Seventy years ago, on D-Day, June 6th. 1944, 156,000 British, Canadian and American soldiers came ashore on the beaches in Normandy. In the days that followed, more than 2 million men and 500,000 armored vehicles would cross the English Channel. Code-named “Operation Overlord,” it was the greatest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare. It was a force that would eventually drive the Germans out of occupied Western Europe and bring about the conquest of Nazi Germany and the end of Hitler’s Third Reich.
This weekend on July 20th., we will observe another anniversary. An anniversary, that over the years, has divided authors, journalists and historians. For it was on this day, seventy years ago, an attempt was made to assassinate Hitler.
Since the rise of the Nazi party and the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor of Nazi Germany, more than a dozen attempts were made on the life of Hitler. Yet, this one remains the most daring, most promising and yet the most bewildering.
Most confusing, because of the involvement of high ranking Nazi officers, chief among them being Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who many consider a hero while others like Field Marshall Erwin Rommel was of the opinion that Stauffenberg bungled everything where a single front line soldier would have finished Hitler off.
Stauffenberg was born into one of the oldest, wealthiest and most distinguished aristocratic Catholic family in Southern Germany. He was well educated and inclined to literature but chose instead a military career. Although he was a conservative German patriot, he was initially not in complete opposition to the ideals of Nazism, especially in the area of nationalism.
He served Hitler faithfully and brilliantly in leading combat positions in all of his Fuhrer’s military campaigns – from the Sudetenland, to Poland, to France, to Russia and to North Africa. For his valor, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class.
In 1939, he led an armored division against Poland – a country that responded to the invasion with the cavalry! Initially, he tolerated the occupation and the use of Poles as slave laborers. In a letter, he wrote the following to his wife, Nina: “The population here is unbelievable; a great many Jews and a lot of mixed race. A people who are only comfortable under the lash. The thousands of prisoners will serve our agriculture well.” He still held the deeply rooted belief, common in Germany aristocracy, that the eastern territories, populated predominately by Poles, should be colonized as the Teutonic Knights had done in the Middle Ages.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union, launched in 1941 and the accompanying mass murder of Jews and the starvation and atrocities committed against Soviet prisoners of war, appalled Stauffenberg and convinced him to sympathize with resistance groups within the Wehrmacht. But it was now 1942 and Hitler was at the height of his power. Neither Stauffenberg or his fellow officers did anything significant about this. Instead he forged ahead with his military ambitions.
In 1943, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and sent to North Africa to join the 10th. Panzer Division as its First Officer. It was here that he eventually found his God – not in a burning bush in the desert, but in his burning vehicle that was strafed by allied planes. He lost his left eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left hand. For his injuries, he was awarded the Wounded Badge in gold and for his courage, the German Cross in gold. After his recovery, he was selected as Chief of Staff of the Replacement Army that put him in close proximity to Hitler who always considered him to be his favorite commanding officer.
It was now July,1944. The Italians had not only surrendered, but had switched sides. The Russians, branded by Rommel as inhuman foes, were slaughtering the Nazis on the Eastern front and perilously close to Berlin. D-Day had already taken place and the outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion. Even though, Stauffenberg was a dedicated Nazi military officer in Hitler’s killing (war) machine, it miraculously dawned on him that he was after all not a true Nazi and for some time after his injuries, he had been plotting with other high ranking Nazi officers to get rid of Hitler.
The plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944 failed and the rest is history. Enraged at the attempt on his life, Hitler ordered that the very name “Stauffenberg” be erased from memory.
Today, we are faced with the agonizing and daunting task to determine whether Stauffenberg to be a hero or a coward and procrastinator for having waited until the tide of war to change. Would Stauffenberg and Rommel who planted millions of mines along the coast of Calais, have proceeded with the assassination attempt if the allies had been pushed back into the sea on D-Day?
In all fairness and as a footnote, it must be mentioned that Rommel’s son, Manfred, served with honor in the German government. Stauffenberg’s son, Berthold, became a Major-General in the West German Bundeswehr and spent most of his years in the Cold War ear, preparing for another war with the Soviet Union that never came.