The man is convinced that the national leader was ruining his county. Unions were dissolved, wages were frozen, the political elite was given access to luxuries and benefits that were not accessible to the public and the country was headed towards a devastating war.
So, he began plotting and planning to assassinate the leader. While security was tight and official schedules changed frequently, there were a few events that the leader attended every year. He began visiting and calculating one facility more than a year in advance. He got a job in an arms factory so that he could smuggle out explosives in small quantities, eventually totally more than 100 pounds of high explosives. Another job at a quarry allowed him to smuggle out dynamite and detonators.
He eventually built his bomb and then, found out how to sneek into the target facility every night to dig a cavity in a support pillar so that he could install his bomb. He did so every night for three months. At the end of every evening he had to cover all traces of his visit as it was a popular business establishment and anything out of the ordinary would be noticed.
The national leader was Adolf Hitler and the man was Geogr Elser. The Smithsonian magazine has a fascinating, if far too brief, description of Elsers plot and the aftermath. The bomb did go off properly but, in a quirk of fate, Hitler had left moments before due to a last minute schedule change.
As I read this story, it occurred to me that Elser is the very thing we fear today. Not just someone motivated to take violent political action but one who has the skills, intelligence and patience to carry out a sophisticated plan. Compare Elser to the ragtag bunch of misfits we’ve seen over the past ten years. The jerk who couldn’t light his shoes on fire. The other one who’s underwear didn’t go off. Or the others who can’t even tell if they’ve been given a real bomb or a look alike.
Generally we should be very happy about the gross ineptitude we’ve seen among terrorists in the past decade (Madrid and London being obvious exceptions). But I can’t help wondering why. I mean, certainly we can assume there are people just as passionate as Mr. Elser was. Elser was a carpenter. That’s it. He wasn’t Einstein’s twin separated at birth (or Patton’s). He didn’t have specialized training.
So, in theory, it shouldn’t be hard to recreate an Elser, right? And yet, where are they? Where are the Jihadist, white supremicist, black separatist Elsers?
What, if anything, are we to make of their absence?
And clearly Elser is the perfect embodiment of the idea that ‘one man’s hero is another’s terrorist’. Unfortunately, Elser hasn’t gotten much in the way of remembrance or press. He spent the war in a concentration camp and was killed in the final weeks of the war.
When you’re looking for heros, therefore, take a moment to consider Mr. Elser. It doesn’t appear he was fighting for a family, a loved one, or even much of a political ideal. He probably could have kept his head down, his nose clean and lived like millions of Germans throughout the war. Instead, he risked everything to save his country.
Or…was he just a cold blooded murderer who happened to target someone who everyone wanted dead anyway?