It was the worst of times. By July 1944, Nazi Germany was in the last throes of a dreadful and humiliating collapse. In September 1943, Italy had not only surrendered, but had switched sides. D-Day June 6th 1944 saw the largest invasion fleet in history land in Normandy where Allied armies punched a hole in the seemingly impregnable walls of Hitlers “Fortress Europe.” The war on the Eastern Front was a total disaster. From the gates of Moscow to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Nazis were in retreat and in total disarray. In the Battle of Kursk in the Soviet Union, the Nazis had assembled a force of 570,000 men and 2500 tanks. Opposing the Wehrmacht were 970,000 Russians and 3,300 tanks. It became a colossal clash of steel and explosive power. At its roaring crescendo, thousands of armored behemoths would be locked in the greatest tank battle ever fought, blasting away at point-blank range in a brutal slugging match. When the last wisps of smoke had cleared from the scorched earth, the outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion and the Nazi dream of being masters of Europe had been completely shattered.
Something had to be done before Germany was brutally crushed and trampled under the conqueror’s heel. Memories of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles in 1919 reared its ugly head. That treaty ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. One of the most important and controversial provision required Germany, treated like a pariah, accept responsibility for causing all the loss and damage during the war. The treaty forced Germany to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions and pay reparations. This was known as the War Guilt Clause and became an unbearable burden during the Great Depression when Germans had enough money to paper their walls, but not enough to buy a loaf of bread. The decision to do something weighed heavily on the shoulders of a few high ranking officers, chief among them was Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg. This tightly knit group was determined to find a peace treaty with the Allies that would leave Germany to the Germans, the country unoccupied and the eradication of the Nazi party. But first, Hitler had to be eliminated.
The Stauffenberg family was one of the oldest, wealthiest and most distinguished aristocratic, Catholic families in Southern Germany. Yet, they did nothing during the war and were more concerned in acquiring petrol for their fancy motor cars. Claus was carefully educated and was more inclined to literature, but eventually chose a military career. His unit was among the Wehrmacht troops that moved into Sudetenland following its annexation to the Reich as per the 1938 Munich Agreement. In 1939, as a lieutenant, he led an armored division against Poland – a country that answered the invasion with the cavalry! Initially, he tolerated the occupation of that country and the use of Poles as slave laborers. In a letter from Poland to his wife, Nina, he wrote the following: “The population here is unbelievable: a great many Jews and a people of mixed races who are more comfortable under the lash. The thousands of prisoners will serve our agriculture well and will lead to German prosperity.”
He served as an officer in France where he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. He was very impressed with the overwhelming military success of the Wehrmacht which he attributed to the genius of Hitler. When “Operation Barbarossa” – the invasion of the Soviet Union was launched on June 22nd 1941, Stauffenberg directed operations on the Eastern Front.
In 1943, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and sent to North Africa to join the 10th. Panzer Division as its first officer. By now, Stauffenberg was a dedicated Nazi Officer in Hitler’s killing war machine. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had launched his counter offensive against the Allied forces in Tunisia but had failed to make a break through. Rommel’s once vaunted Afrika Korp was pushed against the sea, trapped by the Americans from the west and the British from the east. The fighting was savage and intense and German casualties were very high. During the fighting, Stauffenberg was driving from one unit to another when his vehicle was strafed by Allied planes. He was seriously injured. He lost his left eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left hand. It was here that he found his God – not in a burning bush in the desert but in his burning vehicle.
By now, he was a confused Catholic and vacillated between a strong personal dislike of Hitler’s policies and a respect for what he perceived to be Hitler’s military acumen. His uncle Nicholas had previously approached him to join the resistance movement against the Hitler regime. Stauffenberg declined, reasoning that all German soldiers had pledged allegiance, not to the German Reich, but to the person of Adolf Hitler. As such and as a good Catholic, he felt bound by his oath. Inwardly, he struggled with his conscience wondering if it was right to sacrifice one’s soul if one might, thereby, save thousands of lives. He was torn between his loyalty to Germany and his sense of honor. He finally concluded it was not only right but imperative and as a Catholic, there could only be one decision — and that decision was to eliminate Hitler.
The Wolf’s Lair was Hitler’s Eastern Front military headquarters. The complex was built for the start of “Operation Barbarossa” — the invasion of the Soviet Union. The top secret, high security site was built in the Masurian Forest in Eastern Prussia. Three security zones surrounded the central complex where Hitler’s bunker was located. A facility for army headquarters was built near the Wolf’s Lair complex. Hitler had adopted the nickname “Wolf” and began using the nickname in early 1930s. He was addressed as such by his intimate circle. Despite its security, it was decided the assassination of Hitler would take place at this location. Stauffenberg would carry a bomb in his briefcase into the daily conference meeting and place it a few feet away from Hitler. He would then excuse himself on the pretext of making a telephone call.
On July 20th 1944, at 12.42 pm. the bomb exploded. Without waiting to see the results of his plot, Stauffenberg leaped into his car, bluffed his way past two checkpoints and boarded a plane for Berlin. Behind him, his fellow anti-Hitler conspirators were supposed to shut down the Wolf’s Lair’s communications network while the their colleagues in Berlin launched a plan, code named “Valkyrie.” It was a strategy devised by Stauffenberg for a military coup to seize power from the Nazis. However, they were horrified to learn that the “Wolf” had survived. Hitler, battered and bruised, but definitely alive, staggered from the ruins of the shattered conference room where four members of his entourage lay dead or dying.
News was rapidly spreading that Hitler was indeed alive. Generals who had previously promised support now drew back in fear of Hitler’s revenge. By nightfall, the coup had collapsed. Stauffenberg and three of his closest colleagues were overpowered and shot by a firing squad. His last words were,”Love live our sacred Germany!”
As we approach the 73rd. anniversary of that failed and fateful event, questions have arisen. Would Stauffenberg have carried out his plot to assassinate Hitler had the Nazis pushed the Allies back into the sea on D-Day? Lest we forget, Field Marshall Rommel, the Desert Fox, was in charge of defending “Fortress Europe.” He chose to lay millions of mine along the coast of Calais, because he was sure that would be the site of the Allied landing. He even predicted that when the invasion did come, the next 24 hours would be most crucial. It would be the Longest Day. Would he have carried on as a seasoned commander and dedicated Nazi had the Allies failed to make a successful landing? When he failed to stop the invasion and the plot to kill Hitler crumbled, he committed suicide rather than face a trial.
As we look back, we hope history will be kind to Stauffenberg. He was an incredible military commander. He was a proud German and a religious man with a philosophical trait. He spoke out against the persecution of the Jews and the starvation of millions of Soviet prisoners of war. Nazi Germany with its army of thugs, crooks and time servers was no place for nobility. The ignominious defeat of in World War I and the harsh conditions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles weighed heavily on him. With the rise of Hitler and his pledges and promises, he was swayed to take up a military career in order to make Germany great again! He failed to realize the danger when Hitler openly called for a one party state. He failed to take action when Hitler wrote that the blood of Jews is so putrid that they are not even human beings. They were sub-human! Above all, he failed to comprehend the danger of swearing allegiance to a leader and not to a country — something frightening when we realize that we have today, a President who is seeking the same thing.
Hopefully, we will learn from history.