On one crucial issue, I completely agree with mainstream historians: all July 20th plotters were genuine heroes and patriots of Germany. They risked their lives to achieve highly noble objectives (and most gave their lives).
Unfortunately, there were two major problems with their objectives. First, not all of them were noble (to put it mildly). Second, even those that were noble, were… well, unrealistic.
I have stated on countless occasions that Nazi ideology created a highly distorted and thus grossly inaccurate perception of the world. To put it bluntly, the Nazis (first and foremost, Adolf Hitler) were severely delusional. Which predictably led to colossal blunders and subsequently to the defeat in the Second Great War and the demise of the Third Reich (and of all its key components).
Incredibly, July 20th plotters were even more delusional than the Nazis (definitely more so than Heinrich Himmler, for example). They could not grasp a simple truth (although it was made public many times) – the Allies were fighting not the Nazis, but Germany and, consequently, would agree only to unconditional surrender of Germany.
And the British and the Americans had no desire whatsoever to start another war – with the Soviet Union. First, they needed its support to force Japan to unconditionally surrender and second, they were (correctly) confident that they had enough resources to prevent Stalin from invading the Western Europe (let alone conquering it).
Hence, their planned demands (!!!) to Allies to return Germany to even the 1939 borders (let alone to 1914 ones) were not just fanciful, but genuinely insane. Incredibly, like just about all the rest of German resistance, the July 20th plotters believed in the idea of Greater Germany.
Hence, as a condition for peace (!!) they demanded that the Western Allies recognize as a minimum the incorporation of Austria, Alsace-Lorraine, Sudetenland, and the return of pre-1918 German territories ceded to Poland, with even restoration of some of the overseas colonies. They believed that Europe should be controlled under German hegemony (Britain would have loved the last one).
Now those were the delusions of the century – the plotters did not understand (or did not want to understand) that they were not in the position of making any demands – they had no bargaining power whatsoever. Himmler had some (actually, a lot of it) but even his hopes of negotiating an acceptable peace with the Allies were totally and completely delusional.
Their second fundamental error was that they completely misjudged the attitude of the Germans towards national-socialism. Contrary to their delusions, the overwhelming majority of Germans were totally and completely happy under Nazi regime and had no desire to return to Weimar-style democracy.
Or to monarchy for that matter (it was not entirely clear which regime they disliked more). The previous military dictatorship (a duumvirate of Ludendorff and Hindenburg) ended in disaster – the Great Hunger, the defeat in the Great War, etc., so the Germans had no desire whatsoever to repeat the experience.
Even if Adolf Hitler was dead, the Germans would have eagerly submitted to the leadership of Heinrich Himmler as the SS were not just respected in 1944 Germany – they were admired and even revered.
And, finally, they did not even suspect that Heinrich Himmler was perfectly aware of every one of their steps – even without information obtained (most likely) from his personal agent Hans Gisevius. Hence, they were but a tool of SS-Reichsfuhrer in the plot of his own.
In the summer of 1943, Johannes Popitz – a member of Resistance and an associate of Carl Gördeler (and a firm supporter of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question) – conducted secret talks with Himmler, whose support he sought to win for a coup d’état and whom he tried to convince to take part in attempts to negotiate with the Western Powers for an acceptable peace deal.
Himmler was noncommittal but that conversation gave him everything he needed to put all plotters under sufficient surveillance by his agents fiercely loyal to him personally.
There is some (albeit rather thin) evidence that Popitz was not alone in seeing in Himmler a potential ally. General von Bock (Tresckow’s boss at Army Group Center who was sympathetic to the coup) advised Tresckow to seek the support of SS-Reichsfuhrer, but there is no evidence that the latter did so (I am pretty sure he didn’t).
Goerdeler was apparently also in indirect contact with Himmler via a mutual acquaintance, Carl Langbehn (IMHO, a very real possibility). Wilhelm Canaris biographer Heinz Höhne suggests that Canaris and Himmler were working together to bring about a change of regime, but this remains (IMHO, believable) speculation.
All these errors (plus a completely delusional belief that all Wehrmacht commanders will go along with Operation Valkyrie with no questions asked) predictably resulted in a miserable failure of their childish, naïve and amateurish coup. And subsequently in a colossal loss of highly valuable lives.
Operation Valkyrie was the only remotely realistic tool for executing the military coup in Nazi Germany. It was a natural (and pretty much standard) operating procedure to secure the continuity of government operations (i.e. that the government continues to function more or less normally) in case of a general breakdown in civil order of the nation.
The latter could be caused, for example, by the Allied bombing of German cities, or uprising of the millions of foreign forced laborers working in German factories… or an attempt to overthrow the legitimate government by some kind of an internal power.
In this case the Territorial Reserve Army of Germany (where the plotter General Olbricht was the second-in-command) was given the authority to essentially establish a temporary military dictatorship, restore order and then hand power back to a legitimate government.
Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow, and Claus von Stauffenberg modified the original plan to make it possible to legitimately take control of German cities, disarm the SS, and arrest the Nazi leadership once Hitler had been assassinated (blown to kingdom come by a powerful bomb). Hitler’s death was necessary to free German soldiers from their oath of loyalty to him.
There was a minor problem, however. On September 1st, 1939, a few hours after Poland was invaded by the Wehrmacht, Adolf Hitler officially (in his address to the Reichstag) named Hermann Goering his successor as Führer of Germany in the event of his death.
Which means that for Operation Valkyrie to remain legit, the plotters had to assassinate Goering at about (ideally, exactly) the same time as Hitler (otherwise the latter would simply cancel Valkyrie right then and there).
Unfortunately, Goering was suspiciously absent at the conferences attended by von Stauffenberg so finally the plotters had to go after Hitler alone, reckoning that they would solve “the Goering problem” later. Somehow.
Contrary to a very popular misconception, it was von Tresckow, not von Stauffenberg, who made the critical changes to the blueprint for Operation Valkyrie. Stauffenberg only obtained Hitler’s approval.
Normally a no small feat but Hitler was so impressed with the Colonel that he gave his approval without even reading the new plan – let alone studying it carefully enough to grasp its implications.
Ultimately, the plotters (correctly) decided that Himmler was not an asset, but a very much lethal liability. So they intended to kill them both if possible – to the extent that Stauffenberg’s first attempt on July 11th was aborted because SS Reichsfuhrer was not there.
Neither was Goering – and there was a feeling than none of them will ever be present, so the plotters had to go after Hitler only – and hope to take care of two others later. Somehow.
On the first day of July, Stauffenberg was appointed Chief of Staff to General Fromm at the Reserve Army headquarters on Bendlerstraße in central Berlin. This position enabled Stauffenberg to attend Hitler’s military conferences, and would thus give him an opportunity, perhaps the last that would present itself, to kill Hitler with a bomb (due to Stauffenberg’s injuries, a handgun was out of the question).
Meanwhile, new key allies had been secured. Probably the most valuable one was General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the German military commander in France, who would take control in Paris when Hitler was killed, and it was hoped, negotiate an immediate armistice with the invading Allied armies.
Von Stauffenberg was the only one who could lead and manage the coup skillfully enough to make it a success (no surprise here – the generals are usually lousy conspirators). Hence, the initial decision was to task someone else with blowing up Der Führer.
That “someone else” was Generalmajor Helmuth Stieff – Chief of Organization at OKH (Army High Command). As one of the officers who had occasional access to Hitler, he volunteered to kill Hitler himself in a suicide attack but later backed away despite repeated requests from Tresckow and Stauffenberg.
On July 7th 1944, during a demonstration of new uniforms to Hitler at Schloss Klessheim, a palace near Salzburg, Stieff did not have the courage to trigger the bomb. Which turned out to be a very bad decision.
On July 20th, 1944, he accompanied von Stauffenberg and Lieutenant Werner von Haeften in the Heinkel He 111 plane provided by General Eduard Wagner from the Wolfsschanze to Berlin.
On the same night, after the dismal failure of the coup, he was arrested and brutally interrogated under by the Gestapo. Stieff held out for several days against all attempts to extract the names of fellow conspirators.
Ousted by the Wehrmacht, he was tried by the infamous (Volksgerichtshof) under even more infamous Roland Freisler and (predictably) sentenced to death on 8 August 1944. At Hitler’s personal request, Stieff was executed by hanging in the afternoon of that same day at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin.
Due to Stieff’s sudden change of heart, Stauffenberg (who was the only other one who had a personal access to Hitler) had to kill Hitler himself. Thus taking responsibility for both assassinating the Führer and commanding Operation Valkyrie (dramatically reducing the chances for success).
The first opportunity presented itself on July 11th. However, the conspirators had (correctly) decided that Operation Valkyrie could succeed only if SS-Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler and Hitler’s official successor in case of his death Hermann Göring are killed simultaneously with the Führer.
However, that presented a major problem. Though the SS Reichsfuhrer was de-facto the third most powerful individual in the Third Reich, he was not in any way involved in managing military operations (nominally his Waffen-SS were under operational command of Wehrmacht) – so it was highly unusual for him to attend military conferences.
Göring, although very much involved in military operations, normally did not attend such conferences either, choosing to send his deputy Generaloberst Günther Korten (Chief of General Staff of the Luftwaffe) instead.
And for a good reason as Hitler (mostly incorrectly) blamed the German Air Force for its inability to protect Germany from around the clock incessant pounding (and destruction) by Allied bombers. And treated the Luftwaffe commanders accordingly.
Hence, neither of the two were present on that day – and so the attempt was aborted. Recognizing the futility of hunting for both men, the conspirators finally dropped this requirement.
So on July 15th Stauffenberg was after Adolf Hitler only. The plan was for Stauffenberg to plant the briefcase with the bomb in Hitler’s conference room with a timer running, excuse himself from the meeting, wait for the explosion, then fly back to Berlin and join the other plotters at the Bendlerblock.
Operation Valkyrie would be executed, all Nazi leaders would be arrested (or executed on the spot without trial), the Reserve Army would take control of Germany, Beck would be appointed provisional head of state, Goerdeler would be chancellor, and Witzleben would be commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
However, this attempt also had to be aborted. Curiously, both Himmler and Göring were present this time, but Hitler was called out of the room at the last moment. Stauffenberg was able to miraculously intercept the bomb and prevent its discovery.
On 18 July rumors reached Stauffenberg that the Gestapo had knowledge of the conspiracy and that he might be arrested at any time. As it turned out later, there was no truth whatsoever to these rumors, but they achieved their objective, creating a sense in the conspirators that the “net was closing in” and that the next opportunity to kill Hitler must be taken because there might not be another.
On the morning of 20 July Stauffenberg flew back to the Wolfsschanze for another Hitler military conference, once again with a bomb in his briefcase. Without realizing that he (like all other conspirators) was but a pawn in an entirely different plot.