The age-old question of “what if?” can be both fun and interesting when applied to any facet of the past, whether it be to sports, entertainment, or in this case, history. These so-called “hinge moments” are popular with alternative historians because they may have directly changed the course of nearly every aspect of the world that we live in. This is a look at some of the more unfortunate (or in some cases, fortunate) moments that happened in the lives of few to effect the world of many. Here, we examine the failed July 20 Plot against Adolf Hitler that may have changed the face of the modern world.
1944 – Non-Divine Intervention
Europe, 1944 – World War II was beginning to show signs of turning against the Axis forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Imperial Japanese Navy had been devastated and American forces were liberating the Pacific islands one-by-one. Likewise, the US and British Armies had landed in Sicily and were slowly pushing their way up the Italian peninsula. And on the Eastern front, the Soviet Red Army had won a decisive victory at the Battle of Stalingrad and annihilated the entire German Sixth Army in the process, killing or capturing hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Now, the Red Army has the Germans on the run as they pressed further and further west in a relentless march towards Berlin.
In Germany, morale was quickly diminishing. Every week seemed to bring worse news to the fatherland. At the German High Command, the constant military blunders made by Hitler and his general staff began to raise questions of his competence – not to mention the growing discontent over the rumors of atrocities being committed across the reich. It is time, some decided. It is time to take back Germany for the Germans.
There was already a large resistance movement against Nazi rule in Germany, but it was fragmented and sometimes ineffective – there had already been 26 known assassination attempts against Hitler, and all of them had failed. In August 1943, a young staff officer named Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg met with members of the resistance; Stauffenberg was an ardent nationalist who was wounded in North Africa, losing one of his eyes, his right hand, and two fingers on his left. He also believed that Germany was being led further and further toward military and political disaster, and most importantly, and Hitler must be removed.
A new plan was hatched to not only assassinate Hitler but also bring the country under control of the conservative coalition of the conspirators, who would return the country to democratic rule and quickly sue for peace with the Allies. They decided to utilize an existing plan named Operation Valkyrie, which was a contingency order that was meant to use the Reserve Army to maintain peace and order in the case of a massive aerial bombing of Berlin or an uprising by laborers in Germany or in other occupied countries. Stauffenberg and his cohorts rewrote the order so that it gave detailed instructions for occupying important government ministries and communication centers in case of a coup against Hitler. After the changes were authorized, the plan was set: the conspirators would kill Hitler, and then initiate Operation Valkyrie, effectively using the Reserve Army to cut off other Nazi officials from seizing power for themselves. They would be using Valkyrie to stop a “coup” by Nazi officials that the conspirators were actually orchestrating themselves.
After several aborted attempts, the plan was initiated on July 20th, 1944. Stauffenberg was called to Hitler’s secretive Wolf’s Lair, a fortified complex hidden in the forests of East Prussia in modern-day Poland. Hidden in his briefcase were two 1kg blocks of plastic explosives. When he arrived, he was surprised to find that Hitler’s war council meeting had been moved from the concrete bunker to a windowed lodge due to the summer heat. Nevertheless, he prepared the explosives using a rudimentary timed detonator and entered the conference. However, he was only able to prepare one of the explosives, and he would have ten minutes before the bomb exploded.
After placing the briefcase on the floor under the table next to Hitler, Stauffenberg was “called away” from the meeting due by a phone call. After he left the room, General Heinz Brandt, who was standing near Hitler, moved Stauffenberg’s briefcase so that it was leaning against one of the table’s two long legs – however, there was now a thick piece of wood between the bomb and Hitler. Minutes later, an explosion rocked the building: everything in the room was in splinters. Three officers and a stenographer were gravely wounded and later died, including General Brandt. Stauffenberg quickly flew to Berlin and initiated Operation Valkyrie. But despite the best efforts of the conspirators to isolate Nazi ministers and seize control of the country, they soon learned to their great horror that Hitler had not been killed by the bomb.
Within a matter of days, as many as 7,000 members of the German resistance were arrested in connection with the plot and other dissenting activities. As many of 5,000 of them were soon executed, effectively ending the German resistance for the remainder of World War II. Stauffenberg and the other main conspirators were quickly implicated and were executed by firing squad in the courtyard of the Benderblock building in Berlin.
There were actually three defining moments in the execution of the plot that could have changed history. First, the movement of the meeting from the bunker to the lodge made the bomb considerably less effective, because the open windows of the meeting room allowed the concussive blast caused by the explosives to dissipate much faster. Had the explosion occurred in the bunker, the concrete walls would have amplified the blast and surely killed everyone inside. Second, the fact that only one of the bombs was able to be prepared greatly increased Hitler’s odds of survival. Third and most importantly, when Heinz Brandt unassumingly moved the bomb behind the heavy wooden leg of the table, he likely saved the lives of Hitler and most others in the room.
Had Hitler been killed, our world today may have looked significantly different in many, many ways. A peace treaty between Germany and the Allies would have ended the war in Europe ten months earlier than it did, saving millions of lives and sparing Europe and Germany in particular from even more devastation which was to follow. This would have freed up considerable resources for the prosecution of the war in the Pacific, even allowing the Soviet Union to turn its forces against Japan about a year earlier than it did. The war in the Pacific could have ended by early 1945, meaning that the atomic bombs would not have been dropped. The Manhattan Project would have inevitable produced atomic bombs anyways but it was the demonstration of their power on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that accelerated the arms race and the onset of the Cold War. The Allies would also have retained control of Germany; its economy would stay intact, and it would never have been split into east and west. There would probably not even have been a Berlin Wall.
This tragic failure by the German resistance to assassinate Hitler was a bright spot in Nazi Germany; it proved that Germans were not inherently evil, that there were those who were willing to stand up in order to save their country – and die for it if they needed to. However, a small measure of justice was gained when on April 30th, 1945, with Berlin surrounded by the Red Army, Hitler retreated into his underground bunker in the center of the city and committed suicide with the sound of Russian artillery pounding the capital of the Nazi Reich just feet above his head.