Of the myriad attempts to kill Adolf Hitler and end World War II before further disaster struck Germany, the most famous occurred this week (July 20) in 1944 when a group of army officers led by General Ludwig Beck and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler during a meeting at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia.
As luck would have it, von Stauffenberg, a long-time anti-Hitler conspirator, was invited to attend the July 20 meeting, whose agenda was Germany’s worsening situation on the Eastern front. Von Stauffenberg joined the meeting holding a briefcase, which he placed on the floor near the table where Hitler sat. In the briefcase was a bomb timed to blow up in minutes. Moments later, Von Stauffenberg mumbled that he had to step out for a moment, but when he left the room he also left the building. The bomb went off minutes later.
But Hitler was spared. One of the assembled officers inadvertently pushed von Stauffenberg’s briefcase further under the table, so when it went off, the table’s thick supports cushioned the blow, and Hitler, although badly burned and suffering ruptured eardrums, was otherwise unharmed.
Von Stauffenberg, convinced that Hitler was dead, flew back to Berlin to begin a coup, but reports soon surfaced that Hitler was alive and after general confusion and a number of arrests, the conspirators were routed. Beck shot himself to avoid capture, and von Stauffenberg was executed. The last, best hope to end the war by ending Hitler’s life had failed.
Interestingly, there was one man on the Allied side who was not at all upset that this assassination plot failed — the American president, Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, Roosevelt was almost relieved because he believed that only by defeating a Germany with Hitler as its leader could the Allies demand unconditional surrender and wipe the slate clean of Germany’s wartime leadership. Roosevelt feared that if Hitler was killed by German bigwigs in either the army or the Nazi party, they might then insist on a negotiated settlement in which some of them were allowed to stay in leadership positions in post-war Germany. Certainly such a settlement would be tempting to many Americans and British weary of four years of war.
Roosevelt knew better. He also knew that if Hitler was killed prematurely, a Hitler cult would arise in Germany, which might have sparked underground resistance after the war ended.
And finally, Roosevelt was glad the plot failed because he shared the view of a savvy British colonel who later expressed amazement that anyone would think killing Hitler prematurely was a good idea. After all, this colonel marveled, “Hitler was doing such a wonderful job of losing the war!”