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 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.


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