By the skin of his teeth

Historian Roger Moorhouse takes a look at Hitler's would-be assassins and makes us wonder what might have been.

killing hitler book 88 2 (photo credit: )
killing hitler book 88 2
(photo credit: )
KILLING HITLER: The Plots, the Assassins, and the Dictator Who Cheated Death By Roger Moorhouse Bantam Books 374pp., $25 History, we are reminded, is not just the stories of political and military leaders who make recognized contributions to their times. Yet enough people believe that certain key figures are influential enough in the scope of history to make assassination a worthwhile goal. Normally we regard such killings with horror, the very negation of civilized political rule. However, Hitler's evil was so absolute that we cannot help but imagine what the world would have been like without him. Many people went well beyond the stage of imagination and risked their lives to usher him out of the way. British historian Roger Moorhouse discloses in his meticulous and well narrated book, Killing Hitler, the lengths these people went to, and how incompetence and bad luck doomed their enterprise. Claus von Stauffenberg is probably the best-known would-be Hitler assassin. Revolted by Nazi atrocities, this decorated German Army officer turned against the regime he had originally supported, leaving a bomb in a suitcase under a table at Hitler's military headquarters while the Fuhrer was giving a briefing. But he made a mistake in setting the bomb: only half the explosive went off. The dithering of his fellow conspirators afterwards suggests that even had Hitler been killed, the ruthless Himmler would have suppressed the subsequent revolt. And July 1944, the date of the attempt, was too late to retrieve both Germany's fortunes and its honor. Two earlier schemes the previous year, sponsored by von Stauffenberg and the little-remembered Henning von Tresckow, came agonizingly close. A bomb planted in Hitler's plane failed to explode. And an officer who planned a suicide bomb attack on Hitler while the dictator was appraising his Russian war booty was foiled by his target's unscheduled early departure. The most dangerous attempt of all, though, came from an unexpected quarter: an unemployed craftsman called Georg Elser, who acted alone in an audacious scheme to kill Hitler in a Munich beer cellar in November 1939. Knowing the date of his planned visit and speech in advance, Elser secreted himself inside the cellar every night for over a month and, little by little, hollowed out a space for a bomb in a pillar near the dais from which Hitler was to deliver his harangue. All went well. The time fuse was set. The bomb went off as planned, wrecking the interior. The Fuhrer, however, had left less than 15 minutes earlier, hurrying back to Berlin to attend to business. The luckless Elser was caught at the Swiss frontier, and it took a long time, and much torture, before the Gestapo came to the reluctant conclusion that he had indeed acted on his own. Hitler was aware of the danger of an assassin, but his sense of destiny and mission made him reckless at times. His security arrangements were chaotic. Three or four different corps of bodyguards claimed the honor of protecting him, and tended to get in each others' way. This was convenient in that no one commander could claim the power that went with being the Fuhrer's sole guardian. But his security was badly compromised. The British intelligence officer and Zionist Richard Meinertzhagen claimed to have taken a loaded revolver with him into the Chancellery for an interview with Hitler in June 1939, though this account may not be reliable. The catalogue of near misses is long. Some Polish sappers left a cache of explosives near a Warsaw road junction after the fall of the capital in the hope that Hitler's triumphant motorcade would pass that way. It did indeed go past the very spot, the junction of New World Street and Jerusalem Avenue (of all names). Alas, the dictator was not blasted into a new world: for reasons unknown, the bombs were never detonated. In his lively and clear account, which details these and other plots, Moorhouse does not speculate on the obvious question: how would the war have ended without Hitler? (With a couple of exceptions, all serious attempts to kill him post-date the outbreak of war.) The motives of his would-be assassins varied, but few seem to have had any long-range plan in mind. Killing Hitler would be its own reward. Stalin was furious enough at the German surprise attack in 1941 to have made serious efforts to target Hitler in revenge: he sent bombers to any place where he thought the Fuhrer might be. But after the battle of Kursk in 1943 destroyed the Wehrmacht's offensive capability and the war swung decisively in his favor, he gave up on the idea, fearing that Hitler's successors would make a compromised peace with Great Britain and the United States. The British briefly toyed with the idea after initially sniffing at the very thought of "assassination as a form of diplomacy." However, it was 1944 by the time they came up with a workable plan to kill Hitler, and the idea was nixed on the practical grounds that the Fuhrer's skills as a military strategist were too useful to the Allies to have him "unexpectedly wafted to Valhalla." In short, by the time the Allies were in a better position to target the root cause of their sufferings, they stayed their hands. The war had certainly started as Hitler's war, but it had become more complex than that. It could not be ended by his demise, no matter how much he had done to deserve this fate. The failure to put a stop to German expansion before war started was a far more fateful omission than the failure to kill Hitler. Had the British and the French opposed the militarization of the Rhineland in 1936, Hitler would have been killed politically. As it was, his brilliant diplomatic gambles up till the outbreak of war made all that followed almost inevitable, with or without his presence. And the fact that he stayed alive until he decided himself it was time to quit the scene was just due to the luck of the Devil.