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Killing Hitler: The many assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler

Führerbildnis - Heinrich Knirr 1937 | Public Domain | Wikimedia

With Soviet tanks about to roll into Berlin, the life of Adolf Hitler came to an end on 30 April 1945, after he shot himself in the Führerbunker. The dictator had been lucky to make it to the age of 56, not only had he survived the trenches of WWI but as history tells us he also dodged at least 42 assassination attempts. 

We take a look at six of those attempts that came close to ending it all for the Fuhrer.

1938: Maurice Bavaud’s Plot (Munich)

Swiss theology student Maurice Bavaud believed Hitler was a threat to Switzerland, Catholicism and humanity in general and so in late 1938 he purchased a pistol and began following the Fuhrer across Germany. On 9 November, Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials marched through the streets of Munich in celebration of the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s failed coup to seize power in Munich. 

Pretending to be a Swiss reporter, Bavaud purchased a seat in a grandstand along the parade route and waited for the opportunity to draw his pistol from his coat pocket and aim it at the dictator. As Hitler approached, the crowd rose to their feet with arms and swastika flags waving, blocking Bavaud’s view of the dictator and preventing him from taking his shot. 

Bavaud eventually ran out of money stalking Hitler across the country and so had to jump onto a train to Paris as a stowaway. He was turned over to the police by a conductor and was interrogated by the Gestapo. After admitting his plans to kill Hitler, he was sentenced to death. In May 1941, he was beheaded via guillotine in a Berlin prison. Bavaud eventually ran out of money stalking Hitler across the country and so had to jump onto a train to Paris as a stowaway. He was turned over to the police by a conductor and was interrogated by the Gestapo. After admitting his plans to kill Hitler, he was sentenced to death. In May 1941, he was beheaded via guillotine in a Berlin prison.

1939: George Elser’s Beer Hall Time Bomb (Munich)

Georg Elser, a 36-year-old German carpenter wanted to ‘prevent even greater bloodshed’ and stop the war. His plan to achieve that was to assassinate Hitler using a time tomb placed at a Munich Beer Hall in which the Fuhrer was making his annual speech on 8 November 1939. Elser spent up to 35 nights working in secret in the Beer Hall, hollowing out the pillar next to the speaking platform, the perfect place to hide his homemade explosive. Fate, however, was against him, as Hitler not only decided to start his speech early but also cut it short so that he could return to Berlin and make plans for the imminent war with France.

In the end, it came down to just thirteen minutes. Hitler ended his speech at 21:07, the bomb detonated at 21:20. Eight people were killed and over 60 injured. Elser was apprehended shortly afterwards and spent the next six years in a concentration camp, before finally being executed in 1945 on the orders of Hitler.

1943: Henning von Tresckow’s Exploding Cointreau (Smolensk, Russia)

As the tide of the war began to shift in the Allies favour, a group of German officers planned to assassinate the Fuhrer, overthrow his government and make peace with the Western Allies. 

Shortly after the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad, Hitler decided to visit troops on the Eastern Front, flying into Smolensk for consultations on 13 March 1943. German officer and member of the German resistance, Henning von Tresckow, was stationed there and he came up with an audacious plan. He asked one of Hitler’s aides if he would take back a case of Cointreau to give to an officer that von Tresckow had recently lost a bet to. The aide obliged, unknowingly accepting a parcel that in fact contained an explosive with a 30-minute timer. 

Fellow conspirator Fabian von Schlabrendorff activated the timer shortly before handing it to the aide. Two hours later, Hitler’s plane arrived safety back at East Prussian headquarters, something had clearly gone wrong with the bomb. Before the plot could be revealed, von Schlabrendorff flew to retrieve the package the next day, which he managed to successfully accomplish. 

After inspection, he discovered the detonator had failed to go off, most likely due to the freezing cold conditions of the luggage hold on Hitler’s plane. 

1943: Rudolf von Gersdorff’s Death Embrace (Berlin)

A week after von Tresckow’s plan had failed, German officer Rudolf von Gersdorff declared himself ready to give his life for the resistance. An opportunity had presented itself at an exhibition in Berlin of captured Soviet weaponry and other paraphernalia. Hitler was due to attend the exhibition and von Gersdorff, being an expert on the subject, had been tasked with guiding him around it.  

As Hitler entered the museum on 21 March 1943, von Gersdorff started the ten-minute timers on two explosive devices he then slipped into his coat pockets. When the timers were close to going off, he planned to grab the Fuhrer in a death embrace that would see them both blown up. Luck was again on Hitler’s side as he decided to shoot through the exhibition in just eight minutes, leaving von Gersdorff just enough time to run into the bathroom and diffuse the devices at the last second. 

1943: Major Axel von dem Bussche’s Suicide Mission (Wolf’s Lair, Poland)

After witnessing an SS organised massacre of more than 3,000 Jewish civilians at the old Dubno airport (now in western Ukraine), German officer Axel von dem Bussche decided Hitler had to be removed from power. Like von Gersdorff before him, he planned to kill Hitler by way of suicide bombing. 

Tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, Bussche was the epitome of Hitler’s Aryan race ideals. His physical appearance meant that he was the perfect candidate to model the Wehrmacht’s new winter uniforms in front of Hitler. The uniform viewing was scheduled to take place at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s top-secret military headquarters in present-day Poland, on 16 November 1943.

On this occasion, it was the Allies who foiled the plot...

Bussche’s plan was to slip a grenade into his pocket and blow both himself and the Fuhrer up when the opportunity presented itself. On this occasion, it was the Allies who foiled the plot. The night before the viewing was due to take place an Allied bombing raid destroyed the train carrying the uniforms. The viewing was subsequently cancelled. 

Bussche would end up being one of the few army plotters in the German resistance who would survive the war.

1944: The July Plot (Wolf’s Lair, Poland)

Perhaps the most famous of all the attempts on Hitler’s life was the 1944 '20 July Plot', which was the basis of the 2008 movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise. 

Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was at the head of the coup referred to as Operation Valkyrie. Henning von Tresckow and von Stauffenberg did most of the planning and by mid-1944 word had reached them that the Gestapo were closing in. The time to act was now. The chosen location was again the Wolf’s Lair. 

During a meeting at which Hitler was present, von Stauffenberg placed a briefcase containing a bomb under the conference room table, pushing it as close to the Fuhrer as he could. The briefcase was then inadvertently moved by another officer and ended up behind the leg of the table. 

When the bomb exploded the table leg shielded Hitler from the worst of the blast, causing him to suffer only minor scratches and tears to his trousers. Four people were killed and thirteen left injured. Although von Stauffenberg escaped to Berlin, the coup had failed and von Stauffenberg found himself facing a firing squad. Henning von Tresckow committed suicide after hearing the plot had failed. Nearly 5,000 others were also rounded up and killed in retribution by the Gestapo.