Twelve minutes after Hitler had finished making his annual speech, on the evening of November 8, to the “Old Guard” party cronies at the Buergerbräukeller in Munich in commemoration of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, a shorter speech than usual, a bomb which had been planted in a pillar directly behind the speaker’s platform exploded, killing seven persons and wounding sixty-three others. By that time all the important Nazi leaders, with Hitler at their head, had hurriedly left the premises, though it had been their custom in former years to linger over their beers and reminisce with old party comrades about the early putsch.
The next morning Hitler’s own paper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, alone carried the story of the attempt on the Fuehrer’s life. It blamed the “British Secret Service” and even Chamberlain for the foul deed. “The attempted ‘assassination,’” I wrote that evening in my diary, “undoubtedly will buck up public opinion behind Hitler and stir up hatred of England … Most of us think it smells of another Reichstag fire.”
What connection could the British secret service have with it, outside of Goebbels feverish mind? An attempt was made at once to connect them. An hour or two after the bomb went off in Munich, Heinrich Himmler, chief of the S.S. and the Gestapo, telephoned to one of his rising young S.S. subordinates, Walter Schellenberg, at Duesseldorf and ordered him by command of the Fuehrer, to cross the border into Holland the next day and kidnap two British secret-service agents with whom Schellenberg had been in contact.
Himmler’s order led to one of the most bizarre incidents of the war. For more than a month Schellenberg, who, like Alfred Naujocks, was a university-educated intellectual gangster, had been seeing in Holland two British intelligence officers, Captain S. Payne Best and Major R. H. Stevens. To them he posed as “Major Schaemmel,” an anti-Nazi officer in OKW (Schellenberg took the name from a living major) and gave a convincing story of how the German generals were determined to overthrow Hitler. What they wanted from the British, he said, were assurances that the London government would deal fairly with the new anti-Nazi regime. Since the British had heard from other sources (as we have seen) of a German military conspiracy, whose members wanted the same kind of assurances, London was interested in developing further contacts with “Major Schaemmel.” Best and Stevens provided him with a small radio transmitter and receiving set; there were numerous ensuing communications over the wireless and further meetings in various Dutch towns. By November 7, when the two parties met at Venlo, a Dutch town on the German frontier, the British agents were able to give “Schaemmel” a rather vague message from London to the leaders of the German resistance stating in general terms the basis for a just peace with an anti-Nazi regime. It was agreed that “Schaemmel” should bring one of these leaders, a German general, to Venlo the next day, to begin definitive negotiations. This meeting was put off to the ninth.
Up to this moment the objectives of the two sides were clear. The British were trying to establish direct contact with the German military putschists in order to encourage and aid them. Himmler was attempting to find out through the British who the German plotters were and what their connection was with the enemy secret service. That Himmler and Hitler were already suspicious of some of the generals as well as of men like Oster and Canaris of the Abwehr is clear. But now on the night of November 8, Hitler and Himmler found need of a new objective: Kidnap Best and Stevens and blame these two British secret-service agents for the Buergerbräu bombing!
A familiar character now entered the scene. Alfred Naujocks, who had staged the “Polish attack” on the German radio station at Gleiwitz, showed up in command of a dozen Security Service (S.D.) toughs to help Schellenberg carry out the kidnaping. The deed came off nicely. At 4 P.M. on November 9, while Schellenberg sipped an apéritif on the terrace of a café at Venlo, waiting for a rendezvous with Best and Stevens, the two British agents drove up in their Buick, parked it behind the café, and then ran into a hail of bullets from an S.S. car filled with Naujock’s ruffians.Lieutenant Klop, a Dutch intelligence officer, who had always accompanied the British pair in their talks with Schellenberg, fell mortally wounded. Best and Stevens were tossed into the S.S. car “like bundles of hay,” as Schellenberg later remembered, along with the wounded Klop, and driven speedily across the border into Germany.*28
And so on November 21 Himmler announced to the public that the assassination plot against Hitler at the Buergerbräukeller had been solved. It was done at the instigation of the British Intelligence Service, two of whose leaders, Stevens and Best, had been arrested “on the Dutch–German frontier” on the day following the bombing. The actual perpetrator was given as Georg Elser, a German Communist carpenter residing in Munich.
Himmler’s detailed account of the crime sounded “fishy” to me, as I wrote in my diary the same day. But his accomplishment was very real. “What Himmler and his gang are up to, obviously,” I jotted down, “is to convince the gullible German people that the British government tried to win the war by murdering Hitler and his chief aides.”
The mystery of who arranged the bombing has never been completely cleared up. Elser, though not the half-wit that was Marinus van der Lubbe of the Reichstag fire, was a man of limited intelligence though quite sincere. He not only pleaded guilty to making and setting off the bomb, he boasted of it. Though of course he had never met Best and Stevens prior to the attempt, he did make the former’s acquaintance during long years at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. There he told the Englishman a long and involved—and not always logical—story.
One day in October at the Dachau concentration camp, where he had been incarcerated since midsummer as a Communist sympathizer, he related, he had been summoned to the office of the camp commandant, where he was introduced to two strangers. They explained the necessity of doing away with some of the Fuehrer’s “traitorous” followers by exploding a bomb in the Buergerbräukeller immediately after Hitler had made his customary address on the evening of November 8 and had left the hall. The bomb was to be planted in a pillar behind the speakers’ platform. Since Elser was a skilled cabinetmaker and electrician and a tinkerer, they suggested that he was the man to do the job. If he did, they would arrange for his escape to Switzerland and for a large sum of money to keep him in comfort there. As a token of their seriousness they promised him better treatment in the camp in the meanwhile: better food, civilian clothes, plenty of cigarettes—for he was a chain smoker—and a carpenter’s bench and tools. There Elser constructed a crude but efficient bomb with an eight-day alarm-clock mechanism and a contraption by which the weapon could also be detonated by an electric switch. Elser asserted that he was taken one night early in November to the beer cellar, where he installed his gadget in the well-placed pillar.
On the evening of November 8, at about the time the bomb was set to go off, he was taken by his accomplices, he said, to the Swiss frontier, given a sum of money and—interestingly—a picture postcard of the interior of the beer hall, with the pillar in which he had placed his bomb marked with a cross. But instead of being helped across the frontier—and this seems to have surprised the dim-witted fellow—he was nabbed by the Gestapo, postcard and all. Later he was coached by the Gestapo to implicate Best and Stevens at the coming state trial, in which he would be made the center of attention.*
The trial never came off. We know now that Himmler, for reasons best known to himself, didn’t dare to have a trial. We also know—now—that Elser lived on at Sachsenhausen and then Dachau concentration camps, being accorded, apparently on the express orders of Hitler, who had personally gained so much from the bombing, quite humane treatment under the circumstances. But Himmler kept his eye on him to the last. It would not do to let the carpenter survive the war and live to tell his tale. Shortly before the war ended, on April 16, 1945, the Gestapo announced that Georg Elser had been killed in an Allied bombing attack the previous day. We know now that the Gestapo murdered him.30