Hidden in a hollowed-out space near the speaker’s podium, Elser’s bomb went off successfully, killing eight people. Hitler was not one of them.
This is the story, scene by scene, of the events that led up to Georg Elser taking justice into his own hands, his attempt to murder the Führer, and what happened after the bomb went off. The Lone Assassin is a powerfully gripping tale that places the reader in the dark days of Munich in 1939, following Elser from the Munich Beer Hall, across the border, and sadly, to the concentration camp where his heroic life ended.
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About the Author
Ross Benjamin is a writer and translator. His literary criticism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Nation and other publications. He lives in Nyack, New York.
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THE LONE ASSASSINThe Epic True Story of the Man Who Almost Killed Hitler
By Helmut Ortner
SKYHORSE PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2012 Helmut Ortner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Arrest
There was a light fog on the border. The customs officer Xaver Reitlinger gazed over the bushes to the mesh fence, which looked peculiar in the glow of the arc lamp. "If we put the chairs here, we'll be able to keep an eye on the area and hear the speech," said Reitlinger, waving over Zapfer, a young assistant customs employee who had been assigned to him two days earlier. Zapfer moved the two chairs under the window, and without a word, they sat down, leaning their carbines against the house. From here they could survey the whole patrol area: the garden of the Wessenbergian children's home, 250 yards parallel to the border and no wider than 50 yards. Here there was no passage. "Green Border" was what the customs officers called the border strip.
For four years, Reitlinger had done his duty. In that time, he had experienced no serious incidents. But now, ever since the war had begun, deserters had been escaping to Switzerland. Occasionally, he would imagine arresting one of those illegal border crossers. Then he would wonder whether this desire arose from the persistent boredom of patrolling for hours or from his secret need for something unforeseen, something exciting to happen for once. Perhaps it only concealed the deep longing for recognition. A word of praise at some point for one's work—who didn't need that? But how could he be praised if nothing ever happened at the border? Making his rounds along the border fence, Reitlinger would lose himself in his dreams. As he spent hour after hour looking at the same houses, trees, and hills, it seemed as if time stood still. When the mood seized him, he told his wife about his thoughts and dreams. A few weeks earlier, he had told her over breakfast of a dream he'd had that night about the arrest of a man.
"It seems to me that you need a change, or else you'll keep fantasizing," she had said to him, shaking her head.
After breakfast that day—even though it was his day off—he had gone to the customs house to tell the head guard, Trabmann, his dream.
"You should do night watch sometime, more happens on it than during the day, if anything happens," Trabmann advised him. A stout man who didn't look his fifty years, Trabmann recounted how he himself had caught two illegal border crossers several years ago down at Kreuzlinger Tor with a colleague. "They were trying to get over the fence, but we were faster," he said proudly. "But what did we get for it? A warm handshake." Trabmann smiled sardonically.
Yesterday, having long forgotten the matter, Reitlinger had been called to the head guard's office. Trabmann asked him whether he still wanted to do night duty, as a colleague was out on leave. Reitlinger immediately accepted. That day he had reported for morning duty with Zapfer from eight to twelve. After that routine work, he was off until the start of night duty at eight o'clock in the evening. At half past seven, Reitlinger and Zapfer met at the Löwe, next door to the customs house. There was talk of politics and the fact that the Germans needed Lebensraum (living space). The owner of the tavern cried, "Certainly, how else should our people sustain itself?" Young Zapfer nodded his assent.
After eating, they went to the customs house and took their carbines from the shelf. Reitlinger was given night binoculars by the head guard, and they set off for their patrol area. "Tonight we won't be bored," Reitlinger told Zapfer, as they walked slowly along the border fence. "I've spoken to the children's home director, and she invited us to listen to the Führer's Bürgerbräu speech."
They sat on chairs in front of the open window and looked across to the border meadow, which was somewhat obscured by wisps of fog in the air. Inside the children's home, under a picture of the Führer hanging on the wall of the bare room, the staff was attentively following Hitler's speech from the so-called Volksempfänger, the people's radio receiver. Noticing with surprise that the light was on, Zapfer asked, "Why is the light actually allowed to be on here?" Reitlinger, who was moving his head to the right and left at regular intervals, lowered his binoculars from his eyes. "Tonight they have to turn out their lights on the other side; it alternates every evening because of the enemy. After all, we don't want to make it easy for them here in Konstanz. Those are the orders. Tonight them, tomorrow us." Zapfer was embarrassed to have asked the question; as a soon-to-be customs officer, he should have known about that. But Reitlinger wasn't unforgiving, which set Zapfer's mind at ease.
From the radio boomed Hitler's forceful voice.
Our will is just as indomitable in the outward struggle as it was in the internal struggle for power. Back then, I always told you that everything is conceivable, with one exception: our capitulation. And today, as a National Socialist, I can only repeat before the world that everything is conceivable—a German capitulation, never! To those who tell me, "Then the war will last three years," I reply, let it last as long as it will. Germany will never capitulate—not now and not in the future ...
"Never!" cried a voice in the room. The listeners pounded on the wooden table with the palms of their hands. The two customs officers were more pensive, neither of them saying a word. The clock on the wall now showed that it was half past eight, and visibility had improved. On the Swiss side, two streetlamps could be seen burning; their beams reached the border fence. When Reitlinger looked to the left for a moment, he thought he vaguely perceived the figure of a man moving toward the Swiss border. Was someone there? He raised his binoculars to his eyes. Indeed, the man had now stopped and was looking around warily.
Reitlinger nudged Zapfer with his arm and handed him the binoculars: "Look, do you see that man?"
Zapfer held them before his eyes: "We have to go there; there's something fishy going on there ..."
Reitlinger reacted gruffly: "I'm going. You stay here." This was his job; he bore the responsibility. He jumped up and went down from the terrace toward the pear tree near the fence. The man was still standing motionlessly, as if he were listening to noises.
Reitlinger crept up to him from behind. "Hello!" he shouted at him. "Where are you heading?"
The man swung around. He answered with a stammer: "I think I've gotten lost."
Reitlinger looked into his face—a long, soft face, beardless, with almost-shy eyes. He stepped back a few feet and scrutinized the man. He was of small stature, thin, and wore a coat but nothing on his head. His hair was slightly wavy and combed back. No, this man did not seem aggressive ...
He seemed to recover swiftly from his fright. With a calm voice he emphasized again that he'd lost his way. "I'm looking for a man named Feuchtlhuber, but I don't know anymore exactly where I am."
Reitlinger was confused for a moment. No one could stray here inadvertently; that could only happen intentionally. Who roams around in the dark on the border? "Well, you can't look here, there's no one here," he replied tersely. "Do you have identification papers? Please show me your papers."
The man reacted immediately and reached into his left coat pocket. Reitlinger looked intently at the stranger's hands. Was he about to draw a weapon? Take him by surprise? He held his breath. The man awkwardly pulled out a red border-crossing card. In the glow of his flashlight, Reitlinger saw immediately that the card had long since expired—issued by the passport office of the Konstanz city council for a period of two years, 1933–1935, to the name Georg Elser.
"Is that really you?" Reitlinger asked skeptically. The photo on the card showed a young fellow dressed in traditional costume, holding an accordion in front of him.
"Yes, that's me," the man answered, nodding vigorously.
Reitlinger looked over to Zapfer, who was still sitting in front of the window and waiting for some sign from him. He felt uneasy. On the one hand, this man didn't seem at all dangerous—he actually seemed timid. On the other hand, he couldn't imagine that he was nothing but a harmless border crosser. Hadn't he had that vision in a dream a few weeks ago? Hadn't it been almost identical to the present situation? Hadn't the dream also been about an illegal border crosser? Had it been a prophetic vision?
He turned again to the man: "Can you really play accordion?" he asked with feigned interest.
"Yes, that's my great passion. I enjoy it very much," he answered with a slight smile.
Meanwhile, it had become clear to Reitlinger that he had to bring this man, who claimed to be Georg Elser, to the supervisory office with as little trouble as possible. He patted him reassuringly on the shoulder and said, "This is a completely harmless matter. Come with me now to the supervisory office. An older colleague of mine is on duty there, and he'll definitely be able to give you information about the man you're looking for." The thin man nodded absentmindedly. Reitlinger called over to Zapfer: "I'm going ahead with him to the supervisory office. You stay here; I'll be right back." Zapfer gave a wave of acknowledgment, content to stay, as he would be able to continue listening to the Führer's speech.
Reitlinger told the man claiming to be Georg Elser to walk on his right side—with good reason. The customs house on Kreuzlinger Strasse was about 150 yards away, and scarcely 30 feet away on his left was the border, running parallel to the narrow path. On his right side was a row of gardens enclosed by wooden fences, so there was no escape to the right, and to flee back the way they came was impossible as well. He had deliberately instructed Zapfer to stay at his post, for the man would run directly into his arms if he made a break for it. Nonetheless, Reitlinger was relieved when he arrived at the customs house. Border policeman Mauer, a wiry Gestapo officer who was on duty tonight, was stepping out of the house to get some fresh air.
"You, Mauer, come here!" Reitlinger called to him. "This man here is looking for someone named Feuchtlhuber. He got lost down by the border. Do you know any Feuchtlhuber?"
Irritably, Mauer pointed at the door. "Let's do this inside."
The customs house was a two-story ramshackle building. On the second floor lived customs inspector Straube, whom Reitlinger didn't like, finding him unpleasant and boastful. The house had two entrances: one for Straube's private apartment and another for the customs investigation office. The room was bare except for a table, a telephone, chairs, shelves, and a picture of the Führer on the wall.
Reitlinger showed Mauer the red border-crossing card: "You should search him again. I have to go back up to the patrol area."
Mauer gave him an annoyed look. "Finish your own business! What do I care about this man and his Feuchtlhuber or whatever his name is ..." Crossly, he gave the man back his border-crossing card.
Reitlinger shrugged. "It's not my affair. I brought the man here; now it's your turn ..."
"We'll go over to the main customs office. The rooms are brighter there. Here you can't see anything," Mauer grumbled, pointing to the ceiling lamp, which only barely illuminated the room. The three of them left the house. Reitlinger walked ahead, followed by the man, who seemed quite small in comparison to his guards and hadn't said a word in the past few minutes. Mauer walked behind him.
The building that housed the main customs office was the last one on German soil; Switzerland was less than fifteen yards away. There was no barrier. Often the Swiss customs officers stood in front of their customs house and looked across. In the past they'd often talked to each other; on cold winter nights they would offer each other warm tea and cigarettes. They had been colleagues, but in recent years, they'd had scarcely any contact, and since the outbreak of the war, they hadn't exchanged a word. The officers stood silently opposite each other.
Now, too, as Reitlinger and Mauer told the man to enter the customs office, their Swiss colleagues were silently watching them. "Go inside!" commanded Reitlinger. The man stood wordlessly before the steps and looked across to the Swiss side. Did he want to escape? With a few swift bounds, he could do it. Reitlinger simply pushed him through the door. He then asked Mauer to keep an eye on the man for a moment and informed the head guard, who had his office in the next room and was listening to Hitler's speech on the radio.
"Trabmann, I think I've made a good catch. Come over, we have to search someone," Reitlinger said with a hint of pride, bursting into the office. Both had to laugh. They remembered their conversation from a few weeks earlier. The visions in the dream ...
"Well, then let's go," replied Trabmann, rising from his chair and going ahead to the investigation room.
There the man stood. He looked around timidly as three uniformed men stared at him: Mauer, Trabmann, and Reitlinger.
Trabmann stepped up to him. "Now, to begin with, remove all your clothes and take out whatever is in your pockets."
Hesitantly, the man emptied his pockets and put the objects one by one on the table: a handkerchief, the border-crossing card, a picture postcard of the Munich Bürgerbräu Beer Hall with a Nazi Party stamp, a wallet with five reichsmarks, and all sorts of brass parts—a mainspring, little screws, and a small aluminum tube.
"What's this?" asked Reitlinger, gesturing toward the paraphernalia.
"My God," the man explained haltingly, "I'm a tinkerer. I always make things like that, I collect all sorts of ..."
Furiously, Trabmann shouted: "You're lucky I don't smack you! Do you think I don't know what those are?"
The man fell silent. Slowly he began to undress. He was wearing a light-colored, slightly worn suit. As he went to hang his jacket on the door hook, Reitlinger noticed a pin under the lapel—a balled fist, the sign of the Red Front Fighters League.
"Why are you wearing that insignia?" asked Trabmann.
"Well, out of foolishness," came the meek answer.
"And why do you have a Bürgerbräu postcard with the party postmark with you?"
"Out of sympathy!"
Shaking their heads, Reitlinger, Trabmann, and Mauer looked at one another. What sort of fellow was this? Gets lost in the dark by the border, is carrying an expired border-crossing card with him, has conspicuous small parts in his pocket that could serve as bomb detonators, pins an illegal communist insignia on his jacket. A madman? A boaster? Or really a harmless man who had only lost his way down here by the border?
Trabmann went over to the telephone and dialed the number of the customs assistant Obertz. "Call the Gestapo. There's a man here for them to pick up; this is their affair ... and pack up the objects here on the table," he commanded tersely. Then he left the investigation room with Mauer.
* * *
Reitlinger went back into the adjacent room, where he had put down his loden cloak, the carbine, and the binoculars shortly after his arrival. As he prepared for duty again, he looked through the crack of the door into the other room. There stood the man he had caught scarcely an hour ago in the border meadow. There he stood, stripped to his underwear, freezing, timid. He seemed forlorn. For a brief moment, their eyes met.
Reitlinger left the customs house and walked back in the dark to his patrol area, where Zapfer was waiting for him.
Who is this man? The question went through his mind. Who is this Georg Elser?
Excerpted from THE LONE ASSASSIN by Helmut Ortner Copyright © 2012 by Helmut Ortner. Excerpted by permission of SKYHORSE PUBLISHING. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter One The Arrest....................1
Chapter Two The Assassination Attempt....................9
Chapter Three The Interrogations....................23
Chapter Four One People, One Reich, One Führer....................31
Chapter Five The Confession....................41
Chapter Six Secret Gestapo Matter....................53
Chapter Seven Königsbronn Years....................63
Chapter Eight Departure....................73
Chapter Nine Return to a "German Village"....................83
Chapter Ten The Decision—The Plan....................101
Chapter Eleven The Nights in the Hall....................121
Chapter Twelve "Enhanced Interrogation"....................143
Chapter Thirteen The Death of Protective Custody Prisoner E....................155
Epilogue: Georg Elser, a Man without Ideology....................167