Killing Hitler (Book Review)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 24, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 24, 2006. Partner content is not updated.

Killing Hitler (Book Review)

More than any of his modern peers in mass slaughter - Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot - Adolf Hitler has always inspired dreams of assassination, powerful what-if fantasies that add up to: if only someone had shot him in time. It's the inescapable adjunct to the fact that Hitler was the single most influential individual of the 20th century. Without him, it's easy to imagine that the unparalleled death and destruction the Third Reich unleashed would never have occurred. Even during his early career, when most of the horror was yet to come, the longing for Hitler's death was strong. And, as Roger Moorhouse's informative and ultimately sad account Killing Hitler (Random House) shows, there were far more assassination attempts than most people realize. Historians have uncovered more than 40 plots, half of them serious, and a handful that came heartbreakingly close.

Hitler, of course, had the luck, and from the very beginning. He survived four years of the Great War, a charnel house that consumed eight million other soldiers. In the abortive, comic-opera Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Munich police shot dead the man beside him: a few inches the other way, and the future führer would barely merit a footnote in history books. Later on, Hitler would change his plans just as his assailants were poised to strike, or they would demonstrate a frustrating, last-minute ineptitude. But just maybe, some historians argue, it was all for the best - at least once the tide of war had turned against the Nazis, despite the millions of deaths in its later stages. After Hitler had reached the pinnacle of his success - and simultaneously begun the process of Germany's self-destruction - it was to his enemies' benefit that his life continued to play out to its final, suicidal moment.

By 1938 and the infamous Munich Pact, it was no longer possible to dismiss Hitler as a preposterous demagogue bound to tumble back into obscurity. It was increasingly obvious to many that Europe was sliding into a new conflagration, one Hitler's opponents were quite likely to lose. Thoughts of assassination were bubbling to the surface everywhere, within and without Germany. In November of that year, Hitler came to Munich to mark a major event on the Nazi calendar, the annual commemoration of the Beer Hall Putsch. On Nov. 8, he gave his standard speech to a crowd of old Nazis in the Bürgerbräu beer hall, where the putsch had been launched, and the next day took part in the parade. As always, a crowd of thousands gathered to watch, among them - independent of each other - two would-be assassins.

Maurice Bavaud had screwed himself up to act on the spot. A dreamy, 22-year-old Swiss Catholic, Bavaud was angry about the Nazi persecution of his Church. Some weeks earlier, he had crossed into Germany, haphazardly looking for an opportunity to shoot Hitler. Now, pistol in pocket and bearing a grandstand pass he had picked up by posing as a journalist, he was ready. But forward planning was not Bavaud's strong suit. As Hitler approached, a forest of sieg-heiling arms went up to block the shooter's vision, and the führer passed safely by. Disconsolate, Bavaud decided to head to France, but he had dithered about in Germany for too long. Out of money, he tried to sneak on to a Paris-bound train; he was caught by a train cop and handed over to the Gestapo. Once Hitler's feared secret police had a look at Bavaud's luggage - astonishingly, he was still carrying with him his pistol, ammunition and a map of Hitler's Berchtesgaden retreat - his situation was hopeless. He was guillotined.

Georg Elser, for his part, attended the parade solely to look for future opportunities. He was a struggling carpenter worried about the onrush of war, but not a militant socialist or pacifist, and his exact motives remain unclear. But not his determination or patient perfectionism. As he headed home to the small town of Kšnigsbronn, Elser, 35, decided he would return with a vengeance during the next putsch anniversary celebration. He would plant a bomb in the Bürgerbräu that would kill Hitler during his speech, and as many other leading Nazis as possible.

With a year to prepare, Elser had no problem finding opportunities to steal a fuse and gunpowder from his employer, an armaments manufacturer. Next, he switched jobs to a quarry, where he purloined dynamite and a detonator. Lacking experience with explosives, Elser spent his weekends blowing things up in fields around his home. Elser's untroubled life of theft from sensitive industries and weekend explosives tinkering highlights a factor Moorhouse first notes in the case of Bavaud, who received a parade grandstand pass merely on the strength of his claim to be a Swiss journalist. Hitler's pre-war security was a joke - in Munich, where it was in the hands of his old street-fighter comrades from the party's formative years, it verged on non-existent. For those who wanted the führer dead, the Bavarian capital was the place to strike.

In the spring of 1939, Elser went back to Munich, where no one bothered him as he made detailed drawings of the Bürgerbräu and spotted the ideal place for his bomb: in a thick stone pillar right behind the raised speaker's dais. An explosion there would not only kill anyone in the immediate vicinity, it would probably bring down the heavy balcony above, raising the casualty count even further. In August, Elser moved to Munich permanently, and began what Moorhouse calls a "shockingly simple" modus operandi. He would arrive at the Bürgerbräu for dinner every night at about 9 p.m. An hour later, he would sneak upstairs and hide in a storeroom until the bar closed. Then he'd work by flashlight until the building opened again at 7:30, before sneaking out the back entrance.

His first task took him three nights. Careful to collect every speck of sawdust, Elser sawed a panel out of the pillar's wooden cladding, and turned it into a flush-fitting invisible door. Then, week after week, with hand drill, hammer and chisel, Elser dug out a cavity for the bomb, with infinite care. He planned to be safely in Switzerland when Hitler died, so he crafted a 144-hour timer, put it in a cork-lined box (for silence), and lined the inside of his secret panel with tin (so it wouldn't ring hollow if someone tapped it). Elser installed it all on Nov. 2, two months after he started his nightly efforts, and six days before his deadline. On Nov. 5, he started the timer, and set it to go off three days later at 9:20 p.m. - around the usual midpoint of Hitler's annual speech.

But Elser was wrong to think it would be business as usual in the Bürgerbräu that night. War had intervened. Two months earlier Hitler had invaded Poland, and was now impatient to move on to France. Planning for a western offensive was in its advanced stages: Nov. 9 was decision day, with everything hanging on the weather forecast. (In the end, conditions were unfavourable, and the invasion of France was put off until the spring of 1940.) On the afternoon of the 8th, though, Hitler was impatient to be in Berlin the next morning to make the call. The original plan was for him to fly back after his speech. But Hitler's personal pilot was worried by the gathering fog at Munich airport, and the dictator's entourage decided he would leave by overnight train. That meant Hitler would have to address his old comrades at 8 p.m., about an hour earlier than usual.

Standing before a crowd of 3,000, not much more than a metre away from a ticking time bomb, Hitler gave a ranting harangue about German cultural achievements and British perfidy. He left for the train station at 9:07, and most of the crowd followed him out. Thirteen minutes later, there were only about 100 people present, mostly musicians and bar staff, when the explosion shredded the speaker's dais and brought down the upper gallery, killing eight and wounding 62.

When he heard about it aboard his train, the führer soon came to the conclusion that the hand of Providence had saved him. Over the years, his accounts of that night to his cronies were embellished bit by bit, from the little voice that whispered "Get out! get out!" to the version he told his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann: "I had the most extraordinary feeling. I felt compelled to leave the cellar as quickly as I could." Moorhouse considers the narrow escape a key moment in Hitler's descent into megalomania. Adulatory press coverage of the divine intervention angle, cynically whipped up by propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, and telegrams from foreign well-wishers - including Pope Pius XII - could only have helped instill that feeling.

Like his intended target, Elser too was far away when the bomb exploded. He was at the Swiss frontier, where he found his planning outdated in another crucial detail. What had been an unmanned stretch of frontier when he reconnoitred it before the war was now heavily patrolled. He was nabbed by two German border guards; as was the case with Bavaud, it was his possessions - bomb sketches and a fuse - that sealed his fate.

The Nazi hierarchy, including Hitler and Heinrich Himmler - who personally participated in Elser's brutal interrogation - took it for granted that British intelligence was somehow involved. They never did believe the bomber's protestation that he acted alone, or give up hope of using him in a future trial of British war criminals. For that reason, Elser had a relatively easy, and extraordinarily long, stay at the political prisoners' concentration camp of Sachsenhausen outside Berlin. He was given two rooms to live in, and a generous cigarette allowance; his guards even let him play his homemade zither. Only in April 1945, when Himmler was busy tidying embarrassing loose ends before the inevitable Allied victory, was Elser shot. Hitler survived him by just three weeks.

So died the man who may have come closest of all to killing Adolf Hitler. Elser has only two rivals in the near-miss stakes. One was a little-known German aristocrat and soldier, Col. Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff, who stuffed his pockets with mines and a 10-minute fuse in 1943, and started the timer as he began to escort the führer on a half-hour inspection of captured Soviet weaponry. But Hitler was bored, and left after only two minutes. Disconcerted, and deprived of the chance to become history's first known suicide bomber, von Gersdorff hurried to a washroom to deactivate his fuse. The other close call was Count Claus von Stauffenberg's famous bomb attempt in 1944, which failed through a combination of bad luck - somehow the explosion killed four men around the führer but merely filled his legs with 100 wooden splinters - and von Stauffenberg's failure to arm the second slab of explosives in his briefcase. The resulting blast was only half as powerful as it could have been.

But it was Elser who came closest at the most opportune hour - von Gersdorff and von Stauffenberg acted years, and millions of deaths, after the war began. It's no surprise that the most dedicated assassins of the later war years were German, in particular army officers. They knew what had been done in the name of Germany, and they could see the whirlwind of retribution coming. Allied soldiers and politicians were far less certain of the urgent necessity to remove Hitler from the scene. Many were inclined to the opposite opinion. British special-ops head Lt.-Col. Ronald Thornley argued that as an incompetent strategist "Hitler has been of the greatest possible effort to the British war effort."

Nonetheless, in June 1944, the British government commissioned Operation Foxley, a feasibility study of the pros and cons of killing the German dictator. In 2003, Duncan Anderson, head of the war studies department at Britain's Royal Military College at Sandhurst, wrote a detailed paper considering the possible aftermath of a successful assassination try that July. (It would not have been possible later, because the intelligence the British had about Hitler's security arrangements was rendered useless when von Stauffenberg's attempt prompted wholesale changes.)

The Germans were more hard-pressed than desperate in the summer of '44, Anderson reasons, and with newly competent military leadership could have made a much better defence than they did. In particular, it was Hitler's direct order that was holding up jet fighter production (he wanted the jets to be bombers) and the invasion of Romania, whose oil reserves were crucial to the Axis cause. On June 28, Hitler had rejected a sound, river-by-river defensive plan for the western front put forward by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Had it been adopted, Canadian, British and American casualties would have soared.

However improved the German defences, though, the preponderance of Allied resources would have inexorably ground them down - and that's when the political import of Hitler's absence would have played out. The Nazi dictator was, in many ways, the glue that held together the Western-Soviet alliance. In the real war, the German naval command had actually proposed, in January 1945, simply letting the Western armies into the Reich - the more of Germany they occupied, the navy reasoned, the less the Red Army would. The Western forces, in effect, would become de facto allies of whatever was left of the Wehrmacht. Anderson figures a military government would have taken up the naval suggestion.

If Stalin had been excluded from Berlin (or from the Balkans, another possibility), Anderson imagines "Anglo-American and Soviet forces shelling each other across the Oder." At the very least, he sees an immediate Cold War, with an increasingly paranoid U.S.S.R. facing off against an intact, psychologically undefeated Germany allied to Britain and the U.S. In the nuclear stand-off that would follow, in his alternative scenario as surely as it did in real life, Anderson writes, "it is unlikely the world would have been as lucky as it was."

Maybe, in the end, it was Hitler's enemies who had the luck, after all.

See also WORLD WAR II.

Maclean's April 24, 2006