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The Stauffenberg plot: 1944

From the early days of Hitler's military adventurism, at the time of his claim to the Sudetenland in 1938, there has been opposition within the army. Conservative officers, many of them very senior, secretly discuss a coup against the upstart dictator. Such a plot loses any chance of success during the impressive German victories of 1940-41. But the defeats of 1943, and the unmistakable evidence of Nazi atrocities, give the plan a renewed chance of success and a new urgency.

By 1944 several generals, and even a retired field marshal, are in the plot. They include the commanders of the German armies in occupied France and Belgium. Plans are laid for a political insurrection to coincide with the assassination of Hitler.

A central figure is a colonel, Claus von Stauffenberg. Commander of a panzer division, he has been severely wounded in 1943 in North Africa, losing an eye and a hand. He is transferred therefore to the army staff headquarters, where he has frequent access to Hitler. He volunteers to carry out the proposed assassination.

Stauffenberg succeeds in avoiding identification as the perpetrator of two attacks which fail. And then, on 20 July 1944, he manages to place a brief case containing a bomb under a conference table in Hitler's headquarters at Rastenburg, in east Prussia. The explosion kills three people, but the table protects Hitler from the blast. He suffers only minor injuries.

The conspirators at first assume, from the force of the blast, that Hitler is dead. During the next hour leading members of the plot attempt to carry through their plan, issuing orders on behalf of a new military government. But many other officers, who might have followed them in the event of success, opt for caution once the truth is known.

Stauffenberg and his three most intimate colleagues are shot that same night. During the next few weeks several thousand executions follow, of those identified as conspirators or merely under suspicion of involvement. If Hitler had been killed, the coup would almost certainly have unleashed civil war between the army and the hated SS. It would thus would have brought the wider war to an earlier end, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

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