Hitler never trusted the professional army officers. His disdain came about because of the poor generalship in World War I that killed millions of German soldiers. He was always worried that the Army would attempt a coup de état and try to take over the government.
In 1934, during the Night of Long Knives, he removed the Sturm Abteilung (SA) from his favor, and killed their leader, Ernst Röhm. Essentially a gang of thugs that had brought him to power, The Schutz Staffel (the SS) – his personal bodyguard – took its place. In exchange for removing the SA, the Army signed an oath of allegiance to Hitler.
As the losses mounted in late 1943 and early 1944, Hitler replaced or forced many generals into retirement and the Army High Command, except for those officers in Hitler’s personal orbit, grew openly critical of his constant meddling.
Oberst Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg lost his left hand, and fingers from his right, fighting in Tunisia. As a member of the aristocracy and the military, he had double contempt for Hitler, and joined the plot to kill him. General Ludwig Beck, Chief of Staff back in 1938, was the nominal leader. They worked in isolation, with little support among the Wehrmacht command. Many officers waited to see if they would be successful before joining their ranks.
The Normandy Landings inspired the plotters to attempt an assassination in the face of the Allied breakout. Von Stauffenberg placed a briefcase with a bomb inside Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” — his command post for the Eastern Front in Rastenburg, Prussia. The bomb was one of many British bombs confiscated by the Abwehr, the German intelligence organization. Stauffenberg had to activate the bomb with tongs. He placed the bomb under the conference table and left. The bomb went off, but von Stauffenberg hasn’t primed both charges, and only one had gone off. He and the other plotters believed Hitler was dead and prepared to seize Berlin with Home Army troops.
Hitler was not dead. Believing God had spared him to avenge Germany on the world, he met with Benito Mussolini later in the day despite wounds to his right arm and a loss of hearing.
At the same time, the collaborators and Hitler’s sycophants raced to control Berlin. With Hitler alive, their was little chance of most of Germany coming over to their side. In Berlin, Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels worked the phones to assure everyone that Hitler was in control. Units that promised support withered away.
Meanwhile, Stauffenberg was shot at midnight by a firing squad, loyal Army officers rounded up conspirators, many of whom tried to spare their lives by informing. Implicated was Erwin Rommel, who had been approached by the plotters but did not join. Rommel was recovering from wounds at home. For his failure to inform Hitler, he was given a choice: take poison and get a state funeral, or refuse and see your family executed as well. Rommel took poison. The man who had the best ability to change Germany’s fortunes of war was gone.
Also forced to commit suicide or sent to concentration camps were thousands of family members of the plotters. Eight of the conspirators were hung on meathooks and their death agony was filmed and shown to Hitler. Some Army officers committed suicide by walking into the Russian no-man’s-land.
Hitler used the July 20 Plot as an excuse to destroy anyone in the Army he feared would oppose him. The traditional salute was replaced with the Nazi Sieg Heil. Eventually 20,000 were killed or sent to concentration camps in the purge. Many plotters were filmed being hanged on meathooks, considered an undignified form of execution.
Hitler, a manic hypochondriac, became obsessed with his health after the assassination attempt. His doctor prescribed drugs of his own design that contained hemlock. Hitler gulped so many pills he was slowly poisoning himself. The tremors in his right hand became acute, and he rarely allowed photographs or film of himself after July 20.
The failure of the July 20 plot precluded any possibility of Germany negotiating a peace with the Allies. Hitler intended to fight to the death in a struggle that would see the end of National Socialism or the end of Germany’s enemies.