One Man versus the Reich: The 1939 Attempt to Assassinate Adolf Hitler
Georg Elser was in trouble. He had been running toward the Swiss border when German border patrol guards apprehended him after dark on November 18, 1939.
“Before being taken into the border patrol office, Elser stopped again at the door and took another look in the direction of Switzerland. It gave one the impression that at the last minute he might flee to Switzerland,” border patrol guard Xaver Rieger noted in his account of that night.
Elser did not, however, and entered the inspection room. He was still there, in a small border patrol office in Konstanz, Germany, when the clock struck 9:20 p.m. Hundreds of miles away in Munich, a beer hall exploded — and for the first time, one of Germany’s citizens came close to assassinating their Führer.
“I couldn’t get it out of my head”
Like many people in history, Georg Elser was a complicated figure. He was a deadbeat father, held Communist sympathies, and led a humorless, hard-bitten existence as a craftsman in southern Germany. And yet, he was unshakably convinced that Hitler was a warmongering tyrant who needed to be removed. So he took the situation into his own hands. As he told the Gestapo during his interrogation, “My observations led me to the conclusion that conditions in Germany could only be improved by removing the current leadership.”
Elser selected the Nazis’ annual commemoration of Hitler’s failed 1923 “beer hall putsch” in Munich on November 8 as his moment to act. He knew that that the top Nazi leaders always celebrated in the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich and that Hitler always gave an hour-long speech at the same time on the hall’s stage. Elser determined that the pillar behind the stage would be the best place to hide a bomb. Using two clocks and explosives components stolen from his jobs at a munitions factory and a quarry, he secretly designed and assembled what Nazi reports would later call a Höllenmaschine, a “hell machine” — a time bomb.
“Once the idea of removing the leadership had come up, I couldn’t get it out of my head,” Elser continued. “…I had reached the decision, for all the reasons I’ve stated, to undertake removing the leadership myself.”
For months, Elser followed the same routine: he ate dinner at the Bürgerbräukeller (pronounced “burger-broy-keller”) at 8 p.m. At 10 p.m., he paid and said goodnight, then hid until the staff went home. Then, he emerged and went to work hollowing out a secret compartment in the pillar. By early morning, he would finish his work for the night, cover up the portion he’d cut out so that no one would notice his handiwork, and go home to sleep. It was lonely, uncomfortable work that took a toll on his body. He narrowly escaped being caught on multiple occasions. But the night before the beer hall celebration, Elser set his time bomb to detonate at the end of Hitler’s scheduled speech, sealed it inside the pillar, and walked out of the Bürgerbräukeller for the last time. By the time it detonated and the leadership was “removed,” he planned to be safely in Switzerland.
The plan does not go smoothly
What Elser could not know — what he would discover in the aftermath of the explosion — was that on November 8, 1939, Hitler wrapped up his speech 13 minutes early. He left the building and ended the festivities slightly ahead of schedule. By the time the bomb exploded and half of the Bürgerbräukeller collapsed, Hitler was already boarding his personal train back to Berlin, celebrating a successful rally with Josef Goebbels and Hermann Göring. The bomb caused the death of eight bystanders and injuries to some 60 others.
Meanwhile, back at the Swiss border, Elser was being searched. The two border guards handling his interrogation found a shocking amount of incriminating material: a Communist party pin under the lapel of his jacket (“for old time’s sake,” he explained), 19 detonators, and a postcard showing the interior of the Bürgerbräukeller. Implicating him in this unthinkable threat to the Führer’s life should have been simple. But the Nazis’ own ideology got in the way.
Even after Elser confessed to making the bomb, the Nazis did not know how to proceed with him. This craftsman in his mid-30s from a village in Swabia, who had never received a higher education, should not have been able to design and build a sophisticated explosive device. Moreover, the fact that he had executed his plan without being detected put the Gestapo, Germany’s extrajudicial secret police, in an extremely uncomfortable position. The Nazi party had risen to power on promises of restoring law and order to Germany. The Gestapo prided itself on its use of surveillance to maintain that order, and yet, Elser had placed a bomb five feet away from the Führer. How had this ordinary man managed to get so close to murdering Hitler? And why would a German do such a thing in the first place?
My observations led me to the conclusion that conditions in Germany could only be improved by removing the current leadership. — Georg Elser
German authorities questioned Elser over and over again, trying to find a way to create a narrative that fit their worldview: that he was a pawn of the British Secret Service, perhaps, or that he was working with Nazi political enemy Otto Strasser. Both the British and Strasser denied involvement, however, and Elser stuck to his story — no matter how the Gestapo tortured him.
The family’s ordeal
After the Gestapo identified Elser as the assassin, they descended on his unsuspecting family, mining them for all the information they could extract. His sister and her husband received the harshest treatment because Elser had stashed a suitcase full of incriminating evidence at their house after setting the bomb. Even though she had no knowledge of her brother’s plans, the Gestapo interrogated his sister so intensely and so often that she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was unable to work for the rest of her life.
Cruelly, they also used Elser’s family members as interrogation tools against him. After beating him, they made him sit at a table across from one of his loved ones and repeat his account of what happened. If he deviated from the Gestapo’s approved version of events, they beat him again. By the time Elser’s family saw him, he’d been kicked, lashed with leather straps, and subjected to numerous interrogation techniques for five days and nights. This version of Elser — visibly injured from his many beatings — was the final impression his family had of him. He spent the next five years in Nazi custody, first in prison, then in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and finally in Dachau, where he was shot in the spring of 1945, just weeks before American liberators arrived.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, a fellow prisoner at Sachsenhausen, Pastor Martin Niemöller, influenced how Elser’s deed would be remembered and understood for decades. In his post-war speeches, Niemöller widely propagated his theory that Georg Elser was no fallen hero, but had collaborated with the Nazis to stage the bombing. Niemöller felt that it was suspiciously convenient that Hitler survived through a freak coincidence. It was more likely, he posited, that Elser was simply the fall guy for a fake attack on Hitler’s life meant to build popular support for the looming war with England. As proof for his theory, he cited the “special treatment” he had observed Elser to receive in Sachsenhausen. (Elser had been assigned a large cell with a woodworking bench where he fulfilled Nazis’ orders for furniture for their homes.) Niemöller continued to spread this theory, which has since been debunked, even after Elser’s mother asked him to stop.
Outside of Niemöller, not many people made an attempt to remember Elser at all as Germany moved from World War II into the Cold War. For West Germany, his Communist leanings were problematic, and for East Germany, his failure to officially join the Communist Party prevented him from being considered a real hero. Besides, there was another assassination attempt to commemorate: the 1944 “July Plot” executed by high-ranking officials in the German Army. For many years, the July Plot was the only attempt on Hitler’s life celebrated in public memory.
A complicated takeaway (that is still worth taking away)
Georg Elser’s legacy is not as easy to commemorate as the military July Plot because, in part, he directly challenges the narrative that ordinary German civilians were powerless to resist Nazi tyranny.. His story forces us to consider, therefore, not just why he acted, but why so many others just like him did not. Why did he have the willpower to do this? What values motivated his actions and where did they come from? Conversely, how do we square his heroic intent with the fact that he did not kill Hitler, but did kill eight bystanders and injured dozens more? Where can we place the blame for what happened to his sister, after he knowingly left incriminating evidence in her home?
As with much of history, there are few clear answers in the case of Georg Elser. However, thinking about what he did, remembering him as a whole person, and continuing to ask questions are good ways to draw lessons from his story. More people will now have the opportunity to do that, thanks to the memorials to Elser that have sprung up around Germany, including at the spot at the Swiss border where he spent his last free moment.
Note: This story is based on the December 2018 Ina Levine Lecture by Alan Steinweis, Professor of History and Miller Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies, University of Vermont. Listen to an audio recording of the lecture.
Abigail Hartley is a social media producer at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.