20 July 1944 and Aftermath II

In private, leading Wehrmacht officers were divided in their views on war prospects. Alongside the loyalists, and the front commanders who seldom had the time for lengthy contemplation and, in any case, had little perspective on the overall position, were those whose views on Germany’s military and political prospects were far from rosy. Hitler himself had, for years, castigated the allegedly defeatist and negative attitudes that, in his jaundiced opinion, characterized the General Staff of the Army, responsible for overall operational planning in the east. His mounting and bitter disagreements with the Chief of the General Staff, Franz Halder, had led to the latter’s replacement in September 1942 by the energetic and dynamic Kurt Zeitzler. But, worn out by the constant conflict with Hitler that had reached its climax with the destruction of Army Group Centre, Zeitzler suffered a nervous breakdown at the end of June 1944. He had just told Hitler that the war was militarily lost and that ‘something had to be done to end it’.

Zeitzler was expressing a sentiment then widespread within the General Staff, according to a letter composed in his defence by his adjutant, Oberstleutnant Günther Smend, on 1 August 1944. Smend had been arrested for his connection with the Stauffenberg plot and would be sentenced to death on 14 August and executed on 8 September. His letter may well have been preceded by torture and somewhat exaggerated the subversive feeling at General Staff Headquarters. It gives, nevertheless, a clear insight into the mood. Facing almost certain execution, Smend had no obvious reason to dissemble. Doubts about a final victory had mounted, wrote Smend, since the catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943. The widening gulf between the recommendations of the General Staff and Hitler’s decisions had given rise to strong criticism of the Führer, notably in the Operations Section, and this had not been dampened by senior officers. Indeed, the head of the section, General Adolf Heusinger, had himself been party to the condemnation of Hitler’s war leadership. There was no longer any firm belief in Hitler. The mood in the entire General Staff was one of despair, prompted especially by the disasters in the east but also by the bad news on all fronts, leading to the conclusion that the war was lost. Critical mistakes had been made, and Hitler was seen as a military liability. On the day of his breakdown, Zeitzler had, according to Smend, been blunt in his assessment of the situation in speaking to Hitler. He had recommended the appointment of Himmler as a ‘homeland dictator’ to drive through the total-war effort that had been propagated but not implemented with the necessary rigour. Thereafter, with Zeitzler out of action and the General Staff effectively leaderless for almost a month, the mood grew that ‘the Führer can’t do it’. Opinion hardened that ‘it’s all madness’. Young officers, especially, held Hitler responsible. It was common knowledge, wrote Smend, that ideas of eliminating Hitler were in circulation.

On 20 July 1944 such ideas – engendered, adumbrated and elaborated in a conspiracy involving prominent figures in the armed forces, military intelligence, the Foreign Ministry, and other sectors of the regime’s leadership – culminated in the attempt on Hitler’s life undertaken by Count Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and the subsequent failed coup d’état launched from the headquarters of the Replacement Army in Berlin. Stauffenberg had placed a bomb under Hitler’s table at a military briefing just after noon that day at Führer Headquarters in East Prussia. The bomb had exploded, killing or badly injuring most of those present in the wooden barrack-hut. But Hitler had survived with only minor injuries. Once it had been plainly established that Hitler was alive, support had drained away from the coup planned to follow his presumed death, which collapsed in the course of the evening. Stauffenberg and three other close collaborators were shot by a firing squad late that night. The other plotters were soon rounded up. Most were tortured, subjected to appalling show trials, and then barbarously executed.

Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt marked an internal shift in the history of the Third Reich. With the failure of the plot came not only the fearful reprisals against those involved but also a sharp radicalization of the regime, both in repression and in mobilization. The aftermath of the failed plot had a significant impact on the governmental structures of the regime, on the mentalities of the civilian and military elite (to some extent, too, on the ordinary public), and on remaining possibilities both for ‘regime change’ and for ending the war.

Looking back during his post-war interrogations in May 1945, Göring thought it had been impossible to organize an effective anti-Hitler movement at the time of the bomb plot. So, in the same month, did General Hoßbach, Hitler’s one-time Wehrmacht adjutant. According to Hoßbach, the attempt on Hitler’s life had no basis of support in the mass of the people or the Wehrmacht. ‘Despite all setbacks, Hitler still enjoyed high popularity in 1944,’ he adjudged. The association of Hitler with patriotic support for the country at war was a strong bond, making it extremely difficult ‘to topple the god’. Indeed, those engaged in the plot to kill Hitler knew only too well that their actions lacked popular backing. Stauffenberg himself accepted that he would ‘go down in German history as a traitor’. The immediate reactions to the events of 20 July lend credence to such views.

Among ordinary Germans, there was a widespread sense of deep shock and consternation at the news of the failed assassination. Effusive outpourings of loyalty and support for the Führer were immediately registered in all quarters, alongside furious outrage at the ‘tiny clique’ of ‘criminal’ officers (as Hitler had labelled them) who had perpetrated such a vile deed, and rank disbelief that such base treachery could have been possible. It would, of course, have been near suicidal to voice regrets in public that Hitler had survived – though certainly that was the private feeling of a good many people. So the recorded expressions of support inevitably provide a distorted impression of attitudes. This was even more the case with the extremes of pro-Hitler fervour emanating from the big ‘loyalty rallies’ staged within days all over Germany by a revitalized Nazi Party straining every sinew to mobilize the population by orchestrating ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations of joy at the Führer’s survival and outrage at the monstrous attempt to assassinate him. Even so, all the indications are that there was an upsurge of genuine pro-Hitler feeling in the immediate aftermath of the attack on his life.

The SD took immediate soundings of opinion on the day after the assassination attempt. ‘All reports agree that the announcement of the attempt has produced the strongest feelings of shock, dismay, anger and rage,’ ran the summary of initial reactions. Women were said to have broken into tears of joy in shops or on the open streets in Königsberg and Berlin at Hitler’s survival. ‘Thank God the Führer is alive,’ was a common expression of relief. ‘What would we have done without the Führer?’ people asked. Hitler was seen as the only possible bulwark against Bolshevism. Many thought his death would have meant the loss of the Reich. It was at first surmised that the strike against Hitler was the work of enemy agents, though this presumption soon gave way to recognition that it had been treachery from within, and fury at the fact that this had come from German officers.

Reports from the regional propaganda offices across the country told the same story. People were shaken by what had happened, but it had strengthened trust in the Führer. Some officers, it was said, felt the reputation of the army to have been so besmirched by the treachery that they wanted to transfer to the Waffen-SS. There was much speculation about how the attack could have happened: the Wehrmacht had been given too much freedom, and the Führer kept uninformed about what was happening. He had been too lenient towards his generals, simply dismissing rather than executing them when they had failed in their duties. It was taken for granted that a ‘new wind’ would now blow. There was a demand for severe reprisals against the ‘traitors’ and for them to be publicly named. Wild rumours circulated implying the involvement of a number of leading military figures, including the former Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Walther von Brauchitsch, Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, who had recently been replaced as Commander-in-Chief West, and even Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the High Command of the Wehrmacht. People could not understand how such a plot could have gone unnoticed. They were disturbed that at the very heart of the army there had been those working against the Führer’s intentions and actions. It was not long before sabotage from within came to be seen as the obvious reason for the recent disastrous collapse of Army Group Centre.

Coloured though such reports were, they nevertheless represented strands of genuine opinion. People sent in money in thanksgiving for Hitler’s survival. Substantial amounts were collected and passed to the NSV to provide for children orphaned by the war. One woman, the wife of a worker and mother of several children, accompanied her gift of 40 Reich Marks to the Red Cross with a note to her local Party office, stating that her donation was ‘Out of great love of the Führer, because nothing happened to him.’ She was happy, she wrote, ‘that our Führer has been preserved for us. May he live long yet and lead us to victory.’ A corporal apologized to his wife for being unable to send any money home at the beginning of August since he had donated it all to a Wehrmacht collection to show gratitude for the Führer. Many, he said, had given much more. However obliged they might have felt to contribute to the collection, the level of generosity was beyond what was necessary.

Many letters and contemporary entries in private diaries reflect unforced pro-Hitler feelings. ‘I don’t think I’m wrong when I say in such a sad hour for all of us: “Germany stands or falls in this struggle with the person of Adolf Hitler,” ’ ran one diary entry for 21 July from a young pro-Nazi, a prisoner of war in Texas. ‘If this attack on Adolf Hitler had been successful, I am convinced that our homeland would now be in chaos.’ This was no exception. More than two-thirds of prisoners of war in American captivity indicated their belief in Hitler in the weeks after the assassination attempt, a rise on levels prior to the bomb plot. Faith in the Führer was also still strong among serving frontline soldiers. ‘The high number of joyful expressions about the salvation of the Führer’ in letters home from soldiers at the front was remarked upon by the censor. It was as well to be extremely careful in expressing any negative views in letters that might be picked up by the censor. But there was no need for effusive pro-Hitler comments. Similar sentiments could be read in the letters that soldiers received. ‘I cannot imagine how things would have developed without the Führer in view of the present situation in our country,’ wrote one woman in Munich to her husband. A major in the supply unit of an infantry division behind the lines headed his diary entry for 20 July: ‘Evening. Bad news. Attack on the Führer’, noting next day, after hearing Hitler’s late-night broadcast, that it was only a small clique of officers, and that a purge would follow. ‘It’s a crying shame’, he added, that this should take place, and with the Russians ‘at the gates’. Another officer, on the western front, and evidently sceptical about the course of the war, next day revised his initial view that it had been merely a small officers’ clique and saw the attack as ‘an entire plot against A[dolf] H[itler]’, denoting a split in the Wehrmacht between loyalists and opponents. He recalled someone who had known Stauffenberg speaking of him as an excellent officer and courageous soldier. But he was ‘evidently politically stupid’, he added.

In the upper ranks of the army, too, the response was highly supportive of the regime.47 There was immediate dismay and condemnation of Stauffenberg’s strike at the head of the armed forces in the midst of a world war. The reaction of Colonel-General Georg-Hans Reinhardt provides a telling example. He was an experienced and capable commander who remained a Hitler loyalist despite having to comply with the absurd orders from the Führer in late June 1944 that prevented the retreat of his 3rd Panzer Army, resulting in its destruction by the Soviets. He was distraught at the news of the attempt on Hitler’s life. ‘Thank God he is saved,’ was his immediate reaction, in consternation and disbelief that such a thing had been possible. ‘Completely broken’, he added next day. ‘Incomprehensible! What has this done to our officer class? We can only feel deepest shame.’ His belief in Hitler remained intact, as did his sense of duty at fulfilling the will of the Führer. ‘Duty calls. I will go where the Führer commands,’ he wrote on taking over command of the remnants of Army Group Centre a month later. ‘It’s a matter of justifying his trust.’ General Hermann Balck, a teak-hard tank commander and seasoned campaigner on the eastern front, a strong loyalist and highly regarded by Hitler for his dynamic leadership of armoured formations, had known and admired Stauffenberg, but was forthright in his condemnation of him as a ‘criminal’. His act, which Balck regarded as comparable with the killing of Caesar by Brutus, had made Germany’s difficult situation worse. He saw the causes in a long-standing inability within the officer corps to place ‘oath and honour’ above all else. The ‘General Staff’s revolt’ was ‘shameful’ for the officer corps. But it appeared to be a ‘cleansing storm’ at just the right time. Now there would have to be a merciless purge of all conspirators, a tabula rasa. ‘For us it means attaining victory despite everything under the banner of the Führer,’ he concluded.

Officers who were far from outright Nazis in their sentiments still faced the perceived dilemma that, even in the plight that had befallen Germany, killing Hitler appeared an intensely unpatriotic act which undermined the fighting front, was morally wrong in itself and constituted a betrayal of the oath of loyalty to the Führer. Such attitudes, whatever the doubts about Hitler’s leadership qualities, made Germany’s military leaders for the most part instinctive loyalists. Proxy for many who felt this way was General Hoßbach, later to be sacked by Hitler as commander of the 4th Army during the last battles for East Prussia in early 1945. Reflecting on the bomb plot less than a fortnight after Germany’s capitulation in May that year, and in full recognition of the calamitous losses and colossal destruction of the last months of the war, Hoßbach offered no realistic alternative to what had taken place. He accepted the patriotic need for the armed forces to ‘redeem Germany from the domination of a criminal clique’. But how this might be achieved he left uncertain. He condemned the attempt to overthrow Hitler’s regime by assassination and coup d’état as ‘immoral and un-Christian’, a ‘stab in the back’, and the ‘most disgraceful treason against our army’. In rejecting force, however, his only alternative seemed to presuppose a collective challenge to Hitler’s disastrous leadership by the generals. Since he acknowledged that the bonds with Hitler, both within the Wehrmacht and among the people generally, were still very strong in 1944, it is not clear how he imagined that such a collective challenge might have been possible.

The revival of support for Hitler personally and the corresponding shrill demand for severe reprisals against the ‘traitors’ and a drastic cleansing of those allegedly sabotaging the war effort crucially gave the regime a new lease of life at a most critical juncture. It offered the opportunity, which Nazi leaders were only too keen to grasp, for a thoroughgoing radicalization of every aspect of regime and society, aimed at imbuing in a country with its back to the wall the true National Socialist ideals and fighting spirit necessary to fend off rapacious enemies.

The days immediately following the failed assassination attempt saw extended power pass to Himmler, Goebbels and Bormann. Speer, the fourth big baron, found himself squeezed in the contest dominated by this trio. Even so, his own position, in charge of armaments, still left him irreplaceable and retaining formidable influence. Between them, these four men controlled most of the avenues of power and did much to direct the course of the regime in its final months. They did so, however, within the framework of Hitler’s own supreme authority, which none sought to challenge. On the contrary, their own individual power-bases were derived directly from it. In this way, the bonds with the Führer, which had been a decisive element of his charismatic authority from the early days of the Nazi movement and had become a constituent element of the regime after 1933, remained intact and prevented any internal collapse. The corrosive impact of charismatic authority on the structures of government was also undiminished. Still, now as before, there was no unified government beneath Hitler. The quadrumvirate, far from acting as a coherent body, were to the last effectively at war with each other, trying to use access to Hitler to jockey for power and compete with each other for resources and expanded areas of competence.