There are a few dates in the year that I choose to remember and pay tribute to particular people. Today is one such day. Today marks the 71’st anniversary of what has become known as the “July Plot”, the attempted assassination of Hitler, on 20th July 1944 at his Eastern Front HQ, in Rastenburg, known as “The Wolf’s Lair”. This heavily bunkered area of the Eastern Front, concealed in the woods, protected by anti-tank guns, devices, mines, barbed wire, concrete bunkers, and a nearby airfield, was the center of operations in the East of Europe where Hitler waged his war against the Soviet Union and the Allies.
For some time the German resistance was a fractured enterprise which was loosely held together by sheer force of will and personalities. There were disagreements about many things, but in finding a way to remove Hitler, there was no disagreement, other than those who wanted to see him deposed, arrested and put on public trial. This of course was the ideal scenario. The other was simply to topple the state, and along with that, eliminate Hitler through assassination. There were dozens of attempts to assassinate the man, but all had failed. There were even planned suicide attacks that just failed to detonate. There were bomb attempts, just prior to the start of the war, and they too failed.
The Problem of German Loyalty
The German resistance to Hitler was real and substantive, and it was in a psychological war as much as an ideological one amongst their own people. Within several years of taking power through a democratic election, Hitler, upon the death of Hindenburg, took over as the “Supreme Leader” (Fuhrer), and changed the oath of allegiance, for everyone in the German Armed Forces. The oath was changed from an oath to the nation, to a personal oath of fealty, which became a problem during the war years.
Germans have been “loyal to a fault”. Within German families and culture as a whole, rejecting authority and failure to be loyal to those who deserve loyalty, has not only been viewed dimly, but has been vehemently opposed by the establishment. Loyalty was viewed culturally and politically as a necessity in a civil society. Loyalty preserved order out of chaos. People would keep their oath to the point of death. When Hitler changed that oath, he knew full well what he was doing. He was playing with the weakness of the German psyche, and its propensity for order and obedience. He took that weakness in the German mind and used it to subjugate and control the population.
Hitler used psychology, and the national ideal of obedience and faithfulness and played it on national pride, when he denounced those who had “betrayed Germany in the Great War” and “stabbed Germany in the back.” By so doing, he created an atmosphere of blind obedience and fear of non-compliance that would be viewed as treason and deserving of death.
Stauffenberg and The Resistance
On recovery from his battle wounds, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was assigned to the staff of the Home Army, and he worked a plan, Operation Valkyrie, for the mobilization of the Territorial Reserve Army, to be mobilized at a time of national crisis. His plan was to use this plan as the cover for his own operation to assassinate Hitler and remove the threat of the Gestapo and the SS.
The July Plot
The plot of 20 July, Operation Valkyrie, took place in that Wolf’s Lair close to the Eastern Front. Stauffenberg, a wounded and decorated soldier, and a man of deep Christian faith, was the man of the moment, the man who would take two bombs in his brief case, and arm them, and set the fuse and leave. His goal was to put the bomb as close to Hitler as possible to most guarantee success. He counted on the blast within the concrete bunker to be big enough and lethal enough to decimate the German Command. But he did not count on the weather.
It was a heat wave and the next Fuhrer Conference and Briefing was being moved to the wooden conference room. That was not going to contain and reinforce the blast like a concrete bunker would have. None the less Stauffenberg and his aide, Haeften, proceeded with the plan. Pretending to need to change his dress shirt for his presentation to Hitler, Stauffenberg went to the washroom, changed his shirt and armed the bombs and set the fuse. It was no easy task as he was restricted due to the few remaining fingers on his injured hand, and this proved to be difficult in starting the fuse, but he succeeded. Stauffenberg made his way to the Conference Room. As the reports began, he made an excuse to make a phone call, and exited the building. As he stepped away the room exploded. To those looking from the outside, it looked like no one had survived. Little did he know, as he and Heaften fled by plane flying back to Berlin to put Valkyrie into motion, to mobilize the Territorial Army and neutralize the Gestapo and SS and take over the government, Hitler had survived the blast.
Stauffenberg and his men who were in Berlin, put up a fierce fight to mobilize the resistance and convince Germans that Hitler was dead, but a few loyal Nazis were enough to derail his rebellion. By nightfall, upon his capture, Stauffenberg and his cohorts were summarily tried for treason and executed at the headquarters in Berlin.
What Drove These Men To Such Action?
Stauffenberg was among many intellectuals, professionals, civil servants, soldiers, religious leaders, lawyers, and so many more, who were morally opposed to the Nazis. They knew that Germany needed to lose the war, and it was about to happen soon. The Allies had invaded the previous June in Normandy. The Russians were advancing toward Poland. It was all a matter of time. The resistance hoped to topple Hitler and surrender to the Western Allies before the Soviets got close to Germany.
The Moral Dilemma of Assassination
Many were opposed to the killing of Hitler, but many were convinced that pragmatically there was no other way.
I have studied this over the years and waffled to and fro on this subject. I became a pacifist in that process. There is a part of me that understands the need to remove a tyrant from power by any means necessary. The killing of Hitler would have been most agreeable to most people as they just saw the sheer evil of the man, and to shoot him or kill him was the “sensible” solution.
It is so easy to be “sensible” and “practical”, but the usurping of government, and the taking of human life, for even what people would call a “just cause”, is anything but “just” or “easy”.
The moral conflict I have had, is that our values and morals guide us in how we behave, NOT at the time of the crisis, but foundationally BEFORE the crisis even takes place. Our ethics are founded on principles and values, and it is upon these that we constitute our laws and ways of living as an organized society. We determine how to protect rights and privileges, and we use the laws we have to restrain and control the abuse of those rights and privileges. ALL of these are based on our core beliefs and values.
If our core belief is that ALL life is sacred and made in the image of the Creator, that means the most vile of tyrants, including Hitler, are made in the image of God. That means that the same protections we have in place for the life, safety, and liberty of the individual, which also applies to Hitler. To just assassinate, or kill Hitler, without his being arrested and going through the legal process, is to commit murder. It is the willful intent to kill for your purposes violating the rights of the individual.
This was the moral dilemma these people all faced. Many chose to kill Hitler as it was more evil to let Hitler live, than to let him continue to do what he was doing. The numbers vary but all we have are estimates. The estimated loss of life during World War 2 ranges from 50 to 80 million, which includes deaths from war related diseases and famine. Civilian casualties are between 50 to 55 million, and of those 19 to 28 million were from war related disease and famine.
The Second World War started on 1 September 1939 and lasted until 2 September 1945. Six years of war. If we take the number of casualties as 55 million, and divide it by 6 years, we come to just over 9 million people killed per year. 9,166,666 casualties. That is how many people could have been saved, IF these German resistance fighters had been successful in their attempt to be rid of Hitler. That staggers my mind.
I Can’t Change History, But I Can Honor Their Memory And Be An Advocate For Peace
I cannot and nor can you, change history. We can only learn from it, and act for change in our own day and remember and honor those who tried to change it in their own time. They can all serve as inspiration to us, to be better, and to try harder and to work diligently for peace and understanding, and for finding alternatives to the horrors of war and violence.
So today, I remember Count Claus von Stauffenberg and the 7,000 who were arrested, and the 4,980 who were executed. They did not die in vain. I shall remember them and honor them for trying to show the world a different Germany than Hitler’s perverted vision.
I am inspired as a Christian, to not look at the easy way out, out of any dilemma, and that just because something appears justifiable, the ethic of life being precious cannot be easily dismissed out of the equation. We need to weigh heavily all the decisions we make and why and the cost, and the impact of the cost on who we are as people and as a society. At the end of the day, can I look myself in the mirror and say that I did the right thing for the right reason?
I am sure all those men and women who put their lives on the line, they asked themselves that question. I just wonder what I would do in their place.