By the middle of July 1944 Germany’s war situation had gone from bad to worse. The collapse of the Eastern Front and the evident strength of the Allies in Normandy meant that many senior German officers believed that the war was lost. A relatively small group of them chose to take action. It was obvious that only the removal of Hitler could bring the war to an end.
After several abortive attempts Claus von Stauffenberg, a Staff Officer with access to Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair HQ Conference room came very close to succeeding. Several things went wrong. Stauffenberg only had one eye and three fingers on his left hand so could only arm one of the two bombs, then, because of the hot day the meeting was transferred from an underground bunker to a wooden hut. Finally after depositing his briefcase bomb as close to Hitler as possible and making an excuse to leave, Staffenberg’s briefcase was moved by another officer. It was placed on the other side of a solid wooden trestle table leg, yet still only feet away from Hitler.
Heinrich Bucholz was one of the stenographers present, recording the discussions at the conference:
I remember it as a clap of thunder coupled with a bright yellow ﬂash and clouds of thick smoke. Glass and wood splintered through the air. The large table on which all the situation maps had been spread out and around which the participants were standing — only we stenographers were sitting — collapsed. After a few seconds of silence I heard a voice, probably Field Marshal Keitel, shouting: “Where is the Fuhrer?” Then further shouts and screams of pain arose.
Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s interpreter, was one of the first people to see Hitler after the explosion. He arrived to be present for Hitler’s meeting with Mussolini that had previously been arranged. Because of the heightened security he had difficult getting into the private railway station nearby, where Mussolini was due to arrive:
I did finally succeed in getting past the sentries, and reached this station, where I was to meet Mussolini on his arrival early in the afternoon. At the station I heard what had actually happened from Hitler’s physician, Professor Morell, who had not himself fully recovered from the shock of the explosion.
He told me that Hitler had, miraculously, escaped practically unhurt, whereas other people in the room had been severely wounded. He expressed great admiration for Hitler’s complete calm; he had found his pulse quite normal when examining him for injuries.
While the doctor was telling me this, Hitler himself suddenly appeared on the platform to welcome Mussolini. There was no evidence of what had happened, except that his right arm was rather stiff. When the train came in, I noticed that he held out his left hand to Mussolini, and that he moved much more slowly than usual; it was as though one were watching him in a slow-motion film.
During the three-minute drive to his quarters Hitler told Mussolini what had just happened, quietly and almost in a monotone as though he had had no part in it. Mussolini’s naturally prominent eyes seemed to start out of his head with horror.
We went straight to the conference room, which looked like a bombed house after an air-raid. For a while the two men looked round in silence, and then Hitler related some of the details. He showed Mussolini how he had been bending over the table to see something on the map, and was leaning on his right elbow, when the explosion occurred, almost exactly beneath his arm.
The top of the table had been blown off and it was this which had hurt his right arm. In a corner of the room was the uniform which Hitler had been wearing that morning, and he showed Mussolini the tattered trousers and the slightly torn tunic, and also showed the back of his head, where his hair was singed.
Mussolini was absolutely horried; he could not understand how such a thing could happen at Headquarters; his face expressed utter dismay. In the ruins of this office, the nerve centre of the Italo-German partnership, he must have seen the ruins of the whole political structure of the Rome-Berlin Axis.
At first he could only think of the event as a bad omen, and some time elapsed before he pulled himself together enough to congratulate Hitler on his escape.
Hitler’s reaction was completely different.
“I was standing here by this table; the bomb went off just
in front of my feet. Over there in the corner of the room colleagues of mine were severely injured; just opposite me an officer was literally blown through the window and lay outside severely injured. Look at my uniform!
Look at my burns! When I reflect on all this I must say that to me it is obvious that nothing is going to happen to me; undoubtedly it is my fate to continue on my way and to bring my task to completion. It is not the first time that I have escaped death miraculously. First there were times in the first war, and then during my political career there were a series of marvellous escapes.
What happened here today is the climax! And having now escaped death in such an extraordinary way I am more than ever convinced that the great cause which I serve will be brought through its present perils and that everything can be brought to a good end.”
Hitler had talked himself with these words into a state of fine enthusiasm, as he was always able to do; he had passed from the quiet reporting tone in which he had related the details of the event, into that kind of rhetoric which seldom failed of its effect on the man to whom he was talking. It was something quite different from the raging and ranting of his public speeches. Outbursts of rage like those which occurred in the speeches, which he has often been credited with in private conversations, never took place at any conversation where I was present as interpreter.
Shortly afterwards Hitler made a radio broadcast to the German nation to confirm to all that the coup had failed and that he lived:
At the very moment when the German armies are engaged in a most difficult struggle, a small group formed in Germany, as happened in Italy, which thought that as in 1918 it could now deliver the stab in the back. However, this time they totally miscalculated.
The claim by these usurpers that I am no longer alive, is at this very moment proven false, for here I am talking to you, my dear fellow countrymen.
The circle which these usurpers represent is very small. It has nothing to do with the German armed forces, and above all nothing to do with the German army. It is a very small clique composed of criminal elements which will now be mercilessly exterminated.