Marcel Krueger on the failed ‘July 20’ assassination plot against Hitler and Berlin’s German Resistance Museum…
It’s 4:10 PM on July 20, 1944 and Oberstleutnant Claus von Stauffenberg nervously taps the armrest of the car. His driver is taking him from Tempelhof Airport to his office in the Bendlerblock, home to the Oberkommando des Heeres (General Army Office).
Driving through the quiet, partially bombed-out streets of wartime Berlin in an open staff car, he cannot show his agitation. He must maintain the composure of a Prussian Wehrmacht officer.
Secretly though, he is in turmoil – after all he’s just blown up Adolf Hitler. His next steps involve taking over Germany in with his own Reservearmee, and he is painfully aware that he’s already running late…
Von Stauffenberg and a group of Wehrmacht officers attempted to assassinate Hitler at his field headquarters in East Prussia. The purpose? To seize control of Germany and its armed forces from the Nazi Party (including the SS) and to obtain peace as soon as possible.
The conspirators’ plan was to use an official order named Operation Valkyrie (Operation Walküre), an emergency continuity-of-government-operations plan issued to the Reserve Army of Germany to be executed in case of a breakdown in civil order.
General Friedrich Olbricht, Major General Henning von Tresckow, and von Stauffenberg modified the plan to take control of German cities, disarm the SS, and arrest the Nazi leadership once Hitler was assassinated. To carry out this plan, they used von Stauffenberg’s office in Berlin (where he was based as a staff officer) and the attached radio station at the communications office as their headquarters and nerve centre.
The term ‘Bendlerblock’ refers to a historic building complex located near the Tiergarten park along the southern edge of Berlin’s diplomatic quarter. It was here that the expansion of the German navy was planned during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. During the Weimar Republic, military leaders sought to define the role of the Reichswehr in the now-democratic state here. Up until 1945, the buildings were used by the military; the Bendlerblock was the site of one of Hitler’s speeches on Lebensraum (living space) in the east.
At 4:30 PM on July 20, 1944, von Stauffenberg glances at the bare cobblestones of the courtyard as he passes through the main gate and into the building on the left. His steps echo through the hallway as he quickly climbs the stairs to his office on the second floor. His co-conspirators are already expecting him: Olbricht informs him they had to place General (Friedrich) Fromm, their direct superior in the Bendlerblock, under arrest since he had been telling everyone that Hitler was alive.
Von Stauffenberg shrugs. The main thing now is to activate ‘Valkyrie’. Cables and radio signals need to be sent out from Berlin to Wehrmacht officers all over Europe, declaring Hitler dead and ordering the arrest of SS and Nazi officials. Von Stauffenberg takes off his uniform jacket.
At 10:00 PM on July 20, 1994, von Stauffenberg puts his uniform jacket back on and sets his collar. The last hours have been tense. First the elation and relief as the responses were cabled in, confirming that most of Berlin and other parts of occupied Europe were behind the conspirators – and then the despair and hopelessness on hearing the news that Hitler really was still alive…
Today, 70 years later, the Bendlerblock is home to the German Resistance Memorial and Museum. I dodge a group of German pensioners emerging from a silver bus and enter the Bendlerblock through the same gate von Stauffenberg used. Despite the office walls on each side, the cobblestoned courtyard is filled with sunlight. The rear end of the yard is dotted with a few trees. There are inscriptions and memorial badges along the three remaining walls. This is now known as the Court of Honour.
School kids are running around the yard playing tag or sitting on the ground, slurping juice from plastic bottles in front of a statue with bound hands, a monument created by German artist Richard Scheibe on July 20, 1953 and unveiled by the then Berlin mayor Ernst Reuter.
The permanent exhibition, Resistance to National Socialism, in the historic building documents the methods and goals of the struggle against National Socialism. It was created in 1983 by historian professor Peter Steinbach and Stuttgart designer professor Hans Peter Hoch and consists of over 5,000 photographs and documents presenting examples of the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations involved in the German resistance.
The museum is refreshingly low-key after a recent refurbishment in 2014, befitting the sombre topic. Most floors are painted grey and the walls are covered with grey panels with only a few highlighted texts and bands of light leading the way. Even though there never was one united and organised resistance against Hitler, the museum provides an overview of the various faces of of resistance against the Nazi terror.
One can learn about lone assassins and protesters such as Georg Elser (who tried to blow up Hitler in Munich in 1939) and Otto and Elise Hampel (models for the protagonists in Hans Fallada’s novel ‘Alone in Berlin‘), to more organized resistance groups such as the Red Orchestra or the White Rose. Each individual or group has an extensive part of the exhibition dedicated to the structure of their organization, motivation and means of resistance. You can also pick up free copies of the leaflets of the White Rose and other resistance propaganda material distributed among Germans.
A large part of the exhibition dedicated to organised and unorganised youth resistance against Hitler, explaining the motives and structures of groups like the Edelweisspiraten, the Wandervögel or the Swing Kids – who even organised fake and ironic Nazi gatherings to play swing music.
Office rooms have been transformed and dedicated to various aspects of the 20th July 1944. Perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition is von Stauffenberg’s office, with its creaking wooden floor and insights into the structures of both Wehrmacht and the Nazi Party, and how they enabled the conspirators to strike as they did.
A life-size picture in the middle of the room shows von Stauffenberg and co-conspirator Friedrich Olbricht standing in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, smiling at the camera. As I look down through the window, I wonder if von Stauffenberg looked into the yard from the same window when the Waffen SS guards arrived later that night to capture him and his co-conspirators. There was a brief shoot-out in the corridors, but they soon capitulated.
Mainly to distract from his own involvement in the plot, Fromm improvised a court martial and sentenced Olbricht, von Stauffenberg, his adjutant Werner von Haeften and another officer, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, to death.
Shortly before 1:00 AM on July 21, 1944, the four were taken down to the courtyard. Lit by the headlights of a truck, a makeshift firing squad of SS and Wehrmacht soldiers were waiting for them. First Olbricht, and then Von Quirnheim were shot. Von Stauffenberg was third in line to be executed; when the guards pushed him in front of the firing squad, von Haeften threw himself in front of von Stauffenberg, though it didn’t help much.
When his turn eventually came, von Stauffenberg shouted his last words before the gunshots echoed through the courtyard: “Long live our sacred Germany.”
The spot where he died is where the statue with bound hands now stands. The plaque in front of it bears the inscription:
You did not bear the shame.
You bestowed the eternally vigilant symbol of change
by sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice and honour.
The failure of the assassination and the coup d’état led to the arrests of at least 7,000 people by the Gestapo – 5,000 of whom were executed, among them was Fromm, whose speedy execution of von Stauffenberg and the others merely prolonged his own downfall by just a few months.
Stauffenbergstraße 13 – 14
U: Mendelsson-Batholdy Park
Open: Mon-Wed, Friday 9-18; Thu 9-20; Sat, Sun 10-18
Exhibition in English and German