Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (15 November 1907 – 21 July 1944) was a German army officer and Catholic aristocrat who reached the rank of colonel and one of the leading officers of the failed July 20 plot of 1944 to kill German dictator Adolf Hitler and remove him and the Nazi Party from power in Germany. He was one of the central figures of the German Resistance movement.
Like his brothers, Claus was carefully educated and inclined toward literature, but eventually took up a military career. In 1926, he joined the family's traditional regiment, the Bamberger Reiter- und Kavallerieregiment 17 (17th Cavalry Regiment) in Bamberg. (See also Bamberg Horseman.) It was around this time that the three brothers were introduced by Albrecht von Blumenthal to poet Stefan George's influential circle Georgekreis, from which many notable members of the German resistance would later emerge. George dedicated Das neue Reich ("The new Reich") in 1928, including the Geheimes Deutschland ("secret Germany") written in 1922, to Berthold. The work outlines a new form of society ruled by hierarchical spiritual aristocracy. George rejected any attempts to use it for mundane political purposes, especially Nazism.
Claus was commissioned as a Lieutenant (second lieutenant) in 1930. In his military career, Stauffenberg studied modern weapons at the Kriegsakademie in Berlin-Moabit, but remained focused on the use of the horse—which continued to carry out a large part of transportation duties throughout the Second World War—in modern warfare. His regiment became part of the German 1st Light Division under General Erich Hoepner, who had taken part in the plans for the September 1938 German Resistance coup, cut short by Hitler's unexpected success in the Munich Agreement. The unit was part of the troops that moved into the Sudetenland, the part of Czechoslovakia that had a German-speaking majority, as agreed upon in Munich.
Following the outbreak of war in 1939, Stauffenberg and his regiment took part in the attack on Poland. Afterwards he at first tolerated the way the occupation of Poland had been handled by the Nazi regime and the use of Poles as slave workers to achieve German prosperity. Some claim he even endorsed this, and the systematic German colonisation and exploitation of Poland. For example in letter from occupied Poland to his wife, Nina, he wrote:
This idea of colonisation was deeply rooted in German aristocracy strongly believing that the eastern territories populated predominantly by Poles, most of which were German territory before World War I should be colonised as the Teutonic Knights had done in the Middle Ages. There is still significant controversy on the point if Stauffenberg really approved of the way this was achieved by the Nazi regime. In any case it is certain that in the early stages of the war he still held the usual aristocratic beliefs typical of late imperial times.
Stauffenberg found some aspects of the Nazi Party's ideology repugnant; although he agreed with its nationalistic aspects, he never became a member of the party. Moreover, Stauffenberg remained a practising Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church had signed the Reichskonkordat in 1933, the year Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power. The Nazi government quickly violated this agreement, leading German Catholic bishops and the papacy to protest against these violations. This culminated in the papal encyclical"Mit brennender Sorge" ("With Burning Anxiety") of 1937, which also condemned the ascendancy of racist ideologies. On top of this, the growing systematic ill-treatment of Jews and suppression of religion had offended Stauffenberg's strong personal sense of religious morality and justice; he felt, for instance, that the November 1938 Kristallnacht ("Night of the broken glass") had brought shame upon Germany. While his uncle, Nikolaus Graf von Üxküll, had approached him before to join the resistance movement against the Hitler regime, it was only after the Polish campaign in 1939 that Stauffenberg's individual conscience and his religious convictions made him consider joining. Peter Yorck von Wartenburg and Ulrich Schwerin von Schwanenfeld urged him to become the adjutant of Walther von Brauchitsch, then Supreme Commander of the Army, in order to participate in a coup against Hitler. Stauffenberg declined at the time, reasoning that all German soldiers had pledged allegiance not to the institution of the presidency of the German Reich, but to the person of Adolf Hitler due to the Führereid having been introduced in 1934.
Stauffenberg's unit was reorganized into the 6th Panzer Division, and he served as officer of its General staff in the Battle of France, for which he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. Like many others, Stauffenberg was impressed by the overwhelming military success, which was attributed to Hitler.
Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of the Soviet Union) was launched in 1941. The resultant mass executions of Jews, Poles, Russians and others, as well as what he believed was an already apparent deficiency in military leadership (Hitler had assumed the role of supreme commander in late 1941 after sacking Hoepner and others), finally convinced Stauffenberg in 1942 to sympathize with resistance groups within the Wehrmacht, the only force that had a chance to overcome Hitler's Gestapo, SD, and SS. During the idle months of the so called Phoney War, preceding the military actions of the Battle of France (1939-40), he had already been transferred to the organizational department of the Oberkommando des Heeres, the German army high command, which directed the operations on the Eastern Front. Stauffenberg opposed the Commissar Order, which Hitler wrote and then cancelled after a year. He tried to soften the German occupation policy in the conquered areas of the Soviet Union by pointing out the benefits of getting volunteers for the Ostlegionen which were commanded by his department. Guidelines were issued on 2 June 1942 for the proper treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) from the Caucasus region which had been captured by Heeresgruppe A. The Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention (1929). However, a month after the German invasion in 1941, an offer was made for a reciprocal adherence to the Hague convention. This 'note' was left unanswered by Third Reich officials. Stauffenberg did not engage in any coup plot at this time. Hitler was at the peak of his power in 1942. The Stauffenberg brothers (Berthold and Claus) maintained contact with former commanders like Hoepner, and with the Kreisau Circle; they also included civilians and social democrats like Julius Leber in their scenarios for an administration after Hitler.
In November 1942, the Allies landed in French North Africa, and the 10th Panzer Division occupied Vichy France (Case Anton) before being transferred to the Tunisian Campaign, as part of the Afrika Korps.
In 1943 Stauffenberg was promoted to lieutenant-colonel on a general staff (Oberstleutnant i. G. (im Generalstab)), and was sent to Africa to join the 10th Panzer (tank) Division as its Ia or "First Officer in the General Staff." There, while he was scouting out a new command area, his vehicle was strafed on 7 April 1943 by British fighter-bombers and he was severely wounded. He spent three months in hospital in Munich, where he was treated by Ferdinand Sauerbruch. Stauffenberg lost his left eye, his right hand, and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand. He jokingly remarked to friends never to have really known what to do with so many fingers when he still had all of them.
For rehabilitation, Stauffenberg was sent to his home, Schloss Lautlingen (today a museum), then still one of the Stauffenberg castles in Southern Germany. Initially he felt frustrated not to be in a position to stage a coup by himself. But by the beginning of September 1943, after a somewhat slow recuperation from his wounds, he was positioned by the conspirators, mainly Tresckow as a staff officer to the headquarters of the "Ersatzheer" ("Replacement Army" - charged with training soldiers to reinforce first line divisions at the front), located on Bendlerstrasse (later Stauffenbergstrasse) in Berlin.
There, one of Stauffenberg's superiors was General Friedrich Olbricht, a committed member of the resistance movement. The Ersatzheer had a unique opportunity to launch a coup, as one of its functions was to have Operation Valkyrie in place. This was a contingency measure which would let it assume control of the Reich in the event that internal disturbances blocked communications to the military high command. Ironically, the Valkyrie plan had been agreed to by Hitler and was now secretly prepared to become the means, after Hitler's death, of sweeping the rest of his regime from power.
For after the suicide assassination to be committed by Axel von dem Bussche in November 1943 a detailed military plan was developed not only to occupy Berlin but also to take the different headquarters in East Prussia by military force. Stauffenberg had von dem Bussche transmit these written orders personally to Major Kuhn once he arrived at Wolfsschanze. The assassination plan of von dem Bussche failed. Kuhn hid these compromising documents in the nearby OKH under a watch tower. (Kuhn became a POW of the Soviets after the July 20 plot. He led the Soviets to the hiding place of the documents in February 1945. In 1989 Gorbachev returned them as a present to the then German chancellor Dr Helmut Kohl). These documents are important because having been produced in 1943 they are evidence of the materially uninterested motivation of the resistance group, which had been doubted and was a matter of discussion for years in Germany after the war.
As also several other assassination attempts organised by Stauffenberg ( von dem Bussche, von Kleist , von Gersdorff, von Breitenbuch ) failed because of the unpredictable behaviour of Hitler, the tide during 1944 was increasingly turning against the conspirators; they were forced to switch from meticulous planning to conspiratorial improvisation.
Stauffenberg had long been convinced of the criminal nature of the Hitler regime, but from 1942 onwards he believed that Hitler's policies were totally ruining Germany and costing millions of innocent lives. As with many of his associates, he felt that there had to be an attempt on Hitler's life. From early September 1943, Stauffenberg was actively involved in the plot and became its driving force. Later, following several failed attempts by others to kill Hitler, Stauffenberg decided, in July 1944, to personally kill Hitler. By then he had great doubts about the possibility of success. His friend Tresckow convinced him to attempt the plot even if it had no chance of success at all, as this would be the only way to prove to the world that the Hitler regime and Germany were not one and the same and to demonstrate by this act that not all Germans supported the regime.
In June 1944 the Allies had landed in France on D-Day. Stauffenberg, like most German military professionals, had absolutely no doubt that the war was lost. Only an immediate armistice could avoid more unnecessary bloodshed and further damage to Germany, to its people and to most other European nations. However in 1943, he had written out demands with which he felt the Allies had to comply as a condition for Germany to agree to an immediate peace. These demands included Germany retaining its 1914 Eastern borders, including the Polish territories of Wielkopolska and Poznań. Other demands included Germany maintaining such territorial gains as Austria and the Sudetenland within the Reich, giving autonomy to Alsace-Lorraine, and even expansion of the current wartime borders of Germany in the southern direction by annexing Tyrol as far as Bolzano and Merano. Non-territorial demands included such points as refusal of any occupation of Germany by the Allies, as well as refusal to hand over war criminals by demanding the right of "nations to deal with its own criminals". These proposals were only directed to the Western Allies—Stauffenberg wanted Germany only to retreat from Western, Southern and Northern positions, while demanding the right to continue military occupation of German territorial gains in the East.
Stauffenberg was aware that by German law (then and now) he was about to commit high treason. He openly told young conspirator Axel von dem Bussche in a meeting late 1943: "Let's be blunt, I am committing high treason with all my might and main...." ("Gehen wir in medias res, ich betreibe mit allen mir zur Verfügung stehenden Mitteln den Hochverrat..."). He justified his project to Bussche by reference to the right under natural law ("Naturrecht") to defend millions of people's lives from the criminal aggressions of Hitler ("Nothilfe").
From the beginning of September 1943 until July 21, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg was the driving force behind the plot. His resolve, his organizational abilities, and his radical revolutionary approach put an end to inactivity caused by doubts and long discussions on hitherto military virtues made obsolete or not by Hitler's behavior. Helped by Henning von Tresckow, he united the conspirators and drove them into action.
Thus in 1944 Stauffenberg, who by this time was promoted to Oberst (colonel), agreed to carry out the assassination of the German Führer, Adolf Hitler himself — a need that became further apparent to him after several suicide attempts (e.g. the ones of Axel von dem Bussche and Ewald von Kleist) had failed. The attempt after several trials by Stauffenberg to meet Hitler, Göring and Himmler at the same time and at the same place, through chance, ultimately took place at a briefing hut at the military high command in Eastern Prussia called Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair) near Rastenburg, East Prussia (today Kętrzyn, Poland) on July 20, 1944. Albert Speer had met Claus in some of the meetings near Berchtesgaden and in Eastern Prussia during summer 1944. He described the tall colonel in his memoirs as a person of "mystical good looks."
On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg's briefcase contained two small bombs, each with a British-made pencil detonator that could be set with a ten to fifteen minute detonation delay once activated. After having traveled that morning from Berlin to Eastern Prussia (today, Poland) by a special plane, he entered the briefing room before Hitler had shown up. The meeting had unexpectedly been changed from the subterranean "Führerbunker" to the wooden barrack or hut of Speer. He told Hitler's butler that he needed to change his shirt and thus left the meeting room, taking his briefcase with him. Once in a small room Stauffenberg, in the presence of his aide-de-camp lieutenant Haeften, armed the first bomb with specially adapted pliers. The pliers were used to activate the pencil detonator, a task made difficult by Stauffenberg not having a right hand and only having three fingers on his left hand. A guard knocked and opened the door, urging him to hurry as the meeting was about to begin. As a result, Stauffenberg was able to arm only one of the two bombs, which he placed back into the briefcase. He left the small room, handing the second, unarmed bomb in the briefcase to his aide-de-camp Haeften and proceeded back to the briefing room, where he placed his briefcase under the conference table, as near as he could get to Hitler. After some minutes he excused himself, pretending to need to make an urgent phone call to Berlin, and left the meeting room. He waited in a nearby shelter until the explosion tore through the hut. From what he saw, he was fully convinced that no one in the room could have survived. Although four people were killed and almost all present were injured, Hitler himself was injured only slightly as he was shielded from the blast by the heavy, solid oak conference table.
Stauffenberg and his aide-de-camp, Oberleutnant Werner von Haeften, who carried the second bomb, quickly walked away and talked their way out of the heavily guarded compound. They were driven to the nearby airfield. On their way to the airfield, passing through a small forest they got rid of the second bomb. Then they flew back to Berlin-Rangsdorf in the same Heinkel He 111 which had brought them in the morning. Stauffenberg only learned of the failure to kill Hitler at 7 p.m., three and a half hours after he had landed in Rangsdorf airport south of Berlin at around 3:30 p.m. At Rangsdorf he was met by his brother Berthold. While he was still in transit, an order was issued from the Führer's headquarters to shoot Stauffenberg and Haeften immediately, but the order landed on the desk of a fellow conspirator, Friedrich Georgi of the air staff, and was not passed on.
After his arrival at Bendlerstrasse in Berlin around 4:30 p.m., Stauffenberg, who still mistakenly believed Hitler to be dead, immediately began to motivate his friends to initiate the second phase of the project: to organize the military coup against the Nazi leaders. A short time later however, Joseph Goebbels announced by radio that Hitler had survived an attempt on his life. At 19:00 Hitler himself personally broadcast a message on the state radio, and the conspirators realized at that point that the coup had completely failed. The conspirators were tracked to their Bendlerstrasse offices and were shortly thereafter overpowered in a short shoot-out during which Stauffenberg was shot in the shoulder.
In a futile attempt to save his own life, the co-conspirator Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm, Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army present in the Bendlerblock (Headquarters of the Army), charged other conspirators, held an impromptu court martial, and condemned the ringleaders of the conspiracy to death. Stauffenberg and fellow officers Colonel General Olbricht, Lieutenant von Haeften, and Oberst (Colonel) Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim were shot before 01:00 a.m. that night (July 21, 1944) by a makeshift firing squad in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, which was lit by the headlights of a truck.
As his turn came, Stauffenberg spoke his last words: "Es lebe unser heiliges Deutschland!" ("Long live our holy Germany!") Fromm ordered that the executed officers (his former co-conspirators) receive an immediate burial with military honors in the Matthäus Churchyard in Berlin's Schöneberg district. Today there is a stone in memorial of this event. The next day, however, Stauffenberg's body was exhumed by the SS, stripped of his medals, and cremated.
Another central figure in the plot was Stauffenberg's eldest brother, Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. On 10 August 1944, Berthold was tried before Judge-President Roland Freisler in the special "People's Court" (Volksgerichtshof). This court was established by Hitler for political offenses and Berthold was one of eight conspirators executed by slow strangulation (reputedly with piano wire used as the garrote) in Plötzensee Prison, Berlin, later that day. More than two hundred (others speak of more than a thousand fellow conspirators) were condemned in mock trials and executed.
In 1980, the German government established a memorial for the failed anti-Nazi resistance movement in a part of the Bendlerblock, the remainder of which currently houses the Berlin offices of the German Ministry of Defense (whose main offices remain in Bonn). The Bendlerstrasse was renamed the Stauffenbergstrasse, and the Bendlerblock now houses the Memorial to the German Resistance, a permanent exhibition with more than 5,000 photographs and documents showing the various resistance organisations at work during the Hitler era. The courtyard where the officers were shot on July 21, 1944, is now a site of remembrance with a plaque commemorating the events and includes a memorial bronze figure of a young man with his hands symbolically bound which resembles Count von Stauffenberg.
Stauffenberg's widow Nina described her late husband:
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.There is, however, the declaration of Stauffenberg's elder son that the children were informed by their mother about the assassination attempt and by their father's role in it.
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