On November 8, 1939, on the heels of the most deadly conflict in human history — the Second World War, an attempt was made on the life of its harbinger and leader, Adolf Hitler.
While making a speech at a Munich beer hall, Hitler busily remarked on Germany's many successes (including the Holocaust) to the crowd of over 3000, wholly unaware that, less than three feet away, a bomb was set to detonate. The plan would have been a success too, had Hitler not left the speech early to return to Berlin. All that separated the Führer and certain death was 13 minutes. And the man who carried out this ill-fated and ill-timed assassination attempt was a 36-year-old German carpenter by the name of Georg Elser.
Johann Georg Elser was born on January 4, 1903, in the small village of Hermaringen, Württemberg to Ludwig Elser and Maria (nee Müller). As his father was a timber merchant and his mother worked on the family farm, Georg often had to care for his five younger siblings, Friederike, Maria, Ludwig, Anna, and Leonard.
He spent his early years in nearby Königsbronn, and although his childhood was marred by his father's violent alcoholism, the young Georg excelled in many subjects, including drawing, penmanship, and mathematics. He eventually left school at 14 to apprentice as a metal worker, and then as a carpenter to master woodworker Robert Sapper. After graduating at the top of his class at Heidenheim Trade School, he landed a job in a well-known furniture factory in Aalen. Despite being a gifted carpenter, he changed jobs frequently, and eventually began work as a joiner in a clock factory in the summer of 1925. This sudden job change would become the early precursor to one of the most important assassination attempts in modern history.
While at the clock factory, Georg became familiar with timing devices that could be used to detonate explosives. And later, in 1936, he took a job in an armaments factory, where he gained access to ammunition and fuses. In the spring of 1939, he began work in a quarry, where he added to his stock of explosives and learned more about blasting techniques. Just six months after that, he would attempt to murder Adolf Hitler.
Georg Elser was an ordinary man — somewhat of a loner, mostly apolitical — with little to no interest in religion or ideology. His parents were Protestant, and while he did attend church as a child, his attendance lapsed greatly into adulthood. He dated often but never married. He fathered a son, Manfred, in 1930 with a waitress named Mathilde Niedermann. Their relationship did not last past the pregnancy.
Although largely against the regime during the latter half of his life, he voted for the Communist party until 1933 and joined Roter Frontkämpferbund or the Red Front Fighters' Association (RFB), but left after a couple of years of mostly inactive membership. There are also many early indications of his opposition to Nazism, as reports claim he often refused to perform the Hitler salute, did not listen to Hitler's speeches broadcast on the radio, and did not vote any of the Third Reich's elections or referendums.
As a carpenter by trade, Georg was a member of the Federation of Woodworkers Union, a left-leaning union, and found himself aggravated by the poor conditions imposed by the Nazi regime on industrial workers. His and his fellow workers' low standard of living and restricted freedoms were soon to be made even worse by the War Economy Degree of September 4, 1939. In addition to his blue-collar interests, he was also concerned about the Munich agreement (in which Nazi Germany could annex parts of Czechoslovakia), which he believed would worsen Hitler's territorial demands and inevitably lead to war.
Georg further explained his motive to his interrogators following the November 8 attempt: "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 I never heard that the German government and the regime must be overthrown," he said. "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."
The idea to assassinate Hitler came to him in the fall of 1938, and he learned from local newspapers that the next meeting of the Nazi leaders was to be in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on November 8. Every year, the party faithful met to hear Hitler speak there on the anniversary of his failed coup to seize power of Munich, known as the Beer Hall Putsch, on November 8, 1923.
In anticipation of the 1938 speech, Georg travelled to Munich to reconnoiter the Bürgerbräukeller, observing Hitler's arrival and noting the relatively easy access to the building. In the months preceding Hitler's next speech in 1939, Georg meticulously designed and tested a detonator and timing device, and constructed a model of his bomb. He again visited the Bürgerbräukeller in April 1939, where he decided the best course of action would be to place the explosive charge in a pillar behind the rostrum where Hitler would speak, using a clockwork timing device to detonate it. While there, he made sure to take detailed measurements and photographs of the pillar.
Georg gave up his job in May to devote all his time to planning the attack, and in early August, began building the actual bomb. On August 8, he also began the daunting task of hollowing out a space to place his device in the pillar, which was made of cement. After waiting in the restaurant of Bürgerbräukeller until it closed, he would conceal himself in a storeroom until all the employees left, and then begin his work. It took him over 30 nights to get the job done, with the continued hard labor resulting in sepsis in his knees.
On the nights of November 1 and 2, he installed the explosives into the pillar. To ensure his device would work, he fitted the contraption with twin clocks and attached them to a triple detonator, lined the opening of the pillar with tin (to ensure that the device wouldn't be damaged) and cork (to muffle the sounds of the ticking). He finished the installation on the night of November 6, and, as he recalled to his captors, "went to the Isartorplatz, where at the kiosk [he] drank two cups of coffee."
Two days prior to November 8, Georg left Munich to visit his sister Maria Hirth and her husband in Stuttgart. He returned to the Bürgerbräukeller on November 7 to do a final check of the device. Satisfied, he took a train to Friedrichshafen the following morning, and then a 6:30 p.m. steamer to Kostanz.
Luck seemed to be on Georg's side in the early hours of November 8, as Hitler had initially decided not to attend the celebrations in Munich, but at the last minute changed his mind. Arriving at the Bürgerbräukeller just before 8:30 p.m., Hitler was accompanied by prominent Nazi leaders Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Rudolf Hess, Robert Ley, Alfred Rosenberg, Julius Streicher, August Frank, Hermann Esser, and Heinrich Himmler, and was welcomed to the platform by Christian Weber.
Georg knew that Hitler's speech usually lasted roughly an hour and a half, running from 8:30 to 10 p.m., so he set the detonator to 9:20 p.m. accordingly. But, unfortunately, his good luck quickly turned. In a sad twist of fate, Hitler had to cut his speech short to hurry back to Berlin to continue battle consultations with his military chiefs. He spoke for just under an hour, until 9:07 p.m.
The bomb exploded as scheduled, killing seven people and injuring 63, ultimately missing Hitler by less than a quarter of an hour. An unremarkable carpenter from small-town Germany had come within an inch of stopping the seemingly unstoppable Nazi Germany just before the Second World War could continue full steam ahead.
On the evening of November 8, Georg was detained while trying to cross the Swiss border at Konstanz with an out-of-date crossing pass. At the border control post, he was asked to empty his pockets, and produced wire cutters, a number of notes and sketches of explosive devices, firing pins, and a postcard of the interior of the Bürgerbräukeller. While Georg was interrogated by the Gestapo in Konstanz, news of the bombing reached them by teletype. The next day, he was taken to the Munich Gestapo Headquarters.
Despite the damning evidence in Georg's pockets, German security authorities found it difficult to believe that the bomb had been the work of a single man, and were slow to accept that he was responsible. He had fallen into their custody by complete accident and it was unlikely that a small-town German worker could craft such a sophisticated device. They actually believed the plot was the work of the British Secret Service, a belief aided by the completely unrelated capture of two British agents at Venlo along the Dutch-German border.
Hitler himself did not learn about the bombing until much later in the evening of November 8. His right-hand man Joseph Goebbels informed him that an attempt was made on his life, to which the Führer replied, "A man has to be lucky." He later said, "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." What followed was a renewed sense of support from Hitler's Nazi Germany after this "Providential" escape.
Three days after the assassination attempt, Nazi officials held an official ceremony for the victims of the bombing at the Feldherrnhalle in Munich, the same location where they held the annual guard for those who died at the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Hitler returned from Berlin to attend, while his Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess made an address. While traveling back to Berlin, Hitler ordered Heinrich Himmler and Arthur Nebe to lead the investigation into the bombing. Himmler offered a reward of 500,000 marks for information regarding the culprits, and the Gestapo were subsequently swarmed with thousands of suspects.
While being held at Munich Gestapo Headquarters, Georg kept a relatively low profile due to the high number of suspects in detainment. However, Bürgerbräukeller waitress Maria Strobl soon identified Georg as that "strange customer" who only ever ordered one drink, followed by a storekeeper who identified him as the man he sold sound proofing insulation used to stifle the sound of ticking clocks.
On November 14, Georg Elser confessed to attempting to kill Adolf Hitler. He was then taken to the Berlin Gestapo Headquarters and subjected to five days of brutal interrogation and torture. Many of his family members and former girlfriends were also held as accomplishes. In order to save them, Georg made five intricate drawings of the bomb in order to persuade his interrogators that he acted alone. It proved unsuccessful, however, as his sister Maria and her husband were imprisoned for over a year thereafter.
After gaining all the information they could, the Gestapo transferred Georg to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he remained for several years. He was later sent to Dachau, where on April 9, 1945, he was executed by gunfire. His body was cremated at the Dachau Concentration Camp crematorium. He was just 42 years old.
While under interrogation, and although not particularly religious, Georg Elser told his arresting officers his ultimate motivation. "I believe in the survival of the soul after death, and I also believed that I would not go to heaven if I had not had an opportunity to prove that I wanted good," he said. "I also wanted to prevent by my act even greater bloodshed."
Hitler discarded the interrogation report that found George solely responsible and instead used the Bürgerbräukeller bombings for propaganda purposes. This and more directly contributed to the continued misinformation surrounding Georg and his act of heroism. He was painted merely as a pawn to the Nazi regime, with rumors surfacing that he was secretly a member of the SS and that the assassination attempt was staged to portray Hitler as being protected by Providence.
This falsification continued until a 1969 article by Anton Hoch in the Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte proved unequivocally that Georg had acted alone. This breakthrough was solidified when, the following year, a transcript of Georg's interrogation was released to the public.
Even after this amazing discovery, Georg's name faded into obscurity for the better part of two decades. It wasn't until Hellmut G. Haasis published the 1999 biography Bombing Hitler: The Story of the Man Who Almost Assassinated the Führer (Den Hitler jag ich in die Luft. Der Attentäter Georg Elser) did he wholly become part of the German commemorative culture.
Since 2001, every two years the Georg-Elser Prize is awarded for courage, and on his 100th birthday on January 4, 2003, the Deutsche Post issued a special stamp in his honor. There are now at least 60 streets and places named after Georg Elser in Germany alone, and most standard works on Hitler and Nazi Germany contain at least a few passages mentioning his contribution to history.
In 2011, a 56-foot steel memorial of Georg Elser was erected at the corner of Wilhelmstrasse and An der Kolonnade, in the heart of Berlin, Germany, forever commemorating his incredible feat of ingenuity and bravery.~Shelby Morton