In Memory of Johann Georg Elser, the carpenter who nearly prevented the Second World War

First posted April 05, 2015

The German phrase means “I wanted to prevent war.” Image: Wikicommons

NB: This is a short piece about the German carpenter Johann Georg Elser. It was written in 2001, as an appendix to a public lecture. Now a film is being released about this little-known hero. Read the BBC report below this story: The man who missed killing Hitler by 13 minutes

On July 20, 1994, a syndicated article from Hamburg, entitled `Hitler escaped assassination by a few inches’ was reproduced in India. It was written in memory of Colonel von Stauffenburg, the man who carried out the ill-fated bomb attack on Hitler at his Eastern headquarters in 1944. The aristocratic officer was indeed a brave man, whose actions demonstrated the intense dismay that Hitlerism had caused within the German Army. But the statement that his attempt “was the closest anyone in Nazi Germany ever came to assassinating the fanatical dictator” is not true. Stauffenburg is justly remembered, but another German has been erased from the literature of resistance, although his plan came within minutes of saving the world from the horror of the second world war. It was a plan of greater significance than that of the conservative opposition, which became activated only when faced with military annihilation.

That other German was Johann Georg Elser (1903-1945), an artisan who had trained in carpentry and metalwork, became a cabinet-maker in 1922, and worked in clock factories through the twenties. In 1928 he had joined a Communist-led trade union as well as a front organisation called the RFK. He had been uninterested in ideological matters, attending few meetings and spending more of his time flirting and playing music with a patriotic dance band. After Hitler’s ascent to the Chancellorship in 1933, Elser’s political contacts ceased altogether. In 1936 he took up employment in an armaments factory. 

In autumn 1938, some months after the annexation of Austria and just before the Munich conference, this unknown man made the remarkable decision to assassinate Hitler. His resolve stiffened after the vivisection of Czechoslovakia : he knew that the Nazis were driving Europe towards war. Working alone, Elser began stealing explosives from his factory. Learning that Hitler was due to address the Nazi Old Guard on November 8 in a Munich beer hall and restaurant called the Burgerbraukeller, he attended the occasion and observed the Fuhrer’s movements. He then decided to plant a time-bomb in a pillar near the speaker’s rostrum. In March 1939, shortly after the Nazis annexed what remained of Czechoslovakia, Elser resigned his job and returned to Munich with his life savings of 400 marks. He acquainted himself with the beerhall, and took up residence at his parental home in Konigsbronn. Confiding only in his father, he worked briefly in a stone quarry, augmenting both his knowledge and stock of explosives. From May 1939 onwards, he designed his device, and in August he rented cheap accomodation in Munich.

On August 5, 1939, Johann Georg began implementing his plan. Each night he would eat dinner in the beerhall, hide himself in a storeroom until it closed, and then emerge to work for some hours on the stone pillar inside which he intended to plant his bomb. He worked like this for over thirty days, constructing a hollow space of 80 square centimetres with a small hinged door, neatly fitted to avoid detection. The space was lined with tin to prevent accidental damage caused by a nail being driven into it, and with cork, to muffle the sound of the clocks. Two clocks were planted to make doubly sure the device did not fail. He carried all the rubble out in his hands every night, and because he was working on his knees, they soon became septic. On Monday, November 6 1939, he set the mechanism to explode at 9.20 pm on Wednesday the 8th. Down to his last ten marks, he took 30 marks from his sister in Stuttgart, inspected the device on Tuesday, and then proceeded to Constance, on the Swiss border.

Hitler appeared on Wednesday, but cut short his speech to less than an hour, ending it before 9.10 pm, and leaving immediately thereafter. The bomb exploded at 9.20, killing a waitress and six members of the Nazi party. About sixty persons were injured. A gap of less than ten minutes had intervened to save Hitler and to seal the world’s fate. Elser was examined by customs officials at the Swiss frontier, and was found carrying a picture postcard of the Burgerbraukeller, notes on munitions factories, and his old RFK membership card. This was his one mistake, motivated perhaps, by sentiment. It was to cost him his life. He was detained on suspicion of being a spy and sent to Munich. Meanwhile the Gestapo had launched a manhunt for the unknown bomber. On November 13, after learning that the device had been planted at floor level, the head of the investigation asked to see Elser’s knees. He confessed after fourteen hours of interrogation.

Hitler himself, and Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, refused to believe the confession. On the 9th, two British secret agents had been arrested near the Dutch border, and the Nazis were keen to use the bomb episode for anti-British war propaganda. Moreover, it was politically damaging for them to admit that a German worker had planned and executed such a coup. Elser was subjected to another prolonged interrogation in Berlin, by which time his family had been rounded up. Despite brutal torture, he refused to doctor the truth, which was that he had acted alone; or to implicate anyone else. He was kept alive for the duration of the war as Hitler’s `special prisoner’, in order to give credence to a `British plot’ to be fabricated in a trial the Nazis planned to hold after their victory. When defeat stared them in the face, he was shot by guards on April 9, 1945.

In Elser’s presence, reported the Gestapo, “one completely forgot that one was in the presence of a satanic monster”. Coming from such a source, that comment is testimony to the ordinariness of this man. In his book The Fuhrer and the People, the Czech literateur J P Stern has written that to find Hitler’s true antagonist, “we must look for a Nobody like himself, one who, sharing his social experience, yet lived and died on the other side of the moral fence.” (We must thank this professor for giving Elser his due place in the historical record).Elser had the stubbornness to refuse to salute the swastika, to leave rooms when Hitler’s speeches were being broadcast, yet his motivations remained unintellectual. Doing something meant to do something with his hands.

Johann Georg broke down under torture, saying that if his plan had not succeeded, it was because it was not meant to succeed. May we blame a man in his desperate position for trying to survive? We also learn from the archive that he had begun attending church during the months prior to November 1939, making no distinction between Catholic and Protestant churches. He had prayed more, in order to feel more composed, and had convinced himself that he would go to heaven “if I have had the chance to prove by my further life that I intended good. By my deed I wanted to prevent even worse bloodshed”. Stauffenburg had his comrades. Elser had no one. This inconspicuous man chose to act for decency, justice and humanity, and into his deed he put the soul of the meticulous German artisan. As Stern says, the fact that he trusted nobody is a discredit not to him but to the world he lived in. That few know of his existence till this day is a comment on our own times. Let us salute the memory of Johann Georg Elser, the little man with the great heart.

The man who missed killing Hitler by 13 minutes

new film released in Germany this month highlights one of the great “what ifs” of history. It’s the story of Georg Elser – a 36-year-old carpenter from a small town in southern Germany – who came very close to assassinating Adolf Hitler in the early days of WW Two 

On 8 November 1939, Hitler was making his annual speech at a Munich beer hall. The event commemorated early Nazi struggles in the 1920s. This time Hitler used it to mock his international enemies, and boast about Germany’s successful start to the war. But what neither Hitler nor the Nazi top brass and loyal audience realised was that, a few feet away from where the Fuehrer was standing, a bomb was about to go off . Its ticking timers carefully muffled in cork casing, it had been assembled and planted secretly over many weeks by Georg Elser. He had started making his plans the previous year, after deciding that, under Hitler, “war was unavoidable”.

Hitler began this speech at the same time every year, but on this occasion, eager to return to Berlin and his military planners, the Fuehrer left early. Thirteen minutes later, the bomb exploded, causing eight deaths and massive damage. The ceiling collapsed just above where Hitler had been standing. It’s those crucial 13 minutes that provide the title for the new film about Elser, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose earlier credits include Downfall, in 2004, and Diana in 2013.

Hitler had survived – just – to lead Germany into five more years of war and genocide against Europe’s Jews. The Nazi newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, called the event “the miraculous salvation of the Fuehrer”. The Nazi regime would doubtless have continued without Hitler, and the other Nazi leaders Elser had hoped to kill, at least in the short term. But historians believe Hitler’s death in 1939 could have shortened the war, and possibly prevented much of the suffering of the Holocaust.

So how exactly had Elser carried out his plot – and why? The Gestapo tried to find this out when he was captured, shortly after the bomb went off, trying to cross the border into Switzerland with incriminating material in his pockets. The transcript of his prolonged interrogation was discovered in the 1960s, and shows how he demonstrated to astonished Gestapo officials what he had done. He had begun experimenting with explosives while working for an armaments firm near his home town in Swabia. Then he began to work at the beer hall, the Buergerbraeuhaus, in Munich, where Hitler made his annual November speech. This is where his carpentry and joinery skills became invaluable. For more than 30 nights he arrived late in the hall for a meal, then hid himself as it closed, and set to work overnight when everyone had left, hollowing out the pillar by the stage to make space for a bomb.

It was all meticulously planned and concealed. Elser told the Gestapo that, “as the smallest noise rang loudly in the empty hall at night”, he carried out his loudest work timing it to coincide with “every 10 minutes (when) the hall toilets flushed automatically”. There was a constant risk of discovery. “Every sound had to be muffled, every speck of sawdust collected and disposed of,” writes the historian Roger Moorhouse, in his book Killing Hitler. The Gestapo assumed he must have been linked to a larger group, such as the British secret service, and so did many others.

For many decades, it was assumed that Elser must have been part of a larger plot. But in fact, as Hitler’s biographer, Ian Kershaw puts it, “the truth was less elaborate – but all the more stunning”. Elser was “a single person, an ordinary German, a man from the working class, acting without the help or knowledge of anyone else”. Despite a brief association with a communist group, he was not overtly political.

Rather, as Moorhouse puts it, he had a “profound sense of justice” – and he was concerned about the problems faced by ordinary workers under the Third Reich. When the Nazis came to power, he began – as the new film depicts – to make small gestures of defiance, such as refusing to listen deferentially to broadcast speeches by Hitler. By the late 1930s, following the Nazi annexations of Austria and part of Czechoslovakia, he was also concerned about Hitler’s drive towards war. He knew his bomb might kill many people. “I wanted through my act,” he said, “to prevent even greater bloodshed.”

Elser remained a mysterious and controversial figure for decades. Instead of being killed immediately, he was kept alive in a concentration camp during the war and only finally executed in 1945. This prompted speculation about who he might have been working for, and whether he might in fact have been a Nazi stooge, his failed plot designed to boost Hitler’s popularity. His family was ostracised in his home town for decades – part of a guilt-ridden German response to the whole question of anti-Nazi resistance. “All the people who did something against the Nazis were seen as traitors – not only in Nazi Germany but also in post-war Germany,” says Johannes Tuchel, Elser’s co-biographer and director of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin.

If one man is able to make an assassination attempt against Hitler – not the head of the armed forces, not (someone from) the political elite – what did it say to Germany society? ” “They knew they had to do something against Hitler, but they didn’t.” One assassination attempt was well known in post-war decades. The 1944 bomb planted at Hitler’s military headquarters by Claus von Stauffenberg, part of a resistance group among the military and political elite.

But resistance at lower levels – for example by communists and trade unionists – was barely acknowledged. Last year, finally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged Elser as a hero of anti-Nazi resistance, describing him as “one who struggled on his own… to try to prevent the war”. Johannes Tuchel hopes the new film will make Elser and his story much better known, though he says he doesn’t want him to become “a big national hero”. “I want him as a man who, in a dark time for Germany, showed us that not all Germans were Nazis,” he says. Much recent research into Nazism has focused on the many “ordinary Germans” who became perpetrators of the most terrible crimes. Elser’s extraordinary story reminds us that there were some “ordinary Germans” who behaved in a very different way.