A German Hero: The Carpenter Elser Versus the Führer Hitler
Many consider Nov. 9 to be a fateful date for Germany. But it was 13 minutes on Nov. 8, 1939 that really changed the course of 20th century history. A carpenter from southern Germany, Johann Georg Elser, almost managed to assassinate Hitler before World War II had engulfed the continent and the world. For decades after the war, though, he remained largely forgotten.
Nov. 9 is often considered a fateful date in German history. The first German republic was proclaimed in Berlin on Nov. 9, 1918. On Nov. 9, 1923, Adolf Hitler attempted to overthrow the German government in Munich. On Nov. 9, 1938, Jewish businesses and synagogues throughout Germany were set on fire during the nationwide pogrom known as the Night of the Broken Glass. And on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. A fateful date? Definitely one imbued with the weight of history.
Those 13 minutes on Nov. 8, 1939 were the most costly in the history of the 20th century. Within a period of less than six years, from 1939 to 1945, they cost humanity 50 million lives and virtually wiped European Jewry from the map. For the Germans, these 13 minutes resulted in post-war expulsions from Poland and Czechoslovakia -- and a divided nation.
The Munich airport was shut down on Nov. 8, 1939 because of heavy fog. As a result, the city's most prominent visitor on that day was forced to cancel his flight to Berlin and take the train instead. Adolf Hitler, who, on Sept. 1, 1939, had ordered the German Wehrmacht to attack Poland, thereby triggering World War II, had come to Munich to give a speech at the Munich beer hall called the Bürgerbräukeller, just as he had done on Nov. 8 in previous years. It was where the founding members of the Nazi party met every year to celebrate the attempted putsch of Nov. 8, 1923 -- a putsch that ended with Adolf Hitler in jail.
Because of the fog in Munich, Hitler began his speech at the Hofbräuhaus at 8:00 p.m., 30 minutes earlier than planned, so as not to miss the night train to Berlin. The Führer left the Bürgerbräukeller at 9:07 p.m. As it turned out, the bad weather saved his life. A bomb hidden in a column directly behind where Hitler had been speaking exploded at 9:20 p.m. The explosion was so powerful that part of the ceiling collapsed. Eight people were killed and 60 wounded, some seriously. When the bomb went off, Hitler was already sitting in a heated limousine, on his way to the train station.
Of course, no one knows how German history would have progressed if Hitler had been assassinated in the fall of 1939. World War II was already underway, not in the West, but in the East, where the German army had already occupied Poland. Would Hitler's death have prompted the Wehrmacht to withdraw from the occupied territory immediately? And how long would it have taken for the Germans to bring down the Nazi regime and introduce democracy?
Auschwitz would have remained anonymous
But it's unlikely that a global conflagration claiming 50 million lives would have ensued. If we could somehow have saved those 13 minutes in November over time, all of our lives, especially those of our parents and grandparents and their contemporaries in Europe, would have been more peaceful. It's difficult to imagine the Holocaust without Hitler. After his death, Auschwitz would likely have remained yet another anonymous little town in the no-man's land of Central Europe. It may have been known for its factory at the entrance to the town, but the name Auschwitz would certainly never have become synonymous with horror and with the methodical killing of millions of innocent men, women and children. And today's Germany would be completely different.
This article is an exerpt from Claus Christian Malzahn's new book "Deutschland, Deutschland: Kurze Geschichte einer geteilten Nation." It was recently published by DTV and is available for 14.
At 8:45 p.m., about half an hour before the bomb detonated, a 36-year-old man was arrested in Constance, at the German border with Switzerland, as he attempted to circumvent border guards and customs officials and enter Switzerland. At first, the border guards thought the man was a smuggler. But he was carrying no cigarettes, sausages or alcohol. Instead, guards found notes on making explosives, a postcard depicting the Bürgerbräukeller, an emblem of the Red Front Fighters' group, pliers and some rather suspicious-looking metal parts. The border officials didn't know what to make of the man. Only later in the evening did the contents of his knapsack, which he was forced to empty in the customs house, make any sense.
A carpenter from the Swabian Alb
Customs agents eventually received a telex informing them about the attempt on Hitler's life. The man, Johann Georg Elser by name, was transferred to Munich, where at first he was silent and then denied any involvement in the incident. But the evidence pointing to his complicity became increasingly clear. What finally revealed Elser, who spoke with a Swabian accent, as the would-be assassin were his bruised, scraped knees. As it turned out, the hollow space in the column where the explosives had been hidden could only have been reached by an assassin crawling on his knees. Waitresses then identified Elser as a frequent patron of the Bürgerbräukeller, and he eventually confessed.
Elser came from a modest background in the region in southwest Germany known as the Swabian Alb. He was slim, but powerful, and had a friendly face; he liked to play the zither and was a member of a conservative historical association. When Germans were still allowed to vote, Elser, a decorative carpenter by trade, voted for the KPD (German Communist Party) because he believed that the communists were most likely to champion the interests of workers. Despite his political beliefs, the Protestant often attended church on Sunday and prayed regularly. He also refused to participate in the Third Reich's bogus elections.
In the late 1920s, a friend convinced Elser to join the Red Front Fighters' Association, a militant organization that sympathized with the communists. But Elser was no thug and no hard-nosed ideologue. Rather, he was a highly talented musician and a ladies' man. He was also a man who preferred action to words -- he became a member of the Woodworkers' Union for the simple reason that, "one ought to be a member of this union." Whenever the Führer's speeches were broadcast on the radio, he would leave the building and he likewise refused to greet fellow Germans with the words "Heil Hitler!"
After confessing to the crime in Munich, Elser was taken to the headquarters of the German Reich's security agency in Berlin, where he was severely tortured by the Gestapo. But SS chief Heinrich Himmler was dissatisfied with the results. Elser claimed to have acted alone, but Himmler didn't believe him. How could this diminutive Swabian, a tradesman with a grade-school education, have almost managed to assassinate the Führer?
Don't tell anyone
For the Nazis, an involvement by the British intelligence would have been more convenient -- Hitler was already beginning to eye an invasion of England. Indeed, two British agents had just been arrested, and the Nazis quickly portrayed the two men as Elser's co-conspirators. But the carpenter had never seen the two Britons before -- the man who almost killed Hitler was neither an intellectual nor an agent working for a foreign power. Elser, as it happened, didn't need to study foreign policy or enter the diplomatic corps to recognize that Germany and Europe were approaching a catastrophe in the late 1930s. At the time, he told a friend that Germany would never have a better government unless someone were to bring down the current regime. His incredulous friend told Elser that he was out of his mind, that he could never carry it off. Elser's response was that he had every intention of doing so, then added, in his Swabian dialect: "Aber schwätzat net!" -- don't tell anyone!
On the day after the failed assassination, the Nazi mouthpiece, the Völkischer Beobachter, led with the headline "The Amazing Rescue of the Führer," a headline that likely reflected a widely held view in the German population. Most Germans, even those who weren't Nazis, had decided that Hitler -- by then a wartime leader who had brought Poland to its knees in only 21 days -- wasn't all that bad. Whereas 6 million Germans had been unemployed in 1933, there was full employment only three years later. The economy was in full swing, partly as a result of Hitler's weapons production programs. Hitler had outlawed unions, which could have imposed inconvenient wage demands on businesses. After years of inflation and mass unemployment, Germany was suddenly experiencing an economic boom.
The Nazis cleverly used the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin to their advantage. It was the first major international sporting event broadcast live on radios around the world. The Nazis, who even experimented with television technology, came across as modern. And when it came to their use of the media, they were indeed ahead of their time.
But the carpenter from the Swabian Alb refused to believe a word Hitler said. He had a sense of foreboding and worried that Hitler planned to draw the world into a horrible war. Elser didn't trust the man, and in the summer of 1938, he finally decided to assassinate the "Führer." And by then, his suspicions of Hitler had already proven justified: On May 21, 1938, Hitler issued the secret order "to annex the rest of Czechoslovakia." Europe's statesmen had once again allowed themselves to be taken in by the German dictator. Georg Elser, a simple carpenter, had seen through the ruse.
The urge for freedom
Johann Georg Elser in the 1930s.
Europe had transformed itself into a dark continent in the 1930s. The light of democracy was flickering and was dangerously close to being extinguished. By the time Elser was preparing his detonators, only 11 of 28 European states had democratic constitutions. Europe's constitutional monarchies of the time proved to be the most resistant to totalitarian, fascist and right-wing extremist tendencies. But authoritarian regimes and dictatorships had already taken hold in most countries. It is often forgotten that the principle of popular rule is only a few generations old in many European countries.
Both the Zeitgeist and Hitler's populist state, celebrated by most Germans, were moving in directions contrary to Elser's beliefs -- and yet he never lost his faith in the value of freedom. Johann Georg Elser acted as a conscientious citizen and out of ethical and political responsibility, without the support of any organization or movement, committed to an unwritten fundamental law. In the confession he gave a few days following his arrest, Elser complained that, among other things, the working class in the Nazi state stood "under a certain compulsion." "The worker, for example, can no longer change jobs whenever he wishes. And because of the Hitler Youth, he is no longer the master of his own children, and he is no longer free to worship as he pleases." Elser demanded freedom of movement, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience -- all fundamental rights that would later be guaranteed by the German constitution. Perhaps Elser's criticism of National Socialism lacked rhetorical polish, but his message was clear: The leadership of the Nazi Party is intervening in the lives of citizens in a completely unacceptable way, and Germans ought to stand up for their rights.
After he was murdered in the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945, it took decades before Elser gained the respect he deserved. By 1946, Elser was already being accused of having been a Gestapo agent. According to one conspiracy theory to which even some postwar historians subscribed, the Nazis staged the attempted assassination as a propaganda trick.
After that, Elser's death was simply forgotten. Besides, who would have laid historical claim to Elser after the war? The East Germans had no use for this loner, whose affinity for the communist milieu was limited at best. The East German leadership was especially cold toward individualists, and in the 1950s, when the SED employed brutal tactics to deal with hundreds of what it called "deviants," even communists could quickly end up in prison for taking individualistic positions. Even when former East German President Erich Honecker loosened the reins for a short time in the early 1970s, Elser remained unpopular within the Leninist view of history. Johann Georg Elser, decorative carpenter and hero of his class, was ignored in East Germany for as long as the so-called workers' and farmers' state existed. Indeed, even when Elser was planning his attack on Hitler, the communists likely would have tried to talk him out of it. After all, the Hitler-Stalin pact had just been signed. In the autumn of 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union were friends.
A true German hero
Elser's memory was also of little use in the West for many years. The leftists didn't quite know how to categorize this taciturn individualist, and the conservatives saw Elser as a bothersome historical dwarf compared with another would-be Hitler assassin, Claus von Stauffenberg. Of course, the fact that Elser came from humble roots and not the upper class likely played a role in their assessment.
This ignorance on both the left and the right was probably the greatest injustice inflicted on Elser after his death. In the 12 years of his rule of terror, Hitler was the target of 42 assassination plots. But only two men, Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg, a military officer, and Georg Elser, a carpenter, even came close to killing the German dictator. The small man from the Swabian Alb would likely have prevented the war and the murder of millions of European Jews. Stauffenberg's July 20, 1944 plan, as courageous as it may have been, came too late to do much more than slightly diminish the scope of the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.
It is for this reason that Elser's deed is so unique. That he was for so long ignored by the historians of both East and West Germany, merely goes to show just how long it took Germany to become comfortable with honestly confronting its own history. Johann Georg Elser, though, defied ideological categorization -- and for that reason, he is a true German hero.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2005
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH