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Failed plot

July 20, 2011

Wednesday marks the 67th anniversary of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Hitler. While some question whether he acted out of altruism, most Germans are taking a positive view.

Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg
Stauffenberg is honored as a hero in Germany todayImage: dpa

Annual commemorations take place in Berlin and Dresden on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

The ceremonies begin with an ecumenical service at the Plötzensee Memorial Center in Berlin, which commemorates the victims of the Nazi regime. The center, formally a prison, was the site of nearly 3,000 executions.

There were also ceremonies at the Bendler Block, the site of the execution of some of the main conspirators, and now the German Defense Ministry.

On July 20, 1944, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, an aristocratic colonel in the Nazi army, took the fate of the German people into his own hands. Increasingly disillusioned with Hitler's campaign in the war, Stauffenberg and numerous other co-conspirators within the German military, including Friedrich Olbricht and Henning von Tresckow, plotted to assassinate the dictator and seize the reins of power.

Adolf Hitler shortly after the botched assassination attempt
Hitler only narrowly survived the attemptImage: dpa

Shortly after noon on a hot summer day, Stauffenberg smuggled an explosives-filled briefcase into a meeting at Hitler's "Wolf's Lair" hideaway (in what is today Poland), where the dictator was seated around a large wooden table with 22 other Nazi officials.

Stauffenberg placed the briefcase under the table, made an excuse to leave, and watched the explosion from afar as he raced towards his getaway car. Confident he had completed his mission and an impending coup would soon place him and like-minded co-conspirators in power, Stauffenberg made haste to return to Berlin.

But, in what is largely viewed as one of the greatest tragedies in history, things did not work out that way. Miraculously, Hitler survived the blast that killed four others, and the opposition's poor planning, lack of support and hesitation at crucial moments played into the Führer's hands.

Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg in 1940 with his children
Stauffenberg was increasingly disillusioned with Hitler's regimeImage: AP

By midnight - just twelve hours later - Hitler had regained the upper hand and squashed the rebellion. Stauffenberg and three others were executed by firing squad in Berlin. In the coming weeks, an additional 140 people implicated in the plot were killed and more than 5,000 conspirators and political opponents were rounded-up.

Hero or traitor?

Had Stauffenberg been successful, the final phase of the war would certainly have gone differently. The fact remains that more people died between the July assassination attempt and the end of the war than in the four-and-a-half years prior to that. Few doubt that Hitler's demise would not have seriously affected the German army's ability to go on fighting, if not ended hostilities sooner and saved thousands of lives. Yet, Stauffenberg's place in history as a hero of the German resistance has not been so easily established.

In the initial decade after the end of the war, the German public largely viewed him as a traitor. His wife was denied a pension, and no memorials were erected to mark the bravery of those within Hitler's own military establishment who risked their lives to set the country on a different course.

In the 1960's, as a younger generation of Germans confronted their parents over their country's Nazi past, Stauffenberg was not necessarily rehabilitated into an honorable symbol of the German resistance. Some were suspicious of his motives, accusing him of acting more out of self-interest, and less out of benevolent concern for the plight of the Jews and other victims of Nazi war crimes.

A surge of new interest

But as the 60th anniversary of the assassination attempt approached, a number of new films, documentaries and books enlivened the debate and once again drew attention to Stauffenberg and his band of subversives. German public broadcaster SWR produced a film by director Jo Baier entitled "Stauffenberg," which topped prime time ratings with a 23 percent audience share.

Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg
Cruise's portrayal of Stauffenberg drew mixed reviewsImage: AP

Another German broadcaster produced a four-part documentary entitled "They Wanted to Kill Hitler," which proved equally popular. Numerous new autobiographies and books chronicling the event hit the shelves in bookstores.

That new interest has manifested itself in the spate of recent movies and books, most recently the 2008 Hollywood film "Valkyrie," which starred Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg.

Perspectives change over time

The German public's growing interest in Stauffenberg and company begs the question: what's changed? According to Johannes Tuchel, Director of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin, most Germans were - implicitly, at least - Hitler supporters, and those in the resistance were in the minority.

"After the war, Germany did not change its population," he said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "Now we have a new generation, and they are interested in what happened on July 20, 1944."

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, US author of the book "Hitler's Willing Executioners"
Goldhagen believes that Germans were collectively guilty for the HolocaustImage: AP

Many are drawn to the material in the hopes of learning how a group of military officers changed their view of Hitler radically enough to plot a coup.

For that question, however, there is no easy answer. "They had a broad spectrum of motivations," says Tuchel of those involved in the plot. "Some were social democrats, some former labor union activists, some had authoritarian goals."

Two things, according to Tuchel, united them: they wanted to re-establish the rule of law and end the war. In the case of Stauffenberg, Tuchel says historical evidence proves that a growing disgust for Nazi war crimes was his primary motivating factor.

The German resistance

Academics have long debated whether the guilt for Nazi crimes should be borne individually, by those who committed the crimes, or collectively, by the German people. In the 1997 book "Hitler's Willing Executioners," US historian Daniel Goldhagen argued in favor of the theory of collective guilt. Not surprisingly, his theory proved highly controversial in Germany. It's no wonder that the German public is fascinated by more inspiring tales of resistance.

The German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin features exhibitions on Stauffenberg, as well as others like the "White Rose" student movement which sprung up in Munich. But Tuchel is careful not to exaggerate the size of the resistance, pointing out that Hitler's opponents - those willing to take action - were always in the minority. "This was such a small operation, that the same man who planted the bomb (Stauffenberg), had to run back to Berlin on the same day to help organize the coup," he said.

Author: Kristine Ziwica
Editor: Ben Knight