Claus Philip Schenk von Stauffenberg, who rose to the rank of colonel in Nazi Germany's military, played an integral role in the German resistance against Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, this resistance was unsucessful in its attempts at a coup d'état. Colonel von Stauffenberg came closest to success, wounding Hitler in July, 1944, but ultimately failing to assassinate the Nazi leader. This was the last coup attempt made by the German resistance before most of them were rounded up and executed.
Claus von Stauffenberg was born in Griefstein Castle in Upper Franconia on 15 November, 1907, the youngest of three sons in a family in the Bavarian Catholic nobility. Von Stauffenberg grew up in a huge Renaissance-era style chateau that had been occupied by counts, dukes, and other governing nobles of the past. While growing up, von Stauffenberg excelled at both sports and academics. He was excellent at horse-riding and could speak fluently in Greek and Latin. Prior to joining the military in 1926, von Stauffenberg had considered careers in music and architecture.
In 1930, Claus von Stauffenberg met fellow Bavarian noble Nina von Lerchenfeld. Thee years later, the two were wed. The next year the two had their first son. In 1936, von Stauffenberg's excellence within the military earned him assignment to a position at the War Academy. He was advancing quickly through the ranks.
While von Stauffenberg was a dedicated patriot and described by his family as preferring a monarchy to the constitution of the Weimar Republic (the German government setup after World War I, largely disliked by the German populace of the time), he remained largely neutral with regard to politics during Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party's rise to power. Von Stauffenberg wasn't directly opposed to the Nazi party yet but began to doubt their tactics and if they were any good for Germany after vicious anti-Jewish events in 1938 (such as the relocation of 17,000 Polish Jews into camps near the Polish border and the violence of Kristallnacht).
By September of 1939, von Stauffenberg had earned himself a strong reputation as an officer for his actions in the Sixth Panzer Division during the German campaigns in Poland and France. Von Stauffenberg was transferred to the Army High Command in June the next year, just prior to the Battle of Dunkirk, and spent 18 months in Soviet territory as a part of Operation Barbarossa. It was here in conquered Soviet territory that von Stauffenberg saw, firsthand, the cruelty and utter disregard for human life that the Schutzstaffel (SS, Hitler's elite security forces that ran the Holocaust) was capable of. The events convinced von Stauffenberg that the Nazis had to be removed from power. In addition, the German defeat at Stalingrad further convinced von Stauffenberg that Hitler would lead Germany not to victory but destruction. At Stalingrad, Hitler had refused to allow the German troops there to retreat or surrender, resulting in the loss of almost the entire German Sixth Army (approximately 330,000 men) before their commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, finally disobeyed Hitler's orders and surrendered his remaining 90,000 battered, exhausted, and starving troops to the USSR's General Georgi Zhukov. Still, when news of the surrender reached Hitler, the Führer was outraged that his order has been disobeyed.
After the German defeat at Stalingrad, von Stauffenberg requested a transfer to another front. The request was granted and von Stauffenberg joined the Tenth Panzer Division in Tunisia just in time for the last few days of the battle of the Kasserine Pass. Later, on 7 April, 1943, the car von Stauffenberg was riding in drove into a mine field. Von Stauffenberg was nearly killed, in the process losing his left eye, right hand (and part of his right arm, which had to be amputated during treatment for his injuries), and the ring and pinky fingers of his left hand. Von Stauffenberg also suffered serious damage to his left ear and knee. Surprisingly, he not only survived the incident but managed to keep his eyesight in his remaining eye. While recovering in a military hospital in Munich for the next few months, von Stauffenberg managed to contact several members of the German resistance attempting to remove the Nazis from power.
By September of 1943, von Stauffenberg had returned to active duty in Berlin, now with the rank lieutenant colonel, and acted as the chief of staff to General Friedrich Olbricht, a fellow member of the German resistance. Von Stauffenberg used his position and charisma to recruit many younger and important officers to join the resistance against the Nazis. Von Stauffenberg insisted that the cabinet of the post-Nazi government he and his fellow conspirators would institute if they were successful would be strictly anti-Nazi. Had the resistance been successful, von Stauffenberg would likely have been appointed the State Secretary in the War Ministry. Despite this, von Stauffenberg was not popular amongst all the members of the resistance. Fellow conspirator Dr. Carl Gördeler called von Stauffenberg a "cranky, obstinate fellow who wanted to play poltiics" and who "wanted to steer a dubious political course with the left-wing Socialists and Communists, and gave me a bad time with his overwhelming egotism" (Dr. Gördeler was a political conservative). Nevertheless, even Dr. Gördeler still held great respect for von Stauffenberg. This is not to imply that the entire resistance felt this way. Resistance sympathizer Franz Halder describes von Stauffenberg as "a born leader, one whose whole outlook on life was rooted in his sense of responsibility towards God, who was not prepared to be satisfied with theoretical explanations and discussions, but who was burning to act."
In 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most famous member of the German military, let the resistance know that he had no like of Hitler or the Nazis and would follow the orders of an anti-Nazi government if it were able to seize power. Von Stauffenberg and others in the resistance had doubts about Rommel's sincerity, thinking he was likely a Nazi supporter who was merely interested in switching sides now that the war wasn't going so well for Germany anymore. Rommel also expressed the opinion that if Hitler were killed he would become a martyr for the Nazis to rally behind and use to convince even more people to follow them. Instead of Hitler being assassinated, Rommel proposed he be captured and convicted in a court of his crimes to weaken his position as a great leader before the German people. While this was happening, Rommel proposed, a peace treaty with the Western Allies would be drawn up (and the war would continue against the Soviets). Von Stauffenberg and his associates disagreed with Rommel on this point: They believed that peace with the West could not be achieved so easily, especially with Hitler still alive, and that to succeed Hitler and two other top Nazis who could replace him (likely with the same level of madness), Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring, would have to be killed.
Von Stauffenberg and his associates were probably right about being unable to negotiate peace with the Allies while Hitler was still alive. US President Franklin Roosevelt had announced that the Allies would accept nothing short of the unconditional surrender of not merely the Nazis but Germany altogether. Earlier in the Nazi's reign, the German resistance and American and British intelligence agents sympathetic to their cause, were unable to convince the American and British governments to take the German resistance seriously. In fact, two British intelligence agents were captured by the Nazis prior to the start of all-out war between Germany and Britain when the agents were meeting with Nazi agents in the guise of German resistance. The British blamed the German resistance, despite that they had never actually been in contact with them. Eventually Great Britain established a policy of absolute silence with Germany in regards to communication. Even after the war, and to this day, the acts of the German resistance against the Nazis remains largely unknown.
Von Stauffenberg and his associates began to plan Operation Valkyrie. Operation Valkyrie was disguised as an emergancy anti-coup procedure to squelch any possible uprising against Nazi dominance. The plan involved an elaborate method of taking control of key government buildings and placing all of Germany under martial law. In actuality, Operation Valkyrie was created to ensure that once Hitler, Himmler, and Göring were dead, the Nazis could be easily removed from power.
When the Western Allies successfully landed at Normandy and began closing in on Berlin (as were the Soviets from the east), von Stauffenberg decided that action must be taken as soon as possible. Von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators had considered aborting the coup attempt altogether as it became clearer and clearer that the end of the war and Germany's defeat was inevitable. They came to the conclusion that they must try, however, in order to prevent the further senseless loss of life and show the world that all of Germany did not sit idly by while the Nazis' brutal regime slaughtered millions. Plans were accellerated, which caused some fatal slip-ups for the resistance, not only because of the approaching Allied troops but the merger between the SS, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, and the Abwehr (Germany's military intelligence division, led by and containing a large number of the resistance) had put the entire resistance movement in danger as the SS was uncovering more and more evidence of a resistance against the Nazis and who, specifically, was involved day by day. Time was running out.
By July of 1944, von Stauffenberg had been promoted to a full colonel, which gave him frequent personal contact with Hitler. Von Stauffenberg practiced setting off a time bomb with only his three remaining fingers and decided it would be him that killed Adolf Hitler. Von Stauffenberg, a Christian, was religious enough that he didn't want to kill or injure others in his killing of Hitler but, as a result of his injuries, would be unable to simply shoot Hitler at point blank range (which, though it would kill Hitler, would cause his personal guard to kill von Stauffenberg as well). In addition, von Stauffenberg would be needed after the assassination to direct the coup d'état in Berlin as resistance-controlled troops seized control of the government.
On 11 July, 1944, Colonel von Stauffenberg and a briefcase full of explosives he carried with him attended a meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Though Hitler and Göring were there, Heinrich Himmler was not. After communicating with his fellow conspirators, von Stauffenberg and the others decided not to go ahead with the assassination and, instead, wait for another time when Hitler, Göring, and Himmler could be killed together.
On 15 July, 1944, Colonel von Stauffenberg and his time bomb attended a meeting with Hitler at Rastenburg. Neither Himmler nor Göring were there but it was agreed that von Stauffenberg would attempt to kill Hitler with the bomb regardless. Time was running out and something needed to be done. Informing his compatriots that he would proceed ahead and blow up Hitler, von Stauffenberg got off the phone and returned to the conference room only to find that the meeting had ended early and Hitler had already left. Meanwhile, back in Berlin, General Olbricht, not knowing that the opportunity to kill Hitler had passed unseized, sent into effect the first phase of Operation Valkyrie, seizing control of government buildings throughout Berlin. Von Stauffenberg rushed to inform Olbricht to abort Operation Valkyrie. Olbricht rushed to shut the operation down before his superiors discovered what had happened. To ensure this was done, General Olbricht drove from one building to another in Berlin, giving the order to stand down personally. General Olbricht, luckily, managed to convince his superior officers that the premature execution of Operation Valkyrie was merely a dress rehearsal in the case of a real uprising against the Nazi regime ever occurring. While this did prevent the general and others from being revealed as resistance members, Olbricht's explanation also meant that the next time Operation Valkyrie was executed, it would have to be for real.
On 18 July, 1944, Dr. Carl Gördeler, a key member of the resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo. Colonel von Stauffenberg had taken care to shroud the conspiracy in as much secrecy as possible. Few people within the resistance knew about the assassination plots and the truth of Operation Valkyrie. Fewer still knew the specifics of such things, ensuring that if one member of the resistance were captured, chances were good the plans for the coup could continue. Also on this day, Colonel von Stauffenberg received orders to meet with Hitler at his Wolf's Lair headquarters to brief the Führer on reports from the eastern front. Von Stauffenberg told his co-conspirators that 20 July would be the resistance's last chance and to be ready.
On the night of 19 July, 1944, von Stauffenberg stopped to pray at a church, then stayed at his brother's house for the night, finalising the details of his plan. He managed to get four hours of sleep. The next day he and co-conspirator Lieutenant Werner von Haeften headed for Wolf's Lair while in Berlin, co-conspirator General Ludwig Beck would await news of Hitler's death before announcing to the world that Hitler had been killed by a power-hungry Nazi elite and that the army had seized power from the Nazis, instituting martial law, and attempting to start talks with the Allies for a ceasefire.
Von Stauffenberg, in order to ensure Hitler's death, was carrying two time-bombs in his briefcase instead of one and was planning to activate both to detonate at the same time. Lieutenant von Haeften, because of his lower rank, was not allowed to attend the actual meeting with Hitler but did stay with von Stauffenberg as much as he could while the two are at Wolf's Lair. After meeting with Hitler and briefing him on what was involved in moving troops along the eastern front, von Stauffenberg excused himself. Von Haeften and von Stauffenberg then entered a changing room where von Stauffenberg began arming the bombs with special pliers made for use with his three fingers. Despite the specially crafted pliers, the bombs were difficult to arm and an aid sent to bring von Stauffenberg back to the meeting in case Hitler needed him managed to catch a glimpse of von Haeften and von Stauffenberg fiddling with a mysterious package. Fearing Hitler would be alerted, von Stauffenberg armed only one time bomb and returned to the meeting.
Several minutes before the bomb was to go off, von Stauffenberg excused himself to make an emergency phone call. As soon as no one was watching him, von Stauffenberg left the building. After von Stauffenberg had left, one of the officers in the meeting with Hitler moved the briefcase von Stauffenberg had planted next to Hitler to the other side of the huge table a war map was laid out upon, in order to get a better view of the map from his position. Had this not happened or had both bombs been armed, Hitler would have been killed.
At 12:42pm, the bomb detonated. Colonel von Stauffenberg witnessed the explosion and several bodies flying out the already open windows of the building from a few hundred yards away. Sure that everyone within the building was dead or dying, von Stauffenberg left Wolf's Lair and began a 3 hour flight back to Berlin. Unfortunately, back in Berlin, the resistance members there had no idea whether or not the assassination attempt was successful and, because launching Operation Valkyrie again in the event that the bomb had not been detonated would mean the end of them, they awaited word from von Stauffenberg. Once von Stauffenberg arrived, there was a rush to put the plan in motion. Not all government buildings could be taken control of at that point. In particular, the resistance couldn't take control of the Nazi's communications headquarters.
At 9:00pm, there was an announcement that Hitler would deliver a speech to Germany in a short time. Von Stauffenberg and his associates were shocked. Hitler had, obviously, survived the blast. A falling support beam had injured Hitler and his right arm was temporarily paralyzed. Hitler's ear drums had also been punctured and he suffered some burns but, overall, had escaped any serious damage. The group stayed holed up in the War Ministry. Around 11:00pm, a group of Nazis had managed to break into the ministry and take the resistance members there captive, in the process shooting von Stauffenberg in the left arm. Not long after, General Friedrich Fromm, who had previously been willing to work for the new post-Nazi government had the resistance been successful, announced that von Stauffenberg and three other conspirators had been sentenced to death by a summary Court Martial and that this sentence was to be carried out immediately. Von Stauffenberg and his comrades were taken into a courtyard behind the War Ministry, illuminated by the lights of an army truck, and shot by firing squad. Just prior to his death, Claus von Stauffenberg was said to have shouted "Long live our sacred Germany!"
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