Failure Was the Only Option

At 10:00 am on July 20, 1944, Graf Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg arrived at Hitler’s headquarters in Ukraine to attend the daily military briefing.  On the drive from the airfield, he armed a bomb in his briefcase. It can’t have been easy; Stauffenberg was missing an eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left hand, due to combat injuries. 

The military conference took place in a wooden hut. Stauffenberg’s briefcase was propped against a table leg near Hitler.  Stauffenberg soon excused himself and left the room. A few minutes later around 12:40 pm the bomb exploded, disintegrating the building and killing several people instantly. 

As Stauffenberg drove away, he saw a body draped in Hitler’s coat carried from the destroyed building.  He flew back to Berlin and announced to his co-conspirators that Hitler was dead and it was time to implement their takeover plan. 

But Hitler wasn’t dead. The coup failed. Stauffenberg and three of his closest collaborators were executed that night. Stauffenberg’s wife was arrested and gave birth to her daughter in prison. Her sons were sent to orphanages under fake names, but their young age probably saved their lives.  Hitler’s vindictiveness ensured the purges and murders continued until his death in April 1945.   

Stauffenberg was the last in a long line of would-be assassins who tried to bump off Hitler.  He failed because the table leg protected Hitler from the full force of the blast. Previous attempts failed when Hitler abruptly changed plans at the last minute, but success wouldn’t have changed anything.

In July 1944, Germany’s defeat was inevitable and the Allies had no intention of negotiating with a military cabal.  Besides, they were appalled at the thought of military coups against civilian governments.  Inside Germany, people were appalled by treason during war.  

Hitler was never as popular as projected in Nazi propaganda and post-war documentaries. He failed miserably in every political election he contested, never attracting more than about 30% of voters. He came to power when the conservatives in the Reichstag (parliament) agreed to make him Chancellor in exchange for the votes of Nazi Party deputies.  The conservatives were contemptuous of Hitler and his hooligan supporters, but they wanted to stay in power.

Hitler’s henchmen immediately began attacking every vestige of civil society as a threat to their power. His opponents were handicapped by their basic decency and willingness to operate within the law, although they faced a man with no morals who violated the law and told outrageous lies to cover his crimes. 


The conservatives stuck by Hitler as he eviscerated their power because they were afraid of the support he received from their voters in his campaign-style rallies. Ordinary people remained silent as they watched politicians and church leaders cave in to Hitler.  

Ordinary people also believed their lives had improved under the Nazis. Hitler introduced loose monetary policies and massive public building projects that juiced up the economy.  After years of hyperinflation and the Great Depression anyone could get a job and put food on the table. Even anti-Nazis cheered when Hitler violated international treaties on the grounds that the treaties were unfairly oppressing Germany.   

By the time ordinary people woke up to what they had lost, it was too late to stop the Nazis.  Spies were everywhere to report the smallest dissent.  Every household had a loved one in combat and war casualties zoomed into the millions. No true patriot and nationalist wanted to go against their country in a time of war, even a country run by Hitler.  

So even if the bomb had killed Hitler, nothing would have changed aside from the conspirators chance to live. The Allies would not have negotiated anything less than unconditional surrender and German citizens were not willing to overthrow the Nazis running the country.  Ultimately, the plot failed because the conspirators were out of touch with the political reality inside and outside of Germany.

An excellent analysis of why the anti-Hitler resistance was doomed to failure is Plotting Hitler’s Death, Joachim Fest (English translation 1996).  Courageous Hearts, by Dorothee von Meding (English translation 1997) tells us what happened to the widows of 11 key conspirators, including Countess von Stauffenberg.  Several individuals peripheral to the plot published eye-witness accounts.  One is Operation Valkyrie: The German Generals’ Plot Against Hitler, by Pierre Galante (English translation 1981) which explains how General Adolf Heusinger escaped the purge after he was severely injured by the bomb.

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