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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.