The bomb that could have changed the course of European history had been put together with great expertise and care, but its target—Adolf Hitler—left the Munich beer hall just a little earlier than expected on the evening of November 8, 1939. “The bomb was constructed in such a way that it had to work,” Rudolf Hangs, himself a mechanical engineering technician, says admiringly of the attention to detail shown by his uncle, Georg Elser.
Elser, a communist who planned the lone-wolf assassination bid meticulously, has long been an almost forgotten figure in history.
Now a new German film on his life has drawn attention to him, 70 years after he was executed in April 1945, more than five years after the failed plot. The movie, Elser: Er Hätte Die Welt Verändert (Elser: He Could Have Changed the World), opened on April 9, the 70th anniversary of his death.
Hangs, 73, who lives near Stuttgart in Germany, has reconstructed the bomb’s timing mechanism and fuse, with the aim that the copy be exhibited in a memorial dedicated to Elser.
Hangs carefully copied his uncle’s directions, as revealed in the record of interrogation conducted by the Gestapo at the time. The most important part of the mechanism is a wooden cogwheel with 12 pegs. This cogwheel turns by a single peg every 12 hours, meaning that the bomb can be planted up to six days in advance. “He wanted to be entirely sure, and so he used two clocks,” Hangs says. “If one had stopped, the other would have carried on.”
The bomb contained three detonators and a lot of dynamite, revealing the seriousness of Elser’s intent.
Journalist Ulrich Renz describes Elser as a perfectionist in his work. The cabinet-maker concealed the two timers in a box lined with cork, so that their ticking was inaudible.
“But he couldn’t know that Hitler was going to leave 13 minutes before it detonated,” he says. The blast killed eight people and wounded 63.
Hitler’s Germany had invaded Poland just two months previously, launching World War II.
“I wanted by my act to prevent even greater bloodshed,” Elser said later under interrogation.
“I’ve grown fond of Georg Elser,” says Renz, who has been studying the activist since 1956. “He was a typical man of the Alps, a bit reserved, of few words, but purposeful.”
Elser was not highly thought of in Koenigsbronn, the town where he was born and lived in southern Germany. “To this day there are people in Koenigsbronn who believe that Elser was in the pay of foreign intelligence services,” Hangs says.
Renz says the film captures the atmosphere of the countryside during the Nazi era well. “The love scenes are a bit overemphasised, but it probably has to be that way for the cinema.”
He hopes that through it, Elser will gain greater recognition as one of the Germans who opposed the Nazis, just like Claus von Stauffenberg and his equally vain attempt to blow up Hitler in July 1944.
“What I would like is for the names Elser and Stauffenberg to be mentioned together more often,” says Renz.