I'm half German, half Italian. My grandparents lived through the Third Reich and I still recall many of their stories from that era.
World War I left Germany a shattered nation humiliated by the Versailles treaty. Hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic further added to the misery of the populace. Germans desperately wanted someone to stand up and reestablish their nation's former greatness. When the young demagogue Adolf Hitler appeared on the scene, he was hailed by many as the nation's saviour. Although in economic terms he went off to a promising start, rather than savior, Hitler would enter history as Germany's (and the world's) devastator.
Some saw the evil ahead of their time and tried to take action. From the early 1930s until 1945 over 40 attempts on Hitler's life occurred. Yet none succeeded. It was not until April 30, 1945 when Hitler took his life in his Berlin bunker that one of history's most hated man was finally dead.
1. The Oster Conspiracy (September 1938)
The Oster conspiracy was a plan to overthrow Hitler and the Nazi regime if they went to war with Czechoslovakia. It was led by major-general Hans Oster and other high-ranking officers within the Wehrmacht who feared the regime was steering Germany into a war it was not ready to fight. The plan foresaw forces loyal to the plot storming the Reich Chancellory and either arresting or assassinating Hitler and taking control of government.
To succeed the plot needed strong opposition by the British to Hitler's seizure of Sudetenland. However, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister at the Munich Agreement of 1938, conceded strategic areas of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, to, so he reasoned, avoid war. Ironically, by conceding too much, rather than avoiding war he helped keeping Hitler in power. He might otherwise have been removed by the Germans themselves early on.
2. Maurice Bavaud (November 1938)
Maurice Bavaud was a Catholic Swiss theology student as well as member of an anti-communist student group in France. Bavaud planned to assassinate Hitler on November 9, 1938 during the parade commemorating the 1923 Beerhall Putsch. He therefore equipped himself with a 6.35 mm Schmeisser pistol and travelled to Munich to attend the parade. Standing on the sidelines things didn't turn out as planned. As Hitler was approaching, the crowd, unwillingly, foiled the plot as everybody raised his arm to salute the Führer. Bavaud's view was suddenly blocked and he was hindered to take aim. The risk of harming other leaders marching close to Hitler might also have deterred him from pulling the trigger. On his way back to France, Bavaud is caught on a train traveling without a ticket. Police gets suspicious as they find his gun and a map of Munich. Later interrogated by the Gestapo Bavaud admits the plot and is imprisoned. He will be executed in 1941.
3. The Bürgerbräukeller Bombing (November 1939)
Johann Georg Elser was a carpenter from the Swabian town of Köngisbronn. Of left-leaning political tendencies he opposed nazism and became convinced its leadership had to be eliminated to avoid war and further suffering of the common people. He reasoned the best occasion would be the bombing at an anniversary meeting where party bigwigs were fixed speakers. He choose the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch that was due to take place on November 8, 1939. Traveling to Munich the year before, he considered the best way to execute the assassination was by filling the column behind the speaker's podium with explosives. As a skilled cabinet maker with experience in clock-working, he designed a bomb for the plot. During prolonged stays in Munich he hid in the Bürgerbräukeller hall by night preparing the column for the bombing. Having worked both at an armament factory and a quarry had given him access to explosives and detonators.
On November 5, three days ahead of the anniversary, he installed the twin-clock mechanism that would activate the detonator. The time was set to 9h20 p.m. of November 8, as Hitler's speech had been scheduled for 8h30 p.m. However, on that day Hitler decided to return to Berlin by his private train instead of by plane due to fog. Therefore the speech was brought forward to 8:00 p.m. and cut from planned two hours to a one-hour duration. Hitler ended his speech at 9:07 p.m., just 13 minutes before the bomb took off, bringing down the ceiling of the Bürgerbräukeller killing 8 and injuring 63 people.
Shortly before the bomb took off, Elser was apprehended near the Swiss border by guards, while carrying with him cutters, sketches of explosive devices and a postcard of the interior of the Bürgerbräukeller. Initially only one of many suspects, suspicion of his involvement grew when one waitress at the Bürgerbräukeller recognized him as the odd customer who never ordered more than one drink.
The failed plot was also a wake up call for Hitler's security standards which were greatly increased after this attempt. Elser was executed in Dachau concentration camp in early April 1945, only a few weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany.
4. The Brandy Bomb (March 13, 1943)
Henning von Tresckow was born into a Prussian family of noble descent and a long military tradition. Appalled by the horrible atrocities committed on the Eastern front, he became convinced Hitler had to be eliminated and formed a group of like-minded officers. When Hitler announced his visit of the Smolensk army base were Tresckow was stationed, he was determined to act.
The initial plan of shooting Hitler by a group of resistance officers was abandoned as it didn't get the approval by commander von Kluge. Tresckow then planned to kill Hitler by blowing his plane out of the sky. Together with his aide he built a time bomb using captured British sabotage devices. To get the bomb on the plane he disguised it as brandy gift box and asked a member of Hitler's entourage to take it to a friend of high command in Berlin. As the plane took off Tresckow believed Hitler was as good as dead. Two hours later the plane landed without incident. Apparently the fuse didn't fire because of the low temperature in the luggage department.
5. Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff (March 21, 1943)
Gersdorff was an officer in the German Army who attempted to assassinate Hitler by suicide bombing. As intelligence staff officer of the Army Group Center he was well informed about the war crimes against Soviet POWs and the mass murder of the Jews. After the brandy bomb plot of Tresckow had failed, Gersdorff declared himself ready to offer his life for saving Germany.
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He was supposed to guide Hitler through an exhibition of captured Soviet weaponry at the Zeughaus in Berlin.
Shortly after Hitler entered the museum, Gersdorff activated a ten-minute delayed fuse to detonate the explosive devices hidden in his pockets. A detailed plan for a post Hitler Germany had already been worked out, but contrary to expectations, Hitler left the museum in less than ten minutes. Gersdorff hardly managed to defuse the device in a public bathroom thereby evading suspicion. He survived the war and died in 1980.
6. Axel von dem Bussche (December 16, 1943)
Bussche had joined the German Army in 1937 at the age of 18. In 1942 he had by chance seen a massacre of 3,000 Jewish civilians by SS units. This experience turned him decisively against Hitler. Afterwards he declared that there were only three ways left to preserve his honor as an officer: to desert, to die in battle or to rebel against the evil Nazi regime.
Bussche opted to join the German Resistance coordinated by Stauffenberg, where he volunteered to carry out a suicide mission. Because of his Arian looks, two-meter tall, blond and blue-eyed, Bussche was chosen as a model to present the new winter uniform at the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's military headquarter on the Eastern front. The plan was to hide a landmine in the deeper pockets of his trousers and detonate it while Bussche was embracing Hitler.
Then the night before the event the railway wagon carrying the uniforms was destroyed during an air raid and the viewing had to be called off. Before Bussche could be brought back for another attempt, he was badly wounded on the eastern front, losing a leg. Bussche could therefore not be taken in consideration for another try. Eventually he was one of the few Army plotters around Stauffenberg to survive the Third Reich passing away in 1993.
7. Ewald Heinrich von Kleist (February 11, 1944)
Kleist descended from a family of monarchists who hated the Nazi regime from the beginning. He was personally recruited for the resistance by Stauffenberg and designated to kill Hitler in a suicide attack to take place, as in a previously failed attempt, during an uniform presentation.
Kleist, aged 22 at the time, asked to discuss the far-reaching decision with his father. Kleist senior indeed gave his blessing, even stating his son would never again be happy in life, if he retracted from an opportunity of this kind.
While Kleist junior was now ready to act, the event was unexpectedly cancelled by Hitler.
Later, in the aftermath of the failed July 20 plot, Kleist junior was interrogated numerous times by the Gestapo, but somehow able to downplay his involvement. He died in 2013 as the last remaining member of the conspirators. His father, on the other hand, was condemned by the Volksgerichtshof (Nazi tribunal) and executed in April 1945.
8. Eberhard von Breitenbuch (March 11, 1944)
Breitenbuch was a Knight of Justice of the Order of Saint John. He had done academic studies in forestry and during the war served in both military and civilian capacity. While stationed in Poland he witnessed the horrific atrocities committed against Jews and Communists. He then joined the conspirators around Treschkow who convinced him to attempt the assassination of the Führer.The opportunity came when, while serving as aide to Generalfeldmarschall Ernst Busch, Busch was summoned for a briefing at Hitler's Berghof in the Bavarian Alpes.
Breitenbuch concealed a 7.65 mm Browning pistol in his trousers and agreed with the conspirators to kill Hitler by shooting him in the head from close range. The assassination would then have set off operation Valkyrie in Berlin to arrest the Nazi leadership and disarm the SS.
But as Busch and Breitenbuch arrived at Hitler's mountain retreat, SS-guards allowed in only generals while officers were to remain outside, a procedure that was both unusual and unexpected. For two hours Breitenbuch sat in the anteroom in the mistaken belief the Nazi leadership had gotten wind of the plot and fearing that he would soon be arrested. But that was not the case. The assassination attempt had failed but Breitenbuch evaded suspicion and lived until 1980.
9. Claus von Stauffenberg at the Berghof (July 11, 1944)
Stauffenberg undoubtedly features among the most prominent figures of the German Resistance. Not least because he carried out the most remarkable of the assassination attempts. Less well known is that, apart from the July 20 plot, there have been other aborted attempts.
On July 11, 1944 Stauffenberg had been at the Führer's Bavarian Berghof for a briefing with the bomb readily in his briefcase. The initial plan had been to kill Hitler together with Nazi leaders Göhring and Himmler. This to avoid a possible conflict between the Wehrmacht and the SS in the aftermath of the assassination. As the three Nazi bigwigs weren't together on that fateful day, Stauffenberg, in coordination with the Berlin conspirators, aborted the attempt.
A few days later he would be determined to try no matter what...
10. Operation Valkyrie (July 20, 1944)
Valkyrie originally was the code name of an emergency plan of the German Reserve Army to be implemented in case civil disorder broke out due to heavy Allied bombings of German cities or an uprising by the millions of forced laborers. It was modified by a group of German Resistance officers with the intention of using it, in case Hitler was assassinated, to disarm the SS, arrest the Nazi leadership and maintain civil order. The key role of the plot was played by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
Although at first Stauffenberg had a favorable view of the war and nazism, the atrocities committed on the Eastern front and the unfavorable course of the war for Germany made him turn against Hitler. In 1943 while on duty in Africa Stauffenberg was almost killed during an air raid, losing his left eye, right hand and two fingers of his left hand. This event made him even more determined to eliminate Hitler.
He seized the opportunity when summoned to the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's headquarter on the Eastern front. The Wolf's Lair had multiple security layers and heavy anti-aircraft guns, but was not especially well arranged to fend off someone attacking from Hitler's inner circle.
On July 20, 1944 Stauffenberg entered the compound carrying 2 kg of plastic explosive in his briefcase. While getting the bomb ready inside his room he was disturbed and called urgently to the conference room, so that he could get ready just one of two explosive packs.
Entering the room of the German high-command he placed the explosive filled briefcase under the conference table near Hitler and left with the excuse of an urgent phone call. Shortly before the bomb went off a general had unknowingly displaced the briefcase away from Hitler. The detonation destroyed the conference room fatally wounding 4 while injuring 20. At the moment the bomb took off Hitler was leaning over the heavy oak table, which shielded him from the full impact of the explosion. He escaped with only minor injuries. The survival of this incident confirmed Hitler in his belief that he was spared by providence to be Germany's leader until the final victory.
Flying back to Berlin Stauffenberg was convinced Hitler was dead. But as news spread among the conspirators in Berlin that Hitler was still alive, the conspiracy lost steam and some switched sides to save their skin. Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad shortly after midnight of July 21. The full-scale police operation that ensued from the failed plot lead to 5,000 arrests and the execution of some 200 directly involved in the conspiracy.
One cannot but wonder about the numerous instances in which Hitler survived only due to a strange twist of circumstances. He often spoke in religious terms and regarded himself as Germany's savior preserved by divine providence. Yet as it turned out, the promised Millennium of the Third Reich lasted a paltry 12 years ending in total demise.
Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis, by Ian Kershaw, W. W. Norton (2001)
Killing Hitler: The Third Reich and the Plots Against the Fuhrer, by Roger Moorhouse, Vintage (2007)
Claus von Stauffenberg, Wikipedia
Henning von Tresckow, Wikipedia
Georg Elser, Wikipedia
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Marco Pompili
MG Singh emge from Singapore on February 16, 2020:
Excellent article. Hitler was the cat with 9 lives. Sad but he lived long enough to damage Europe
Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on November 02, 2018:
Hitler had 6 lookalikes that we know of. In my own hubs on Hitler I theorise he may have had more who were enhanced with plastic surgery. Some of them may have been killed in the assassination attempts on Hitler's life.
My interest is personal as my mother was a Polish Aryanized German. Most of her large family were shot while running from their torched home.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on November 02, 2018:
Really well researched. I knew there were numerous attempts on Hitler's life but apart from 'Valkerie' didn't know much about them.