This week, I’ll stay close to the previous topic of assasinating attempts – now about attempts to stop Hitler from living. It will be around the fourty – but no one exactly knows how many attempts have been to kill Hitler – and let alone if killing him would have been enough to directly stop the escalating World War II or to prevent the Holocaust. Many of these attempts were made by conservative opponents of democracy, of which the 20th July plot became the most famous. While these high ranked military circles used to support Hitler by fighting a cruel war in Poland – a worried South German carpenter whose name was Georg Elser tried to avoid the war and make an end to Hitler’s life – a decision he even made before the war broke out. Due to bad luck and ironic circumstances, Elser was the one whose life as a free man was ended before the war did – though many millions of victims in a time-space over five years later.
Johann Georg was the son of Maria Müller – an umarried women, who shortly after Georg’s birth 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 them as a metallurgic, labourer in a clockwork factory, trader in wood and as a carpenter. Though Elser wasn’t the most ideologically underpinned, he always voted for the Kommunistische Partei Deutschland (KPD, the communists). Besides, in 1928 he became member of the Rote Frontkämpferbund – the communist paramilitaric party, till this party was dissolved in May 1929. He might not have read books or papers to confirm the opinions he already had – which was in favor of the labour class. Besides, he was an arduous men – if not a perfectionist in his work. Elser made a good impression on the few people who got to know him.
Already in 1933, Elser was an opponent from Hitler’s regime – and he refused to make infamous Hitler salute. In 1936, Elser worked in an ammunition factory in Heidenheim and – in combination with the Sudetenland’s crisis of September 1938, he was convinced that Hitler would bring Europe into a war again. Besides, Elser was motivated since the living standard of him and his colleagues dropped back as the nazi’s were in power. Elser attended the 15th anniversary of the Bürgerbräukellerputsch at the 8th of November 1938, to conclude that this Munich event was not secured that well – while the top of the nazi movement attended.
In the next year, Elser prepared his attempt – 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 – to take detailed measurements in the Keller. Between August and November 1939, Elser locked himself up for thirty times after the Bürgerbräukeller closed – and carved out a hole in the pillar behind the stage where Hitler would hold his speech. When he left the Bürgerbräukeller in the early morning, Elser made sure that the hole was filled with tin – so the pillar wouldn’t sound hollow in case someone accidentally knocked on it. The bomb and the time device were placed in the sixth of November and Elser double checked if it worked on the next night. The time device would ignite on the 8th of November at 21:20.
Due to the bad weather, Hitler did not fly – but took a train back to Berlin. Therefore, Hitler started his speech – which was an endless tirade against Great Britain – earlier than usual and left the Bürgerbräukeller around 9:10pm. The bomb exploded only ten minutes after Hitler left. The explosion died eight people and 63 were injured. Ironically, Hitler left this early because he had make important decisions about how to invade Western Europe. Elser could never have known that fact – which was only known among nazi’s officials. If Elser had a habit of reading a newspaper, he could have known that Hitler actually planned to let Rudolf Heß speak – till Hitler changed his mind at the last moment and would speak himself eventually.
It wasn’t the only bad luck Elser had that evening: when he was in Konstanz to cross the border with the Swiss 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.
The day after Elser’s attempt, SS-officers killed 21 jews in concentration camp Buchenwald as a reprisal. Also, his parents were imprisoned for four months and his nephew was brought to an orphanage. Elser 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 because Hitler wanted to make a show trial ‘after the war’ to blackmail the British secret service, in which Elser could be a puppet. At the end of 1944 or the begin of 1945, Elser was brought to Dachau – where he was liquidated by SS’er Theodor Bongartz at the ninth of April around 11pm.
No grave has been dug for Elser. He had to be declared till death in 1950 without his remains being discovered. Since Elser was relatively well treated in his cell in Sachsenhausen, other former prisoners such as Martin Niemöller were convinced that Elser was a puppet of the nazi’s and the attempt on November 8 1939 was faked by the nazi’s. This was the common opinion and didn’t change before the end of 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. Five years later, the questioning logs were found – which confirmed Peis’ portrait of Elser.
Except for many schools, steets and squares, various monuments and memorial sites remember Elser. The first memorial stone was erected in Heidelsheim in 1972 – by an organisation which was dependent of GDR funds. Since 1989 – Elser and his action are remembered in Munich, at the site where the attempt took place fifty years before. In 2002, a pillar to remember Elser was erected in Freiburg. Also, a stamp developed by the Deutsche Post in 2003, with Elser’s portrait to remember his 100th year of birth. Sixty years after the attempt – a statue of Elser is erected in Konstanz, only a few meters where he failed to cross the border. 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.
Nevertheless, the remembrance of Elser has not been unanimously positive: in 1999, the political scientist Lothar Fritze (1954-) disagreed considering Elser a figure which should be seen as an example for civil courage – since we can’t reconstruct if Elser had known that all the victims who died were innocent or not. Among the victims, seven out of eight were NSDAP members – but the Bürgerbraukeller’s waitress was not. When Fritze’s opinion was spoken out 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.
Anyway – Berlin has even three sites to remember Georg Elser – and another memorial site might erect. Since November 2008 onwards, a sculpture of Elser’s head – made by Kay Winkler (1956) – is visible at the so-called ‘Straße der Erinnerungen‘ (‘Memory Lane’) which is siuated at the bank of the Spree. Here, Elser stands among other people who were commited to freedom and humanity, such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. The ‘Memory Lane’ is developed by Ernst Freiberger, a Bavarian industrialist – which might explain why also Ludwig Erhardt is among the honoured. Secondly, an information panel about Elser is situated at the Topografie des Terrors – the former Gestapo’s headquarters. In addition, a memorial site for Elser is erected at the attempts 72nd anniversary – in front of the site where the Hitlerbunker used to be. Initiator for this monument is Rolf Hochhut (1931-), a playwriter whose work reacts on World War II and the Holocaust. Hochhut already wrote a poem in honour of Elser in 1987. The 17 meter high sculpture is developed by Ulrich Klages and has the shape of Georg Elser’s side countenance. At both sides of the street – quotes by Elser are cited and perpetuated in the pavement.
In my opinion, Elser’s choice to let the bomb explode at a NSDAP meeting was well considered. Besides, one has to admire his feeling – without reading newspapers – that a war was upcoming, especially after the general optimism after the Munich agreement in September 1938. Unfortunately, Hitler already started a war in Poland – and planned to expand his war in Western Europe. So to say – Elser’s feeling was right, but Hitler was too busy to be assassinated – exactly with the war which Elser wanted to avoid.
Recommanded film: Der Attentäter (Rainer Erler, Hans Gottschalk – 1969)