Hitler's Personal Security: Gaps and Contradictions
by Peter Hoffman
Summer 1984


The world, certainly Europe, would look very different if in November 1938 the Führer and Reich Chancellor of Nazi Germany had been killed. Perhaps people would have regarded him as a "Great German," as a noted colleague has speculated; more important, the suffering, destruction and division resulting from the Second World War might have been avoided. It is well known that attempts to assassinate Hitler were made repeatedly, though it is probably less well known how many such attacks there were. At last count, no fewer than fourteen individuals made at least thirty separate, documented attempts to murder Hitler during the years 1933 to 1945. In the light of so much anti-Hitler energy, it seems reasonable and interesting to look at the circumstances in which Hitler survived all this hostility for so long.

The author's interest in those circumstances grew out of a study of anti-Hitler activities, of the German Resistance and their efforts to do away with the Dictator. It soon became clear that the problems of Hitler's personal protection went far beyond those with which modern leaders ordinarily have to live, and that they had far greater implications, for they affected the lives of literally millions of people. The obvious question was how Hitler survived the many attempts on his life. There were conflicting claims as to how easy or difficult it was for a would-be assassin to get close enough to Hitler for a chance to kill him. Former members of Hitler's staff maintain it was very easy, while survivors of the Resistance say the opposite. A closer look at Hitler's personal security will reveal an unprecedented level of precautions, and yet, at the same time, the very large number of attempts on the Führer's life. It will also shed some light on Hitler's character, and on the internal situation in Nazi Germany.

Survey of Attacks

Most of the early attempts were made by individuals who took it upon themselves to defend a category of people which the Nazi regime considered enemies: Jews, Communists, political opponents in general. More often than not, a group of conspirators planned the attacks, but none of the plans originated in ordinary political or other nonclandestine organizations that had existed before Hitler's appointment as Chancellor in January 1933. The Communist and Socialist parties consistently rejected assassinations as acts of anarchism; they believed in mass action and agitation for bringing about political change. No plans are known to have originated in non-clandestine Jewish organizations or in one of the two main Christian churches. Individuals, however, did act, at their own discretion, regardless of affiliation with political organizations.

A handful of individual Communists in Königsberg, who do not appear to have had the sanction of the Party, were among the first to plan and prepare an assassination attack against Hitler [after his appointment as Chancellor] during the Reichstag election campaign in March 1933. They were soon discovered and arrested. Other reports of assassination plans against Hitler reached the police in every year of Hitler's rule. The assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia and French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou on 9 October 1934 seems to have led to a rash of plans, rumors, and reports. In 1936 a Jewish student from Yugoslavia, Felix Frankfurter, who was studying medicine in Switzerland, wanted to kill Hitler, found no opportunity, and instead killed the Nazi Landesgruppenleiter in Switzerland, Wilhelm Gustloff.

Another Jewish would-be attacker, the student Helmut Hirsch, came from Prague with dark thoughts, and with explosives in his suitcase, but was arrested before he could act. A Swiss Catholic theology student, Maurice Bavaud, stalked Hitler for several days in November 1938, near Hitler's alpine retreat in the Berchtesgaden area, and in Munich where he managed to be on one of the reviewing stands for the annual parade commemorating the 1923 Beerhall Putsch. An unforeseen and minor obstacle prevented his attack. When Hitler and his party approached, the SA men lined up in front of the reviewing stand, raising their arms for the salute, and preventing Bavaud from getting a clear view for a shot. In the same year, Georg Elser, a Swabian cabinet maker, and a Communist sympathizer, reconnoitred the same scene for his 1939 bomb attack in Munich's Bürgerbräu beerhall.

Conservative opponents of Hitler in high places, in the Foreign Office, in the military Intelligence service, and in the Army High Command, soon joined by the Socialists, trade-union leaders and even church leaders, after 1939 also began planning to murder Hitler as the only way to halt his disastrous course. In the short term, however, the Nazi cause appeared glorious rather than disastrous and thus psychological conditions were thought to be unfavourable. Support for attempts to do away with Hitler increased in 1942, but some serious planning can be documented also for 1940 and 1941. A series of abortive attempts in 1943 and 1944 culminated on 20 July 1944.

The Bodyguard

From the days of his political beginnings, Hitler was usually accompanied by one or more friends who were both instant private audience and bodyguards. His driver of many years, Emil Maurice was bodyguard and friend on a certain level, and went to jail with Hitler after the 1923 Putsch. Another, Ulrich Graf, stopped half-adozen bullets aimed at Hitler in the Putsch by throwing himself before his leader. Maurice, Graf, Rudolf Hess and others were heroes of many an assembly-hall fight, and on public occasions, Hitler was protected by additional bodyguards. Still, it would be a mistake to see him as constantly surrounded by strong-arm characters, and shielded against any molesters. There were many occasions when he moved alone into hostile crowds, at times swinging the riding crop he liked to carry, and in one incident he rushed onto the speaker's rostrum to attack an antagonistic speaker. As much as he needed protection, he provoked dangers and attacks by the way he lived and behaved.

This contradictory pattern continued throughout his career. The bodyguard was more formally organized in February, 1932, when power seemed within reach. Eight men were selected from the SS, and two or three more, on appropriate occasions, were always near Hitler, stationing themselves outside his apartment, restaurant, hotel room or wherever he visited, while he was inside. This was continued after 30 January 1933, although from then on a criminalpolice detail was assigned to Hitler as to every Chancellor. Hitler at first rejected their services while Lammers [State Secretary in the Reich Chancellery] and Himmler tried to press them on him. But in the course of the first year in power, Hitler gradually accepted these bodyguards, so that there were now two groups competing to protect the Führer: the SS-Begleitkommando, commanded by Bruno Gesche, and consisting of a growing number of husky SS men, including the valets and personal-staff SS officers [Ordonnanz]; and, the criminalpolice detail, composed mainly of officers from the political-police forces of the provinces, and soon unified administratively under Lammers and Himmler as the Reichssicherheitsdient [RSD], commanded by Captain Rattenhuber.

Usually six of each group, SS-Begleitkommando and RSD, accompanied Hitler on every outing, be it to the Reichstag, to a railway station, to an opera house, to a cabaret or nightclub, or to a restaurant. All attempts by Hitler's lieutenants, particularly Himmler, to gain control of the security details failed. Consistently, and to the very end, Hitler reserved for himself all decisions on appointments and dismissals, insisting on personally swearing in all new members and intervening even in salary decisions and the like. Personal loyalty and obligation were emphasized by elaborate swearing-in ceremonies, held always during the night of 8/9 November, in front of Munich's Feldherrenhalle. The SS-Begleitkommando of 1932 were trusted fighters for the cause. Although new members were not in every case also members of the NSDAP [Nazi Party], their membership in the SS, an organization of the NSDAP, was regarded as sufficient. Most, but not all, RSD officers had NSDAP memberships. Up to 1 May 1937, only about half of some one hundred RSD officers were members. The total number of RSD officers grew from forty-five in 1935 to two hundred in 1939, and about four hundred by the end of 1944. Approximately the same figures hold true for the SS-Begleitkommando.

Besides these two groups, a military guard detachment was assigned as Hitler's personal escort for travel during the war: the Führer-Begleit-Bataillon [it grew in time to regimental and brigade strength]. Several, less formalized protective groups were in existence as well, such as one in the Reich Chancellery and a construction workers' security group on Obersalzberg. Security seemed abundant. And yet, the SS-Begleitkommando could not even prevent the theft of Hitler's Mercedes car in Munich in 1932 while he was in a cafe. Two of the SS-Begleitkommando's commanders were drunkards. Gildisch was removed from command in 1934, and went on to become the murderer of Dr. Klausener during the Röhm massacre. Gesche, Gildisch's successor, managed to hang on until January 1945, with temporary suspensions for drunkenness, indiscipline, and shooting wildly in the Führer's Headquarters. Emil Maurice, the driver and bodyguard of the 1920s, turned out, in 1935, to be of Jewish descent. However, because of his services in the early years of the struggle, Hitler ordered that Maurice must not be harmed and must be allowed to remain in the SS, in spite of Himmler's strong objections. He received promotions and survived the war. Another dubious leader, in 1945, of Hitler's personal SS guard was SS-Brigadeführer Mohnke who was reported to be a morphinist.

Martin Bormann complained vigorously to Hitler that the SS guards were too old, and had achieved ranks too high to be effective as ordinary bodyguards, but Hitler replied he would never let any of them go, never mind effectiveness. The RSD and Führer-Begleit-Bataillon were not plagued by individual corruption, and it is fair to say that the RSD did a professional job of preventive detection and protection. Their efforts were often defeated by Hitler himself as he disregarded simple precautions, and certainly during his visits to the fronts he was usually in considerable danger. His military guard could not prevent his motor column from being shot at by snipers in Poland and they were helpless in February 1943 when, while Hitler was in conference with Field-Marshal von Manstein at Saporoshe [Army Group Don], Russian tanks nearly overran the airfield where the Führer's Condor was parked. In March 1943, near Smolensk, on a visit to Kluge's Army Group Centre HQ, a plot to shoot Hitler failed only because he refused to take a suggested, prepared, and specially "guarded" path, where the "guards" were to shoot him.

Security and Travel

Ambiguity of security measures is encountered also when one looks at means of transportation, and at public appearances. Hitler used heavy, armoured Mercedes Benz cars almost exclusively, and they bristled with bodyguards with pistols and machine guns, although the cars were almost always convertibles with the tops down.

In the narrow streets of Nürnberg, a bomb or handgrenade might have been hurled into the car.

Despite his influence and support, Hitler was the target of many internal assassination attempts by Germans who wanted the “Führer” dead. They were afraid Hitler’s military campaigns and his plans of a Jewish genocide would destroy Germany forever. From 1933 to 1944, over 40 attempts were made on Hitler’s life by Germans, the most famous being Operation Valkyrie.

For increased security, Hitler was driven in a rotation of seven armored limousines, the Mercedes Grosser 770. 

Mercedes designed the car specifically for Hitler and his staff. Each was completely armored and bullet-proof, weighed 4 tons and could reach 93.2 mph. It sported a 225 horsepower engine, and featured a rotational armored plate in the back that could be raised to protect passengers. There were also secret compartments to store extra pistols. 

One of the cars is now on display in the Canadian War Museum.

Hitler met his end in 1945 after shooting himself in his underground Bunker while the city of Berlin burned. The city’s remaining population of unprotected women and children were left to face the ruthless atrocities committed by the invading Soviet Red Army. They would be Hitler’s final victims.

During announced public appearances, the routes were lined with police, Gestapo, SS, SA and other guard units, houses were searched, roofs were manned with observers, parked cars were removed, manholes and sandboxes and construction sites were looked into, while mailboxes, underpasses, sewage tunnels, telephone booths and public toilets were not forgotten. Still, only the occupation of all buildings and structures along Hitler's route could have provided good security and there is no evidence that this was ever done. Consequently the British Military Attaché in Berlin, who lived at no. 1 Sophienstrasse, could propose in 1939 shooting Hitler while he reviewed a parade from his customary reviewing stand, opposite the Institute of Technology. From the Attache's bathroom window, one would have had a clear shot but Whitehall turned down the unorthodox proposition.

Spontaneous, unannounced appearances held the advantage that secrecy, always stressed but difficult to enforce, could be maintained. On the other hand, problems with certain factors became worse. Hasty and spotty security checks, or no checks at all, were done and there was always the chance of a concentration of persons with reasons for an attack. In August 1944, Hitler visited Carlshof Field Hospital near "Wolfschanze," where some of those injured in the 20 July bomb attack were dying or recovering. As he drove in and out in his open convertible, several dozen war-wounded, some horribly maimed, crowded against the automobile. Hitler could not avoid contact with military men, and still conduct the war, but this visit exposed him to danger unnecessarily, as if to dare someone to try to kill him.

There were gaps and contradictions in regulations governing rail travel. Elaborate advance security was always necessary when Hitler used his special train. It had to be fitted into the schedule, stations had to be cleared, and barriers had to be lowered at road crossings. Thousands of railway employees had to be informed of the impending passage of the special train, all railway installations had to be guarded closely and, depending on the distance to be travelled, thousands of railway police were deployed. During the war, elements of the Führer-Begleit-Bataillon were added to the police contingent. Points of particular sensitivity such as bridges and tunnels were generally occupied an hour before passage of the train. All this necessarily destroyed secrecy, an indispensable element of all security. To preserve the train and its passenger against these odds, the special or duplicate was sent down the line on ghost runs at irregular intervals, requiring all the railroad men and railway police to be at their posts, never knowing whether they protected a train carrying Hitler or his entourage, or an empty facsimile. To aid safety and security, a locomotive carrying the respective regional chiefs of railway operations always preceded the Führersonderzug by ten minutes. The train itself included an armoured car with anti-aircraft batteries at the front and rear, although it is not known whether or not Hitler's pullman was armoured; it was blown up by German pioneers in May 1945.

When the trains had to stop en route [to maintain safe distances to other trains, for example] or when Hitler was recognized while looking out of his window, the public often gathered at stations down the line, after someone telephoned ahead. Such crowds, gathering spontaneously, were impossible to control without considerable advance warning; all stations would have had to be sealed off, or security cordons set up in them — an almost impossible undertaking over hundreds of kilometres. Photographs taken by the court photographers show Hitler reaching down from his open window to accept flowers in June 1940. A bomb could have been hurled inside, or Hitler might have had his arm twisted out of its socket by an enthusiastic well-wisher.

On the whole, and for long-distance travel, Hitler preferred flying to other modes of transportation. Air travel offered better chances of maintaining secrecy, for in those days very few people had to be informed when a plane was in the air, and there were no crowds, crossings, buildings, nor hundreds of kilometres of railway along which bombs might be planted. Nevertheless, the ordinary risks of air travel were not small. Many times Captain Baur, Hitler's pilot, was not sure he would manage to get the plane safely through fog, darkness, muddy airfields, loss of radio contact and orientation, engine failure, lack of fuel, or other malfunctions. Once a wheel nearly caught fire when the brake accidentally jammed, and only an unusually short runway prevented a fatal accident. During the war, the danger of enemy attack was added, and in fact Baur had a number of close calls though never when Hitler was on board. Hitler's seat contained a parachute that he could put on by slipping into straps in the back support of the seat, and in front of his seat in his Focke Wulf Condor 200 there was a steel trap door which could be dropped by pulling a red lever, so that Hitler could jump out.

Aircraft used by Hitler were guarded day and night by special SS and Gestapo details. Before every one of Hitler's flights, his plane was taken up to a certain altitude for a tenminute test flight to check all functions and to insure that no devices set to detonate en route had been planted. The prevailing thinking was that such devices would depend on pressure; still, the test flight was no safeguard against a time bomb like that of Tresckow and Schlabrendorff [3 March 1943].

Serious Attempts

During the war, most assassination plots with reasonable chances of success were prepared by people who had or could hope for legitimate access to Hitler's personal presence. Security at Hitler's residences and in announced or planned public appearances was so tight that clandestine entry was nearly impossible, except by accident, or under the perfect disguise of legitimate business. In 1942, a colonel got off the train a stop too soon and found himself inside "Wolfschanze," without being challenged at all; in 1943, a Polish woman wandered all the way from the east-end to the west-end of "Wolfschanze," and she was stopped only at the west gate. Checkpoints, passes and guards of course could not stop an assassin who was a legitimate "insider" unless and until he uncovered himself. The insider's advantages are obvious; he could stalk his victim inconspicuously. There was one attempt by an outsider, however, in the very first months of the war, that came within a hair's breadth of success.

While Stauffenberg offers the best example for an insider's opportunities, Georg Elser, the Swabian cabinet maker, illustrated the advantages and disadvantages encountered by the outsider. Elser was successful in defeating security, firstly, because it was lax. It was generally less perfect than it became after his attack, and it had always been particularly poor at the site he chose. The Bürgerbräukeller was not guarded and secured according to the comprehensive methods developed in the 1930s for other places of public appearances, such as the building where the Reichstag met, or the Berlin Sportpalast. Unlike these and other places, the Bürgerbräukeller was not guarded and searched in advance by agents assigned to Hitler's personal-security forces. It was not guarded at all until only hours before an expected appearance by Hitler, and even then it was not thoroughly searched. When the question had been raised in the 1930s, Hitler had declared he needed no special security precautions when he was in the midst of his old fellow fighters to commemorate the 1923 Putsch.

Local Party roughnecks, veterans of the early battles and of the Röhm massacre, particularly Christian Weber, were in charge of security in Munich, and their performance in security matters was most unprofessional. Rattenhuber did not have control of security at the Bürgerbräukeller until the minute Hitler arrived. Elser was thus able to spend as many as thirty-five nights in August, September and October 1939, hidden on the balcony inside the large beerhall, working away at a cavity in the pillar in front of which Hitler always stood for his speech. Night after night, he ate supper in the restaurant downstairs, wandered upstairs and disappeared until closing time. Then he worked, dozed off for an hour or two, and left by the backyard exit, carrying a small suitcase with the debris from inside the pillar. His appearance—he was short, grey, insignificant—helped him. A few days before the event, Elser installed his bomb and two clocks set to detonate about an hour into Hitler's speech which usually lasted over two hours. Elser got this far because security was almost nonexistent until hours before the event, and because he worked alone and a one-man conspiracy could hardly be infiltrated. Elser's isolation, a factor in his near-success, was also an important reason for his failure for he could not have known that Hitler wanted to be back in Berlin by the next morning, that the pilot could not guarantee a flight because the heavy fog common at this time of year could not be expected to lift much before noon, and that Hitler had therefore decided to take his special train. The train was scheduled to leave Munich at 21.31 and Hitler had to leave the Bürgerbräu about fifteen minutes earlier. He did leave the hall at 21.07, and Elser's bomb went off at 21.20, killing seven people on the spot.

After 8 November 1939, security was vastly increased and not only at the Bürgerbräukeller. There was a flurry of orders and recriminations, and finally, on 9 March 1940, SS-Gruppenführer Heydrich as Chef der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD im RSHA issued new, comprehensive guidelines. RSD and Gestapo efforts at preventive detection were coordinated (with much greater authority going to Rattenhuber). The Bürgerbräukeller and all similar sites were put under year-round watch, and for weeks before Hitler's expected appearances, they were closely guarded, and searched thoroughly and repeatedly. Hitler continued to appear in public by surprise, and on such occasions an assassin who was prepared and happened to be there could have had an excellent chance, but it was a matter of chance. As Hitler spent most of his days in his military field headquarters or at his Obersalzberg retreat, and since he never followed any set routine [such as Heydrich's daily travels to and from his office in Prague in 1942], an outsider had no chance of preparing an assassination attack methodically. On the other hand, there was no protection against an attack by one of the many high-ranking military officers whom Hitler saw almost every day of the war, unless the wider nets thrown out by the Gestapo and SD hauled him in, penetrating his conspiratorial circle before he was allowed into Hitler's presence.

Claus Graf Stauffenberg, a Colonel in July 1944 and Chief of Staff to Generaloberst Fromm, the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, was a leader of the military and civilian conspiracy against Hitler, and in his official capacity he had access to Hitler, seeing Hitler face to face for the first time in his life in June 1944. Stauffenberg carried a briefcase full of explosives into Hitler's presence on no less than three occasions: 11 July, 15 July, and 20 July 1944. On 6 July 1944 he also had the explosives with him, in Hitler's "Berghof ' Headquarters, near Berchtesgaden; at that time he was perhaps still hoping that Generalmajor Stieff, Head of the General Staff Organization Section in OKH and a co-conspirator with access, might carry out the attempt. [Much was to be said for someone other than Stauffenberg making the attack: Stauffenberg was an invalid, one-eyed and with only one hand with three fingers. Moreover, for a reasonably swift and smooth coup d'état, his presence in Berlin at the moment of attack would have been important, as later events showed]. On 11 July at the "Berghof," Stauffenberg did not set off his bomb because Göring and Himmler were not at the conference with Hitler and the senior conspirators had insisted that these two must be killed at the same time as Hitler. On 15 July, Stauffenberg again attended conferences with Hitler, this time at "Wolfschanze" where the Headquarters had been moved on 14 July, and again the absence of Göring and Himmler was the obstacle. [Much could be said on this point, but in this context, only the security aspect can be considered].

On 20 July, Stauffenberg carried his briefcase full of explosives into Hitler's immediate presence for the third time, entirely unsuspected. This time he had decided to ignite the charge regardless of whether Göring and Himmler were present. His material required that he have a few private moments with his aide just before going to Hitler's conference. Thus, he had to start the ten-minute chemical fuse as he managed, under a pretext, to be alone in a room with his aide just before the crucial conference. Stauffenberg had brought with him two packages, of two pounds each of plastic explosive. Both were fitted with chemical delay fuses, one for a ten minutes' delay, the other for a thirty minutes' delay. If one exploded, the same flash would cause the second package to explode, and it was assumed this was what Stauffenberg intended for no other use for the second package is conceivable. While he was pressing the acid capsule of the ten minutes' fuse in the one package, an orderly came into the room and said Stauffenberg was to hurry up, the conference had begun. In this moment, Stauffenberg must have thought himself discovered, as the orderly remained standing at the door, looking in. No one knows what went through Stauffenberg's mind; but he did leave behind half of the explosive, the second package, he had brought with him to Hitler's Headquarters, going off with only two pounds of explosive in his briefcase. He had no touble taking this to the conference room, and leaving it there, under the great map table, while withdrawing on a pretext.

The bomb exploded in due course, killing four and wounding Hitler lightly. The police experts of the commission investigating the circumstances of the attack believed everyone in the room would have been killed had four pounds been detonated instead of two. No planned security measures had prevented the success of the attack. In fact, security was so poor at this moment that Stauffenberg, against all odds, managed to pass through the two inner security cordons after the explosion, although in such a situation regulations required that everything be sealed tight. He too had the advantage of his appearance: he looked most impressive and inspired awe and respect, and so was able to bluff his way out.


Hitler played down the incident. He described the conspirators as amateurs and associated his survival with divine intervention. He did this to hide the rot that had spread in his armed forces and to further the myth of his invincibility. Allied forces however recognized this rot, and were happy that the Germans were killing each other.

Nothing saved the conspirators though

After the explosion von Stauffenberg raced back to Berlin and claimed to have assassinated the Führer. His immediate superior General Fromm had heard otherwise from two other sources including another survivor at the Wolf’s Lair – Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. Fromm refused to budge with further confirmation and tried to arrest the conspirators but was overpowered. Fighting broke out between the conspirators and Hitler loyalists in Fromm’s office, but outside the building Hitler’s forces had secured control. All this despite contradicting reports of Hitler’s fate and Nazi officials and strongholds being under siege.

Eventually the conspirators were suppressed. General Ludwig Beck committed suicide and von Stauffenberg was wounded. No sooner had General Fromm regained control than von Stauffenberg, von Häften and General Friedrich Olbricht were summarily tried and executed.

Over the following weeks Himmler's Gestapo, driven by a furious Hitler, rounded up nearly everyone who had the remotest connection with the plot. Under Himmler's new Sippenhaft (blood guilt) laws, all the relatives of the principal plotters were also arrested.

More than 7,000 people were arrested and, according to records of the Führer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 4,980 of these were executed. Not all of them were connected with the plot, since the Gestapo used the occasion to settle scores with many other people suspected of opposition sympathies.

Colonel Henning von Tresckow committed suicide as did General Erwin Rommel, who was accused of knowingly not exposing the plot. Executions were filmed for Hitler’s viewing pleasure and shown to cadets, few of whom could stomach what they saw.

The survivors of the assassination attempt were awarded an extremely rare Wound Badge of 20 July 1944.

Security was again increased considerably. Identity checks were intensified. Fewer persons were allowed into the Führerhauptquartier and those who came had to leave all weapons outside. Even a physician who came to treat Hitler for ear and throat complaints was forced to empty his satchel and pockets and to leave behind a number of medicine bottles and other items, and the bulb of his otoscope was screwed out and inspected. For a while SS guards complemented the Führer-Begleit-Bataillon in the inner compound. Some of these new measures were soon relaxed, however; after all, the Field marshals could hardly be subjected to a search of their persons, and members of the inner circle, such as Albert Speer, were never searched,and could well have brought along plastic explosives, a knife, or even a revolver. X-Ray detection devices were discussed but not installed. Visitors from the fronts, or from headquarters departments, only had to allow guards to examine their briefcases, and some visitors stopped carrying them to avoid this indignity. The security gaps continued, but searches revealed bizarre gaps in some cases. A captain in Ribbentrop's staff had taken literally regulations saying that top secret documents must be destroyed when in danger of falling into unauthorized hands, and so he always carried in his briefcase, along with his papers, a bottle of gasoline and a handgrenade. One can well imagine the alarm the discovery caused the guards who, after 20 July 1944, examined the captain's briefcase. He was informed that he must never again take this kind of precaution when coming to the Führerhauptquartier.


In the end, in the Reich Chancellery Bunker in Berlin, Hitler directed the final phase of the struggle from this centre of danger, refusing to remove himself to safety. In March 1945, he paid a last visit to the eastern front, now on the Oder river, and on 20 April he received a dozen or so young soldiers who were expected to defend Berlin to the last man. While they were dying in the streets of Berlin, Hitler took his own life down in the Bunker. A great deal of personal security can be offered to a head of government or head of state, but much depends on his own co-operation. Hitler himself believed that he owed his survival through the years to accident, luck and Providence more than to the efforts of those concerned with his security, yet he permitted and caused the constant increase of security precautions. Although he often said there was no real protection against a fanatic, and although he always understood how much he depended upon popular support, he outlined to Albert Speer the plans for a new Reich Chancellery, to be built as a fortress, as protection from "riots" if he was "forced to take unpopular measures". The new Chancellery was also to be flanked by SS barracks, but, on reflection, Hitler decided to have the Army Guard Battalion billetted even closer than the SS Guards. He appeared unsure whom to distrust more, the Army or the SS.

A liberal state in which human life is highest on the scale of values cannot provide the same degree of security measures for its leaders and prominent persons as a dictatorship and police state. But there are startling limits to the security that a police state can offer. In fact, Hitler rightly felt endangered, or conversely, protected only by Providence, which amounted to the same thing. Hitler's dilemma, his indecision whether to rely more on the SS or on the Army for his personal security, and the constant, but useless, intensifications of security point up the most profound gap and contradiction of all, the one of which Hitler was very conscious: he was a destroyer of men, and the number of his enemies and potential assassins could only grow and grow, the more he killed. The quest for greater security also reached limits beyond which security diminished, as when security was required as protection against potential dangers originating from the security forces themselves, and, as when the ruler became so isolated from his people that he lost—in the case of demagogues and tribunes like Hitler—the very basis of his power to rule.

Editorial Note This paper is a condensation of material presented by the author in two booklength works, and was originally presented as a paper for the Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War. For references and further explanation please consult the author's "The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945" [Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press; London: MacDonald and Jane's, 1977], esp. parts VI-VII; and, "Hitler's Personal Security" [Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press; London: Macmillan Press, 1978], originally published as Die Sicherheil des Diktators [Munich, Zurich: Piper & Co., 1975].

The contrast between George Bush's two-hour secret trip to occupied Baghdad in November 2003 and Adolf Hitler's visit to occupied Paris in June 1940 invites some interesting comparisons.

President Bush was in Baghdad for only two and a half hours [or two, depending on the report one reads]. His presence there wasn't announced until after he had left. He never took so much as a step outside the US-occupied airport which is also the main US airfield in occupied Iraq.

Hitler's visit to France was likely not widely publicized in advance among the French people either, but he does seem to have enjoyed something of a tour of the French capital.

The issue is not to contrast the personal courage of Hitler and Bush, which is a complex and minor issue, but to contrast the two occupations.

During and since World War II we who live in the Allied countries have been given to understand that the French populace loathed the Germans and of course Hitler worst of all of them.

Yet somehow that supposedly unspeakable and unique and incomparable "barbarity" and "brutality" of the Germans elicited among the French nothing of the sort of massive popular armed resistance and mass visceral outrage that the US forces and their president have aroused among Iraqis.

Hitler could visit occupied Paris and see the sights. Bush had to sneak in and out of US-occupied Baghdad and dared not stay more than two or three hours, or venture outside the armed airport -- not even guarded and accompanied by the most powerfully equipped army on earth.

If the German occupation of France has been portrayed as almost an archetype of oppression and evil, how must we regard, and how will future generations regard, the US occupation of Iraq.


The Foxley Report - an assessment of a plan to assassinate Hitler towards the end of World War Two - gives a fascinating picture of covert British operations in the later war years. The Intelligence historian Mark Seaman discusses whether the plan had any chance of success.

Total war

"One should always hunt an animal in its natural habitat; and the natural habitat of man is - in these days - a town. Chimney pots should be the cover, and the method, snapshots at two hundred yards. My plans are far advanced. I shall not get away alive, but I shall not miss; and that is all that matters to me any longer".

Geoffrey Household's popular thriller "Rogue Male", concerning an Englishman's attempt on Hitler's life, was published as early as 1939. As it turned out, World War Two witnessed only a limited number of such political assassinations, which is perhaps surprising considering the immense scale and barbarity of the conflict.

This was a war of nations, but also of personalities, and with states fighting for their very existence, one might have expected a greater incidence of leading political and military figures being targeted for elimination. The British Commando attack on General Rommel's headquarters in North Africa in November 1941, and the US fighter ambush of the aircraft carrying Admiral Yamamoto in April 1943, however, emerge as exceptions to the general rule.

Nevertheless the removal from the war of pivotal figures - such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler - frequently feature among the most popular 'What Ifs' of history. And during the war assassination plans were frequently prepared - notable among these was a German scheme to attack the Allied leaders when they attended a conference in Teheran in November 1943.

Killing Hitler?

The Allied leaders in general had little experience of being an assassin's target, but Hitler's long background of political violence resulted in his being the subject of some 30 assassination plots before 1939, and there were more than a dozen planned or attempted during the war. These ranged from the attempt of the quintessential lone gunman, Maurice Bavaud, in 1938, to complex conspiracies such as the July Plot of 1944, organised by German military leaders, which came within a hair's breadth of success.

Both before and during World War Two it was Hitler's fellow countrymen who strove hardest to eliminate him. His British, American and Soviet foes seem to have devoted little thought, and even less action, to planning the assassination of their nemesis. Since such a project had not secured support when Hitler was in the ascendant, and when Nazi Germany's fortunes seemed to be boundless, it might have been expected that as his political star waned and the Allies grew closer to winning the war, the Führer's fate would be decided by a war trial, or by his suicide.

This expectation seems to have been confounded, however, in June 1944, when a confused and inaccurate Allied intelligence report made the prospect of a pinpoint bombing raid on Hitler's lair in occupied France seem a possibility. The plan never got off the ground, but it raised the question of an assassination and as a result of this misbegotten (Hitler was never there) project, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was the secret British organisation that co-ordinated resistance and subversive warfare, was instructed to address two questions: do we want to kill Hitler, and do we have the means to do it?

The first of these questions was never adequately answered, with various conflicting opinions being voiced within SOE. These included a belief that as Hitler's present conduct of the war was so bad, there was the risk that his successor might actually improve Nazi fortunes. On the other hand there was also a discernible inclination amongst some SOE officers to be associated with a spectacular, war-winning coup de main operation.

The plan

While indecision, dissent, argument and prevarication prevailed as this question was discussed, a rather more pragmatic attitude was taken when considering the second. An unnamed (perhaps fortuitously) SOE staff officer of the German Section was asked to prepare an operational plan for an assassination of Hitler, and this plan was given the codename Foxley. The original document is amongst the files of SOE, now available in the Public Record Office at Kew.

The product of the officer's deliberations is an impressively bulky file. Copious detail is provided on Hitler's alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, extensive documentary and photographic evidence is provided concerning his limousines and trains, and there are even colour sketches of the uniforms worn by his bodyguard.

In addition to the background, the author outlines the recommended methods for an assassination attempt in Bavaria - these consisted of a shooting, by one or more snipers, a bazooka attack, and the poisoning of the water supply on the Führer's train. The author contemplates several even more speculative options, such as flinging a suitcase full of explosives under Hitler's train as it passed through a railway station.

The process of identifying and recruiting the would-be perpetrators of what would surely have been the most notorious assassination of modern times is rather glossed over. Various groups are mentioned; perhaps they might be anti-Nazi Germans, perhaps Czechoslovaks, perhaps French forced labour workers and perhaps even a party of SAS.

How the agents/soldiers were to arrive in Bavaria and, just as importantly [at least for the assassins], how they were to make their escape are not discussed. Undismayed by the vagueness of the Foxley plan, SOE went on ambitiously to ponder additional schemes - known as little Foxleys - plans to liquidate other leading members of the Nazi hierarchy.

Whatever the inadequacies of the main Foxley plan - there is no room in a brief article to enumerate them all - there is one flaw that clamours for attention amongst a plethora of redundant data about things like the intricacies of collar insignia, or the design of railway carriages (a decade out of date). The bottom line in any assassination plot is that you cannot kill someone if you do not know the whereabouts of your intended victim.


SOE was not an intelligence-gathering organisation, and therefore was reliant upon the Secret Intelligence Service [SIS] for information on Hitler's whereabouts. While SIS ran its own networks of human sources throughout Europe, it also controlled the dissemination of signal intelligence derived from intercepted German wireless traffic. A designated SIS officer was promised to the Foxley project to assist in its planning, but there is little evidence of SOE having received any worthwhile intelligence on Hitler's movements.

Thus there were many major gaps in the knowledge of SOE, and closer examination of much of the background information in the Foxley file reveals that it is merely out-of-date 'padding', that seeks to obscure fundamental shortcomings by giving an impression of comprehensive detail.

The beguiling question, however, has to be asked, could Foxley have worked? If one looks purely at the draft plan presented to SOE's hierarchy, the answer must be an emphatic 'no'. On the other hand, if one wishes to embark on an excursion into the world of counter-factual history and speculate about a re-worked Foxley, buttressed by better intelligence, then the answer perhaps becomes a tentative 'yes'.

If Whitehall had shown greater interest in the plan, and if Hitler's location and daily routine had been known, then the prospect of a pinpoint air raid [similar to the initial aborted proposal, in France, that had sparked the whole thing off] would have arisen again.

Chances of success?

Such an operation had been attempted before, without success, by the Soviet air force in November 1941 using intelligence supplied by the British. By 1944, however, the RAF had managed to achieve remarkable accuracy with their low-level pinpoint raids against targets in occupied Europe. Similarly, with pre-knowledge of Hitler's itinerary, arrangements might have been made to attack his train through the use of aircraft, sabotage the railway line, or even put poison in the water system of his train. Finally with good information about the victim's whereabouts, assassins might have been recruited, trained, infiltrated and put in place to await the right opportunity.

The attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944 had shown that even close access to the Führer's headquarters did not ensure success. So there was no hope of an outsider bluffing their way into Hitler's entourage to carry out the deed. On the other hand, if Hitler had decided to return to his Bavarian retreat (in fact he left it on 14 July 1944, never to return), a dedicated assassin or team of assassins might well have stood some chance of success.

After this flight of fantasy, one might do well to consider the course of events that resulted in the assassination of the leading Nazi official SS-Obergrüppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. In December 1941 Czechoslovak agents trained by SOE were parachuted into their own homeland on Operation Anthropoid. It was not until six months later, on 27 May 1942, that they were able to mount the attack - with the result that their quarry died of his wounds a week later.

One wonders how closely the Foxley author had studied SOE's Anthropoid files. If he had, the evidence of the Czechoslovak agents' patience, dedication, commitment, training, professionalism and, crucially, local support, might have revealed the immense contribution made by these attributes to the success of the operation. By learning these lessons Foxley might have developed into a sensible operational schema, rather than resembling the first draft of a thriller by Geoffrey Household.

Find out more

Hitler's Personal Security by Peter Hoffman [Macmillan, 1979]
Operation Foxley: The British Plan to Kill Hitler by Mark Seaman and Ian Kershaw [PRO, 1998]
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household [Penguin, 1984]

About the author

Mark Seaman is an intelligence historian and has written extensively on the Special Operations Executive. His "Bravest of the Brave" is a biography of the celebrated agent Wing Commander FFE Yeo-Thomas GC.

Killing Hitler
Duncan Anderson considers what might have happened if Operation Foxley - as the plan was named - had gone ahead, and had succeeded.

Operation Foxley

Adolf Hitler was the centre of the Nazi system. Around him revolved a loose confederation of fiefdoms, whose leaders engaged in a ceaseless struggle to protect and enhance their power. If Operation Foxley, the plan devised by the British Special Operations Executive [SOE] to assassinate Hitler, had succeeded, this system would have been thrown into chaos.

Count von Stauffenberg and various fellow conspirators, whose courage was equalled only by their ineptitude, were plotting a similar operation from the German side. There was, however, not the slightest possibility that they could have taken advantage of the chaos.

Rather more likely was the emergence of a coalition of the major fiefdoms, with Hermann Göring as Reichsverweser (literally state caretaker), co-existing uneasily with Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer, Karl Dönitz and a clutch of popular generals such as Erich von Manstein and Erwin Rommel.

The most plausible date for SOE's assassination of Hitler would have been around 13-14 July 1944. By this time the Russians had reached the old Polish-Soviet frontier. From what is now known about the frame of mind of many prominent generals in Germany around this time, we can guess that the new administration would have sent peace feelers to the western allies, who would have reiterated their demand for unconditional surrender.

For Himmler and the SS even a negotiated peace would have posed serious problems. He would have been worried about how he was going to explain the 'final solution' (the extermination of all Jewish people, and other 'Untermenschen', in Nazi-held territories) to the outside world, and might well have decided to close down the gas chambers, and tried to pass the death factories off as labour camps.

Germany still in control of Europe

At this stage, however, a reversal of policy would have been prudent rather than pressing. Germany still controlled Europe - with the exception of southern Italy and the Normandy beachhead - from the Atlantic to the Vistula, the Carpathians and the lower Danube. There were still cards to play, which, if handled skilfully, might yet have elicited from the Anglo-Americans something more palatable than a demand for unconditional surrender.

Moreover, the propaganda machine run by Göbbels would have both lionized the martyred Führer - the modern Siegfried - and hinted that with the Führer now in Valhalla the war might begin to go better. In the summer of 1944 most of the German people were assailed by doubts about the continuing pursuit of the war, but they were not yet prepared to give up.

How would the death of Hitler have affected the Reich's production of war material? Overall very little, except in one important area. In June, Speer and Göering had pleaded with the Führer to abandon the conversion of the Me262 jet fighter into a bomber, but to no effect. With Hitler gone, the Luftwaffe might have had twice as many Me262s available in the autumn of 1944, not enough to establish air parity with the Allies, but enough to have made the air war in the west less one-sided.

Eastern Front

Hitler's death would have had a much greater effect on the conduct of operations. On the Eastern Front, Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian and others had already proposed withdrawal from the Baltic states, which Hitler had refused, partly because the navy claimed it needed the coastal waters for training submarine crews. Dönitz would have continued his resistance to the proposal, but without Hitler's support he would have lost the argument and the generals would have had their way.

A new line on the Front would have emerged, running south along the heavily fortified border of East Prussia to the Vistula, and thence along the Carpathians to the lower Danube in Rumania. It would have been shorter than the actual line, and taken advantage of natural defensive features, making it more formidable.

The army already had a contingency plan, Margarethe II, for the occupation of Rumania if the country tried to defect, but Hitler had refused to countenance putting the plan into action, saying that he trusted the Rumanian leader Marshal Ion Antonescu. With Hitler gone, Margarethe II would have swung into action in August, allowing the Germans to block the 200-mile-wide corridor between the Carpathians and the Danube, and thereby halt the Soviet offensive into the Balkans.

Western Front

Operations in the west, too, would have been profoundly affected by the Führer's demise. On 28 June Hitler had rejected a plan, put forward by von Rundstedt and Rommel, which suggested a German withdrawal back to the line of the Seine. With Hitler gone, this plan could have been put into effect. There would have been no Mortain counter-attack and no Falaise pocket, with their attendant losses.

Instead a defence of the Seine would have been followed by a defence of the Somme, and then the Meuse and Moselle, and so on back to the Reischswald and eventually the Rhine. This early withdrawal from France - about three weeks sooner than the one that did occur - would have saved some 250,000 men and much equipment, some of which could have been redeployed to the Eastern Front, particularly in Rumania.

Hitler's demise, then, would have allowed Germany to adopt defensive strategies on both western and eastern fronts, fighting on shorter, more defensible lines. And with Rumania still under German control, the oil crisis of late 1944 would have been less severe. In addition, Germany would still have had access to the strategically important minerals of the Balkans and Anatolia, so that many of the log-jams that delayed jet aircraft production would not have occurred.

Moreover, without Hitler there would have been no Ardennes offensive, and consequently no squandering of precious resources. Instead the Germans would have imposed a series of attritional slogging matches on the Anglo-Americans, fought on ground of their own choosing. In the east the fierce resistance offered to the Soviets on the frontiers of East Prussia and the Carpathians would have been stronger yet, while the great tank battles that actually took place on the plains of Hungary at Debrecen, would have been fought to defend the oil fields of far-off Rumania.

The disparity in production and manpower between the Allies and Germany, however, was so great that the Eastern Front would have given at some point, whoever was in charge. On 12 January 1945 the Soviets launched a great offensive in central Poland, which carried them from the Vistula to the Oder -dangerously close to Berlin, in other words- in less than three weeks.

In our alternative world, it is difficult to see how the Vistula - Oder offensive, however vigorously resisted, could have been stopped. Soviet deception had persuaded Hitler to concentrate his forces in Hungary and East Prussia, but there is no reason to suppose that other German generals, even those unhindered by their Führer, would not also have fallen victim to false intelligence.

A radical solution to the Soviet advance

On 23 January, Soviet forces reached the Oder, only 60 miles east of Berlin. Shocked by the speed of the Soviet advance, the German naval high command actually discussed a radical solution - opening Germany's western front and allowing the Anglo-Americans unimpeded access through Belgium and the Rhineland into the heart of the Reich.

They hoped the Allies would thus be drawn in to join with Germany in keeping the Russians to the east of the Oder - but this idea was not discussed outside the Naval high command, as there was little trust between them and the other two services. In the absence of Hitler it is likely that such a scenario, in effect an Anglo-American relief in place of the German army, followed by German demobilisation, would have been widely, and in some quarters favourably, canvassed.

Would it have become policy? It is possible, given that the crisis produced by the Vitula-Oder offensive would have fractured the loose coalition running Germany. Göring and Himmler, now weak and discredited, would have gone to the wall, and a new government composed of Army and Waffen SS generals, could have announced that Germany's western borders were now open.

The Yalta conference, at which the Anglo-Americans and Soviets were to agree the post-war division of Europe, was only two weeks away. With their forces still west of the Meuse, and bogged down in the Appenines in Italy, the Anglo-Americans were expecting to go to Yalta as supplicants, with the Russians in a strong position.

But if the plan had been followed, suddenly Berlin would have been offering unconditional surrender. The dowry would have been significant - not just control over central Europe but over south-eastern Europe to boot. The price of acceptance for the Allies, however, would have been immense - an irrevocable breach with the Soviets. The British, perfidious as ever, would probably have accepted, but there would have been problems with the Americans, who thought they needed Soviet support for the war against Japan.

If the Germans had taken the initiative, and had begun pulling back from their western defences, it is difficult to see how Anglo-American forces could have avoided being sucked into the resulting vacuum, and pushing on to face the Russian advances, no matter what political decision had been made in London and Washington.

Soviet belligerence

By ending the war three months early, Germany would have escaped the last of the terror raids, particularly the destruction of Dresden. In addition, the bulk of German territory would have been surrendered to a disciplined, civilised enemy, so that the murder, rape and pillage of the Soviet advance would have been confined to areas east of the Oder. There would have been war crimes trials, but possibly not as extensive as those that actually took place.

The long-term political impact of the way the war ended would have been immense if Operation Foxley had succeeded. If it had, and Stalin had been excluded from the Balkans or from Berlin, he would not have accepted the situation. He would probably have launched offensives against the Allies as they advanced into Germany in their attempt to keep Russia out of central Europe. One can imagine Anglo-American and Soviet forces clashing in Carpathian passes, or shelling each other across the Oder.

'In this scenario, the Cold War would have started with a bang the moment the Anglo Americans reached the German side of the Eastern Front. In June 1945 Churchill, worried by increasing Soviet belligerence, actually did propose the re-mobilization of German forces as a way of opposing Stalin, a suggestion that was quickly buried by the chiefs of staff. In the post-Foxley world, he may have got his way.

The spring and early summer of 1945 would have been the period of maximum danger, as Russian and Allied troops faced each other. This confrontation would have eased only with the first successful test of the American atomic bomb on 16 July, which would have dictated a policy of prudence to Stalin.

This end to the war would have left a bad taste in many mouths. The political left in the west would have railed about the betrayal of the Soviet Union, and accorded to the Soviet system much greater legitimacy than it actually had. Conversely the right in Germany would have seen the 'Volk' stabbed yet again in the back, not once but twice (by the Allies and by the treachery of their own generals). They would have said that if Hitler had lived, if the borders had not been opened, Germany might yet have avoided the humiliation of an Anglo-American occupation. There would have been soul searching, but not as much as that produced by the reality of total, utter defeat.

The legacy of betrayal could only have served to make the post-war world more dangerous than it actually was. The Soviet Union, faced with a resurgent, psychologically undefeated Germany allied to Britain and America, may have withdrawn ever deeper into paranoia, perhaps not unreasonably. The crises of the early Cold War years would have happened not in Berlin or Budapest, but in Iran or the Norwegian-Finnish frontier.

These crises might have been containable, but it is unlikely that the world would have been as lucky as it actually was, in October 1962, when the Soviets deployed missiles to Cuba. All that was required to tip the balance in favour of war at that time was a slight increase in paranoia, a condition that is highly likely to have been rampant in the world - if Operation Foxley had succeeded.

Find out more

Plotting Hitler's Death: The German Resistance to Hitler 1933-1945 by Joachim Fest [Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996]
Hitler, Göring and the Obersalzberg by Bernhard Frank [Anton Plenk, 1989]
Hitler's Personal Security by Peter Hoffman (MacMillan, 1979)
Operation Foxley: The British Plan to Kill Hitler by Mark Seaman (MacMillan, 1979)
The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer by Dan Van der Vat [Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997]
Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis by Ian Kershaw [Allen Lane, 2000]
Inside Hitler's Command by Geoffrey Megargee [University Press of Kansas, 2002]
Hitler [Introductions to History] by David Welch [UCL Press, 1998]

About the author

Duncan Anderson joined the War Studies Department at Sandhurst as a senior lecturer in 1987, and has been Head of Department since 1997. He has written several books on World War Two, and worked for the British Army and other NATO forces in Germany, both lecturing and conducting staff tours.