Eighty years ago, a lone idealist fails to kill Hitler while Chamberlain's fantasies on a similar theme lure him into a German trap
The Bürgerbräukeller in Munich was one of the holy places of Nazism. It gave its name to the “beer hall putsch” of 1923 which gave the movements its first serious crop or martyrs and Hitler a short prison sentence during which he wrote Mein Kampf. The event was ceremonially commemorated every year. An idealistic young carpenter, Georg Elser, took advantage of this to plant a time bomb set to explode during Hitler’s speech. Sadly Hitler finished his speech early and left the Bürgerbräukeller with his entourage of senior Nazis thirteen minutes before the bomb exploded, killing eight more junior Nazis. Elser had acted entirely alone, but Hitler convinced himself that the British were behind the attack and propaganda posters described Chamberlain as the true author of the attack.
By coincidence the British did think that they were involved in a conspiracy by German generals to remove Hitler. Before the outbreak of war they had pooh-poohed a number of approaches from disaffected conservatives in Germany willing to stage a coup, but now that Hitler had upset Chamberlain sufficiently, he was willing to endorse a positive response. He fantasized about Hitler being deposed and sent to a lunatic asylum. This time he had fallen into a trap constructed by Walter Schellenberg, the head of the SS’s foreign intelligence operation, who persuaded the British secret service in the Netherlands that they were in touch with Wehrmacht generals plotting against Hitler. There was no such conspiracy. Two British intelligence officers, Major Richard Stevens and Captain Sigismond Payne-Best, were lured to Venlo on the frontier with Germany supposedly to meet a representative of the imaginary generals. The British were seized by the SS after a shoot-out and taken to Germany for interrogation. Hitler was keen to establish some link to Elser but it is unclear whether this was the immediate reason for the capture.
With touching respect for royal protocol, the British replied to the offer by the monarchs of Belgium and the Netherlands to mediate with Germany through King George VI. Predictably he disappointed his fellow sovereigns by insisting that Germany reinstate Poland before any settlement could be contemplated. President Lebrun of France, to whom the royal offer had also been extended, went further and added Austria and Czechoslovakia to the shopping list. The Germans refused.
The ongoing calamity of the British Ministry of Information took another turn when Sir Findlater Stewart, a highly regarded civil servant, stepped down as its Director General after only two months in the job on the feeble pretext that developments in India required him to return to the India Office. On paper he remained Permanent Secretary of the India Office but in reality had no more serious involvement in with Indian affairs. He simply recognized career suicide when it stared him the face. The Ministry offered a unique blend of inadequate contingency planning before the war and a snake-pit of careerism and political agendas. Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s chief advisor who had been in charge, had been far more concerned to block the political or bureaucratic ambitions of anyone involved, probably because he shared Chamberlain’s delusion that war would never come so the Ministry would never be needed. Stewart was replaced by Sir Kenneth Lee, a business grandee, who had far less to lose and was paid off with a baronetcy when his time came.