed sides and attempted to arrest Von Stauffenberg. He was restrained and held at gunpoint, with General Erich Hoepner taking over his duties.
Around the same time, Heinrich Himmler was made aware of the mobilisation behind Operation Valkyrie and took action against it. Since many officers believed that Hitler was, in fact, dead, the coup worked in some locations, including Vienna, Prague, Paris and even Joseph Goebbels was arrested.
By 19:00, Hitler was recovered enough to make phone calls, and he called Joseph Goebbels at the Propaganda Ministry, where Hitler managed to talk to Major Otto Ernst Remer, whose troops were surrounding the Ministry. After confirming that Hitler was alive, Remer was ordered to regain control of the situation in Berlin.
Major Otto Ernst Remer ordered his troops to seal and surround the area around the Bendlerblock but not enter the building yet. Remer gained control of the city in a few hours, and some conspiracy members started switching sides as the plot fell apart. General Friedrich Fromm was freed from his room, and fighting broke out everywhere at the Bendlerblock.
By 23:00, Claus von Stauffenberg was wounded and General Friedrich Fromm and Major Otto Ernst Remer had control over the entire Bendlerblock. The coup had failed, Hitler was alive, and the situation was hopeless for all.
With the goal of showing loyalty to Hitler and the Nazi Party, General Friedrich Fromm setup a court martial and sentenced Colonel Henning von Tresckow, Claus von Stauffenberg, Werner von Haeften (who was Stauffenberg adjutant) and Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim to death.
Ludwig Beck, who was supposed to be the head of state if the coup had worked, was arrested. He figured out the hopelessness of the case and asked for a pistol, and shot himself. His suicide attempt didn’t work, and he was then shot in the neck and killed by soldiers.
Major Otto Ernst Remer protested that the conspirators should be arrested with the court-martial ruling for execution, but he was ignored. By the early hours of July 21st, the four officers were executed in the Bendlerblock courtyard.
The Aftermath of a failed coup against Hitler
After the attempt on his life, Hitler was furious and demanded punishment from those involved in it. Heinrich Himmler leads the Gestapo to round up and hunt everyone who was connected with the plot. Investigations lead to revealing other actions to kill Hitler, and even more, people were arrested.
In the end, more than seven thousand people were arrested, and almost five thousand people were executed. Not necessarily all these people were connected to the plot. Still, the Gestapo used this occasion as permission to settle scores and execute people suspected of opposing the Nazi Government.
The first trials happened in August 1944, and Hitler ordered that those found guilty should be hanged like cattle and exterminated. Many took their own lives before trial. One of those was Colonel Henning von Tresckow, who killed himself after the failed coup with a hand grenade.
General Friedrich Fromm actions were exposed, and his execution of Claus von Stauffenberg didn’t win him any favours. He was arrested the day after the failed coup and sentenced to death. He was executed in Brandenburg an der Havel by firing squad after Hitler commuted his sentence from hanging into a more honourable death.
As a result of the failed July 20th plot, every member of the Nazi German Army, the Wehrmacht, was required to reswear his loyalty to Hitler. On July 24th, 1944, the military salute was replaced through the armed forces, and the Hitler Salute became the official salutation.
Exploring the Flugplatz Rangsdorf
I visited Flugplatz Rangsdorf, intending to document another history related to the July 20th plot to Kill Adolf Hitler. But it seems like I might be the only one that sees the historical value of this place. The is where Claus von Stauffenberg arrived after the failed attempt to kill Hitler.
This airfield located south of Berlin has been abandoned since the end of the Cold War, and it’s in ruins now. The Flugplatz Rangsdorf is closed to the public and its decaying buildings don’t show any sign of how important this airfield used to be back in the 1940s.
Visiting the Bendlerblock in Berlin
The courtyard where Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were executed now houses the Memorial to the German Resistance. It was opened in 1980, and its intention is to commemorate those members of the German Army who tried to assassinate Adolf Hilter in July 1944.
But there is more than just a memorial to the July 20th plot. This is a memorial to German Resistance in general, including the White Rose, the networks of Communists, and the Catholic Church’s activism, among others.
When you visit the Bendlerblock, you enter the building through Stauffenbergstrasse where you can see a wall with an inscribed text that says that this used to be the Supreme Headquarters of the German Army; on July 20th 1944, Germans organised an attempt to end Nazi rule and, for this, they sacrificed their lives. Also, a plaque on the wall commemorates this event with a wreath of flowers.
After that, you cross an archway that leads into a central courtyard where a statue of a naked man, created by Richard Scheibe, marks the place where the July 20th plot conspirators were executed. In front of the figure, there is a plaque with text in German that could be translated as:
You do not bear the shame.
You gave the great ever-watchful sign of repentance,
sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice and honour.
A visit to the Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof
After the executions, General Friedrich Fromm ordered that the executed officers be buried with military honours. The immediate burial took place in the Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof in Schöneberg, here in Berlin. But, by the next day, Fromm was arrested, and Claus von Stauffenberg’s body was exhumed by the SS, stripped of his insignia and medals and cremated, never to be found again.
Nowadays, there is a remembrance stone where Claus von Stauffenberg, Werner von Haeften, Ludwig Beck and Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim were buried and later moved into an unknown place.
The Bendlerblock in Berlin
Back in July 2020, I took my bike around town and visited the Bendlerblock and the Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof, looking for the monuments and memorials commemorating those who died trying to fight against Hitler and the Nazi Regime.
If you are interested in learning more about the July 20th plot and Operation Valkyrie, you should read German Opposition to Hitler and the Assassination Attempt of July 20th, 1944; Operation Valkyrie: The German Generals’ Plot Against Hitler; Valkyrie: The Plot To Kill Hitler. Also, it’s interesting to learn that the last known survivor of the July 20th plot, Philipp von Boeselager, only died in 2008.