Claus von Stauffenberg had placed the briefcase containing the bomb under the table of the conference room as close to Adolf Hitler as he could get it. Unbeknownst to von Stauffenberg, the man next to Hitler, Colonel Heinz Brandt, had knocked into the briefcase with his foot and shoved it out of his way. The briefcase ended up behind the leg of the table in the conference room where the Führer and several senior members of the German armed forces were meeting at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia. The leg of the table would shield Hitler when the bomb detonated.
The plot to kill Hitler was meant to spark a takeover of the state by the Wehrmacht – the German armed forces.
A few minutes later, an aide entered the room and informed von Stauffenberg that he was wanted on the phone. This was his cue to leave. As he hurried away, the bomb detonated. A stenographer taking notes in the room took the full force of the blast, losing both of his legs and his life. The unfortunate Brandt lost one leg in the blast and died the following day. The Chief of the General Staff of the Luftwaffe, Colonel General Günther Korten was mortally wounded. Hitler, meanwhile, was left with a few scratches and a ruined pair of trousers. The July 20th plot had failed.
But what if it had succeeded? What if Brandt had never moved the briefcase and Hitler had been killed?
The plot to kill Hitler was meant to spark a takeover of the state by the Wehrmacht – the German armed forces. Had things gone according to plan, the Heer (the army) would have seized control of strategic points in Berlin and across the rest of German-occupied territory. These strategic points would have included military installations, railway stations, ports, airfields, concentration camps, radio stations and telephone exchanges. Himmler’s headquarters in East Prussia would have been seized and the notorious head of the SS arrested and either imprisoned or hastily executed. The SS would have been neutralized along with the SD - the intelligence wing of the SS. The Waffen-SS, the military arm of the SS, would have either been absorbed into the Heer or liquidated. Hitler’s henchmen, Goring and Goebbels, would have followed their comrade either to the gallows or prison.
With the army now in charge and eager to bring the whole debacle of the war to a close after the disastrous Russian campaign and the successful Allied invasion of France, what might have happened next?
The installation of a brand-new government wouldn’t have immediately solved all of Germany’s problems. The Allies were demanding the country’s unconditional surrender. A change of government wouldn’t have made that ultimatum magically disappear. The Germans would have needed to act quickly and decisively if they were to avoid total annihilation.
One likely scenario is that the newly installed German government would have ordered a complete withdrawal of German forces from occupied France. After this, a lightly resisted invasion of Germany by the Americans and their western allies would have been preferable to surrender. The alternative – the invasion and occupation of vast swathes of the east of the country by Soviet troops hungry for revenge – would have been too dreadful to contemplate. Much better that countries take charge who had not suffered the horrors the USSR had endured at the hands of the Nazis.
With Germany now occupied, the Soviets would have had very little choice but to halt the Red Army’s relentless drive west. After all, to carry on would mean marching into their allies’ captured territory. This could have easily led to the outbreak of hostilities amongst the Allies.
The occupation of Germany would have completely changed the game. In July 1944, the infamous Yalta Conference between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill had not yet happened. At that momentous meeting, the leaders of the ‘Big Three’ agreed to carve up the states of Europe into two ‘spheres of influence’. In one sphere, the territories of Western Europe would remain free states; in the other sphere, the USSR would take countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria under its wing, condemning them to Soviet-friendly communist governments for decades to come.
Would countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary have been spared decades of communist rule as a result of Hitler’s death?
But in an alternative universe where Hitler was killed by von Stauffenberg’s bomb in July 1944, it is highly unlikely that Churchill and Roosevelt would have thrown Central and Eastern Europe under the bus if the whole of Germany was now under their control. Occupied Germany, fearful of what would happen if the country was left at the mercy of a vengeful USSR, would have willingly joined in a fight with the Soviet Union should the new masters in London and Washington give the go ahead.
Would Stalin dare risk turning on his former friends? It’s doubtful. Unless things worked out extremely well, a war with his former allies – now reinforced with battle-hardened German troops - would most likely have seen the Soviet Union swept from the map and Stalin deposed. A more likely outcome would have been Stalin accepting less favourable terms than he was able to secure at Yalta. How much he would have got out of these alternative negotiations will never be known, but it’s doubtful so much territory would have been seceded to the Soviet dictator with the Americans and their allies in charge of Germany. Would countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary have been spared decades of communist rule as a result of Hitler’s death? It’s certainly possible.
Of course, Stalin may well have decided to go for broke and attack. So what then? The Red Army pulling it off against all the odds and overrunning the whole of Western Europe? The Soviets smashed to pieces and American, British, German and French troops occupying everything from the English Channel to the Ural Mountains? An A-bomb dropped on Moscow? The possibilities are endless.
What would have been a certainty had Stalin chosen not to fight is that everything would be thrown into the defeat of Japan. With the boffins of the Manhattan Project still just under a year away from detonating their first atomic bomb, this would have involved a full-scale invasion by conventional military means of Japan and its territories. The Japanese would have paid an incredibly high price given the country’s stubborn determination to fight until the end unless they came to their senses and surrendered, which is debatable. Millions would have likely died in the resulting bloodbath, and much of Japan would have ended up in ruins. The war, then, would likely have been over by either the end of 1944 or the start of 1945. The price paid in Allied lives would have been very high.
Of course, none of this or the thousands of other scenarios a successful July 20th plot throws up happened. After they failed to kill Hitler, the plotters were quickly rounded up and either killed themselves or executed, often horribly. Stauffenberg was arrested, court-martialed and shot by a firing squad along with three fellow conspirators in the early hours of June 21st. For many others, a kangaroo court awaited them presided over by the notorious People’s Court judge Roland Friesler. Hitler demanded those found guilty of being involved in the plot should be ‘hanged like cattle’. Many of the July plotters met their end stripped naked while they slowly strangled to death dangling from short ropes attached to meat hooks. It was a grisly way to die.
The Gestapo went into overdrive after the July 20th plot was uncovered. It wasn’t long before they had uncovered three previous plots against Hitler dating back to 1938, 1939 and 1943. This, in turn, led to thousands of arrests, trials and executions which continued right up to the fall of the Third Reich. Nearly five thousand people - not all of them guilty - met their end thanks to the Gestapo’s brutal investigation into the four failed plots. Prominent among them was the former head of the Nazi intelligence service, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and the celebrated war hero, General Erwin Rommel. Canaris met a humiliating end – dangling naked from the gallows of Flossenbürg concentration camp as the guns of the Allied advance could be heard outside.
Unlike the unfortunate Canaris, Rommel was offered the choice of death by suicide or national humiliation, execution and the arrest and imprisonment of his entire family. The infamous ‘Desert Fox’ understandably chose the former option by swallowing a cyanide pill. He was given a state funeral and buried with full military honours.
Nazi Germany would eventually unconditionally surrender on the 7th of May 1945. By then, Hitler was dead and the glorious Reich he had planned to last for a thousand years had lasted a mere twelve. The Cold War awaited the victorious Allies. Berlin was divided, Germany split between the victors; the countries of Central and Eastern Europe became Soviet-controlled prison states; the USSR and the USA engaged in a decades-long arms race and the very real possibility of nuclear Armageddon hung over the world. How much of this could have been avoided had the July 20th plot succeeded will never be known. What is certain is history would have looked very different today had a German officer not knocked into a briefcase and decided to shove it out of his way.