The Nazi Fuhrer was almost killed by a time bomb---but who was behind it: the British Secret Service, dissident German Army generals, the SS, or a lone watchmaker?
At exactly 8 PM on Nov. 8, 1939, German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler strode into Munich’s Burgerbraukellar Beer Hall at the head of his entourage past a forest of hands raised in the Nazi salute. As a band struck up the Party anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied/Song (named after a dead SA Storm Trooper killed in a brawl with a Communist), Hitler and the other leaders---Dr. Josef Gobbels, Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler among them---took up their seats at the plain wooden tables and chairs where so many Nazis had quaffed their good Bavarian brews in years gone by.
The evening marked the 16th anniversary of Hitler’s abortive 1923 attempt to take over the German state by force. That would-be coup ended in bloodshed and disaster for Hitler, but---ever since his legally being appointed to office a decade later--- these events had taken on a semi-religious atmosphere in the Nazi pantheon of solemn holidays. This was the most sacred, as it commemorated those killed by police bullets when the Nazi Fuhrer/Leader was still a rather unknown street agitator. Now, he led the mightiest nation in Central Europe.
Because of the war with Britain and France---just a little over two months old this evening, with Poland already defeated---Hitler wasn’t expected to address this year’s gathering of the Nazi “Old Fighters,” and had named Hess to be his stand-in. At the last minute, however, Hitler decided to come anyway. At 8:10 PM, he took his place at the usual lectern, with a long red-white-and-black Nazi swastika banner covering the pillar directly behind him, six feet away.
He launched into a furious speech attacking the British, which had his supporters clapping and cheering. As he spoke, however, Hitler’s adjutant, Julius Schaub, passed him cue cards reminding him of the time, as he had a train to catch: “Ten minutes. Five minutes. Stop!” read the cards.
Abruptly, Hitler ended his speech at 57 minutes (not the usual 90) with, “Party members, comrades of our National Socialist movement, our German people, and above all our victorious Wehrnacht/Armed Forces, Sieg Heil!/Hail Victory!” and stepped down from the podium. Normally, Hitler would stay behind and shake hands, but Schaub managed to hustle him out of the hall at 9:12 PM, followed by all the top members of the Nazi government.
German journalist Max Domarus later wrote of this curious travel aspect of the affair, “Once Hitler had ended, he departed for Berlin, supposedly on ‘urgent State business.’ This was not entirely true, however. There were no events requiring his presence in the Reich capital on the morning of Nov. 9th. Hitler possibly did not desire to be present in Munich for the festivities on the following day.
“He dreaded the public appearance connected of necessity to these…In a 1934 precedent---the aftermath of the Rohm Purge---Hitler had also cancelled his participation in the march to the Munich Feldherrenhalle/Field Lord’s Hall to escape inconvenient exposure to the public and its scrutiny,” as the war he predicted would end was still going on.
“Yet it was peculiar that Hitler wanted to use the scheduled train for Berlin that day absolutely. He had arrived to Munich by plane. In the afternoon, however, he had discussed the weather forecast with (Col. Hans) Baur, as his pilot later recorded, and had determined to take the train. Thus, his special train compartment was to be connected to the ordinary train leaving for Berlin in the evening.”
The group was aboard the train standing in the Munich station when a muffled explosion could be heard in the distance. What did it mean?
At exactly 9:20---a mere eight minutes after Hitler left the hall---waitress Maria Strobel was busy clearing Hitler’s own table of empty steins and full ashtrays, fretting that the Fuhrer had neglected to pay his bill! Suddenly, the ceiling exploded, and she was flung down the entire length of the hall, and out through the doors. The smell of cordite lingered in the air, along with the thick choking dust of collapsed brick. Groans from the dying and wounded could be heard in the confusion. Covered with chalk dust and emerging wounded from the blast was the father of one Eva Braun, the Fuhrer’s alleged mistress, and, later, wife, Maj. Otto Braun, an officer in the German Army.
Aboard his train, Hitler was blissfully unaware that both he and his top men had just missed death. At Nurnberg, Dr. Gobbels---his face deathly pale---brought him the truth in a telegram from Munich.
As Army Gen. Erwin Rommel later wrote in his diary of the stunning event, “ Six feet of rubble cover the spot where the Fuhrer spoke…That was how strong the explosion was. One dare not think what would have happened if the assassination had succeeded,” penned the man who would be implicated in another, more famous bomb plot against Hitler five years later which would cost him his own life.
Seven Old Fighters had been killed, and 63 wounded.
Later, in reflecting upon his miraculous luck, Hitler told photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, “I had a most extraordinary feeling, and I don’t myself know how or why---but I felt compelled to leave the cellar just as quickly as I could. The fact that I left the Burgerbraukellar earlier than usual is a corroboration of Providence’s intention to let me reach my goal.”
Earlier that day, he recalled, the widow of his late architect, Dr. Gerdy Troost, had warned him of a possible assassination, and he had been uneasy upon his arrival there.
Immediately, SS Reichsfuhrer/National Administrator Heinrich Himmler announced that it had been “a foreign plot,” posted a reward for the culprits, and ordered the German frontiers sealed. In his diary, Dr. Gobbels believed in his heart that it was the work of Nazi expatriate and “Black Front” leader Otto Strasser, exiled in Paris since 1934, the year that Hitler murdered his older brother Gregor, in the famed “Blood Purge” of June 30th, but the living Strasser denied it.
In the secret anti-Hitler German Army resistance circle, there was talk that number two Nazi and Luftwaffe/Air Force Field Marshal Hermann Goring was behind it all, and, indeed, Goring had been mysteriously absent from the annual ceremony. In truth, however, the portly Goring had no real part in the attempt---so far as is yet known, however---and had missed the occasion because of illness.
Unknown until 1945, however, was the fact that he had been against Hitler’s upcoming war with the West, and told subordinate Col. Gen. Karl Bodenschatz that---had Hitler been killed, and he had succeeded to the Reich Chancellery---Goring as the new Fuhrer would’ve ended the unpopular war, and withdrawn all German troops from non-Reich territory.
Who, then, was responsible? Within the real resistance, there was consternation, as the monocled Prussian generals had been debating how best to depose Hitler and head off his planned---and, they thought, suicidal---assault on the West ever since the victorious conquest of Poland a few short weeks before.
Indeed, on Nov. 5th, Hitler had a furious argument with Gen. Walther von Brauchitsch at the Chancellery, in which the general had claimed that there was talk of mutiny in certain German Army units, reminiscent of 1918, and a refusal to fight the British and French on the part of the troops.
Enraged, Hitler shouted, “What action has been taken by the Army commander? How many death sentences have been carried out?” He stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Fearing an actual Army coup against him, though, Hitler prudently postponed Case Yellow ---the codename for the proposed Western attack---on Nov. 7th, the day he left for Munich, and would reexamine the question on the 10th. This was unknown to the plotters, however, who backed out and burned their incriminating plot documents.
Himmler had long suspected that there was, indeed, a putsch/revolt in the offing, though, an event feared by the Nazis ever since they’d taken office in 1933. He and the head of the Nazi Party secret police, the SD---SS Gen. Reinhard Heydrich---had instructed SS Col. Walter Schellenberg to open contacts with the British Secret Service in Holland.
The trim, dapper, and handsome Col. Schellenberg passed himself off to the unsuspecting British as a representative of the real German underground movement.
This was the situation when Schellenberg was wakened at 2 AM on the morning of the 9th by RFSS Himmler, who told him of the attempt on the Fuhrer’s life. Hitler believed that it was a British plot, and---over his strong objections to the contrary---Schellenberg was now ordered to abduct the two British agents later that same day, by crossing the Dutch border if necessary.
At 3 PM, a black Buick drove up to Venlo on the Dutch side of the frontier containing British Maj. S. Payne Stevens and Capt. R.H. Best, plus a Dutch officer. Suddenly, a car carrying several pistol-brandishing SS men roared across the border, and a five-minute gunfight ensued in which the Dutch officer was mortally wounded and Schellenberg himself was missed by inches by an SS bullet! Stevens and Best were hustled off to Nazi Germany, where they survived the war as prisoners.
Hitler wanted to place them on trial, but the evidence simply wasn’t there to incriminate the pair. In a rage, the Fuhrer blamed the lax security measures of the SS at the Burgerbraukellar, and, in truth, it is still an unsolved mystery as to whether or not Himmler and Heydrich had an actual, more sinister hand in the plot to kill the Fuhrer.
Later, there were some who felt that they had played as an SS dupe the man who had really, apparently, acted alone, and placed the bomb in the pillar decorated with the Nazi banner at Hitler’s back that fateful Nov. 8, 1939. Had Hitler been killed, this school of thought reasons, the two SS men would’ve launched their own coup against the surviving Goring and the hated Army generals (as the SS later did in retaliation for the July 20, 1944 attempt on Hitler.)
One such fascinating view was expressed by Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano---who was also Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law---in his secret diary entry of Nov. 8, 1939: “The attempt on Hitler’s life at Munich leaves everybody quite skeptical, and Mussolini is more skeptical than anyone else. In reality, many of the aspects of the affair do not altogether convince us of the accuracy of the account given in the papers.
“Either it is a master plot on the part of the police---with the overdone purpose of creating anti-British sentiment in the German people who are quite indifferent---or, if the murder attempt is real, it is a family brawl of people belonging to the inner circle of the Nazi Party; perhaps a carry-over of what took place on the 30th of June (1934) which cannot have been forgotten in Munich.
“The Duce/Leader has tried hard to compose a telegram expressing his delight that peril has been avoided. He wanted it to be warm---but not too warm---because in his judgment, no Italian feels any great joy over the fact that HItler had escaped death---least of all the Duce.”
Rarely has an ally expressed such contempt for an avowed partner than is here evidenced!
The real culprit, though, was 36-year-old Swabian watchmaker and cabinet craftsman Johann Georg Elser, whose only “political” activity was that he was a member of the woodworkers’ union who was angry at Hitler for failing to cure unemployment entirely, and for leading Germany into what he, Elser, felt sure was a lost world war.
Noting that the Fuhrer was always surrounded by heavily armed guards, and that he rarely appeared or traveled at set times, Elser decided to strike at the absolute moment and place where the Fuhrer almost never failed to appear: in Munich at the Buergerbraukellar, on Nov. 8th.
On that day a full year earlier---in 1938---Elser stalked Hitler at the same beer hall, and watched him and the others stride down the boulevards in their annual commemorative march for the dead of 1923. Ironically---at that very moment!---another would-be assassin, Swiss waiter and ex-seminarian Maurice Bavaud, was in the same crowd trying, unsuccessfully, to shoot Hitler with a pistol from a distance. Bavaud was caught, and later beheaded.
Elser was more diligent. He worked in a mine quarry, and thus had access to explosives. Beginning in August 1939, Elser smuggled himself into the Burgerbrau every night for 35 days, and worked on the pillar undetected and silently in the dark with a
flashlight, installing his time bomb, complete with a hidden door. On Nov. 6th---63 hours and 20 minutes before the actual explosion---Elser set the mechanism, and left.
He returned to check it on the 7th at 9 PM, and then headed for the Swiss frontier, where, ironically, he was caught in Himmler’s dragnet just after the actual Munich detonation.
Brought to Berlin, Elser was brutally interrogated, and reportedly kicked in the side several times by Himmler himself. Bloodied, Elser denied all knowledge of a wider plot, although he admitted that two mysterious men had, indeed, supplied him with the explosives, but he didn’t know who they were, he claimed.
That same day—the ninth—Hitler decided not to march in the commemoration as in years past, as the Venlo “incident” was being announced in the press. On the 10th---still fearful of the Army reaction to his western assault plans--- he postponed the set winter battle date of Nov. 15th for the first of 29 times. (It finally took place on May 10, 1940.) On Nov. 11, 1939, Hitler attended the public funeral in Munich for the victims of the blast.
Meanwhile, Elser was sent to prison, where he later smuggled a note to Best and Stevens stating that he had been brought before the commandant at Dachau concentration
camp in October 1939 and given the bomb by the two unknown men (SS agents?) They’d persuaded him to plant the bomb to kill “traitors against the Fuhrer,” but the explosion was to be delayed until after Hitler left.
After his arrest, Elser was reportedly told at Gestapo/Secret State Police headquarters that he would be used as a prosecution witness against the two British agents for the trial that never came.
Was any of this true? Was Schellenberg a double agent for the British? He survived the war, was not tried as a war criminal at Nurnberg, and died peacefully in 1948 of natural causes. Was there a dissident Nazi anti-Hitler movement angry over the Nazi-Soviet Pact of the previous August? Was the explosion calculated by Hitler himself to whip up German enthusiasm for the war? Was there an SS plot to take over the Third Reich in 1939?
We may never know for sure. Heydrich himself was assassinated in 1942, and Himmler died a suicide in 1945 (as did Hitler), taking his secrets to the grave. He had, however, seen to it that Georg Elser lived almost a privileged existence to the very end of the war in Dachau, and even provided him with tools and wood with which to make cabinets.
On Apr. 5, 1945, RFSS Himmler ordered that, “During the next air raid, see to it that Elser is mortally wounded…Destroy this order when the deed has been executed.” Four days later, as American bombers flew overhead, the little watchmaker was led from his cell at Dachau and shot, the last victim of Nov. 8, 1939.
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