10 Would-Be Assassins Who Tried To Kill Hitler

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-130-51 / CC-BY-SA
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-130-51 / CC-BY-SA / Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-130-51 / CC-BY-SA

More than 30 attempts were made on Adolf Hitler's life before he finally took it himself—and some of them came very close to doing the dictator in.

1. Johann Georg Elser

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A woodworker by trade, Elser was convinced that Hitler was going to lead Germany to war, and was unhappy with Hitler’s aggressive anti-union policies. So to make Germany better, Elser decided to kill the Führer and devised what seemed like the perfect murder.

On November 8, 1939, Hitler would be delivering a speech at Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller beer hall. So, several months in advance, Elser dropped by, looked around, and spotted a thick, supporting column. Under the cover of darkness, he spent 35 meticulous nights digging out a hole inside it—which he concealed beneath some tiles. Meanwhile, the mastermind used 110 pounds of smuggled explosives to build a time bomb with Adolf Hitler’s name on it. The Nazis would never know what hit them.

When the day finally came, though, Hitler’s speech wrapped up earlier than expected—and by the time Elser’s bomb went off, his intended target was en route to Berlin for a military meeting. Back in Munich, eight patrons were killed at Bürgerbräukeller while dozens more sustained serious injuries. That same day, Elser was arrested near the Swiss border with incriminating detonator sketches in his pockets. He died in Nazi custody six years later.

2. Heinrich Grunow

This SS soldier lay in wait near Berchtesgaden, where Hitler often entertained his most important visitors. Armed with a rifle, Grunow pumped several shots into the back of the chancellor’s passing car. He then immediately committed suicide, failing to realize that Hitler had moved to the driver’s seat and missed every bullet.  

3. Maurice Bavaud

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Disguised as a foreign reporter, Swiss theology student Maurice Bavaud arrived in Munich in 1938 with the intention of slaying Hitler before several hundred witnesses. His quarry would be marching by in a parade and Bavaud planned to shoot him from the sidelines—but when the moment came, innocent bystanders unwittingly blocked his view, staying this gunman’s hand. He was later captured and executed.

4. Helmut Hirsch

Few self-described Nazis opposed Hitler more than Otto Strasser, who’d been exiled for his views in 1930. Six years later, Strasser—then residing in Prague—handed off a bomb to Helmut Hirsch. If all went well, a co-conspirator would meet this young Jewish man in Stuttgart, discreetly take the device, and plant it inside Nuremberg’s Nazi Party Headquarters. Sadly, things didn’t work out that way. German authorities somehow caught wind of Hirsch’s intentions and had him executed.

5. Josef Thomas

Little is known about Thomas, though he’s consistently described as having been “mentally-ill.” Arrested by the Gestapo in 1937, he confessed that he’d traveled from Elberfeld to Berlin for the explicit purpose of shooting Hitler and air force commander Hermann Göring.

6. Henning von Tresckow

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This general came up with several ingenious plots to kill Hitler, but, try as he might, he simply couldn’t bring down the Führer. Altitude ruined what was arguably his best chance.

Before Hitler’s plane took off one fateful day, von Tresckow and his accomplices discreetly had two bombs sent aboard. Masquerading as Cointreau bottles, these things should have blown the dictator to kingdom come. But when the plane's pilots made a sudden climb to avoid storm clouds on the horizon, the deadly chemicals froze, rendering them useless. Later, Tresckow’s team retrieved their gadgets and managed to walk away scot-free.

7. Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff

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Mere days after failing to assassinate Hitler in mid-air, Tresckow was back at the drawing board. He learned that Hitler would be touring Berlin’s Zeughas Museum on March 21, 1944. For the occasion, like-minded Colonel Gersdorff loaded his jacket with explosives and became Tresckow’s designated suicide bomber. Seconds before the blast, Gersdorff was to wrap his arms around their victim in a fatal embrace. 

There was just one problem: Tresckow had given Gersdorff 10 minutes’ worth of fuse, which he delicately set off—but Hitler left the museum after only eight minutes. The colonel had to race to the men’s room and defuse the live bomb that was still draped over his body.

8. Helmuth Stieff

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Stationed at the German military’s eastern headquarters in Ratsenberg, Steiff was supposed to plant a bomb near Hitler’s favorite dog-walking trail. But the bomb was placed in a nearby water tower, either because Steiff second guessed himself or the tower was being used for storage. Either way, the water tower blew up. The SS never identified Steiff as a culprit, but he was later executed for another plot against Hitler.

9. Axel von Dem Bussche

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The blond-haired, blue-eyed Axel von Dem Bussche (another ally of Tresckow’s) had the Nazi party’s “master race” look down pat—and so was chosen to model some new uniforms for the Führer during the winter of 1943. Seizing this opportunity, Bussche prepared a modified, pocket-sized grenade that he hoped Hitler’s guards wouldn’t detect. But Allied forces foiled his plan when they destroyed the train that was transporting his outfits. 

10. Claus von Stauffenberg

 In 1943, Tresckow recruited Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a career army man who’d lost multiple body parts (including his right hand) while fighting Hitler’s war. Shortly thereafter, Stauffenberg became Chief of Staff for Germany’s replacement army, which served as the centerpiece in an elaborate coup d’état. On July 20, 1944, a routine strategy meeting took place at “The Wolf’s Lair,” a notorious bunker. Stauffenberg arrived with explosives nestled inside his unassuming messenger bag, which he placed beneath the conference room table, getting as close to Hitler as he possibly could before quietly excusing himself. Ten minutes later, an explosion rang out, which the Berlin-bound Stauffenberg observed from a distance. Four people were killed. None of them was Hitler.

Wasting no time, the Colonel and his colleagues began mobilizing an anti-Nazi rebellion throughout Berlin. However, once news of Hitler’s survival spread, the effort unraveled. Tresckow committed suicide and Stauffenberg found himself shouting “Long live our sacred Germany!” before a firing squad.