The man who almost killed Hitler
The incredible story of Georg Elser, a humble German cabinet maker who came within 13 minutes of killing Adolf Hitler.Peter Iantorno April 13, 2015
The date is November 8, 1939, and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler is standing in front of a 3,000-strong packed house at the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich, delivering his annual address to the crowds of faithful followers there to celebrate the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch - a failed coup attempt made by Hitler himself some 16 years earlier.
The charismatic leader is in full flow, whipping up the crowd into a frenzy of cheers and salutes, when his right-hand man Joseph Goebbels, who is in attendance along with eight other high-ranking officials, signals that it's time to wrap up the speech, as Hitler's private train is ready and waiting at Munich Station to take him back to Berlin.
So at exactly 9.07pm, Hitler steps off the stage to a raucous standing ovation from the adoring crowd, who continue to clink steins of beer, sing songs and dance even after their leader has left the building. Amid the merriment, as the clock ticks over to 9.20pm and with Hitler still on his way to the station, an enormous explosion goes off in the beer hall.
The exact pillar Hitler was standing in front of just 13 minutes earlier is blown to smithereens, bringing down part of the ceiling and a wall and reducing the great hall to a mountain of rubble. Eight people are dead and more than 60 are injured, but the Führer has escaped by the skin of his teeth. Exactly a year earlier, German cabinet maker Johann Georg Elser boarded a train from his home in Königsbronn to Munich, where Hitler was performing his annual speech at the Bürgerbräukeller. Unable to gain access until Hitler was long gone and the crowds had dispersed, Elser sat down in the corner with a stein of beer and surveyed his surroundings.
He gazed up at the Nazi swastika-emblazoned banners and the now-vacant podium that the Führer himself had been standing at just a few hours earlier and wondered, "How did this great nation ever come to this?". Workers conditions were worse than ever, anyone who opposed the regime was rounded up and sent to concentration camps, and the country was on the verge of war. Something needed to be done to stop this rising evil, and the only way to do it was to remove the man at the top. Adolf Hitler needed to be killed.
The following day Elser returned to his home in Königsbronn and mulled over how best to carry out his plan. He reasoned that there would be no point in taking down Hitler on his own, as Goering or Goebbels could just as easily step in and fill the void, so if he was going to do it, he would have to remove all of them in one fell swoop. The annual Munich speech was perfect.
With almost a full year to plot the assassination, Elser's preparations were thorough to the extreme. From the fourth to the 12th of April, 1939, he spent a week in Munich, in which he would go every night to the Bürgerbräukeller, studying the security, taking photographs and, most importantly, subtly measuring the exact dimensions of the central pillar that stood behind where the speaker's podium was erected. In the following months Elser went about acquiring everything he needed to create a homemade bomb. Working in two different jobs, in an armourment factory and a quarry, he managed to collect 125 detonators, more than 100 blasting cartridges and an arsenal of explosives. Then, after building and testing several prototypes in his mother's orchard, Elser constructed his final bomb from some old clock parts, a car indicator, blasting cartridges, a detonator and, of course, the explosives.
With the bomb packed safely into the false bottom of his large suitcase, on August 5, Elser again travelled to Munich, where he would stay in rented accommodation for the next few months. Over that period, he visited the Bürgerbräukeller in excess of 30 times, each time hiding in the bathrooms at closing time, working on the pillar through the night, covering his tracks and then sneaking out undetected in the morning.
By the start of November, just a week before Hitler's scheduled visit, Elser had installed the explosives into a space he'd hollowed into the pillar along with a twin-clock device, which would trigger the detonator at a time of his choosing, and sound-proofing so the ticking of the clocks could not be heard. In the week preceding Hitler's arrival, Elser returned to the Bürgerbräukeller every night, checking the clocks were keeping the correct time and that everything was set correctly. Seeing that Hilter was scheduled to arrive at 8.30pm and speak for two hours, on his final check the day before Hilter's appearance, Elser set the bomb to go off at 9.20pm, in the middle of the Führer's address.
Satisfied that everything was set to plan, on the morning of November 8, Elser left Munich by train, en route to the Konstanz border with Switzerland. After all, when the bomb went off he planned to be as far away from the action as possible.
But unbeknownst to Elser, Hitler, who was preoccupied with planning the impending war, had decided to move his speech forward by half an hour to 8pm and cut it short from the usual two hours to just an hour, and he instructed his private train to be ready for the off at Munich Station at precisely 9.30pm, meaning he would need to leave the hall by around 9pm to get there on time. Although the speech overran by seven minutes, it wasn't quite enough for Elser's grand plan to come to fruition.
As news of the bomb spread to Munich, border controls were tightened around the country, and as Elser attempted to flea to Switzerland, he was picked up by border control carrying wire cutters, firing pins and notes he'd made pertaining to the bomb in Munich. Elser was returned to Munich and then Berlin, where he was interrogated by the Gestapo and admitted to planning and carrying out the bombing. Despite Hitler's insistence that Elser must have been working with the British, Elser maintained even through torture that he worked alone and was motivated only by the desire to remove Hitler and the Nazi party from power.
Elser was kept incarcerated in special custody at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then Dachau concentration camp until 1945 when, with Germany on the verge of losing the war, Hilter ordered Elser's execution. He was 42 years old when he was killed.
Although a twist of fate meant that Johann Georg Elser failed in his attempt to rid the world of Adolf Hitler, thanks to a new film, 13 Minutes, released in Germany this month, at least now his story will live in the memory forever.