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Georg Elser

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Georg Elser, the carpenter who almost killed Hitler (Photo: gdw-berlin.de)

Adolf Hitler made many enemies during his rise to power, his time at the helm of Nazi Germany, and the war that ended with the utter defeat of his regime. It is not surprising that he was the subject of numerous assassination attempts. The one most people know about was Operation Valkyrie on July 20, 1944, led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Read our earlier article – Valkyrie). However, Hitler came just as close to death years before, in November 1939, only two months after World War II broke out. Amazingly, this earlier attempt was planned and carried out not by foreign agents or highly trained military officers, but by a simple carpenter named Georg Elser.
 
Johann Georg Elser (1903-1945) was the last person anyone would suspect of assassination. A carpenter and cabinetmaker by trade, he was described as having somewhat higher than average intelligence but without much book learning. He was generally left-leaning but actually not very interested in politics. He was a member of the leftist Woodworkers' Union, and he voted for the Communist Party of Germany – not because he was a communist, but because he felt they represented the workers' interests. He had a brief stint with the Red Front Fighters' League, a communist paramilitary organization in the Weimar Republic, but only for the chance to play in the League's brass band. He was a quiet, seemingly unremarkable man trying to keep his head above the water during the Great Depression, who kept his political opinions to himself. And yet, he became one of the few people who almost managed to kill Hitler.

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Georg Elser's father (Photo: www.georg-elser.de)

Elser was born to an alcoholic timber merchant father and a farmworker mother, and was the oldest of six siblings. He showed a talent in drawing, penmanship and mathematics at a young age, and became a carpenter as an adult. Alienated from most members of his family, he worked at a number of generally unstable jobs during the 20s and 30s, like many other tradesmen during the economic depression.

A young Georg Elser (right) with his brother Leonhard (Photo: gdw-berlin.de)
A young Georg Elser (right) with his brother Leonhard (Photo: gdw-berlin.de)

During Hitler's rise to power in the early 1930s, Elser became quietly but resolutely convinced that the Nazis would bring war and ruin to Germany. He refused to give the Hitler salute or listen to the Führer on the radio. By 1938, he was certain that the only way to avert war was to kill Hitler and other top Nazi leaders, namely Göring and Goebbels.
 
Many Germans hated the Nazis, but Elser was one of the few who actually did something about them. He quietly and methodically started planning Hitler's assassination. He realized that one obstacle was the Führer's unpredictability: it was difficult to know in advance where and when he would show himself in public.
 
There was, however, one exception, one certainty about Hitler's public appearances. On November 8 every year, he visited the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich. This was the beer hall where he launched his ill-fated coup attempt in 1923, a distinguished event in Nazi history. On every anniversary of the event, he would meet thousands of the Old Fighters, the Nazi Party's oldest members, at the beer hall, hold a lengthy speech and spend time reminiscing about the "good old days".

Hitler at one of the Beer Hall Putsch anniversaries; the pillar covered by a Nazi flag is the one where Elser hid the bomb (Photo: Times of Israel)
Hitler at one of the Beer Hall Putsch anniversaries; the pillar covered by a Nazi flag is the one where Elser hid the bomb (Photo: Times of Israel)

Elser travelled to Munich on November 8, 1938 to see the place for himself. He could only get inside the building in the late evening after the crowd had dispersed, but this was enough for him to get a good look. He noticed that security for the beer hall was surprisingly lax – it was organized by Christian Weber, one of Hitler's oldest Nazi allies, who simply couldn't imagine that anyone might even think of attacking the Führer on such an auspicious occasion.
 
The Kristallnacht (“Crystal night”), a nationwide violent pogrom against Jews, swept across Germany two days later. Elser started planning the details of his attempt. He realized that the stone pillar behind the speaker's podium, supporting a large balcony, was the weak spot in the cavernous underground hall, and could be brought down with a bomb.

A Munich synagogue destroyed during the Kristallnacht two days after Elser's visit to the Bürgerbräukeller (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
A Munich synagogue destroyed during the Kristallnacht two days after Elser's visit to the Bürgerbräukeller (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
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As luck would have it, Elser was working at an armament factory at the time, and had access to the rooms were explosives were stored. He started stealing and hoarding these. He traveled back to Munich in April 1939 to take exact measurements of the pillar, which he needed to design his bomb. He also visited the Swiss border and scouted out an unguarded stretch that he planned to use as an escape route.
 
He lost his job at the armament factory, and his source of explosives, at around the same time after arguing with a supervisor. He quickly found a new job as a laborer at a quarry, where he gradually stole 105 blasting cartridges and 125 detonators. His bomb also included relics from an earlier job of his. He had been working at a clock factory back in 1932 until the factory closed down. Having no money to pay Elser's last wages, the owner gave him clock parts instead. These were now incorporated into Elser's bomb. The machine had two separate timing mechanisms (one as a backup) and the timer could be set 144 hours in advance. However, he still had to place the bomb inside the beer hall before the next anniversary.

The Vollmer quarry, where Elser got cartridges and detonators from (Photo: georgelser.info)
The Vollmer quarry, where Elser got cartridges and detonators from (Photo: georgelser.info)

Elser moved to Munich on August 5, 1939, and rented an apartment room. He became an evening regular at the Bürgerbräukeller. He would have a late supper, then hide in a storehouse until the place was closed down at around 10:30 p.m. He would emerge about an hour later and get working on the pillar, using a flashlight dampened with blue cloth to illuminate the work area.
 
He had to work extremely slowly and quietly: every hammer strike on the chisel echoed loudly inside the empty building, and air raid wardens and guard dogs were sometimes inside after Germany declared war on Poland on September 1. Elser carefully timed his hammer blows and other loud actions to external noises such as streetcars passing by or the beer hall's toilets automatically flushing every ten minutes. He cut a hole through the wood cladding around the pillar, then chiseled a cavity into the stone work itself and lined it with cork to dampen the tick-tock of the bomb. He also placed a tin sheet inside the wood panel to prevent workers from accidentally driving a nail into the bomb while putting up decorations for the next anniversary.

Part of the bomb Elser reconstructed for the authorities during the investigation (Photo: georgelser.info)
Part of the bomb Elser reconstructed for the authorities during the investigation (Photo: georgelser.info)

Elser would work a few hours every night. He would then replace the pillar's paneling, painstakingly gather up every speck of dust and piece of rubble he created, and retreat to a storeroom to doze off for a few hours. He would then slip out through the back door after it was unlocked at 6:30, smuggling out the rubble in a suitcase.
 
He made some 30 to 35 such nocturnal visits to the Bürgerbräukeller over a period of two months, and was ready to install the bomb by the end of October. He knew from his research that Hitler always started his beer hall remembrance speeches at around 8:30, spoke for about an hour and a half, then stayed to mingle with the crowd. Elser set the bomb to explode on November 8, at precisely 9:20 p.m., roughly halfway into Hitler's speech. He placed the device inside the pillar on the night between the 4th and 5th of November after a dance night at the Bürgerbräukeller which forced him to wait until 1:00 am. He visited one last time on the night of the 6th to check that the timing mechanism was working properly, then left Munich.

Elser's reconstruction of his bomb, built during his interrogation (Photo: georgelser.info)
Elser's reconstruction of his bomb, built during his interrogation (Photo: georgelser.info)

While Elser was fastidious in constructing his bomb and creating the hiding space for it, he paid less attention to the world around him. Had he been paying closer attention to the newspapers, he would have learned that the anniversary had been rescheduled. With the war keeping Hitler busy in Berlin, he first cancelled the event, then reinstated it on the 7th. The celebration could go ahead, but with a changed schedule. Fog over Munich meant that the Führer had to return to Berlin by train rather than airplane, so his speech was brought forward to 8:00 p.m. and shortened to about one hour to let him catch his train.

Hitler speaking on the very night the attack (Photo: georgelser.info)
Hitler speaking on the very night the attack (Photo: georgelser.info)

Hitler stopped speaking at precisely 9:07 p.m. and left the building at 9:12. The bomb went off as planned, at 9:20, but the Führer was already on his train back to Berlin. The person closest to the bomb when it detonated was a waitress, Maria Strobel, who was picking up the beer kegs left behind. (According to one account, Hitler and his closest companions racked up a steep bill and then left without paying.) The explosion disintegrated the pillar and brought down part of the ceiling. Strobel was flung across the hall and out to the street by the explosion, but she miraculously survived without any major injuries. Not everyone was that lucky, though. Seven men of the roughly 120 still inside died and 63 others were injured, one of them also dying later.

The ruins of the Bürgerbräukeller after the bomb went off (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
The ruins of the Bürgerbräukeller after the bomb went off (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Even as the dramatic event unfolded, Elser realized that he made a mistake with his escape plan. It was still peacetime when he scouted out his escape route across the Swiss border, but now, with the war already on, the same section was patrolled, and he was captured by German soldiers. Even worse for him, he was carrying some very suspicious items in his pockets: wire cutters, firing pins, sketches of explosives and a postcard of the interior of the Bürgerbräukeller. We don't quite know why he was carrying these, but historians suggest he might have intended to convince the Swiss authorities of his anti-Nazi sentiments once he arrived there. As it were, these objects were enough for the Germans to detain him. He was being interrogated by the Gestapo in the nearby city of Konstanz when news of the assassination attempt arrived. It wasn't hard for the Gestapo to connect the dots.

A 1938 postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller (Photo: akpool.de)
A 1938 postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller (Photo: akpool.de)

Hitler received news of the bomb attack when his train stopped in Nuremberg, and he immediately ordered a massive investigation into the matter. The investigation was headed by a Nazi “all-star” team: SS-leader Heinrich Himmler, head of Criminal Police Arthur Nebe, Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller, and the same Reinhard Heydrich who later formalized the plan for the genocide of all Jews.

The investigating team, from left to right: Viennese Security Police chief Franz Josef Huber, Nebe, Himmler, Heydrich and Müller (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
The investigating team, from left to right: Viennese Security Police chief Franz Josef Huber, Nebe, Himmler, Heydrich and Müller (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

An early examination of the beer hall revealed the bomb's remains, with several metal plates bearing patent numbers that revealed them to be of German make. Nevertheless, the Nazis wanted to manufacture evidence to connect the attack to foreign powers, specifically to two British secret agents who were captured near the German border on the day after the attempt, but who really had nothing to do with it.

The newspaper of the Nazi Party saying that Elser was a British agent
 
The newspaper of the Nazi Party saying that Elser was a British agent (Photo: Deutsches Historisches Museum)

Anyone who could be connected to Elser was arrested and thoroughly investigated, including people he lodged at and former bosses. Some of his family members were forced to watch Elser being beaten. However, nobody could say anything substantial since nobody knew about Elser's plan. Elser himself withstood five days of torture, sticking to his claim that he was working alone.
 
Acting on Hitler's suggestion, the authorities even tried to ply information out of Elser via drugs and hypnosis. He was given large doses of Pervitin, a drug containing methamphetamine, and four hypnotists tried to get him to reveal his associates. In the end, the psychologist overseeing the procedure concluded that Elser was a fanatic with a pathological desire for recognition.
 
While Elser's bomb failed to kill Hitler, it did meet success of a different kind. Heinrich and Sicherheitsdienst (“security service” of the SS) officer Walter Schellenberg visited Elser to talk about the bomb. Elser was given the opportunity to build a replica of his device. When the two investigators praised him for his workmanship, he opened up and started commenting on the technical aspects of the machine with great enthusiasm. The Nazis found the bomb so impressive that they included it in the Gestapo training manual.

Elser explaining the construction of his bomb during interrogation (Photo: Spiegel.de)
Elser explaining the construction of his bomb during interrogation (Photo: Spiegel.de)

Elser was never charged for his attempt to kill Hitler. It is now believed that Hitler wanted to keep him alive until the end of the war, when he could be condemned and executed in a great public spectacle. After spending a year of torment at the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, Elser was transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in early 1941.

Hitler at the memorial ceremony for the victims of the bomb attack (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Hitler at the memorial ceremony for the victims of the bomb attack (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

While it's obviously a terrible thing to be in a concentration camp, Elser was given relatively preferential treatment, probably to make sure he lived to see his big trial. He was lodged in a separate building for protected prisoners. He was given three cells opened into each other, and was allowed to have a workshop and use it to build furniture and other things, including several zithers. British SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) officer Payne Best, one of the two spies captured in an unrelated incident the day after the bomb attack, later claimed that Elser was even allowed to visit the camp brothel.
 
His relative comforts later gave rise to rumors that he was, in fact, a Nazi agent. One theory claimed he deliberately botched the assassination to make Hitler seem protected by providence; another stated that the Nazis wanted to use the incident as an excuse to let loose another wave of terror and oppression on Germany.
 
In early 1945, Germany was clearly losing the war. The Western Allies had turned aside his last great counterattack in the west at the Battle of the Bulge, and the Soviets were advancing inexorably in the east. Elser's show trial was never going to happen, so the Nazis no longer had a reason to keep him alive. He was transferred to the Dachau concentration camp (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Dachau) and quietly shot dead on April 9, 1945. His files claimed he was killed in an Allied bombing attack.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where Elser was kept for most of the war (Photo: sachsenhausen-sbg.de)
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where Elser was kept for most of the war (Photo: sachsenhausen-sbg.de)

The Bürgerbräukeller was used as a food store until the end of the war, after which it was used as a service club for the American Red Cross and the U.S. Army. In 1958, it was reopened as a beer hall and event location. Eventually, the entire building was demolished in 1979 in favor of new buildings.
 
Unlike the Valkyrie plotters, Elser was not given much recognition in Germany until the 1990s. His attempt, the action of a single determined civilian, was probably an embarrassing reminder to the masses of Germans that they too could have done what Elser did – bit didn't. Elser's courage and his attempt to stop the Nazi reign of terror was only recognized recently. Over 60 streets and other public places bear his name today, and a 56-foot- / 17m-tall steel sculpture of him stands in Berlin just a stone’s throw away from Hitler’s bunker where he committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Two movies commemorate Elser’s actions: Seven minutes and Thirteen Minutes, released in 1989 and 2015, respectively.

Monument depicting Elser's profile in Berlin (Photo: translating-berlin.com)
Monument depicting Elser's profile in Berlin (Photo: translating-berlin.com)
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