Hollywood plots Hitler thriller
By Firoze Sameer

The day is Thursday, July 20, 1944, the time 12.42 hours, and the place the Nazi nerve centre, the Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair), in Rastenberg, East Prussia. The scene is a military conference. The room is filled with black-suited SS officers standing around as the chief of operations of the army high command, General Adolf Heusinger, reads a report on the central Russian front. Chairing the conference is Adolf Hitler, and with him are 23 other Nazi officers.

A time bomb explodes from below the table, killing four. The blast is the culmination of Operation Valkyrie, organised by a group of army officers. Hilter survives.

Director Bryan Singer and his team are presently working on a Hollywood film based on the World War II incident. The United Artists’ US$100 million production, titled “Valkyrie”, is slated for release on February 13, 2009. Shooting commenced at the Bendlerblock memorial in Germany last July. The official trailer is now on YouTube. Tom Cruise acts as the key instigator of the revolt, Colonel Claus Schenk Count Stauffenberg, chief-of-staff to Col-Gen. Erich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), commander of the reserve or home army.

Tom Cruise as Col. Claus Von Stauffenberg. (Pic courtesy

The plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler is well documented in a number of books, including British historian Alan Bullock’s “Hitler” (1952); John Wheeler-Bennett’s “The Nemesis of Power” (1953); Constantine Fitzgibbon’s “The Shirt of Nessus” (1955); William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (1960); Jacques Delarue’s “The Gestapo” (1962); and Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel’s “The July Plot” (1964), and the brilliant 822-page “Inside the Third Reich” (1970), by Hitler’s armaments minister Albert Speer.

A Roman Catholic aristocrat, Col. Stauffenberg arrives at the Rastenberg conference attired in a field-grey Wehrmacht uniform, glittering with an array of medals, including the Iron Cross 1st Class, the Wound Badge and the German Cross, both in gold. He cuts a remarkable figure: he is wearing a black eye-patch, the result of a war incident in Tunisia, on April 7, 1943, when his staff car was riddled with fire from low-flying aircraft, causing him to lose his right hand and arm, two fingers of his left hand and his left eye, with injuries to his left ear and knee.

The colonel walks into the room carrying a briefcase containing a time bomb. Depending on what side you were on, Stauffenberg’s act was either heroic or high treason. When Marcus Brutus delivered the coup de grâce in the assassination of Roman dictator Julius Cæsar, he said he was doing so not because he loved Cæsar less, but because he loved Rome more. Every German officer had to pledge a personal oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler.

Hitler’s early victories saw the Third Reich taking control of almost the whole of Europe, sections of Scandinavia, the Balkans and North Africa. It was during Hitler’s advance on Russia, when the German army had almost reached Moscow, that the tide turned.

Following the failed plot to kill Hitler, Col. Stauffenberg and three other officers faced a summary court martial decreed by Gen. Friedrich Fromm. They were shot that very evening, on July 21, 1944, in the courtyard of the Bendlerstrasse by a firing squad of 10 men commanded by a lieutenant. Fromm turned the tables on the conspirators when the putsch misfired. But it did not save his neck. He finally faced a firing squad on March 19, 1945.

Those who fell with Stauffenberg that evening were his adjutant, Lieut. Werner von Haeften; Col. Gen Freidrich Olbricht (played by actor Bill Nighy); head of the supply section of the reserve army, and his chief-of-staff, Col. Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel). Gen. Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), who was Franz Halder’s predecessor as chief of the army general staff, was given the option of shooting himself, which he failed in doing twice. He was dispatched by a sergeant.

Major Otto Ernst Remer and SS Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lieut. Col.) Otto Skorzeny, both holders of the Knight’s Cross with oak leaves, were key bulwarks against the conspirators and contributed indefatigably towards quashing the coup.

Major Remer (Thomas Kretschmann), who commanded the guard battalion inside Berlin, was ordered by Lieut-Gen. Paul von Hase, commandant of Berlin, who was a conspirator, to throw a cordon around the ministry buildings in the Wilhelmstrasse and the SS security offices. However, Remer was confused and referred to propaganda minister Dr Joseph Goebbels, who put through Remer on a priority call to Hitler. The Fuehrer directly instructed Major Remer to quell the coup, promoting him two grades to full colonel.

Shirer writes: “On July 24, the Nazi salute was made compulsory in place of the old military salute ‘as a sign of the Army’s unshakeable allegiance to the Fuehrer and of the closest unity between Army and Party’.” View Col. Remer was made major-general and given command of the legendary Panzer Führer-Begleit division.

Lieut.-Col. Skorzeny, famous for rescuing Mussolini in a daring operation in September 1943, was hauled out of his sleeping berth on the night-express to Vienna when it stopped at Lichterfeld, where repeated announcements went over the tannoy for him to immediately report to Berlin on the instructions of SS Brigadefuehrer (Maj-Gen.) Walther Schellenberg, the number two man in the SD. Skorzeny’s company entered the Bendlestrasse and took control from within, while Remer’s detachment isolated the entire block.

Former Afrika Korps commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s role in the conspiracy was revealed after the war. Although the “Desert Fox” was privy to the plot, he favoured arresting rather than killing Hitler. Rommel’s last posting was as commandant of Army Group B amongst five other army groups spread out in northern France in defence of the D-Day operation. Rommel’s staff car was strafed on July 17 and he sustained major head injuries. On October 14, 1944, Rommel was given the option of suicide by poison, followed by a state funeral with full military honours, instead of facing treason in the People’s Court. Rommel chose suicide.

Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge was replaced by Field Marshal Walther Model as the army group commander in France, and was recalled to Berlin. On his way by car near Verdun, Kluge (who, like Fromm, switched sides on learning of Hitler’s escape), probably guessed the game was up and committed suicide by poison.

Col. Gen Heinrich von Stuelpnagel, the military governor of France, moved to arrest all SS and SD personnel in Paris. SS Obergruppenfuehrer (Gen.) Karl Oberg and his deputy, SS Obersturmbanfuehrer (Lieut-Col.) Dr Helmuth Knochen, with their troops were later released after the coup had gone awry. Recalled to Berlin, Steulpnagel, shot himself at Verdun during a car journey, only to blind himself in both eyes. He and Lieut. Col. Caesar von Hofacker, who served on his staff, were sentenced to death and hanged.

Shirer states the Gestapo recorded 7,000 arrests, and another source some 4,980 deaths, but the figure is thought to be much higher.

The SS, its intelligence unit the SD, the Gestapo, and a series of departments fell under the umbrella of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA (Reich Security Main Office), headed by SS Obergruppenfuehrer (Gen.) Dr Ernst Kaltenbrunner. He was placed in charge of the Special Commission of July 20 by Hitler (David Bamber) and Himmler (Matthias Freihof), now Commander in Charge of the reserve army, and conducted extensive investigations and interrogations to round up even those remotely connected with the attempt.

According to Manvell and Fraenkel, Hitler appointed a military court of honour led by field marshals Wilhelm Keitel, Gerd von Rundstedt and Col. Gen Heinz Guderian, who replaced Gen. Kurt Zeitzler as chief of the general staff, “to dismiss from the Army all officers remotely concerned in the putsch”. The conspirators were tried by Roland Freisler in his People’s Court as civilians and hanged, instead of facing a firing squad. Notable was the acquittal of Rommel’s chief of staff Maj-Gen. Dr Hans Speidel, a conspirator.

The architect of the conspiracy, Maj-Gen. Henning von Trescow (Kenneth Branagh), chief-of-staff in the central army group, Eastern Front, walking on no-man’s land towards the Russian Forces, exploded a hand grenade and died.

Trescow’s last words to von Schlabrendorff were: “God once promised Abraham to spare Sodom should there be found 10 just men in the city. He will, I hope, spare Germany because of the thing that we have done, and not destroy her … Whoever joined the resistance movement put on the shirt of Nessus. The worth of a man is certain only if he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.”

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