[SUMMARY:] My guest post at Sarah Hoyt’s blog on how living languages evolve and words undergo shifts in meaning — especially when imported from other languages. This is even more rampant in English than in other major European languages, owing to English language standards being descriptive [linguistic “field workers” describing how people actually speak and write] rather than prescriptive [a language academy laying down rules for how people should be speaking and writing it].
Of the many assassination plots against Adolf Hitler [y”sh], four came quite close to succeeding, three of which I have previously blogged about:
- the July 20, 1944 plot (a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie)
- Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing on March 21, 1943, which I have blogged about here and fictionalized here. This one would have been a decapitation strike on the regime top, rather than a one-target assassination
- Henning von Tresckow and Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s attempted bombing of the Führer’s plane on March 13, 1943
- Georg Elser‘s time bomb at the Bürgerbraukeller, November 8, 1939 — about which today’s blog post
Johann Georg Elser was born Johann Georg Müller on January 4, 1903, the out-of-wedlock son of a cartwright’s daughter. One year later, his mother married a timber merchant and landowner named Ludwig Elser, who adopted the boy. The stepfather was apparently an alcoholic and violent while drunk, which may have motivated the stepson’s becoming a teetotaler.
Georg (he went by his middle name) apprenticed as a lathe worker but, for health reasons, switched to carpentry, and eventually graduated best in his class in trade school. He then worked as a master joiner and cabinet maker, after a while settling down in Konstanz on the Boden Lake (near the Swiss border) where he worked for a manufacturer of “grandfather’s clocks”.
He joined the “Red Front Fighters League” (an organization affiliated with the German Communist Party) in 1928, but dropped out after one year. What I have read of his biography suggests a highly introverted man who mostly kept to himself, except for joining a local music club where he played the zither (apparently with some proficiency).
His employer went bankrupt in the Great Depression, as did its successor company. Eventually, Elser found himself reduced to working for room and board as a repairman at a hostel for the indigent in Meersburg. He earned himself a reputation as a painstaking, very precise worker who kept to himself. (Nevertheless, he did father a child out of wedlock with a waitress: the child was adopted by her later husband.)
He apparently was opposed to the National Socialist regime from the start: contemporaries recall he would switch off the radio if a Hitler speech came on, or would leave the room. His employment fortunes improved, but from 1937 on, it was obvious to him why: Germany’s industry was gearing up for war.
After the Munich agreement in which Chamberlain shamefully sold the Czechs out to Hitler, Elser apparently concluded Hitler needed killing. Every November 9th, AH gave a memorial speech at the Bürgerbraukeller, th Munich beer hall where his abortive 1923 putsch had taken place.
Elser attended the speech and, doing so, discovered the beer hall was unguarded both before and after. He also noticed that the speaker’s dais stood in front of a thick pillar. A plan started forming in his head.
From this point on, he was a man with a mission. He was also the worst nightmare of any protective detail: a “lone wolf” who involves nobody in his plans and therefore is impervious to infiltrants and informants.
Elser quit his job and managed to get work at a quarry, from which he managed to purloin a large quantity of dynamite. (From a previous employer, which had a sideline in the production of ammunition and detonators, he had earlier squirreled away a rather smaller quantity of gunpowder.)
According to the movie Elser, er haette den Welt verandert [Elser, he would have changed the world] he broke up with his then-partner (who may have born two of his children) in order to protect them in case he got caught. (The woman herself does not recall it that way.)
Elser built a very precise timer — accurate to one minute over a period of five days — then a second, redundant one in case the first failed. (To anyone who happened to see the work in progress, he’d say he was working on a new clock design.)
Then over a period of a month and a half, he followed this basic routine. He’d go eat dinner at the Bürgerbraukeller, hide in the restroom at closing time, and let himself be locked in. Then, after he was alone, he got to work: at first, he installed an invisible door in the wood paneling of the pillar. Then, behind the door, he started hollowing out — slowly and laboriously, without power tools and careful not to make any noise — a space large enough to hold the explosives (about 120 kilograms!) and redundant time fuses. Come morning, he’d retreat into the restroom, then leave the cafe after it opened. (Presumably, the rate-determining step was the amount of debris he could smuggle out unseen in one trip.) The now movable wood panel was covered on the inside with felt to suppress the ticking sounds of the timer.
Then came the big day. On November 9, 1939, at 21:00, the Führer was scheduled to speak. Elser set his delay fuses for November 9 at 21:20 (allowing for the “main act” to appear a bit late), made a trip back at night and checked with his ear against the pillar that his mechanism was working, and — satisfied — set out for the Swiss border.
What inadvertently saved Hitler was the weather forecast. He wanted to be back in Berlin on the next day, so was planning to fly back after the speech. However, his personal pilot told him it would not be safe to fly in the heavy fog that had been forecast for later that night — so as Plan B, he decided to take a special train instead and move his schedule. Instead of the “warmup speeches” by lesser party brass at 8PM, the “main act” took the stage immediately at that hour. Furthermore, he cut his speech short from the usual two hours-plus to about one hour, and by 9:07 PM was on his way to the train.
Thirteen minutes later, exactly as scheduled, the bomb went off. Of the about 120 stragglers who were still in the cavernous beer hall, eight got killed (seven party drones and one waitress) and 63 wounded, of which 16 severely. The consensus of historians is that the bomb would have killed Hitler instantly if he had still been on the dais.
Arthur Nebe, the head of the criminal investigations department of the Reich, immediately took personal charge of the investigation. Nebe’s role in the Third Reich is highly ambiguous: on the one hand, he was involved in crimes against humanity, on the other hand, he was in touch with anti-Hitler conspirators in the Army and the Abwehr (intelligence service) from near the beginning of the Third Reich. He suspected the bombing was a failed attempt by the Army, and (thus his friend Hans-Bernd Gisevius recalls in his not always reliable resistance memoir To The Bitter End) was originally planning to arrest and shoot some Bavarian Legitimisten (separatist monarchists seeking to restore the Wittelsbach dynasty at the head of a fully independent Bavaria) as a cover-up. Then news reached him that somebody had been arrested while trying to cross the border into Switzerland: Elser had been carrying bits of detonator, his old Red Front badge, and other paraphernalia, with the help of which he had hoped to apply for political asylum in Switzerland.
Elser was tortured, not to extract a confession — he admitted from the beginning he had placed the bomb — but to extract the names of his foreign handlers. The Gestapo and SD, in particular, could not believe Elser had acted alone.
In a bizarre sideshow, the SD’s domestic intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg had been posing as a dissident army officer “Captain Schämmel”, thus stringing along two MI6 operatives (S. Payne Best and Richard H. Stevens) stationed in Holland. On the very next day, he lured them to a rendezvous at café Backus in Venlo, just steps from the Dutch-German border — they would finally get to meet a senior anti-Nazi general. Instead, the two men were kidnapped by a team of SD operatives led by Alfred Naujocks (of earlier Gleiwitz Incident infamy), with Lt. Klop becoming the first Dutch fatality of World War Two. Best and Stevens spent the rest of the war in concentration camps (Sachsenhausen at first, Dachau), but under what by KZ standards were “VIP conditions”, as they were regarded as “valuable prisoners” who must be kept alive for a future show trial or prisoner exchange.
Elser himself finally offered to build a replica of the bomb, so they could see he could do it just fine by himself. This duly happened. He spent the rest of the war in Dachau, likewise under privileged conditions (presumably ahead of a big show trial proving British complicity in a plot against the Führer — this never happened). He had two cells to himself, one of which was a carpentry workshop where he produced items for the camp guards and privileged prisoners.
On April 9, 1945, with the Americans approaching Dachau, he was taken to the camp crematorium and shot on the direct orders of Himmler.
Best and Stevens, meanwhile, were part of the same “VIP prisoner transport” that was sent to Tyrol. Their SS guards were under orders to shoot them if capture by the Allies seemed imminent, but a cashiered Wehrmacht colonel among the prisoners managed to contact a regular army unit led by Wichard von Alvensleben, who rescued the group and conveyed them to the approaching Americans.
What if? What would have happened if Elser had succeeded? My fiction writer’s WAG is this:
• Göring was the designated successor at the time. He was a nasty piece of work but appears to have had no particular enthusiasm for an offensive war against the Western powers — especially not as long as they could be bullied into diplomatic concessions. Additionally, he was too severely addled by morphine addiction to have been an effective war leader by this stage. It cannot be ruled out that a “Little Third Reich” would have existed for decades on German, Austrian, Polish, and Czech territory — but that the Reich would have been “contained” there.
What happened to the beer garden? After the war, what was left of it served as an American officers club, then eventually the whole complex was redeveloped. The site now contains the Gasteig symphony hall and convention cente as well as the head offices of GEMA (the German equivalent of ASCAP or BMI). The exact spot of the explosion is marked by this memorial plaque:
At this site in the former Bürgerbraukellertried the joiner Johann Georg Elser, on November 8, 1939, to carry out an attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler, and therewith to put an end to the National Socialist terror regime. The plan failed. Elser was, after 5 ½ years of imprisonment, murdered on April 9, 1945 at Dachau Concentration Camp
UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!
I used to think that “black propaganda” was something like “propaganda pushing a black legend” or “libelous propaganda”. But like so often, there is a difference between (often vaguely defined) usage of a phrase in ordinary conversation, and its precise definition as a “term of art”.
This paper on propaganda during WW II was highly informative. Briefly, in the “business”, “white propaganda” is defined as propaganda “under true flag”: it reveals its origin and does not purport to come from a neutral or opposing side. Examples on the Axis side are the Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally radio broadcasts, as well as the “Germany Calling” broadcasts of the pseudonymous Lord Haw-Haw.
In contrast, “Black Propaganda” is defined as propaganda under false flag: originating from the opponent’s side but disguising itself as friendly, for the purpose of sowing misinformation, confusion, demoralization, or all of the above. The term “Grey Propaganda” is used for cases where allegiance of the propagandist is deliberately made vague or ambiguous.
The uncontested masters of the art of black propaganda/”false flag” propaganda in WW II were Sefton Delmer and his PWE (Political Warfare Executive). Delmer was born and mostly raised in Berlin: his Australian father had been a professor of English literature there until he and his parents were interned as enemy aliens during WW I, then released to England in a prisoner exchange. After getting a degree in modern languages at Oxford and working as a freelance journalist, he was recruited as the Berlin bureau chief for the Daily Express (1990-1933). There, he befriended top nazis (particularly SA leader Ernst Röhm) and in fact became the first British journalist to be allowed to interview Hitler (y”sh). He was also present at the scene of the Reichstag Fire (and kept arguing all his life that it was a Nazi “false flag attack”): shortly after, he was reposted to Paris, and later reported on the Spanish civil war as well as on the invasions of Poland and France. In the nick of time, he and his wife made it to England, where he briefly worked as an announcer for the BBC German-language service.
Delmer spoke flawless German, both formal and colloquial, and was intimately familiar with German mores. These qualities came to serve him well when he was recruited by the PWE to run psychological warfare broadcasts.
After a few false starts, GS-1 or (in the German radio alphabet of the day) Gustav Siegfried Eins emerged. In modern net-speak, it was what we would nowadays call a massive “concern trolling” operation. GS-1 was a shortwave station on which “Der Chef” supposedly reached out to his network of “patriotic opposition”. Supposedly, Der Chef was an old-school senior army officer who was loyal to Germany and even to the Führer, but disgusted with the corruption and perversion of party and SS officials, which he collectively referred to as the Parteikommune. From his perch, he told tales of nest-feathering, pocket-lining, living high on the hog while troops and regular citizens suffered, as well as of sexual licentiousness, orgies. and “Violations of Paragraph 175” (i.e., homosexuality). (While a fair amount of this was written by amateur and professional pornographers, not all of this was fictional: Sefton Delmer was privy to many a dirty secret the Nazis wished he wasn’t.)
Eventually, when GS-1 had outlived its usefulness, “Der Chef”s lair was supposedly overrun, live on the air, by the Gestapo, with the broadcasts ending in bursts of sub-machinegun fire.[**]
GS-1 made way for Delmer’s greatest achievement: the creation and operation of two subtle “false flag” radio stations working in tandem: the high-powered Soldatensender Calais on the AM band, and its shortwave companion station Deutscher Kurzwellensender Atlantik (targeted primarily at German naval personnel, which by that stage primarily meant U-boot crews.)
Soldatensender Calais purported to be a German military entertainment broadcaster operating from Calais in occupied Northern France: in fact, it was being broadcast from a 500 kW (!!) station Aspidistra [*] in Southern England. Its programming consisted of what Sefton Delmer would later describe as “cover, cover, cover, dirt, dirt, cover”: a mixture of music popular with the German troops, sports coverage, and — for additional cover — speeches by Hitler and other top Nazi officials, the better to make the listeners receptive to disinformation and demoralizing propaganda items. For example, a broadcaster posting as a soldier would give tips on how to be declared unfit for onerous duty, how to avoid being transferred to the Eastern Front, etc., while others would detail scams Wehrmacht men might fall prey to, or arouse the age-old anxiety of the deployed soldier about his wife’s fidelity, his family’s welfare, or both.
The station made its last broadcast on April 30, 1945, the day Hitler committed suicide.
After the war, Delmer served as chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Daily Express for fifteen years, until forced into retirement over an expenses dispute. He would go on to write several volumes of memoirs, an archive of which can be found here.
I cannot resist mentioning that when Labour MP (and British ambassador to Moscow) Stafford Cripps found out about Delmer’s operations, he was so scandalized that he wrote to Anthony Eden (Foreign Secretary and de facto Churchill’s deputy) that “If this is the sort of thing that is needed to win the war, why, I’d rather lose it.” This is of course precisely the sort of thing that inspired Churchill’s famous quip about the ascetic Cripps: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”
[*] This has originally been built for WJZ radio in Newark, NJ — yes, Steely Dan fans, the station namechecked in “The Nightfly” — until an FCC regulation limited individual stations’ broadcasting power to 50kw. RCA was only too happy to resell it to the British government.
[**] Unfortunately, the broadcast technician, who did not understand German, ran the segment twice.
Anybody who has been reading war fiction or military history — or, to a lesser extent, crime fiction — likely has seen expressions like:
“A few of the mutineers were shot pour encourager les autres.”
“As executing all those who had refused the order to attack would have been impossible, a few of the ringleaders were made an example of, to encourage the others.”
The meaning of the expression is obvious from context. But the other day I stumbled onto its exact origins.
To cut a long story short: during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), an admiral named John Byng was ordered to relieve the besieged British garrison on the island of Minorca. He sailed in a hastily assembled fleet of ramshackle vessels, then after an inconclusive sea battle with the French returned to Gibraltar — probably figuring that, if he pressed on, he’d sacrifice his men for no tangible result.
Byng’s execution was satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others” (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).
As a postscript, this blatant error juris (miscarriage of justice) eventually, 22 years later, prompted a revision of Article 12 to allow for alternative punishments such as the court-martial deems appropriate in view of the details and circumstances.
But Voltaire’s idiom is with us to this day, even as its origins have gotten somewhat lost in the mists of time.