One of the puzzles of World War II is why Hitler was allowed to run his rampage of destruction undisturbed. Why were no attempts made to rid the world of its greatest scourge?
The answer is that about forty-seven plots were put in motion, two of which came within a hairsbreadth of succeeding. Ironically, Hitler survived them all until he finally took his own life in 5705/1945.
Hitler knew that he was the most hated man in Europe and took elaborate precautions to protect himself. Already in 5683/1923, he rarely went anywhere without a special armed Stabswache (bodyguard). He almost never walked or used public transport to get anywhere, instead, he traveled by car with bodyguards. And even that was not enough.
In 5695/1935, he began using touring cars armored with 4-mm steel bodies, 25-mm thick windows and bulletproof tires. His later cars were even more formidable. His private trains came complete with anti-aircraft guns. His private planes were equipped with machine guns and under his seat was always a trapdoor. When danger threatened, he could flip it open with a red lever and parachute to safety. Before flying, his plane would make a ten- to fifteen-minute test flight, rising up to cruising level to ensure that no explosive device, set to go off at a high altitude, was on board.
Yet, despite all these precautions, he was constantly under threat. At least ten serious attempts against his life were made soon after his advent to power in 5693/1933, and at least four the following year. The police got tipoffs at least once a week. Someone was planning to hand Hitler flowers and squirt poison in his face. A doctored fountain pen was supposed explode in his hand. Hitler’s plane was going to be shot down by another plane. Hitler was well aware of this trend, as he made clear to the Prussian Gestapo Chief Diels, in 5693/1933:
“One day, a completely harmless man will establish himself in an attic along Wilhemstrasse. He will be taken for a retired schoolmaster. A solid citizen with horn- rimmed spectacles, poorly shaven, bearded. He will not allow anyone into his modest room. Here, he will install a gun, quietly, without undue haste and, with uncanny patience, he will aim it at the Reich Chancellery balcony, hour after hour, day after day. And then – one day – he will fire!”
In the end, the truth was not far from Hitler’s ramblings. He was almost eliminated by a lone wolf, George Elser, who had been born in Germany, in 5663/1903.
Back in 5684/1924, Hitler and his cronies had tried to topple Germany’s Weimar Republic, by force, in what is remembered as “The Beer Hall Putsch.” The plot ended with Hitler behind bars, cobbling together his seminal work, “Mein Kampf.” In later years, the Putsch’s anniversary was celebrated every year on November 8th, in the Burgerbraukeller Beer Hall where the revolt had erupted.
A potential assassin, George Elser, utilized this opportunity to set a months-long plan into motion. Elser had a Communist background and resented the Nazis’ virtual destruction of the labor unions. On November 8, 5698/1938, Elser attended the Burgerbraukeller reunion to make his first reconnaissance. He spent the next eight months getting the things he needed: wooden planes, hammers, set squares, tin shears, graving tools, a precision ruler, scissors, pliers, wood clamps, rasps and fine wood files. He stole explosives from the Heidelberg firm where he worked and from a stone quarry.
The actual bomb consisted of fifty kilograms of explosives and a timing device, enclosed in a 180-mm brass artillery shell.
On August 5, 5699/1939, Elser arrived in Munich and got a job helping to renovate the Burgerbraukeller for Hitler’s next visit. During the day, he assiduously restored the building’s interior. At night, he reentered the building, hid inside until the last person left and then, for thirty-five nights, he toiled away at his real task. Historian Herbert Mason describes his ingenious plan:
“Working by the weak beam of a flashlight shrouded with a blue handkerchief, Elser carefully prised away the molding that surrounded a rectangular section of the column. Then he carefully drilled a hole in one upper corner of the veneer panel and inserted the tip of a special cabinetmaker’s saw. With exquisite care, Elser began cutting away the panel. He worked three or four hours, then cleaned up evidence of his work before falling asleep in a chair. The painstaking sawing, a few millimeters at a time, the replacing of the molding, the picking-up of each grain of sawdust after each stint of work, none of this tried the craftsman’s patience. He spent three nights just removing the panel. No trace of this tampering could be detected.
“After preparing a ‘door’ that could be swiftly removed and replaced, Elser started excavating into the brick pillar to make room to hide his bomb.
“He chipped out a cavity, bits and pieces at a time, using hammers and steel hand-drills of various diameters. Each tap reverberated through the empty hall, sounding to Elser like pistol shots. When some obstruction required heavier blows than usual, he waited for noises from the street to cover the sounds. Since he worked during the pre-dawn hours, he often had to wait a long time between hammer blows.”
Elser set up the timing device that would detonate the bomb 144 hours, or six days, after he set it ticking. To prevent suspicious guards noticing the hollow cavity in the pillar, he lined it with a thin steel plate, padded with cork. On Thursday night, November 2, Elser placed his charges and detonators and, at 6:00 a.m., he set the clock to go off 63 hours and 20 minutes later on Wednesday, November 8, at 9:20 p.m. This was the time Hitler was scheduled to deliver his annual harangue. The awaited evening arrived. At 8:00 p.m., the band blared out the Badenweiler March (one of Hitler’s favorites) while the Blood Standard (a banner soiled with blood during the Beer Hall Putsch) was carried in. Hitler strode into the Munich beer hall, applauded by the three thousand “Alter Kampfer” (old fighters) assembled there. He took his place at the rostrum, standing directly in front of the doctored pillar. He was not scheduled to leave until 9:30 p.m. and, at 9:20 p.m., the explosives erupted with an earsplitting roar.”
Next morning, the November 9th headlines of the London “Daily Express” announced: “HITLER ESCAPES EXPLOSION IN A BEER CELLAR.” Hitler was alive and well. What had gone wrong?
EIGHT MINUTES TOO LATE
Until this day, no one knows exactly why Hitler terminated his speech sooner than usual that evening. It seems that he had to rush off to catch a train to Berlin. For fifty-seven minutes, he had ranted against the world, in front of the Swastika-draped fatal pillar and, at 9:12 p.m., he suddenly stopped short, wound up his speech and left. The bomb went off – on the dot, at 9:20 p.m. The pillar exploded killing six Alter Kampfers and a waitress, and injuring over sixty others, sixteen of them seriously. Deprived of its central support, the ceiling collapsed. But Hitler and his top officials were already on their way to the railway station.
Like Nevuchadnetzar and Sancheriv, Hitler was allowed to pursue his evil cause.
Hitler’s Luftwaffe aide, Colonel Nicolaus von Below, later wrote what happened when Hitler heard the news:
“For a moment, Hitler refused to believe it. He had been there himself and nothing had happened…. The news made a vivid impression on Hitler. He fell very silent, and then described it as a miracle that the bomb had missed him.”
Hitler’s exact words were: “Now I am content. The fact that I left earlier than usual shows that Providence intends to allow me to reach my goal!”
As if to strengthen that impression, two people who rushed to congratulate him on “miraculously” surviving the assassination attempt were the Roman Catholic cardinals, Faulhabar and Bertram, and special thanksgiving was sung in Munich’s cathedral. Elser was caught one hundred meters from the Swiss border. The contents of his pockets linked him with the failed explosion. Among other things, puzzled police found a clock spring and a postcard of the beer hall. Surprisingly, the Nazis spared his life for six years. He spent this time in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, almost surviving the war. This made historians initially suspect that there was no assassination attempt at all and that the whole thing had been set up by the Nazis to put their enemies in a bad light.
The Germans kidnapped two British intelligence men and framed them as Elser’s co-conspirators to try and implicate London in the bombing. It is possible that Hitler’s belief in this possibility led him to preserve Elser’s life almost until the war’s end.
Meanwhile, World War II, and the Holocaust, continued their bloody course.