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Alternate Worlds: What If Operation Valkyrie Had Succeeded in Killing Hitler?

World War II historians weigh in.

By Josh Weiss
Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) dons a black eye patch in Valkyrie (2008).

Well, hello there, fellow traveler! You must be exhausted from jumping between all those realities. Take a load off, stay awhile, and help us inaugurate a brand-new SYFY WIRE column entitled "Alternate Worlds," in which we'll explore what history might have looked like if the Sacred Timeline zigged instead of zagged, and prompted an appearance from the Time Variance Authority.

With the 2008 World War II thriller Valkyrie now streaming on Peacock, the very first installment of this fledgling column will explore Operation Valkyrie — the failed 1944 plot by elements of the German Army (or Wehrmacht) to assassinate Adolf Hitler, dismantle the brutal Nazi regime, and negotiate a truce with the advancing Allied powers.

While dozens of attempts were made on Hitler's life throughout the years of his tyrannical reign, the man seemed to thwart death at every turn. In other words, one of the most evil men who ever lived was one lucky SOB. "The reasons that they failed are various, but foremost among them, perhaps, is bad luck — failed fuses, bad timing, and so on," Roger Moorehouse, renowned WWII historian and author of Killing Hitler, tells SYFY WIRE over email. "Hitler was extremely fortunate to repeatedly escape those that planned to do him harm."

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What Was Operation Valkyrie and Why Did It Fail?

The only assassination plot that ever came close to succeeding took place on July 20, 1944 (80 years ago this summer) when 36-year-old Wehrmacht officer Claus von Stauffenberg (portrayed in the movie by Tom Cruise) managed to detonate a bomb next to Hitler during a strategic meeting at the Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair) — a fortified military base located deep within the forests of East Prussia.

At this late stage of the war, Stauffenberg and his fellow resistance members were thoroughly disgusted by the Nazis, whose policies led to the systematic extermination of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews. "They were motivated in part by their revulsion at the Holocaust," Moorehouse explains. "Theirs was largely a moral revolt at Germany’s killing of European Jewry."

Once the explosive had gone off, Stauffenberg swiftly returned to Berlin and, with the help of fellow conspirators, initiated a modified version of Operation Valkyrie, an official contingency plan "originally designed to militarily combat potential civil unrest in Germany," explains the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. Under the updated conditions of the order, the plotters could sneakily seize control of the government and arrest high-ranking members of the Nazi Party by blaming the assassination on a coup staged by the SS. Their next step was to find some way to sue for peace with the Allies, who were swiftly reclaiming mainland Europe on two fronts in the wake of D-Day (Germany would unconditionally surrender less than a year later).

Visitors walk past a photograph of Claus von Stauffenberg.

"The wider strategic ambitions of the plotters — beyond the assassination and the seizure of power — were very poorly thought out," Moorehouse says. "In their defense, one might say that the task of killing Hitler and seizing power was perhaps ambitious enough. As far as they had any coherent plan, they imagined that a separate peace could be negotiated with the Western Allies, leaving German forces free to hold the line against the Soviets and eventually negotiate a truce there, too. The reality, however, was that the Allies were committed to not agreeing to any separate peace and to demanding an unconditional surrender, so those wider ambitions of the plotters would doubtless have been defenestrated."

The biggest roadblock to Operation Valkyrie's success was the fact that Hitler survived the detonation. Moments before it went off, the bomb (contained within a briefcase) was innocently moved behind a reinforced table leg, shielding its target from the worst of the blast. Once communications were re-established with Berlin, Hitler ordered an immediate reversal of the coup. Over 7,000 people were subsequently arrested in connection with the plot, with almost 5,000 of them — Stauffenberg included — executed for treason.

"I’d say that the plotters behind Operation Valkyrie were too timid. They hoped, essentially, to inherit power by assassination, rather than actually having to fight for it," Moorehouse says. "As Hans Gisevius said, 'Blood should have flowed.' In the event, the plotters had a brief window in which to try to take power in Berlin and they failed."

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini visit Hitler's ruined headquarters.

What If Operation Valkyrie Had Succeeded?

Okay, so let's say the plan had gone off without a hitch and Hitler was blown into a million smithereens. How would the rest of the conflict unfold with more level-headed Germans in charge?

"Counterfactuals are always difficult because the number of variables to consider in any given scenario are almost infinite," notes Moorehouse. "But, if we assume that the Valkyrie plotters were successful in seizing power in July 1944, and importantly, in securing peace with the Allies, the strategic end result would not have been significantly different except that the huge numbers that were killed in the final ten months of the war would largely have been spared."

In their 2000 alternate history novel Fox on the Rhine, co-authors Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson (the masterminds behind D&D's classic Bloodstone Pass module) imagine a reality where Operation Valkyrie succeeded in killing Hitler. "I think July 20 was always the point of departure, because ... I love the elegance of a very small change to trigger an entire alternate universe," Dobson tells SYFY WIRE. "One briefcase moves, and the world changes."

Despite their initial success in taking Hitler off the board, the Valkyrie conspirators in Fox on the Rhine are unable to stop a different takeover by Heinrich Himmler and the SS, who turn the tide of the war by reaching a new truce with Russia and building more jet aircraft. "It seemed to us extremely unlikely that the bomb plot conspirators would have been able to seize control of the government," Dobson continues. "While Martin Bormann was the official heir apparent, we thought Himmler, with his own army, was in the best position to take over."

The cover of Fox on the Rhine by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson.

The novel also sees Field Marshall Erwin Rommel — aka the "Desert Fox" — spared from the post-Valkyrie purge (in our reality he was implicated and allowed to "honorably" commit suicide) — and appointed as a key leader of Germany's forces in the European theatre.

Since Nazi Germany was nearing the end of its tether by July 1944, the writers needed "to come up with at least somewhat plausible historical changes that would even the odds somewhat," Niles explains. "The truce with Stalin was crucial, of course, and Himmler quickly evolved into our most important antagonist."

"Himmler needed to change the game as quickly as possible, hence his overtures to the Soviet Union — which is the most controversial thing in the book," echoes Dobson. "We’ve been repeatedly told that the Nazi-Soviet enmity was so complete, that there was no possibility of negotiations, but our research told us otherwise: Von Ribbentrop was already actively engaged in back channel negotiations with the Soviets on July 20. Of course, the two sides would have turned on each other before too long, but Himmler desperately needed freedom to pivot forces West, and Stalin was convinced that as soon as Germany fell, he’d be next."

"Hitler's famous determination to use the revolutionary (but short ranged!) Me 262 as a bomber drastically impacted the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe's air defense against Allied air power," Niles concludes. "With Hitler removed, and a strong advocate for the aircraft in Adolf Galland, we felt we could justify a much more robust German air defense."

Valkyrie is now streaming on Peacock.

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