04 January 2009

'A True German Hero'

The recently released film Valkyrie, tells the story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an aristocratic army officer who was one of the key conspirators behind a plot to kill Hitler in 1944. His was one of only two serious attempts to kill Hitler during the war.

The other would be assassin was Johann Georg Elser, born this day in 1903. Unlike von Stauffenberg, whose active opposition to the Nazi regime took time to evolve, Elser opposed the regime from the very beginning.

On 8 November 1923 the Nazis had attempted to seize power in what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch when Hitler and his supporters took over the Bürgerbräukeller on Rosenheimerstraße. where the Bavarian State Commissioner Gustav von Kahr was holding a meeting.

The Putsch failed, but when the Nazi's finally took power in 1933 Hitler returned to the Bürgerbräukeller every year on 8 November to commemorate the events of 1923.

A meeting of the Nazi Party at the Bürgerbräukeller around 1923

In the weeks before the anniversary in 1939, Elser visited the Bürgerbräukeller regularly and managed to hollow out a space in a pillar behind the stage where he planted a bomb designed to kill Hitler as he gave his speech.

The bomb was set to detonate at 9.20pm when Hitler should till have been present. That evening, though, a heavy fog prevented Hitler from returning to Berlin by plane and it was decided that he would return by train instead. Crucially, this meant that Hitler left the beer hall earlier than normal - thirteen minutes before Elser's bomb exploded. Eight people were killed - seven of them members of the Nazi Party - and more than sixty injured, but Hitler had survived.

The aftermath of the explosion

Elser was arrested the same evening as he tried to cross the border into Switzerland. Initially, he was not suspected of involvement in the attack but gradually his role became clear. He was taken to Berlin were he was tortured. Later he was transferred to Sachsenhausen and then Dachau.

A show trial was planned, but with the war drawing to a close and Germany facing defeat Hitler ordered his execution. He was shot dead at Dachau on 9 April 1945.

I only became aware of Elser by accident as I read about von Stauffenberg. I find it strange that Elser is a largely forgotten figure while von Stauffenberg is lauded as a hero. I'm not disputing the latter, but Elser's resistance seems somehow more heroic.

He never flirted with the regime. He opposed it even in the good times when many Germans still supported Hitler and the Nazis. He had no circle of co-conspirators, no military networks, no aristocratic family history or tradition.

Elser seems to have been a much more problematic figure than the aristocratic, 'patriotic' and conservative von Stauffenberg. Elser was a working class, communist supporting, pious Protestant. Despite his communist sympathies, even the East German regime payed little attention to this man and his actions. He seems to have been to much of an individual, to much of a maverick.

The Nazi's could not believe that Elser acting alone could have come so close to killing Hitler. They were convinced that he was being directed by British agents. Sadly, there were others who also could not believe he acted alone. The rumour spread that he himself was a Gestapo agent and that the entire plot had been staged by the regime.

Today Georg Elser is commemorated in Munich by a small pedestrian square, Georg-Elser-Platz, off Türkenstraße. The Georg Elser Halle, a concert hall in Rosenheimerstraße was recently demolished. The Bürgerbräukeller was never rebuilt after the attack and the ruins were finally removed in the 1970's. The site is now occupied by the Hilton City hotel. In the passage way between the Hilton and the Gasteig there is a commemorative plaque.

The plaque outside the Hilton City Hotel. It reads: On this spot in the former Burgerbraukeller, the carpenter Johann Georg Elser on 8 November 1939 attempted an attack on Adolf Hitler. He wanted to put an end to the National Socialist terror regime. The plan failed. Johann Georg Elser after 5½ years in prison was murdered on 9 April 1945 in the Dachau concentration camp.

It is scant recognition for a brave and far-sighted man and while I realise that a posting on an insignificant blog adds little, on the anniversary of Georg Esler's birth it is the least I can do.

If you are interested in finding out more about Elser Spiegel has a good English language article. There is also a German language website dedicated to Elser and Radio Bremen has a web page linking to multimedia presentations telling Elser's story.


Jul said...

Good post. I learned something!

olli said...

Thanks Jul. I learned plenty myself reading about him. On the 18th of this month it is the anniversary of the birth of Rupert Meyer so there will probably be another post along these lines.

Heidi said...

Thank you for remembering him, he was my Grandfather's cousin. We are all very proud to have him in our family tree. My Grandfather visited him often in prison before his death, and was suspected of possibly being an accomplice but was probably disregarded because he lost his right arm fighting in WWI.
Take care,

olli said...

Thanks for getting in touch Heidi.

He is certainly someone to be proud of. It's just a shame he is not better known.