Early on the morning of 20 July 1944 Stauffenberg again flew to
Hitler's HQ in East Prussia with the intention of killing Hitler.
Nearly all the principle conspirators were informed about the imminent
assassination attempt and warned to be on the alert to fulfill their
assigned roles. Since the briefing at which Stauffenberg would
have the opportunity to set off his bomb was scheduled for 13.00, no
one expected any thing to happen before that time.
In the Wolfschanze
however, the daily briefing was moved forward by half an hour due to
the expected arrival of Mussolini. Stauffenberg activated the fuses on
the bomb in one of his briefcases, placed this bomb under the briefing
table close to where Hitler was standing and then slipped out of the
briefing hut on the pretext of making a phone call. Shortly after
12.40 an explosion took place. Stauffenberg immediately bluffed
his way past the guards controlling the lock down of Hitler's HQs.
He made it aboard the waiting aircraft and took off, just moments
before all aircraft at the field were grounded. He had succeeded
in detonating a bomb in the room where Hitler was standing and in
escaping the Wolfschanze
with his life, but he had had no opportunity to telephone with Berlin. He was incommunicado until he landed.
General Fellgiebel, the man responsible for informing Olbricht about a
successful assassination and then cutting Hitler's HQ off from the
outside world, however, learned what Stauffenberg had not waited to
find out: that Hitler had survived the blast. When Fellgiebel tried to
pass this word on to the conspirators in Berlin, he discovered that
someone else, the Deputy Commander of Hitler's HQ, had already taken
control of all communications to and from the Wolfschanze
Thus, it was not until 15.00 that the first news of an "incident" at
Hitler's HQs reached the Bendlerstrasse. Olbricht requested more
information and at about 15.30 was informed that an explosion had taken
place in which several officers were severely injured. According
to one version of events the cryptic message passed to Olbricht by his
fellow-conspirator General Fellgiebel was: "Something terrible has
happened. The Führer lives!" In short, the only thing that
was clear to Olbricht by 15.30 on the afternoon of 20 July 1944 was
that the assassination had failed. It was not clear, whether
Stauffenberg had been killed in his own attempt or had survived the
blast only to be arrested. This put Olbricht in a terrible
dilemma. After all, if Stauffenberg had blown himself up in some
kind of accident, it would have been madness to set the coup in motion
knowing Hitler was still alive. In such a situation, the coup
might still have had a chance at a latter date with a different
before 16.00, Stauffenberg and his adjutant landed at an airfield on
the outskirts of Berlin and put a call through to Olbricht, in which
Stauffenberg announced to Olbricht that Hitler was dead. Olbricht
went immediately to the C-in-C of the Home Army, Generaloberst
Fromm, to try to persuade him, the only man authorized to issue
"Valkyrie" in the event of Hitler's death, to do exactly that.
Had Hitler been dead, Fromm might very well have done so, but Fromm was
skeptical. He insisted on proof of Hitler's demise. Olbricht
– trusting Stauffenberg's word – himself picked up the
phone and put through a call to GFM von Keitel. Keitel, however,
emphatically denied that Hitler had been killed. Fromm
consequently refused to issue "Valkyrie." So Olbricht and his
staff issued the orders illegally for a second time.
Between 16.30 and 16.45 Stauffenberg arrived back at the Headquarters of
the Home Army. He reported at once to Olbricht and again -
euphorically - insisted that Hitler was dead. Obviously, this was
not true, but one must try to put oneself in Stauffenberg's shoes:
after two unsuccessful assassination attempts, he had finally succeeded
in detonating a bomb in Hitler's immediate vicinity and then, under
highly dramatic circumstances, escaped alive. Stauffenberg
honestly didn't know that Hitler had survived the blast. Nor did
he know that Fellgiebel had failed to close down communications from
OKW and that hence the entire Nazi apparatus was still fully functional.
Stauffenberg went with Olbricht to try to persuade Fromm to issue
Valkyrie over his signature. A heated argument ensued in which
Stauffenberg claimed, completely fancifully, to have personally seen
Hitler's body carried out of the briefing hut. Olbricht then
informed Fromm that "Valkyrie" had already been issued.
Stauffenberg furthermore admitted that he had himself set off the bomb
– to which Fromm replied that in that case he ought to shoot
himself at once. Stauffenberg refused, and Olbricht confessed his
complicity in the plot. According to Fromm (the only man involved
in this confrontation to survive long enough to be interrogated by the
Gestapo) he told Olbricht he was under arrest, to which Olbricht
replied that Fromm had mistaken the situation. Two junior
officers loyal to the conspirators were called and entered the office
with drawn pistols. They detained Fromm under guard, while
General Hoepner (as planned by the conspirators) took over Fromm's
office and position. The anti-Nazi Hoepner at once started
issuing orders as "Commander-in-Chief" of the Home Army.
After this, the entire coup appeared to go according to plan.
Olbricht and Stauffenrberg went to work telephoning with key
offices and commands, informing them of the situation, and generally
driving the coup forward. They answered questions and countered
doubts voiced by both the initiated and the uninitiated. One
after another of the subordinate commands received and started carrying
out the illegally issued orders.
But Hitler was not dead. Furthermore, the conspirators at his HQ had been unable to cut off the Wolfschanze
from the outside world, and hence Hitler's entire staff, OKW, was fully
operational. This meant that any commander who couldn't or didn't
want to believe that Hitler was dead, could contact the Wolfschanze
requesting confirmation or details. Hitler's staff, that had
initially assumed that the assassination was the act of a lone man,
gradually grasped that in fact a coup was in progress in Berlin.
At roughly 18.00 the first counter-orders went out from OKW.
Keitel ordered that all orders signed by Fromm, Witzleben and Hoepner
were null and void. Furthermore, a public announcement was made
over the radio informing the German people that an assassination
attempt had been made, but that it had failed.
Now the first calls started to come into the Bendlerstrasse from
confused subordinate commands where two, contradictory sets of orders
had been received. Olbricht and Stauffenberg tried to convince
all these callers that the orders from OKW were the machinations of the
SS in an effort to retain control of the state. The Army,
Olbricht and Stauffenberg assured the military commanders, was taking
over now that Hitler was dead. The implication was that the Army
was finally "cleaning up" – something very many military men
welcomed and supported whether they were part of the conspiracy
In short, as long as the situation remained unclear, the conspirators
enjoyed a surprising degree of success. But gradually doubts
grew. People started to ask themselves "what if
Hitler is still alive?" Clearly, if he were dead, there was no
harm in "following orders," but if he were alive and they followed the
wrong orders it would mean arrest, possibly torture, and death. Under
these circumstances, when officers were confronted with two sets of
contradictory orders, the political sentiments of the individual became
decisive. A comparison between the response to the orders in
Paris and Military District II is particularly telling.
Paris, where the Military Governor, General von Stülpnagel, was an
opponent of Hitler's going back to the September Conspiracy of 1938,
the orders from the Bendlerstrasse were followed willingly and with
alacrity. In Military District II, where the commander was not a
conspirator, he could not bring himself to follow the "Valkyrie" orders
because these were "clearly treasonous" – even though he admitted
that "with his heart" he was on their side.
Likewise in Berlin, it was the certainty of Hitler's survival that
turned the tide against the conspirators. Most spectacularly, the
always suspect (from the conspiracy's perspective) commander of the
"Grossdeutschland Batallion," the unit responsible for sealing off the
government district of Berlin, turned against the conspiracy - but only
with Hitler personally. Major Remer first carried out his military
orders meticulously. Goebbels, however, put a call through to the
demanded to speak to Hitler personally, and then handed the receiver
over to the awestruck major. Major Remer became Hitler's ardent
supporter at once. Hitler personally promoted him two ranks and
ordered him to crush the coup with his troops. From one minute to the
next Remer went from keeping guard on the Propaganda Ministry to being
the man determined to put down the coup.
Had the conspiracy succeeded in a having one of their own – say
Axel von dem Bussche – in command of the "Grossdeutschland
Batallion" on 20 July 1944, maybe even Hitler's survival would have
been immaterial. But for the vast majority of German officers
– just as GFM v. Kluge had foreseen back in early 1943
– Hitler's death was the absolute prerequisite for action against
Even in the Bendlerstrasse itself, the increasing certainty that Hitler
was alive eroded the support that Olbricht and Stauffenberg had
initially enjoyed among their respective staffs. Several officers
of GAO decided it was time to go to General Olbricht and find out
directly from him what was going on. They confronted Olbricht at
around 22.30 - fully armed since they had been asked to take over
guard-duty. As these officers assured me personally, they did not
come in with pistols drawn and they did not threaten General
Olbricht. They still trusted him, but they no longer believed
that they had been told the whole truth.
At this inopportune moment, Stauffenberg sought Olbricht out.
Seeing the other officers with their weapons, he decided to flee.
One of the officers shouted after Stauffenberg, ordering him to
halt. Stauffenberg did not. Shots were fired. Stauffenberg
was now arrested and escorted by several of these staff officers to
where Fromm was still being held in custody by junior officers loyal to
the conspiracy. Fromm was released and immediately ordered the
known conspirators – Beck, Olbricht, Stauffenberg, and two others
- arrested. Without the slightest adherence to legal niceties, he
summarily found them guilty of High Treason and sentenced them to
death. Beck asked permission to shoot himself, and was granted
this right. Meanwhile, the other four officers were taken down the
winding, red-marble stairway from the GAO into the courtyard of the
Bendlerstrasse. A firing squad was hastily improvised and the
south wall of the courtyard was lit by the headlights of staff cars.
The first four conspirators, Friedrich Olbricht, Claus Graf
Stauffenberg, Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim and Werner von
Haeften, were shot shortly after midnight. More than 5,000 other
conspirators and sympathizers followed them to an untimely death in the
months to come. The attempt to free Germany of the Nazis from
within had failed.