Claus von Stauffenberg

Claus von Stauffenberg : Nazi Germany

Claus von Stauffenberg was born in Jettingen, on 15th November, 1907. His father was Privy Chamberlain to the King of Bavaria, and his mother was granddaughter of the Prussian general August Wilhelm Anton Graf von Gneisenau (1760-1831).

As a young man he was a member of the Hitler Youth. A bright student, at nineteen he became an officer cadet. Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) has argued: "He (Claus von Stauffenberg) was a brilliant creature, with a passion not only for horses and outdoor sports but for literature (he was a favourite of Stefan George, the poet) and for music, at which he excelled. To his friends' surprise, he made the army his career."

In 1926 he joined the family's traditional regiment, the 17th Cavalry Regiment in Bamberg. Stauffenberg was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1930. His regiment eventually became part of the German 1st Light Division under General Erich Hoepner. According to his biographer, Louis L. Snyder: "A strkingly handsome young man, Claus was nicknamed the Bamberger Reiter because of his extraordinary resemblance to the famous thirteenth-century statue in the Cathedral of Bamberg. Reared in a milieu of monarchist conservatism and Catholic piety, he later turned to the left in political thought and preferred a socialist society to that of the bourgeois Weimar Republic."

Stauffenberg married Nina Freiin von Lerchenfeld on 26th September 1933. Over the next few years they had five children (Berthold, Heimeran, Franz-Ludwig, Valerie and Konstanze). His wife explained how he gradually developed a hostility to Adolf Hitler but kept his true feelings hidden. "He let things come to him, and then he made up his mind ... one of his characteristics was that he really enjoyed playing the devil's advocate. Conservatives were convinced that he was a ferocious Nazi, and ferocious Nazis were convinced he was an unreconstructed conservative. He was neither." In fact he became a socialist but those who openly expressed these views were sent to concentration camps.

As a result of the Munich Agreement Stauffenberg's regiment moved into the Sudetenland. As this area contained nearly all Czechoslovakia's mountain fortifications, she was no longer able to defend herself against further aggression. Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to enter Prague on 15 March 1939. Stauffenberg strongly disapproved of this action and feared it would result in an unnecessary war.

Adolf Hitler with young children in Bavaria
Claus von Stauffenberg with three of his children.

On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Claus von Stauffenberg and his regiment took part in the attack on Poland. He became concerned about the way the Poles were treated and began associating with Peter von Wartenburg who urged him to join the resistance against Hitler. Stauffenberg declined the invitation and in 1940 he was a member of the 6th Panzer Division that invaded France in May 1940. A brave soldier he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class.

In June, 1941, 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 he 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."

Stauffenberg joined a group of conspirators that included Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Claus von Stauffenberg, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben. After the assassination of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler it was planned for troops in Berlin to seize key government buildings, telephone and signal centres and radio stations.

General Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler's chief adjutant, met 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, Stauffenberg attended a conference attended by 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".

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Carl Goerdeler had doubts about Claus von Stauffenberg when he joined the German Resistance in 1942.

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.

(2) Henning von Tresckow, message to Claus von Stauffenberg (July, 1944)

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.

(3) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (1970)

General Schmundt, Hitler's chief adjutant, had picked Count Stauffenberg to serve as Fromm's chief of staff and to inject some force into the work of the flagging general. As 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. After the deed which will forever be associated with his name, I often reflected upon his personality and found no phrase more fitting for him than this one of Holderlin's :"An extremely unnatural, paradoxical character unless one sees him in the midst of those circumstances which imposed so strict a form upon his gentle spirit."

There were further sessions of these conferences on July 6 and 8. Along with Hitler, Keitel, Fromm, and other officers sat at the round table by the big window in the Berghof salon. Stauffenberg had taken his seat beside me, with his remarkably plump briefcase. He explained the Valkyrie plan for committing the Home Army. Hitler listened attentively and in the ensuing discussion approved most of the proposals. Finally, he decided that in military actions within the Reich the military commanders would have full executive powers, the political authorities - which meant principally the Gauleiters in their capacity of Reich Defense Commissioners-only advisory functions. The military commanders, the decree went, could directly issue all requisite instructions to Reich and local authorities without consulting the Gauleiters.

Whether by chance or design, at this period most of the prominent military members of the conspiracy were assembled in Berchtesgaden. As I know now, they and Stauffenberg had decided only a few days before to attempt to assassinate Hitler with a bomb kept in readiness by Brigadier General Stieff. On July 8, I met General Friedrich Olbricht to discuss the drafting of deferred workers for the army; up to now Keitel and I had been at odds over this question. As so often. Olbricht complained again about the difficulties that inevitably arose from the armed forces being split into four services. Were it not for the jealousies of the different branches, the army could avail itself of hundreds of thousands of young soldiers now in the air force, he said.

The next day, I met Quartermaster General Eduard Wagner at the Berchtesgadener Hof, along with General Erich Fellgiebel of the Signal Corps, General Fritz Lindemann, aide to the chief of staff, and Brigadier General Helmut Stieff, chief of the Organizational Section in the High Command of the Army (OKH). They were all members of the conspiracy and none of them was destined to survive the next few months. Perhaps because the long-delayed decision to attempt the coup d'etat had now been irrevocably taken, they were all in a rather reckless state of mind that afternoon, as men often are after some great resolution. My Office Journal records my astonishment at the way they belittled the desperate situation at the front: "According to the Quartermaster General, the difficulties are minor.... The generals treat the eastern situation with a superior air, as if it were of no importance."


(4) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962)

Stauffenberg flew from Berlin during the morning and was expected to report on the creation of new Volksgrenadier divisions. He 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.

In the smoke and confusion, with guards rushing up and the injured men inside crying for help, Hitler staggered out of the door on Keitel's arm. One of his trouser legs had been blown off; he was covered in dust, and he had sustained a number of injuries. His hair was scorched, his right arm hung stiff and useless, one of his legs had been burned, a falling beam had bruised his back, and both ear-drums were found to be damaged by the explosion. But he was alive. Those who had been at the end of the table where Stauffenberg placed the brief-case were either dead or badly wounded. Hitler had been protected, partly by the table-top over which he was leaning at the time, and partly by the heavy wooden support on which the table rested and against which Stauffenberg's brief-case had been pushed before the bomb exploded.

(5) Anne Frank, diary (21st July, 1944)

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

(6) Adolf Hitler to Joachim von Ribbentrop (20th July, 1944)

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.