On July 20, 1944, during World War II (1939-45), a plot by senior-level German military officials to murder Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and then take control of his government failed when a bomb planted in a briefcase went off but did not kill the Nazi leader. The assassination attempt took place at the “Wolfsschanze” (“Wolf’s Lair”), a command post near Rastenburg, East Prussia (present-day Poland). Hitler’s would-be assassins were executed after being discovered.
July Plot: Background
Since the late 1930s, there had been repeated attempts by various groups in the German resistance to assassinate Adolf Hitler and overthrow the Nazis. As time went on, Hitler became increasingly suspicious and more heavily guarded, and often changed his schedule at the last minute.
The men behind the July Plot were a group of high-level German military leaders who recognized that Hitler was leading Germany in a suicidal war on two fronts. They decided to assassinate him then stage a coup d’état, with the belief that a new government in Berlin would save Germany from complete destruction at the hands of the Allies.
The July Plot leaders included Colonel General Ludwig Beck (1880-1944), former chief of the army general staff, Colonel General Friedrich Olbricht (1888-1944) and Major General Henning von Tresckow (1901-44). Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg (1907-44), chief of staff of the reserve army, also played a central role in the conspiracy.
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July Plot: July 20, 1944
During a July 20 meeting in a Wolf’s Lair conference room with Hitler and more than 20 German officers and staff, Stauffenburg planted an explosives-packed briefcase under a table that the Nazi leader was using. Stauffenberg then said he had to make a phone call and left the room. Another officer subsequently happened to move the briefcase out of place, farther away from Hitler. The bomb detonated at 12:42 p.m. One person died instantly as a result of the powerful explosion and three others were mortally wounded; however, Hitler suffered only minor injuries. He was even well enough to keep an appointment with Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) that same afternoon, and gave the Italian dictator a tour of site where the blast occurred.
After the bomb went off, Stauffenberg, believing Hitler was dead, flew to Berlin to initiate Operation Valkyrie, a plan to use Germany’s reserve army to stage an uprising against the Nazi regime. However, with no official confirmation of Hitler’s demise, the plan stalled. When the news came through that Hitler was alive, General Friedrich Fromm (1888-1945), commander of the reserve army and someone who condoned the July Plot, turned on the conspirators in order to have his association with them covered up. Stauffenberg and Olbricht were arrested and executed on July 21.
Hundreds of people thought to be involved in the conspiracy also soon were arrested, and around 200 eventually were executed. Beck was arrested and chose to commit suicide rather than stand trial. Tresckow committed suicide after he learned the July Plot had failed. Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), a highly respected field marshal also linked to the plot, was given the choice of facing trial or committing suicide in order to spare his family. He opted to take his own life. (Because Rommel was a renowned figure, the Nazis covered up the true cause of his death and gave him a state funeral.) Fromm also was executed by firing squad in 1945.
July Plot: Aftermath
In the aftermath of the July Plot, Hitler and his top officials took an even firmer grip on Germany and its war machine. The Nazi leader became certain that fate had spared him. “Having escaped death in so extraordinary a way,” Hitler stated, “I am now more than ever convinced that the great cause which I serve will survive its present perils and that everything can be brought to a good end.”
On April 30, 1945, shortly before Germany surrendered to the Allies, Hitler committed suicide. The Wolf’s Lair compound, where the Nazi leader spent more than 800 days between 1941 and 1944, was blown up by the Soviet army in January 1945.