In June, 1941, Claus von Stauffenberg took part in Operation Barbarossa. He was appalled by the atrocities committed by the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) in the Soviet Union. According to his friend, Major Joachim Kuhn, Stauffenberg told him in August 1942 that "They are shooting Jews in masses. These crimes must not be allowed to continue." Joachim Fest, the author of Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) has pointed out: "As a result of the massacres in the East, relations between Hitler and the officer corps, which had always been cool, despite a momentary reconciliation at the time of the great triumphs in France, began to deteriorate rapidly... It was at this time Stauffenberg resolved to do everything in his power to remove Hitler and overthrow the regime." On his return to Berlin he met up with Henning von Tresckow, Fabin Schlabrendorff and other opponents of Adolf Hitler.
Stauffenberg was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and sent to Africa to join the 10th Panzer Division as its Operations Officer in the General Staff. On 7th April 1943, Stauffenberg was wounded in the face, in both hands, and in the knee by fire from a low-flying Allied plane. According to Louis L. Snyder: "He feared that he might lose his eyesight completely, but he kept one eye and lost his right hand, half the left hand, and part of his leg." Stauffenberg spent three months in a hospital in Munich, where his life was saved by the expert supervision of Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch.
After Claus von Stauffenberg recovered he joined the staff of General Friedrich Olbricht, Chief of the General Army Office in the Army High Command. Olbricht had already developed Operation Valkyrie, a General Staff plan which was ostensibly to be used to put down internal unrest, but was really going to be used against Hitler. Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) has pointed out: "With the help of men on whom he could rely at the Führer's headquarters, in Berlin and in the German Army in the west, Stauffenberg hoped to push the reluctant Army leaders into action once Hitler had been killed. To make sure that this essential preliminary should not be lacking, Stauffenberg allotted the task of assassination to himself despite the handicap of his injuries. Stauffenberg's energy had put new life into the conspiracy, but the leading role he was playing also roused jealousies."
Stauffenberg was highly critical of the conservatives led by Carl Goerdeler and was much closer to the socialist wing of the conspiracy around Julius Leber. Goerdeler later recalled: "Stauffenberg revealed himself as a cranky, obstinate fellow who wanted to play politics. I had many a row with him, but greatly esteemed him. He wanted to steer a dubious political course with the left-wing Socialists and the Communists, and gave me a bad time with his overwhelming egotism."
In early 1944 a group of anti-Nazis that included Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Wilhelm Canaris, Claus von Stauffenberg, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Hans Dohnanyi, Erwin Rommel, Hans Oster, Franz Halder, Hans Gisevius, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben met to discuss what action they should take. Initially the group was divided over the issue of Hitler. Gisevius and a small group of predominantly younger conspirators felt that he should be killed immediately. Canaris, Witzleben, Beck, Rommel and most of the other conspirators believed that Hitler should be arrested and put on trial. By using the legal system to expose the crimes of the regime, they hoped to avoid making a martyr of Hitler. Oster and Dohnanyi argued that after Hitler was arrested he should be brought before a panel of physicians chaired by Dohnanyi's father-in-law, the psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer, and declared mentally ill.
General Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler's chief adjutant, met Claus von Stauffenberg and arranged for him to become chief of staff to General Erich Fromm. According to Albert Speer, "Schmundt explained to me, Stauffenberg was considered one of the most dynamic and competent officers in the German army. Hitler himself would occasionally urge me to work closely and confidentially with Stauffenberg. In spite of his war injuries (he had lost an eye, his right hand, and two fingers of his left hand), Stauffenberg had preserved a youthful charm; he was curiously poetic and at the same time precise, thus showing the marks of the two major and seemingly incompatible educational influences upon him: the circle around the poet Stefan George and the General Staff. He and I would have hit it off even without Schmundt's recommendation."
Stauffenberg was now in a position where he would have regular meetings with Adolf Hitler. Fellow conspirator, Henning von Tresckow sent a message to Stauffenberg: "The assassination must be attempted, at any cost. Even should that fail, the attempt to seize power in the capital must be undertaken. We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German Resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it. Compared with this, nothing else matters."
On 20th July, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg attended a conference with Hitler on 20th July, 1944. It was decided to drop plans to kill Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler at the same time as Hitler. Alan Bullock later explained: "He (Stauffenberg) brought his papers with him in a brief-case in which he had concealed the bomb fitted with a device for exploding it ten minutes after the mechanism had been started. The conference was already proceeding with a report on the East Front when Keitel took Stauffenberg in and presented him to Hitler. Twenty-four men were grouped round a large, heavy oak table on which were spread out a number of maps. Neither Himmler nor Goring was present. The Fuhrer himself was standing towards the middle of one of the long sides of the table, constantly leaning over the table to look at the maps, with Keitel and Jodl on his left. Stauffenberg took up a place near Hitler on his right, next to a Colonel Brandt. He placed his brief-case under the table, having started the fuse before he came in, and then left the room unobtrusively on the excuse of a telephone call to Berlin. He had been gone only a minute or two when, at 12.42 p.m., a loud explosion shattered the room, blowing out the walls and the roof, and setting fire to the debris which crashed down on those inside."
Joachim Fest, the author of Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) has pointed out: "Suddenly, as witnesses later recounted, a deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... A dark plume of smoke rose and hung in the air over the wreckage of the briefing barracks. Shards of glass, wood, and fiberboard swirled about, and scorched pieces of paper and insulation rained down... When the bomb exploded, twenty-four people were in the conference room. All were hurled to the ground, some with their hair in flames." The bomb killed four men in the hut: General Rudolf Schmundt, General Günther Korten, Colonel Heinz Brandt and stenographer Heinz Berger. Hitler's right arm was badly injured but he survived what became known as the July Plot.
The plan was for Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Erich Fromm to take control of the German Army. This idea was abandoned when it became known that Adolf Hitler had survived the assassination attempt. In an attempt to protect himself, Fromm organized the execution of Stauffenberg along with three other conspirators, Friedrich Olbricht and Werner von Haeften, in the courtyard of the War Ministry. It was later reported the Stauffenberg died shouting "Long live free Germany".
That night Hitler talked to the nation on radio: "I speak to you today in order that you should hear my voice and should know that I am unhurt and well, and secondly that you should know of a crime unparalleled in German history. a very small clique of ambitious, irresponsible, and at the same time senseless and stupid officers had formed a plot to eliminate me and the High Command of the Armed Forces." Hitler told Joachim von Ribbentrop: "I will crush and destroy the criminals who have dared to oppose themselves to Providence and to me. These traitors to their own people deserve ignominious death, and this is what they shall have. This time the full price will be paid by all those who are involved, and by their families, and by all those who have helped them. This nest of vipers who have tried to sabotage the grandeur of my Germany will be exterminated once and for all."
According to Traudl Junge Hitler selected Hermann Fegelein to investigate the conspiracy: "Fegelein had been detailed to investigate the assassination attempt and track down the guilty men. He was personally indignant to think of anyone wanting to blow up such a splendid fellow as himself. I think he thought that was more criminal than any plan to get rid of Hitler, and he flung himself into the investigation with the zeal of his desire for revenge. Finally it became obvious even to Hitler that the resistance movement had spread more widely in the army than he had supposed. Distinguished names of men holding high rank were mentioned. He raged and shouted and said a great deal about traitors and scoundrels." It is claimed that Fegelein often showed around the photographs of the hanged men who had been executed as a result of this failed assassination attempt."
As a result of the July Plot, the new chief of staff, Heinz Guderian demanded the resignation of any officer who did not fully support the ideals of the Nazi Party. Over the next few months Guderian sat with Gerd von Rundstedt and Wilhelm Keitel on the Army Court of Honour that expelled hundreds of officers suspected of being opposed to the policies of Adolf Hitler. This removed them from court martial jurisdiction and turned them over to Roland Freisler and his People Court.
Over the next few months most of the group including Wilhelm Canaris, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Henning von Tresckow, Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Erich Fromm were either executed or committed suicide. It is etimated that around 4,980 Germans were executed after the July Plot. Hitler decided that the leaders should have a slow death. They were hung with piano wire from meat-hooks. Their executions were filmed and later shown to senior members of both the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) and the armed forces.
An eyewitness later reported: "Imagine a room with a low ceiling and whitewashed walls. Below the ceiling a rail was fixed. From it hung six big hooks, like those butchers use to hang their meat. In one corner stood a movie camera. Reflectors cast a dazzling, blinding light. At the wall there was a small table with a bottle of cognac and glasses for the witnesses of the execution. The hangman wore a permanent leer, and made jokes unceasingly. The camera worked uninterruptedly, for Hitler wanted to see and hear how his enemies died."
One of the conspirators, before he died in agony on a meat hook, blurted out the name of General Erwin Rommel to his tormentors. Rommel was so popular that Hitler was unwilling to have him executed for treason. Hitler sent two officers to Rommel's home at Herrlingen on 14th October, 1944, to give him the choice of suicide or trial. He told his wife, "I shall die in fifteen minutes". Rommel then took poison. The public was told that Rommel had died of a heart attack and he was buried with full military honours.
The attempt on Hitler's life did give hope to those who were hoping to see the overthrow of the regime. Anne Frank wrote in her diary: "I'm finally getting optimistic. Now, at last, things are going well! They really are! Great News! An assassination attempt has been made on Hitler's life, and for once not by Jewish Communists or British capitalists, but by a German general who's not only a count, but young as well. The Fuhrer owes his life to Divine Providence he escaped, unfortunately, with only a few minor burns and scratches. A number of officers and Generals who were nearby were killed or wounded. The head of the conspiracy has been shot. This is the best proof we've had so far that many officers and generals are fed up with the war and would like to see Hitler sink into a bottomless pit, so they can establish a military dictatorship, make peace with the Allies, rearm themselves and, after a few decades, start a new war. Perhaps Providence is deliberately biding its time getting rid of Hitler, since it's much easier, and cheaper, for the Allies to let the impeccable Germans kill each other off. It's less work for the Russians and British, and it allows them to start rebuilding their own cities that much sooner. But we haven't reached that point yet, and I'd hate to anticipate the glorious event."