The next attempt on Hitler’s life was very much domestic (i.e. planned and executed by a purebred German by the name of Georg Elser). The assassination tool was (again) a bomb, albeit much smaller – a few kilos of HE, but this time Der Führer almost bought it – he left the building 13 minutes (!) before the explosion. Eight people were killed and 63 wounded (16 seriously) making Georg Elser, well… a genuine mass murderer. And a perfect proof that the road to Hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions.
It is obvious that Herr Elser had severe emotional – and possibly even mental – problems (“had a few screws loose” would probably be not an unfair assessment). Which is no surprise at all as his childhood was marred by his father’s heavy drinking (his father habitually came home late from work drunk) and emotional and physical abuse.
Elser got involved in politics at the age of 22 when a Communist co-worker (and a roommate) convinced him to join the Roter Frontkämpferbund (Red Front Fighters League).
Although officially it was a non-partisan and even a legally registered association, everyone knew that it was a paramilitary wing of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Finally the ruling Social-Democrats had enough and in 1929 banned RFB as an “extremist organization”.
Unfortunately for him, his father’s heavy drinking was not the only one psychological trauma that he received over the years. First, he got a woman pregnant, waited until it was way too late to abort the baby and was stuck with monthly child support payments which often exceeded his weekly wage.
The next blow came from home (i.e. from his family). His alcoholic, violent and abusive father got himself heavily in debt. Elser assisted his parents in their work and supplemented his main income (he made housings for wall and table clocks) by making furniture in a home workshop. It did not help much – in late 1935, his father was forced to sell the family property.
The unbearable pressure finally took his toll and in 1938 he severed all ties with his family (except for his sister Maria) over some kind of a real estate dispute. His whole ordeal leads to but one conclusion – that he acquired a severe PTSD. Which sometimes makes an individual highly volatile and extremely violent.
Especially when an individual works in the armaments factory as Georg Elser did at that time. He worked in the shipping department and had access to many parts of the plant, including the “special department” where fuses and detonators were produced.
Now he only needed the right target to exact his revenge on. Which turned out to be not that difficult to come by. Probably due to his membership in a Communist paramilitary organization, he developed an intense (and quite explicit) dislike for the Nazi regime.
Elser refused to perform the Hitler salute, did not join others in listening to Hitler’s speeches broadcast on the radio and did not vote in the Third Reich’s elections or referendums.
Gradually he developed a very personal hatred towards Adolf Hitler. Which, again, was no surprise – Elser received the heaviest blows (i.e. psychological traumas) of his adult life when Adolf Hitler was the dictator of Germany – and thus, in Elser’s mind, was responsible for everything that happened in Germany. Including everything that happened to Elser personally.
Later one of his Communist comrades stated that
“Elser was always extremely interested in some act of violence against Hitler and his cronies. He always called Hitler a ‘gypsy’ — one just had to look at his criminal face”
Like many violent individuals with PTSD, Elser perceived that he committed the crime (and his was a heinous crime indeed) for very different reasons than a simple personal revenge for all his misfortunes (mass murderers usually claim far more noble and honorable motives)
During his interrogation in Berlin, Elser described his motive in the following words:
I considered how to improve the conditions of the workers and avoid a war. For this I was not encouraged by anyone … Even from Radio Moscow [that he apparently listened to on a regular basis] I never heard that the German government and the regime must be overthrown. I reasoned the situation in Germany could only be modified by a removal of the current leadership, I mean Hitler, Goering and Goebbels…
I did not want to eliminate Nazism … I was merely of the opinion that a moderation in the policy objectives will occur through the elimination of these three men…”
Georg Elser was, obviously, not the only one in Germany who entertained such ideas. However, he turned out to be the only one who acted on his desires. Why – we do not know exactly.
It is a well-known fact that many thousands (probably tens or even hundreds or thousands of individuals) think about becoming serial killers, mass murderers or assassins (i.e. killers of one or several powerful and important individuals).
However, just about all of them (with very few exceptions) never even try to turn their fantasies into realities. Forensic psychologists and criminal profilers believe that for these fantasies to become a reality, an individual in question must “snap”, and to “snap” he needed a trigger.
Apparently, Georg Elser got his trigger (and thus snapped) sometime in the fall of 1938. During his interrogation by the Gestapo detectives he said:
“The idea of eliminating the [Nazi] leadership came to me in the fall of 1938 … I thought to myself that this is only possible if the leadership is together at a rally. From the daily press I gathered that the next meeting of leaders was happening on 8 and 9 November 1938 in Munich in the Bürgerbräukeller
Five years later in Dachau concentration camp, SS officer Lechner claimed Elser told him that killing Hitler became his overwhelming, overpowering, all-consuming obsession.
As Elser had an extensive experience working with clocks and has access to explosives (and wanted to kill several targets at the same time), his obvious weapon of choice was the bomb.
In order to find out the best way to kill the Nazi leadership, Elser travelled to Munich by train on 8 November 1938, the day of Hitler’s annual speech on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch.
He surveyed the premises and came to a conclusion that the best way to do the job was to place explosives in the pillar directly behind the speaker’s podium. He continued to work in the Waldenmaier armament factory in Heidenheim and systematically stole explosives, blasting cartridges and detonators hiding his loot in his bedroom (it appears that security in the factory in question was nonexistent and the local Gestapo did not watch munitions factories – what should have been its primary focus).
In a few months, he was fired from the factory (not for stealing stuff – no one ever noticed that the explosives were missing) and found a job… at the Vollmer quarry in Königsbronn where the “boom stuff” was very much in use.
He continued stealing “the stuff” (again, no one cared – or even noticed). Ultimately, he collected an impressive arsenal of 105 blasting cartridges and 125 detonators (more than enough to get the job done).
In July of 1939, in a secluded orchard owned by his parents, Elser tested several prototypes of his bomb (which gives you some idea of how omnipresent and omnipotent Gestapo and SD really were).
In August, after judging the tests satisfactory he left for Munich. Powder, explosives, a battery and detonators filled the false bottom of his wooden suitcase.
Elser arrived in Munich on 5 August 1939. Using his real name, he rented a room in the apartments of two unsuspecting couples, at first staying with the Baumanns and from 1 September, Alfons and Rosa Lehmann.
He soon became a regular at the Bürgerbräukeller restaurant for his evening meal. As before, he was able to enter the adjoining Bürgerbräukeller Hall before the doors were locked at about 10:30 p.m.
Over the next two months, Elser stayed all night inside the Bürgerbräukeller 30 to 35 times. Working on the gallery level and using a flashlight dimmed with a blue handkerchief, he started by installing a secret door in the timber paneling to a pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum.
After removing the plaster behind the door, he hollowed out a chamber in the brickwork for his bomb. Normally completing his work around 2:00–3:00 a.m., he dozed in the storeroom off the gallery until the doors were unlocked at about 6:30 a.m. He then left via a rear door, often carrying a small suitcase filled with debris.
Incredibly, the security in the building where Der Führer was to speak on a universally known date at a universally known time was nonexistent. Which gives you some idea of how competent the Gestapo really was (Soviet NKVD would have never allowed anything like that in a place where Stalin was supposed to speak).
While he worked at night in the Bürgerbräukeller, Elser built his device during the day. He purchased extra parts, including sound insulation, from local hardware stores and became friends with the local master woodworker, Brög, who allowed him use of his workshop. Again, no one noticed – or cared.
On the nights of 1-2 November, Elser installed the explosives in the pillar. On 4–5 November, which were Saturday and Sunday dance nights, he had to buy a ticket and wait in the gallery until after 1 a.m. before he could install the twin-clock mechanism that would trigger the detonator.
On 6 November 6th, Elser left Munich for Stuttgart to stay overnight with his sister, Maria Hirth, and her husband. Leaving them his tool boxes and baggage, he returned to Munich the next day for a final check.
Arriving at the Bürgerbräukeller at 10 p.m., he waited for an opportunity to open the bomb chamber and satisfy himself the clock mechanism was correctly set. The next morning he departed Munich by train for Friedrichshafen via Ulm. After a shave at a hairdresser, he took the 6:30 p.m. ship to the city of Konstanz on the Swiss border.
Incredibly, neither the Gestapo, nor the SD (Party intelligence service), nor the local police had any clue about what was going on. The most perplexing is a total failure of the little-known RSD – Reichssicherheitsdienst (“Reich security service”) to uncover the assassination plot.
The latter organization was tasked with providing personal security to high-ranking Nazis (of which in Bürgerbräukeller were literally dozens), investigation of assassination plots, surveillance of locations before the arrival of Nazi dignitaries and vetting buildings as well as guests.
The RSD had the power to request assistance from any other SS organizations (e.g. SD, Gestapo, etc.) and take command of all Ordnungspolizei (order police) in its role protecting the Nazi functionaries. But it didn’t (and did not do its job at all – let alone properly) – with devastating consequences.
On that date, the Bürgerbräukeller was, indeed, a target-rich environment for Georg Elser. Der Führer was accompanied by Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Rudolf Hess, Robert Ley, Alfred Rosenberg, Julius Streicher, August Frank (SS Administrative Officer in charge of SS-Verfügungstruppe- the precursor to Waffen-SS and of KL guards), Hermann Esser (Vice President of the Reichstag) and Heinrich Himmler.
Had the celebration of the 16th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch gone as planned, Adolf Hitler (and very possibly other Nazi leaders) would have been inevitably torn to pieces by a powerful bomb designed and assembled by Elser. However, the Providence interfered – again.
As fog was forecast, possibly preventing him from flying back to Berlin the next morning, Hitler decided to return to Berlin the same night by his private train. With the departure from Munich’s main station set for 9:30 p.m., the start time of the reunion was moved forward half an hour to 8 p.m. so Hitler had to cut his speech from the planned two hours to a one-hour duration.
Hitler ended his address to the 3000-strong audience of the party faithful at 9:07 p.m., 13 minutes before Elser’s bomb exploded at 9:20 p.m. By that time, Hitler and his entourage had already left the Bürgerbräukeller.
The bomb brought down part of the ceiling and roof and caused the gallery and an external wall to collapse, leaving a mountain of rubble. About 120 people were still in the hall at the time. Seven were killed. Another sixty-three were injured, sixteen seriously, with one dying later from injuries caused by the blast.
Hitler did not learn of the attempt on his life until later that night on a stop in Nuremberg. When told of the bombing by Goebbels, Hitler responded:
“Now I am completely at peace! My leaving the Bürgerbräu earlier than usual is proof to me that Providence wants me to reach my goal.
Which it surely did (as would be proven by the whole series of miracles that saved Hitler from the bombs of the assassins in the next few years).
At 8:45 p.m. on the night of 8 November, Elser was apprehended by two border guards, 25 meters from the Swiss border fence in Konstanz. When taken to the border control post and asked to empty his pockets he was found to be carrying wire cutters, numerous notes and sketches pertaining to explosive devices, firing pins and a blank color postcard of the interior of the Bürgerbräukeller.
At 11 p.m., during Elser’s interrogation by the Gestapo in Konstanz, news of the bombing in Munich arrived by teleprinter. The next day, Elser was transferred by car to Munich Gestapo Headquarters for further interrogation.
His ordeal at the border (and the immediate aftermath) prove beyond the reasonable doubt that Georg Elser was, indeed, mentally unstable and very possibly even mentally sick (which made him an excellent candidate for euthanasia under the Aktion T4 already in full swing by that time).
Immediate Nazi reaction to this attempt on Hitler’s life was, alas, predictable. First, it was used for propaganda purposes. Discarding the interrogation report that found Elser solely responsible (in the same way he discarded reports by Kripo and Gestapo on the Reichstag fire), Hitler declared that Georg Elser, had been funded by the British Intelligence Service, who paid Otto Strasser (then head of Free German Movement – an anti-Nazi organization) to plan and execute the attempt.
Strasser had, of course, denied any knowledge of Elser (which was true); however, just four days after the explosion Swiss authorities had expelled Strasser from Switzerland (just in case).
Reaction of the SS to the incident was, alas, predictable as well. The day after the bombing at the Bürgerbräukeller, outraged SS-TV guards at Buchenwald KL shot twenty-one Jews (although Elser had not a drop of Jewish blood in his veins and even did not particularly like the Jews). All other Jews in the camp suffered three days of food deprivation.
Although it was crystal clear that Elser acted alone, Gestapo nevertheless brutally interrogated everyone who was unlucky to know him personally or live in the same village.
The quarry owner Georg Vollmer was sentenced to 20 years in Welzheim prison camp for gross negligence in dealing with explosive materials (a lenient sentence given the horrifying consequences of this negligence). However, he was released just two years later after his wife successfully petitioned Rudolf Hess through old connections.
Elser predictably never faced a trial for the bombing of the Bürgerbräukeller (no one wanted to make public the total failure of all Nazi security services to protect their Führer and other key leaders).
After his year of torment at Berlin Gestapo Headquarters, he was kept in special custody in Sachsenhausen concentration camp between early 1941 and early 1945. At Sachsenhausen, Elser was held in isolation in a T-shaped building reserved for “protected prisoners”.
He was kept in a “three-room suite” created by joining three cells together. In the “suite” there was room for two full-time guards and even a work space to make furniture and other things, including several zithers (a string musical instrument).
Elser’s apparent preferential treatment, which included extra rations and daily visits to the camp barber for a shave, predictably aroused interest amongst other prisoners, including British SIS officer Payne Best. He wrote later that Elser was also allowed regular visits to the camp brothel.
Martin Niemöller (Lutheran pastor, theologian and an active member of anti-Nazi resistance) was also a special inmate in the Sachsenhausen “bunker” and believed the rumors that Elser was an informant of Hitler and Himmler.
Which was probably true in some way, because the only reason for the Nazis to keep Elser alive was to use him as a “magnet” for members of the Resistance or foreign nationals.
It is highly likely that Herschel Grynszpan who killed German diplomat Ernst vom Rath on 7 November 1938 in Paris, triggering the Kristallnacht Jewish pogrom was kept alive for exactly the same reason.
In April 1945, with German defeat imminent, Elser ceased to be of any value to the Nazis. So Hitler ordered the execution of special security prisoner “Eller” — the name used for Elser in Dachau – along with Wilhelm Canaris, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others who had plotted against Der Führer.
On April 9th 1945, exactly one month before the end of the Second Great War in Europe, Georg Elser was shot dead and his body immediately burned in the crematorium of KL Dachau.
There are at least 60 streets and places named after Elser in Germany and several monuments. In 2011, a 17-metre steel sculpture of Georg Elser was unveiled in Berlin, by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth.
Since 2001, every two years the Georg-Elser Prize is awarded for courage and on the occasion of Elser’s 100th Birthday in January 2003, Deutsche Post issued a special stamp.
I find all this genuinely insane as Georg Elser was a mass murderer who killed eight innocent people (i.e. not found guilty of any crime ever) and injured 63 others – 16 seriously.
Even if he had genuinely noble and honorable motives (which is highly questionable given his mental problems), it is still no excuse for a mass murder. Consequently, every impartial court of law would have inevitably found Georg Elser guilty of mass murder and sentenced him either to death or (where there is no capital punishment) to life in prison without the possibility of parole.