20 July 1944

20 July 1944

20 July 1944

66 years ago, the most well-known plot to kill Hitler and carry out a coup, was attempted – and failed. If Stauffenberg had remained with his bomb to ensure its effectiveness, sacrificing himself, it might have worked. But it was thought necessary to use him in Berlin for the aftermath – with fatal consequences, since (it is thought) the briefcase containing the bomb was moved after he left. No other plan ever got as far as this, apart from Georg Elser’s one-man-show in 1939, which missed Hitler by 20 minutes, and a bomb smuggled on one of Hitler’s aircraft in 1943, which failed to explode.

It is true that some of the participants were part of the old military and Prussian aristocratic elite, with some rather odd ideas about where Germany should go once the Nazis had been gotten rid of. Some had influential posts in the military and justice system, and had no qualms, for instance, about having deserter shots. But they were by no means the only ones involved. There were trade unionist, social democrats, dedicated civil servants in the liberal tradition, and so on.

No doubt it did not help that the Allied forces had no interest in co-operating with or even encouraging a coup. The British foreign minister, Anthony Eden (who had been told about the plan in 1942 by Bishop George Bell), apparently thought of the coup plotters as traitors and told Adam Trott, the courier, that no encouragement could be given unless the plotters revealed themselves and offered a visible sign of their intentions. It is hard to think of something more naive than that. By the same token, Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons in August 1944 grossly and perhaps deliberately misinterpreted the events of the 20th of July as in-fighting among the Nazi-elite.

Hitler used the attempted coup to have many thousands of dissidents, whether involved in the plot or not, murdered. A new way of hanging was used: hanging on a butcher’s hook, being slowly throttled to death by a piano wire. Hitler had some of the murders recorded on film. Others died, in ways no less cruel, by guillotine or bullet.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alfred Delp, and other Christian martyrs were among those who died. In one of the preparatory meetings, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been asked by his friend and fellow ‘plotter’, Hans von Dohnanyi: what about Matthew 26:52? After all, this plot had a real chance to succeed, and could have brought an end to the murderous regime. ‘Yes’, said Bonhoeffer. Mt 26:52 applies. The consequences have to be born by those who commit the sin. Guilt has to be accepted, as well as its consequences. There is no simple ‘right or wrong’. (J. W. de Gruchy, Daring, trusting spirit: Bonhoeffer’s friend Eberhard Bethge, London: SCM, 2005, p. 46)

And hence they went to their deaths.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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