Wednesday, March 11, 2009

This Day in Nazi History (Another Failed Attempt to Kill Hitler)

March 11, 1944—Four months before Col. Claus von Stauffenberg tried to kill Adolf Hitler, another failed attempt that you don’t hear about took place. Like all the other plots against Germany’s dictator, it came to nothing.

Lt. Eberhard con Breitenbuch, a reserve cavalry commander, arrived with his boss, Field Marshal Ernst Busch, for a conference at Hitler’s villa the “Berghof” on the Obersalzberg. The aide-de-camp, a crack shot, had concealed on his person a Browning service pistol that he intended to use to shoot Hitler.

Approaching the door of the meeting, however, an SS guard intercepted Breitenbuch. Adjutants were not invited, the guard said. Rebuffed, and believing that “you only do something like that once,” the aide walked away and did not make another attempt.

The Tom Cruise film Valkyrie focused attention on the Stauffenberg plot. However, that attempt, though the one that came most heartbreakingly close to fruition, was not the only Hitler assassination plot. I learned about the existence of these others through a recent George F. Will column.

Just because Hitler was paranoid didn’t mean that someone wasn’t out to get him. Quite a lot, actually. Citing a statistic from Hitler biographer Joachim Fest, Will writes that 15 assassination attempts by the German Resistance were carried out. But from 1921, even before his "Beer Hall Putsch," to his death in 1945, the dictator faced approximately 40 attempts on his life, according to "Politicians: Kill or Be Killed," a research paper published by CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute for Economic Research. (A short synopsis was published in The Atlantic Monthly, March 2009.)

One of the principal conspirators against Hitler was General Henning von Tresckow, a man who typified the Prussian commander old guard in his burning resentment of der Fuehrer. Tresckow would later involve Stauffenberg in his failed attempt. Tresckow's fate illustrated the great dangers posed by conspirators: When Stauffenberg's plot failed, Tresckow committed suicide lest he reveal the identity of fellow plotters under torture. Once his role was discovered, the regime dug up his body and burned it.

Breitenbuch was more fortunate--the Gestapo never ferreted out his involvement from the other plotters and he lived until 1980.

Why did the plots to kill Hitler invariably fail? Alex Ross, , has posited what seems like the best explanation—the plots were not only contingent on Hitler being in a certain place at a certain time, but also too complicated (e.g., one plot failed because an innovative detonating mechanism proved too hard for the plotters to know how to use).

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