July 20 was the 70th anniversary of the failed assassination and attempted military coup against Adolf Hitler, nearly the only chapter of that era that Germans can honorably celebrate.
There was a commemorative worship service at the Lutheran cathedral in Berlin, and, as always on this date, a ceremony of remembrance at the courtyard in Berlin where the leading anti-Hitler conspirators were quickly shot after their coup collapsed.
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is recalled as the decisive leading anti-Hitler conspirator, having placed the briefcase bomb under the conference table where Hitler was deliberating with leading officers at his East Prussian headquarters. Stauffenberg left the complex after the explosion, certain of Hitler’s death, and he attempted to lead a coup against Nazi rule back in Berlin.
Sadly, the conference table had protected Hitler from the full force of the blast, and he was only wounded. Within hours, Hitler was on the radio assuring Germany of his survival and denouncing the treason of the plot against him. The attempted coup in Berlin, which depended on the psychological effect of Hitler’s death, collapsed. Stauffenberg, a highly decorated officer who had lost an eye and an arm in the war, was executed with his most immediate cohorts.
Like others in the anti-Hitler plot, many of whom had conspired for years within the military, Stauffenberg was appalled by Hitler’s crimes and by his ongoing destruction of their country. Stauffenberg himself was a believing Catholic who did not identify with Nazism’s attempt to usurp Christianity with fanatical nationalism and paganism, often behind the facade of churches. Others of the conspirators were also informed by Christian faith, and they represented the old Germany that Hitler was attempting to eradicate in favor of a genocidal totalitarian state that deified race.
The anti-Hitler conspiracy was audacious but unlikely to succeed. Its success depended on fooling the army into believing Hitler was killed in an SS attempted seizure of power. The conspirators also imagined they could negotiate peace with the Western powers while continuing the war against their hated and feared Soviet nemesis.
In fact, the Western powers didn’t fully understand the anti-Hitler conspiracy and imagined it was essentially one set of Nazis contending against another. Nor was the West willing to negotiate a separate peace with Germany, having already agreed with Stalin on unconditional surrender by Germany to all the Allied powers.
The Nazi war machine and police state apparatus had by 1944 already killed tens of millions, especially in the Soviet Union. So the Allies, especially the Soviets, were not going to accept anything short of Germany’s complete capitulation and occupation. The leading anti-Hitler plotters were of course aware of the high stakes against their success but believed their own honor and whatever remained of national honor demanded at least the attempt.
About 200 of the conspirators were afterwards executed, some of them tortured and hung from meat hooks, their suffering filmed and viewed personally by Hitler. Thousands were arrested, including wives and family members of plotters, Stauffenberg’s pregnant wife among them. Some of the incarcerated would survive until liberated by advancing Allied armies, several of them later serving as leaders of the West German army.
Other anti-Hitler conspirators were less fortunate and executed after only days from potential liberation. Among them were Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German Naval Intelligence, who for years had subtly protected the conspiracy while simultaneously serving the Third Reich with intelligence collection against the Allies. He was hanged in the company of theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had provided a moral and religious imprimatur to the anti-Hitler assassination plot.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had been Hitler’s favorite commander, was implicated for at least vague sympathy with the conspiracy. Given the choice between public humiliation and execution, with repercussions for his family, or suicide, he readily chose the later. His death, portrayed in German propaganda as the result of war wounds, received a Nazi state funeral, with even Hitler feigning to pay homage.
One leading conspirator, before committing suicide the day after the failed assassination, explained:
When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany.
As some German political and religious leaders explained at the 70th anniversary commemoration, the anti-Hitler plot both showed that not all Germans had lost their conscience during the Nazi era while also evincing that more Germans could and should acted against their murderous dictator.
The July 20 conspiracy reminds that millions can be hypnotized into complicity with great evil. But individuals who still heed faith and conscience can still act in some accordance with decency, if unafraid of failure and concerned instead with posterity and Providence.