The Long View: If the July 20 Plot had Succeeded.....

More alternative history from John. Often, the main thrust of his thinking was that the world could have been very much worse than it was, even though it was frequently awful. Hitler may have been a bad leader, but Himmler would have probably been worse....

If the July 20 Plot Had Succeeded.....

On July 20, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler by placing a bomb in the conference room at the East Prussia command center where Hitler was holding a meeting. The bomb went off and von Stauffenberg telephoned to his confederates in Berlin that Hitler had been killed. The conspirators had planned to stage a coup, using elements of the skeletal Home Army in Germany, perhaps supported by some of the generals on the Western Front. However, the would-be putschists in Berlin dithered for several hours, trying to get confirmation that Hitler was really dead. They did not seize the government ministries, or the telephone exchanges, or even the radio stations. When Goebbels was able to confirm that Hitler was alive and convince the army units in Berlin of this fact, the coup collapsed in short order. Apparently, all that saved Hitler's life was the absent-minded placement by his adjutant of the bomb from one side of a wooden table support to the other. Suppose the bomb had not been moved, and Hitler had been killed?

The conspirators had some foggy notion that they might be able to surrender to the Allies in the west, or at least negotiate a withdrawal to Germany's western border, while continuing to fight defensive battles in the east. Certainly they had gone much further in sounding out the western commanders about their attitude to a coup, though in some ways the most forceful member of the anti-Hitler network involved in the assassination attempt was Major General Henning von Tresckow of Army Group Center on the Eastern Front. (They had also attempted covert negotiations with both the Anglo-Americans and the Russians. They managed to talk to unofficial representatives of both sides, but without results.)

Objectively speaking, something like this might have been possible. The military position of Germany in July 1944 was grim. At the beginning of the month, the Russians had crossed the pre-war eastern border of Poland. Hitler was having that conference in East Prussia because the Russians were only about 60 klicks from the province. In the west, the Anglo-Americans were breaking out of Normandy, and Paris would fall in August. Still, the Germans were far from beaten. Armaments production, for instance, peaked in July. In the months before Germany finally surrendered, they would stabilize the situation more than once, and even conduct some notable offensives. In other words, they still had something to bargain with, and both sides knew it.

The problem with this analysis is that Germany still had a lot to bargain with after the British summer offensive in 1918, too, yet their army and government collapsed as soon as it became known their diplomats were treating for an armistice. No one wants to be the last soldier killed in a war, especially a soldier on the side that is clearly losing. The provisional government (the uninspiring General Ludwig Beck was to lead it) would have been unlikely to be able to control the situation. The Germans armies in the west would probably have simply melted away, rather than wait for an armistice. The government would not have been able to gain control in the homeland: Nazi Germany was a party state, one where the official civil service could do nothing without party cooperation. It would be possible to overcome the party only with the army, but the Home Army was barely sufficient to occupy Berlin. Whatever the Germany armies did in the east, most of them would have been unlikely to follow orders from Beck's government in Berlin. Many more of the eastern units were SS after all, and even the regular army types were often committed Nazis. One suspects that they would have diverted whatever forces they could in order to take Berlin and reestablish a Nazi government. That government would then have tried to recoup matters in the west.

Actually, I doubt that the conspirators would have been able to establish even an ephemeral government. It is much more likely that, if it had been proven that Hitler was dead, the SS units available in Germany would have taken Berlin. Himmler was actually in contact with the conspirators, though with Hitler's knowledge and explicit approval. Though there is no evidence he was a participant, still his behavior throughout the whole affair was oddly passive. Goering was Hitler's designated successor, of course. In earlier versions of the plot, Goering and Himmler were supposed to be assassinated, too. It is easier to image Goering attempting to negotiate a peace than any other major Nazi. In 1939, remember, he had tried to avert war so he could have peace in which to give himself up to his private dissipations. However, by 1944 these had sufficiently debilitated him that it is doubtful he could have made the succession stick.

My guess is that the end result of von Stauffenberg's bomb would have been to bring Himmler to power. (This was a possibility of which the conspirators were aware, and which apparently stayed their hand at earlier points in the war.) It is not impossible to imagine Himmler negotiating peace with either east or west. Of course, it is also not impossible to imagine him using nerve gas on the eastern front. For that matter, it is not impossible to imagine him making human sacrifices to Odin under the Brandenberg Gate. Perhaps the oddest fact about the very odd history of Nazi Germany is that Hitler was a moderate Nazi. Far more than Goebbels or Roehm, say, he was content to let civil society be, so long as his primary goals of expansion in the east and the extermination of the Jews were carried forward. Himmler, in contrast, may have been the most radical Nazi of them all. The regime he might have created would not have lasted long, but it would have been uniquely extreme.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly. Minor revisions were made in June 2010.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site