Somehow, magically, you are transported back in time. You see a man, a face you instantly recognise: the odd moustache, the greasy black hair. He may be the young First World War corporal, a political firebrand of the 1920s and 1930s, or perhaps the ageing dictator in his double-breasted brown jacket, a cap pulled over his eyes. You realise there's a gun in your hand. You lift it and point it at him. You squeeze the trigger . . .
The details differ, but the fantasy of murdering Adolf Hitler has passed through a million minds over the years: is there any other single act that could change the course of history so thoroughly? Any glory greater than that enjoyed by his would-be assassin? Thoughts, perhaps, to fill a schoolboy's daydreams, but, for a number of people during the Third Reich, the business of doing away with the greatest tyrant of modern times - perhaps of all times - was a very real and serious question. Various attempts were made from almost as soon as Hitler became chancellor in 1933, but the best-organised and most celebrated of them was the plot spearheaded by Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg and carried out on 20 July 1944.
That this, like the ones before it, ultimately failed is only too evident. But as Nigel Jones's page-turning account demonstrates, it came nail-bitingly close to ridding the world of Hitler and overthrowing the entire Nazi regime just as the Western Front was opening up in France. With just a little more resolve - and a little more luck - things could easily have gone the conspirators' way. By this point in the war, the Allies had agreed that they would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender from Germany, but even then, with Hitler gone, thousands (perhaps millions) of lives might have been saved. Instead, we have Hitler's undeserved suicide in the Berlin bunker the following year, and Stauffenberg and his colleagues as martyrs to an attempt to save their country's "soul". As one of the plotters, Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, commented after his subsequent capture: "We want to kindle the torch of life; a sea of flame surrounds us."
Jones is a consummate storyteller - a basic, yet often overlooked skill among historians - and he tells us about the build-up to the plot in an easy, flowing style. Brief accounts of Hitler's rise to power and the period leading to the outbreak of war are interspersed with an overview of the opposition to the Nazis and the previous assassination attempts on Hitler. All this acts as a backdrop to the meat of the book: the July 1944 plot, code-named "Valkyrie".
Like most of the conspirators, Stauffenberg was driven to act by a combination of pride in the Wehrmacht and a deep Christian faith. The unnecessary disaster of Stalingrad offended the former, and the brutal racial policies clearly unfolding in occupied territories shocked the latter. Stauffenberg was a latecomer to the plot, but once on board he became its driving spirit and, eventually, its executioner.
Two things stood in his way, however. The first was a curious lack of resolve on the part of many of his co-conspirators. This is a tale of wavering and fence-sitting, of equivocal support given by key generals with more of an eye on their own survival than on the business at hand. In hindsight, it seems that the Wehrmacht could have decapitated the Nazi regime and saved something of its much-prized "honour", but too few stood up to be counted at the right moment. Even those at the very heart of the plot appear to have been incapable of making the right decisions as the plan unfolded, failing to arrest top figures in Berlin such as Joseph Goeb bels, or to secure important positions.
The second factor that appears to have stood in Stauffenberg's way was "providence". It is perhaps unscientific to talk of such a thing in a serious study, yet this book might almost serve as a primer for a discussion of the role of "providence" in history. Hitler was astoundingly lucky to survive the attempts on his life. In the case of the July plot, the Führer was spared only by an unwitting general who kicked Stauffenberg's bomb further under the table in the conference room where they were holding a meeting, moments before it detonated. Had he not done so, the Führer would almost certainly have been killed by the blast. Certainly Hitler believed a guiding hand was protecting him.
"Having escaped death in this extraordinary way," he told Mussolini hours after the blast, "I am more than ever sure that the great cause I serve will survive its present perils and everything will be brought to a good end."
The prose style in Countdown to Valkyrie is perhaps a tad overcolourful on occasion, but Nigel Jones has written a gripping account of one of the most extraordinary events in the history of Nazi Germany. Those wishing to find out the truth behind Tom Cruise's Hollywood version of the story should look here.