Monday, August 24, 2020

Murdering Hitler

Murdering Hitler Excerpt 

Colonel Von Stauffenberg was engaged in a number of plots to kill Hitler. 

Stauffenberg in Berchtesgaden 1944, July 11
Location: Obersalzberg

Stauffenberg's next chance to put his bomb to use came on Tuesday, July 11. As the growing military crisis threatened the collapse of Germany's eastern front, Hitler called for an update on Stauffenberg's progress in organizing the fifteen new "blocking divisions." Hitler referred to them in this way because he believed they would block the Soviet advance, that they would somehow plug the holes that were expanding daily in the German defenses.

Hitler's attitude before this conference was indicative of his growing panic and vituperative treatment of his lieutenants. Things were going badly on all fronts, and Hitler typically placed the blame squarely on his generals and field marshals who were prudently advocating strategic retreat. Refusing to face reality, something no one around him would point out, he assumed Stauffenberg could create crack grenadier divisions from the worn-out veterans and raw recruits in the Replacement Army.

Stauffenberg went over his plans in his mind during the ninety-minute flight from Berlin to the small airfield in Freilassing, just north of Berchtesgaden. Inside his briefcase, under a fresh uniform shirt, was the bomb and timer fuse. He was accompanied by his acting adjutant, Captain Friedrich Karl Klausing. His regular adjutant, Lieutenant Werner von Häften (who earlier in the year had volunteered for a suicide attempt on Hitler's life) was too ill to travel.

On landing at Freilassing, Stauffenberg instructed the pilot of his Heinkel HE-111 not to wander too far from the plane because he might have to return to Berlin in a hurry; then he and Klausing got into a waiting staff car for the ride into the nearby mountains to Hitler's retreat.

At the Berghof, Stauffenberg, clutching the briefcase with his one hand, told Klausing to stay with the car and be prepared to race down the mountainside to the waiting aircraft if he exited the meeting without his briefcase. Stauffenberg's plan was to set the acid fuse timer, place the briefcase in the conference room, and leave as unobtrusively as possible before the bomb exploded. As the colonel walked up the terraced steps toward the main building, Klausing checked his watch. It was 1:00 P.M.

Inside the building, Stauffenberg left his revolver and hat on the table reserved for this purpose and entered the conference room carrying the briefcase. He set it down carefully under the conference table and listened to the proceedings.

Stauffenberg surveyed the room. His heart sank when he saw that Himmler was not present. Goring was there, but without Himmler Stauffenberg did not want to leave his bomb. He quietly withdrew from the conference room, knowing that the present discussion would continue for at least several more minutes. He started toward a bank of telephones, but first stopped at a nearby washroom where he splashed cold water on his face to ease his tension and rinse off the sweat streaming down his forehead.

Stauffenberg asked the telephone exchange operator to place a call to General Olbricht in Berlin. When the call went through the two conspirators conversed, using predetermined code words. Stauffenberg reported Himmler's absence and the two agreed to abort the assassination, at least until the next conference. Stauffenberg returned to the conference room and waited to give his progress report on the fifteen new divisions that Hitler was convinced would stem the Soviet advance.

At 3:30 P.M. Stauffenberg returned to the waiting car carrying his briefcase. Noting Klausing's surprise at seeing the briefcase again, he explained to him what had happened. Meanwhile, General Olbricht contacted the resistance members who had been waiting for the signal to begin the coup. Count Helldorf, whose Berlin police forces were poised to arrest leading Nazis, and the officers of the Ninth Infantry Reserve Regiment at Potsdam, who were to lead their troops into the government center in Berlin and isolate it from the rest of the city and country, were told to stand down and await further instructions.

That evening Stauffenberg met with coup leaders in Berlin, including Generals Beck and Olbricht. The conversation focused on what should be done at the next conference if Himmler was not present again. While some saw the need to wait until both Himmler and Hitler could be killed at the same time, others disagreed, saying there was too little time left in which to act before Germany was totally destroyed. They insisted the bomb must be set at the next meeting, whether Himmler was present or not. In the end, no firm decision was reached either way. They would wait to see what happened at the next conference. If Himmler was absent again, Stauffenberg should call Olbricht's office for instructions.

Stauffenberg at the Wolfschanze 1944, July 20
Location: Briefing room

The next few days were dark ones for the resistance. On Sunday, July 16, Stauffenberg received news that General Alexander Falkenhausen, military commander in Belgium and northern France, and a supporter of the coup, had been dismissed. The following day news arrived that Rommel had been severely injured and hospitalized. Although Rommel was not a member of the resistance, Stauffenberg had hoped he would come over once Hitler was dead, especially since he made no effort to hide his pessimism about Germany's future from Hitler, who now brushed off his one-time favorite as a "coward."

On 18 July, Stauffenberg received a report that the Gestapo had been ordered to arrest Gördeler, a key member of the resistance and the man designated to be Germany's new Chancellor. He warned Gördeler and told him to go into hiding. Reluctantly, Gördeler left Berlin for Westphalia.

Tense meetings were held between Stauffenberg, Beck, Olbricht, and other coup conspirators at his residence at No. 8 Tristanstrasse, Wansee. It was finally decided that they no longer wanted to endure the tension of waiting for news of Himmler's presence at one of Hitler's conferences. Things were getting out of hand. Hitler had to be eliminated at all costs.

Stauffenberg was instructed to set his bomb at the next meeting, no matter who was there, as long as Hitler was in the room.
On 19 July, General Heusinger was at Hitler's conference reporting that the Soviets were breaking through all along the eastern front. He told Hitler that additional troops were needed if the Germans had any hope of halting the Soviet advance, and he asked how many men the Replacement Army could provide for this purpose.

Field Marshal Keitel interrupted with a suggestion that Colonel Stauffenberg attend the following day's conference to provide "facts and figures" about the combat readiness of the fifteen new grenadier divisions he had been ordered to organize.
Hitler rose to his feet, terminating the conference, and said, "Good, send for Stauffenberg tomorrow."

Colonel Stauffenberg worked late into the evening of 19 July 1944, making last-minute updates to the operation tables for the fifteen divisions Adolf Hitler had ordered him to create from the military rubble of the Third Reich. It was not a successful undertaking. With increasing frequency in the past two years, Hitler had prescribed imaginary divisions created out of thin air, largely by reducing existing divisions to half their assigned strength and forming additional units with the overflow.

He must have known that the next day the "dirty work" would definitely be done. The decision was now reached that the bomb would be set whether Himmler was present or not. There would be no telephone calls seeking instructions from superiors; he would do it.

Secure in his Wolf's Lair headquarters deep in the East Prussian forest at Rastenburg, Hitler was awake until past 2:00 in the morning. Typically, his practice was to engage in animated conversation with aides until well past midnight and sleep until late in the morning, which is why the "morning military conference" seldom began before 2:00 P.M. On this night he left instructions that he should be awakened at 9:00 A.M., an unheard of hour for the Führer; however, he was expecting Mussolini in the afternoon and his "morning military conference" was actually scheduled for late morning.

Daybreak on 20 July 1944, carried with it a promise of oppressive heat and later, w hen he entered the room, Stauffenberg must have realized the bomb he was carrying might not be sufficient for the job. Instead of a solid concrete structure in which these conferences were usually held, this building was constructed of wood and contained several large windows that were open to allow a summer breeze in. Stauffenberg had expected a solidly built conference chamber that would contain the blast and increase the force of the explosion, but now it was obvious that the wood walls and windows of the room being used would allow at least a portion of the blast to escape the room, reducing the damage it would inflict to those inside.

A massive oak table on which several military maps were spread occupied a large portion of the 18-by-40-foot room. Close to either end of the table were thick oak supports practically the width of the tabletop. Over two dozen men stood in place around the table, with Hitler himself standing near the center, his back to the door and facing the open windows.

Stauffenberg, satisfied that his briefcase was placed under the table as close to Hitler as he could get it, and possibly fearing that the unseasonably high temperature could accelerate the chemical reaction and detonate the bomb prematurely, quietly informed Keitel, "Herr Field Marshal, I have to make an urgent call to Berlin." Keitel nodded his permission and Stauffenberg unobtrusively left the meeting. Stauffenberg's departure attracted no particular interest, since officers were constantly entering and leaving the conference room for a variety of reasons.

General Adolf Heusinger was summing up the situation in East Prussia. Just as he said, "If the Army Group does not withdraw from Lake Peipus, a catastrophe will. . . " at 12.42 p.m., a violent blast hurled everyone to the floor, setting fire to hair and uniforms. Over the bedlam several officers could hear the ever-faithful Keitel, unhurt by the blast, calling out, "Where is the Führer? Where is the Führer?" General Heusinger, who was momentarily knocked unconscious, came to and found himself on his back next to Hitler, who was also unconscious. Heusinger crawled to the door and managed to drag himself painfully into the hall, where several officers and men helped him exit the building. His uniform, face, body, and legs were burned, and both ear drums had been broken. His right arm and hand bled profusely from numerous splinters that had been launched into the air when the table was ripped apart by the bomb.

Keitel groped his way through the thick smoke and dust, past wounded men crying out for help, until he found the Führer just regaining consciousness. The Field Marshal helped Hitler to his feet; the latter's pants had been shredded. Hitler looked at Keitel with a dazed expression, then collapsed into his arms. He was carried to his quarters where a doctor dressed his wounds, which turned out to be superficial.

Others in the room were not so lucky. Hitler's stenographer, Heinrich Berger, had both legs blown off and died a few hours later. General Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler's adjutant, lost a leg and died in a hospital on October 1. Two days after the blast General  Günther Korten, Chief of Staff for the Luftwaffe, and Colonel Heinz Brandt died of their wounds. Everyone's uniform was burned or tattered, and most received wounds that required a stay of several days in the hospital at Rastenburg.

Investigators later concluded that had the explosion occurred inside the Bunker-like structure usually used for these conferences, everyone in the room would have been killed, many of the bodies unrecognizable from the blast and fire. When it was learned that Stauffenberg and Häften had a second bomb identical to the first, most investigators agreed that no one could have survived if both bombs had exploded simultaneously. Once again, Hitler had cheated death.

At Wolf's Lair men were beginning to piece together what had happened. Everyone in the conference was accounted for except Colonel Stauffenberg, who it was quickly learned had sped away immediately following the explosion. When it was found that Stauffenberg's H-111 was airborne, a hurried call was placed to Luftwaffe headquarters in Berlin with orders to scramble a fighter squadron to shoot down a westbound H-111 bearing the identification number of Stauffenberg's plane. The fighters never took off. It is believed that the order was suppressed by Major Friedrich Georgi, General Olbrich's son-in-law on the air staff, who suspected it had something to do with his father-in-law's coup.

If Stauffenberg could have delegated an alternate to plant the bomb while he stayed in Berlin, the coup would have gotten off to a better start; but during this time of indecision the one man who would have been decisive, and who had the respect of all the plotters, was out of touch on the return flight from East Prussia. On the other hand, had this coup been as well organized as the 1938 attempt, it might have succeeded despite Hitler's survival of the Wolf's Lair explosion.

Meanwhile, some basic assumptions were emerging at Wolf's Lair. Once it was determined that the bomb had probably been set by Stauffenberg, the assassination attempt was thought to be the act of a single individual. It did not apparently occur to anyone that the bombing might have been part of a conspiracy. In fact, Hitler himself was the likely author of the single assassin theory. Not until nearly 4:30 P.M. when Hitler lifted his communications blackout and word was received that Operation Valkyrie was in progress, did anyone suspect that a coup attempt was related to the bombing. Until now nothing was done to safeguard the Nazi regime against a coup because none was suspected. Now Himmler entered the investigation, calling on his Berlin Gestapo headquarters to find out what had happened and who was involved. Meanwhile, considerable time had passed, and neither side had actually made any significant headway.

During the next few hours a communications battle was waged between Wolf's Lair and Stauffenberg at the Bendlerstrasse. From Wolf's Lair came regular reports that Hitler was alive and well. Using the telephone and teleprinters at his command, Stauffenberg countered with denials and issued fresh orders for the arrest of all SS and SD members throughout the Reich and the occupied territories.

General von Hase, the City Commandant, had ordered the Grossdeutschland Battalion to surround and seal all entrances and exits to a list of government buildings, including several housing the SS. The battalion was commanded by a young officer, Major Otto Remer, who had a distinguished combat record but whose loyalties had not been determined.

Major Remer followed orders; he surrounded the buildings he had been assigned and set up roadblocks around the government quarter. So far these were the only troops at the disposal of the coup. The police were held in readiness by Count Helldorf, who waited for instructions that never came.

A liaison officer between Remer's battalion and the Propaganda Ministry became suspicious of the orders and slipped off to see the Propaganda Minister, Josef Göbbels, in his apartment on the Hermann-Göringstrasse. When informed of the army's activities and the rumor that Hitler was dead, a shocked Göbbels agreed that Remer should be brought to him.

After some soul searching about his responsibility as an officer, Remer decided to answer Göbbels's summons. Following a brief discussion during which Göbbels ascertained Remer's loyalty to the Führer, he called Wolf's Lair. His call went through with no trouble, demonstrating once again the fatal error on the part of the conspirators of failing to close down even civilian communications within Berlin.

Göbbels explained the situation in Berlin, as he now knew it, to Hitler, and handed the phone to Remer. This single brief telephone conversation was the turning point in Berlin, and it spelled ultimate disaster for the coup. Hitler told Remer that a failed attempt had been made on his life. He placed Remer in charge of all troops in Berlin and instructed him to arrest anyone involved in the coup, and to shoot all who resisted him.

This was an intoxicating moment for the young major. Hitler had made him his personal military representative in Berlin, responsible to the Führer only. If Remer had been part of the resistance, perhaps it might have had a better chance at success. Remer immediately recalled his own troops and took control of all other units the coup leaders had ordered into the city. He then surrounded the Replacement Army headquarters on the Bendlerstrasse, signifying to anyone who cared to took that the coup against the Nazi government had failed.

Major Remer surrounded the Replacement Army Operations Center at the Bendlerstrasse, and even worse, Himmler was en route to Berlin to take command of all troop formations in the city and to deal with the traitors.

Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators, Häften, Olbricht and Mertz von Quirnheim, were arrested and taken to the inner courtyard of the Bendlerstrasse Headquarters where a firing squad was waiting. Several cars and trucks had been drawn in a semicircle with their lights focused on the row of sandbags where the condemned men stood silently. Seconds before the shots were fired, Stauffenberg shouted, "Long live holy Germany". In a final act of loyalty, Häften threw himself in front of Stauffenberg, who was merely wounded by the first round. A second volley was needed to finish him. The soul of the conspiracy against Hitler died at 12:30 A.M., 21 July 1944.

Before the second round of executions could be carried out, they were stopped by SS Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who was acting as Himmler's personal representative, and SS Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, Himmler's choice to command the Replacement Army. They wanted prisoners who could be interrogated, not corpses.

At exactly 1:00 A.M., 21 July, Hitler broadcast a speech that was carried throughout occupied Europe. In his harsh, flat voice the Führer announced the unsuccessful attempt on his life: "Men and women of Germany, I do not know how many times there have been plans and attempts to assassinate me. If I speak to you today it is, first of all, in order that you should hear my voice and know that I am unhurt and well, secondly that you should know of a crime unparalleled in German history".

Hitler went on to identify Stauffenberg as the intended assassin of the Führer and high-level German military leaders. He called the conspirators a "small clique of ambitious, unscrupulous, and at the same time criminal and stupid officers". He compared them with the anonymous cowards who had stabbed the German army in the back in 1918. To emphasize that the plotters had not infected the army with their poison, he assured his listeners that "this circle of usurpers is very small and has nothing in common with the German Wehrmacht". They were, he went on, "a tiny gang of criminal elements that will be ruthlessly exterminated".

Hitler then described the measures he had taken to excise what he called "this tiny clique of traitors". Himmler was made Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army and charged with punishing the conspirators. "This time we are going to settle accounts with them in a manner to which we National Socialists are accustomed". These were chilling words for the conspirators. They knew exactly what Hitler had in store for them. Death would be a slow, torturous agony for the men who had plotted Hitler's death and the destruction of the Nazi government.
Hitler told Joachim von Ribbentrop: "I will crush and destroy the criminals who have dared to oppose themselves to Providence and to me. These traitors to their own people deserve ignominious death, and this is what they shall have. This time the full price will be paid by all those who are involved, and by their families, and by all those who have helped them. This nest of vipers who have tried to sabotage the grandeur of my Germany will be exterminated once and for all".

Members of the SS were never seriously recruited into the 20 July plot, most often since the SS had sworn a personal oath to Hitler that included service above life itself. Therefore, SS members were not considered reliable conspirators for an attempt to kill Hitler. One very notable exception was Arthur Nebe who was implicated in the plot due to his anti-Nazi feelings even though he was a full member of the SS and had even commanded an Einsatzgruppe. Nebe's "fall from grace" was considered due to his many years as a civilian police detective and how he saw most the SS security police as incompetent. Nebe himself was quoted, upon investigating the death of Reinhard Heydrich, that the Gestapo seemed more concerned with reprisals than actually investigating the crime. Even so, Nebe's exact fate after the bomb plot remains unclear to this day. Most reports state he was executed; however, alternate theories suggest Nebe escaped Germany under an assumed name with reports placing him in Ireland as late as 1960.

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