Claus von Stauffenberg

Background

Following the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles penalises the defeated Germany, annexing land, imposing large war reparations, limiting the size of the German Army and blaming Germany and Austria-Hungary for starting the conflict. The new German Government, a coalition of left-leaning and centrist parties, attempts to rebuild the country but faces opposition from the right and extreme left. The instability is exacerbated by the failure of the domestic and global economies.

Adolf Hitler's National Socialist (Nazi) Party exploits the situation, advocating national pride, blaming the Treaty of Versailles, the left and Jews for the political turmoil and claiming to have a solution to the economic crisis. The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January 1933 when Hitler is appointed chancellor. When the true nature of the Nazi regime becomes apparent pockets of resistance (Widerstand) begin to grow within German society and its institutions. More background.

Mini biography

Born at Griefstein Castle at Jettingen, 90 km west of Munich, on 15 November 1907 into one of the oldest and most influential families of Catholic nobility in the south of Germany. He is the third of three sons. His two elder brothers, Berthold and Alexander, are twins. Von Stauffenberg, too, has a twin brother, but he dies in infancy.

Though his family has a background of military service, in his youth von Stauffenberg shows strong interest in literature and the arts, becoming a disciple of the poet Stephan George. He is also a committed Catholic and has a deep sense of ethics.

1926 - After contemplating careers in music and architecture, von Stauffenberg finally opts for military service, entering the army as a cadet officer in his family's traditional regiment, the 17th Cavalry Regiment of Bamberg.

1930 - Graduating first in his class and receiving a special ceremonial sabre for "outstanding achievements", von Stauffenberg is commissioned as a lieutenant. His military superiors variously describe him as "highly intelligent and of above average ability, both tactically and technically", and "an expert at settling differences, acting as go-between and smoothing out quarrels."

One of his peers says, "I would say that he had an extraordinary gift for making others feel naturally and completely at ease. This was all the more remarkable seeing that he was generally recognised as being well above average intellectually." Another peer describes von Stauffenberg as "a man of extraordinary personal charm."

On his birthday, von Stauffenberg becomes engaged to Baroness Nina von Lerchenfeld, the daughter of another family of Bavarian nobility. The couple will marry in 1933. Their first son is born the following year. They will have two more sons and two daughters, the youngest, a daughter, being born after von Stauffenberg's death.

1933 - The Nazis reach a position from which they can seize power on 30 January when Hitler is appointed chancellor. Following the Reichstag fire on 27 February basic civil rights are suspended and the Nazis are given the right to quash political opposition.

Germany's last election until after the Second World War is held on 5 March. Though the Nazis win only 44% of the vote Hitler persuades the Reichstag (parliament) to pass the Enabling Law, allowing him to govern independently for four years. The Nazis now take full control of the state apparatus.

All Nazis in prison are issued with full pardons; critics of the government and the Nazi Party are subject to arrest; special courts are established for the trial of political detainees. Regional governments are dissolved and then reconstituted with governors handpicked by Hitler. Leftist political parties are banned; Germany is declared a one-party state; Jews and leftists are purged from the bureaucracy; and trade unions are dissolved and replaced with Nazi organisations.

The Gestapo, or secret state police, is established in April. Concentration camps are set up for the interment of opponents. A program of public works, rearmament and forced labour helps bring the economy under control. Inflation comes down, the currency is stabilised and full employment achieved. Support for Hitler increases.

On 10 May Hitler stages the "burning of the books" in Berlin. Works by Jewish, Marxist and other "subversive" authors are publicly burned in huge bonfires. On 14 October Germany withdraws from the League of Nations.

For his part, von Stauffenberg is initially supportive of or neutral towards the Nazis' program to restore German's prosperity and make the country once again a strong world power. However, the excesses of the regime will soon change his view.

1934 - Hitler organises the 'Night of the Long Knives' massacre of rebellious leaders of the Sturmabteilung (SA) - the 'Brownshirts' - on the night of 30 June. In August he becomes president and chancellor, giving him supreme command of the German armed forces. Hitler is now the Führer, the dictator of the fascist Third Reich, an empire where the individual belongs to the state.

Von Stauffenberg finds the 'Night of the Long Knives' event unsettling and on 16 September publicly demonstrates his growing unease with the regime. Required to represent his regiment at an official party lecture, von Stauffenberg walks out when the speaker launches into an anti-Jewish tirade.

1935 - On 16 March the Nazis introduce conscription. A new German Army (Wehrmacht) is being created. Hitler formally announces that Germany has begun to rearm and rebuild its army and air force, in contravention of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The 'Nuremberg Laws', meanwhile, strip Jews of the right to citizenship and restrict their relations with Gentiles.

1936 - In the eastern German city of Leipzig the resistance to the Nazis finds a focus when city mayor Dr Karl Goerdeler, a former supporter of Hitler, resigns from his post in protest against the oppressive measures of the regime.

The small band of anti-Nazi sympathisers that coalesces around Goerdeler expands when contact is made with the 'Kreisau Circle', a resistance group led by Count Helmuth James von Moltke, a German aristocrat and von Stauffenberg's cousin.

Composed of clerics and intellectuals, the Kreisau Circle devotes itself largely to planning the political, economic, judicial and social systems for a post-Nazi Germany.

Meanwhile, von Stauffenberg is accepted into the army's general staff college in Berlin. He will graduate first in his class in 1938 and join the army's general staff with the rank of captain.

1937 - The resistance movement is further bolstered when Lieutenant-colonel Hans Oster, the second in command of the German intelligence service (Abwehr), joins its ranks.

Supported by Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, another anti-Nazi, Oster uses his position to pass on military secrets to Britain and France, cover and coordinate the activities of the resistance, warn colleagues if he learns they are under investigation by the Gestapo, and help Jews escape from Germany.

1938 - Dr Goerdeler introduces Colonel-general Ludwig Beck to the resistance movement. Beck, a former Nazi supporter, is repulsed by the violence of the regime and Hitler's plans to start a war. He soon becomes the key leader of the resistance.

Beck resigns from his post as chief of the military general staff in protest against Hitler's expansionism. However, he ensures that another anti-Nazi, General Franz Halder, fills the position. Halder will be the architect of the first abortive coup attempt against the Nazis.

While the nascent resistance movement schemes for his downfall, Hitler concentrates on expanding the Reich. Austria is annexed on 13 March.

When Hitler threatens to invade Czechoslovakia and thereby spark a world war, Halder decides the time has come to act. However, the plot is abandoned when Britain and France agree to a compromise ceding the Sudetenland, the German-speaking area in the north of Czechoslovakia, to Germany and war is averted.

Von Stauffenberg serves in the force that occupies the territory, as commander of the Light Division's logistics section.

At the end of the year, the persecution of the Jews intensifies. Over the days of 9-10 November the Nazis orchestrate the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) pogrom. Jewish shops, houses and synagogues across Germany are burnt by both the Schutz-Staffel (SS) - the 'Blackshirts', Hitler's personal guard - and the general population. Ninety-one Jews are killed. Thirty thousand are arrested and deported.

Appalled by the violence and the moral disintegration it represents, von Stauffenberg abandons any remaining support he may have had for the Nazis. Aware of Halder's plot and its failures, he begins to contemplate alternate means by which the regime may be overthrown, including the assassination of Hitler.

1939 - On 30 January Hitler declares in the Reichstag that a new world war will lead to the "annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." Bohemia and Moravia are occupied in March, while Slovakia is made a puppet state.

German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Von Stauffenberg is initially enthusiastic about the war and the possibility of a German victory. He will participate in all the major campaigns, serving with distinction as a staff officer in the 6th Panzer Division in Poland and France before transferring to Russia then North Africa.

Poland is overrun within a month of the war beginning, with Germany taking the west of the country and the Soviet Union occupying the east. Denmark and Norway fall in April 1940. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France are invaded the following month. By the middle of June 1940 France has surrendered.

As the invasion progresses Jews and other "undesirables" in the occupied territories are dispossessed and interned in work camps.

In Germany the physically handicapped, mentally ill and others with so-called "worthless lives" are rounded up and sent to designated hospitals, where they are killed. Referred to by the Nazis as mercy killing and planned by Hitler's office and the Reich Interior Ministry, the "euthanasia" program will claim up to 275,000 lives.

1940 - On 31 May von Stauffenberg is awarded the Iron Cross First Class. In June he is transferred to the army high command.

1941 - Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June. The Germans advance swiftly but are halted on 6 December by a Russian counterattack just short of Moscow. The 'Eastern Front' will become the locus of a new resistance cell led by Colonel Henning von Tresckow. The chief-of-staff of the army group centre on the front, von Tresckow is connected to the larger resistance movement through Colonel-general Beck.

During the first 18 months of the Russian campaign Von Stauffenberg serves as a supply officer in the army group assigned to advance towards Stalingrad (now Volgograd).

He meets von Tresckow and becomes exposed to the plans of the resistance. His observations of the Nazi extermination campaign against the Eastern European and Russian Slavs and Jews further entrenches his disillusionment with the regime.

In an attempt to ameliorate the brutality of the occupation, von Stauffenberg works to establish a Russian army volunteer corps to fight alongside the Germans. Officially called the Russian Liberation Army (RLA), the corps is largely made up of former Red Army soldiers. By 1943 it numbers 130,000 to 150,000 troops serving in 176 battalions and 38 companies.

Von Stauffenberg comes to envisage the RLA as a Soviet national force fighting for the liberation of the country from the communist regime of dictator Joseph Stalin, and the German invasion as an armed intervention on behalf of the Soviet people.

He advocates an operational policy that wins over the occupied peoples by encouraging "freedom, independence, and collaboration", and openly criticises the Nazi's war of annihilation, saying it "would sow such hatred in the East which will one day be revisited on our children."

Convinced that Hitler is mad, von Stauffenberg begins to think that only the death of the Führer can retrieve the situation.

"Is there no officer over there in the Führer's headquarters capable of shooting that beast!" he says to a fellow officer in August 1942.

"The point is ... to kill him, and I am prepared to do that," von Stauffenberg says to another fellow officer later the same year.

Meanwhile, the United States enters the war when the Japanese air force bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December.

1942 - On 20 January the Nazis complete the planning for the Endlosung (Final Solution), the extermination of the Jews, Gipsies, Slavs, homosexuals, communists, and other "undesirables" and "decadents" in death camps run by the SS and controlled by the Gestapo.

About six million European Jews die in the following 'Holocaust'. Most (about 4.5 million) of those killed come from Poland and the Soviet Union. About 125,000 are German Jews.

The Holocaust also claims about 500,000 Gipsies, between 10,000 and 25,000 homosexuals, 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, up to 3.5 million non-Jewish Poles, between 3.5 million and six million other Slavic civilians, as many as four million Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 1.5 million political dissidents.

By the end of the year knowledge of the Final Solution becomes an open secret among the general community.

Shocked by the treatment of the Jews, a small group of students from Munich University form the 'White Rose' resistance group, producing and circulating leaflets (Leaves of the White Rose) critical of the regime.

The student's resentment comes to a head on 13 July when, following a meeting called by the Nazi governor of Bavaria, they rebel and spontaneously take to the streets of Munich in the first and only public demonstration against Hitler and the Nazis.

However, in February 1943 the Gestapo identifies the leaders of the group. They are arrested, tried and executed by guillotine. Only one survives the war.

Their last leaflet, published prior to their arrest, reads in part, "Freedom and honour! For 10 years Hitler and his accomplices have abused, distorted, debased these noble German words ... and cast the most precious values of the nation to the swine. During this 10 years destruction of all material and spiritual values they showed what freedom and honour mean to them. This horrible blood bath which they have caused throughout Europe has opened the eyes of even the most naive and simple-minded German. ... The name of Germany will be dishonoured forever, lest German youth finally rise to smash his tormentors and invoke a new, intellectual and spiritual Europe. Stalingrad's dead implore us! Rise up, my people, the fiery beacons beckon!"

1943 - The war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Sixth Army is defeated at Stalingrad. Though the German forces laying siege to the city are encircled and trapped by a Soviet counteroffensive, Hitler refuses to allow them to attempt an escape. They surrender on 2 February 1943.

The German Sixth Army has been effectively destroyed in what is at the time the most catastrophic military defeat in German history. Over 250,000 of the German-led troops are dead.

By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.

The German offensive in North Africa is stopped at the beginning of November 1942 when Allied troops led by General Bernard Law Montgomery force the German Afrika Korps led by General Erwin Rommel into a retreat. By 13 May 1943, 275,000 Germans and Italians have surrendered. The war in North Africa is over, leaving the Allies free to land in Sicily and Italy.

To the west, the US and British navies gain control of the Atlantic shipping lanes, clearing the way for the 'D-Day' landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.

In the skies over Germany the Allied air forces intensify their bombing raids. The strategy of indiscriminate area bombing will kill an estimated 600,000 civilians, including about 75,000 children.

The Nazis call for "total war" against the Allies.

Von Stauffenberg is promoted to lieutenant-colonel on 1 January 1943. Shattered by Hitler's refusal to allow the troops trapped in Stalingrad to escape, he requests a transfer to the North African campaign and is posted to Tunisia as operations officer in the 10th Panzer Division of Rommel's Afrika Korps.

On 7 April von Stauffenberg becomes one of the casualties of the Allied offensive, suffering serious injuries during an air raid on German positions in the Tunisian desert. He loses his left eye, right hand, and the fourth and fifth figures of his left hand, and comes close to death.

During his three-month recuperation in a Munich hospital, von Stauffenberg decides to devote himself completely to removing Hitler and overthrowing the Nazi regime.

Meanwhile, on 13 March 1943, Colonel von Tresckow attempts to kill Hitler, concealing a bomb on the plane Hitler catches back to Germany from a visit to the army group centre on the Eastern Front and timing it to explode during the flight. However, the bomb fails to detonate.

A second attempt by Von Tresckow to assassinate Hitler also fails. The failure of the resistance is further compounded when an operation to smuggle Jews to Switzerland is discovered by the Gestapo. Abwehr is subsequently combined with the SS and Canaris and Oster marginalised.

The resistance appears to be on its last legs when von Stauffenberg becomes fully involved. In October, following his convalescence, he is assigned as chief-of-staff of the general army office in Berlin. Already in contact with members of the resistance, von Stauffenberg now meets Beck. The planning for the only serious attempt on Hitler's life during the Nazi's 10-year reign begins.

Under the plan, Hitler's death will be followed by a coup led by the military conspirators. The Gestapo and SS will be neutralised, a military government installed, and the war ended unilaterally. Among the conspirators who commit to the plan are Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben and 22 generals.

"We took this challenge before our Lord and our conscience, and it must be done, because this man, Hitler, he is the ultimate evil," von Stauffenberg states.

Von Stauffenberg organises several attempts to kill Hitler using suicide bombers, but all are aborted.

1944 - On 1 July von Stauffenberg is promoted to colonel and appointed chief-of-staff to the Reserve Army commanding general. The position gives him direct access to Hitler's briefing sessions.

Able because of his injuries to get close to Hitler without being searched, and frustrated by the continuing failures, von Stauffenberg now decides to take personal responsibility for planting the bomb to end the Führer's life and bring down his regime.

"Fate has offered us this opportunity, and I would not refuse it for anything in the world," von Stauffenberg says, continuing, "I have examined myself before God and my conscience. It must be done because this man (Hitler) is evil personified."

Von Stauffenberg gets his first opportunities to assassinate Hitler on 11 and 15 July, during war council meetings held at the 'Wolfsschanze' (Wolf's Lair), a command post near Rastenburg in East Prussia. Both missions are aborted. The final attempt to kill Hitler takes place at the Wolf's Lair on 20 July.

Von Stauffenberg is to travel to Rastenburg by plane, perform his mission, and then return to the capital to assist with the coup to oust the Nazis.

As planned, von Stauffenberg arms the bomb and places it under the table across which Hitler and his officers are discussing the military situation. Excusing himself, von Stauffenberg leaves the room just minutes before the bomb is set to detonate and waits at a safe distance.

At 12:42 p.m. the bomb explodes. The room is destroyed, killing four and seriously wounding seven others, but Hitler survives with damaged ear drums, burns to his left side, and a shredded trouser leg.

After observing the explosion and seeing a body covered by Hitler's cloak carried from the room on a stretcher, von Stauffenberg begins his journey back to Berlin, unaware that Hitler has survived.

Arriving at the army high command headquarters in Berlin at 4:30 p.m., von Stauffenberg finds the preparations for the coup in disarray, paralysed by uncertainty over Hitler's fate. By the time von Stauffenberg is able to take the situation into control it is already too late. News of Hitler's survival has spread and the coup attempt begins to unravel, with many of those who had pledged allegiance switching sides.

Von Stauffenberg, Colonel-general Ludwig Beck, and their associates control Berlin for only a few hours. By 9 p.m. it is plain that the coup attempt has failed. Von Stauffenberg and those other plot leaders who have not committed suicide are captured two hours later by the loyal Nazi forces, with von Stauffenberg suffering a gunshot wound to his good arm as he tries to resist arrest.

At 12:30 a.m. on 21 July von Stauffenberg is executed by firing squad in the courtyard of the war ministry following a drumhead court martial. Other conspirators will suffer far more gristly fates, with some being hung with piano wire from meat hooks.

Postscript

Following the attempt on his life, Hitler appoints Nazi political officers to all military headquarters.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi security forces, orders the arrest of all of von Stauffenberg's relatives and the confiscation of their property.

Von Stauffenberg's eldest brother Berthold, also a key figure in the 'July Plot', is executed.

Von Stauffenberg's wife, Countess Nina, who is pregnant with their fifth child, is sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, along with her mother. The von Stauffenberg's four children are placed in a state orphanage in Thuringia and given a new surname, Meister. In January 1945 Countess Nina gives birth to a daughter.

Countess Nina and all her five children survive the war and are reunited at its conclusion. Others are not so fortunate.

Up to 5,000 people are killed in reprisal for the assassination attempt and many innocents are sent to die in concentration camps. Only a handful of those involved in the plot escape retribution.

Dr Karl Goerdeler, Count Helmuth James von Moltke, Hans Oster, now a major-general, and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris are all tried and executed. Colonel-general Ludwig Beck and Henning von Tresckow, also now a major-general, commit suicide.

Though Hitler is not mortally injured by the bomb used in the assassination bid he does develop a light paralysis on his left side and a serious tremor in his left arm. He is also psychologically affected, becoming more paranoid and suspicious.

1945 - By March, as the Western forces reach the Rhine River, Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on Berlin, where Hitler waits in his bunker. The Soviets march under the slogan, "There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind."

Few are spared. As the Soviets move through Germany they rape at least two million German women in an undisciplined advance that is now acknowledged as the largest case of mass rape in history.

By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. Berlin is soon to become the "Reichssheiterhaufen" - the "Reich's funeral pyre."

On 30 April, as Soviet troops storm the capital, Hitler shoots himself. In accordance with his instructions his body is burnt. In his final will and testament, written just before his suicide, he calls on the German Government and people "to uphold the race laws to the limit and to resist mercilessly the poisoner of all nations, international Jewry."

On 7 May Germany surrenders unconditionally.

The Second World War officially ends on 2 September when Japan formally signs documents of unconditional surrender.

Over 46 million Europeans have died as a result of the war. Worldwide, over 60 million have died.

Comment

It would be wrong to overstate the capacity or extent of the German wartime resistance movement, and of its military wing in particular.

A telling point could be the fact that the attempts to assassinate Hitler did not become serious until after the defeat at Stalingrad, when it grew obvious to some that Germany could not win the war and would in all likelihood suffer a devastating defeat.

The motivation of many of the conspirators then appears to have shifted towards redemption, so it could at least be said before the world that Germany did try to rid itself of the Nazi scourge.

If it had not been for von Stauffenberg Germany may not even have achieved that small claim for atonement.

Von Stauffenberg is now considered a hero in Germany and elsewhere. The street in Berlin where he was executed has been renamed 'Stauffenbergstrasse' in his honour. The courtyard where he was shot is now a site of remembrance and a building off the courtyard houses the national museum of resistance.

Von Stauffenberg has been eulogised as a man of culture and spirit, a man of action, and a man of thought.

Others are not so sure about the value of von Stauffenberg's brand of heroism, arguing that he was a man out of time acting for reasons that while noble were also intensely personal and so of little contemporary relevance.