Until 1945, Wilhelmstrasse served as the main government street and centre of power in Germany – from the era of Bismarck and German unification to the Battle of Berlin and division of the city into Allied occupation zones following the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s regime.
The construction of palatial villas for Berlin’s aristocratic families here in the 1700s would put Wilhelmstrasse on the map as a north south thoroughfare bordering the city customs wall – that from 1731 would be named Husarenstraße (Street of the Hussars). Following the death of King Frederick William I, the street would be renamed in his honour in 1740. By the mid 19th century, this residential neighbourhood for wealthy families and members of the royal Hohenzollern dynasty would grow into the main Prussian government street – with the addition of a palace of the Reich President, and the official seat of the German Chancellor.
Further buildings would either be added or acquired – with the former aristocratic residence soon transformed – such as the Palais Schulenburg, Palais Strousberg, Palais Schwerin (destined to become the residence of the first Reich President) and Palais Borsig (the office of the German Vice Chancellor, and after 1934 home to the Nazi brownshirt SA). Important government institutions would populate the street – the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Food, the Transportation Ministry,
Following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, a number of new offices would spring up as the street was further expanded south – in particular the SS/Gestapo Headquarters and Reich Aviation Ministry. Unimpressed with the previous Chancellery, Hitler ordered the construction of a New Reich Chancellery – from where he would lead the country from 1939. Destroyed at the end of the Second World War by the Soviets, little indication remains in the area that this colossal building once stood here, although provocatively placed on Wilhelmstrasse next to where Hitler’s offices previously were is a memorial for the man who almost assassinated the Nazi leader the same year this building was completed – Johnann Georg Elser.
In November 1939, Elser – a carpenter and cabinet maker by trade – almost succeeded in decapitating the Nazi leadership in one swoop, after planting a homemade bomb in a beer hall in Bavaria – set to go off in the middle of one of Adolf Hitler’s typically long speeches.
Elser’s elaborate attempt unfortunately failed when the gathering Hitler was attending – to commemorate the dead of the so-called ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ that had taken place in 1923 – was halted early, leaving Elser’s homemade bomb ticking away in a column next to the stage Hitler had been speaking from. Only to explode thirteen minutes later and cause serious damage to the beer hall when the ceiling collapsed, killing eight people in the audience and injuring many more – including Eva Braun’s father. The crowd of nearly 3,000 had already started to dissipate by the time of the explosion; with Hitler on his way back to Berlin to devote his attention to planning the imminent war with France.
Elser’s attack had been no last minute affair, in-fact he had spent much of the previous two months covertly working inside the Bürgerbrau beer hall – chiselling away at the speaker’s rostrum to hollow out the brickwork for his bomb. The materials used to create his ‘infernal machine’ were stolen from his workplace; as Elser had been employed at an armament’s factory one year earlier and a quarry. The timer he constructed himself would be set for 9.20pm on November 8th 1939.
Captured while trying to escape to Switzerland, Elser was interrogated by the Gestapo secret police and forced to make a full written confession – something he was only eager to do. Subsequent torture would induced the young carpenter to concede that he had been working with ‘foreign agents’, a charge that the Nazi propaganda machine was only too happy to use to its advantage.
The Georg Elser memorial is lit up at night - when the outline of Elser's face is clearly visible all the way along Wilhelmstrasse.
Despite Nazi attempts to paint Elser as part of an international plot, with British backing, there was no evidence that he had in-fact colluded with ‘foreign agents’ in his actions. As he repeatedly stated, Esler had acted alone, enraged by the evil of National Socialism and motivated by his desire to prove himself a ‘good man’. He would explain during his interrogation: “I reasoned the situation in Germany could only be modified by a removal of the current leadership, I mean Hitler, Goering and Goebbels …”.
Elser’s attempt to decapitate the Nazi state – while acting alone – is often cited as the textbook example of how one man, driven by personal conviction, can almost change history. And that, while not being a member of any political party, he was proof that it was possible for an ‘ordinary German’ to channel his outrage into something righteous. There is evidence, however, that Elser – whose parents were protestants – increased his church attendance in the runup to his assassination attempt and that he would claim that recantation of the Lord’s Prayer would calm him whilst he worked.
After being detained at the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin for interrogation, Elser was transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of the city and kept in isolation there from 1941 until 1945. The preferential treatment that he received whilst held in the T-block building drew the attention of fellow prisoners, who wondered at why a man so eager to confess his guilt would be left alive for so long. Shortly before the end of the war, George Elser was transferred to Dachau concentration camp, near Munich, and murdered there on April 9th 1945.
Details of Elser’s attempt remain as absurd as the plan was audacious, as during his interrogation he was forced to reconstruct the bomb he had manufactured for the Bürgerbrau attempt – as proof that he was capable of acting as the sole instigator. As tasked he proved capable of creating this replica and was said to be content to receive praise for his craftsmanship by his interrogators. During his torture he was not only beaten but also hypnotised, by one of four hyponistist who were brought in to help him confess, and drugged with the stimulant Pervetin.
Several conspiracy theories have even spread suggesting that Elser was somehow working with Nazi agents to carry out the attack – with famed pastor Martin Niemoller, a fellow prisoner at Sachsenhausen, claiming that Elser’s attack had been staged to qualify the claim that Hitler was protected by some divine providence.
Fittingly, the memorial for Georg Elser than now stands on Wilhelmstrasse is not only positioned close to where Adolf Hitler’s Chancellery previous stood, but also metres away from where Hitler would take his own life – have survived, by some estimates, up to forty-two known assassination attempts. Whether providence was involved or not, it is certainly remarkable that Hitler would survive for so long before finally perishing by his own hand. This claim to God’s intervention is something that the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, embraced and propagated through his stranglehold of the German media – that the outline of Elser’s face is now staring across the road at the former Nazi Propaganda Ministry may have something to do with the contrast of these claims. If Hitler was really part of God’s Plan; what a disgusting and reprehensible plan it was.
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