13 minutes. 780 seconds. Just under a quarter of an hour. What can you achieve in 13 minutes? Maybe, if you’re lucky, your commute to work takes 13 minutes. Maybe it takes you 13 minutes to eat your lunch. Some of you may spend 13 minutes taking selfies or browsing Instagram. It may take you 13 minutes to shower. The point is, 13 minutes is not a long time.
I am standing in the Topography of Terror Museum in Kreuzberg. The lighting is dim and voices whisper to each other in hushed tones, this is not a place for loud chatter. The museum, housed on the grounds of the former SS headquarters, displays how Adolf Hitler rose to power and gradually turned a democracy into a dictatorship. As we shuffle around the chronological display, learning how Nazi Germany ensured compliance by progressively ramping up the violence and becoming a totalitarian state, I am faced by a picture of a man I’d first read about several years ago and who I’d almost completely forgotten. A man who came within 13 minutes of dramatically altering world history. That man was Johann Georg Elser.
On the 8th November 1939 Adolf Hitler was 13 minutes from death. In one of the worst ever cases of bad luck, the Führer, history’s most notorious dictator, narrowly avoided an assassination attempt that would have dramatically altered world history. For me, it is one of history’s biggest cases of “what if?”
Johann Georg Elser, born in 1903, was a carpenter from Hermaringen, a small town between Munich and Stuttgart in the South of Germany. A regular man who once flirted with communism but who wasn’t overtly political, he was disturbed by the direction Nazi Germany was heading in. Firstly, with the Anschluss (bloodless coup) of Austria and then the annexation of the Sudetenland in the Czech Republic.
He came to realise that, under Adolf Hitler, a world war was unavoidable, a clarity of vision sorely lacking with several European leaders. In 1938, he formulated a plan to assassinate the Chancellor of the Third Reich and the other leading National Socialist figures, Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, in the hopes of preventing another catastrophic global conflict.
Elser began to frequent Buergerbraeuhaus, a beer hall in Munich, the site of Hitler’s annual speech commemorating the 1923 attempted Beer Hall Putsch (Hitler’s failed right-wing coup which led to his prison sentence and subsequent writing of Mein kampf). It was here he hoped to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He arrived every night for a meal and hid as it closed. He worked through the night to hollow out the pillar above where Hitler’s speech would be delivered, figuring this would be the best place to plant an explosive device.
In the empty, cavernous hall every sound was amplified. He carried out the noisiest tasks to coincide with the automatic flushing of the toilets every 10 minutes. He then had to clean the area where he was working and ensure that all traces of his deeds, every speck of dust was removed so as to not arouse suspicion. For more than 30 nights he worked into the small hours to execute his plan. He had learnt about explosives while working for an armaments firm near his home town. Using this knowledge, he built a bomb, set the timer, hid it and left, never to return.
Hitler arrived at Buergerbraeuhaus on the 8th November 1939 to make his annual address to the crowd. This year, the first of World War 2, he took some time to mock his international enemies and congratulate Germany on their startling early successes in the war. Hitler, his staff and his enraptured audience were completely unaware that there was a bomb set to explode mere meters from his podium.
In one of history’s most fortunate escapes, Munich was shrouded in fog and prohibited Hitler from flying back to Berlin. He left the beer hall 13 minutes early, at 21.07, to take a train back to the capital instead. The bomb went off as planned at 21.20 and a large chunk of the pillar fell down which certainly would have killed him. Hitler arrived back in Berlin to discover an attempt had been made on his life.
Elser was discovered near the Swiss border and was arrested because he had suspicious items on his person: the plans for making his bomb, a postcard of the Buergerbraeuhaus and some pliers: a startling and fatal oversight for a man who enclosed the ticking parts of his bomb in cork to muffle the noise. He was transferred to the Gestapo and interrogated for days. At first, they refused to believe he had acted alone, thinking he was working under the direction of the British Secret Service. After lengthy interrogation and torture he confessed. He was sent to Dachau concentration camp and spent years in solitary confinement. Tragically, he was executed on the 9th April 1945, merely weeks before the end of a war that he’d tried so valiantly to prevent.
Nobody knows what the outcome would have been had Elser been successful in his attempt to kill Hitler. The war would certainly have continued but maybe it would have ended earlier if Germany were led by a less unhinged leader. Maybe the destruction of Europe could have been prevented. Maybe the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been prevented. Maybe the Cold War and the construction of the Berlin Wall would never have happened. Maybe millions of men needn’t have been killed in the battlefields and maybe six million Jewish men, women and children wouldn’t have been murdered in the most systematically cruel endeavour in human history.
It is often said that for evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing. Unfortunately, he did not succeed but Johann Georg Elser did something. There are many tragedies from the six years between 1939 and 1945; above all the loss of over 70 million lives. There are also many stories of sacrifice and heroism that have emerged. Johann Georg Elser, a simple carpenter from a small town in Southern Germany, is only now starting to gain the recognition he deserves. It is long overdue.
Thanks for reading,