Almost Killing Hitler

Impressed by a written report from a colonel, Adolf Hitler exclaimed, "Finally a general staff officer with imagination and intelligence!" The report's author, who had those qualities in quantities commensurate with his courage, would be repeatedly brought to Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. He was Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg.

Tom Cruise portrays him in "Valkyrie," the story of an attempt to assassinate Hitler. Stauffenberg's bomb that failed to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944, was one of perhaps 15 attempts, according Joachim Fest's 1994 book "Plotting Hitler's Death: The Story of the German Resistance." Fest does justice to the pathos, ambiguity, occasional absurdity and ultimate dignity of the many rivulets of resistance that culminated in Stauffenberg placing a bomb in a briefcase near Hitler's feet. "Valkyrie" attempts less. Commercial imperatives incline Hollywood to avoid diluting pleasure with instruction, so "Valkyrie," although conscientious in depicting the July 20 episode, provides scant context. By turning a complex moral drama into a mere action thriller, the movie misses a chance to revive interest in the German Resistance.

If the Munich agreements of Sept. 29, 1938, had not given Hitler the fruits of war with Czechoslovakia without the war, some generals might have rebelled: Secret arrangements had been made to open from within the doors to Hitler's chambers so that a military force could rush in. If on Nov. 8, 1939, Hitler had not cut short a speech scheduled for two hours in Munich, an assassination plan there might have succeeded. Two days later, with security thickened around Hitler, an officers' bomb plot was abandoned. In a March 13, 1943, attempt that "Valkyrie" does depict, explosives hidden in two bottles of Cointreau were placed aboard Hitler's plane. The fuse worked, the firing pins struck, the percussion cap evidently ignited. Still, the bomb did not detonate, perhaps because the explosive, carried in the plane's hold, was sensitive to cold.

Eight days later, as Hitler entered a military exhibit, an officer ignited a fuse on a bomb beneath his coat and stayed close to Hitler. But after just two minutes in the exhibit, Hitler, with a feral animal's instinct for danger, left through a side door. The officer dashed to a restroom to deactivate the bomb.

A highly decorated 24-year-old captain, appalled by Nazi atrocities in the Ukraine, instantly agreed when Stauffenberg asked if he would kill Hitler. In November 1943, with Hitler scheduled to view a display of new uniforms, the captain, with a bomb concealed on his person, was prepared to ignite a short fuse and leap upon Hitler. But the display was canceled when the railroad car containing the uniforms was destroyed by an air raid on Berlin.

On March 11, 1944, a field marshal summoned to Obersalzberg, Hitler's Bavarian retreat, brought an adjutant, a captain, carrying in his pocket an assassination weapon—a cocked Browning revolver. An SS officer stopped the captain at the conference-room door, saying adjutants would not be allowed in.

If it had not been unusually hot on July 20, 1944, Hitler's conference with Stauffenberg and others would have been held in a concrete bunker, which would have contained the blast of Stauffenberg's bomb. Instead, they met in an aboveground wooden building, where the force dissipated. If a sergeant had not entered the room where Stauffenberg, using pliers modified to accommodate his injuries (wounds had cost him an eye, his right hand and two fingers on his left), was arming the explosives, Stauffenberg might have armed the second bomb, or might have put it in the briefcase with the armed one, which would have detonated both with sufficient force to kill everyone in the room.

Hitler survived and the planned coup unraveled in a few hours. Stauffenberg was executed by firing squad that night. Other conspirators were tried before Roland Freisler, whom Hitler praised as "our Vishinsky," a reference to the chief prosecutor in Stalin's show trials. Taken prisoner by the Russians during World War I, Freisler briefly became a Soviet commissar before returning to Germany and joining the Nazi Party in 1925. Among the conspirators Freisler condemned to death—many were slowly strangled by thin cords looped around butchers' hooks, their agonies filmed for Hitler's enjoyment—was the diplomat Adam von Trott, a direct descendant on his mother's side of John Jay, first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. On Feb. 3, 1945, during the largest air raid of the war, a falling beam in the courtroom killed only one person: Freisler. A doctor summoned from off the street confirmed that Freisler's injuries were fatal. The day before, Freisler had condemned to death the doctor's brother.

By July 1944, decapitation of the Nazi regime probably would not have prevented a crescendo of carnage: In the first 59 months of war, 2.8 million German soldiers and civilians died; in the last nine months, 4.8 million died. Still, Stauffenberg and many others understood the need for a gesture of national purification to refute the narrative—promulgated by Hitler and embraced by the Allies as a politically useful simplification—that the German Resistance was negligible and contemptible. It was neither.