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

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

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

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

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

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-130-53 / CC-BY-SA

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

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

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

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-146-1547-17 / Menzendorf / CC-BY-SA

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

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-022-32A/ CC-BY-SA

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. 

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Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
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History
10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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holidays
23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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