Shortly after 9pm on 8 November 1939, a Munich beer hall – the Bürgerbräukeller – was clearing up after one of Hitler’s speeches. Earlier in the evening, approximately 3,000 faithful Nazis had thronged the hall, but now, with Hitler departed, the last of the party veterans, the ‘Old Fighters’, were collecting their possessions and saying their goodbyes, leaving behind only the beer hall’s staff and a handful of musicians.
Then, at 9.20pm exactly, the hubbub was shattered by an explosion. In a flash, the room filled with smoke and dust, and a blast wave raced through the building, shattering windows and blowing out doors. The tables and stools in the centre of the hall were splintered to matchwood; the central pillar was destroyed, and both the gallery and the ceiling came crashing down into the room. The dais and lectern, where Hitler had been standing, were crushed.
One traumatised eyewitness recalled: “There was a bright light, and in the same instant we heard a terrible blast. I was thrown back two metres, falling into the rubble, while all hell broke loose above me. When I came to my senses, I was lying on my stomach with my right arm over the foot of my comrade. I did not know at the time that he was already dead.”
The dead man was one of three killed outright by the terrible explosion; more than 60 more were injured, five fatally. Those that weren’t too badly wounded freed themselves from the rubble, emerging bloodied and covered in dust, many assuming that they had fallen victim to an air raid. One of their number was more perceptive, however, concluding that the destruction had been caused by a bomb intended to kill their beloved führer. “My God,” he gasped, “what bestial brain could have conceived such an atrocity?”
That “bestial brain” belonged to Georg Elser, a 36-year-old carpenter from Swabia in south-western Germany. Small in stature, with unruly, dark hair, and a pinched, slightly troubled expression, Elser had been an average school pupil and was something of a loner, with few friends and an innate contentment with his own company. Growing up in rural poverty, he had been apprenticed as a carpenter and eked out a meagre living from woodworking.
Unlike many of his fellows, however, Elser despised Hitler, blaming the Nazis – rather than the strict terms of the Treaty of Versailles, or the Jews – for his straitened circumstances. Typical in this regard was his reaction when a Nazi parade marched through his home town of Königsbronn in 1938. Elser turned out to watch, but as those around him gave the Hitler salute, he refused to do likewise. When a neighbour reminded him that it might be sensible to conform, he replied: “You can kiss my arse.”
Yet, rather than surrender to impotent rage, Elser decided to act. That autumn, as war appeared to loom during the Czech Crisis, he resolved that he was going to assassinate Hitler. Telling no one, he began to plot, and after visiting Munich in 1938 to observe the Nazi ceremonies surrounding the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, he spotted a golden opportunity.
Armed with a purpose
Elser set to work with a will. First, he took a job in an armaments factory in his home town, where he stole a fuse and some gunpowder. Then he found another job in a nearby quarry, where he acquired explosives and a detonator. Having no experience of such matters, he experimented, testing prototype bombs in the fields around his home.
In the spring of 1939, he returned to Munich, making detailed sketches of the hall of the Bürgerbräukeller, where he planned his attack. He saw the ideal location for his bomb: behind the lectern where a thick stone pillar supported an upper gallery that ran the length of the hall. An explosion there, he reckoned, would not only kill those in its immediate vicinity, but it could also bring down the heavy balcony above.
Throughout eight months of plotting, Elser divulged the truth of his activities to no one. If asked what he was making in his workshop, he would reply simply: “An invention.” And, when pressed by an intrigued colleague if his invention was an alarm clock that would ring and simultaneously activate a light, he answered evasively: “Yes, something like that.”
In early August 1939, Elser finally moved to Munich, taking with him his tools, his bomb, six clock movements, detonators, wire, fuses and a battery. His modus operandi was simple. He would visit the Bürgerbräukeller every night at around 9pm to take his evening meal. Later, he would sneak upstairs, where he would hide in a storeroom until the bar closed. Then, he would work by torchlight to hollow out a cavity in the pillar to accommodate his bomb: every sound had to be muffled, every speck of brick dust collected. He could afford to leave no evidence of his presence. At 7.30am, when the bar staff returned, he would then sneak out of a back entrance.
By day, Elser worked on his timer and detonator. He planned to be safely in Switzerland by the time his bomb exploded, so he needed to build a timer that could be set several days in advance. His solution was to modify a clock movement, adding extra cogs and levers, to create a timer that could run for a maximum of 144 hours before activating a lever, attached to a detonator. For good measure, he then added a second clock mechanism to act as a failsafe.
On the night of 2 November, two months after he had started work in earnest, he finally installed his bomb in the pillar. Three nights later he added the timer. It was set to explode at 9.20pm on the evening of 8 November – right in the middle of Hitler’s speech.
A narrow escape
Hitler had arrived in Munich earlier that day. He had initially wanted to cancel his Bürgerbräukeller speech, given the pressure of work that awaited him in Berlin, but the commemorations were one of the highlights of the Nazi calendar. He resolved to attend the ceremony but insisted he had to be back in the capital that same night. When fog was forecast, he decided to return by train, thereby necessitating a shortening of the traditional programme of events. The address to the ‘Old Fighters’, therefore, would begin earlier than usual and end at 9pm.
The speech followed the usual script. Hitler raged against the perfidy of the British and the injustice of Versailles, working himself into a spit-flecked theatrical frenzy and culminating in a lauding of the Nazi movement for its restoration of German “honour”. He ended, following a chorus of “Sieg Heils”, and left the hall just after 9pm to take his train to Berlin. Thirteen minutes later, Elser’s bomb exploded.
As we know, Hitler was unharmed. Safely ensconced on his train, he blanched when he heard about the explosion, then concluded that providence was sparing him for greater things. His SS and police chief, Heinrich Himmler, meanwhile, was already planning round-ups of suspects and a revamp of Hitler’s security.
Elser, of course, was far away. He had hoped to be in Switzerland by the time the bomb exploded, but he hadn’t reckoned on the efficiency of German border guards, who apprehended him close to the frontier. When a search of his pockets then revealed some fuse wire and a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller, he was handed over to the Gestapo for interrogation. He spent the next five and a half years in isolation from other prisoners in two concentration camps, before being summarily executed in Dachau, in April 1945.
Other than Claus von Stauffenberg, who planted a bomb at Hitler’s headquarters in July 1944, Elser came closest to killing the German leader: but for some fog in Munich that night, he would almost certainly have achieved his aim. And yet, until comparatively recently, the name of Georg Elser has languished in obscurity, a footnote to the wider story of the German resistance.
But Elser’s is arguably the greater achievement. A simple man, he did not benefit from the aristocratic background that von Stauffenberg did, nor did he have any support network to provide emotional or technological succour. Moreover, he saw the essential bestial truth of Nazism already in 1938, at a time when most Germans – including von Stauffenberg – were still enamoured with Hitler. Elser, then, fully deserves his place in the pantheon of the German resistance. More than that, he deserves the respect that has been denied him for so long.
Roger Moorhouse is a historian and author, and a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Warsaw. His books include First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 (Bodley Head, 2019) and Killing Hitler (Jonathan Cape, 2006)