The third installment of the alternate history series where Hitler and Himmler were assassinated in March 1943. A desperate military situation forces Carl Goerdeler’s Emergency Reich Government (ERG) to make a bargain with the devil. Across the Channel, Winston Churchill plays for time as he pursues a separate peace with Goerdeler. Two old acquaintances make the first steps on a long march toward national atonement. And meanwhile, the ERG’s deadliest enemy lurks within its gates…
Mark Felton just posted a video about a fascinating episode in the last days of WW II
View the whole thing. But here is a quick summary:
At Yalta, the Elbe River had been the agreed-upon demarcation line between the Red Army and the Western allies. On April 25, 1945, the Red Army and the US Army had met at Torgau on the Elbe, effectively cutting what remained of the “Thousand-Year” Reich into two.
Winston Churchill, however, feared that if the Russians were allowed to reach the Elbe river in the North, they would be able to march into Schleswig-Holstein and thence into Denmark — adding that to their growing inventory of Soviet satellite states.
So a group of Canadian paratroopers was sent on a deep-penetration raid across the Elbe to capture and hold the Baltic port of Wismar, and block the Soviet advance there. The Canadians encountered negligible resistance — instead, they ran into thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers eager to surrender to the Western Allies. In order not to be slowed down in their advance, the Canadians disarmed the soldiers and sent them on an unaccompanied march toward the Elbe, while they continued.
Eventually they made their objective. Shortly after they had occupied the town (against no resistance other than sporadic sniper fire), advance scouts for a Red Army tank column showed up — they were headed for the Hanseatic city of Lübeck — confirming Churchills’s suspicions, as Lübeck was the Eastern gateway to Schleswig-Holstein and then Denmark.
An uneasy standoff ensued, but no open hostilities. Of course the Canadians had to be withdrawn just days later — but their maneuver had bought Montgomery and Churchill enough time to accept the surrender of the remaining German forces in Northern Germany and in Denmark.
This was not the most glamorous or heroic operation of WW II — but it achieved an important objective, and materially affected the power relationships between NATO and the USSR in years to come. And, of course, it spared the Danes from life as a Soviet satellite.
Two cheers for Winston, and for Canadian paratroopers! And thanks to Mark Felton for sharing this unknown but important tale with us.
“I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”
(Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki, upon being sentenced to death.)
In honor of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I would like to dedicate a post to the incredible story of a lionhearted Polish officer who voluntarily spent nearly three years there.
Witold Pilecki was not born in Poland, but in Karelia (then part of the Tsar’s Archduchy of Finland). His grandfather, Jozef Pilecki, had been stripped of his peerage and banned to Siberia for supporting the 1861 Polish uprising against the Tsar, then upon his return had been forcibly resettled in Karelia. Witold’s father Julian worked as a forester. Eventually, the Pileckis relocated to Wilna (presently Vilnius) where Witold joined a forbidden Polish scouts group. After the German invasion of 1915, the family relocated to Mogilev (presently in Belarus). Come 1918 and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, the Germans withdrew and Pilecki joined irregular troops fighting with the Whites, then made his way West to the newly created Polish Republic and joined its fledging army. He was twice decorated with the Cross of Valor for bravery in the Polish-Soviet War.
Subsequently, he had parallel military and civilian careers: he commanded a cavalry training school at Lida (as well as the 1st “Lidsky” Cavalry Squadron) while acquiring his ancestral manor house and becoming a respected gentleman farmer and agricultural community leader.
After Lt. Pilecki’s unit was nearly wiped out during the twin Nazi-Soviet invasions of 1939, Pilecki went underground and co-founded the Secret Polish Army. Pilecki grew uncomfortable with the ultranationalist and anti-Jewish rhetoric of his co-founder and went over to the rival Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ), better known under its later name Armia Krajowa (Home Army, AK).
The underground knew of a concentration camp at Oswiecim/Auschwitz (what we now know as the main camp, or Auschwitz I). At the time, it primarily held Polish political prisoners. But what happened on the inside was opaque to the AK. Incredibly, Pilecki offered to have himself locked up there to spy on the inside and organize resistance among the prisoners! His superior officers approved the plan: Lt. Pilecki took on the alias of Tomas Serafinski [presumably to protect his family] and deliberately had himself arrested during a roundup.
He then spent nearly three years in the main camp, where he organized the ZOW underground. They tried to raise inmate morale, provide mutual assistance, extra food, and medicine to members in need, to arrange lighter work details for weakened members, and to prepare for an uprising. They also smuggled out information to the AK outside, at first using inmates on outside work details, later using a radio transmitter constructed from parts laboriously purloined.
On the night of April 26 to 27, 1943. Pilecki and two comrades escaped. With the help of a parish priest, they reached an AK safe house. Pilecki was shot during his escape, but miraculously got off with a flesh wound. After reaching Warsaw and being attached to the staff of the AK’s military intelligence, he started preparing an elaborate “Report W” (English translation available here http://witoldsreport.blogspot.com/2008/05/volunteer-for-auschwitz-report-by.html ) Aside from a lot of detail on daily life in the camp, its privations, and the bestial treatment the prisoners received, it discussed the Holocaust in progress at the sister camp Auschwitz II (Birkenau). His estimate of the number of killed up to that point, 1.5 million, was fairly accurate.[*] ) In November 1943, Pilecki was promoted to Rotmistrz (Cavalry Captain, from the German Rittmeister).
During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Pilecki commanded the 1st Company as “Captain Roman”. He was eventually taken prisoner during the surrender of the AK in October. Fortunately, AK commander Gen. Bor-Komorowski[**] had been able to extract the concession from his opposite number, Waffen SS-General von dem Bach-Zelewski, that Polish Army POWs were to be treated as combatants under the Geneva Convention. Thus Cav. Capt. Pilecki was not sent to a concentration camp (or shot out of hand, as many were in the beginning of the uprising) but held at a POW camp for officers at Murnau.
Unbelievably, come the end of the war and liberation, Cav. Capt. Pilecki again volunteered for a mission: the Polish general Anders sent him into now-Soviet-occupied Poland to gather intelligence and organize an underground.
Pilecki frequently changed aliases and occupations, and smuggled out valuable information — on Soviet atrocities during their 1939-41 occupation, on Soviet (and Soviet lapdog) persecution of Home Army veterans, but also on the Kielce Pogrom.
Pilecki was tipped off that the so-called “Ministry of Public Security” was on his trail, but refused to leave. Arrested and tortured, he denounced nobody and revealed nothing, except that he shared information with his old army comrades and did not regard this as espionage. Following a show trial, he was found guilty of espionage for the “Western imperialists” and of (wholly fictitious) assassination plans, then sentenced to death.
His reaction to the sentence was reportedly: “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”
Capt. Pilecki is a national hero in Poland, but nearly unknown abroad.
I first learned of his story from the song “Inmate 4859” by Swedish power metal band Sabaton, whose singer and chief songwriter Joakim Broden specializes in straight-up true war and heroism stories.
(Power metal isn’t really my thing, but major kudos to the band for teaching history to a young generation that learns so little of it.) A one-man Broadway show has meanwhile been produced (trailer below)
Let me leave the last word to Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Shudrich:
“When G-d created humanity, G-d had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory. May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us all to do one more good deed, of any kind, each and every day of our lives.” Amen.
[*] An earlier version of the report had been smuggled out by Kazimierz Piechowski and his three companions during their successful June 20, 1942 escape. The four men had managed to sneak into an SS arms and uniforms cache via a coal store, then drove out in a car from the motor pool! They were never caught: a prisoner who had helped them in their escape was starved to death by the SS. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazimierz_Piechowski
[**] An Allied proclamation of August 30, 1944 that the 1st Polish Army were Allied combatants, and threatening reprisals for mistreatment, gave this order some teeth.
On French-language QUORA, somebody asked the troll question if it was really true that, after the initial invasion, more French had fought on the side of the Axis than of the Allies. Of course this doesn’t hold water: total number of combatants in the Free French forces reached about 1.3 million at the time of Liberation. In contrast, about 11,000 French voluntarily joined the Axis forces (mostly the Waffen-SS — near the end of the war, one French battalion that had been transfered from the wiped-out Charlemagne Division to bolster the 11th Waffen SS Division “Nordland” fought nearly to the last man in the final defense of Berlin’s government district).
About 125,000 or so Vichy French forces in North Africa switched sides from the Axis to the Allies a few days ninto Operation Torch, and there were smaller Vichy French forces (about 8,000 in Syria and Lebanon) who fought against the Allies. (The future Israeli general Moshe Dayan lost one eye to a Vichy French bullet during a 1941 British commando raid to secure bridges across the Litani river. He wore his iconic eyepatch ever since.)
In all, we are talking at most 275,000 French combatants on the Axis side. The missing 130,000 or so in this total were not volunteers at all: they called themselves the “Malgré-nous”, literally “despite ourselves”, idiomatically “against our will”.
You see: the Franco-German border regions of Alsace and Lorraine (capital city: Strasbourg/Strassburg) changed hands several times between France and Germany; most recently to Germany in 1871 after French defeat in the Franco-German War, and back again to France after WW I. Much of the local population did not think of itself as French or German first, but as Alsatian (Elsasser). The local vernacular, Elsasserdeutsch, is fairly close to Swiss German, with influences from both French and Yiddish.[*]
After the Nazi occupation, Alsace-Lorraine was de facto annexed to the Reich as part of the Reichsgau Westmark [“Western march”], which also included the Saarland and the Palatinate/Pfalz in Germany. The Nazis regarded the Alsatians as ethnically German, and hence imposed conscription on them, initially (May 1942) just for labor, from August 24, 1942 also for the Wehrmacht. Many went underground and tried to escape via the Vosges mountain range to Switzerland. Of the remaining 130,000, about 90% were sent to the Eastern Front — where about 32,000 fell in battle and another 10,500 went missing. Among the remaining 10% was a small group who had been cherry-picked out of the Wehrmacht draft by Waffen SS recruiters: this was a common practice by that stage of the war. Indeed, 14 Alsatians belonging to the 2nd Waffen SS-division “Das Reich” participated in the Oradour massacre in Normandy, 1 of them a volunteer (sentenced to death after the war), the other 13 “shanghaied” as described above.
The main long-term effect of the Nazi occupation was that the Alsace population now decisively embraced France and French culture — ironically, achieving in a few years what the French themselves had been unable to do in a century. As for the “Malgré-nous” themselves, initially they were often seen as collaborators — especially by Communists, who did not care for the frank descriptions of Soviet POW camps that newly released POWs gave. Eventually, however, their forced conscription was recognized as a war crime by both France and the German Federal Republic, which in the 1980s started paying a (rather symbolic) indemnity to the about 80,000 surviving “Malgré-nous”.
[*] A very sizable Jewish population used to live in Alsace-Lorraine: I will devote a future blog post to them. As a teaser, let me just point out that Dreyfus is a typical Alsatian-Jewish surname [originally an archaic name for Trier], and Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was originally from Mulhouse.
I obtained this book through the Kindle Unlimited program.
When the series was introduced, it immediately was placed into my “Guilty Pleasures” category. A book in that category gets read, IMMEDIATELY, regardless of what else I’ve had in the queue ahead of it, and also regardless of whether or not I’m being at all diligent in in reviewing the books I have actually read. I don’t like talking about the fact that I have a Guilty Pleasure category. In fact, I plan to deny having such a category in all future conversations. Here’s the take-away: I absolutely LOVE this series.
Just in case you missed my review of the first book, here’s the basic idea: one of the very many plots against Hitler actually succeeded.[…] the Allies are thrown into confusion that nearly matches that of the German leadership. Nobody is certain who they can trust, and how far.
This is not a criticism, not a criticism, not a criticism! The books end too soon. That is SIGNIFICANTLY ameliorated by the fact that these books are so historically sound in their basis, that if you are like me, and love going on rabbit trails when your curiosity is triggered, you can spend a LOT of time reading about the way history worked out in OUR timeline. Almost all of the characters are based on real people; they make for fascinating reading. If the author had just used hand puppets, and told the story with them, it would still be a really nice thought-exercise of ‘what-if.’ However, through the eyes of the few fictional characters, we get great insights to the way people think, and what would have been real reactions to these circumstances, because the author has done a wonderful job of making the words on the page into real, flesh-and-blood people.
I’m going to eat each of these installments as they come out, BUT the real feast will be when the series is finished (and I hope that isn’t going to be too soon), and I grab up every installment and binge-read. Maybe multiple times.
In the west of Norway, not far from Bergen, lies the fishermen’s village of Telavåg. The linear distance to the Shetland Islands is fairly short (about 185 nautical miles). Hence, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, fishing boats were used for what the British called “the Shetland Bus“: resistance men wanted by the Gestapo were smuggled out to the Shetland Islands, while SOE operatives traveled in the opposite direction. After some losses, three US Navy submarine chasers on loan to the British were disguised as fishing boats, manned by Norwegian seamen who’d made it to England.
Sadly, as I was told at the Telavåg Nordsjofartsmuseum, the men running the Telavåg “Bus station” were not big on operational security: all it took was for somebody to knock on their door saying they needed help getting to England. And thus, one day a Gestapo stool pigeon managed to penetrate the operation.
On April 26, 1942, the Gestapo came to carry out arrests, but a firefight broke out, in which two mid-level Gestapo officers were killed, Kriminalrat Gerhard Berns and Kriminalsekretär Henry Bertram.
The Nazi viceroy, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven[*], decreed retaliation. On April 30, the SS landed with boats, deported the entire population of the village, and razed it to the ground. Had this been Poland or Russia, the entire population would likely have been killed outright. But as Norwegians were considered Aryans and not so-called “Untermenschen”, the men (aged 18 to 60) were instead deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (north of Berlin), while the women and children were imprisoned at a school. A local doctor who knew how to “fake” positive tests for infectious diseases managed to prevent their further deportation.
The fate of the Norwegian inmates at KL Sachsenhausen is discussed here, in German, on the blog of Prof. Günter Morsch (former longtime director of the Sachsenhausen memorial site and author of a monograph on the camp). The SS inspector-general for Norway, Hans Loritz, had previously been the camp commander until deposed for corruption. He may have favored sending such Norwegian political prisoners there as were not incarcerated locally. (Additionally, about 900 Jews who were unable to hide or escape to neutral Sweden were sent to the extermination camps, including even the tiny Jewish community of Tromsø above the polar circle! [**] )
About half of the deported men died in the camp or shortly afterwards, mostly from privations suffered there. (Notices that their widows got from the camp administration, listing the usual camouflaged causes of death such as “pneumonia” or “heart failure”, are on display at the museum.) As explained by Morsch, at the end of 1942 the Norwegian inmates were given permission to receive food parcels (particularly from the Red Cross), which greatly reduced mortality among the Norwegians. In March 1945, finally, the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte brokered an agreemeent that permitted the repatriation of Danish and Norwegian prisoners via what came to be known as the “Bernadotte Buses”. Only a single, moribund Telavåg prisoner was left at the camp.
The returnees rebuilt Telavåg after the war. Their fellow Norwegian inmates had included a number of intellectuals (from the former Chancellor of Oslo University to the son of polar explorer and humanitarian Fridjof Nansen), and Morsch explains that Sachsenhausen survivors played a very prominent role in Norwegian postwar politics.
Sometimes one runs into a story that, if it appeared in a novel, would stretch credulity.
The following Jewish rescue story is not only true, but its protagonist, Wehrmacht Oberleutnant [1st Lt.] Albert Battel, was honored posthumously by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among The Nations” in 1981. The Israeli lawyer and historian Zeev Goshen wrote a long and detailed article about the case in the Munich-based historical journal Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte (freely: Contemporary History Quarterly). https://www.ifz-muenchen.de/heftarchiv/1985_3_5_goshen.pdf [in German].
Przemysl was and is a small city of about 60,000 people in South-East Poland, near the present-day border with Ukraine. Its already favorable location as a trading center — on the San river, a navigable tributary of the Vistula — was further further enhanced in 1861 by the opening of a railway station on the line between Krakow and Lemberg [a.k.a. Lwow/Lvov/Lviv, present-day Ukraine]. As Przemysl was near the border between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Tsarist Russia, major fortification works were built there, at one point manned by 140,000 troops. The 1914-5 Siege of Przemysl counts as the largest siege of WW I.
After WW I and the birth of the Second Polish Republic, Przemysl was now part of the Lwow voivodeship (province) of Poland, but continued to have regional importance. About one-third of its population was Jewish.
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland (and the coordinated Soviet invasion of what was then Eastern Poland), the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line ran along the San river, and the Nazis violently drove the Jews from the left bank into the Soviet-occupied right bank part of the city. Come June 1941 and the invasion of the USSR, this Eastern part became the Jewish ghetto, its population swelled by Jews from surrounding towns being deported there.[*]
A Wehrmacht depot was established in Przemysl – for, among other things, vehicle repair and maintenance. As of July 1942, the military commander was one Major Max Liedtke, a WW I veteran and erstwhile regional newspaper editor (Greifswalder Zeitung, 1929-37) who reportedly had been dismissed for his critical comments about the Nazi regime.
His adjutant was Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) Albert Battel, a 51-year old lawyer from Breslau, Silesia (present-day Wroclaw, Poland) who had been called up for reserve duty. Battel actually had joined the NSDAP in 1933 (which ensured his continued legal career) but got into trouble with the party hierarchy: he continued to have friendly relations with Jews and, on one occasion, extended a loan to a Jewish colleague who had fallen on hard times [presumably, due to effectively being banned from representing non-Jewish clients]. Battel also reportedly assisted his Jewish in-laws to emigrate to Switzerland. While posted at Przemysl, he got a party reprimand for shaking the hand of the head of the Jewish council, a former classmate named Dr. Duldig.
On July 26, 1942, the SS planned the “Resettlement to the East” of the city’s Jews, the true destination being the nearby extermination camp of Belzec.
But when the SS task force showed up at the bridge across the San into the Jewish ghetto, they found their way blocked by a Wehrmacht detachment. The sergeant-major commanding it stated he had been ordered by Lt. Battel to block access across the bridge, by live fire if necessary. This is one of a few rare examples where Wehrmacht and SS actually pointed guns at each other!
The SS turned tail, and lodged an official complaint with the Wehrmacht city commander. However, Liedtke clearly approved of his adjutant’s behavior and backed him. About 100 Jews from the ghetto were working at his depot, and he was satisfied with their labor.
It was, however, obvious that the SS would return with reinforcements. So before they could do so, Battel sent three trucks into the ghetto, and in several trips, the depot workers and their families were shuttled across and given shelter at the Wehrmacht depot.
The SS did return the next day and deported the city’s remaining Jews, but were forced to spare the Wehrmacht depot as “they had nothing lost there”. Altogether, Battel (with the connivance of Liedtke) saved about 500 Jews from certain death.
Significantly, Battel did not suffer more severe consequences for his actions than a dressing-down — although correspondence within the SS and Party about his case got to the very top of the food chain, with a letter from Himmler to Bormann. Battel was supposed to be punished upon demobilization following the “Final Victory”, which [thank G-d] never came. Eventually Battel was given a medical discharge in 1944 for the heart disease that eventually claimed his life in 1952.
But, while escaping punishment for his courageous act, he received no reward in his lifetime either. Indeed, a postwar denazification court classified him as “IV. Mitlaüfer” (Category 4: Fellow Traveler[**]), and consequently barred him from practicing law in postwar Germany.
Battel’s superior officer, Liedtke, had been (punitively?) sent to the front, was taken prisoner by the Red Army, and eventually died in 1955 at a Soviet POW camp.
Both Battel and Liedtke were posthumously honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Shoah memorial institution, Yad Vashem.
Until near the end of the war (post-Valkyrie, perhaps), the Wehrmacht still enjoyed a measure of protection from the SS thugs. Liedtke and Battel had plausibly argued operational exigencies: that the smooth functioning of their depot was logistically and strategically essential for the Wehrmacht’s Eastern Front, and that their “essential workers” could not be missed. No bribes were required, as they were in the case of Oskar Schindler. That Liedtke and Battel knew how to argue their case in writing (being an erstwhile journalist and lawyer, respectively) surely did not hurt.
But I would also like to think Battel, as a veteran lawyer, would have familiarized himself with the Wehrmacht’s own Military Penal Code (issued 1872 under Kaiser Wilhelm I, but apparently reprinted as late as 1944!)
Art. 47: I. If through the execution of a military order a penal offense is committed, then only the commanding superior officer is responsible. [So far, no surprise.] However, the obeying subordinate is liable to punishment as a participant if: 1. He has exceeded [the limits of] the order given 2. It was known to him that the purpose of the superior officer’s order was a military or civil crime or offense. [Original wording: “wenn ihm bekannt gewesen, daß der Befehl des Vorgesetzten eine Handlung betraf, welche ein bürgerliches oder militärisches Verbrechen oder Vergehen bezweckte.”]
Had Battel appeared before a court-martial, he would likely have invoked this clause, which would have brought considerable embarrassment.[***]
[*] The well-known if controversial Israeli political scientist Ze’ev Sternhell hails from the town. He was hidden and raised by a Polish Catholic family and even acted as an altar boy until reconnecting with his roots.
[***] I will devote a separate blog post to the defense of “Befehlsnotstand” — freely: obeisance of criminal orders under duress — in German law. Suffice to saw: examples of true Befehlsnotstand were vanishingly rare: commanders of shooting squads such as Reserve Battalion 101 (the subject of Christopher Browning’s landmark book “Ordinary Men”) relied on peer pressure and indoctrination rather than coercion.
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
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.
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
The recent spectacle/trainwreck concerning SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh could not help remind the WW II history buff in me of the tragicomic episode known as the Fritsch Affair or Fritsch Scandal. That story bears retelling as a cautionary tale on how a character assassination may be successful even if the accusations are proven false and the accused is exonerated. Below follows my short summary.
Sometime in 1936, Berlin police arrested and interrogated a habitual criminal and extortionist named Otto Schmidt. His particular racket at the time was to spy on men who picked up homosexual prostitutes and to blackmail them.
During interrogation (clearly aimed at arresting the “johns” in question for violating the notorious “Article 175” of the penal code) he named various of his “clients”. Some enjoyed “protection” from above and could not be touched. Then Schmidt dropped the name of one “General von Fritsch”.
“You mean: Generaloberst[*]Freiherr von Fritsch?!”
“Yes! Him! I saw him in the act with Bayern-Seppl!” [Freely: “Bavarian Joe”, street name of a well-known male prostitute.]
Holy shmoly! Colonel-General Baron von Fritsch?! The Commander in Chief of the Army?!? [**]
The report made its way up the chain all the way to Reichsführer-SS Himmler (y”sh), who was also the supreme head of all police forces in the Third Reich. Himmler’s agenda at the time included fostering his own parallel army (the Waffen-SS) at the expense of the regular army with its officer caste dominated by Prussian nobles — and therefore, pleased as punch, he immediately ran off to his master with the report. To his surprise and disappointment, however, Hitler (y”sh) immediately told Himmler to “burn this filth”. (Evidently, von Fritsch still could not be spared.)
But instead of destroying the report as ordered, Himmler tucked it away in his safe, figuring it might yet come in handy.
Then the fateful Hossbach conference happened. At this closed gathering of the Führer with then-foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath, Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg, and the heads of the three Wehrmacht branches (army commander von Fritsch, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring) Hitler for the first time unveiled concrete military objectives, specifically Austria and Czechoslovakia. (Minutes of the meeting were taken down by his military adjutant, Col. Hossbach, by whose name the conference is hence known.) To the great surprise and disappointment of the grandiose dictator, Blomberg and especially Fritsch pushed back hard against the invasion plans, while von Neurath was not enthusiastic either.
Blomberg was shortly later forced into retirement when it turned out his much younger second wife had a past as a prostitute and X-rated photo model. The post of Defense Minister was then supplanted by a new Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) with the toadyish Wilhelm Keitel at the helm. Foreign Minister Neurath ended up being replaced in a cabinet reshuffle by the repulsive Joachim von Ribbentrop. But how to get rid of von Fritsch?
Aha! The “burned” report suddenly reappeared. Since Fritsch had never married and had no known girlfriend (he was, basically, married to his job) it all made sense…
When confronted with the accusation, Fritsch at first was stunned. He did not help matters by muttering something about how he had lunched with some Hitler Youth to satisfy his Winter Aid quota, and maybe people got the wrong idea…
An official announcement followed that both Blomberg and Fritsch were retiring “for health reasons”. However, with the help of pressure from senior army officers, Reichskriegsgerichtsrat [roughly: Judge Advocate General] Karl Sack, a secret member of the anti-Nazi underground, won the concession that Fritsch would appear before a court-martial rather than before one of Freisler’s kangaroo courts.
Sack started his own investigation, and quickly discovered that “Bavarian Joe”s actual “client” was a retired Rittmeister [cavalry captain] named Achim von Frisch (without the extra “t”). The Rittmeister had even kept receipts for the hush money he had paid to his blackmailer.
Confronted with the evidence, Otto Schmidt broke down and confessed he had deliberately confounded the identity of his victim in order to make himself more important (and valuable to his jailers).
Schmidt was packed off to a concentration camp (where he was later shot on the direct orders of Himmler) and von Fritsch was “acquitted due to proven innocence” and exonerated.
But… he was not reinstated as Army CinC. Instead, that position fell to the more pliant Werner von Brauchitsch[***]. Von Fritsch was instead appointed Kommandant (honorary commander, ceremonial commander) of the 12th Artillery Regiment (his onetime unit).
On September 22, 1939, after the invasion of Poland, von Fritsch went to the front and deliberately exposed himself to Polish fire, thus seeking and finding a soldier’s death. Call it “suicide by enemy fire” if you wish.
Am I comparing the Deep/Derp State to the Third Reich? Of course not, and I am not suggesting parallels between Kavanaugh and von Fritsch either?
I just can’t help thinking of how a character assassination can be successful even when the accused is fully exonerated.
[*] In the Wehrmacht’s table of ranks, Generaloberst [literally: General-Colonel or Colonel-General] is a rank between General and Field Marshal. Freiherr [literally: free lord] is the equivalent of Baron in the German nobility.
[**] The Heer (army) was only one of three branches of the Wehrmacht (armed forces) — the other two branches being the Kriegsmarine (war navy) and the Luftwaffe (Air Force).
[***] von Brauchitsch would in turn be dismissed in late 1941 as a scapegoat for the first failures of the invasion of Russia, at which point Hitler put himself in direct command of the army.
Exactly 70 year ago to the day, the military forces of Nazi Germany invaded the neutral countries of Holland and Belgium (as well as Luxembourg). In these countries, May 10, 1940 is marked as the beginning of World War Two.
For the French and British, it also marked the transition to “hot” warfare from the phase of “drôle-de-guerre”/”Phoney War” that followed the declaration of hostilities on September 3, 1939.
Holland fell after just four days of resistance, while Belgium hung on for a total of 18 days. The supposedly impregnable French fixed border fortifications (the Maginot Line) did not extend along the French border with Belgium, and after reducing the Eben-Emael fortress in Belgium the Wehrmacht was easily able to flank the Maginot line and invade France.
Four (for Holland: five) long years of occupation awaited, until the Western Allies were able to effect liberation.