The Lone Assassin: The Epic True Story of the Man Who Almost Killed Hitler
- Helmut Ortner, translated by Ross Benjamin
- 192 pp.
- June 18, 2012
A mostly nonfiction work outlining how one German carpenter nearly changed the course of World War II history.
Reviewed by Laurence I. Barrett
On the night of Nov. 8, 1939, two German customs officers set up chairs outside their shed in order to scrutinize the turf leading to the Swiss border while listening, through the shed window, to a speech by Hitler. As the Fuhrer’s rhetoric poured from the radio, one of the inspectors spotted a figure moving toward the frontier. Normally this area was quiet. Now, with the invasion of Poland underway and wider war imminent, agents were on alert for illegal activity.
One of them confronted the man as he crossed a garden. Short, thin, and calm, the man explained that he had become lost while looking for a friend’s home. Asked for identity papers, he produced only an expired border-crossing card bearing the name Georg Elser. A search of his pockets produced a curious inventory of possessions: a postcard with a photo of the Burgerbrau Beer Hall in Munich, where Hitler spoke that evening; a variety of brass fittings that might be used in clocks; and a pin denoting membership in the Red Front Fighters League, a group on the Nazis’ enemies list.
Elser was still undergoing perfunctory interrogation half an hour after being stopped when a time bomb exploded in the Burgerbrau, killing eight and injuring scores. But the Chancellor and his senior aides had left earlier than scheduled, eager to return to managing the war from the capital. Fog prevented flying; Hitler was at the train station when the bomb detonated.
In The Lone Assassin, Helmut Ortner, a journalist and author, set out to educate fellow Germans about the ordinary citizen who had almost transformed world history. The German edition appeared in 1993, when Elser was neither well known nor much admired by those countrymen who were aware of his astonishing exploit. Now a translation introduces Elser to Americans, very few of whom know the name or the event. To us, the assassination plot occurred in 1944 and starred Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise in the movie “Valkyrie”). That was an elaborate conspiracy involving high-ranking officers and a plan to take over the government.
Ortner argues that Elser, a carpenter with a grade-school education and a hard-scrabble upbringing, deserves at least as much respect as the Prussian aristocrats who acted only when they realized that Hitler’s survival would deepen the abyss into which he had led Germany. It is impossible to disagree. And one must marvel at Elser’s enterprise and doggedness as he came oh-so-close to success.
The detailed description of Elser’s preparations, which started a full year in advance, is riveting. He knows of Hitler’s annual ritual at the Munich site, where the infant Nazi party had staged its “beer hall putsch” in 1923. In temporary jobs at a factory and a stone quarry, Elser steals enough gun powder. A talented tinkerer, he teaches himself how to fabricate the device. Spending his meager savings, he repeatedly visits Munich for reconnaissance.
Then he moves there, rents a room, and enters the beer hall nightly for nearly a month (it is unused except for occasional functions). He gradually scrapes out an opening in a wooden pillar next to the podium where Hitler will speak. He covers up his work after each session. Finally, he plants the bomb, sets the timing device and tries to escape to Switzerland.
Though these passages are gripping, the tale has frustrating gaps. Elser the man remains elusive. He is a loner, the eldest offspring of an abusive father, often at odds with siblings, dissatisfied with jobs but skilled at his work. But he has paramours who want to marry him, at least one son whom he supports (grudgingly) and is a talented amateur musician.
How and why Elser reached his decision to kill Hitler isn’t clear. Ortner repeatedly describes him as uninterested in politics or ideology, but Elser voted communist when that was still possible, joined a militant leftist group and nursed a dislike of the Nazis from their infancy. He feared another war. Can one try to decapitate a regime and still be considered non-political?
The sequence of events between his arrest and his full confession five days later also is opaque. Much of the narrative comes directly from verbatim transcripts of interrogations of Elser, his relatives, friends, former employers and lovers. Those transcripts emerged after the war and were used by German historians as long ago as the 1970s to describe the 1939 event. Ortner supplements that record with what seems to be human-interest material. But then we learn in an author’s note that dialogue and descriptions of “thoughts and feelings” are “products of the author’s imagination.” That doesn’t enhance a reader’s confidence in what is ostensibly a serious non-fiction work.
That the Nazis tried to exploit Elser’s gambit by tying him to British intelligence, the Zionist conspiracy or both never got beyond pro forma propaganda. Authorities kept him alive as a “special prisoner” in two different concentration camps in hopes of eventually staging a show trial. Three weeks before the Germans abandoned Dachau in 1945, a death warrant from Berlin was immediately implemented. That Elser was indeed a lone assassin seems beyond cavil. Yet Ortner repeatedly reasserts that fact and even devotes space to demolishing a more egregious straw man: that Elser was a Gestapo pawn in a ploy to rally Germans as the war loomed.
That conspiracy theory plays to a sub-theme in the book: That Elser’s reputation in Germany blossomed very slowly. Ortner argues that it took many Germans years to give respect to any resistance figures. For Elser, it was a more difficult sell because, unlike the elite 1944 conspirators, “he gave the lie to all those who said that ordinary people had no means to oppose the Nazi regime.” That attitude changed gradually. Now dozens of streets and schools carry Georg Elser’s name. In 2003 his likeness adorned a postage stamp.
This evolution is tantalizing, but once again there are gaps. It is unclear how much traction the Gestapo theory gained, or just who peddled it. One would like to learn more about the comparison of attitudes towards Elser versus other would-be assassins (a browse of Wikipedia reveals several other attempts, none mentioned by Ortner). There remains an ironic similarity between the author and his protagonist: each made a worthy effort that, in the end, missed the target.
Laurence I. Barrett had a 39-year career in print journalism, first at The New York Herald Tribune, then at TIME where his assignments included senior editor, national political correspondent and chief White House correspondent. He is the author of The Mayor of New York and Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House.