Jan 2009 Journal

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Who was Georg Elser?

The brief report in last month’s ‘Newsround’ column that a memorial has been erected in Berlin to Georg Elser, who made an attempt on Hitler’s life in Munich on 8 November 1939, probably passed without attracting much attention. The name Elser is almost unknown, certainly when compared to that of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, instigator of the bomb plot of 20 July 1944. Nevertheless, Elser, an ordinary working man, single-handedly came almost as close to killing Hitler as did Colonel Stauffenberg and his group of army officers, who had the advantage of frequent access to the Führer’s person and were motivated, by summer 1944, by the knowledge that Hitler was leading Germany to catastrophe.

Johann Georg Elser was born in the village of Hermaringen in Württemberg on 4 January 1903, the son of a smallholder and timber merchant who only married the boy’s mother the following year. He grew up in nearby Königsbronn, left school at 14 and was apprenticed first as a metal worker, then as a carpenter, trades at which he became highly skilled. He changed jobs frequently, but worked mainly as a joiner in clock factories, where he became familiar with timing devices that could be used to detonate explosives. In late 1936 he took a job in an armaments factory, where he had access to ammunition and fuses, and in March 1939 he started work in a quarry, where he added to his stock of explosives and learned about blasting techniques.

Elser was something of a loner, largely unpolitical and with no interest in ideology. He had voted Communist before 1933 and joined a Communist organisation, the Roter Frontkämpferbund, but left it after a couple of years’ mostly inactive membership. He did, however, have a strong sense of the rights and interests of ordinary working people, which was to be one of the main motives behind his decision to try to kill Hitler. The remarkable thing about Elser was how unremarkable he was - a working man among millions of others, distinguished only by his moral conscience and his willingness to act on it.

Elser was angered by the conditions imposed by the Nazi regime on industrial workers, by their low standard of living and the restrictions on their freedoms, which were to be aggravated by the War Economy Decree of 4 September 1939. He was also concerned about the prospects for peace, realising that the Munich agreement of autumn 1938 was but the prelude for further territorial demands by Hitler that would inevitably lead to war. Elser intuitively grasped the objectives of Hitler’s policies and decided to act on behalf of the German working class, to remove the Nazi leadership and avoid bloodshed on a massive scale.

The next meeting of Nazi leaders after the watershed of Munich was, as Elser learned from the papers, the annual gathering of party faithful in the Bürgerbräukeller in that same city. Every year, they met to hear Hitler speak there on the anniversary of the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 8 November 1923, an event enshrined in Nazi mythology. Elser travelled to Munich to reconnoitre the hall on the day of the meeting, observing Hitler’s arrival and noting that access to the hall was easy, except after it closed late at night. He decided that the best means of achieving his end was to place an explosive charge in a pillar behind the rostrum where Hitler would speak, using a clockwork timing device to detonate it. Over the following months, he meticulously designed and tested his detonator and timing device and constructed a model of his bomb, revisiting the Bürgerbräukeller in April 1939 to take more detailed measurements and photographs of the pillar.

Elser gave up his job in May, and in early August moved to lodgings in Munich, where he built his bomb, alone and undetected. On 5 August 1939, he started the formidable task of hollowing out a space where he could install his device in the pillar, which beneath its wooden panelling was made of cement. It took him over 30 nights to get the job done. After waiting in the restaurant of the Bürgerbräukeller until it closed, he would conceal himself in a storeroom while everyone else left, then set to work for three or four hours. He had to remove a section of the wooden panelling and hinge it, then chisel out a hole in the cement, working on his knees for lack of space; over time his knees went septic. By early morning, he had to remove the rubble in bags, cover over all traces of his labours and return to his hiding-place before the personnel arrived.

Elser went to great lengths to ensure that his device worked. He fitted his contraption with two clocks attached to a triple detonator and lined the hinged opening in the pillar with tin, to avoid the device being damaged by someone nailing a notice to it, and with cork, to muffle the ticking of the clocks. He finished work on the night of 6 November 1939 and left Munich to stay with his sister in Stuttgart, telling her that he was leaving illegally for Switzerland. But he returned once more to the Bürgerbräukeller on 7 November, to check that the mechanism was functioning properly. On the evening of 8 November, Elser was detained while trying to cross the Swiss border with an out-of-date crossing pass.

At first, luck was with Elser’s enterprise, for Hitler had decided not to attend the anniversary celebrations in Munich, but had changed his mind at the last minute. Elser knew that Hitler’s annual speech for the occasion took about an hour and a half, lasting roughly from 8.30 to 10 pm. Accordingly, he set his device to explode at 9.20. But Hitler had to shorten his speech, to hurry back to Berlin for urgent consultations with his military chiefs; he spoke for just under an hour, ending at 9.07, and left at once for the capital. So when Elser’s bomb exploded immediately behind the dais where Hitler had been standing, killing seven people and injuring many more, it missed the Führer by less than 13 minutes. Elser, inspired by his sense of social justice and simple religious faith, had come within a whisker of decapitating Nazi Germany almost before the Second World War had begun in earnest.

The German security authorities, unable to believe that the bomb had been the work of a single man – and a German worker, at that – were slow to accept that Elser was responsible for it; he had fallen into their custody largely by chance. They consequently peddled the line that the bomb plot had been the work of the British secret service, fuelling a wave of support for the Führer after his ‘providential’ escape. They were helped in this deception by an entirely unrelated event, the capture on 9 November 1939 of two British agents, Captain S. Payne Best and Major R. H. Stevens, at Venlo on the Dutch-German border.

Elser confessed on 14 November. He was detained at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, presumably to be used after victory over Britain in a show trial to incriminate the British intelligence service. He was later sent to Dachau, where on 9 April 1945, with victory over Britain a lost hope, he was murdered. This is where the widespread ignorance about Elser has its roots, for he was not able to counter the false accounts of his activities that were current in the post-war years and that contributed to his exclusion from the pantheon of German resistance.

In his book Venlo Incident (1950), Captain Best, who had survived Sachsenhausen, where he met Elser, maintained that Elser was a mere pawn acting at the behest of the Nazis; so did Pastor Martin Niemöller. Early standard works like Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich took a similar line. It was not until 1969 that an article by Anton Hoch in the Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte proved conclusively that Elser had been the lone perpetrator of the attempt on Hitler’s life in the Bürgerbräukeller. The following year saw the publication of the transcript of Elser’s interrogation, which further set the record straight. Now, every standard work on Hitler and Nazi Germany devotes a few pages to Elser’s feat of courage and ingenuity.

I first came across Elser in J. P. Stern’s book Hitler: The Führer and the People (1975). Stern, a Jewish refugee born in Prague, was a distinguished scholar famous for his studies of German nineteenth-century literature. His study of Hitler contains a chapter on Elser, in which he argues that it was Elser, the provincial nobody of semi-legitimate birth, who was Hitler’s ‘true antagonist’, not the right-wing officers who launched the bomb plot in July 1944. This may have been straining a point, but it helped to rehabilitate a good man who followed the behest of his conscience and who deserves to be better known than he is.

Anthony Grenville

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