This week in the War, 15–21 March 1943: Trying to kill Hitler

Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff [Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-130-51]

Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff [Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-130-51]

This week in the war, on 21 March 1943, Wehrmacht colonel, Rudolf Christoph von Gersdorff attempted to blow himself up beside Hitler, and alongside Goering, Himmler and Doenitz, too. It was not the first attempt on the Fuehrer’s life, and it would not be the last.

As part of Heroes Memorial Day, Hitler had planned to inspect a collection of captured Soviet weapons that were on display on Unter den Linden at the Zeughaus—–the old armory built by Frederick III and now the present-day location of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.

Only eight days before, a bomb contained in two bottles of Cointreau had been smuggled on to Hitler’s plane but failed to explode. It was thought afterwards that the cold weather was responsible for the explosive not igniting. (Hitler was flying to the Wolf’s Lair near Rastenburg. The two army officers, Major-General Henning von Tresckow and Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, escaped detection.)

Given that the attempt to blow up Hitler’s plane had failed, von Gersdorff’s decided upon a suicide mission. He obtained explosives from von Schlabrendorff—again with British fuses, like the Cointreau bomb. British fuses acted silently. German fuses hissed.

Ceremonies at the Zeughaus began at 1.00pm and Hitler made a brief speech. Von Gersdorff’s pockets were stuffed with high explosive and, because he had been given the official task of explaining the exhibits, he could be as close to Hitler as he chose. Von Gersdorff activated the fuses. He and Germany’s Fuehrer had exactly ten minutes to live.

But it was not to be. As if he’d had a premonition warning him of danger, Hitler rushed through the halls and exited the building without seeing any of the displays. With barely a minute to spare, von Gersdorff found a toilet and hastily defused his bomb.

Against all odds, von Gersdorff survived the afternoon of 21 March 1943 and went on to survive the war. (He played a role in another high profile incident while in Russia with Army Group Centre, namely the discovery of the graves of thousands of Polish army officers who had been murdered by the Soviets and buried in the Katyn Forest.)

Modern-day view of the Zeughaus, which currently houses the Deutsches Historisches Museum [Public domain, author: El Dirko]

Modern-day view of the Zeughaus, which currently houses the Deutsches Historisches Museum [Public domain, author: El Dirko]

Von Gersdorff’s plot was followed in little over a year by a more well known though equally unsuccessful plot against Hitler: the 20 July 1944 bomb plot that was spearheaded by Wehrmacht colonel, Claus von Stauffenberg.

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