(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1945, in the dying days of the Third Reich, 42-year-old Johann Georg Elser was executed by gunshot in the German concentration camp Dachau. He died for a failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life more than five years before.
It goes without saying that, had he been successful, he would have changed history immeasurably.
Elser, who went by his middle name, didn’t fit the profile of someone who would try to kill Hitler.
He wasn’t a Jew, a Communist or a member of any of the other minority groups the Nazis persecuted. He wasn’t political at all, in fact.
A carpenter by trade, with one illegitimate son, his hobbies included playing the zither and the double bass.
He was the kind of ordinary, working-class German the National Socialists tried to reach out to. But from the very start, he made it clear how much he despised them and all that they stood for.
British historian Roger Moorhouse, in his book Killing Hitler: The Plots, the Assassins, and the Dictator Who Cheated Death, summed it up very nicely when he said Elser harbored a “deep and personal hatred for Hitler.”
He was a practical man at heart and was not interested in political discussions. He had no desire to change other people’s minds, but he steadfastly refused to make any accommodation to the new regime. When Hitler’s speeches were broadcast, he would silently leave the room… In May 1938, a Nazi parade threaded its way through his hometown of Königsbronn. Elser, like many others, turned out to watch, but as those around him gave the Hitler salute, he refused to do likewise. When a colleague reminded him that it might be sensible to conform, he replied curtly, “You can kiss my ass.” He then ostentatiously turned about and started whistling to himself.
How Elser’s silent, passive resistance turned into action is unclear, but by the autumn of 1938 he had made up his mind to kill the Führer.
Unsure how to accomplish this, he traveled to Munich to get some ideas. Every year on “Die Neunte Elfte”, the November 8-9 anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler came to the Bürgerbräukeller and gave a speech to the old guard.
That day in 1938, actually just hours before another would-be assassin tried to kill Hitler, Elser slipped into the beer hall pretending to be an ordinary customer and “noted the layout of the room, the position of the lectern and the patent lack of effective security measures.”
He had found his place and his time: he decided that the following year, he would plant a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller, timed to go off right in the middle of Hitler’s big anniversary speech and kill him and as many Nazis as possble.
Elser’s meticulous planning and preparations over the next twelve months were nothing short of amazing. He stole a fuse and some gunpowder, and got a job at a quarry specifically so he could acquire some explosives. Knowing nothing about bombs, he made countless prototypes and tested them in empty fields in the countryside.
In the spring of 1939, he went back to Munich and the Bürgerbräukeller to make some detailed sketches of the building and find an appropriate place to hide the bomb. He chose a thick stone pillar behind the lectern, which supported a balcony. In August, he brought his tools and bomb-making materals to Munich to set about with his final phase of the plan.
The fastidious assassin’s modus operandi was shockingly simple, and shockingly bold.
He would visit the Bürgerbräukeller every night at around 9:00 to take his evening meal. An hour or so later, he would sneak up to the gallery of the function room, where he would hide in a storeroom until the bar closed and the building was locked.
Thereafter, he was free to work by flashlight until the bar staff returned at around 7:30 a.m., when he could sneak out of a back entrance.
His first priority was to chip out a cavity in the stone pillar to hold the bomb. But, finding the pillar was now dressed with wooden cladding, Elser was forced to spend three nights sawing a hole in the wooden surround.
Every sound had to be muffled, every speck of sawdust collected and disposed of: he could afford to leave no evidence of his presence. Even the sawn wooden panel was fashioned into a flush-fitting secret door.
Good thing he was a carpenter.
Having accessed the pillar, he could now begin to dig out a recess for the bomb. Using a hand drill and a hammer and chisel, he spent most of the following month loosening mortar and prising out bricks — all of which, of course, had to be meticulously tied and removed from the scene in a cloth sack.
Progress was painfully slow.
In the cavernous hall, every hammer blow he struck echoed like a gunshot, and to escape detection he had to time his blows to coincide with external sounds, such as the passing of a tram or the automatic flush of toilets. Working by night preparing the pillar in the Bürgerbräukeller, he labored by day putting the finishing touches to his bomb and, of course, the elaborate timing mechanism.
It all took two months.
On November 2, six days before the Big Day, Elser finally concealed his bomb, which had been put in a wooden box lined with cork to muffle the ticking sound of the timing mechanism, in its hidey-hole. Hitler’s speech was scheduled to start at 9:00 p.m. on November 8 and would last for an hour. The bomb was set to go off at 9:20.
It did so, right on time, with a spectacular explosion that smashed the stone pillar, brought down the overhead balcony and ceiling, shattered windows, blasted out doors, killed eight people and injured 67 more.
The only problem was, Hitler wasn’t among the dead or wounded. In fact, he wasn’t even there.
He had pressing business in Berlin and wanted to get back that same night, so he had rescheduled his speech for 8:00 p.m. instead of nine. He finished and left the building at 9:07, thirteen minutes before the big reception Elser had prepared for him. By the time the bomb went off, Hitler was already on the train back to Berlin.
That Elser failed was through no fault of his own: it was just sheer, terrible, rotten luck.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Perhaps he is right in most cases, but it’s hard to believe that statement is true when it comes to Hitler. In this case, thirteen minutes substantially altered the history of Europe for the rest of the century.
Getting back to Elser: ever the careful planner, he knew what to do to protect himself once the bomb went off. He was miles away from Munich at the time, trying to sneak over the border into Switzerland. Unfortunately, he was caught by German border guards.
At first they thought it was a routine arrest, but then they saw the contents of his pockets, which included a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller and sketches of his bomb design. The guards didn’t yet know about the assassination attempt, of course, but what they saw made them suspicious and they turned him over to the Gestapo.
On November 13, Elser confessed everything. When a flabbergasted Hitler read the preliminary investigative report which supported Elser’s lone-bomber story, he demanded, “What idiot conducted this investigation?”
He couldn’t wrap his mind around it, and neither could anyone else.
In the wake of the assassination, mass arrests were made: anyone who seemed unusually interested in the Munich speech, or didn’t express sufficient enthusiasm for the Nazi Party, could fall under suspicion of being part of the plot.
At Munich’s Feldherrnhalle on Nov. 11, Hitler conducts a memorial ceremony for the victims of Elser’s assassination bid.
As Moorhouse explains,
To many Nazis, Elser was simply an enigma. He was an ordinary German. He exhibited none of the typical signs of “degeneracy” that they claimed to be combating: apart from his brief flirtation with Communism, he was a virtual teetotaler, not promiscuous, did not consort with Jews, and was not close to the Church. In fact, he was exactly the sort of solid, upstanding, working-class German that they thought they had won over — and, indeed, that had become the backbone of the Nazi Party.
Unable to believe Elser’s claims of full responsibility, the Nazis concluded he must have been “led astray” at the very least, perhaps by agents of British intelligence. In spite of beatings, torture, and other coercion, however, Elser stuck to his story, even building another bomb, identical to the first, right in front of his interrogators to prove he could do it by himself.
He never managed to fully convince them; in fact, for decades after the war, historians and other scholars theorized about who else was in on his plan. Some speculated that the attack was even engineered by Hitler himself, to gain support for his cause and to create an excuse to crack down on dissidents.
It wasn’t until 1970 that two German historians who studied the matter announced there was no evidence that Elser had acted in concert with anyone else or even told anyone about his plans.
It may seem surprising that Elser managed to live for four and a half years after his attempt on Hitler’s life, but there was a explanation perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of a totalitarian bureaucracy.
After his confession, Elser was sent to the the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He was given enough to eat, and two rooms, and even allowed to play the zither again, but he was kept in solitary confinement all those years. The Nazis — still operating on the theory that the British were ultimately behind the assassination attempt — stashed Elser away as a witness in a show trial against British leaders after the German invasion of the British Isles. Talk about hubris.
Of course, this invasion never happened, and as the tide of war turned against the Germans it became clear that Elser had outlived whatever usefulness he might have had. In February 1945, he was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau.
He met his end quietly, taken outside his cell by a young SS officer and shot in the back of the neck. A week later, it was reported that he had been killed in an Allied bombing. By the end of the month, Dachau was in Allied hands.
At least six cities in Germany, including Königsbronn and Stuttgart, have places named after him, or monuments or plaques erected in his memory.