While a fascist dictatorship can transform the simplest acts of human kindness into acts of courageous opposition by making human decency and compassion crimes, no dictatorship has ever been toppled by kindness. Once a dictator is entrenched and surrounded by a fascist state, only force will end it. It took the combined military might of the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire to destroy Hitler's fascist state. Another form of force would have saved millions and millions of innocent lives -- not just the Allied soldiers that fell in the liberation of Europe, but the victims of Nazi racism in the death camps. Namely, a military coup d'etat.
In a dictatorship, such a coup is predicated on the elimination of the "Leader" adulated by the gullible majority. We know of at least 42 different plans to assassinate Hitler. They all failed for one reason or another. One of these attempts stands out for its sheer genius, while two others deserve an "honorable mention." All were made in 1943.
At the Headquarters of Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front, the First General Staff Officer, Oberstleutnant Henning von Tresckow, collected around himself a staff of like-minded officers - men fundamentally opposed to the criminal Nazi regime. Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Tresckow had been shocked and appalled by the criminal nature of the orders issued to the subordinate commands. He recognised that such orders as the "Commissar Order" and the "Barbarossa Instructions" were clear violations of international law, and he convinced his commander, Feldmarschall von Bock to protest to the C-in-C of the Army, Generaloberst von Brauchitsch, but to no effect. By the winter of 1941, he and the men around him at Army Group Centre Headquarters had seen exactly where these barbaric orders led: to atrocities against the helpless and unarmed, whether prisoners of wars or Russian civilians. After becoming witnesses to a large-scale massacre of Jews, Tresckow decided that Hitler and his regime could be tolerated no longer. Hitler had to be eliminated – like a mad dog.
Tresckow sent one of his staff to Berlin with the mission of finding if there wasn't anyone left in the German capital who was as determined as he to eliminate the Nazi dictatorship. The trail led – logically – to Generaloberst Beck, and Beck put Tresckow in touch with both Oster and Olbricht. Henceforth, the Conspiracy had three central operative cells: Oster in Counter Intelligence, responsible for the assassination, Olbricht in GAO, responsible for planning the coup that would follow the assassination, and Tresckow in Army Group Centre, responsible for recruiting a active Field Marschal who would lend his name and troops to the coup.
By the autumn of 1942, however, Tresckow had still not managed to talk his superior, Feldmarschall von Kluge, into condoning treason. Kluge fundamentally sympathized with the sentiments of his staff, but he shied away from treason in time of war. Olbricht, impatient for action, suggested they could wait no longer, and must rely on the troops of the Home Army alone to carry out the coup after a successful assassination. At almost the same time, however, the Gestapo started showing excessive interest in the activities of the Counter-Intelligence Department. Oster was forced to suspend his resistance activities, and Tresckow therefore assumed responsibility for the assassination planning.
The winter of 1942-1943 brought the reverse in Germany's military fortunes that
the military resistance leaders had long anticipated. With the tragedy of
Stalingrad already in the offing, the military conspirators wanted to be ready
to exploit the inevitable shock on the part of the population that was due to
follow. Olbricht explicitly asked Tresckow to give him eight weeks time to get
the coup plans (which had been much neglected during the summer of German
victories) up-to-date. At the end of February 1943, Olbricht passed the word to
Tresckow: "We're finished. The trigger can be pulled."
Tresckow was ready. He had at last succeeded in winning over the support of GFM v. Kluge. Kluge - in despair over Hitler's dilettantish and stubborn command style during the disastrous winter of 1942-1943 - was ready to put himself and so his entire Army Group in the service of the coup on the condition that Hitler was dead. More important, however, Kluge had managed to convince Hitler's staff that the dictator should personally visit Army Group Centre.
Once Hitler had committed himself to visiting Army Group Centre, Tresckow's only problem was deciding how to kill him. There were various options. Individual officers on (or closely associated with) his staff, notably Georg Freiherr von Boeselager, were extremely good marksmen. Boeselager volunteered to shoot Hitler at close range. But Tresckow knew that Hitler would be surrounded by loyal henchmen and body guards. It would be comparatively easy to overpower a lone assassin or disrupt his aim simply by jostling him or yanking the dictator out of danger at the right moment.
The idea therefore evolved into a joint assassination in which all members of the conspiracy attending the luncheon for Hitler would collectively shoot him. Yet on the day of Hitler's visit to Army Group Centre, 13 March 1943, Hitler ate his meal surrounded by officers determined to murder him without suffering any harm. Why? Because Oberst von Tresckow had come up with a far better idea.
From Oster, Tresckow had obtained captured British plastic explosives. These he fashioned into the shape of a cognac bottle, wrapped like a gift, and then – having watched Hitler board the aircraft waiting to fly him back to Berlin - asked another officer in the very act of boarding to take the package back to Berlin as a gift to a mutual friend. The explosive had a 30-minute fuse, and Tresckow set this off before turning the package over to the innocent "courier."
It was the perfect assassination plan. If all had gone according to plan, the bomb would have exploded while Hitler's plane was flying over territory controlled by Soviet partisans. The aircraft would thus have crashed deep inside partisan territory, and it would have taken days to recover the pieces much less start an investigation. Meanwhile, Hitler would have been dead, and the "Valkyrie" orders would have long since have been issued completely legally.
Furthermore, because the explosives used were British, the initial suspicion would have fallen on foreign saboteurs rather than domestic opponents. Meanwhile, the military resistance would executed the secret aspects of "Plan Valkyrie," i.e. attacking the organs of the Nazi state, while the SS and Nazi Party were still stunned by the loss of their "infallible leader" – if they weren't bitterly fighting one another to succeed him. The population at large would most likely have supported the army because their faith in the Nazi leadership had been shattered by the recent loss of an entire army at Stalingrad. The increasing devastation of German cities caused by the Anglo-American air offensive was also taking its toll on German moral and loyalty to the regime. The Army on the other hand still enjoyed immense prestige – particularly compared to the increasingly obvious corruption and egotism of low-level Nazi officials.
But although the detonator worked, the explosives failed to ignite. The
explosion did not take place. Hitler's aircraft landed safely. Tresckow had to
call the alleged recipient of the "gift" and retrieve the bomb before
it could be discovered and suspicions aroused.
The "perfect" assassination had failed, but the necessity of assassinating Hitler remained.
Just eight days later Tresckow found a second opportunity to try to kill Hitler. A representative of Army Group Centre staff was requested to be present in Berlin at the festive opening of an exhibit of captured Soviet equipment and weapons. Hitler was scheduled to open the exhibition, and one of the conspirators, Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, volunteered to carry out a suicide attack on Hitler.
While this assassination plan was not so perfect as the one in the aircraft, nevertheless it had clear chances of success given the mood in Germany at this time, so shortly after the surrender at Stalingrad. Again the use of English explosives would have deflected suspicions from the German Army and certainly no one had any reason to associate a low-level staff officer from Army Group Centre with General Olbricht and "Valkyrie."
Despite this second failure, the military conspiracy did not lose heart. Over the next months, a number of other officers offered to sacrifice themselves in order to kill Hitler, but for a variety of reasons, none of these men came close to carrying out an assassination until in November 1943. Then Axel von dem Bussche agreed to model the new uniform designed for the Eastern Front before Hitler personally – and use the opportunity to eliminate the dictator.
Bussche wanted no English plastic explosives with a long fuse. His plan was to pull the "plug" on a standard-issue German hand-grenade and then clasp Hitler in his arms until they were both blown to pieces. Bussche went to Hitler's HQ in East Prussia, the so-called "Wolf's Lair" or Wolfschanze, and waited for the arrival of the uniform he was to model. It didn't come. It had been destroyed in an air-raid. Bussche's home leave expired and he had to return to his unit on the Eastern Front. Here he was severely wounded and soon lost a leg. He was lying in an SS hospital – with the plastic explosives he had decided not to use in a suitcase under his bed - on 20 July 1944. His wounds – and the fact that other conspirators did not betray his name even under Gestapo torture – saved his life. But until his death from natural causes decades later, he blamed himself for his failure.
My novel, "Traitors for the Sake of Humanity," depicts the difficulties of assassinating a dictator surrounded by fanatical followers -- among other things. Find out more and read reviews of "Traitors" at the publisher's website: Cross Seas Press.