Hitler’s Would-be Assassin

For those who have even a modicum of WW2 history knowledge, the first thought that came to your mind was most likely Claus von Stauffenberg.

But there was apparently another some years earlier who, but for some fog, would have been successful.

That’s why I enjoy reading the BBC History Magazine. Many of their articles bring out either a revelation of daily life in the ancient times (for example in this issue, Vol 21, Nbr 13, life in the Roman Army for those who were Centurions (who commanded 80 men) and below), to obscure moments and figures in history.  

Unfortunately, they do not have an internet presence. But author Richard Moorhouse in this issue wrote about a little-known German carpenter who but for unforeseen weather, would have killed Adolf Hitler and his entourage on November 8, 1939.

Georg Elser hated Hitler. He made a meager living as a carpenter. But instead of blaming his circumstances as many of his countrymen, on the Nazi line that it was “the Jews” or the Treaty of Versailles, Elser blamed the Nazis.

Typical in this regard was his reaction when a Nazi parade marched through his hometown of Koenigsbronn in 1938. Elser turned out to watch, but as those around him gave the Hitler salute, he refused to do likewise. When a neighbour advised him that it might sensible to conform, he replied, “You can kiss my arse”.

Yet, rather than surrender to impotent rage, Elser decided to act. That autumn, as war appeared to loom during the  Czech crisis, he resolved that he was going to assassinate Hitler. Telling no one, he began to plot, and after visiting Munich in 1938 to observe the Nazi ceremonies surrounding the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, he spotted a golden opportunity.

He took a job at an armaments factory where he stole a fuse and gunpowder. Then he got a job at a quarry obtaining explosives and a detonator. He experimented with prototype bombs around his house.

He planned his attack at the hall of the Buergerbraukeller in Munich.

He timed the bomb for the anticipated time Hitler and his entourage would be there, and left early to make his escape.

 Hitler, because of fog, decided to return by train instead of plane to Berlin and left the hall early.

The bomb detonated 13 minutes after Hitler left.  

Elser had planned on escaping to Switzerland, but the German border guards caught him close to the border.

He was executed at Dachau April 9, 1945, just weeks before the end of the war.

Other than Claus von Stauffenberg, who planted a bomb at Hitlers headquarters in July 1944, Elser came closest to killing the German leader: but for some fog in Munich that night, he would almost have certainly achieved his aim.  And yet, until comparatively recently, the name of Georg Elser has languished in obscurity, a footnote to the wider story of German resistance.

But Elser’s is arguably the greater achievement. A simple man, he did not benefit from the aristocratic background von Stauffenberg did, nor did he have any of the support network to provide emotional or technological succour. Moreover, he saw the essential bestial truth of Nazism already in 1938, at a time when most Germans, including von Stauffenberg – were still enamoured with Hitler. Elser, then, fully deserves his place in the pantheon of the German resistance. More than that, he deserves the respect that has been denied him so long.

What has always amazed me about history is how such profound things can happen – or don’t happen – over the smallest of things.

Just think if that Viennese art school had accepted an embittered mediocre artist – or there had been no fog that November night.

In the case of the latter, Hitler had just invaded Poland 2 months earlier, and Britain and France had just declared war on Germany. Had Hitler been assassinated that evening, think of the subsequent events that never would have occurred.

More about Georg Elser is here.

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