Melbourne, Apr.7 :In November of 1939, mere months after the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler was almost assassinated.
The would-be killer, a 36-year-old German carpenter named Johann Georg Elser, was acting alone against impossible odds. He failed, Hitler survived, and for six more years, the world was ravaged by unprecedented bloodshed.
By the time Hitler shot himself in 1945, Elser’s plot had largely been forgotten, but now we know precisely how close he came to killing the Fuhrer. The daring plot missed its target by just 13 minutes.
Elser hatched his scheme in the autumn of 1938, having decided war was “unavoidable” with Hitler in control of Germany. Obviously, he was right about that. Elser planned to kill the Fuhrer with a bomb during his annual speech at the Burgerbraukeller, a beer hall in Munich.
“I slowly concocted in my mind that it was best to pack explosives in the pillar directly behind the speaker’s podium,” he told the Gestapo later.
His reasoning was sound enough. Every year, at exactly the same time on November 8, Hitler would speak at an event commemorating the Nazi party’s early history. Elser knew where his target would be, and when he would be there.
Elser stole explosives from his workplace, an armament factory, before taking detonators and cartridges from a quarry. When he’d gathered the materials he would need, Elser travelled to Munich and set about hiding his bomb in the beer hall.
For more than 30 nights, he entered the hall before it closed at 10:30pm, secretly remaining inside. With the building empty and its doors locked, he created a cavity in the column, carefully avoiding attention by conducting his loudest work when the hall’s toilets flushed automatically.
At the start of November, Elser placed his bomb inside the column. He conducted a final check the night before Hitler was due to speak, activated the timer, then left the city.
Everything was in place, but an unforeseeable problem foiled Elser’s plan. Heavy fog closed Munich’s airport on November 8, meaning Hitler would need to catch a train back to Berlin, where he was to consult with his military advisers. That changed his schedule.
The Fuhrer started speaking at 8pm, half an hour earlier than expected, and left the hall at 9:07. Elser’s bomb exploded at 9:20, killing eight people and injuring 60 more, but his target was already en route to the train station. He’d missed by 13 minutes.
Elser was arrested trying to cross the border into Switzerland. According to the Spiegel, he was carrying incriminating evidence — notes on how to make explosives and a postcard of the beer hall, among other things. His knees were scraped from his work on the column, and waitresses later identified him as a frequent visitor at the hall. Eventually, Elser had to confess.
He was taken to Berlin and tortured by the Gestapo, who initially didn’t believe he’d acted alone. When the authorities were done, they sent him to a concentration camp in Dachau, where he was executed in 1945. The war ended a few months later.
Transcripts from the Gestapo’s interrogations of Elser survived and were released in the 1960s. They now form the basis of what we know about his attempt to kill Hitler. A film telling his story, 13 Minutes, was released in Germany this year.
If Elser had succeeded, World War II undoubtedly would have transpired differently. The Holocaust may not have happened, for a start, and it’s likely that millions more lives would have been saved across Europe.
In other words, those 13 minutes were probably the costliest in human history.