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, eventually settling down in Konstanz on the Boden Lake (near the Swiss border) 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 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 spe4ech. 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 kiulled Hitler instantly if he had still been giving his speech.
Arthur Nebe, the head of the criminal investigations department of the Reich, immediately took 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 meet with 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 the Dutch Lt. Klop becoming the first 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