It is one of our favorite fantasies: what if someone had killed Adolf Hitler? How different would the world be if somebody had just taken out the future Führer before he could plunge the world into war and horror?
But it’s not as if nobody ever tried. More than a few people did their best to take out the leader of the Third Reich—but Hitler, as it turns out, was surprisingly hard to kill. Dozens of people tried to take out Hitler—at least four before he became Chancellor and more than 40 afterward—but nobody ever pulled it off.
It’s one of the forgotten stories of history: the many, many plots to take out Hitler. Some are stories of heroism, some of madness, and some are just downright strange—but if any one of them had succeeded, the world would have completely changed.
10Johann Georg Elser Missed Hitler by Minutes
On November 8, 1938, Hitler came within inches of death. He was scheduled to make a speech at the Munich Beer Hall, but, worried about the bad weather, decided to rush out 30 minutes early to catch a train back home. And if he hadn’t, he would have died that night.
Less than ten minutes after Hitler left the building, a timed explosive in the column behind his podium exploded. It killed eight people, wounded sixty, and undoubtedly would have incinerated the Führer if he had not just snuck out of the building.
The bomb had been planted by Johann Georg Elser, a carpenter, a union member, and a communist. He had told a friend a few days before that Germany would never get back on track unless someone brought down Hitler. With him out of the way, Elser believed, the Communist revolution could begin.
Hitler survived because of what is tempting to call an act of God, and Elser was caught trying to flee into Switzerland. He was tortured, sent to the Dachau Concentration Camp, and ultimately killed.
The very day after his plot failed was the Kristallnacht—the day Jewish businesses and synagogues across Germany were burnt to the crowd; the day, some would say, the Holocaust began.
9Maurice Bavaud Tried to Kill Hitler the next Day
Hitler would not have survived another 24 hours if Maurice Bavaud had been a better shot.
Bavaud was a theology student from Switzerland who, whether in a fit of madness or wisdom, convinced himself that Hitler was the antichrist. Hitler, he believed, was a threat to the Christian faith and to humanity itself—and it was his divine duty to kill him.
Bavaud packed a pistol and headed into Germany, where he desperately tried to arrange a meeting with the man he planned to murder. When he realized it would fail, he joined a crowd of eager of Nazi supporters watching Hitler parade down the streets of Munich, his pistol hidden in his pocket.
When Hitler came his way, though, the crowd threw up their hands in salute, blocking Bavaud’s shot. He only had a few seconds to decide whether he should fire and trust that God would lead bullet safely through the crowd and to his target—or if he should put his gun down and be sure he did not accidentally end an innocent’s life.
Bavaud decided not to risk it and ran. Shortly after, on a train ride to France, he was caught using a fake ticket. When the guards looked through his things, they found the gun and a map of Hitler’s vacation home. For Bavaud, it was all over.
Bavaud was executed by guillotine in May of 1941. “I want to cry, but I can’t,” he wrote his parents on the day before his death. “I feel my heart would explode.”
8William Seabrook Tried to Kill Hitler With Voodoo Magic
While the Germans and the Swiss were trying to take out Hitler with guns and explosives, an American writer was taking a slightly different route. He was going to take out Hitler, William Seabrook resolved, with black magic.
On January 22, 1941, Seabrook gathered a group of friends together in a cabin in Maryland for a “hex party.” Until the break of dawn, they would drink rum, pound on drums, and try to summon pagan gods to take out the leader of Germany.
They dressed a dummy up in a Nazi uniform, chanting at it, “You are Hitler! Hitler is you!” Then Seabrook led his followers to call the pagan deity Istan to transmit the dummy’s wounds to Hitler while they spat at it, “We curse you!”
With the pounding of drums around them, the drunken occultists hammered nails into the dummy’s heart. Then Seabrook chopped off its head with an ax and buried it deep in the woods, leaving it for the worms to devour.
Hitler, somehow, survived this attempt on his life. Historians remain at a loss to explain how this plan could have failed.
7The First Attempt on Hitler’s Life
By then, people had already been trying to kill Hitler for at least 20 years. That was when the first confirmed attempt on his life happened: November 1921, long before Hitler took control of Germany.
He had been speaking at the Munich Beer Hall, addressing a massive audience of hundreds about the glory of National Socialism. His crowd, though, was not entirely supporters. More than 300 people there were bitter opponents on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, and while they listened to Hitler espouse ideas that went against everything they believed in, they were getting blindingly drunk.
One line set them off, and a mob of people started hurtling beer steins at the stage. Hitler’s supporters struck back, and soon the place had erupted into a full riot. Chairs were flying through the air, lead pipes and brass knuckles were in people’s hands, and the place was getting bloody.
Hitler’s guards started forcing the troublemakers out, but in the chaos, somebody pulled out a gun and opened fire on Hitler. That could have been the end of the Nazi Party—but he missed.
Hitler was unfazed. He didn’t run for cover—in fact, according to some accounts, he even pulled out a gun of his own and shot back. Then he went on with his speech, talking for another 20 minutes, even while his audience were beating each other bloody and trying to kill him.
Not every German was happy when Hitler came into power. As the Nazis started erasing their political opponents and massacring Jews, Gen. Henning von Tresckow vowed to put an end to the Nazi Party. He helped start the German Resistance and promised he would stop at nothing to take out Adolf Hitler.
He got his chance on March 13, 1943. Hitler was flying from Vinnitsa, USSR, back into Germany and, on his way home, would have a layover in Smolensk. There, Tresckow would have his opportunity to strike.
He handed one of the officers flying with Hitler a bottle of expensive Brandy, pretending it was a gift for the Nazi officials in Berlin. Inside the bottle, though, Tresckow had hidden a bomb set with a 30 minutes fuse. The officer fell for it and put the explosive bottle in the plane, and Tresckow watched them take off, waiting to see Hitler explode in the sky.
The bomb didn’t go off. The luggage compartment it was stored in was too cold, and the explosives failed to ignite. Hitler made it safely home, unaware his life was ever in danger—and a frantic Tresckow had to start calling people in Berlin, begging them to sneak the bottle out before anyone found it.
5Rudolf von Gersdorff Got a Bomb Within Inches of Hitler
Tresckow did not give up. Shortly after, he devised another plot to take out Hitler. Someone would have to be willing to sacrifice their own life to make it work—Nazi General Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff volunteered. He was ready to die if it meant a world without Hitler.
Hitler was scheduled to be in Berlin opening an exhibition of captured Russian equipment on March 15, 1943, and Göring and Himmler would be with him. If Gerstorff could get close enough to them to set off a bomb, he would take out the three most powerful men in the Nazi Party in one blast.
Gerstorff packed his coat pockets with explosives rigged to explode ten minutes after he set the fuse and went to the exhibition, struggling to look calm while he waited for his target to arrive. Hitler, though, was hours late—and Gerstorff was forced to stand around a crowd of Nazis with bombs in his pockets.
When Hitler showed up, a speaker announced he only had eight minutes to spend on the tour. That meant that if Gerstorff started his ten-minute timer, his bomb would not go off until after Hitler had left. He would blow up himself and an audience of spectators—but the Führer would walk free.
It wasn’t worth the risk. Gerstorff had to stand, smile, and watch Adolf Hitler breeze through the exhibition—and then get out before anyone noticed what he had hidden in his coat.
4The Oster Conspiracy
In 1938, Hans Oster, head of Germany’s Military Intelligence Office, planned to not only take out Hitler but to overthrow the entire Nazi Party. Hitler had demanded control of Czechoslovakia, and Oster was sure his threats would pull Germany into a world war. He was going to stop it.
He planned a coup d’etat. With a team of 60 officers, Oster was going to take Germany from the Nazi Party. He would arrest Hitler and, one way or another, get rid of him. Some wanted to execute him, some wanted to declare him mentally ill, and Oster himself wanted to gun him down and pretend he was resisting arrest—but everyone agreed that Hitler would have to go.
The coup d’etat never happened. To everyone’s surprise, the Munich Agreement let Germany annex Czechoslovakia without firing a single shot, and the world war Oster had feared did not happen. The conspirators fell apart, believing the crisis was over. And by the time the war had really started, they were too fractured to do anything to stop it.
3The British Snuck Estrogen into Hitler’s Food
Not every assassination plan ended with Hitler dead. Some were just character assassinations—but they were every bit as sensational as the plots to kill him. Like, for example, the British plot to feed Hitler estrogen.
Hitler’s sister was a mild-mannered secretary, and the British were convinced that, if Hitler got in touch with his feminine side, he would become as docile as she was. They had spies on hand who could get access to his food, and while they were not sure they would get poison past his food testers, they were pretty sure they could get estrogen supplements into his diet.
This wasn’t just a hare-brained plan—they actually did it. The British bribed a gardener to inject estrogen into his carrots, and he agreed to do it. The plot to feminize Hitler went into motion.
It is not entirely clear how it all ended, but it does not seem to have worked. Perhaps the food testers spotted the estrogen-laced carrots, or maybe the gardener sold the spies out. Or—who knows?—maybe the plan worked, and the Nazi invasion of Russia was all just a very confused man struggling with the rush of new hormones that came with transitioning into womanhood.
2The 20 July Plot
On July 20, 1944, Count Stauffenberg came the closest anyone ever would to killing Hitler. He had the chance to step into the Wolf’s Lair, the top secret conference room where Hitler conspired with his most trusted men, and he was going to use that chance to bring the Second World War to an early end.
He brought a briefcase full of explosives with him and snuck off into a room to set the fuses. He only managed to light one, though, before a guard knocked on the door and told him that Hitler was waiting for him. Stauffenberg had to head in with only one bomb triggered to blow and hope it was enough to take out Hitler.
He headed into the conference room with his briefcase bomb and slid it under the conference table, trying to push it as close to Hitler as he could. Then he excused himself, stepped out, and waited for the explosion.
The bomb went off, blowing the room to pieces. Four people died—but with only one fuse lit, it was not strong enough to finish off Hitler. The Führer got out with only a few injuries, and Stauffenberg was caught and killed.
The British had all kinds of plots to kill Hitler. First, they plotted to bomb Hitler’s private train, and then later to poison his water supply—but they could not get any of them to work.
That changed, though, in 1944, when they captured one of Hitler’s personal guards. They interrogated him and found out that he worked at Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps, and he was willing to tell them what they needed to know to take him out.
When Hitler was at his retreat, the guard told them, the Nazi flag was hoisted over the building. Every day at 10:00 a.m., he would take a solitary walk to a nearby teahouse. For about 20 minutes, he would be unguarded and alone, walking down a path by a forest where a sniper could easily be hidden.
The British had everything in place to do it. They had a marksman ready, and an inside man who was willing to help him get in—and the plan probably would have worked.
Lt. Col Ronald Thornley, though, managed to convince them that they were better off leaving Hitler alive. Killing him would make him a martyr, keep the ideas of Nazism alive, and a better strategist would be put in Hitler’s place. By then, the war was almost over. The Allies were actually better off with Hitler alive than dead.