Thanks to Tom Cruise and a raft of supporting actors, everyone knows about Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg's effort to assassinate Hitler on 20th July 1944. What many people don't know is that this was just one of dozens of attempts on the Führer's life; in fact this plot was one of the last.
But nearly five years earlier, a man acting alone came almost as close to success as the 20th July plotters. As an alternate history author, this attempt on 8th November 1939 holds particular fascination for several reasons:
1. A change in the weather could have led to Hitler's death.
2. Much of the Nazi cabinet was in attendance, and could have been killed too.
3. The Second World War was barely two months old, meaning the outcome of the conflict could have been very different...
First, the reality.
On that night in November, Hitler was due to address a crowd of several thousand at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, the site of the failed 'Beer Hall Putsch' that saw Hitler serve time in prison before his rise to power. This was sacred ground for the NSDAP; essentially the place where it all began. Joining Hitler for his speech were Hess, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, and many other senior members of the party apparatus.
Johann Georg Elser
A carpenter and talented craftsman by the name of Johann Georg Elser decided this was the perfect opportunity to kill the dictator that had led Germany into war; a war that he knew could not be won. Taking advantage of easy access to the Bürgerbräukeller in the weeks before Hitler's address, and working mostly at night, Elser designed, built and installed a timed explosive device inside a pillar adjacent to the speaker's rostrum. His activity went undetected, and when he left Munich on the 7th November the bomb had already been successfully concealed and the countdown had begun.
But fate would cause Hitler to change the duration of his two-hour speech. Originally planning to return to Berlin the following morning by aircraft, a forecast of fog led the Führer to choose instead to return by train. Thus, the start of his address was advanced as was its conclusion.
Hitler's address, cut from two hours to just one, ended thirteen minutes before the bomb exploded.
Now, the fiction; the 'Point of Divergence' (POD), as we say in the alternate history genre.
It would have taken only a change in the weather forecast for Hitler to have kept to his original plan. From the result of the explosion as it occurred (photographed below), I believe we can deduce with certainty that Hitler would have been killed, and very likely along with several senior members of the cabinet.
The Aftermath of the Bombing
What would have happened next?
Therein lies the challenge of alternate history; a plausible POD is often easy to determine, while the many branching consequences are perhaps less so.
Hitler's removal would have undoubtedly left a vacuum which rivals would immediately seek to fill. Not only was the Nazi cabinet packed with characters vying for Hitler's attention and ultimately their own power, but Hitler himself habitually played them against each other to encourage this rivalry, perhaps to prevent any one person (other than himself) from becoming too influential or powerful. Some of the obvious successors were in attendance and could also have been killed, leaving an open field of potential leaders.
If Rudolf Hess had become Führer, might the war have ended much sooner (Hess famously defected to the UK of course in 1941)?
What about a Reich under Heinrich Himmler? The leader of the SS might have brought disaster to Europe even more rapidly than Hitler.
Or perhaps Hermann Göring, who was absent in Berlin, might succeed Hitler? Opposed to war in the west, which had not yet begun, Göring might have sought a peace settlement with Britain and France. Would they have accepted to avoid a long and brutal war, reneging on their guarantee to Poland?
Fictional events following the Bürgerbräukeller bombing are the subject of my new project, The Carpenter and the Orchestra. Unlike most 'timelines' that you will find at
alternatehistory.com, this story is presented as an account written by an English historian during the 1970s, able to draw on personal and official accounts from interviews, letters, communiques and transcripts.
Have I whet your appetite?
If so, please enjoy chapter one of The Carpenter and the Orchestra:
THE HEAD OF THE SNAKE
On the 8th November 1939, Hitler’s war against the European peoples was fifty-nine days old. Already Poland lay conquered and occupied, while in the west an uneasy status quo was in place while France and Britain awaited the Germans’ next move. Many who had opposed Adolf Hitler’s rise to power had been swept up in the euphoria of a swift German victory. The ‘lost lands’ of Prussia to the east had been recaptured, and although the western powers had declared war, there had been no fighting so far on that front, and hopes of a peace settlement were very much alive.
Amid this atmosphere of invincibility, the Führer, Adolf Hitler, had arrived in Munich to address a large gathering of the party faithful. Bavaria was the fertile conservative ground from which National Socialism had sprung, and Munich was the epicentre. Within that epicentre was a building which could be considered the heart of the Nazi movement more than any other; the Bürgerbräukeller.
Since 1920, Hitler and his followers had been gathering at the beer hall on Rosenheimer street. In 1923, the Bürgerbräukeller saw Hitler launch his failed ‘Beer Hall Putsch’. All the more symbolic then that sixteen years later he would return as both political master of his country and military overlord of eastern Europe.
On that Wednesday evening, some three thousand people were in attendance to hear the Führer speak. Their number included several senior members of the Nazi cabinet:
Rudolf Hess, Deputy Führer; Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer SS; Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda; Reinhard Heydrich, director of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) and Deputy Reichsführer SS; Robert Ley, Head of the German Labour Front; Alfred Rosenberg, leader of the Foreign Policy Office; Julius Streicher, Gauleiter of Franconia; August Frank, SS Administrative Officer of Special Purpose Troops and Hermann Esser, Undersecretary for Tourism in the Reich Propaganda Ministry.
Notable exceptions included Hermann Göring, Reichsminister of Aviation, and Martin Bormann, Reichsleiter and Secretary to the Deputy Führer. Both Göring and Bormann were at their homes in Berlin, to where Hitler planned to return by aircraft the next morning. It was regarded as crucial for the Führer to return the next day, and therefore his personal train was on standby at the Munich station should there be a technical or weather obstruction precluding his flight to the Reich capital, but no such problems arose.
Anticipation of the Führer’s address was at fever pitch. Munich resident and SS Unterscharführer Wolfgang Müller recorded the atmosphere in his diary entry for that day:
‘There was a sense of a carnival. Many of us who would usually have been on duty, including myself, were given dispensation to attend the address. Friedrich was determined that he would get the Führer’s autograph; I told him there was no way he would get close enough for that. He countered that he could pull rank to do so; he was very disappointed to find that we were at the bottom of the pile in that regard.’
A much younger observer was seven-year-old Birgit Weiß, who watched from a third storey window as supporters headed to the Bürgerbräukeller:
‘I didn’t really understand what was happening of course, but the soldiers in black uniform moving down the street reminded me of the toys my brother played with. My father kept saying how proud we should be of those young men below. I enjoyed watching them parade; it was something different and exciting to see.’
At 2035 hours, Hitler began speaking. His address was planned for two hours’ duration.
Unknown to the Führer and his followers, someone had been preparing even more diligently for his address than they had. For the previous two months, Johann Georg Elser, a carpenter, had been working for many nights to install an explosive device in a pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum. Working alone and exploiting poor security, Elser had used his skill to create a secret compartment in which to house his bomb. Carefully setting a timer to coincide with Hitler’s address, Elser had armed his device and departed the city the preceding day.
This would not be the first attempt on the Führer’s life. Only a month before, an effort by the Polish Army during a victory parade in Warsaw had been foiled when the motorcade changed route unexpectedly. Hitler himself often remarked that he was protected by the hand of providence.
At 2119 hours, the Leader was forty-four minutes into his speech. Making the usual boasts, he explained that while not an easy opponent compared to the French army, the swift victory over the Poles had demonstrated beyond any doubt that Germany would succeed on all fronts and secure victory in no more than two years.
One minute later, Georg Elser’s device exploded.
Later that night from his hospital bed, while under interrogation by Ordnungspolizei (Orpo) officers, local party member Adelhard Forst recalled the moment:
‘The Führer was building to a climax, condemning our enemies, and I, like everyone around me, was bursting with pride and approval. I had looked away for a moment to admire the salutes of my colleagues, when the sound and the blast from the explosion hit me at the same time. I was aware of a great heat, and then a very forceful blow to the head. I did not lose consciousness, but I do not know how I ended up beneath the remains of one of the long tables. Someone else lay across my legs, but I knew they were already dead. For a moment there was silence, and then shouting and horrible screaming. I knew right away that the Führer had been killed.’
Forst was right; Elser’s bomb had killed the Nazi leader instantly. A total of ninety-five others would also be dead by sunrise the next day, while one hundred and twenty were seriously injured. A further four hundred and fifty attendees would be classified as ‘walking wounded’, spilling out of the Bürgerbräukeller in the chaos and confusion.
Elser had not only succeeded in severing the head of the snake, he had done a great deal of damage to the body as well. Of the assembled Nazi elite, all of whom had been close to the speaker’s rostrum, only Heydrich, Streicher and Frank had avoided being killed outright. Hess, Himmler and Goebbels had all perished with their leader.
Of the three senior survivors, Streicher was the most seriously injured with penetrating abdominal injuries caused by shrapnel from the exploding pillar. Reinhard Heydrich escaped with a dislocated shoulder and fractured ribs, while August Frank suffered only superficial injuries. Medics are later amazed at Frank’s condition, speculating that he must have been shielded from harm by the body of one of his colleagues.
Heydrich, Streicher and Frank had survived, but at first all three are trapped by the swirling stampede that immediately followed the explosion. At the rear of the hall, relatively untouched, Wolfgang Müller and his colleagues try to take action:
‘Hundreds of people began surging towards us, while beyond them the speaker’s rostrum had disappeared in smoke and splinters. Some were shouting for help, while others were shouting for people to get out of the way so that they could escape the building. We had not forgotten our oath, and so we pushed forward. It was difficult going, and I had to be fairly rough with some people; I remember I climbed over one man who was struggling on the ground, covered in blood.
‘As we got closer to where the Führer had been speaking we saw that the injuries were worse and worse, and the floor was painted red. We didn’t know if the Führer had survived. I saw the body of Reichsminister Goebbels - I knew it was him because I recognised his uniform. He had been pinned against a pillar and folded around it like a piece of straw.
‘Of course we also recognised the black uniform of our own SS, and so the next people we found were the Reichsführer and his deputy. Himmler was dead; part of his face was missing and his chest was open. Obergruppenführer Heydrich was alive, and I remember we screamed at the top of our lungs for a stretcher-bearer to evacuate him. We suspected there might be more explosions. Heydrich was conscious, and he asked us about the Führer. We said we did not know, and that we would get him to hospital as soon as we could. Again he asked about the Führer. I was unsure what to say; it was obvious by then that the Führer was gone.’
The mayhem inside the Bürgerbräukeller was matched outside as people ran for their lives as best they could. Most people believed that the attack was not over, and Nazi security forces now struggled to contain events while rendering assistance to their wounded cabinet and party members.
Major Heinz Meyer, an Orpo officer who would later lead the investigation into the bombing, was stationed outside the Bürgerbräukeller when the explosion occurred at 2120 hours. He recorded the following testimony later at ‘The Brown House’, the national Nazi party headquarters in Munich:
‘There were too many people trying to exit the beer hall for me to try to enter, and so I assisted some of the wounded. I suspected that there had been an explosion, but all I had heard was some noise. At the time I had no idea who had been killed and who was OK. I was the senior man close to the Keller street exit, and so the actions of the Orpo men there were up to me. At first we didn’t think about stopping people from leaving, we just tried to help the wounded.
‘Then an SS man appeared, a lieutenant as I recall, and he screamed at me that we must stop people in case one of them was the terrorist that had planted the bomb. I thought that was ridiculous - why would the attacker be so close to his own bomb? After a moment the SS officer moved on, and so we carried on helping people until some ambulances arrived from across the river. I didn’t see him again.’
The confused response to the attack was certainly made worse by the competing security arms. The SS, Orpo and Gestapo all were present in and around the Bürgerbräukeller in numbers, but there was no agreed plan to coordinate in a serious event such as this. Organisationally, all three groups reported to Heydrich as RSHA Director, but the death of Himmler and incapacitation of Heydrich left the local commanders in shock.
While Wolfgang Müller and many of his SS colleagues, including several Orpo officers, continued to assist their own injured inside and outside the beer hall, the Gestapo seem to have been intent on beginning their investigations only minutes after the attack. Their initial efforts were recorded in the diary of an east Munich resident, who was traveling home by car minutes after the bombing:
‘Soon after crossing the river I came to a roadblock, which looked to have been put together quickly by parking a wagon halfway across the street. Two cars were waiting ahead of me, while a man with a torch was making his way from one vehicle to the next.
‘When the man reached my driver’s side door he tapped on the glass and showed me a state police identification. He asked me first ‘Where are you going?’, to which I replied ‘I am going home’. ‘You are a Munich resident then?’ he asked, to which I answered that I was. Then he asked for my address, and said that until I heard from them it was forbidden to leave the city.
‘I asked him what the trouble was, and why I could not leave Munich. He replied that communist agents had set a fire, killing several people at a local party meeting, and it was safer for everyone to go home and remain there. I didn’t question that explanation of course, and I went straight home to my family. When I got there we closed all the curtains, locked the door and turned on the wireless to see if there was any news.’
Thirty minutes after the bombing, at 2150 hours, Deputy Reichsführer Reinhard Heydrich regained consciousness while being transported to hospital by ambulance. In a stable condition, albeit suffering the pain of his shoulder and fractured ribs, Heydrich ordered the ambulance crew to deliver him instead to ‘The Brown House’ at 45 Brienner Straße. They arrive just ten minutes later, at which time Heydrich meets with Munich Gestapo commander Obersturmbannführer Erich Isselhorst and his fellow Bürgerbräukeller survivor, August Frank.
We know what was discussed at that first and crucial meeting thanks to the records of Soviet interrogators who interviewed Isselhorst immediately after his capture in 1941:
‘Heydrich knew that Hitler, Hess and Himmler had all been killed. He did not say as much just then, but I think he had already appointed himself as the new Führer. After all, there was no-one present to say otherwise.
‘I was ordered to place Munich under curfew and to sever all external communication. I told Heydrich therefore that my men would take control of the radio stations and the telephone exchange, but that it would be impossible to guarantee that the news would not get out somehow. Heydrich replied that he understood and agreed, and that we only needed to buy a few hours for contingency plans to be put into action. I was unaware of what plans he could be referring to, but I did not ask questions; we had enough to do.’
The interrogators also asked Isselhorst about August Frank’s role in managing SS ‘special troops’:
‘Frank was tasked to create a command post within the national party headquarters, and begin a city-wide search for the insurgents. We both requested additional manpower from outside Munich to achieve our tasks, but Heydrich would not allow this - he wanted no communication outside of the city whatsoever. There were very few staff at the headquarters since many had either been off duty or were attending the Führer’s address. I recall that some began to arrive from the beer hall, displaying slight wounds. Others had been summoned by party officials. Everyone was still in shock at what had happened. I remember I wanted to tell my wife and family the terrible news, but of course, I could not.’
At 2230 hours back at the scene of the bombing, Unterscharführer Wolfgang Müller and his colleagues were drafted to assist the Gestapo in their investigation. After helping to evacuate Heydrich, Müller and his friends work locating and identifying corpses. Himmler’s body has been removed, leaving the search to focus on Hitler and Hess. Müller wrote about their efforts in his diary:
‘We had to move a large quantity of burned and shattered wood to continue our search. Hess had been ripped apart, separating his arms and legs from his torso. Only a few strands of muscle held his head to his body, which was burned black as a cinder. Scraps of uniform helped us to identify him. Some Orpo men wanted us to help collect the remains and move them outside, but we were determined to find the Führer.
‘Where the speaker’s rostrum had been, nothing remained. For almost thirty minutes we overturned every piece of debris, expecting to find something. Finally, my old friend from school, Lothur Otto, said ‘there’s nothing left’. We couldn’t believe it; not only that the Führer was gone, but that nothing remained of him. After a while we all agreed that perhaps this was best - seeing Hess’ remains had left a bad taste in our mouths, and it was better that Germany’s saviour had simply vanished without trace.’
At ‘The Brown House’, Isselhorst observed Heydrich receive the news that Hitler’s body could not be recovered:
‘Heydrich seemed pleased. He obviously had no intention of informing anyone of the Führer’s death, and the fact that there was no body for anyone to see made this job easier. Only the mention of Himmler’s corpse broke his mood once again. He seemed more affected by the loss of the Reichsführer than the loss of Hitler himself.’
Meanwhile, as midnight came and went, the Gestapo, SS and Orpo continued their various tasks of enforcing curfew, blocking communication and searching for the attackers. Birgit Weiß recalled when an Orpo man came calling:
‘I had seen and heard the commotion in the street outside, and father called us away from the windows and downstairs to the kitchen, where we stayed for a long time. Someone knocked at the door, and father answered it while mother stayed and read stories to us.
‘I could see that the man at the door was wearing a smart uniform, the clothes of a policeman. He talked to my father for a few minutes, then went on his way. It was strange but I had seen policemen many times before. My father though seemed bothered about something, and we stayed together downstairs for a long time late into the night before we went to bed.’
At 45 Brienner Straße, Deputy Reichsführer Reinhard Heydrich was figuring his next move. Almost three hours after the bombing, as far as Heydrich knew, any news of the Führer’s death remained confined to Munich. Isselhorst’s comprehensive account to Soviet interrogators reveals that despite his injuries and the late hour, Heydrich had begun to work with incredible energy.
In fact, news of the Führer’s demise had already made it out of Munich, but not by the route that Heydrich and other Nazis would have expected.
A flash report had been transmitted by radio, from a building no more than three hundred metres from the Bürgerbräukeller, just twenty-five minutes after the explosion of Elser’s device.
The sender of the message was NKVD operative Ivan Morozov.
Image credits: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E12329 / Wagner / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5362727