Heroes, villains and a little-known assassination attempt on Hitler

As the seemingly interminable sequence of adverts began, I was aware of being almost alone in the cinema. Apart from myself and a friend, there were only three or four others settling into their plush theatre seats.

The film was a German one called ’13 Minutes’, subtitled for English-speaking audiences, and told the little-known story of an attempted assassination of Hitler in November 1939.

Georg Elser 13 Minutes Hitler

A German commemorative postal stamp from 2003: “I wanted to prevent the war”. Elser was murdered on 9th April 1945 in Dachau concentration camp.

Georg Elser, a young man from a rural village, becomes increasingly disturbed by the way Germany is changing under the Nazis. By the late 1930s, having seen a friend arrested and sent to a concentration camp and a local woman persecuted for her relationship with a Jewish man, he is convinced that he must try to kill Hitler. He makes a bomb and plants it in a beer hall in Munich where Hitler is due to speak. The device explodes thirteen minutes after Hitler has left the building, killing eight innocent people. Elser is arrested that same evening, questioned, tortured and sent to a concentration camp where he is killed in the final weeks of the war.

Reviews in Britain and Germany have been varied, but something on which everyone agrees is Elser’s astonishing absence from history. It is not only British faces that remain blank when his name is mentioned – the German actor who plays Georg admits never having heard of him before reading the script. Yet director Oliver Hirschbiegel has likened him to the controversial whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose name is unlikely to be forgotten in our lifetimes.

So why has Elser’s story lived in obscurity for so long? Hirschbiegel thinks his working-class background might be to blame. There was simply disbelief, among both the Nazis who arrested him and ordinary Germans, that such a man could have planned and carried out the attempt without help.

I wonder if it was due to his lack of affiliations. He was vocally anti-communist, even apolitical, so there was no obvious group to tell his story and fight for his recognition after the war.

But most importantly, Elser was a victim of a world where the villains receive far more attention than the heroes. Films such as ’13 Minutes’ and ‘Schindler’s List’ are vastly outnumbered by those that gratify our obsessive desire for cinematic displays of terror from Hitler and the Nazi high command. All too often, the heroes go unnoticed.

And this doesn’t just apply to the Second World War. It is villains not heroes that tend to fill column inches, cause twitter sensations and fill cinemas.

The global public is outraged when a lion is killed illegally for pleasure, but neglects the wonderful, heroic work being done every day to preserve our planet’s species. We vilify the Calais authorities for failing to control migration, but ignore the local volunteers running French lessons in the migrant camps and the British individuals fostering Eritrean children.

We should hunt out and recognise the heroes in our midst, even if, like Elser, they fall short of their ambitious targets. Let’s give less credence to the villains and write about the heroes instead.


From fruit juice to life hacks: Why the Germans are so much better at foreign languages than us

Germany-foreign-languages-englishI was visiting a friend in the German city of Nuremberg last week and we popped into a hairdressers for a quick trim. I left most of the talking to my friend, the German words for ‘choppy layers’ and ‘thinning scissors’ momentarily eluding me. I did exchange some pleasantries with the friendly hairdresser though, who seemed glad that we’ve enlivened her otherwise slow Monday morning at Nuremberg’s branch of ‘Hair Killer’. (Wouldn’t ‘Killer Hair’ be more suitable? No matter.)

My friend, fairly new to the city herself, then asked where we could buy souvenirs. The hairdresser turned to me and asked, ‘So what city do you come from, then?’, obviously assuming I was German. I replied, ‘I’m from London. I’m English.’ Somewhat confused, she turned to my friend and asked, ‘So she doesn’t speak German then?’ as if I’d somehow been pretending all along.

To her, the idea of an English person speaking German at all, let alone fluently, was a paradox. The stereotype of the proudly monolingual English is of course rooted in fact. The percentage of English people who can speak a foreign language is very low compared to other European nationalities and falling numbers of modern language students at UK universities suggests that this will only get worse.

The figures are often attributed to laziness (‘languages are too difficult’), ignorance (‘everyone speaks English anyway’), egotism (‘English is the most important’) or island-bred insularity.

But this is too simple. We should not be comparing a German pupil learning English with an English pupil learning German – the contexts are too dissimilar.

While many English children meet foreign languages for the first time in the classroom, where they seem strange, irrelevant and insurmountably foreign, German children are bombarded by the English language on a daily basis from birth and continue to be so throughout their lives.

Brands such as Apple and social media outlets Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, whose names all boast the global supremacy of English, cannot be ignored – unless you are raised in the darkest corner of a Bavarian forest.

The seven highest-grossing films in Germany this week were made in the USA while seven singles in the top ten were English-language. While German-language videos hold their own against British and American influences on YouTube, most of them are liberally sprinkled with English phrases such as ‘top 10’, ‘life hacks’ or ‘Topmodel’.

Germany-foreign-languages-englishGo to the supermarket and you’ll find shampoo with slogans like ‘Repair and Care’ and a brand of fruit juice called ‘vitafit’. Buy Germany’s biggest tabloid newspaper and you’ll find words like ‘Shitstorm’, ‘Stripper-Stars’ and ‘Iran-Deal’ in its headlines.

In this context, it’s no wonder that German children are so good at English. Absorbing it from a young age, it doesn’t feel so foreign. Seeing it around them, they understand its relevance and actually want to learn – even if it’s just to understand Avicii’s lyrics!

So until more foreign-language films get out of arthouse cinemas and into Odeons and more foreign-language music hits UK charts – and until a London hairdressers is launched as ‘Haartöter’ in a gesture to Nuremberg’s finest salon – the dire percentage of foreign-language speakers in this country is unfortunately unlikely to change.

‘Militant’ Germans and ‘cockroach’ migrants: Sowing the seeds of prejudice

‘Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.’
(Jodie Picoult, Salem Falls)

It’s remarkable how often I end up discussing Germany and the Germans within five minutes of conversing with a total stranger. ‘What do you do?’ they ask. I give them a potted outline. It’s rare that I’m met with a blank, uninterested face: everyone has an opinion about Germany and most people are keen to share it with me. I’m fascinated by these opinions. (So if I’m ever talking to you on this subject, please don’t hold back!)

Germany_prejudice_languageOne man I met recently had a stronger opinion than most. ‘I find them kind of militant’, he said. I was a little taken aback by his choice of word. How had he reached this conclusion, I wondered? ‘I knew some Germans at university’, he told me. ‘They were always in the library. Oh, and they didn’t like walking on the grass when there was a sign saying you shouldn’t.’

That was it. His firm belief that Germans are ‘militant’ was based on anecdotal evidence of a couple of Germans whose behaviour was admittedly slightly unusual for students but in no way justified his chosen adjective. Hard-working and law-abiding, maybe, but not militant. And making sweeping generalisations about a whole nation from a couple of individuals is never a good idea.

It was probably a throwaway comment. It’s unlikely (I hope) that this man believes all Germans to be aggressive, combative and fanatical. But as the quotation above conveys so well, words are powerful things and, like eggs, demand careful handling.

Whether we refer to migrants as ‘cockroaches’, Jews as ‘dirty’ or Germans as ‘militant’, and whether we speak privately or publicly, our words can have unintended repercussions. A careless adjective, a generalized insult: this is how the seeds of prejudice are sown. Let’s choose our words well and show our fellow human beings some respect.

The case of Oskar Groening

“I ask for forgiveness. I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.”

These words were spoken yesterday by Oskar Groening on the opening day of his trial in Lüneburg. He stands accused of being an accessory to the murder of at least 300,000 Jews at the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau between May and June 1944.

He told the court that his job was to count the money taken from prisoners. He admitted witnessing mass killings but denied any direct role.

All of the major news outlets are covering the case, so I’m not going to re-hash the details. Instead, I’d like to explore the question of guilt a little further.

Groening’s admission of “moral” guilt and his distinction between moral and criminal culpability taps into a debate that began in 1945 and has never been – and can never be – resolved.

In that immediate post-war period, the German nation was widely and collectively condemned as guilty. (You can read more about the debate around German collective guilt in my blog post here.)

But when journalists and newspaper readers wrote angrily of “German maniacal guilt” or the “great guilt” carried on all German shoulders, they were free of the responsibility for deciding what should happen to the people they were denouncing. To try a whole nation would be absurd and the vast majority of Germans were not guilty of a crime in the legal sense anyway. The guilt that so many Britons charged them with was not criminal, but moral.

Even trying those Nazis who would later be imprisoned or executed as war criminals was not easy. Their undeniable guilt was not of a kind recognized by existing laws and a new category of ‘Crimes against Humanity’ had to be created to deal with them.

German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote on this subject in 1946, expressing her concern that “We are simply not equipped to deal, on a human, political level with a guilt that is beyond crime”.

It may even be impossible to convict Groening of the charges he is facing – similar charges against him in the 1980s had to be dropped as the law did not allow criminal guilt to be proven in his case. His guilt was and may still be “beyond crime”.

Yet few people would disagree that Groening should receive some punishment. Even he seems to think so.

Logic tells us that guilt should be punished. But what does punishment for moral guilt, either for a whole nation or for an individual like Groening, look like?

It’s a difficult, perhaps impossible, question to answer. But it will certainly be interesting to follow this trial as the judges seek a path through the maze of legal and moral questions ahead of them.

The horrors of war: must they ‘be seen to be believed’?

I recently visited the archives at the Imperial War Museum in London. I wandered through the exhibits, trying – and failing – to find the research room, which I eventually discovered hidden away at the back of the second floor.

Refreshingly clean for an archive and filled with natural light and the sound of children’s laughter drifting up from below, it seemed entirely the wrong place to be reading about atrocities.

I was there to read first-hand accounts of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen in April 1945. The handwritten letters spread before me, I couldn’t quite believe that these faded, almost illegible messages on such fragile, yellowed bits of paper were written by some of the first people to witness these horrors.

They wrote in great detail of the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded them, but told their husbands or wives, fathers or fiancés that ‘it must be seen to be believed’.

It was probably several days or even weeks before these letters were received. By this time, newspapers, radio and cinema newsreels were broadcasting news of the discoveries to an incredulous British public.

BBC broadcaster Richard Dimbleby was the first to send a report from the camp, but the broadcast was delayed until its contents had been confirmed by other sources. On its own, it was simply unbelievable.

In the following days, the camps were the major topic of conversation in shops, offices and public transport up and down the country, while box office records were broken by unprecedented audiences streaming to cinemas to watch footage from the camps. No one could quite believe the news.

Words such as ‘Auschwitz’, ‘Holocaust’ and ‘concentration camps’ summon up the very same images for us that so shocked the British public in 1945.

Yet our world has become so saturated with images of atrocities – images of the Holocaust, famine, natural disasters, conflict – that by the time we reach an age where we might begin to comprehend the magnitude of any of these events, we’re in danger of being desensitized to their horror.

A graphic exhibition of photos showing victims of the Assad regime is currently on display at the UN in New York. ‘It is imperative that we at the United Nations not look away’, said Michele J Sison, the US deputy representative to the UN.

It seems that we must go to ever greater lengths, display ever more horrific imagery in order to arouse the shock and anger that should be our natural reaction to stories of suffering humanity.

Perhaps it is still true that the horrors of war ‘must be seen to be believed’. But we must not give up our capacity to empathise with those who suffer, wherever they are in the world.

The changing significance of Auschwitz – and what we must do now

It is 70 years today since the liberation by the Soviet Red Army of Auschwitz, a word now synonymous with the Nazi atrocities and specifically with the death of six million Jews.

At the time, however, the liberation of Auschwitz made little impression on the British public. It was not until late April 1945, when British and American troops marching across Germany discovered the atrocities in Buchenwald and Belsen concentration camps, that the truth took hold. First-hand reports quickly made their way into the British press and any remaining disbelief was soon dispelled and outrage took its place.

For the next years and decades, it was Belsen, liberated by British troops, that was synonymous with Nazi atrocities for the British people – Auschwitz barely registered.

Furthermore, and hard as it is to believe, the Jewish identity of the majority of the victims – the result of the Nazi’s extermination policy – was barely mentioned.

There were several reasons for this, not least the unstable political situation in Palestine where British occupiers were in conflict with the Jewish resistance. Arousing sympathy among the British public for the Jewish people at that time would have been counter-productive.

However, the discoveries in Belsen and Buchenwald did trigger an explosion of debate and discussion in the political sphere, in the press and in the street. Voices from the right were keen to stress the responsibility, if not guilt, of the whole German nation for these crimes. They mostly ignored the national, ethnic, religious or sexual identities of the victims, some of whom were in fact German and would therefore undermine their claim that all Germans were guilty.

Figures on the left were keen to use the discoveries at Buchenwald to castigate those (mostly on the right) who had defended Nazism and sought to appease Hitler in the 1930s when Buchenwald was already a well-established camp for political prisoners. ‘Look’, they said, ‘we failed to stop them so the Nazis just carried on imprisoning and torturing those who didn’t agree with them. We carry our own share of blame now too.’ This argument failed to address the changed role of Buchenwald after 1942 and ignored its millions of Jewish prisoners.

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/print/record/LSE1221

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard

The left also spent their time challenging the idea that the German nation was collectively responsible for the Nazi crimes by pointing out that some of the victims were German.

In all this political wrangling, the significance of the Jewish identity of six million of the victims was buried and the chance to challenge widespread anti-Semitism in Britain was lost.

The images emerging from Belsen enraged and shocked the British public. Numerous letters were published in the Evening Standard deploring the “terrible crimes”, “the unspeakable horrors” and “the barbarities”. The time was ripe for endemic anti-Semitism in Britain to be challenged by focusing attention on the horrors to which such groundless prejudice could lead. Yet most reports failed to mention that most victims were Jewish and the chance slipped by.

Unlike prejudice against black minorities or the gay and lesbian community, which, in the post-war decades, was confronted and stigmatised through powerful mass movements, anti-Semitism has been allowed to rumble on, unchecked. The undeniable rise of verbal and violent expressions of anti-Semitism in Europe over the last few months and years testifies to this fact, although you will of course find few Britons who deny that the Nazis’ Final Solution was horrific and wrong. This hypocrisy must be confronted.

It is expected that 15,000 Jews will leave France for Israel in the wake of the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. The numbers of British Jews choosing to emigrate has also been rising over the last two years.

The opportunity was missed in 1945 for a concerted challenge to the prevailing anti-Semitic mood in Britain. The time is ripe for such a challenge now and must not be missed again.

Germany: Memories of a Nation – a promising exhibition that fails to deliver

Last week, I paid my (fairly obligatory) visit to the British Museum exhibition, “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, the accompaniment to Neil MacGregor’s Radio 4 series which I wrote about here.

Reaction to the exhibition has been mixed, often fairly critical. Charges are levelled against mundane objects with “large wodge[s] of text”, the cramped layout and the lack of female figures. My objection to the focus on elite figures and high culture in MacGregor’s radio series also applies to the exhibition.

At the sharp end of many reviews is the section dealing with the Holocaust – although there is a fair amount of praise for this bit too. Following several rooms of traditional, even old-fashioned, exhibiting techniques – old objects in glass cases with bits of explanatory text – you come to a large alcove whose walls are mostly blank. There’s a bench to sit on – the only one in the whole exhibition – and the white walls are broken only by a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp and two small segments of text.

Section on the Holocaust - British Museum exhibition - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Section on the Holocaust

You’re taken aback by the juxtaposition. The blankness after the artefact-filled displays of the previous room is unnerving. There are no words or objects that can guide you comfortably through this bit of history, it seems to say. And indeed, that’s exactly what it does say – the Holocaust “poses an insoluble question for Germany and the world”, we are told. “There is no narrative that can encompass it”. The text introducing the whole room reiterates this viewpoint. We read that the Nazis “left a dark memory that can be neither avoided nor adequately explained”.

The language is echoed in reviews praising the exhibition’s acknowledgement that this part of German history is indeed “unpalatable” and “unspeakable”. Such language, filled with negations – insoluble, neither/nor, no narrative, unpalatable, unspeakable – is now in common usage with regard to the Holocaust. I can understand its place in discussions regarding the emotional and personal engagement with the Nazi past that is faced by German individuals and the German nation – a struggle that has its very own German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Yet the task of an exhibition such as this is neither emotional nor personal but historiographical. And the events, ideological movements and widespread prejudices that led to the Nazi atrocities are explicable and can (and should) be discussed. To avoid doing so and instead simply offer a place to sit and reflect seems like a cop-out, a neat way to evade the perhaps even more unpalatable truth that this segment of the past can be “adequately explained” as part of a historical narrative.

There is a danger in suggesting, as this exhibition does both implicitly and explicitly, that this part of history is entirely different to the rest of it, that while the rest can be neatly manifested in an eclectic array of books and paintings, clocks and hats, silverware and wetsuits, the Holocaust can be manifested in neither object nor word.

This both allows the Nazi past to go unaddressed – and this exhibition was surely a great chance to present a more considered narrative than we are offered in popular novels and films – and undermines the complexities, nuances and suffering present in the rest of German history. Nearly half of the German states’ male population were killed during the Thirty Years War and villages that survived the marauding armies took a century to recover. The fluidity of national borders that once encompassed Kaliningrad, Prague and Strasbourg caused untold disruption, confusion and crises of identity. These human consequences remain concealed in an exhibition that focuses mainly on historical fact.

There is no denying that the Holocaust is a unique event in German history and its depiction in an exhibition deserves careful consideration. But the same could be said of most of German history, especially the parts thought worthy of a place in the British Museum. No part of Germany’s narrative (or the narrative of any nation) is free of complexities or controversy, and there is little that is free of emotional resonance.

Perhaps, then, we should confront the idea that no part of history can be explained by a numbered artefact and a paragraph of text. Most of us learn from a young age how to look at an old vase or piece of bone in a glass cabinet, skim some text and move on, our eyes glazing over as object follows object. What’s good about the Holocaust section – that it makes us stop and think – should be replicated in the whole exhibition. Although its technique of blankness and near silence might not be received too well among the fee-paying visitors.

The exhibition shop at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

The exhibition shop

The exhibition shop provided a final disappointment. Filled with sausage-eating, beer-drinking rubber ducks, dachshund cufflinks, VW campervan money boxes and 3D Neuschwanstein jigsaws, it reverts to and takes commercial advantage of customary stereotypes, none of which featured in the undeniably stimulating and stereotype-free exhibition.

Bavarian rubber ducks on sale at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Bavarian rubber ducks

It’s a shame that the final impression is one of kitschig beer mugs and plastic Beetles. The shop, like the exhibition, was ripe with potential to challenge conventional ideas about Germany with an exciting, thought-provoking narrative. In my view, both fail to deliver.