The Assassination Attempt of July 20, 1944

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The explosive charge in the briefcase Oberst Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg placed under the conference table in Hitler’s headquarters in Rastenburg did not kill the dictator. The attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944 miscarried. The other plans for the coup d'état, so-called “Operation Valkyrie”, thus also failed. The entire putsch attempt came to naught.

Over 200 people associated with the “conspirators” to a lesser or greater extent fell victim to Hitler’s vengeance.

Other than the attempted coup suggests, “July 20” was never a united movement. Rather, it consisted of several resistance factions and circles, which were very loosely associated with one another through individuals. The bulk of its members came from the social, political and military elites that had fiercely combatted the Weimar democracy earlier.

Nonetheless, “July 20” was not a homogeneous group by any means. The involvement of former Social Democrats such as Julius Leber, Wilhelm Leuschner, Carlo Mierendorff and Theodor Haubach already refutes this idea. This resistance had young and old members and correspondingly sharp, even generational conflicts – between Carl Goerdeler and Stauffenberg for instance. This resistance group included some who predominantly thought and acted militarily as well as very civilian elements.

There were Nazi opponents from the outset such as Helmuth Graf James von Moltke and “old warriors of the Nazi movement” such as Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf and Fritz Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg. Lastly, there were also dark spots on the resistance of “July 20”. Later conspirators such as the generals Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel and Erich Hoepner and even the Gestapo man Arthur Nebe must, as military historian Manfred Messerschmidt writes, be counted among the executors of the policy of extermination.

The large number of aristocrats involved in “July 20” by no means sprang from a general oppositional or resistant attitude of German aristocracy as a whole. Contrary to a long prevailing opinion that the resistance on “July 20” had been resistance for the sake of honor and decency from the outset, the attempt to assassinate Hitler stood at the end of a long road that had not proceeded in a straight line, but rather had taken many about-faces and detours.

The political actions of most of the conspirators, who often enough were involved in the policy of occupation and the machinery of war in their everyday professional life, entailed a balancing act between complicity and resistance, collaboration and protest, loyalty and opposition. Fundamental opposition without ifs ands or buts was the major exception after 1933. The decision to risk one’s own life to overthrow Hitler was by no means present from the start, but rather evolved initially from

- partial opposition against certain groups in the regime such as the SS,

- growing aversion to the new leaders’ mediocrity and corruptness,

- and, not least, sharp criticism of military actions such as the war against the western Allies and Hitler’s military dilettantism on the so-called Eastern Front.

Nonetheless, the more apparent the regime’s criminal character became, the more the military and political motives became eclipsed by moral ones. Many a conspirator’s abhorrence of the regime’s inhumane nature was attended by a reassessment of his Christian faith. The strong emphasis on Christian values as the moral antithesis of the criminal Nazi regime is therefore characteristic of the resistance group behind July 20.

The Gestapo’s interrogation transcripts reveal that roughly twenty of the most active conspirators testified to a Christian motivation for their thoughts and deeds and that July 20, 1944 was imbued with an extraordinarily strong relationship with the Christian church. A relationship with Christianity was expressed not only in the interrogation transcripts but also in the farewell letters of those condemned to death such as Hans-Bernd von Haeften or Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort.

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  • Adam Karr, public domain

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