History is usually written by the victor. But it is often forgotten, both in Britain and in Germany, that there were individuals in Germany who acted against Nazi tyranny. This is the story of one of them1.
Georg Elser, a carpenter, was born in Hermaringen, Württemberg in 1903. He had sympathies and connections with various socialist and left-wing organisations, but does not appear to have been a member of any of them. Acting alone, he carried out an assassination attempt against Hitler on 8 November, 1939.
The venue for the attempt was Munich's Bürgerbräukeller, at a celebration of the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch (9 November, 1923). This was a totemic location for the Nazis for it was where the SA2 stormed a political meeting and declared a revolution3.
Elser began planning his attempt over a year before, and visited the hall for the 1938 celebration. Over 30 nights, he worked in secret using his carpenter's tools to hollow out a pillar near where Hitler intended to make his speech. Here, he planted his bomb, timed to go off during the speech.
As it happened, Hitler arrived slightly early, made a shorter speech than expected, and then left. The bomb blast killed eight of the old comrades, none of whom were Nazi leaders. The leaders had left with Hitler. Elser was arrested (coincidentally for unrelated reasons) en route for Switzerland. He later died in Dachau.
The reasons why Elser's heroic story is not more widely known are worthy of speculation. To some, Hitler's lucky escape demonstrated his Vorsehung (fate) and showed he was destined to lead the Reich, strengthening his popularity and support amongst ordinary Germans. Hitler's reaction on hearing of the failed attempt was to say, 'Now I am content. The fact that I left earlier than usual shows that Providence intends to allow me to reach my goal!' Cardinals Faulhaber and Bertram congratulated Hitler on 'miraculously' surviving the attempt and a Te Deum was sung in Munich's cathedral to give thanks to Divine Providence. Certainly, at the time, Elser was widely seen as a traitor. The official propaganda claimed, incorrectly, that he was working as a British secret agent and this perception carried on even after the war.
Perhaps it was because the assassination attempt took place before the outbreak of war or the implementation of The Final Solution - raising questions about the moral justification for Elser's actions4? There is also an argument5 that he exposed the claims made by many Germans that they couldn't see where Hitler was leading them - yet an ordinary man like Elser could. Maybe it was his left-wing sympathies which also gave some retrospective justification to the demonisation of Marinus Van Der Lubbe (who was wrongly accused of the Reichstag arson)6, or that, unlike the White Rose students7 or the July 20th officers8, Elser was a working class figure, working on his self-taught beliefs, rather than a member of a respectable elite?
Whatever the reasons, Elser was a heroic figure who deserves to be written back into history.