BENDLERBLOCK MEMORIAL IN BERLIN: JULY 20
BENDLERBLOCK COMPLEX PRIOR TO WWII
The Prussian General Staff has long ago become a generic term in military history, accepted as the reflection of the whole era in modern European history. Starting as far back as the Thirty Years’ War in the XVII century, the army had become an integral part of the German nation-building by raising its power next to or above the monarchy in times of war. The German General Staff, the one we know from the books about WWII, was a historical heritor of the Prussian military school and its organizational heart, known as ‘Großer Generalstab’. It takes the count of its existence since the rule of Frederick the Great in the XVII century, being officially established as early as 1814 in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. After an unprecedented rise after 1871, it experienced suppression and reformation in the post-WWI world and ceased to exist in May 1945. In the course of the two centuries, the General Staff had changed a few locations, from Koblenz to Berlin and the history of the two most crucial wars in history is closely related to a gray complex of buildings in the center of Berlin.
The history of the location, in the inner courtyard where on July 20, 1944, four prominent participants of the most recognized conspiracy in modern history were executed, traces back to the mid-XIX century. Johann Christoph Bendler, a native of Saxony and a locally well-known construction foreman, moved with his family to Berlin in 1820, to become a member of the city council already in 1832. Soon, Bendler prospered to the extent that he managed to purchase a large spot of land to the south of the ‘Großer Tiergarten’ park. Whilst at that time the area was beyond the city limits of Berlin (until 1861), it was a good acquisition. In the 1830s the Landwehrkanal, an artificial offspring from Spree (which today borders Bendler’s spot of land from the South) did not exist yet and would be created as late as 1850. Johann Bendler found himself to be not only a skillful landowner but a benefactor and philanthropist. Thanks in large part to him, the area was put under urban development and several streets were laid. Apart from Grabenstraße, which used to border Bendler’s ownership since 1831, the map of the area was complemented with another street 450 meters long, 1837 named Bendlerstraße (which would remain the naming until 20 July 1955) after a generous patron.
Before his death in 1873 Johann Christoph Bendler bequeathed the greater part of his lands to the city administration of Berlin for public use. Followed by the Reunification of Germany in 1871, the area to the South of Großer Tiergarten was to become an influential district, later occupied by several embassies and known as the ‘diplomatic quarter’. Toward 1930 more than thirty embassies would dominate the area. Getting back to specifically the plot of land in the ownership of Johann Christoph Bendler, it was destined to obtain a new life in the 1910s. With the expansion of the German fleet at the beginning of the XX century, ‘Reichsmarineamt’ (Imperial Navy Office) had outgrown its former headquarters on the North-East corner of Leipziger Platz (number 13, near the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Agriculture) and demanded a new office.
The building up of a new headquarters for the Navy became reality as early as 1911 only one kilometer to the West of its former residence. The city and army authorities chose a spot of land between König-Augusta-Straße and the Landwehrkanal to the South and Bendlerstraße to the East. König-Augusta-Straße (modern Reichpietschufer) was laid as Grabenstraße back in 1831 and renamed in 1867 after Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, the queen of Prussia (until her death in 1888). It would be once again renamed Tirpitzufer after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz in 1933. The construction of a new complex of administrative buildings for the Navy was assigned to two prominent German architects of their time: Heinrich Reinhardt (1868-1947) and Georg Süßenguth (1862-1947). The two had operated an architectural office in Berlin since 1894, famous for its projects of the town halls (Spandau, Treptow, Dessau), including Charlottenburg City Hall in Berlin. They also performed successful work on the Main train station in Hamburg, and the gates of the main cemetery in Frankfurt am Main. The construction phase of the new Reich Navy Office in Berlin lasted three years and was finalized in 1914 toward the outbreak of the ‘Great War’. Getting back to the old ‘Reichsmarineamt’ HQ on Leipziger Platz, the building would be demolished in 1927 to leave space for a large department store.
When it comes to the new creation of Reinhardt and Süßenguth in the Tiergarten district, the architects put their talent into a five-story complex of buildings distinctive for its neo-classical and neo-baroque style elements. The front side of the main wing at Konigin-Augusta-Strasse 38-42 (today: Reichpietschufer 72-76) faced the Landwehrkanal. It could accommodate up to 900 employees of the Reich Navy Office at a time, which was to become a factor for the expansion of the Navy staff since the start of the War. Prior to his resignation in 1916, Alfred von Tirpitz, a famous German grand admiral, and Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office had luxuriated in his personal residence of twenty-four rooms here. Apart from the main complex facing Konigin-Augusta-Strasse, a relatively moderate Eastern wing faced Bendlerstrasse (building number 14 at that time). During the War years, it was this wing that accommodated the Navy Cabinet, the wartime Kaiser’s personal staff dealing with naval affairs. Until 1918 Georg Alexander von Müller, Kaiser’s friend, admiral, and Chief of the Navy Cabinet since 1906 had his residence here on the second floor.
Based on the results of the German defeat in WWI, the Imperial Naval Office was terminated on 15 July 1919 by Reich President Friedrich Ebert. The former responsibilities were temporarily taken by Admiralty Staff, in 1920 transformed into ‘Marineleitung’, a naval administration under the newly created German Reichswehr Ministry. According to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was allowed to have an army of only 100 000 people, among them 15 000 in the Navy, including only 1500 marine officers, who were now obliged to sign a contract for twelve years. This unpleasant procedure of the run-down of the officer’s staff was performed by a personal department of the Navy, as well located here at Bendlerstrasse. Relating to the armed forces, as early as the Spring of 1919, a newly appointed Defense minister Gustav Noske took the former residence of Alfred von Tirpitz at Königin-Augusta-Strasse/Bendlerstrasse. General Walter Reinhardt, Chief of the German Army Command, accommodated a residence in the east wing facing Bendlerstrasse. Summing up, on the heels of WWI the former Navy headquarters was turned into an HQ of the newly created Reichswehr, a reorganized German army of the recently created Weimar Republic.
During the so-called ‘Kapp Putsch’ in the Spring of 1920, General Hans von Seeckt, a Chief of the General Staff, rejected Defense minister Noske’s order to suppress the putsch. During their meeting in the HQ on Bendlerstrasse, Seeckt proclaimed the later well-known yet controversial phrase: ‘’The army does not fire on the army’. In practice, by violating an oath and by breaking an order, Seeckt managed not only to preserve his position but to become Chef der Heeresleitung (Chief of the German Army Command), thus taking an officer at Bendlerstrasse 14 up to 1926. During this period the German officer corps was reorganized into a ‘board of the army’ of the high-ranking officers at Bendlerstrasse. In the same period, an archive with all the military documents related to the War was established here to study the combat experience.
In 1926 Hans von Seeckt was succeeded by August Wilhelm Heye and already in 1930, the post of Chief of the German Army Command was taken by Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord. In late January 1933, the latter summoned the senior army officers to his office to discuss the perspectives of the upcoming appointment of Adolf Hitler as the Chancellor. Whilst it had been Seeckt who distanced the army from politics in 1921, on February 3, 1933, only four days after taking the position of Chancellor, Hitler personally attended the army headquarters at Bendlerstrasse. It was his first formal appeal to the Reichswehr. The Chancellor pretended to look calm and restrictedly in the presence of the generals, being treated by Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord with skepticism. In the evening Hitler fired a passionate political speech about the necessity of the resurrection of a powerful Germany, a struggle with Marxism, and the gaining of “Lebensraum (living space). Hitler fully understood the importance of the support of the army both for his dictatorship rule inside the country and for his future aggressive foreign policy. This meeting and the attitude toward the new Chancellor was fated to become an apple of discord among the military men and as early as December 1933 Hammerstein-Equord was replaced by Lieutenant-general Werner von Fritsch. Among the officers, who initially supported Hitler, were Werner von Blomberg, the newly appointed Minister of Defense, and Colonel Walter von Reichenau, the future notorious field marshal.
In October 1933 the army headquarters at Bendlerstrasse witnessed the arrival of a new talented officer. Lieutenant general Ludwig Beck was appointed Chief of the Troops Office in Reichswehr. Under his skillful guidance, this department would soon be turned into a new German General Staff, the organization prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles. In 1935 Beck would become the first Chief of Staff of a new period, and one of the masterminds behind the rearmament of Germany. During his years in the office, General Ludwig Beck used to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning, perform a workout and come to the office at Bendlerstrasse at 8.30. The windows of his office fronted the inner courtyard of the Eastern wing of the complex. Beck spent time in the office until 7 p.m. five days a week, getting back to dinner. After that, the careerist Beck used to devote another three hours of paperwork before going to bed around midnight.
On February 28, 1934, Adolf Hitler paid another visit to the army’s Bendlerstrasse headquarters, this time accompanied by Ernst Röhm, an odious leader of the SA. Fission between these two progressed as well as the conflict between the army and Röhm’s stormtroopers. In the presence of Hitler, Röhm was forced to sign a document, which asserted the leading role of the army and thus a complete submission of the SA. As soon as Hitler left the room, Röhm burst with criticism against his Fuhrer, later passed to Hitler by Blomberg. In June 1934 in the course of the so-called ‘Night of the Long knives’ the SA leaders were arrested or killed in the purge, thus confirming the role of the army as the only bearer of power in the state. At the same time as the Nazis organized reprisals against their political opponents apart from the SA leaders as well, including the military officers, the night of June 30 witnessed turmoil at Bendlerstasse. General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, Chief of the German Army Command even barricaded himself in the office without knowing of Hitler’s full intentions.
THE HEADQUARTERS FOR THE NEW WAR
While Hitler never hid his ambitions of the conqueror, and the Army’s high command enthusiastically supported the rearmament program, violating the Treaty of Versailles, and the early European annexations (Saar, Rhineland), the coming of a new World War made generals’ hair curl. On November 5, 1937, Hitler organized a vitally important (for him) meeting at his Reich Chancellery. It was attended by: Von Blomberg as Minister of War, Von Fritsch, a Commander in Chief, Erich Raeder, a Commander in Chief of the Navy, Göring, a Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, von Neurath, a Foreign Minister, and Friedrich Hoßbach, Hitler’s military adjutant. In the course of almost four hours of demagoguery, the dictator speculated that the challenges of Germany could be only solved by force and the only questions now are where and when should the Third Reich hit. Instead of support, Hitler was astonished by the reaction of Blomberg, Fritsch, and Neurath, who did not back his plans. After the meeting, Fritsch, Ludwig Beck, and Neurath had their own meeting at the Bendlerstrasse HQ. Each of them underestimated the man, who would force them to leave the positions in less than a year.
Blomberg was forced to resign from his posts on January 27, 1938, and Hitler terminated the Ministry of War as an institution, later replacing it with the newly created puppet-ruled ‘Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’ or OKW (High Command of the Armed Forces). As early as February 4, Werner von Fritsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, was released from his duties after a false accusation. Walther von Brauchitsch was appointed a new Commander-in-Chief and moved into the Fritsch office at Bendlerstrasse. In doing so, Hitler got rid of two high-ranking officers of the Army and performed a massive reorganization of the High command at Bendlerstrasse. Speaking about the HQ complex, in 1938 the east wing facing Bendlerstrasse was significantly expanded. The adjoining plot of land on Bendlerstrasse 10-13 had been bought as far back as 1926 and now new buildings and additions were added to the existing 1914 complex. Around this time the army headquarters were unofficially called “Bendlerblock” due to the raised importance of the part of the complex facing Bendlerstrasse. The naming was never used officially. At the same time, the ‘diplomatic district’ to the South of Großer Tiergarten was to be also complemented with the new embassies: a further seven would be built between 1938 and 1943 under the inspection of Albert Speer.
Toward 1938, the firing of respected commanders, the restructuration of the Army, as well as Hitler’s plan for outbreaking a new war in Europe, led to another more powerful opposition to the dictator. The first center of Resistance in the Third Reich at a significant level was to emerge in Abwehr, the Foreign Intelligence Service which shared the same Bendlerblock complex with the Army command and parts of the Navy command. Abwehr offices accommodated the main part of the complex at Tirpitzufer (Konigin-Augusta-Strasse was renamed in 1933) facing Landwehrkanal. Because of the residence of the Intelligence, the building was soon to be unofficially called ‘Fuchsbau’ (Fox’s Lair). This first spring of the powerful military opposition was guided by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the Chief of Abwehr since 1935. The admiral was so successful in finding the opponents to the regime, that the conspirators sometimes called the Abwehr headquarters at Tirpitzufer ‘Canaris Familie GmBH’ (The Canaris Clan Inc.). Among the most active participants were: a well-known lawyer Hans Bernd Gisevius, a judge Hans von Dohnányi, a Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Colonel Hans Oster, Canaris’s deputy in Abwehr.
The Abwehr HQ at Tirpitzufer with its small and dark cabinets and narrow corridors was a part of the Bendlerblock complex of buildings and was physically connected with the Army headquarters by passages. This fact allowed the Intelligence Service staff to communicate with the officers from OKH, including the opponents of the Nazi regime. In the years before the outbreak of WWII, one could see foreign intelligence agents (British, French, Polish, Soviet) around the district. Some of them tried to hang one ear close to one of the centers of decision-making in Germany. Abwehr’s structure here was divided into a few departments. Department number one created a network of spies in different countries as well as the means to support the pro-German elements abroad. The 2nd unit under Erwin Heinrich René Lahousen was assigned to conduct secret operations and sabotage. The Third Department of counterintelligence under general-major Franz Eccard von Bentivegni was in charge of deception lies and recruitment of foreign agents. Oskar Shindler, the man who would later save 1100 Jews during the Holocaust, worked with Abwehrstelle II in Czechoslovakia from 1936-to 1938 as a foreign agent. The Abwehr administration on the upper floor, the so-called ‘department Z’ was ruled by Hans Oster, mentioned above. Regarding Admiral Canaris, he had a cozy office with a writing desk and a cupboard. Any visitor could see two portraits on the walls: the one with Spanish dictator Franco with his personal signature to the admiral, and a painting from a Japanese ambassador in Berlin. Toward 1944 Canaris would rule the office in Potsdam near Berlin.
Foreign Intelligence Service office at Tirpitzufer street was a state inside the state, whilst they were themselves under the spying by both the Gestapo and SD. For this reason, the opponents of the regime were forced to use codenames, for example naming Hitler ‘Emil’ and Oster codenamed ‘Uncle Whitsun’. Due to the spies, the conspirators against Hitler were very careful while making provocative talks in the office at Bendlerstrasse and preferred parks, walking along the streets, or visiting noisy restaurants. Canaris even created a secret channel of diplomatic communication between the office at Tirpitzufer street and the German department in Bern, Switzerland and the plotters used an encrypted telephone line for communication. Toward 1938 both Canaris and Oster made up their mind that Hitler should be either removed from chancellorship or physically liquidated before he would get Germany into another World War. Despite the previous bloodless annexations in Europe, Hitler’s plans of aggression against Czechoslovakia gained little backing from the Army.
A staircase in the East Wing of the Bendlerblock complex inside the modern German Resistance Memorial Center
Two key men in the German army, Werner von Blomberg and Werner von Fritsch, the Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief of the Army respectively, had already lost their positions in early 1938 for not backing Hitler’s war ambitions. Toward the summer of 1938, when Hitler’s destructive plans had been evident, the military opposition at Bendlerstrasse reached its peak. On July 29, Ludwig Beck, Chief of the General Staff of the German Army High Command since 1935, shared a memorandum declining the War and suggesting the mass resignation of the high-ranking officers. During a meeting of the officers at Bendlerstrasse on August 4, 1938, Beck one more time appealed to his colleagues to challenge Hitler with an ultimatum. The latter was soon informed about the talks, and Walther von Brauchitsch, Supreme Commander of the German Army (Fritsch successor) and thus top officer present, preferred not to oppose Hitler’s decisions. On August 18 Beck retired, but the opposition among the generals only intensified throughout the next month. Oster, Canaris, Franz Halder (Beck’s successor), Erwin von Witzleben, and Erich Hoepner were ready to lay Hitler off in the case of the final decision toward War, but on September 28, 1938, the diplomats signed the notorious ‘Munich agreement’.
Hitler, who craved the support of the army in his early years as the Chancellor, was now irritated with the opposition among the Army officers at Bendlerblock, which would have a dramatic outcome during the War. Joseph Goebbels openly spoke about ‘pot-bellied officers in the Bendlerblock’ in the presence of Hitler, making unfavorable comparisons with the SS elite formations. Eleven months after the recalled military putsch, Hitler started a new big war against Poland, which would immerse the nations into six years of horrors. The day before August 31, 1939, when the news about the final decision reached the offices at Bendlerstrasse/Tirpitzufer, admiral Canaris replied to Gisevius: ‘Finis Germaniae’ (Germany is doomed). With an outbreak of War, the OKW led by Wilhelm Keitel moved from Bendlerstrasse consequently to the different military headquarters. At the same time, the OKH General Staff moved to the headquarters in Zossen outside Berlin. The Abwehr Intelligence office remained here until 1943. The ‘Allgemeines Heeresamt’ (General Army Office, a secretariat of the OKH) of the High Command moved to the east wing of the Bendlerblock. The ‘Allgemeines Heeresamt’ was initially headed by General Friedrich Fromm since 1934 and after February 1940 by his deputy General Friedrich Olbricht. On August 31, 1939, Fromm was appointed ‘Chef der Heeresrüstung und Befehlshaber des Ersatzheeres’ (Chief of Army Armaments and Commander of the Reserve Army) with the office still at Bendlerstasse. Both generals would continue their work here until July 1944.
CLAUS VON STAUFFENBERG AS A CHIEF OF STAFF
The personality of this man is still highly demanded among historians, journalists, professional military men, politicians, and a wide audience eight decades after his death. At the same time, the ‘most successful’ attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime would always be associated with his name: Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. He was born on November 5, 1907, in a small German commune called Jettingen near Stuttgart, with a population of around 2000 people. In the year when Claus saw the world for the first time, his future nemesis Adolf Hitler was eighteen years old and he was taking care of his mother in the Austrian town of Linz. In contrast to Alois Hitler a civil servant, Claus’s father Alfred Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (1860-1936) was a respected stable master in service of King Wilhelm II of Württemberg, and his mother Caroline Gräfin von Uxkull-Gyllenband at birth (1975-1956), was a great-granddaughter of a Prussian general. When being a kid, Claus found interest in architecture, art, and music, yet his life’s journey would be devoted to military service. A spiny young man of eighteen years old joined the ranks of the 17th (Bavarian) Cavalry Regiment in the Spring of 1926.
Stauffenberg was hungry for studying and standing out of the crowd, and his family’s position in society allowed him to enter Infantry Academy in Dresden (from October 1926 to August 1928), then a cavalry school in Hannover (From fall 1928 to August 1929). Being an outstanding student and a skillful horseman, Claus became a second lieutenant in his Bavarian Regiment on the first day of 1930 and a first lieutenant on May 1, 1933. It is worth noting that in 1933 Claus favored Hitler’s appointment as a Chancellor, the man who proclaimed the resurrection of the army. In 1934 Claus was transferred to a cavalry school and as early as October 1936 to the War Academy in Berlin to study as a Staff officer. During the service here Claus von Stauffenberg got acquainted with Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim, his close friend in the future and one of the key plotters in 1944. After his education, Stauffenberg got the position of the Second General Staff Officer of the tank division under Lieutenant General Erich Hoepner, another famous conspirator in the future. In October 1938 Stauffenberg was among the forces, which participated in occupying a part of the Czechoslovak territory in Sudetenland, and in the Fall of 1939 the division, under a new commander, participated in the Poland campaign.
In November 1939 Nikolaus Graf von Uxkull, Claus’s uncle on the mother’s side, tried to involve his nephew in a plot against Hitler, but Claus refused. Uxkull would be executed in September 1944 as one of the conspirators. By being a staff officer, Claus von Stauffenberg had no actual combat experience while his division participated in the French campaign and entered France in May 1940. At the end of that month, a prospective young officer got an assignment to the organizational section of the Army General Staff and was promoted to major in May 1941. Serving as a General Staff officer in Hitler’s military headquarters ‘Wehrwolf’ near Vinnytsia in Ukraine, in August 1942 Claus von Stauffenberg was told about the mass killing of the Jews and the atrocities against the civilians. At that moment in time and history, a young officer Stauffenberg had openly criticized the military and political ambitions of Hitler’s regime and regarded the dictator as a disgrace to Germany. Claus made efforts to gather a circle of officers on the Eastern front for the opposition to the regime and even had a talk with Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who threatened to arrest Stauffenberg.
In virtue of the threat that his ‘off-duty’ activities may soon become known to the Secret police, Stauffenberg volunteered to be sent to North Africa. In a new rank of Lieutenant Colonel on the General staff, he arrived at the HQ of the 10th Tank Division on February 14, 1943, when Rommel’s forces in Africa were retreating. In Less than two months of service in a new place, Claus was badly wounded during the British air raid. An evacuation ship took him first to Livorno and then by a hospital train to a First General Military Hospital at Lazarettstrasse in Munich. Stauffenberg lost his left eye, two fingers of his left hand, and a part of his right hand. During his recovery period in a hospital, Stauffenberg was attended to by his wife Nina, his relatives, and staff officers, some of them openly criticized Hitler and the Nazis. Among the guests was his uncle Graf von Uxkull. Despite his dreadful injuries, Stauffenberg was firm in his decision to resume military service as he was getting invitations from the officers to work under their command. Among such patrons was General Zeitzler, the Chief of the General Staff at that time, who had brought Stauffenberg his Wound Badge in gold and a bottle of wine. General Geyr von Schweppenburg suggested Claus join his panzer corps in France.
During his stay in a hospital, Claus expressed interest in the events on the home front and was depressed after hearing the news about the arrest and execution of the ‘White rose’ student opposition group in Munich. Among those officers, who paid a visit to Stauffenberg during those months, one would affect his life way more than the others. General Friedrich Olbricht, head of the Army General Office of the Army High Command at Bendlerblock in Berlin since February 1940 requested Stauffenberg as his new Chief of Staff since Colonel Hellmuth Reinhardt decided to resign from the post for a field position. It was he (Reinhard) who suggested Stauffenberg to Olbricht, whilst the latter had already known Claus since the organizational section of the Army General Staff. Among other duties, Olbricht had a right to employ wounded officers (those unable for front service) for desk work in the Staff HQ. The position was outstanding in fact for Stauffenberg as a lieutenant colonel, as supposed promotion to colonel. Olbricht asked Claus if he wanted to take the position as early as May 1943 and Stauffenberg immediately agreed with a claim that he still needed three months to recover.
Friedrich Olbricht was born in 1888 to a mathematician teacher and later a headmaster of the school, and was nineteen years older than Claus von Stauffenberg. By becoming a soldier in a year when Stauffenberg was born in 1907, Olbricht participated in WWI and later changed a number of both field and staff positions in the army until he was finally assigned as chief of the General Army Office in the Army High Command at Bendlerstrasse in early 1940. Ever since the failed Nazi Putch in 1923, Olbricht had taken a dislike toward the NSDAP movement and Hitler personally. By taking advantage of his service rank, Olbricht had surrounded himself with the opponents of the regime. Since the outbreak of WWII, the Army General Office under the Reserve Army led by Friedrich Fromm was responsible for combat training, men, and weaponry replacement. “Operation Valkyrie” as an instrument for taking down Hitler was Olbricht’s child. Initially ‘Valkyrie I’, its first version, was masterminded in the winter of 1941/1942 to raise reserves after the catastrophe of the Russian front near Moscow, and Stauffenberg was among the General Staff Organization Branch officers who had worked with it back in the summer of 1942.
At the beginning of July 1943, Stauffenberg finally left the military hospital in Munich and spent the next month with his family. Staying firm to his promise to Olbricht (to recover in three months), Claus finally came to Berlin on August 10 to meet Olbricht in his office on Bendlerstrasse. Officially, he was still out of service on hospital leave and could be introduced into the duties without taking a position on paper. At the same time, his presence in Berlin and his ability to make journeys, allowed Claus to meet different kinds of people, including the conspirators against the regime. In August 1943 he for the first time met with Henning von Tresckow and attended a number of meetings of the military opposition in Berlin, getting acquainted with Carl Goerdeler, Ulrich von Hassell, Ulrich, Count Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, and others. During the same period, Stauffenberg informed his brother Berthold about the plans to join the Resistance and won his brother’s support. In mid-September 1943 Claus once again got back to Berlin from a hospital in Munich, where he had previously been treated with post-recovery manipulations with his hand, and moved to a house at 8 Tristanstrasse in Wannsee near Berlin.
The official appointment of Claus von Stauffenberg as chief of staff in the Army General Office was to become a reality as late as November 1, 1943. Nevertheless, on Olbricht’s appeal, Claus paid a part-time presence on Bendlerstrasse from September 15, and full-time work from October 1. His predecessor Colonel Reinhardt did not get a field position and de facto remained in his position until mid-October. Stauffenberg lost no time in getting into the detail of the plan to overthrow Hitler by means of the “Valkyrie” plan. In the performance of one’s duty, Claus had access to the ever-increasing statistics of the German army losses on all fronts and was sure that such a war would lead Germany to collapse. Valkyrie II’, the second version revised in 1943, supposed a large number of army reserves to be deployed if needed to suppress the disturbances in Germany, for example, due to the enemy paratrooper landing in Berlin, a revolt of millions of foreign laborers, or after Hitler’s death. Friedrich Fromm, the commander in chief of the Reserve Army, agreed to the revisions of the ‘Valkyrie’ made by Olbricht and Stauffenberg.
On 23 December 1943 Stauffenberg, two months in a new position, performed his very first visit to Hitler’s headquarters ‘Wolfschanze’ in East Prussia, though without meeting Hitler personally. Anyway, as a Staff officer, he probably had an experience of seeing the dictator at least from a distance back in the summer of 1942 in Ukraine. Despite another visit to Hitler’s Alpine safe harbor on May 29, 1944, the very first meeting of the two face-to-face would become a reality on June 7, the day after the Allied invasion of Normandy. On that day Claus von Stauffenberg went along with Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the Reserve army, to attend a meeting, which took one hour. In the presence of Hitler, Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, Wilhelm Keitel, Albert Speer, Fromm made his report, and then Stauffenberg was asked to explain the new alterations to the ‘Valkyrie’ plan. Since the Allied invasion of France the day before, Hitler was concerned about the security measures on the home front. Claus performed his report clearly without emotions in front of people he had planned either to kill or to deprive of power and freedom. Hitler agreed upon the later alteration to ‘Valkyrie’. Upon back home, Claus told his wife Nina, that he regarded every member of Hitler’s inner circle apart from Speer, as a madman.
Apart from Hitler’s signature on ‘Valkyrie’, during that visit to Berghof, Stauffenberg took advantage of the journey by studying security measures in this temporary headquarters and the obstacles which may prevent a physical elimination of the dictator. At the same time, the newly agreed alterations to ‘Valkyrie’ had a significant value for the future military putsch by means of the forces the conspirators possessed. Prior to June 7 and Hitler’s approval Fromm, as the commander of the Reserve Army, had the authority to initiate ‘Valkyrie’ only with the personal approval of Hitler and now he could act without it. With these changes, Fromm was now the key figure in the planned plot, yet neither Stauffenberg nor Olbricht succeeded in his direct involvement. Fromm had a clear understanding that the War had already been lost and even regarded his oath to Hitler as a burden, which may be eliminated with Hitler’s death. Fromm accepted Stauffenberg’s offer to join the conspiracy with indifference and this question was never debated again, though the General did not intervene either. Stauffenberg was not frustrated by Fromm’s lack of support as he had firmly made up his mind to kill Hitler.
A journey next to Fromm to Berhdesgaden on June 7, 1944, had another rarely mentioned effect and aftermath. The General was impressed with his subordinate and suggested him as Chief of Staff of the Reserve Army, thus his deputy. In doing so and being informed about Stauffenberg’s opposition to Hitler, Fromm not only not arrested the young officer, but appointed him to a new higher position. This fact even made the Allied intelligence (including Allen Dalles in the US ) think that Fromm at least favored the conspiracy. Stauffenberg was promoted to Colonel and took the position of the Chief of Staff of the Reserve Army under Fromm from June 15 temporarily and after July 1, 1944, officially. This new post opened constant direct access to Hitler by means of the military briefings in his headquarters. It is interesting to mention, that the final approval was given by Generalleutnant Rudolf Schmundt, Hitler’s chief adjutant and the chief of the German Army Personnel Office, who would die from the injuries caused by the July 2o explosion.
After being assigned to a new important position, Stauffenberg suggested Albrecht Ritter Mertz von Quirnheim, his close friend and a great enthusiast of the conspiracy against Hitler take his post as chief of staff in the Army General Office. The two were close confidants since the late 1930s and both worked in the OKH headquarters in Vinnytsia in Ukraine when they found out about the Nazi atrocities. Von Quirnheim moved to Wansee next to Stauffenberg and now took a daily job at Bendlerstrasse. Stauffenberg paid his next visit to Berghof as early as July 6, 1944, and the colonel brought a bomb with him. On that occasion, he was not ready to put the explosive personally and tried to persuade his friend colonel Hellmuth Stieff. The latter had been a conspirator since the Summer of 1943 with occasional access to Hitler, but this time he refused Stauffenberg’s appeal to set off an explosion in Berghof and later failed to do this during the planned event in Schloss Klessheim, Hitler’s Austrian refuge near Salzburg.
Without Stieff’s direct support, Stauffenberg now had no options other than to kill Hitler himself. On July 11, 1944, colonel Stauffenbrg again attended a military conference at Berghof once again with an explosive charge in his suite. It turned out that both Goering and Himmler, the top targets as well as Hitler were absent that day. Stauffenberg made two calls to the Olbricht office at Bendlerstrasse in Berlin and finally after their approval of the attempt, the colonel found out that the breeding had already been over. The chance was missed. On July 14 Hitler moved to ‘Wolfschanze’, his military headquarters in East Prussia and therefore the scene of the new attempt changed to Stauffenberg. On the next day, the conspirators initiated the first phase of the ‘Valkyrie’ plan in Berlin, yet Stauffenberg had not succeeded in charging the explosion on that day, and the failed putsch had not been conducted to the extent needed and known beyond Bendlerblock. A new trip to ‘Wolfschanze’ was scheduled for July 20. On the evening before, Claus von Stauffenberg finished his duties with calm and habitual punctiliousness and left his office at Bendlerstrasse with a swastika on the parquet at 8 p.m., and visited a church on the way back home to Wannsee. At home at Tristanstrasse he spent his evening with his brother Berthold with the thoughts of Germany and his family: Nina Stauffenberg was pregnant with their fifth child.
JULY 20-21, 1944: VALKYRIE
After a few previous failed attempts, Stauffenberg finally succeeded in setting the explosion a few meters next to Hitler. around 12.40 p.m. on July 20, 1944, it blew up inside the conference room at ‘Wolfschanze’. The blast made a hole in the spot where Stauffenberg’s suitcase was placed, blew up the windows of the room, ripped off the planks from the walls and ceiling, and turned the massive oak table into pieces. The latter saved not only the dictator but the majority of the present officers. Claus von Stauffenberg was out of the conference room and saw the explosion from a distance of approximately 200 meters while standing next to the ‘Adjutantenhaus’ (Adjutant’s building). The colonel made up his mind that there was no way to survive such an accident. Stauffenberg joined his adjutant Werner von Hafften, who had already arranged a car to the airfield to go back to Berlin. In accordance with the plot, Stauffenberg was a key figure in the conspiracy and his successful return to Berlin was crucial for the success of the whole affair. Oberleutnant Haeften was only one year younger than Stauffenberg. A former platoon leader on the Eastern front, he was severely wounded in combat and later became Stauffenberg’s adjutant.
Being sure of Hitler’s death, Stauffenberg and Hafften hurried to the airfield bypassing two security perimeters and checkpoints despite the alarm and the lockdown of the headquarters. The HE 111 airplane was waiting for them at the Rastenburg airfield and took them to Berlin’s Rangsdorf airbase at 3:45 p.m. (the flight took two and a half hours). Back in Berlin, Olbricht received a confronting message that after the explosion in Fuhrer’s headquarters, Hitler survived. While Olbricht was still inactive in the officer’s canteen at Bendlerstrasse, around 2 pm Mertz von Quirnheim took the initiative and activated the first alert phase of Valkyrie. Whilst Stauffenberg and Hafften were making their 30 km from the airfield, Quirnheim pressed Olbricht to initiate the second phase of ‘Valkyrie’. At 4 p.m. Olbricht issued the code ‘Deutschland’ and the involved officers at Bendlerstrasse were briefed with the news of Hitler’s death and the plans. Ludwig Beck is announced as the Head of State and Generalfeldmarschall Erwin von Witzleben as the Commander in Chief of the Army.
As the codename was passed to the military districts and the Reserve army units in Berlin, Olbricht, Quirnheim, and the now-arrived Stauffenberg went to general Fromm for his signature as the commander of the Replacement Army. The general said, that Hitler had been killed without doubt and he should join the Putsch to save Germany. Fromm then made a call to ‘Wolfschanze’ and found out by speaking with Wilhelm Keitel himself, that Hitler was alive. With the understanding that the ‘Valkyrie’ had been issued without his approval, and the fact that Hitler had survived, Fromm confronted his subordinates but was himself disarmed and put under arrest in his own cabinet. Later on, the conspirators at Bendlerblock issued an order that General Erich Hoepner is now a new commander of the Replacement Army and that the ‘Valkyrie’ provisions should be put into reality. While waiting for the troops to mobilize in Berlin, the Bendlerstrasse is finally visited by Beck as the Head of the State and Hoepner as Fromm’s replacement, both in civilian clothes.
The success of the whole putsch depended heavily on the well-timed taking of control over the military districts in Germany and on occupied territories, yet Berlin had always been the key element for seizure. The orders issued under ‘Valkyrie’ to security battalions and military schools near the capital included detailed directives on the objects, which must be taken over. Despite the sophisticated planning, now the putsch experienced erratic success. There was no direct communication between the conspirators at Bendlerblock and the officers on the streets except for a unit assigned to guard the HQ itself. Around 5 p.m. the ‘Wolfschanze’ spread a message about the failed attempt on Hitler’s life and the coup, which traveled across the country by means of different channels including the home service radio. The confronting orders from two different sources (Wolfschanze and Bendlerblock) and the dubious attitude of the officers consecrated ‘Valkyrie’. In contrast to the initial successes with the barricading of the government quarter, around 7 pm the conspirators at Bendlerstrasse came to understand that the putsch had failed and would be suppressed by force. Field Marshal General von Witzleben came to the headquarters, but after finding out the situation, left the site in less than an hour.
Around 8.30 p.m. the soldiers of ‘Wachbataillon Großdeutschland’, a security unit supposed to take control over the city, rushed into the villa of Joseph Goebbels at Herman-Goering Strasse 20. Otto Ernst Remer, only thirty-one years old, got acquainted face-to-face with the Propaganda Minister, who then made a direct call to Wolfschanze and Hitler personally. A young officer was now ordered to suppress the putsch in Berlin with the center at the army headquarters at Bendlerstrasse. Remer passed the order to all the units of ‘Wachbataillon Großdeutschland’ in the city. Around this time the confused officers at Bendlerblock picked up a teletype message, that Heinrich Himmler had been appointed the commander of the Replacement Army. Around 9.30 p.m. when Germany was waiting for the previously announced speech by Hitler, the last tanks left the governmental district.
While the ‘Großdeutschland’ soldiers were heading Bendlerblock, several officers sympathetic to the regime, or at least those in opposition to the putsch, stirred up a kind of mutiny and freed general Fromm from his temporary and poorly guarded custody. Followed by a short shooting inside the building around 10.50 pm, the key conspirators against Hitler were put under arrest and Stauffenberg was wounded in his hand. At 11.15 p.m. a company of “Großdeutschland” guard battalion of around two hundred men arrived at Bendlerstrasse to take control of the building and to arrest the plotters. Armed with machine guns and anti-tank weapons, they disarmed a unit from the weapons-technical school, which had been ordered to guard the complex just thirty minutes before. Twenty minutes later, the young men got back their weapons.
As soon as general Fromm had been released, he came to the room with the six arrested putschists: Ludwig Beck, Friedrich Olbricht, Mertz von Quirnheim, Claus von Stauffenberg, Werner von Haeften, and Erich Hoepner. Fromm stated that the court-martial embodied in him had just sentenced all five to death by shooting. The general not only wanted to conceal the fact that he had known about the upcoming putsch, but he also wanted to deal with the scandal inside the army secretly according to Prussian tradition and before the involvement of the SS, which he had always despised. Ludwig Beck asked for a pistol for taking his own life, but after the failed attempt of killing himself, was shot by one of the soldiers of the ‘Grossdeutschland’ guard battalion. After writing the final words by Olbricht and Hoepner, the latter had a private talk with Fromm after which he was spared from immediate death. Around 00.15 on July 21, 1944, Olbricht, Quirnheim, Stauffenberg, and Haeften were taken to the inner courtyard of the east wing of the complex at Bendlerstrasse. At the same time, ten soldiers from the battalion, who had no idea of the events, were lined up in the courtyard to perform a role of a shooting squad under the command of Second Lieutenant Schady.
The night of July 21 was a warm summer one with only glimpses of the thunder far away from Berlin. The shooting was put into reality next to the sandbags, enlightened with the brights of the lorries, which had just brought the soldiers here from Bendlerstrasse. Olbricht, head of the Army General Office of the Army High Command a few hours ago, was shot first. Claus von Stauffenberg was called next but his devoted adjutant Haeften shielded the colonel and thus died second. When Stauffenberg was set in front of the squad, he called ‘Es lebe das heilige Deutschland’ (Long Live Blessed Germany) before being shot to death. His loyal friend and one of the most active conspirators Mertz von Quirnheim was killed, the last among the four. A few moments later, Fromm addressed the soldiers in the courtyard and ordered them to take away the bodies for burial. The bodies of the five including Beck were put into the truck bed of the lorries and then taken to Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof (Old St. Matthew’s Churchyard) cemetery in Schöneberg district, 2 kilometers to the South from Bendlerblock. When Hitler and Himmler found out about this, the bodies were excavated and burned and the ash was scattered.
While the courtyard of the East Wing of the Bendlerblock complex of buildings was a scene of the execution by shooting, several officers were put under arrest in the former cabinets of Stauffenberg and Mertz von Quirnheim, in the expectation of the same fate. Among them were: Berthold Stauffenberg (Claus’ brother, executed August 10, 1944), Peter Yorck von Wartenburg (executed August 8, 1944), Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg (executed November 10, 1944), Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld (executed September 8), Robert Bernardis (executed August 8), Eugen Gerstenmaier (survived, died in 1986). Around 00.30 am Otto Ernst Remer, as well as Ernst Kaltenbrunner (Director of the Reich Security Main Office) and Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny (the master of secret operations and the rescuer of Mussolini from captivity) with an SS unit finally came to Bendlerstrasse. All subsequent executions were not stopped and the arrested officers were taken off. When the plotters clapped with handcuffs, Skorzeny personally booted their army distinctions out and put the shoulder marks into a helmet. The conspirators were then taken to the notorious Gestapo headquarters at Prinz Albrecht Strasse. Fromm did all his best to preserve his face by making a show of his departure from Bendlerblock on his will, yet he had been already deprived of his post in favor of Heinrich Himmler as the commander of the Reserve Army. Bendlerblock was now occupied by the SS men on his behalf.
Just before 1 a.m. On July 21, 1944, less than an hour after the executions in the courtyard at Bendlerblock, Adolf Hitler finally addressed the country on the radio, condemning the failed putsch and ‘a small clique of generals-traitors’. As Goebbels’ propaganda was still a moving force in Germany, the failed military putsch against the dictator was turned into another triumph of the providence toward Hitler. In the months to follow, an unprecedented wave of repressions swept across the country and the temporarily occupied territories. Under the capable guidance of four hundred men from the ‘Sonderkommission 20 Juli’ (July 20 special Commission), and under the personal supervision of Heinrich Muller, the head of Gestapo, Kaltenbrunner, Himmler, and daily reports to Hitler. The repression culminated with the so-called ‘People’s Court’ under Roland Freisler who sentenced more than 170 people to death in 55 sessions of the trial. The majority of them were executed at Berlin-Plötzensee prison by hanging and some resistance fighters were later killed in the Spring of 1945. Among those executed was Claus’ brother Berthold. Goebbels even assigned a filming crew to shoot the trials and the final three-hour cut titled ‘Action X’ (Operation X) prepared for Hitler included twenty minutes with the executions.
It must be said that the executions of the plotters were not the final chapter of the repressions. As early as August 1944 Himmler ordered the arrest of all politicians of the former non-nazi parties of the Weimar Republic, which resulted in arresting more than 5000 people throughout Germany. The families of the July 20 opposition were also among the victims of the regime’s vengeance, including the close ones of Claus von Stauffenberg. Nina Stauffenberg was arrested and later gave birth to their fifth child in prison, and Claus’ four children were taken to the orphanage and given a different surname. Summing up the July 20, 1944 plot, its failure marked not only the breakdown of the most ambitious military opposition to Hitler, but it resulted in the further radicalization of German society and the turn of any opponent into the enemy of the state. Heinrich Himmler, who had already been responsible for ‘ideological ‘education in the army since July 15, was now a commander of the Reserve Army, one of the key positions in the Wehrmacht with control over the army discipline, training, and personnel, and the prisoners of the war. It was a crucial addition to his already enormous range of power and positions in the Third Reich. Himmler lost no time in assigning his close SS subordinates for key positions, for example, Hans Jüttner, as his deputy in running the Replacement Army. On that same day, July 21 Himmler addressed the officers of his new Reserve army empire and would perform at least another two speeches in the day to follow, in many ways humiliating the army officers with the accusation of lack of loyalty. As early as August 2, 1944, he would receive another portion of powers from Hitler, allowing the restructuring of the administrative basis of the army.
THE HISTORY AFTER 1944
Followed by Himmler’s appointment as the Commander of the Reserve Army and a wave of repressions, the traditional Prussian school was shattered. Another threat to the existence of the Bendlerblock came from the air, and the frequent air alarms had become a part of everyday work here. In early 1945 a separate unit of men among the 100 000 foreign workers in Berlin, was responsible for replacing windows at Bendlerblock after the air raids. After July 21, 1944, two concrete hexagon-shaped watch posts were erected in the courtyard as an extra defensive measure in the wake of the Soviet advance. On April 23, 1945, Bendlerblock was chosen as the headquarters for General Helmuth Weidling, the last commander of the Berlin Defense Area appointed by Hitler the same day. He preferred the old army headquarters because of its close location to Hitler’s Chancellery, as well as due to well-equipped air-raid shelters beneath Bendlerblock.
In those last days of the Third Reich, Weidling and his officers rarely saw daylight and used to work with the artificial light of the generators in the depths of the complex of buildings at Bendlerstrasse. The exhausted general with a great responsibility on his shoulders had to cover the distance between his HQ and Hitler’s bunker on foot every day to get new instructions from Hitler. Around 6 pm on April 30, 1945, Weidling made a call to the Reich Chancellery and found out that something extraordinary had happened. Two and a half hours before that, Hitler had committed suicide. General Helmuth Weidling and his officers surrendered as late as 6 am on May 2, 1945, and the Bendlerblock complex was occupied by the Soviets.
All while the old army headquarters, as well as the whole of Berlin, had been captured by the Red Army, the former political arrangements led to the shared occupation of the city. This part of Berlin including Bendlerblock was later to become a part of the British sector of West Berlin. Similar to hundreds of buildings in the Western sector, the restoration of Bendlerblock was initiated soon after the end of the War and as early as the 1950s the complex of buildings was accommodated by the agencies of the German federal government and the state of Berlin, even the Federal Disciplinary Court. In contrast to Soviet distaste toward the German Resistance during the War, the Western allies supported the honoring of the opponents of the Nazi regime in Germany. On July 20, 1952, the eighth anniversary of the Putsch, Eva Olbricht, widow of General Friedrich Olbricht and Berlin’s mayor Ernst Reuter laid the cornerstone of the memorial aimed to commemorate the Resistance movement. The initiative had been previously lobbied by the relatives of the plotters. On the same day, the guests performed the very first official ceremony to commemorate the memory of the fallen plotters in the inner courtyard of the East wing at Bendlerblock, which is now a German Resistance Memorial Center. Just one year later on July 20, 1953 mayor Reuter, who was very active in the post-war restoration of Berlin, unveiled the finished monument.
The bronze figure of a young man with bounded hands was created by a recognized sculptor, Professor Richard Scheibe (1879-1964) with the inscription of the words by Professor Edwin Redslob (1884-1973), a co-creator of ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ newspaper and the co-founder of ‘Free University of Berlin’.
Ihr trugt die Schande nicht
Ihr wehrtet Euch
Ihr gabt das große
Zeichen der Umkehr
Opfernd Euer heißes Leben
Recht und Ehre
You did not bear the shame.
You fought back.
You gave the great,
Sign of change,
Sacrificing your glowing life
Justice, and honor.
While the 1952 ceremony was an event at the city level under the patronage of the Berlin mayor, July 20, 1954, witnessed the ceremony on the federal level of the Federal Republic of Germany, thus commemorating the 10th anniversary. Next year in 1955 Bendlerstrasse was renamed “Stauffenbergstraße” after Claus von Stauffenberg. In 1960 Franz Amrehn, a former soldier, a clerk, and now a Berlin mayor since 1955, unveiled a commemorative plaque on the wall on the left side of the courtyard, which bears the names of the German officers executed here in Bendlerblock on July 20-21 1944: Ludwig Beck, Friedrich Olbricht, Claus von Stauffenberg, Mertz Von Quirnheim, Werner von Haeften.
The years and decades to follow witnessed the ever-increasing interest in German resistance during WWII, particularly among foreign tourists. On July 20, 1967, the family members of the Resistance fighters greeted the opening of an educational center here at “Stauffenbergstraße”, aimed to inform the wide public about the opposition to National Socialism. The permanent exhibition made of three rooms on the second floor of the museum saw its first visitors in 1968. It would take another twelve years until 1979 when the Berlin authorities gave fiat to the expansion of the exhibition of the Educational center. As early as 1980 the inner courtyard was slightly remodeled as well and a new plaque was placed on the wall while entering the arch.
Hier im ehemaligen Oberkommando des Heeres organisierten Deutsche den Versuch, am 20. Juli 1944 die nationalsozialistische Unrechtsherrschaft zu stürzen. Dafür opferten sie ihr Leben.
“Here in the former Army High Command, Germans organized the attempt to overthrow the lawless National Socialist regime on July 20, 1944. For this they sacrificed their lives.”
In 1980 the collection of the museum was constantly expanding, owing to the additional premises assigned, and the year 1989 saw another inauguration of the new permanent exhibition commemorating the broad spectrum of the German resistance with more than 5000 pieces of historical importance, including documents and photographs. Since the reunion of Germany and the moving of the Federal government back to Berlin (for the first time since 1945), in September 1993 the Bendlerblock complex has been used to accommodate a secondary seat of the German Federal Ministry of Defense. The military men were very sensitive to the place, yet they later agreed to allow two fiction movies to be filmed inside Bendlerblock and particularly in the courtyard, the site of the July 21, 1944 execution. The first one called ‘Stauffenberg’ was a low-budget German movie with Sebastian Koch as the star and in 2007 the site was filmed by director Bryan Singer for his movie ‘Valkyrie’ with Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg. Despite the general acceptance by the audience, both movies were criticized for historical inaccuracies.
In 2014 the German Resistance Memorial Center opened once again the renewed “Resistance against National Socialism” permanent exhibition devoted to the opposition against National Socialism and dictatorship. The renewed exhibition made a greater emphasis on the members of the Resistance and paid attention to not only the most well-known plotters. The visitor may take advantage of the photos and information about dozens of Resistance fighters in Germany and beyond, who had once opposed themselves to the Nazi regime. The new exposition includes eighteen different spectrums, covering different sources of the German Resistance, where the military was only one among them. For example, the story of Georg Elser and his assassination attempt against Hitler in 1939 is presented in detail, as well as opposition beyond Germany. Many of the former cabinets including Stauffenberg’s one have preserved the elements of the interior, including the parquet. A separate part of the exhibition is devoted to the executions at Plötzensee prison.
I am very grateful to war archives, museums, libraries, private collections, and writers for the historical photos in this article. To the extent that some author or a copyright owner may not want some of the above black-and-white photos to be used for educational purposes here, please contact me for adding credits or deleting the pictures from the article.