Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae:
The Assassinaton of Adolf Hitler
by Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
In the previous seven chapters of this series we examined the impact of Hitler’s assassination on the course of the Second World War, the Verona and Nuremburg war crimes trials, and the political divisions over the fate of postwar Germany that led to the Cold War. In this final instalment, we’re recall the Berlin crisis of 1947-48 and ponder the hold the July 20th bombing still has on the collective memory and imagination of humanity more than six decades after Hitler’s death.
The last fragments of the wartime partnership between the USSR and the West were shattered the day Stalin made his vehement charges about alleged American plots to isolate the Soviet sector of Berlin from the rest of Germany. So was any hope of a diplomatic resolution to the endless disagreements over what form a postwar German government should take; from then on, both sides would dig in their heels, setting up competing administrations which each would insist was the rightful government of the war-ravaged country.
One thing that did not shatter was the strategic alliance the war had forged between Washington and London; in fact, the Berlin crisis would lend it new strength as President Truman and new British prime minister Clement Attlee worked to counteract a menacing Soviet buildup in eastern Germany.
On June 21st, 1947, five days into the Berlin crisis, Truman and Attlee and their respective top military and intelligence advisors met at the White House to brainstorm a plan for protecting the Western-controlled Sectors of Germany against Soviet attack. Out of that meeting grew the just-established US Air Force’s first major peacetime deployment, Operation Evening Star-- better-known today as the Berlin Airlift. This plan would have two essential aims:
One of Truman’s greatest concerns in regard to the Berlin crisis was that US and allied forces would suffer a shortage of fuel and munitions if war broke out between the West and the Soviet Union; though the Soviets had been almost as quick as the Western Allies to demobilize when the Second World War ended, they still had enough of an arsenal on hand to cause a great deal of trouble in Europe should it suit Stalin’s purposes. Truman was determined to make sure the United States and its European partners wouldn’t be caught short-handed if war did erupt.
(2) Deliver much-needed food, oil, and medicine to Berliners to see them through a hard winter.
The winter of 1947-48 was expected to be a difficult one in Berlin, still trying to rebuild three years after the Third Reich’s collapse. Stockpiles of just about every item essential to civilian life had been taxed to the limit; practical and humanitarian considerations compelled Truman to insist that these supplies be replenished as soon as possible. Political motives were also involved-- Truman knew full well that any help he lent to Germany now would pay dividends later when the United States was looking for allies in Europe against Soviet expansionism.
On July 2nd, Operation Evening Star got underway as US Air Force and RAF cargo planes began landing at Templehof Airport bearing thousands of tons of food, fuel, munitions, and medical supplies. In the coming months, there would be hundreds more of such planes streaming into West Berlin, each of them carrying precious cargo for both Berliners and for Allied occupation forces. Soviet fighter pilots conducting air patrols over East Berlin could do little but glare helplessly at these rich, fat targets; they had been directed not to fire on the cargo planes unless or until given clearance by Moscow-- however much Stalin might want a showdown with the United States, it was important to him that such a fight not be touched off prematurely. The Soviet Union was still two years away from having its own atomic bomb, and Stalin was understandably concerned that if he moved against the West now Washington might retaliate with a nuclear attack capable of crippling or even destroying the motherland.
As summer faded into autumn, and autumn became winter, Truman received letters and cables from his diplomats indicating that Operation Evening Star was paying a handsome political return on its initial investment. Pro-Western attitudes in the American, British, and French occupation zones of Germany were steadily becoming the rule instead of the exception, and Konrad Adenauer was giving statements hinting that if he were to be elected chancellor of a future West German state he would move quickly to restore diplomatic ties with Washington, London, and Paris. The onset of winter saw a corresponding increasing in the tonnage of fuel being flown into Templehof as US, British, and French troops sought to guard themselves and German civilians against the punishing cold for which central European winters are notorious.
In May of 1948, nearly one full year after the Berlin crisis began, the standoff finally reached its climax. Late one night, two men at a US Army listening post along the demarcation line between the American and Soviet occupation zones monitored a series of coded radio transmissions between the Soviet military commandant’s headquarters in Leipzig and the Red Army general staff in Moscow; when these messages were subsequently decrypted, they were revealed to be a set of orders instructing Soviet ground forces in eastern Germany to stand down from full alert. As President Truman would later put it memorably to his aides, the West had gone eyeball to eyeball with Stalin and Stalin had been the first to blink.
Reluctantly acknowledging at last that he couldn’t intimidate Truman, the Soviet leader requested diplomatic talks with the Western powers regarding the issue of Soviet access to Berlin; four days later, representatives of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union met in Geneva to sign the Four-Power Pact, an agreement guaranteeing unrestricted access by each of its signatories to their respective sectors of Berlin. The West had passed its first major test of the Cold War.
In the six-plus decades since that bomb went off inside the Rastenburg map room, one question has fired the imagination of writers, historians, and ordinary people alike: what if the bombing hadn’t killed Hitler? How would the course of history in general, and the Second World War in particular, have been affected if the Führer had somehow managed to survive the blast? Would Anne Frank still have grown up to become one of Israel’s foremost diplomatic and political figures? Would it have been a plutonium bomb that destroyed Hiroshima rather than a uranium one? Would the Allies have still found a way to end the war in Europe by December of 1944, or would it have dragged on into the spring of 1945? Would the Falangist regime of Francisco Franco in Spain have felt the same motivation to institute political reform in the early 1950’s?
A veritable cottage industry of "what if" fiction and essay literature has sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic in regard to the July 20th bombing. As early as 1954, barely a decade after Hitler was killed, short stories like "The Untimely Demise of Frenchy Stiller" and "Man In The Tall Tower" told of a Second World War prolonged by the Führer’s survival; some two- odd decades later, film director Richard Attenborough used the notion of a failed July 20th bombing as the premise for one of his finest dramas, A Bridge Too Far, which painted a harrowing portrait of how the Allied campaign in Holland might have gone had Hitler still been in command of the German armed forces in the autumn of 1944.
More recently, British mystery author and former journalist Robert Harris has chilled millions of readers with Fatherland, his vivid account of a Berlin under siege by the Red Army after the July 20th bombing fails. His depiction of a Hitler driven mad by the prospect of imminent defeat is not only highly realistic but also quite spellbinding; as the book reels toward its gory climax in a rubble-strewn Wilhelmstrasse, we see the Führer as a classic case of evil turning upon itself-- railing at his subordinates, ordering attacks by non-existent divisions, tormenting his mistress Eva Braun1, denouncing the German people whom he’s led to the brink of total disaster, and finally contemplating suicide as his grotesque empire chokes out its last breath.
There is also no shortage of books dealing with the subject of what forks in the road history could have taken in the bombing’s aftermath. The finest of these, at least for this author’s money, has to be Greenhill Books’ 2004 analytical essay anthology The Rastenburg Options: Alternate Consequences Of The July 20th Bombing. Written and edited by a group of distinguished military historians, Rastenburg shows how the war’s course might have been changed if, for example, Colonel Stauffenberg’s clique had been able to seize power in Berlin right after Hitler’s death or Eisenhower had followed his initial instinct to delay an Allied move on Paris until August of 1944.
For those who prefer their books of a less scholarly bent, there’s Fox On The Rhine and its sequel Fox At The Gates, in which Stauffenberg and his associates oust the Nazis and recruit Field Marshal Rommel to enlist the Allies’ aid in quashing a looming SS countercoup. Though this author is reluctant to give away how Gates ends, its depiction of a tank battle between Rommel loyalists and SS fanatics near the Brandenburg Gate in the book’s last chapter makes for some gripping reading.
In modern college philosophy and ethics courses, the July 20th bombing is frequently cited whenever students debate whether good ends can ever justify evil means. World leaders often cite it when confronting real or perceived dangers to their nations’ security; in 2003, as the United States and Iraq stood poised on the brink of war, President George W. Bush urged the Iraqi general staff to follow Stauffenberg’s example and liquidate Saddam Hussein in the interests of peace.2
In 1994, half a century after Hitler’s death, Germany’s ZDF television network devoted an entire month of broadcast time to programming dealing with the Hitler assassination and its aftermath. There were a number of live debates on the ethical questions raised by Stauffenberg’s actions at Rastenburg; a popular news program re-enacted the bombing using a mockup of the map room and mannequins representing Hitler and his generals. And a three-part biographical miniseries about Stauffenberg placed fourth on the list of the top ten most-watched shows in German homes that year.
Pope John Paul II, in one of his last visits abroad before his death in 2005, made a pilgrimage to Colonel Stauffenberg’s grave and offered a prayer that no man would ever again be forced to confront the kind of lethal dilemma that was thrust on Stauffenberg more than sixty years earlier. Only time will tell for sure whether the pontiff’s prayer will be answered.
1 In reality, Eva Braun disappeared shortly after Hitler’s assassination; all efforts to find her proved unsuccessful, and she was declared legally dead in 1991.
2 Regrettably, Baathist government jamming of foreign TV signals apparently kept the generals from hearing Bush’s recommendation.