Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, August 20, 2021

The Final Throw of the Dice - 20 July 1944

 20 July 1944 saw the final attempt by the German military resistance to assassinate Hitler and bring down his murderous and corrupt regime. We all know it failed, but the reasons for that failure have often been misrepresented or misunderstood. 

Early on the morning of 20 July 1944 Stauffenberg again flew to Hitler's HQ in East Prussia with the intention of killing Hitler. Nearly all the principle conspirators were informed about the imminent assassination attempt and warned to be on the alert to fulfill their assigned roles.  Since the briefing at which Stauffenberg would have the opportunity to set off his bomb was scheduled for 13.00, no one expected any thing to happen before that time.

In the Wolfschanze, however, the daily briefing was moved forward by half an hour due to the expected arrival of Mussolini. Stauffenberg activated the fuses on the bomb in one of his briefcases, placed this bomb under the briefing table close to where Hitler was standing and then slipped out of the briefing hut on the pretext of making a phone call. Shortly after 12.40 an explosion took place.  Stauffenberg immediately bluffed his way past the guards controlling the lock-down of Hitler's HQs.  He made it aboard the waiting aircraft and took off, just moments before all aircraft at the field were grounded.  He had succeeded in detonating a bomb in the room where Hitler was standing and in escaping the Wolfschanze with his life, but he had had no opportunity to telephone with Berlin. He was incommunicado until he landed.

General Fellgiebel, the man responsible for informing Olbricht about a successful assassination and then cutting Hitler's HQ off from the outside world, however, learned what Stauffenberg had not waited to find out: that Hitler had survived the blast. When Fellgiebel tried to pass this word on to the conspirators in Berlin, he discovered that someone else, the Deputy Commander of Hitler's HQ, had already taken control of all communications to and from the Wolfschanze.

Thus, it was not until 15.00 that the first news of an "incident" at Hitler's HQs reached the Bendlerstrasse. Olbricht requested more information and at about 15.30 was informed that an explosion had taken place in which several officers were severely injured. According to one version of events the cryptic message passed to Olbricht by his fellow-conspirator General Fellgiebel was: "Something terrible has happened.  The Führer lives!"

In short, the only thing that was clear to Olbricht by 15.30 on the afternoon of 20 July 1944 was that the assassination had failed.  It was not clear, whether Stauffenberg had been killed in his own attempt or had survived the blast only to be arrested.  This put Olbricht in a terrible dilemma.  After all, if Stauffenberg had blown himself up in some kind of accident, it would have been madness to set the coup in motion knowing Hitler was still alive.  In such a situation, the coup might still have had a chance at a latter date with a different assassin.

Shortly before 16.00, Stauffenberg and his adjutant landed at an airfield on the outskirts of Berlin and put a call through to Olbricht, in which Stauffenberg announced to Olbricht that Hitler was dead.  Olbricht went immediately to the C-in-C of the Home Army, Generaloberst Fromm, to try to persuade him, the only man authorized to issue "Valkyrie" in the event of Hitler's death, to do exactly that.  Had Hitler been dead, Fromm might very well have done so, but Fromm was skeptical.  He insisted on proof of Hitler's demise. Olbricht – trusting Stauffenberg's word – himself picked up the phone and put through a call to GFM von Keitel. Keitel, however, emphatically denied that Hitler had been killed.  Fromm consequently refused to issue "Valkyrie."  So Olbricht and his staff issued the orders illegally for a second time.

Between 16.30 and 16.45 Stauffenberg arrived back at the Headquarters of the Home Army.  He reported at once to Olbricht and again - euphorically - insisted that Hitler was dead.  Obviously, this was not true, but one must try to put oneself in Stauffenberg's shoes: after two unsuccessful assassination attempts, he had finally succeeded in detonating a bomb in Hitler's immediate vicinity and then, under highly dramatic circumstances, escaped alive.  Stauffenberg honestly didn't know that Hitler had survived the blast.  Nor did he know that Fellgiebel had failed to close down communications from OKW and that hence the entire Nazi apparatus was still fully functional.

Stauffenberg went with Olbricht to try to persuade Fromm to issue Valkyrie over his signature.  A heated argument ensued in which Stauffenberg claimed, completely fancifully, to have personally seen Hitler's body carried out of the briefing hut.  Olbricht then informed Fromm that "Valkyrie" had already been issued.  Stauffenberg furthermore admitted that he had himself set off the bomb – to which Fromm replied that in that case he ought to shoot himself at once.  Stauffenberg refused, and Olbricht confessed his complicity in the plot.  According to Fromm (the only man involved in this confrontation to survive long enough to be interrogated by the Gestapo) he told Olbricht he was under arrest, to which Olbricht replied that Fromm had mistaken the situation.  Two junior officers loyal to the conspirators were called and entered the office with drawn pistols.  They detained  Fromm under guard, while General Hoepner (as planned by the conspirators) took over Fromm's office and position.  The anti-Nazi Hoepner at once started issuing orders as "Commander-in-Chief" of the Home Army.

After this, the entire coup appeared to go according to plan.  Olbricht and Stauffenrberg went to work telephoning with key offices and commands, informing them of the situation, and generally driving the coup forward.  They answered questions and countered doubts voiced by both the initiated and the uninitiated.  One after another of the subordinate commands received and started carrying out the illegally issued orders.

But Hitler was not dead.  Furthermore, the conspirators at his HQ had been unable to cut off the Wolfschanze from the outside world, and hence Hitler's entire staff, OKW, was fully operational.  This meant that any commander who couldn't or didn't want to believe that Hitler was dead, could contact the Wolfschanze requesting confirmation or details.  Hitler's staff, that had initially assumed that the assassination was the act of a lone man, gradually grasped that in fact a coup was in progress in Berlin.

At roughly 18.00 the first counter-orders went out from OKW.  Keitel ordered that all orders signed by Fromm, Witzleben and Hoepner were null and void.  Furthermore, a public announcement was made over the radio informing the German people that an assassination attempt had been made, but that it had failed.

Thereafter, calls started to come into the Bendlerstrasse from confused subordinate commands where two, contradictory sets of orders had been received.  Olbricht and Stauffenberg tried to convince all these callers that the orders from OKW were the machinations of the SS in an effort to retain control of the state.  The Army, Olbricht and Stauffenberg assured the military commanders, was taking over now that Hitler was dead.  The implication was that the Army was finally "cleaning up" – something very many military men welcomed and supported whether they were part of the conspiracy or not.

As long as the situation remained unclear, the conspirators enjoyed a surprising degree of success.  But gradually doubts grew.  People started to ask themselves "what if Hitler is still alive?"  Clearly, if he were dead, there was no harm in "following orders," but if he were alive and they followed the wrong orders it would mean arrest, possibly torture, and death. Under these circumstances, when officers were confronted with two sets of contradictory orders, the political sentiments of the individual became decisive.  A comparison between the response to the orders in Paris and Military District II is particularly telling.

In Paris, where the Military Governor, General von Stülpnagel, was an opponent of Hitler's going back to the September Conspiracy of 1938, the orders from the Bendlerstrasse were followed willingly and with alacrity.  In Military District II, where the commander was not a conspirator, he could not bring himself to follow the "Valkyrie" orders because these were "clearly treasonous" – even though he admitted that "with his heart" he was on their side.

Likewise in Berlin, it was the certainty of Hitler's survival that turned the tide against the conspirators.  Most spectacularly, the always suspect (from the conspiracy's perspective) commander of the "Grossdeutschland Batallion," the unit responsible for sealing off the government district of Berlin, turned against the conspiracy - but only after speaking with Hitler personally. Major Remer first carried out his military orders meticulously. Goebbels, however, put a call through to the Wolfschanze, demanded to speak to Hitler personally, and then handed the receiver over to the awestruck major.  Major Remer became Hitler's ardent supporter at once.  Hitler personally promoted him two ranks and ordered him to crush the coup with his troops. From one minute to the next Remer went from keeping guard on the Propaganda Ministry to being the man determined to put down the coup.

Had the conspiracy succeeded in a having one of their own – say Axel von dem Bussche – in command of the "Grossdeutschland Batallion" on 20 July 1944, maybe even Hitler's survival would have been immaterial.  But for the vast majority of German officers – just as GFM v. Kluge had foreseen back in early 1943  – Hitler's death was the absolute prerequisite for action against the regime.

Even in the Bendlerstrasse itself, the increasing certainty that Hitler was alive eroded the support that Olbricht and Stauffenberg had initially enjoyed among their respective staffs.  Several officers of GAO decided it was time to go to General Olbricht and find out directly from him what was going on.  They confronted Olbricht at around 22.30 - fully armed since they had been asked to take over guard-duty.  As these officers assured me personally, they did not come in with pistols drawn and they did not threaten General Olbricht.  They still trusted him, but they no longer believed that they had been told the whole truth.

At this inopportune moment, Stauffenberg sought Olbricht out.  Seeing the other officers with their weapons, he decided to flee.  One of the officers shouted after Stauffenberg, ordering him to halt.  Stauffenberg did not.  Shots were fired. Stauffenberg was wounded.

Olbricht was now arrested and escorted by several of these staff officers to where Fromm was still being held in custody by junior officers loyal to the conspiracy.  Fromm was released and immediately ordered the known conspirators – Beck, Olbricht, Stauffenberg, and two others - arrested.  Without the slightest adherence to legal niceties, he summarily found them guilty of High Treason and sentenced them to death. Beck asked permission to shoot himself, and was granted this right. 

Meanwhile, the other four officers were taken down the winding, red-marble stairway from the GAO into the courtyard of the Bendlerstrasse.  A firing squad was hastily improvised and the south wall of the courtyard was lit by the headlights of staff cars.  The first four conspirators, Friedrich Olbricht, Claus Graf Stauffenberg, Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim and Werner von Haeften, were shot shortly after midnight.  More than 5,000 other conspirators and sympathizers followed them to an untimely death in the months to come.  The attempt to free Germany of the Nazis from within had failed.

The Courtyard of the General Staff HQ where Olbricht, Stauffenberg and others were executed without trial


The German Resistance to Hitler was the subject of my PhD thesis. At the time I was the first Western academic granted access to some military archives and documents in what was then still "East Germany." In addition, I conducted interviews with over one hundred survivors of Nazi Germany, both supporters and opponents of the regime. The research culminated in a published dissertation and, later, an English-language biography of General Friederich Olbricht based on the dissertation. It also inspired me to write a novel about the German Resistance, which was recently re-released in ebook format under the title: "Traitors for the Sake of Humanity." Find out more and read reviews of "Traitors" at the publisher's website: Cross Seas Press.



Friday, August 6, 2021

Fateful Failure on July 15, 1944

 While the deteriorating war situation increased the likelihood of public acceptance of a coup, it also made action against Hitler increasingly imperative. Meanwhile, time was running out in another respect as well: the Gestapo was closing in. 

In April 1943, Hans Oster, the conspirator inside German Counter-Intelligence department responsible for obtaining plastic explosives, was suspended from duty. One of his subordinates had been caught in a currency violation, and the Gestapo smelled something "fishy." Meanwhile, Tresckow had been promoted; his staff dispersed. On one of the three military cells of resistance remained: that at the General Army Office under General Friedrich Olbricht


Olbricht, meanwhile, had been burdened with more official responsibilities. He was no responsible not only for replacing materiel losses of the army but of the SS, Luftwaffe and Navy as well. He also also held command responsibility for weapons development, including both the V-1 and V-2. The official demands on his time and the need to travel made it impossible for him to manage all the details of the assassination and coup planning on his own.  He needed a "reliable" – anti-Nazi – assistant.  He consulted with Beck and Tresckow and other conspirators and eventually settled on a young Lieutenant Colonel of the General Staff, with whom his staff had worked well in the past, Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg.

Stauffenberg was known as a good organizer.  He had served in subordinate staff positions his entire career, and was never decorated.  Although briefly with a Panzer division in France as Second General Staff Officer (Logistics), he did not particularly distinguish himself here and was transferred to a job in Berlin in the middle of the campaign.  He served in the Organisation Department of the General Staff in Berlin for more than two and a half years before being given the job of Second – later First – General Staff Officer of a division with Rommel's Africa Corps.  Here he was severely wounded, losing an eye, a hand and three fingers on the remaining hand.  

Up until this point, Stauffenberg's attitude toward the regime had varied from enthusiastic (at the time of Hitler's assumption of power and his victory over France) to hate-filled.  By the time Stauffenberg was lying in a hospital recovering from his wounds, he had convinced himself that Hitler was leading Germany to utter destruction and that he had to be stopped at all costs, but, until he walked into Olbricht's office in August 1943, he did not even know there was a military conspiracy.

When informed about the conspiracy headed by Beck, Stauffenberg readily agreed to join and threw himself into his new job with great energy and will-power.  His position at GAO was deputy to General Olbricht, and he had exactly the same function and position inside the conspiracy – not as some biographers of Stauffenberg would make one believe, the other way around. At no time did Stauffenberg question that Olbricht was his senior in both military and resistance matters.  Nor did Stauffenberg attempt to usurp Olbricht, Beck or Tresckow's roles as leaders of the military resistance.  But Stauffenberg did take an informally leading role in the conspiracy because Olbricht had delegated it to him.  Olbricht's official duties required his presence at meetings, conferences, briefings and inspections all over the Reich.  Olbricht could no longer devote enough time to coup planning – that was now Stauffenberg's job.

There is no doubt that Stauffenberg attacked these duties with invigorating élan and energy.  He had to.  He had already wasted a lot of time.  Up until his fateful meeting with Olbricht in August 1943, Stauffenberg had said a lot about how Hitler ought to be shot (by someone else) or argued that the command structure ought to be altered (by the Field Marshals), but he hadn't done anything.  On the contrary, he had continued to believe in Hitler's ability to win the war and supported Hitler as long as he thought he might still win the war.

Like any new convert, however, once Stauffenberg changed sides and committed himself to the conspiracy, he was particularly zealous.  Almost equally important, Stauffenberg had not experienced the failures, set-backs and disappointments that the others had endured.  And since at the time of Stauffenberg's arrival at GAO Plan "Valkyrie" had just been updated, Stauffenberg's primary assignment as Deputy Chief of Staff of the Military Conspiracy against Hitler was to organise the dictator's assassination.

Despite Stauffenberg's undoubted persuasive powers and dedication, none of the various assassination plans he originated between October 1943 and July 1944 came to fruition.  By July 1944, the situation on the front had deteriorated so dramatically and the mounting atrocities throughout the occupied territories were so unbearable that the military resistance was driven to the last extreme.  

None of the leading members of the conspiracy – least of all Beck or Olbricht - doubted that the war was lost – with or without Hitler.  Most recognised that the Allies would insist on Unconditional Surrender even from a post-Hitler government.  But the Gestapo was closing in even more closely on the conspiracy.  Key sympathizers, men who knew far too much about what the military was planning – James Graf Moltke, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Julius Leber and Wilhelm Leuschner – had been arrested.  The leaders of the military resistance decided that the chances of success were no longer irrelevant.  The German Resistance had to act soon - if only to demonstrate to the world that it existed.

When on 1 July 1944, Stauffenberg (with the full complicity and approval of Olbricht) moved into the position of Chief of Staff to the C-in-C of the home army, Stauffenberg abruptly gained personal access to Hitler.  He at once decided to carry out the assassination himself.  On 11 July 1944, Stauffenberg was ordered to report to Hitler's HQ on very short notice.  The conspirators had time to alert only a few of the key conspirators, and it was agreed that – given the inadequacy of the preparations - Stauffenberg would only make the assassination attempt if Himmler and Göring, Hitler's most likely replacements, could be killed at the same time.  

When Stauffenberg got to Hitler's HQ and realised that neither Himmler or Göring would be present at the briefing, he put a call through to Olbricht.  Either – as the Gestapo reported based on their investigation – to report to Olbricht the absence of Hitler's deputies or – as many historians describe it – to ask for Olbricht's permission to carry out the assassination any way.  Olbricht allegedly said ‘no.' In any case,  Stauffenberg returned to Berlin without having attempted the assassination.  In consequence, a variety of preparatory actions had to be cancelled.

It is important to note this sequence of events because in much of the literature an identical description of events often appears under the date 15 July 1944.  However, in the aftermath of this aborted assassination attempt Stauffenberg, Olbricht and Beck jointly decided that there would be no repeat of the events of 11 July 1944.  Instead, it was agreed that the next assassination attempt against Hitler would be made regardless of whether Himmler and/or Göring were present.

As soon as Stauffenberg knew the date of his next trip to Hitler's HQ, 15 July 1944, comprehensive preparatory measures were undertaken and a long list of conspirators and partial conspirators alerted of upcoming events.  Furthermore, because the army units needed for "Valkyrie" were stationed farther away than the SS units loyal to Hitler, it was decided that the "reliable" army units should be given a head-start.  The best way to effect this was to issue the lowest level of preparedness for "Valkyrie" – Alarm Level One – for the Berlin Military District roughly two hours before the earliest possible time for an assassination attempt.

To do this, Olbricht had to issue the "Valkyrie" orders illegally, since he was not authorized to issue them at all.  Furthermore, since the issuance of orders is a highly visible act involving hundreds of troops and cannot be kept secret, it was clear that in the event the assassination failed, suspicion would fall immediately on Olbricht – no one else.  Such a risky course of action could only be justified if everyone agreed in advance that there would be no conditions, no uncertainties:  Stauffenberg would set off the bomb on 15 July 1944.

Stauffenberg flew to Hitler's HQ on July 15, arriving at 11 am.  At 13.10 the daily briefing began but it was cut short to enable a second briefing, at which Stauffenberg was required to make a presentation, to be held immediately afterwards.  The second briefing lasted until 14.20.  As Stauffenberg explained the situation to his brother and co-conspirator Berthold Graf Stauffenberg, he had "absolutely no opportunity to attempt the assassination."

In the meantime, however, as agreed by the conspirators, the "Valkyrie" Orders, Alarm Level One, had been issued for the Berlin Military District.  Alarm Level One required the designated units go on alert and await further orders.  When Stauffenberg got out of his second briefing in the Wolfschanze without having had a chance to carry out the assassination attempt, he at once called Olbricht to report.  This conversation was witnessed at both ends: by Stauffenberg's escort at Wolfschanze, Oberleutnant Giesberg, and in Berlin by General Hoepner, who was with Olbricht when he received the call. Both men survived 20 July 1944 long enough to be interrogated by the Gestapo.  Both confirm that the conversation took place, and Hoepner further stated that the content of the call was only that Stauffenberg had been unable to take action.

In the literature about 15 July 1944, however, another telephone call is often described. People, who were no where near the two men involved in the conversation, claim that Stauffenberg called Olbricht before going into the first briefing to report that Himmler and Göring were again absent and ask if he should still go ahead with the assassination.  It is unclear why he should do so when it had been agreed in advance that he would act "regardless" – unless one wishes to imply that Stauffenberg lost his nerve.  To make the account even less logical, it is then claimed that - although the "Valkyrie" orders had already gone out illegally and Olbricht had thereby already exposed himself - Olbricht suddenly changed his mind and advised against taking action.  Adding a final absurdity to the whole story, Stauffenberg is then supposed to have asked his own adjutant for advice and on the recommendation of a subaltern (but against the advice of his superior) decided to do what he had promised to do before leaving Berlin.  This version of events is not sustainable either logically or based on the evidence and testimony of witnesses. It can be explained, however, by survivors who were not witnesses confusing the happenings of 11 July with those of the 15th. (For a more detailed rebuttal to these allegations please refer to either of my full-length biographies of Olbricht Codename Valkyrie.)

Undisputed is the fact that Olbricht was informed at roughly 14.20 that the assassination had not taken place.  At the time Olbricht received this call "Valkyrie" Alarm Level One had already been in effect for three and a half hours.  Olbricht had to instantly find a way to call off "Valkyrie," prevent discovery of the coup, and if possible save "Valkyrie" for use at a later date. He immediately set off on an "inspection tour" of the various "Valkyrie" units.

Olbricht visited each of the "Valkyrie" units, inspected their state of readiness, and gave short addresses at each unit, explaining the (official) purposes of "Valkyrie."  While he seemed to get away with passing off the alarm as an exercise and the Gestapo later expressed amazement that the entire deception functioned so flawlessly, the results of the pre-mature issuance of the "Valkyrie" orders were overwhelmingly negative.  The bottom line was that Olbricht was not authorized to issue "Valkyrie" – not even as an exercise.  Olbricht's immediate superior, the C-in-C of the Home Army was furious, and Olbricht was subjected to a severe dressing-down.  Worse: the "Valkyrie" Alarm on 15 July 1944 attracted the attention of both Keitel, the Chief of Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), and the Commander of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.  These two men, fanatically loyal to Hitler, wanted to know exactly what was going on.

It was clear to all conspirators that Stauffenberg had to act the next chance he got "regardless" – and equally obvious that next time there could be no issuance of the "Valkyrie" orders until it was 100% certain that Hitler was dead.

The events of 15 July 1944 are described in detail in "Traitors for the Sake of Humanity.Find out more and read reviews of "Traitors" at the publisher's website: Cross Seas Press.