When Adolf Hitler took his own life with a gunshot to the head in April 1945, he accomplished what dozens of would-be assassins had failed to do. The infamous dictator was the target of numerous murder plots by political enemies, foreign governments and former acolytes, many of which only missed out on changing history because of bad luck or poor timing. From a beer hall skirmish to a conspiracy by a cabal of Nazi dissidents, learn the stories behind six assassins who nearly succeeded in killing Hitler.
1921: The Munich Beer Hall Melee
The first attempt on Hitler’s life occurred nearly 20 years before the start of World War II. In November 1921, the young and still largely unknown radical made a speech at Munich’s famed Hofbräuhaus beer hall. Along with members of the newly formed Nazi Party, the crowd also included dozens of social democrats, communists and other political opponents. Hitler’s fiery rhetoric had soon whipped them all into a frenzy. A drunken brawl broke out, and while the fists, beer steins and chairs were flying, a group of unknown assailants drew pistols and fired several shots in the direction of the speaker’s podium. Hitler was unhurt, however, and he even continued ranting for another 20 minutes until police arrived. The future dictator’s brush with death only increased his zeal for the Nazi cause. Two years later, the nearby Bürgerbräukeller would be the site of the start of his infamous “Beer Hall Putsch,” a failed coup that won him national attention and a multi-year jail sentence.
1938: Maurice Bavaud’s Plot
In late-1938, a Swiss theology student named Maurice Bavaud bought a pistol and began stalking Hitler across Germany. Bavaud was convinced the so-called “Führer” was a threat to the Catholic Church and an “incarnation of Satan,” and he considered it his spiritual duty to gun him down. He finally got his chance on November 9, 1938, when Hitler and other Nazi leaders marched through Munich to celebrate the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch. Bavaud took a seat in a grandstand along the parade route and waited until Hitler approached. He had his pistol tucked into his pocket, but before he could draw and take aim, the swooning, swastika-waving crowd raised their arms in a Nazi salute and blocked his view. Bavaud reluctantly gave up his hunt and was later arrested as he tried to stow away on a train out of Germany. When the Gestapo found his gun and maps, he confessed under interrogation to plotting to kill Hitler. In May 1941, he was executed by guillotine in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison.
1939: Georg Elser’s Beer Hall Bomb
Georg Elser was a struggling German carpenter and communist who was vehemently opposed to Nazism. He anticipated that Hitler’s regime would lead his country on the path toward war and financial ruin, and in late-1938, he resolved to do something about it. Knowing that Hitler would speak at Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller brewery the following year on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Elser spent several months building a bomb with a 144-hour timer. When his weapon was complete, he moved to Munich and began sneaking into the Bürgerbräukeller each night to hollow out a cavity in a stone pillar behind the speaker’s platform. After several weeks of painstaking clandestine labor, Elser successfully installed his bomb. He set it to explode on November 8, 1939 at 9:20 p.m.—roughly midway through Hitler’s speech.
Elser had planned his bombing to perfection, but luck was not on his side. World War II had started in earnest a few months earlier, and Hitler moved the start time of his speech to 8 p.m. so he could be back in Berlin as soon as possible. The Führer finished his remarks by 9:07, and by 9:12, he had left the building. Only eight minutes later, Elser’s bomb went off, leveling the pillar and sending a section of the roof crashing down on the speaker’s podium. Eight people were killed and dozens more injured, but Hitler was not among them. Elser was captured that same night while trying to steal across the Swiss border, and he later confessed after authorities found his bomb plans. He would spend the next several years confined to Nazi concentration camps. In April 1945, as the Third Reich crumbled, he was dragged from his cell and executed by the SS.
1943: Henning von Tresckow’s Brandy Bomb
One of the most audacious plots unfolded on March 13, 1943, when Hitler arrived at the Smolensk post of Henning von Tresckow—a disillusioned German military officer—for a brief visit. Before the Führer and his entourage boarded their plane for the return trip, Tresckow approached a member of Hitler’s staff and asked if the man would take a parcel containing two bottles of Cointreau brandy to a friend in Berlin. The officer obliged, not knowing that the package actually held plastic explosives rigged to a 30-minute fuse.
Tresckow and his co-conspirator Fabian von Schlabrendorff hoped Hitler’s death would be the catalyst for a planned coup against the Nazi high command, but their plan went up in smoke only a few hours later, when they received word that the Führer’s plane had landed safely in Berlin. “We were stunned and could not imagine the cause of the failure,” Schlabrendorff later remembered. “Even worse would be the discovery of the bomb, which would unfailingly lead to our detection and the death of a wide circle of close collaborators.” A panicked Tresckow phoned the staff officer and told him there had been a mistake with the package. The next day, Schlabrendorff traveled to Hitler’s headquarters and exchanged the concealed bomb for two bottles of brandy. Upon inspection, he found that a defective fuse was all that had prevented Hitler’s plane from being blown out of the sky.
1943: Rudolf von Gertsdorff’s Suicide Mission
Only a week after Tresckow’s brandy bomb failed to explode, he and his co-conspirators made yet another attempt on Hitler’s life. This time, the scene of the assassination was an exhibition of captured Soviet flags and weaponry in Berlin, which the Führer was scheduled to visit for a tour. An officer named Rudolf von Gertsdorff volunteered to be the triggerman for a bomb attack, but after scouting the premises, he came to a grim realization: security was too tight to plant explosives in the room. “At this point it became clear to me that an attack was only possible if I were to carry the explosives about my person,” he later wrote, “and blow myself up as close to Hitler as possible.” Gersdorff decided to proceed, and on March 21, he did his best to stay glued to the Führer’s side as he guided him through the exhibit. The bomb had a short 10-minute fuse, but despite Gersdorff’s attempts to prolong the tour, Hitler slipped out a side door after only a few minutes. The would-be suicide bomber was forced to make a mad dash for the bathroom, where he defused the explosives with only seconds to spare.
1944: The July Plot
Shortly after the D-Day invasions in the summer of 1944, a clique of disgruntled German officers launched a campaign to assassinate Hitler at his “Wolf’s Lair” command post in Prussia. At the center of the plot was Claus von Stauffenberg, a dashing colonel who had lost an eye and one of his hands during combat in North Africa. He and his co-conspirators—who included Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht and Ludwig Beck—planned to kill the Führer with a hidden bomb and then use the German Reserve Army to topple the Nazi high command. If their coup was successful, the rebels would then immediately seek a negotiated peace with the Allies.
Stauffenberg put the plan into action on July 20, 1944, after he and several other Nazi officials were called to a conference with Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair. He arrived carrying a briefcase stuffed with plastic explosives connected to an acid fuse. After placing his case as close to Hitler as possible, Stauffenberg left the room under the pretense of making a phone call. His bomb detonated only minutes later, blowing apart a wooden table and reducing much of the conference room to charred rubble. Four men died, but Hitler escaped with non-life-threatening injuries—an officer had happened to move Stauffenberg’s briefcase behind a thick table leg seconds before the blast. The planned revolt unraveled after news of the Führer’s survival reached the capital. Stauffenberg and the rest of the conspirators were all later rounded up and executed, as were hundreds of other dissidents. Hitler supposedly boasted that he was “immortal” after the July Plot’s failure, but he became increasingly reclusive in the months that followed and was rarely seen in public before his suicide on April 30, 1945.
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