Had the plotters been more deft, Thursday, July 20, 1944, would have been Adolf Hitler's last day on earth.
Six weeks after D-Day, the United States, Great Britain and their allies had landed a million men in France. The Red Army was marching westward. When Hitler's generals proposed retreat behind more defensible lines, the Führer had shaken his head, crying, "Victory or death!"
Now Hitler was burrowed in at the Wolf's Lair, his field headquarters near Rastenburg, in a melancholy, dank East Prussian forest. At noon, in a log barracks, he listened to a gloomy report from one of his army chiefs about Germany's retreat on the Eastern front. In the steamy room, Hitler took off the eyeglasses he vainly refused to use in public and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. SS men and stenographers stood around the massive, long oak table like nervous cats. Maps were unfurled. Hitler leaned over them and squinted through a magnifying glass, grimacing at the bad news.
Into the room strode a thirty-seven-year-old officer named Claus von Stauffenberg. He was a Bavarian nobleman, with blond hair and sharp cheekbones, who had lost an eye and seven fingers to an Allied mine in Tunisia while fighting for Germany. Unknown to the Führer or the other two dozen people in the chamber, Stauffenberg was part of a secret, loosely rigged anti-Hitler conspiracy that included military officers, diplomats, businessmen, pastors, intellectuals, landed gentry.
Some wanted historians of the future to record that not all Germans were Nazis. Some simply wanted to spare their nation the full brunt of conquest by the Soviet, American and British armies. Still others were unsettled by Hitler's war against the Jews. For years, the plotters had tried to kill Hitler with rifles and explosives, but the Führer had always survived.
Disgusted by what he heard about Nazi brutality in Russia, Stauffenberg had taught himself how to use his remaining three fingers to set off a bomb. By luck, in July 1944, he was summoned to the Wolf's Lair to help brief Hitler about the Eastern front. When Stauffenberg entered the room, the Führer shook his hand, stared at him appraisingly, then returned to his maps.
Inside Stauffenberg's briefcase, swaddled in a shirt, was a ticking time bomb. While the Army chief droned on, Stauffenberg put the briefcase under the table. Leaving his hat and belt behind, as if he were stepping out for a moment, Stauffenberg walked out of the room and left the barracks.
About a quarter to one came a loud boom and swirl of blue-yellow flame, followed by black smoke.
Outside the barracks, Stauffenberg saw men carry out a stretcher on which lay a body shrouded by what seemed to be Hitler's cloak. Rushing to his car for a getaway flight to Berlin, he presumed that Adolf Hitler was no more. Stauffenberg hoped that next would come a public declaration of Hitler's assassination, an Army revolt and establishment of an anti-Nazi government in Berlin.
But when he arrived at General Staff headquarters on Bendler Street, there was only disarray. Fellow plotters were not convinced that Hitler had been killed. Aghast, Stauffenberg cried, "I myself saw Hitler carried out dead!"
But he was wrong. Striving for a better view of the maps, one of the Führer's aides had pushed the briefcase behind one of the table's massive supports, protecting Hitler from certain death. Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Werner von Haeften, a collaborator, had felt too rushed to put a second bomb in the briefcase. Had they done so, Hitler would have certainly been killed.
Instead, when the smoke cleared Hitler was still standing. With bloodshot eyes staring out from a soot-blackened face, he tamped down flame from his trousers. His hair stood out in spikes. His ruptured eardrums were bleeding. His right arm dangled numb at his side.
A weeping Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel threw his arms around Hitler: "My Führer, you're alive! You're alive!"
After donning a fresh uniform, seemingly exhilarated by his survival, Hitler was almost merry. "Once again everything turned out well for me!" he chortled to his secretaries. "More proof that fate has selected me for my mission!" That afternoon he showed his scorched clothes to the visiting ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini: "Look at my uniform! Look at my burns!" Hitler had the uniform sent to his mistress, Eva Braun, for safekeeping as proof of his historical destiny.
When generals telephoned from the far reaches of the German Reich to learn whether, as some had heard, Hitler was dead, the Führer was furious that they should even raise the question. With froth on his lips, he shouted, "Traitors in the bosom of their own people deserve the most ignominious of deaths....Exterminate them!...I'll put their wives and children into concentration camps and show them no mercy!" He even confronted his Alsatian dog: "Look me in the eyes, Blondi! Are you also a traitor like the generals of my staff?"
It did not take Hitler's men long to discover who was behind the plot. In Berlin, Stauffenberg and three fellow plotters were arrested. A five-minute trial, "in the name of the Führer," found them guilty of treason. In a shadowy courtyard, they were hauled before a firing squad.
Just before his execution, remembering his country before Hitler, Stauffenberg cried out, "Long live eternal Germany!"
An hour after midnight on Friday, July 21, Berlin time, Hitler spoke by radio from the Wolf's Lair. After a burst of military music, he declared, "Fellow members of the German race!" An "extremely small clique of ambitious, unscrupulous and foolish, criminally stupid officers" had plotted to kill him and the German high command -- "a crime that has no equal in German history."
The plotters had "no bond and nothing in common with the German people." He was "entirely unhurt, apart from minor grazes, bruises or burns." Failure of the plot was "a clear sign from Providence that I must carry on with my work."
Hitler had come to power claiming that Germany had lost World War I because craven politicians in Berlin had betrayed the generals. The newest plotters, he now said, had planned to "thrust a dagger into our back as they did in 1918. But this time they have made a very grave mistake." His voice rose to a shriek: "Every German, whoever he may be, has a duty to fight these elements at once with ruthless determination....Wipe them out at once!"
Fearing for his life, Hitler never again spoke in public. By his orders, hundreds of suspected conspirators were arrested, tortured and executed. Another five thousand of their relatives and suspected anti-Nazi sympathizers were taken to concentration camps. A decree went out for Stauffenberg's family to be "wiped out to its last member."
Hitler ordered some of the chief plotters "strung up like butchered cattle." A motion picture of their execution was rushed to the Wolf's Lair for the Führer's enjoyment. By one account, Hitler and his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, watched in the Führer's private theater as the shirtless men on the screen swung from piano-wire nooses, writhing and dying while their carefully unbelted trousers fell off to reveal them naked.
Goebbels had demanded for years that Hitler's enemies be stalked with "ice-cold determination." But when the top Nazis watched the ghoulish flickering images of the lifeless plotters, it was later said, even the cold-blooded Goebbels had to cover his eyes to keep from passing out.
As Hitler finished his speech from the Wolf's Lair, Franklin Roosevelt gave his own radio address from California. Speaking from a private railroad car at the San Diego naval base, he accepted the 1944 Democratic nomination for President. For wartime security reasons, the public was told only that the base was on the "Pacific coast."
The President was taking a five-week, fourteen-thousand-mile military inspection trip of the Pacific Coast, Hawaii and Alaska. His special nine-car railroad caravan had moved slowly from Chicago to Kansas City, El Paso and Phoenix, to "kill time" before his arrival in San Diego and spare him from having to sleep at night in a moving train. Secret Service agents had tried to keep Roosevelt's exact whereabouts a secret. At each stop, the President and his party were asked to stay aboard the train. But Roosevelt's famous Scottie dog, Fala, had to be taken off to relieve himself. When Pullman porters and ticket takers saw Fala, they knew who was really aboard the train called "Main 985."
One might have expected Roosevelt to be delighted when he heard the news of a coup that might topple Adolf Hitler. If a new, post-Hitler government accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender, it would save millions of lives and let the Big Three -- Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill -- throw Allied forces fully into the war against Japan.
But Roosevelt knew that life was rarely that uncomplicated. For months, American intelligence had secretly warned him of plots against Hitler. In early July 1944, Allen Dulles of the Office of Strategic Services reported from Bern, Switzerland, that "the next few weeks will be our last chance to demonstrate the determination of the Germans themselves to rid Germany of Hitler and his gang and establish a decent regime." Eight days before Stauffenberg set off his bomb, Dulles warned that "a dramatic event" might soon take place "up north."
Roosevelt would have certainly realized that a new, post-Hitler junta would probably demand a negotiated settlement. It might insist that certain members of the German military high command, government and other institutions stay in place. This would frustrate his declared intention to remake postwar Germany from the ground up so that it could never threaten the world again. Official Allied policy was unconditional surrender. But Roosevelt knew that if a rump post-Hitler government sued for peace, it would be difficult for Churchill and himself to persuade their war-exhausted peoples to keep fighting and lose hundreds of thousands more lives.
Dulles had reported that one group of anti-Hitler conspirators wanted "to prevent Central Europe from coming...under the control of Russia." As Roosevelt knew, Churchill might be sorely tempted by a deal with a new German government that could save British lives and block the Soviets in Europe, provoking an immediate confrontation with Stalin. Even worse was the possibility that a post-Hitler government might side with the Soviets against the Anglo-Americans.
Told of the attempted assassination, reporters in San Diego badgered Roosevelt's aides for the President's reaction to the news. The President offered no comment. Whatever he said would be playing with fire. If he publicly welcomed the plot, he might seem to be backing off from unconditional surrender. If he denounced it, he might appear indifferent to a development that might end the war quickly. If he opposed the plot and it proved ultimately to succeed, Stalin would have a better chance to make a deal with a new post-Hitler government that would let the Soviets dominate Europe.
Instead, Roosevelt wrote a carefully worded private message to Stalin suggesting that the plot was encouraging because it revealed a Nazi foe in disarray: "We have just received news of the difficulties in Germany and especially at Hitler's headquarters. It is all to the good." With the same cheerful presumption that the plot could be nothing but good news, Roosevelt wrote his wife, Eleanor, "Dearest Babs....I might have to hurry back earlier if this German revolt gets worse! I fear though that it won't."
On Friday evening in Chicago, with Roosevelt's consent, Democrats had chosen Senator Harry Truman of Missouri for Vice President. In San Diego, with Truman safely nominated, the President and Fala were driven in darkness to Broadway Pier and piped aboard the heavy cruiser Baltimore, bound for Honolulu. To protect Roosevelt from Japanese attack, the gleaming new ship was escorted by four destroyers. It followed an unpredictable route and was darkened from sunset to sunrise. During the voyage, sailors had to be stopped from cutting snippets of hair from Fala to send home.
The President slept soundly and sat on the vessel's flag bridge, enjoying the sun and cool breezes. During his Pacific idyll and later in the trip, Roosevelt received intelligence reports that after Hitler's near-murder, the "blood purge" of the Führer's internal enemies was "ruthless." So many Germans were being arrested that "schools and other large public buildings are being used as supplementary jails." Roosevelt was informed that after Hitler's clean sweep, Germans would now "probably have to wait for the complete military collapse of Germany to rid themselves of the Nazis."
When the Baltimore arrived in Honolulu, its presidential flag was hoisted. This upset the Secret Service, but by now, almost everyone in the Hawaiian capital knew that Roosevelt was coming. Staying in a mansion bequeathed to the United States by a hard-drinking millionaire who had committed suicide, the President had what he called a "splendid" talk with General Douglas MacArthur about the Pacific war.
Only a full week after Hitler's near-assassination did Roosevelt make his first public comment about the plot. As the President sat with reporters on the emerald lawn of the Hawaiian governor's palace, he was excruciatingly careful: "I don't think I know anything more about it than you do....We can all have our own ideas about it." He went on to reaffirm the Allied demand for unconditional surrender: "Practically every German denies the fact they surrendered in the last war. But this time, they are going to know it!"
From Moscow, Stalin's propagandists agreed: "Hitlerite Germany will be driven to her knees not by insurgent officers, but by ourselves and our Allies!"
Churchill scoffed at the anti-Hitler plot. Before the House of Commons, he explained that high German officials were merely trying to elude their inevitable, absolute defeat by "murdering one another."
The Prime Minister's icy dismissal concealed a secret that few in His Majesty's government knew. According to British intelligence documents released in 1998, Churchill's secret agents were themselves trying to have Hitler murdered. Under the code name Operation Foxley, they schemed to have Hitler's tea poisoned, his uniform doused with lethal bacteria, his train blown up, or for him to be shot during his daily walk.
One British colonel who knew about the operation could not understand why they were going after Hitler: He was doing such a good job of losing the war! Killing the Führer, he warned, might unite Germans against the Allied armies. Assassination would "canonize" Hitler and "give birth to the myth that Germany would have been saved had he lived." Another British officer said, "I think Hitler should be permitted to live until he dies of senile decay before the eyes of the people he has misled....Make him a laughing stock."
A more sober British intelligence man insisted that they keep on trying. Hitler's "mystical hold" over the German people, he wrote, was "keeping the country together" as the Anglo-Americans struggled to free Europe.
Roosevelt agreed with Stalin and Churchill that the paramount question left by the European war would be what happened to Germany. He believed that a lasting peace would depend on whether he and Churchill could maintain their friendship with the Soviet Union and whether Germany could be so transformed that it would never threaten the world again.
But how? Even with the European war rushing toward climax and Allied armies about to pierce the German border, the President refused to commit himself. He told exasperated aides that much would depend on "what we and the Allies find when we get into Germany -- and we are not there yet."
With his extravagant confidence in his ability to master events, Franklin Roosevelt was keeping his options open until the final possible moment.
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Beschloss
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945
Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945
With monumental fairness and balance, The Conquerors shows how Roosevelt privately refused desperate pleas to speak out directly against the Holocaust, to save Jewish refugees and to explore the possible bombing of Auschwitz to stop the killing. The book also shows FDR's fierce will to ensure that Germany would never threaten the world again. Near the end of World War II, he abruptly endorsed the secret plan of his friend, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, to reduce the Germans to a primitive existence -- despite Churchill's fear that crushing postwar Germany would let the Soviets conquer the continent. The book finally shows how, after FDR's death, President Truman rebelled against Roosevelt's tough approach and adopted the Marshall Plan and other more conciliatory policies that culminated in today's democratic, united Europe.