Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae:
The Assassinaton of Adolf Hitler
by Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
From the moment he first assumed power in Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler felt an almost supernatural certainty that he was destined not only to rule Germany but to make her the dominant power in the entire world. And until 1940, it would have been hard not to think the Führer might be right: as the Third Reich absorbed country after country into its borders, it seemed like his Nazi kingdom truly would last a thousandyears.
But with the entry of both the United States and Russia into the Second World War in late 1941, Hitler’s luck began to turn sour; the tide of the war began to turn against Nazi Germany, and Hitler’s overseas empire slowly crumbled as the weight of Allied military and industrial might made itself felt on the battlefront. His dream of a German-dominated world started to weaken with each new setback inflicted on his forces.
On July 20th, 1944, the dream would die altogether— and Hitler with it.
Because of construction work being done at his Wolf’s Lair compound in East Prussia to reinforce its bunker against air attack, the July 20th military conference which would normally have been held there was moved an above-ground map room a few yards away. For the chief conspirators in Operation Valkyrie, the plan to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime once and for all, this could have posed a serious problem— but the man who had the actual responsibility for planting the bomb, Colonel Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, had foreseen something like this might happen and prepared a contingency plan to ensure the Führer’s death.
In addition to the two bombs he had already obtained through contacts in the Abwehr counterintelligence service, he managed to improvise a third bomb capable of starting a fire inside the map room. All three devices were to be smuggled into the room by way of Stauffenberg’s briefcase; shortly before the bombs were scheduled to detonate, the colonel would excuse himself on one pretext or another and leave the map room, then fly to Berlin to join his co-conspirators in ousting the Nazi regime and setting up a new government that could make peace with the Allies.
Because of injuries he'd suffered on the Eastern Front and a series of delays in the minutes prior to the fateful conference, Stauffenberg only had time to fuse two of the bombs. Had he been able to arm all three, odds are Hitler would have been killed instantly; as it was, the Führer would linger for several hours before finally succumbing to his wounds.
At 12:30 PM Berlin time the daily military conference-- the last Hitler would ever attend-- finally got underway. Seven minutes later, Colonel Stauffenberg, after surreptitiously putting his briefcase beside Hitler, told the Führer and the generals assembled around the map table that he had to leave for a few minutes to retrieve some papers he’d forgotten. No one thought there was anything amiss; if they had, Hitler might have survived and the war in Europe might have dragged on into the spring of 1945.
At 12:42 PM one of the Abwehr-made bombs detonated simultaneously with Stauffenberg's improvised incendiary bomb, setting the map room ablaze. Stauffenberg immediately set off for Berlin, convinced no one could have survived the blast. And indeed, six generals who were with Hitler when the bombs went off died instantly; a seventh would die from third-degree burns an hour after the explosion. As for Hitler, he was rushed to a military hospital where his personal physical, Dr. Theo Morell, led a team of surgeons in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to save the Führer’s life.
The European phase of the Second World War ended less than five months after Hitler’s death, and that end might have come even sooner had Colonel von Stauffenberg and his associates succeeded in grabbing the reins of power from the Nazis. But a series of tactical and communications errors on the conspirators’ part, in combination with the predatory genius of Hermann Goering, doomed their uprising to ultimate failure.
Goering’s star in the Nazi hierarchy had been falling since the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, when his Luftwaffe failed in its self-appointed mission to keep the Sixth Army fully supplied through the brutal Russian winter. However, when he received word of the events at Rastenburg, he rightly deduced that he had an opportunity— however fleeting –to revive his fortunes. Invoking a succession decree which Hitler himself had issued shortly afterOperation Barbarossa began in June of 1941, Goering announced in a radio broadcast from Berlin that he was assuming full control of the German government and armed forces as acting chancellor of the Third Reich.
His first official act, after ordering a full report on Hitler’s medical condition, was to authorize the SS to arrest Stauffenberg and shoot him for treason the minute he returned to Germany.
Goering wasn’t the only high-ranking official to request updates on Dr. Morell’s efforts to save the Führer’s life; Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower had instructed his London headquarters staff to monitor all communications traffic in Nazi- occupied Europe for any clues as to whether or not Hitler had survived the explosion. He realized that even if the bombing merely left the Führer comatose, it still dealt a serious blow to German morale which gave the Allies a valuable opportunity to expand on the gains they’d made in Europe since D-Day.
An hour after word of the bombing reached Allied Supreme Headquarters in London, General Eisenhower phoned his two top field commanders, General George S. Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, to ask their opinions on the feasibility of launching an immediate all-out drive for Paris. Patton, never the type to be reticent in sharing his views, was quick to push for such a drive: "Give me a hundred good men and plenty of gas and I can chase those Kraut sons-of- bitches back to the Rhine in a week!"
When he told Montgomery what Patton had said, Eisenhower braced himself for the usual sharp contradictions from the British field marshal. To his surprise, though, Montgomery instead told him: "I must confess, sir, that General Patton is probably right in this matter. There hasn’t been, and won’t be, a better time hit Jerry right where it hurts…to use a metaphor you might appreciate, sir, we have Hitler’s hordes on the ropes and now’s the hour to begin delivering the knockout blow."
24 hours later, Eisenhower issued orders for Allied forces to start a three-pronged offensive aimed at capturing Paris by the end of July. The assault, code-named Operation Market-Garden, would be supported by massive tactical air strikes and guerrilla raids from the Maquis resistance movement1.
In Moscow, Joseph Stalin reacted with undisguised glee to the news of the Rastenburg bombing. So elated was he at the prospect of his hated foe’s imminent death that he summoned his favorite general, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, to the Kremlin for a champagne toast. "If the mad dog isn’t dead already, he soon will be!" the Soviet ruler exulted; Zhukov, then co-ordinating the Red Army’s Bagration campaign in Belarus, wasn’t quite as boisterous in his reaction as Stalin but nonetheless shared Stalin’s optimism. With Hitler gone or incapacitated, Zhukov felt, the spirits of the German fascist troops in Poland would be greatly diminished, thus allowing the Red Army to roll into Warsaw with little in the way of serious opposition. Once Warsaw was secured, Vienna, Prague, and Berlin would no doubt follow in short order.
When the marshal returned to his headquarters he issued two orders to his senior staff: first, that he was to be informed at once the second Hitler’s death was confirmed, and second, that the Red Army was to redouble its efforts to push the Germans out of Belarus.
In his Lake Garda headquarters at Salo, capital for what was left of the Italian Fascist movement, Benito Mussolini trembled in a fit of near-panic as he read the telegram he’d just received from Berlin. How could anyone betray the Führer so? And what would happen to the Axis cause now that its greatest sponsor was on the brink of death?
Ah well, the Duce thought, at least the pig responsible was going to get his just deserts; the telegram also mentioned that the man who planted the bomb— what was his name? Stouffenberg? —had been jailed already and was due to be executed by firing squad in the next few hours whether Hitler lived or died. With any luck, the traitor’s cohorts would soon be executed too...Mussolini’s mood began to improve as he envisioned the rest of the conspirators in this treacherous plot meeting their end in a hangman’s noose or at the business end of SS rifles.
The tone wasn’t nearly so sanguine at the court of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo-- in fact, the prevailing mood was one of grave concern. Not that many of the men in Hirohito’s cabinet felt any great abiding fondness for Hitler; if anything, most of Japan’s political elite (prime minister Hideki Tojo and Japanese ambassador to Germany Hiroshi Oshima being two notable exceptions) held the Nazi dictator in contempt.
But just the same they knew that once Germany fell, the already severe strain on their country’s military would grow even worse as the British and Americans began transferring troops and naval forces from Europe to the Pacific. They also understood that the Third Reich’s collapse would effectively render Japan’s 1941 non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union null and void, since Stalin had signed it largely as a tactical manoeuvre to protect his flank in Siberia.
So Hirohito, along with his generals and diplomats and millions of other people around the world, kept one ear to the radio to listen for any hints as to what would be the Führer’s fate. Not since the day Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet bombed Pearl Harbor had the atmosphere in the Imperial Court been so tense…
Goering watched with satisfaction as von Stauffenberg’s corpse was shovelled into a furnace for cremation; a bastard turncoat like him didn’t deserve the honor of a military burial. And he, the acting chancellor of the Third Reich vowed, would be just the first traitor to go. At his behest, Gestapo execution squads were rounding up every person in Germany who had even the most tenuous connection with the assassination plot. Roland Freisler, the Reich’s chief justice and president of what was laughingly called the People’s Court, sanctioned their brutal activities by issuing summary findings of treason against everyone whom they arrested; General Alfred Jodl, the Wehrmacht chief of staff, convened inquiries against at least a dozen officers suspected of having collaborated with Stauffenberg— including General Erwin von Witzleben, who was supposed to have taken over as supreme commander of the German armed forces once the Nazis were ousted from power.
The cremation took less than ten minutes; as it was finishing up, a young Wehrmacht courier nervously approached Goering with a telegram from Rastenburg. The chancellor and Luftwaffe commander-in-chief sensed by the look on the courier’s face that the news wasn’t good…
"The flash from Allied Supreme Headquarters in London…now apparently official— Adolf Hitler, Führer and Chancellor of the German Reich since 1933, is dead. He died, according to sources within the War Department, at 11:00 AM Eastern War Time this morning, some 42 minutes ago…"2
"Good riddance to bad rubbish!" said President Franklin Roosevelt, sitting in the Oval Office and listening to Edward R. Murrow’s understated yet dramatic reading of the official bulletin confirming Hitler’s demise for American radio audiences. He’d been awakened around 7:00 AM by a White House aide with the news of the bombing at Rastenburg, and from that moment until Murrow’s bulletin he’d kept abreast of each new development related to the bombing. He’d spoken by phone with most of his top military and diplomatic officials and with General Eisenhower and was awaiting a call from British prime minister Winston Churchill when CBS broke into its regular morning programs with word of the Führer’s death.
Churchill called the president at 11:45 AM, and in a talk lasting slightly less than forty minutes the two Allied leaders discussed what, if anything, should be done to mark the occasion in their respective capitals. Their conversation also touched on how the Führer’s death would affect Allied preparations for Operation Anvil, the amphibious landings in southern France scheduled to take place later that summer.
When their talk was finished, Roosevelt instructed his secretary to inform House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley that he would be addressing a joint session of Congress at 1:30 PM to outline his vision for ending the war in Europe. Back at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister began writing a quick draft of a speech he intended to give before Parliament later that day celebrating the Führer’s demise and calling on his fellow British citizens to pray for a swift end to the war with Germany.
24 hours later, the Red Army liberated Pskov from the Wehrmacht. On the western front, American P-47s and British Typhoons began a series of tactical bombing raids against V-1 launch sites in France and Belgium; Italian partisans, sensing that an acute if not fatal blow had been dealt to the enemy occupying nearly half their country, stepped up their attacks against German personnel in northern Italy. The Reich that Hitler had once boasted would last a thousand years was now beginning to head towards its final collapse just five months later.
The Führer’s death didn’t just devastate the Wehrmacht; SS chief Heinrich Himmler had burst into tears when he learned of Hitler’s demise, and it was only his sense of duty and loyalty to the Nazi ideology that kept him from committing suicide. Kriegsmarine C-in-C Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz fell into a depression that would stay with him after the war ended and ultimately land him in an insane asylum. Foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, unable to bear what he called "the horror of a world without the Führer", shot himself in his office 48 hours after Hitler died. Even the ever-jovial Goering seemed a bit more melancholy after the events of July 20th.
But the strongest reaction of all was that of Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. His first emotion on being informed about his Führer’s death was not grief or sorrow, but rage; as he later admitted himself in his personal diary, "I ranted and raved like a madman when they told me what had happened at Rastenburg... they could probably hear me screaming up in Kiel." At the peak of his fury, Goebbels took a heavy glass paperweight and threw it across his office, where it shattered against the door into a thousand pieces. For several hours after his tirade, many of his staff at the Propaganda Ministry were reluctant to go near him for fear he might lash out at them too.
Goebbels was scarcely less angry when he went to Munich four days after the bombing to preside over Hitler’s funeral, which would later be remembered as the most extravagant of the Nazi era in Germany. Goering and Himmler both eulogized the Führer as "the greatest man to ever walk the earth"3; General Jodl lauded him as an example of Teutonic soldiery at its finest. Benito Mussolini, in one of the last major speeches of his notorious career, spoke of how Hitler had set an example of leadership in his own country and in Europe that the world would remember forever. But it was the Propaganda Minister’s speech that would stick most firmly in the minds of its listeners-- in a harangue that was hateful and vitriolic even by his infamous standards, Goebbels essentially accused the entire Wehrmacht officer corps of having been in on the July 20th plot, calling them "silent co-conspirators in our Führer’s murder". Some of it was a psychological ploy intended to sting the consciences of those field commanders who might be inclined to surrender to the Allies, but most of it was infused with genuine and almost psychotic wrath direct at Stauffenberg’s cohorts in the assassination of Hitler.
Jodl made no comment about Goebbels’ remarks, but Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, C-in-C of German land forces in western Europe, was incensed when he read a transcript of them. Regarding the speech as a cruel insult to himself and his brother officers, Rundstedt personally confronted Goebbels and demanded an apology; Goebbels at first refused to apologize, but quickly changed his tune when Rundstedt threatened to shoot him for treason.
For more than six decades historians have argued about whether Goering would have stepped aside as chancellor of Germany had Hitler survived the July 20th bombing and been physically able to resume his duties. The majority view holds that Goering, being as ambitious as he was, would have either clung to his new post by force or convinced Hitler to accept some kind of power-sharing deal with Goering acting as the Führer’s de facto prime minister. Dissenters, on the other hand, assert that Goering’s friendship with Hitler would have superseded his ambition-- at least in the short term --and that the Reichmarschall would have let Hitler resume the chancellor’s position without a word of protest.
But both camps agree on one salient point: Hitler’s death broke the back of the Nazi Party. From the time the Reich was established, he’d been the spiritual glue that held the NSDAP together, and with his passing the surviving members of his inner circle seemed to go out of their to confirm the truth of that famous adage "there is no honor among thieves". Even as Hitler’s casket was being interred in a mausoleum just a few miles from the beer cellar where the notorious 1923 putsch had taken place, Himmler and Goebbels were conniving with Hitler’s long time adjutant Martin Bormann to overthrow the new chancellor...
Footnotes1 British prime minister Winston Churchill, who had favored bypassing the French capital until mid-August, was later heard to quip that the offensive should have been code-named Operation Dragoon, "because I was dragooned into it".
2 From the CBS News archives in New York.
3 Quoted from a partial text of Goering’s eulogy printed in the July 25th, 1944 edition of the official Nazi Party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter("People’s Observer").