Aftermath of attempt. The colossal Bürgerbräukeller pub in Munich was a venue for gatherings of veterans of the Nazi movement attended by Adolf Hitler, who narrowly escaped death in November 1939 bomb-blast.



It is difficult to say, how many attempts had Adolf Hitler survived. Historians name as many as 60 of them, ranging from very serious to completely anecdotal ones. As early as in 1920s Hitler several times narrowly escaped death in usual at that time brawls and malees among feuding German parties, or even national socialist factions. More qualified attempts, specifically targeting Hitler, occurred as he climbed to the power. One of them, staged yet before his becoming the chancellor, took place in the beginning of January 1932 in the restaurant of the hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin, where Hitler dined with members of his staff. Within an hour after the dinner, all its guests felt symptoms of poisoning. Nobody died though, and the Führer was affected the least - its is being said that due to his vegetarianism.

After Hitler became the chancellor, assassination attempts not only persisted, but in fact increased. The first one had to take place on 4 March 1933, during Hitler's appearance on a political rally in Konigsberg. There, local communists led by with a ship carpenter Kurt Lutter plotted to blow up the speaker's platform as Hitler spoke for his slate of candidates in the coming parliamentary elections. Yet, the day before police arrested the conspirators; the investigation that followed failed to uncover the explosives though, and since nobody confessed to such a sinister criminal offense, which carried the death penalty, the court dismissed charges seven months later. In the same 1934 a group of Dr. Helmut Mylius planned another attempt, which never happened.

In 1935 David Frankfurter, a son of rabbi, who escaped from Nazi Germany and settled in Switzerland, for few days strolled the streets of Berlin in hope to catch the moment and assassinate Hitler. As he realised the futility of his plan, he returned to Switzerland, and there, on 4 February 1936, killed Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi activist, who promoted distribution of the highly anti-Semitic book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Switzerland. A Swiss court sentenced Frankfurter to 18 years in prison. In 1945 he was pardoned, and left for Palestine.

Also very anecdotal is the history of another attempt. A 20 years old Swiss student of Catholic theology, Maurice Bavaud, arrived in Germany on 9 October 1938 in order to assassinate the Führer. He spoke no other language but French and never shot in his life, yet he bought a pistol in Basel before he left for Berlin.

The history of that attempt is a travesty of the way the Nazi régime is portrayed in Hollywood movies: twice Bavaud was reported to the police as a suspicious foreigner, and twice reports wee totally ignored. What is more - he had easily got acquainted with the chief of security of Hitler's residence in Berchtesgaden, Karl Deckert, whom he asked to arrange a meeting with the Führer. Deckert in fact refused, claiming that Hitler was very busy, but then he advised Bavaud to travel to Munich in the beginning of November for celebrations of the anniversary of the 1923 putsch, which Hitler duly attended every year.

Bavaud indeed went to Munich, where he posed as a Swiss reporter and easily obtained a pass to the VIP tribune. Not only nobody asked him, which newspaper he represented and whether he had an accreditation, but also nobody seemed surprised that a reporter travelling to Germany did not speak German. During the traditional parade led by Hitler, Maurice Bavaud abandoned this attempt when it turned out that the distance was too big and security too strong.

What happened next, was completely bizarre. The poor student purchased expensive stationery and forged a letter of introduction in the name of ex-French prime-minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin, with which he tried in vain to access Hitler. Then he forged another letter signed in name of the French nationalist politician Pierre-Charles Taittinger, the leader of the right-wing party Jeunesses Patriotes (Patriotic Youth). Again in vain. He had got only as far as to the chief of Hitler's security SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Koch.

As Bavaud exhausted his money, he decided to go back to Switzerland. And that is when he, so long circling with impunity around Hitler, was caught by the service that traditionally has been maintaining perfect order. He was arrested... for ticketless travel on the a German train! The railway police searched the foreign suspect, found a loaded pistol, and sent him to the court that sentenced Bavaud to... two months detention for unlawful possession of firearms. Yet, since all cases of possession of firearms had to be reported to the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the case against Bavaud was re-opened, he was easily exposed, and sentenced to death. Swiss diplomacy made no effort to save Bavaud; Hans Fröhlicher, the Swiss ambassador to Germany even publicly condemned Bavaud's assassination attempt. An offer from the Germans to exchange Bavaud for a German spy was turned down, and Bavaud was sentenced to death. He was executed by guillotine in Plötzensee prison on 14 May 1941.

As odd as it seems, the most serious, and the closest to succeed, was the forgotten attempt to kill the Führer undertaken by a lone amateur on 9 November 1939 in Bürgerbräukeller pub in Munich.

For years the name Georg Elser did not mean anything even to the Germans. The respectable encyclopedia Meyers Großes Handlexikon among 50,000 entries posts the name of a certain Fanny Elsser, an Austrian ballerina - even with her photograph - but nothing about the would-be Hitler's assassin. Silence!

It was not until the 50th anniversary of the explosion of the time-bomb at Bürgerbräukeller that the German (West at that time yet) television aired a documentary on that event, and a small book was published. A local committee had to overcome enormous obstacles to have a memorial plaque unveiled in Elser's native town. Yet, the 60th anniversary of his death, and the 65th anniversary of his attempt were totally ignored.

The reason of that mysterious silence is as simple as it takes - Elser was a communist, although his engagement in communist activities were rather less then modest. After seven elementary school grades he had to forget about further education and seek some job. Eventually he became a carpenter, but it was hard to find any work amidst the severe economic crisis. That brought him to the communist movement. Elser was a consequent enemy of the Nazi movement since its beginnings; even when the Nazis came to power in Germany, he consequently refused to use the Nazi greeting Heil Hitler! and to participate in public events, like collective listening to Hitler's speeches on radio. As early as in the autumn of 1938 he started to collect explosives, which he pilfered in quarries. In the beginning of 1939 he got a job at a munitions factory, which produced grenades and fuses for artillery shells. An illiterate person he was, he self-taught himself to gain an elementary knowledge as how to devise a time-bomb. He made first tries in his parents' garden. He concealed explosives and other materials in a special chest with double bottom, which he made by himself.

Like everybody in Germany, Elser knew that on 8 November Hitler would come to Munich. On that day members of the Nazi movement were gathering in the colossal pub Bürgerbräukeller for observance of anniversary of so-called "beer putsch" - an abortive attempt to seize power in Bavaria in 1923. The putsch ended in a bloodshed, and Hitler and his closest comrades landed in prison. After the release, every year Hitler addressed to the Nazis gathered at Bürgerbräukeller. The routine was always the same: Hitler's speech used to start at 21:30 and last about an hour and a half. Elser decided to plant a time-bomb that would go off just after the beginning of the speech.

In the spring of 1939 Elser for the first time travelled to Munich and tried to get employed at Bürgerbräukeller. In August 1939 he rented a room in Munich. As a frequent guest of the pub, he quickly gained trust of the employees, and collected all necessary information about the Nazi gatherings and the exact spot where a platform used to be erected for Hitler. He made friends with a waitress serving the Nazis, and inquired her about all the details of such gatherings.

Shortly before the closing of the pub, Elser was hiding in the janitor's storeroom. After the closing, using only an electrical torch and a set of tools that were not making noise, Elser, for 30 nights, was furrowing a 70x90 cm cavity in a pillar. In the morning Elser was leaving through a back-door, carrying a suitcase filled with the rubble. He used to empty the suitcase outside the city.

Simultaneously, Elser devised two identical time-fuses in case if one of them malfunctioned. He stored about 10kg of explosives in the cavity, and masked it with a cleverly designed door in the panelling. Dim light in that spot made it practically invisible. And what is the most amazing - for 30 days and nights nobody has noticed that bustle. At night from 7 to 8 November, Elser double-checked everything once again, and boarded a train taking him to Constance. Elser had planned everything to cross the Swiss border before the explosion.

Yet, the fate saved Hitler once again. The time-bomb was set to go off at 21:21. The pillar with the explosives was decorated wit a swastika flag, concealing the door to the cavity. However, poor weather conditions made it impossible to Hitler to fly a plane, and he had to catch a train to Berlin. Since the train was departing at 21:31, Hitler had to shorten the meeting with the veterans of the Nazi movement. Therefore, he started the speech about eight o'clock, and left Bürgerbräukeller at 21:07.

Thirteen minutes later went off an explosion so powerful that the ceiling collapsed, killing 8 and injuring 63. As Hitler and his closest aides narrowly escaped death, it was easy to launch a propaganda slogan that "again the Providence watched over the Führer". A reward of 60,000 marks was offered to anybody, who would help in apprehending the assassins. When Elser was merely 200m away from the Swiss border, he was stopped by two German customs officers. He tried to persuade them that he had got lost, but the officers transferred him to the border guards. The border guards searched Elser and found on him a post-card with an image of Bürgerbräukeller, and elements of a fuse. Since the news about the explosion had already been radio-broadcast, the border guards got alerted, and when they found a badge of the communist organization Red Front Fighters League  (Rotkämpferbund), they arrested Elser and transferred him to the State Secret Police (Gestapo).

Why Elser carried on him such incriminating evidence? Most likely he needed it to prove before the Swiss that he was the author of the attempt, and claim political asylum. But he was taken to Berlin instead.

In Berlin Elser was submitted to brutal interrogations interspersed with tortures. Gestapo had also interrogated half of inhabitants of Elser's native town, Konigsbronn; all his relatives were transported to Berlin for interrogations, and some of his former employers were arrested. At once Elser denied any involvement in the plot, but after several days of vicious tortures he broke down and made a detailed confession. Eventually those were swollen and mattery knees that betrayed him; he had to do his work on his knees. Reconstruction of the scene of explosion had confirmed that furrowing the cavity and filling it with explosives was possible only while kneeling.

Asked about the motives of the attempt, Elser explained: I considered that the situation in Germany could only be changed by the elimination of the current leadership. A simpleton he was, Elser believed that conditions in Germany could only be changed by eliminating its current leadership - by which he meant Hitler, Göbbels and Hermann Göring. Elser is also said to have hoped that after elimination of these "top men" more moderate figures would come forward, improving the lot of the working class rather than conquering other countries. He started thinking about the bomb-blast as early as during the Munich accord; the invasion of Poland dismissed his last objections and hesitations - he believed that assassination of the "top leadership" would prevent greater blood-letting. [Moorhouse R. (2006).]

When investigation officer triumphantly reported to the head of Gestapo, SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, that Elser eventually had confessed, Müller asked who was behind the plot. When he heard that nobody, that Elser had been acting alone, he proposed to explain that to the head of the German police and SS, SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. His sarcasm was justified. Himmler was just incredulous about the findings, and commented them with one, angry phrase: What idiot conducted this investigation? [Moorhouse R. (2006).] Himmler took over the case, and personally interrogated and tortured Elser, but did not get anything more.

The Nazi élite was deeply convinced that the British intelligence was behind Elser's action. The minister for propaganda, Josef Göbbels, launched swingeing attacks against London as soon as he heard news about the assassination attempt. The moral guilt is clearly entirely theirs, he wrote in his diaries as soon as next day after the attempt. [Goebbels J. (1982).] That claim had quickly expanded to the theory of a plot between the British intelligence and German emigrants, especially the break-away national socialist Otto Strasser, who, after the assassination of his brother Gregor, fled Germany and organized the anti-Nazi Black Front (Schwarze Front), operating first from Czechoslovakia, and later from Canada. To produce any semblance of evidence, next day after the explosion at Bürgerbräukeller, a group of 13 SS-men, acting by orders of the head of the Reich's Main Security Office, SS-Gruppenführer Reinhardt Heydrich, captured two British intelligence officers - Captain Sigismund Payne Best and Major Richard Henry Stevens - from a border Dutch town Venlo. Once the British were brought to Berlin, they were charged with plotting a terrorist attack in Munich.

Elser's name did not emerge in public until 22 November, as it was expected that a bigger conspiracy would be unveiled. The Nazis just could not believe that Elser acted alone, without introducing anybody into his plans, and without seeking help from other people. The same was suspected in the groups of army and civilian opposition. Both the West and the East speculated about the background of the attempt. British, American and Soviet columnists typically supposed that the very national socialists had staged the bomb-blast, just like they had set fire to the Reichstag, to have a pretext to crack down on opponents of the régime.

If there had been indeed any foreign plot behind Elser's action, he would not have to have tinkered with a makeshift bomb - he would have got a quality device. This fact alone suffices to dismiss any speculations about Elser's foreign superiors. But at the peak of the Third Reich's triumph it was unthinkable to admit that a German on his own will rose against the Führer.

For five years Elser, under the name Eller, was kept incarcerated in concentration camps, completely isolated from other inmates, first in Sachsenhausen, and later in Dachau. Two SS-men had been always watching him day and night. Apparently, the Nazis till the end considered him a person more important than he was - he had a separate cell, a luxury in concentration-camp conditions, and access to a carpenter's workshop, where he was making petty furniture for SS guards; he also had made a kind of zither to play.

It was not until 9 April 1945 that the orders to kill the inmate came from Gestapo. That was done the same evening, although Müller suggested to wait for the next air raid and announce in the press that Elser fell a victim of Anglo-American bombings. However, at that time the concentration-camp staff was already preoccupied with more urgent problems, and they were in hurry to get rid of witnesses as soon as possible. Elser was executed among other prominent opponents of the Nazi régime like ex-head of the German intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, or Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhöffer. They were kept alive till the end of the war, because it was expected that after the final victory they would be put on show trials.

There were more plans to assassinate Hitler, concocted after the outbreak of the Second World War either in Germany or abroad, but those were indeed merely plans. Elser's attempt remained the only one till 20 July 1944. Yet, in 1944, the plot was made by professional militarymen surrounding Hitler, and the defeat of the Third Reich was closing very quickly. At Bürgerbräukeller were gathered the top figures of the Nazi government, since next to the fateful pillar apart from Hitler sat also Göring, Himmler, Göbbels, Robert Ley, Alfred Rosenberg, Julius Streicher and Hans Frank. Their sudden death at the outset of the Second World War would certainly have changed the History.