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This piece was intended primarily as an audio/podcast experience. You can listen by clicking 'Listen to Podcast', and/or read the transcript below.
Transcript of audio:
It was the middle of a cool September night in Munich, Germany. The year was 1939. In an otherwise unoccupied auditorium, a man knelt on hands and knees chiseling a square hole into a large stone pillar. The lights were all turned out, but a small flashlight dimmed with a handkerchief provided a pallid puddle of light. The man had wrapped his chisel in cloth to quiet his hammer strikes. Whenever there was some unexpected sound, he froze. Whenever a truck rumbled past the building, he seized the opportunity to chisel more vigorously. It was exceedingly tedious and slow work. The man working there was a 36-year-old German handyman named Georg Elser. But “handyman” isn’t exactly the right word. In his three and a half decades he had cultivated many skills, including clock making, cabinet building, master carpentry, and stone quarrying. And the task at hand required all of his diverse expertise.
The room where he worked was a beer hall in Munich known as the Bürgerbräukeller, and it already had an interesting role in history. In Germany it’s a tradition for citizens to crowd into such beer halls to engage in lively political and social debates, and sing beer-infused Trinklieder late into the night. And in this particular hall, just a few feet from where Elser was chiseling his hole, just 16 years earlier, a young Adolf Hitler had stepped up to the podium to convince a crowd of citizens to support his attempt to overthrow the kaput German government. It was an event history would come to know as the Beer Hall Putsch.
Hitler’s putsch had not been successful that night back in 1923. He did succeed in winning over the crowd, but he and his cohorts lacked a coherent plan, and when the crowd spilled out into the streets and began marching on government buildings, they were scattered by armed police and soldiers. Two days later Hitler was captured and imprisoned for his role in the coup attempt. But despite this initial setback, the putsch set into motion a series of events that led to Adolf Hitler becoming the de facto dictator on the 2nd of August 1934.
Newsreel: When Hitler goes to vote for himself, the cheers speak louder than words. And with the Führer millions of Germans go to the polls. And everyone who goes to the polls receives a badge inscribed with the words “freedom and bread.” With only one party to vote for it’s hardly an election as we know them in this country, but all of Germany seems anxious to show its solidarity behind the dictator and its approval of his policy. And then the votes are counted, and soon it becomes obvious that even allowing for the special circumstances it is striking Nazi victory. So once more the mystery man of European politics gets his own way in his own country.
The citizenry enthusiastically renewed their support for the National Socialist German Workers Party in subsequent elections. But “election” isn’t exactly the right word. The ballots asked each voter whether he or she wished to choose the party of “our leader” Adolf Hitler. There was one large, prominent circle in the center for voters to mark “Ja,” clearly indicating the “correct” vote. There was a much smaller circle banished to the corner for those who preferred to respond “nein.” When the votes were tallied, the “ja”s had it.
Once Hitler was in power, he established a tradition of returning to the Bürgerbräukeller every year on the anniversary of the original botched putsch to commemorate the event. Every year he sat at the same podium, alongside the same men, at the same hour, and fomented nostalgic fanaticism among party loyalists with a two hour diatribe. For the 1938 speech, Georg Elser the carpenter/clock-maker had been among the thousands in attendance. The next year, in 1939, he arrived a few months early, toolbox in hand.
Hitler’s annual commemoration speech at the Bürgerbräukeller was why Elser was there, on hands and knees in the dark, painstakingly chipping a hole into the stonework. Hitler’s annual speech was why, when the sun began to rise, Elser would sweep the stone chips and dust into his suitcase, delicately reassemble the wood wall paneling to conceal his work, gather up his tools, then slip back to the adjoining hotel where he was renting a room. Hitler’s annual speech was why Elser would return again the next evening, eat some dinner in the restaurant upstairs, then slip away to hide in a utility closet until all of the patrons and staff left for the day. He would then creep back to this spot behind the podium, lay out his supplies, carefully disassemble the wood paneling, and resume his slow, steady, chiseling into the pillar. And he would do it all again the next night. And the next.
Georg Elser had always been a quiet, reserved German citizen. During years when his clockmaking and cabinet-building skills were not in demand, he had spent some time working in a stone quarry, and later in the armament factories of the increasingly militarized post World War I Germany. He was also said to have quite a knack for the Zither, a musical instrument a bit like a harp combined with an acoustic guitar. When Hitler’s speeches were broadcast, he left his radio switched off. When the Third Reich held elections or referendums, he declined to vote. As he passed by Third Reich rallies he did not perform the “Heil Hitler” salute. He was technically a “leftist,” but not a very active or outspoken one. Most of his family and friends at the time would have described him as essentially ‘apolitical.’ But ‘apolitical’ isn’t exactly the right word. He harbored profound political opinions; he merely kept them concealed behind an apolitical facade.
Elser spent months of night returning to the vast, dark beer hall to work on his secret project. The German army invaded Poland even as Elser chipped away at the stonework, which resulted in more frequent patrols of the building for Elser to hide from.
One morning, as Elser was sleepily sneaking out of the beer hall with a suitcase full of rock chips and dust, he ran into a waiter who had arrived early for his shift. The alarmed employee summoned a manager to confront the evident trespasser. Elser just calmly explained that he was an innocent customer who had found the door unlocked and let himself in. He politely ordered, and received, a cup of coffee. The next night he was back at work in the basement chiseling the pillar of the Bürgerbräukeller.
In early November, as Elser’s back was becoming so weary from stooping that he could barely stand up straight, the cavity finally reached the precise necessary specifications: 80 cm by 80 cm. It was deep enough that a crouching man could almost squeeze inside. Tomorrow, he would insert The Box.
It was the weekend, so the beer hall was occupied by dancing locals late into the evening, but Elser was patient. After the last of the patrons departed and the lights went out, Elser slipped into the hall and again disassembled the woodwork of the pillar behind the lectern.
The box contained the invention that had been occupying most of Elser’s recent daylight hours. It was a delicately assembled clock of his own design. Two clocks, actually. These were a surprise for the Führer. The clocks were unusual in that they were designed to run backwards. The inside of the box was lined with sheets of soundproofing cork. Also inside was an assortment of keepsakes Elser had purloined from previous employers: blasting caps from the rock quarry, and multiple packets of gunpowder from the armament factory. He set both of his hand-made precision mechanical clocks—a primary and a fail safe—to count down for approximately six days. He then carefully slid the 80 cm by 80 cm box into the congruent cavity. He protected the box with a thin sheet of metal in case anyone tried to hang a decoration there, then reassembled the woodwork to restore the pillar to its ordinary appearance. He then left the Bürgerbräukeller for what he intended to be the last time. He drove three hours to Stuttgart to stay at his sister’s house so he would be closer to his planned escape route.
On the night of the 6th of November—two days before the big event—Elser dreamt vividly that both of his timers had malfunctioned and stopped. Rattled, he decided to return to Munich to revisit his invention one last time, to calm his raw nerves. So on the eve of Adolf Hitler’s much-publicized commemorative speech, Elser snuck back into the Bürgerbräukeller, uncovered his compartment, and listened to the comforting tick of German engineering. He could see that both timers were working flawlessly—both would strike zero at 9:20pm the following night, about halfway though the Führer’s two hour speech. Elser delicately re-concealed the compartment, slipped out of the beer hall, and started the long drive back to Stuttgart. Tomorrow he would slip across the Swiss/German border. The moment was almost at hand. Georg Elser was beside himself with anxiety.
Some months earlier he had pre-scouted a stretch of border that was neither fenced nor patrolled by border guards. This is where he would make his escape, well before either of the hidden timers struck zero.
Unfortunately, Elser’s prior border exploration had occurred before Germany had invaded Poland. As a nation officially in conflict, German border vigilance had been stepped up considerably. Even as Elser hastened toward his escape, within sight of Switzerland, he was spotted by guards. He was escorted to a guard station where a live broadcast of Hitler’s ongoing speech was playing on the radio. The guards ordered the cagey German to turn out his pockets, revealing a curious array of possessions: A postcard from the historic beer hall known as “Bürgerbräukeller,” a pair of wire cutters, and numerous notes and sketches pertaining to some kind of complex apparatus. The border guards turned the eccentric fellow over to the local Gestapo office for further questioning.
Precisely on schedule, at 9:20pm, the primary timer inside The Box tripped a lever which thrust a firing pin into the primer of a high caliber rifle round. This rifle round detonated a cluster of blasting caps, which in turn activated over 100 lbs of gunpowder. The lectern and stage were both comprehensively obliterated. Several support pillars in the beer hall buckled, the walls lurched inward, and the roof crashed down upon the people inside.
The Führer was uninjured by the blast. “Uninjured” isn’t exactly the right word. He was, in fact, unaware that the explosion had even occurred. He was sitting rather comfortably on a train bound for Berlin. All flights had been delayed due to heavy fog, so this year, for the first time, the Führer had deviated from his traditional schedule. He had started his speech 30 minutes early, and shortened it to just one hour rather than the traditional two. This afforded him the time to return home via train. Hitler had stepped out of the Bürgerbräukeller just 13 minutes before the device automatically activated, and he did not learn of the assassination attempt until well after the building had been shattered into a collapsed ruin. Later, When he was informed of the close call, Hitler responded, ‘A man has to be lucky.’
Some of the audience members and some of the Bürgerbräukeller staff were less lucky. Many stragglers had lingered in the beer hall, and seven were killed outright when Elser’s bomb exploded. Another died later of his wounds. At least 63 were injured. Judging from utter atomization of the lectern, if Hitler had been sitting there at 9:20pm as originally scheduled, his contribution to history would have been sharply abbreviated. As would the constellation of dark stars surrounding him, including Goebbels, Hess, and Himmler.
Georg Elser was also a less lucky man. Owing to the fairly damning evidence found on his person—which he was likely carrying in order to convince the Swiss to grant him political asylum—he immediately became the prime suspect and he was transferred to Gestapo headquarters. Investigators at the bomb site found brass plates in the wreckage which were stamped with patent numbers belonging to one of Elser’s former clock shop employers. Surviving Bürgerbräukeller staff members fingered photos of Elser as a frequent patron. Gestapo agents questioning Elser ordered him to pull up his pantlegs, and, as they suspected, his knees were badly bruised, suggesting long hours spent kneeling on a hard surface. Interrogators then took great pains to ensure that the rest of his person became similarly bruised.
Gestapo agents identified and gathered up all of Elser’s family and known associates throughout Germany—including friends, employers, and ex-girlfriends—and brought them to their headquarters in Munich. Family members were made to watch as the bruised and bloodied Elser was questioned. One police officer who witnessed some of the interrogation commented:
Elser, who was groaning and bleeding profusely from the mouth and nose, made no confession; he would probably not have been physically able to, even if he had wanted to.
Elser was also made to watch as his family were pressed for answers that they didn’t have.
About a week after the Bürgerbräukeller blast, having absorbed considerable physical and psychological punishment, Elser sat down at a desk and scratched out a full confession. He explained that his motive was to preempt “even greater bloodshed.” In further interrogation, he reluctantly explained:
I reasoned the situation in Germany could only be modified by a removal of the current leadership, I mean Hitler, Goering and Goebbels. I did not want to eliminate Nazism. I was merely of the opinion that a moderation in the policy objectives will occur through the elimination of these three men.
Gestapo agents initially suspected that Elser was merely the final cog in a much greater conspiracy machine, but he assured them that he had acted alone. He did not amend this answer despite the application of heat exposure, dehydration, drugs, sleep deprivation, and hypnosis. Investigators could find no actual evidence of co-conspirators, and Elser seemed to have a full knowledge of every detail of the attack. Therefore, interrogators reluctantly concluded that he was the sole party. Nevertheless the “Reichs Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda” decided to tell German newspapers that the would-be assassin had been funded by the British Intelligence Service.
The interrogators also asked Elser about his explosive invention, which reportedly made him much more cheerful. “Cheerful” isn’t exactly the right word, but it brightened his mood as much as circumstances would allow. He described the mechanism with pride and enthusiasm, and drew up several detailed schematics of the intricate time bomb. The Gestapo would later include these designs in their training manuals as an example of an excellent improvised explosive. Said one of his interrogators of the device:
I’ve never seen such an ingeniously constructed infernal machine. The man was a genius.
Georg Elser spent about a year imprisoned in the Gestapo headquarters—subject to occasional questioning, beatings, and miscellaneous torment—before he was finally transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1941 to await his inevitable show trial. For four years he was held as a “special prisoner” there, which granted him sanctuary from most atrocities. He even had access to a small woodworking space, where he had the occasion to construct—and enjoy playing—a zither.
In 1945 Elser was relocated to Dachau concentration camp. But he would not live there long. The advancing Allies were pressing ever closer to Berlin, and the Third Reich’s outlook was grim. On the 5th of April 1945 the Commandant of the Dachau concentration camp received an order regarding “Eller”—which was Georg Elser’s code name at the camp—sent from the highest tiers of Nazi leadership. It read in part:
On the occasion of one of the next terror attacks on Munich, or, as the case may be, the neighborhood of Dachau, it shall be pretended that ‘Eller’ suffered fatal injuries. I request you therefore, when such an occasion arises to liquidate ‘Eller’ as discreetly as possible. Please take steps that only a few people, who must be specially pledged to silence, hear about this.
The unusual delicacy of Elser’s execution order was curious considering that he had already been largely forgotten by the understandably distracted German public, and in light of the millions of people who had already been exterminated in Nazi concentration camps. This special attention has since precipitated a handful of spurious conspiracy theories, such as the hypothesis that Elser was actually an SS agent all along, and that the Bürgerbräukeller attack had been staged as a way to rally support behind Hitler. But that suggestion is supported about as well as a competing hypothesis that Georg Elser was…every time traveler ever.
Just four weeks before the end of the war in Europe—on the 9th of April 1945—the Commandant of the Dachau concentration camp had occasion to follow through on his kill order. High-ranking camp officials escorted 42-year-old Elser to the camp crematorium. They shot him without ceremony. The onlooking Nazi officers dutifully burned the remains.
Three weeks later, Elser’s original assassination target Adolf Hitler also absorbed a single fatal bullet—his, self-inflicted. The onlooking Nazi officers dutifully burned the remains.
Georg Elser’s story was largely unknown until Hellmut G. Haasis published a well-researched biography of Elser in 1999. Today in Germany he is widely admired as a true hero. The country is peppered with plaques, statues, and other monuments honoring Elser, including a 56-foot-tall steel monument which stands in Berlin. There are streets and schools named after the man, and a commemorative postage stamp bearing his photograph. There are even several community social halls named in Elser’s honor, which has a certain morbid irony.
The Bürgerbräukeller was never rebuilt after the blast, but today, where the building once stood, at the very spot where Elser installed his clandestine bomb cubby in 1939, there is a memorial placard embedded in the pavement. It reads:
At this point, in the former Bürgerbräukeller, Johann Georg Elser tried on the 8th of November 1939 to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He wanted the terror regime of the National Socialists put to an end. The plan failed. Johann Georg Elser was, after 5 1/2 years on the 9th of April 1945, murdered in the Dachau concentration camp.
Something with a clock in it might’ve made a nice monument there.
So although he’s regarded as a true hero in Germany today, maybe “hero” isn’t exactly the right word. This man Georg Elser tried to eliminate arguably the worst human in history. But, he failed, and his indiscriminate time bomb instead killed eight bystanders and injured scores more. And it could have killed hundreds of onlookers if it had detonated as intended in the midst of Hitler’s address. It is impossible to know if Elser was informed by some kind of inhuman intuition, or whether it was just serendipitous insanity…a stopped clock’s inevitable but infrequent accuracy. In any case, we emphatically discourage the use of unilateral violence to effect political change; even while we wish Georg Elser had succeeded.
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