Early this morning in 1941, a Swiss theology student had his head cut off at Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison for plotting to kill Adolph Hitler.
Maurice Bavaud, 25 at his execution, cuts one of the more quixotic (the link is French) of the many figures who schemed Hitler’s death — and also one of the more affecting, for at this early date he might have spared Europe most of the great war’s horror.
But Bavaud was also, fundamentally, a poor assassin.
Apparently motivated by pique at Germany’s repression of Catholicism — he’s most commonly cast as a lone gunmen, although there are also theories that he was affiliated with a wider network of students — Bavaud slipped into Germany in 1938 and spent the ensuing weeks knocking around Bavaria looking for a chance to do the thing.
That November, the chancellor turned up for the 15th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch* … to which Bavaud secured VIP seating. The aspiring assassin had only a low-caliber pistol, but as the Fuhrer passed his vicinity, a copse of saluting arms from the spectators around him obstructed any chance to shoot. November 9, 1938 instead became famous for other reasons.
One can appreciate at this juncture the young man’s discouragement and desire to leave Germany. One can understand that, penniless, he felt obliged to sneak aboard a passenger train. But one will strain very hard to imagine why even the most desperate straits should impel a man to do either of these things while still carrying the incriminating pistol and notes revealing his plans. When he was nabbed for skipping the fare, his situation quickly became catastrophic, with the help of Gestapo torturers. (One can see, in Bavaud’s own hand, a 1940 letter to his family informing them of his sentence here.)
Switzerland essentially exerted no diplomatic effort on behalf of their subject, and this fact informed the Swiss courts which, years after the war, posthumously reduced Bavaud’s sentence. Germany eventually paid reparations to the family of the man who tried to off their head of state.
Update: Maurice Bavaud has been officially rehabilitated by Switzerland.
* He wasn’t even the best failed Hitler assassin in the Bürgerbräukeller that day.