Inside Stauffenberg's briefcase, swaddled in a shirt, was a ticking time bomb. While the Army chief droned on, Stauffenberg put the briefcase under the table. Leaving his hat and belt behind, as if he were stepping out for a moment, Stauffenberg walked out of the room and left the barracks.
About a quarter to one came a loud boom and swirl of blue-yellow flame, followed by black smoke.
Outside the barracks, Stauffenberg saw men carry out a stretcher on which lay a body shrouded by what seemed to be Hitler's cloak. Rushing to his car for a getaway flight to Berlin, he presumed that Adolf Hitler was no more. Stauffenberg hoped that next would come a public declaration of Hitler's assassination, an Army revolt and establishment of an anti-Nazi government in Berlin.
But when he arrived at General Staff headquarters on Bendler Street, there was only disarray. Fellow plotters were not convinced that Hitler had been killed. Aghast, Stauffenberg cried, "I myself saw Hitler carried out dead!"
But he was wrong. Striving for a better view of the maps, one of the Führer's aides had pushed the briefcase behind one of the table's massive supports, protecting Hitler from certain death. Stauffenberg and his adjutant, Werner von Haeften, a collaborator, had felt too rushed to put a second bomb in the briefcase. Had they done so, Hitler would have certainly been killed.
Instead, when the smoke cleared Hitler was still standing. With bloodshot eyes staring out from a soot-blackened face, he tamped down flame from his trousers. His hair stood out in spikes. His ruptured eardrums were bleeding. His right arm dangled numb at his side.
A weeping Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel threw his arms around Hitler: "My Führer, you're alive! You're alive!"
After donning a fresh uniform, seemingly exhilarated by his survival, Hitler was almost merry. "Once again everything turned out well for me!" he chortled to his secretaries. "More proof that fate has selected me for my mission!" That afternoon he showed his scorched clothes to the visiting ousted Italian dictator Benito Mussolini: "Look at my uniform! Look at my burns!" Hitler had the uniform sent to his mistress, Eva Braun, for safekeeping as proof of his historical destiny.
When generals telephoned from the far reaches of the German Reich to learn whether, as some had heard, Hitler was dead, the Führer was furious that they should even raise the question. With froth on his lips, he shouted, "Traitors in the bosom of their own people deserve the most ignominious of deaths....Exterminate them!...I'll put their wives and children into concentration camps and show them no mercy!" He even confronted his Alsatian dog: "Look me in the eyes, Blondi! Are you also a traitor like the generals of my staff?"
It did not take Hitler's men long to discover who was behind the plot. In Berlin, Stauffenberg and three fellow plotters were arrested. A five-minute trial, "in the name of the Führer," found them guilty of treason. In a shadowy courtyard, they were hauled before a firing squad.
Just before his execution, remembering his country before Hitler, Stauffenberg cried out, "Long live eternal Germany!"
An hour after midnight on Friday, July 21, Berlin time, Hitler spoke by radio from the Wolf's Lair. After a burst of military music, he declared, "Fellow members of the German race!" An "extremely small clique of ambitious, unscrupulous and foolish, criminally stupid officers" had plotted to kill him and the German high command -- "a crime that has no equal in German history."
The plotters had "no bond and nothing in common with the German people." He was "entirely unhurt, apart from minor grazes, bruises or burns." Failure of the plot was "a clear sign from Providence that I must carry on with my work."
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Beschloss.
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