Essay / On This Day

Claus von Stauffenberg: German Patriot and Hitler’s Would-Be Assassin

Today, November 15, is the one-hundred and fourth birthday of Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a Catholic aristocrat and officer of the German Wehrmacht who led the anti-Nazi resistance within the German war machine.

On the 21st of July, 1944, this man, along with two other German army officers, Henning von Treskow and Hans Oster, attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler and the High Command of the Wehrmacht and remove the Nazis from power. He and his cohorts, Catholic aristocrats and lovers of their land, desired to save Germany from the devastating war Hitler had doomed the nation into, and saw it as their duty to bring this murderous regime to an end. They almost succeeded.

The plan was to have Colonel von Stauffenberg, chief of the army reserve, plant a suitcase with a bomb inside at Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair), five miles east of the East Prussian town of Rastenberg (now Kertzyn, Poland), one of Hitler’s many command posts. Once the bomb had done its work in disposing of Hitler, Operation Valkyrie would be put into action: overthrow the central government in Berlin, and make peace with the Allies. The conspirators had an inside man in Berlin–General Olbricht–who would coordinate the operations in the top command.

All went awry, however, when the suitcase was removed several feet away from Hitler. It went off, but Hitler suffered minor injuries. In the meantime, von Stauffenberg was on his way to Berlin to carry out Operation Valkyrie, and he and General Olbricht arrested some top officials, inlcuding General Fromm, commander of the reserves, until word came back to them that Hitler was alive. Fromm was released, with the understanding he would support the conspiracy, but in the end, he turned on them. Staufenberg and Olbricht were shot the next day, Oster and Treskow were arrested and executed the following week, along with seven-thousand Germans suspected of conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (including German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel).

The Allies were not too keen on Operation Valkirie, since, according to Prime Minister Churchill, an early overthrow of the Nazi regime from within the ranks of the Wehrmacht might have given Hitler underground support, thus frustrating the Allied plan to make Hitler’s defeat so humiliating and certain that any Nazi resistance would have been unthinkable. They might have been right on that count. But von Stauffenberg and his companions can be credited with rising to the call of duty, the call every patriot feels when his beloved land is in the throws of murderous madmen intent intent on taking his countrymen to hell.

While the plot failed, the name of Claus von Stauffenberg is nevertheless the most beloved and revered name in Germany, giving proof to many Germans that even in that darkest hour of their history, chivalry, honor and goodness were not lacking.

For this singular act of courage and commitment to the life and welfare of his countrymen, may his memory be eternal.

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