Like last week, we stay to the topic of assasination attempts. Today, I want to write about a worried South German carpenter whose name was Georg Elser. Georg tried to avoid a new war by killing Hitler. Due to bad luck, the assassination failed and it was Georg Elser himself who was killed eventually.
Johann Georg was the son of Maria Müller. Shortly after Georg’s birth, she married a farmer and trader in wood, named Ludwig Elser. Georg Elser’s background was lower class – and he became a carpenter. During his working life, he had various jobs in southern Germany and in the Swiss. Among his jobs, he was a metallurgic, labourer in a clockwork factory, trader in wood and a carpenter. Elser wasn’t the most ideological thinker, but he always voted for the Kommunistische Partei Deutschland (KPD, the communists). In 1928, he even became a member of the Rote Frontkämpferbund – the communist paramilitaric orginisation. As a carpenter, Georg was a perfectionist in his work. Among the few people that knew him, Georg Elser had a good reputation.
Already in 1933, Elser was an opponent from Hitler’s regime. For example, he refused to make the Hitler salute. Since the nazi’s had taken power, Elser experienced a drop of his living standards for himself and his colleagues. By 1936, Elser worked in an ammunition factory in Heidenheim. This, and the Sudetenland’s crisis of September 1938 convinced him that Hitler would bring Europe into a war again. Now, Georg Elser attended the 15th anniversary of the Bürgerbräukellerputsch on the 8th of November 1938. He saw it wasn’t secured that well – although the event was attended by the top of the nazi movement.
In the next year, Elser made preparations – in the fullest tradition of Swabian punctuality. He concealed dynamite from the stone pit he worked at and he acted as an inventor to buy components to build his own ignition device. In April 1939, Elser travelled to Munich for the second time – taking detailed measurements in the Keller. Between August and November 1939, Elser had himself locked up in the Bürgerbräukeller about 30 times. During these closing hours, he carved out a hole in the pillar behind the stage where Hitler was going to hold his speech on the next anniversary of the Putsch. Every time he left the Bürgerbräukeller in the early morning, Elser made sure that the hole was filled with tin. This way, the pillar wouldn’t sound hollow in case someone accidentally knocked on it. The bomb and the time device were placed in the pillar on the 6th of November. The next day, Elser double checked if everything worked well. It did. The bomb’s time device would ignite on November 8th, 9:20pm.
The plan would have worked, if it wasn’t for bad weather. In stead of flying back to Berlin that night, Hitler had to take a train in the evening. Therefore, Hitler started and ended his speech earlier than usual. He left the Bürgerbräukeller around 9:07pm. The bomb exploded only thirteen minutes after. The explosion took eight lifes, 63 were injured. Ironically, Hitler left this early because in Berlin, he had to make important decisions about how to invade Western Europe. Even more ironically, if Elser had a habit of reading a newspaper, he would have ‘known’ that Hitler actually planned not to come to Munich at all. Only on the last moment, Hitler changed his mind and speak himself at the anniversary.
It wasn’t the only bad luck Elser had on the 8th of November. When he tried to cross the border with Switserland around 8:45pm, the border patrol thought his bag was suspicious. A postcard of the Bürgerbraukeller was found, in combination with documents of the Rote Frontkämpferbund and a piece of the ignition device. The border patrol brought Elser to the Gestapo. It did not take long to connect the dots.
The next day, SS-officers killed 21 innocent jewish people in the Buchenwald concentration camp as a reprisal. Also, Elser’s parents were imprisoned for four months and his nephew was brought to an orphanage. Georg himself was held in the prison of the Gestapo‘s headquarters till 1941. Then, he was brought to concentration camp Sachsenhausen – where he had a cell for himself. In contrast to most of the other captives, Elser was treated as a privileged prisoner. Probably so, because Hitler wanted to make a show trial ‘after the war’ to blackmail the British secret service. In this propaganda-show, Elser would have been accused of working as an English spy. In late 1944 or early ’45, Elser was brought to Dachau. Here, he was killed by SS’er Theodor Bongartz at April the 9th. Georg Elser was not given a grave. In 1950, he was declared dead. His remains have never been discovered.
Time passed before Georg was given the credit he deserves. Because Georg Elser was relatively treated well in his cell in Sachsenhausen, other prisoners (including Martin Niemöller) were convinced that the assasination attempt was staged. This was the common opinion in post-war Germany. It didn’t change before late 1959 – when Günter Peis (1927-2012) showed in a serie of eight articles in the weekly Bild that Georg Elser was a political and moral opponent who operated alone. In 1964, Georg Elser’s questioning logs were found. These confirmed Peis’ portrait of Elser.
Nowadays, many schools, steets and squares, various monuments and memorial sites remember Georg Elser. The first memorial stone was placed in Heidelsheim in 1972. (Interestingly: by an organisation which was dependent of East German funds.) Since 1989 – Elser and his action are remembered in Munich, at the location where the attempt took place fifty years before. In 2002, a pillar to remember Elser was build in Freiburg. Sixty years after the attempt – a statue of Elser is erected in Konstanz, only a few meters where he failed to cross the border. Also, a stamp was developed by the Deutsche Post in 2003. On it, there is Elser’s portrait to remember his 100th year of birth. Since 2010, a 2.2 meter statue of Elser at the station of Königsbronn faces the direction of Munich. From there onwards, Elser set of his journeys to Munich.
By the way, the remembrance of Elser has not been exclusively positive. In 1999, the political scientist Lothar Fritze (1954 – ) disagreed considering Elser as an example for civil courage. Fritze emphasised that we can’t reconstruct whether Elser knew that all the victims would be innocent or not. After all, seven out of eight victims of the bomb were NSDAP members – but the Bürgerbraukeller’s waitress was not. When Fritze spoke out his opinion in Dresden’s Hannah Arendt Institute for the Research on Totalitarianism, the American historian Saul Friedländer (1932-) left the meeting as a sign of protest.
To be completely honest with you – Georg Elser doesn’t have a link with Berlin’s history at all. Still, there are a few places that remember Georg Elser. Since November 2008, a sculpture of Elser’s head can be found at the Straße der Erinnerungen (‘Memory Lane’) at the bank of the Spree. Elser stands among other people who were committed to freedom and humanity, such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. (This Memory Lane is developed by Ernst Freiberger, a Bavarian industrialist. This might explain why also Ludwig Erhardt is among the honoured.) Secondly, an information table about Elser is situated at the Topografie des Terrors – the former Gestapo’s headquarters. Last and best, a memorial for Georg Elser is build in 2011. It is right in front of the former location of the Hitlerbunker. Initiator for this monument is Rolf Hochhut (1931-), a playwriter who also wrote a poem in honour of Elser in the year 1987. The monument is a 17 meter high sculpture in the shape of Georg Elser’s side countenance. At both sides of the street – quotes by Elser are cited in the pavement.