Why you should care
Because just 10 minutes stood between Adolf and a fiery death.
“Sieg Heil!” Baron Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff barked, keeping his left hand in his pocket as he raised his right arm to salute Adolf Hitler. The Führer acknowledged the sign of respect, and, with his concealed hand, Gersdorff ignited a chemical fuse connected to a cocktail of explosives.
Intelligence Officer Gersdorff acquired the hardware for this March 21, 1943, assassination attempt through his work with Col. Henning von Tresckow, who was one of a group of officers tasked with strategizing the invasion of the Soviet Union. The officers were also part of a conspiracy ring aimed at taking Hitler’s life. Gersdorff removed his hand from his coat pocket and beckoned Hitler into the exhibition hall of Berlin’s Zeughaus military museum. As he led the Third Reich’s chief on a guided tour of captured Soviet equipment, acid in the bomb’s fuse began to saturate wads of cotton wool. Once a hidden wire was severed by the acid, a striker pin would be set off, detonating the explosive. This would take 15 to 20 minutes, and the tour was scheduled to take about 30. The only problem? Hitler was in a rush.
I did not need much time to answer ‘yes’ to the most momentous question that anybody ever asked me.
Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff, “Soldier in the Downfall”
According to Gersdorff’s memoir, Soldier in the Downfall, he was given less than a week’s notice when Tresckow asked whether he would be willing to take Hitler’s life during the Führer’s Memorial Day activities. Tresckow didn’t reveal any details of the plot, other than that it required Gersdorff to kill himself. Gersdorff was a widower and his only child, a daughter, was under the care of his brother. “At that time we were so caught up in the mission,” wrote Gersdorff. “I did not need much time to answer ‘yes’ to the most momentous question that anybody ever asked me.”
Gersdorff claimed he had harbored anti-Nazi sentiments since the late 1930s, noting that his first impressions of Hitler were of “a repulsive jumped-up proletarian” who may have been “mentally abnormal.” In 1941, as Hitler’s war ground east, Gersdorff received orders he described as “monstrous” and “criminal.” One enabled German soldiers to execute Russian citizens without fear of prosecution; the other mandated that any captured commissars were to be immediately executed. But, according to Gersdorff, it was the massacre at Borisov, Belarus, that determined the conspirators that killing Hitler was their only option. The Jewish ghetto at Borisov, which was located close to Gersdorff’s barracks in Smolensk, Russia, was the site of an SS massacre of 15,000 men, women and children in 1942. A bulletin from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the adult victims were machine-gunned, while the children were buried alive. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the graves “breathing” for two hours following the slaughter.
Gersdorff prayed that Hitler would slow down during his tour of the Zeughaus. But Adolf plowed through in less than five minutes, leaving Gersdorff alone … with a ticking bomb. A common criticism of anti-Nazi conspirators, including Gersdorff, is that they found a passion for resistance only after it became clear that Germany would lose the war. “The suggestion that officers trying to overthrow or kill Hitler were hoping to save their own careers may apply to some,” says Peter Hoffmann, a history professor at McGill University who spoke to Gersdorff in 1967. But, he says, that criticism is not a valid one in Gersdorff’s case: “[He] did what he could to prevent or limit the shooting of Soviet political commissars, and the killing of the Jews.”
Felix Römer, of London’s German Historical Institute, disagrees. He believes Gersdorff acted out of patriotism and a desire to rescue his fatherland’s reputation. “There was probably some moral outrage about the atrocities,” says Römer. “But I think the moral motives have been exaggerated.” Römer agrees that Borisov may have been the tipping point. But, he says, Gersdorff seemed unconcerned with earlier war crimes, citing recently discovered SS reports detailing massacres of able-bodied Jewish men that Gersdorff received, signed and forwarded in 1941.
Whatever his motivation, there’s no denying that Gersdorff was willing to die for the cause. After watching Hitler leave the Zeughaus, the would-be suicide bomber still faced the prospect of dying — but for nothing. He briskly made his way to the nearest lavatory, yanked out the fuse and flushed everything down the toilet, thwarting a detonation.
The resistance was exposed in 1944, but key conspirators’ suicides and resilience in the face of Gestapo torture kept Gersdorff’s involvement a secret. The highly decorated baron died in Munich in 1980, age 74, after decades of wondering what might have been had he managed to slow the Führer down.