Historian GORDON LUCY recalls the life and actions of the German carpenter who nearly changed the course of history
During the 12 bleak years of the Third Reich there were at least 42 attempts on the life of the Adolf Hitler, but only two men, Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg, a highly decorated but disillusioned soldier and aristocrat, and Georg Elser, a humble Swabian carpenter, came even close to success.
Count Stauffenberg and the events surrounding the plot of July 20 1944 have a secure niche in German history but until comparatively recently Elser was an almost wholly forgotten figure.
A biography of Elser by H G Haasis appeared in 1999 and a new and expanded edition appeared in 2009. In January 2003 the German Post Office issued a special stamp to commemorate the centenary of his birth.
In 2014 Angela Merkel acknowledged Elser as a hero of anti-Nazi resistance and described him as ‘one who struggled on his own … to try to prevent the war’.
In the following year Elser was the subject of a German language film entitled ‘Er hätte die Welt verändern’ (‘He would have entirely changed the world’) and in English ‘13 Minutes’.
The English language title focuses on the margin by which Elser failed whereas the German version focuses on the potential of what might have been had he succeeded – altering the course of world history.
According to Elser the idea of eliminating the Nazi leadership (and he had Hitler, Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels specifically in mind) came to him in the autumn of 1938 because he had concluded that Hitler was evil and had to be eliminated.
Elser was a trade unionist and had voted for the Communist Party (the KPD) in the years before the establishment of the Third Reich in the belief that the KPD was the party best placed to defend the interests of workers.
Evil is a theological rather than a political concept and suggests, almost certainly correctly, that it was religious belief rather than ideological commitment which prompted him to act.
Elser’s parents were both Lutherans. As a child he attended church with his mother who was more devout than his father.
Although his church attendance dropped off, he retained a strong residual Christian ethic.
Once he had embarked on his mission to kill Hitler his church attendance improved drastically. Church attendance and the Lord’s Prayer gave him an inner peace.
When he was arrested, he explained: ‘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. I also wanted to prevent by my act even greater bloodshed.’
On November 8 1923 Hitler had launched a putsch (or uprising) in the Bürgerbräukeller, a large beer hall in Munich. The uprising ignominiously collapsed amid hail of police bullets the following day. The man beside Hitler was killed. The Putschists were arrested, put on trial and sentenced to unduly lenient prison sentences.
Farcical though it was, after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 the anniversary of the putsch became a red letter day in the Nazi commemorative calendar.
Every year on November 8 Hitler would return to deliver an address to the Alter Kämpfer (the Old Fighters) in the great hall of the Bürgerbräukeller.
This is why Elser chose the Bürgerbräukeller as the venue and November 8 1939 as the date for his assassination bid.
Elser visited the building and decided that ‘it was best to pack explosives in the pillar directly behind the speaker’s podium’.
Elser became a regular at the Bürgerbräukeller restaurant for his evening meal. Over a two-month period, Elser stayed all night inside the Bürgerbräukeller 30 to 35 times. Using a flashlight dimmed with a blue handkerchief, he started by installing a secret door in the timber panelling of the pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum.
After removing the plaster behind the door, he hollowed out a chamber to conceal his bomb. Normally completing his work between 2.00 and 3.00 am, he slept in the storeroom off the gallery until the doors were unlocked at about 6.30 am. He then left via a rear door, often carrying a small suitcase filled with debris.
By November 8 1939 everything was in place for the bomb to go off during Hitler’s speech.
Unfortunately, because of dense fog that night Hitler decided not to fly back to Berlin as planned but to leave early and take a train.
The bomb went off as planned, causing either seven or eight deaths and significant damage. The ceiling collapsed just above where Hitler had been standing but Hitler had left shortly beforehand.
Elser was apprehended as he was trying to escape across the Swiss border at Konstanz.
The Nazis, especially the Gestapo, could not believe that Elser was acting alone. They were convinced that Elser was part of a wider plot, probably involving the British intelligence services, but even after vicious and brutal beatings he resolutely maintained he was acting alone.
Elser was never put on trial but was detained for over five years in Sachsenhausen and Dachau until he was executed, on Hitler’s orders, on April 9 1945, just a month before the collapse of the Third Reich.
Because he seemed to receive preferential treatment (including extra rations and daily visits to the camp barber for a shave) other prisoners, including Martin Niemöller, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, thought that he was a member of the SS and that the failed plot had been a cunning ploy to demonstrate that Hitler was indestructible and to boost his popularity.
H G Haasis’ research refutes these allegations and Elser is now almost universally regarded as one of the heroes of the German opposition to Hitler.
There are at least 60 streets and places named after Elser in Germany and several monuments.
On November 8 2011 a 17-metre-high steel profile of Georg Elser was unveiled at the site of the former Reich Chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin.