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Failed Assassins


Between 1920 and 1944 there were nearly fifty attempts on the life of Adolf Hitler. Many of the would-be assassins sacrificed their own lives as a result of their determination to free the world of one of history’s worst monsters.


Hitler’s uncanny ability to survive convinced him he was protected by Divine Providence so that he might fulfill his “heroic destiny” and save the fatherland.


“I am invulnerable; I am immortal,” he gloated.


Ambushed several times early on in his political career, he understood the dangers he faced. Security measures were continuously reorganized and tightened. He surrounded himself with thugs.


“I want men of brutality,” he declared.


He recruited a unit of zealously loyal bodyguards – Nordic-looking men of indisputable Aryan ancestry. These were the Schutzstaffel or SS, “who would . . . even march against their own brothers.”


The expanding SS eventually came under the leadership of Hitler’s most loyal associate, Reichsfuhrer Himmler, who would be tasked with organizing the Final Solution.


Hitler took exceptional precautions and was seldom where he was expected to be. Over time, he limited his public appearances. He often changed his traveling plans at the last moment, making certain to arrive and leave early. He wore a bulletproof vest and carried a pistol.


The Fuhrer was, with good reason, especially wary of the German army, the Wehrmacht. He regularly transferred important officers from one post to another so they would be too engaged to devise plots on his life.


His armor-plated cars were outfitted with bulletproof tires and thick glass windows able to withstand gunshots and bomb explosions. He retained a fleet of airplanes and an SS pilot who never disclosed the flight’s destination. Every departure was preceded by a test flight. His personal train was constructed of reinforced steel.


Those who tried to kill Hitler came from all stations of life; they were officers, patriots, idealists, enemy agents, Germans, Poles, Jews. None succeeded.


The details of some of these extraordinary efforts have been told in articles, books and movies, with perhaps the most comprehensive and compelling account being Roger Moorhouse’s Killing Hitler (Bantam, 2006). Drawing on those sources, particularly the Moorhouse book, these are some of those stories.

 

* * * * *


In 1933 Beppo Romer, an armed communist, was apprehended by the SS when he entered the Chancellery. Convicted of conspiring to assassinate Hitler, he was sent to Dachau and executed.


Also in 1933, a man carrying a revolver and wearing the brown-shirted uniform of the Sturmabteilung, or SA, infiltrated Hitler’s residence at Berchtesgaden. He was seized by the SS.


The SA had played a crucial role in Hitler’s rise, but once he secured power he no longer needed them. The entire leadership of the SA was arrested or shot in a bloody purge. All SA functions and powers were taken over by the SS.


In 1936 a former Nazi officer who headed the anti-Hitler Black Front organization conceived a plan to kill Hitler. He persuaded 20-year-old Helmut Hirsch, a Jewish architectural student from Stuttgart who was studying in Prague, to carry out the mission.


Hirsch traveled to Nazi Party headquarters in Nuremberg with two suitcase bombs, but he was arrested when he tried to cross the German border. Hirsch acknowledged at his trial that if given the opportunity, he would have tried to assassinate Hitler. He was later beheaded.


Hirsch had been distraught by his family’s unsuccessful attempts to leave Germany. Perhaps he was also motivated by a 26-year-old Yugoslav Jew, David Frankfurter, who earlier in 1936 had succeeded in killing a German-born Swiss Nazi leader and activist.


After reading the anti-Semitic paper Der Sturmer and learning about the concentration camps, Frankfurter, the son of a rabbi, was determined to assassinate Hitler. But when he couldn’t cross the frontier into Germany, he targeted Wilhelm Gustloff instead. Frankfurter purchased a revolver and practiced his marksmanship. He imprinted in his mental retina the Nazi leader’s photo and scrutinized his routines.


Finally, the blue-eyed Aryan-looking Frankfurter went to the man’s house in Davos and rang the doorbell. He was shown to a study and asked to take a seat. When Gustloff appeared, Frankfurter stood and fired five bullets into his body. He then telephoned the police and surrendered.


“I fired the shots because I am a Jew,” he told them. “I am fully aware of what I have done and have no regrets. The bullets should have hit Hitler.”


Frankfurter was tried and incarcerated in a Swiss prison for the duration of the war, after which he relocated to Palestine.


A Swiss Catholic theology student, Maurice Bavaud, read Hitler’s Mein Kampf and concluded the Fuhrer was the “incarnation of Satan” and a danger to all humanity. He resolved to kill him. He bought a pistol, practiced diligently and made plans.


In November 1938 Bavaud traveled to Munich to attend a Nazi commemoration ceremony during which Hitler would be speaking. He carefully selected his position and prepared to fire, but Hitler was flanked by SS units and blocked by the outstretched right arms of the huge, ecstatic crowd – a lost opportunity.


Three days later he requested a meeting with Hitler at Nazi Party headquarters but was denied. Bavaud decided to return home. Detained at the train station carrying a gun and several maps, he was turned over to the Gestapo and tortured until he confessed his plans. Switzerland refused to intervene on his behalf and Bavaud was executed.


In November 1939, at the yearly celebration held at the site of the Nazis’ unsuccessful 1923 Munich beer hall putsch, Hitler began his speech approximately half an hour earlier than expected and then left immediately. Fifteen minutes later a bomb exploded, killing three people instantly and wounding dozens of others (five of whom would eventually die of their injuries).


George Elser, a German carpenter who resented the Nazi suppression of labor unions, had built the bomb. For three months he ate at the beer hall and hid in a cupboard at closing time. He furtively carved a hole in a pillar near the dais for his bomb and sneaked out in the morning when customers arrived. It was set to explode in the middle of Hitler’s speech.


Elser was arrested when he tried to cross illegally into Switzerland carrying tools, bomb sketches and other suspicious items. He confessed after being tortured and was sent to Dachau where he was shot.

 

* * * * *

Soon after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Poles created the largest and most successful underground organization in occupied Europe. Comprised of military and civilian groups, it was relentless in its retaliation against Nazi savagery.


Though Polish Jews were largely abandoned by their countrymen and close to three million would be murdered by the Germans and their collaborators, thousands of Poles hid and sheltered Jews at great peril to themselves and their families.


When Hitler visited Poland in September 1939, evidence of a planned ambush was discovered and he had to change his itinerary. The Polish air force then targeted his train, which had to be relocated. Polish snipers shot at his convoy.


During Hitler’s visit to Warsaw, Polish soldiers concealed a powerful bomb along his victory parade route, but it failed to detonate. Undaunted, Poles persisted in their attempts to kill Hitler.


Unlike the Poles, the British were conflicted about assassinating Hitler.


In 1940, Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was in London trying to form a Jewish army to fight the Germans alongside the Allies, proposed a plan to assassinate Hitler.


Jabotinsky suggested targeting any famous Nazi whose state funeral would likely be attended by Hitler. The body would be switched for explosives which would be detonated during the service, killing the Fuhrer and many top-ranking Nazis. His plan was promptly rejected as unfeasible.


In 1942 a British double agent offered to blow up Hitler in a suicide mission. He was deterred by MI5 (British Security Service) and asked “not to undertake any wild enterprises.” Subsequent assassination plots were mostly discouraged or aborted.


A year later, an American Secret Service officer who was a German émigré and Hitler’s godson volunteered to kill the Fuhrer. President Roosevelt rejected the offer. The idea of assassinating a head of state was unacceptable.


In November 1944 American fighter planes raided a Milan hotel where Hitler was rumored to be staying. The Fuhrer was in East Prussia. Five months later the RAF bombed Berchtesgaden; they lost two planes and four men. The Fuhrer was in Berlin.

 

* * * * *


A number of conspiracies were mounted against Hitler from within the Wehrmacht and the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence Service).


Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, an anti-communist who never joined the Nazi Party, was appointed Abwehr head in 1935. He carefully selected senior staff members who were resolute opponents of National Socialism. No member of the SS or Nazi Party was admitted to this section.


Canaris turned a blind eye to all plots to assassinate Hitler and provided cover for the conspirators.


The deputy head of the Abwehr and member of the senior staff, General Hans Oster, also loathed the SS and Hitler (he referred to him as “the pig”) and became the indomitable force of German resistance.


“My duty is to free Germany and with it the world of this pestilence,” he said.


Oster planned to stage a coup and kill the Fuhrer in 1938 if Hitler ordered an invasion of Czechoslovakia. He facilitated the travel of Abwehr emissaries to England to persuade the British to stand firm against Hitler over the Sudetenland. But on September 28, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain accepted the betrayal and division of Czechoslovakia. Hitler had achieved a diplomatic victory; the coup was foiled.


In 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa and the continuous slaughter of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen (SS execution squads), the Abwehr resistance group established contact with the resistance unit of Army Group Center. Together they built an effective network and would henceforth collaborate in several attempts on Hitler’s life.


In 1943 Oster and the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a participant in the Abwehr resistance movement to assassinate Hitler – helped fourteen German Jews flee to Switzerland disguised as Abwehr agents. When the Gestapo discovered the attempt to rescue Jews, Bonhoeffer was arrested. The Abwehr came under the surveillance of the SS.


Some months later the Abwehr was disbanded and in 1944 the SS arrested Canaris, Oster and thousands of others. When the diaries of Canaris enumerating the 1938 September Conspiracy and the barbaric actions of the SS were found, Hitler ordered the execution of many of the conspirators.


Canaris, Oster and Bonhoeffer were hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp.


It was Wehrmacht Colonel Henning von Tresckow (awarded three Iron Crosses), an opponent of National Socialism, who formed the conspiratorial circle in the military headquarters known as Army Group Center and recruited like-minded officers.


Tresckow had been based in Belorussia and was shocked by the genocidal operations against Jews he witnessed.


“Hitler must be shot down,” he said.


Tresckow developed a scheme to kidnap and kill the Fuhrer when Hitler visited Army Group Center in August 1941, but the security apparatus was overwhelming. The plan unraveled.


Tresckow and Oster then colluded to kill Hitler and stage a coup during the Fuhrer’s visit to Smolensk in March 1943 by putting explosives disguised as two cognac bottles wrapped as a gift in his luggage. Tresckow attended Hitler’s Smolensk conference and escorted him to the airport for his return trip to Germany. But the bomb did not go off and Hitler’s aircraft landed safely.


Several days later, in Berlin, he made another attempt to assassinate Hitler at a Heroes’ Day Celebration. Heavy security made it impossible to set the bomb where Hitler was scheduled to speak – another plan thwarted.


In the years 1943 and 1944, with the likelihood of Germany’s defeat escalating, there were at least six failed attempts by military conspirators to get close enough to the reclusive Hitler to kill him with guns, hand grenades or bombs.


Around this time, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a young Wehrmacht colonel whose promotion to chief of staff to the Reserve Army commanding general enabled him to attend Hitler’s military conferences, joined the resistance movement.


Stauffenberg had initially embraced Nazism and came late to the cause of the resistance. But as he watched Germany gorge on a feast of destruction and murder, he became convinced the removal of Hitler was imperative. He took responsibility for a new conspiracy – Operation Valkyrie – to assassinate Hitler.


Twice in July 1944 Stauffenberg carried explosives in his briefcase to briefings with Hitler, but, for reasons never made clear, did not detonate them. On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg attended Hitler’s military conference at Wolfschanse (Wolf’s Lair) with another bomb in his briefcase. He placed the briefcase under the table where Hitler and many officers had assembled and quickly left the room. The bomb exploded.


Four people were killed and ten seriously injured. Hitler was wounded, but he survived. He regarded his escape “a divine moment in history.”


The Gestapo rounded up almost everyone linked to the July 20 plot. About 7,000 Germans were arrested including the relatives of the chief conspirators. Wives and children were sent to concentration camps.


More than 200 people were executed. Many of the conspirators, including Tresckow, took their own lives. Stauffenberg and three others were shot by firing squad. The resistance movement was effectively destroyed.



On April 30, 1945, his world collapsing around him and his “Thousand-Year Reich” reduced to rubble, Hitler placed a gun to his head and accomplished what all the assassination attempts had failed to.



Leslie Bell, Ph.D., is a writer and adjunct professor at the City University of New York (CUNY).

About the Author: Leslie Bell, Ph.D., is a writer and an adjunct professor at the City University of New York (CUNY).


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