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.


Neil MacGregor on Germany: From Wurst to Walhalla

The BBC Radio 4 enthusiasts among you will know that Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and professed Germanophile, is currently making a daily appearance. At 9.45am every weekday we are being treated to fifteen minutes of enlightening discussion in his series Germany: Memories of a Nation.

Topics so far have ranged from Kafka to Kaliningrad, Goethe to the Brandenburg Gate. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a series broadcast on Radio 4 and accompanying a British Museum exhibition should focus on high culture, monumental architecture and individuals famous for their literary and philosophical achievements.

Walhalla, hall of fame in Bavaria honouring esteemed German artists, scientists, sovereigns and politicians of the past.

Walhalla, hall of fame in Bavaria honouring esteemed German artists, scientists, sovereigns and politicians of the past.

But as a student of popular culture and with a growing awareness of its importance for a nation’s sense of self, I’m disappointed. In his wonderfully eloquent and undeniably fascinating attempt to piece together a history of German national identity, MacGregor has neglected everyday people, for whom Rammstein and Schumacher are far more important than Walhalla and Kant.


Sausage and beer

One episode bucks the trend. In it, he traces the history of those celebrated German gastronomic exports – sausage (Wurst) and beer. For many Germans (or at least the 91% who aren’t vegetarian), sausage in one of its approximately 1200 different forms is indeed a staple food. And at 106 litres per year (compared to 68.5 in the UK), the average German’s beer consumption also lives up to the stereotype.

Not only is the “sausage and beer” stereotype actually rooted in fact, it’s also a fairly positive one compared to the other weary stereotypes – Germans are over-efficient, Germans are humourless and German women have hairy legs. Every Briton visiting Germany – or one of those half-authentic German Christmas markets that spring up everywhere from Birmingham to Bournemouth – buys a beer and a sausage and, perhaps a little grudgingly, admits that they’re pretty good.

Yet in the popular British films, novels and TV dramas made in the years after the Second World War – surely a time when Germans needed all the positive stereotypes they could get to counteract the negative – I have yet to find a German character eating a sausage or drinking a beer.

Since sausage-eating and beer-drinking have been part of German culture for centuries and were even defined as national activities by the German nationalists of the 1800s, British ignorance of these habits can’t be blamed for the omission. So what’s the reason?

Sink the Bismarck!

Things become clearer if we compare the British and German characters in these post-war films and novels. The 1960 British war film Sink the Bismarck! is a perfect example. The British characters – from admirals to cadets – are regularly seen doing very ordinary English things like drinking tea and eating sandwiches, even in the midst of battle! In one scene, two men on lookout for a German battleship in Icelandic waters discuss quite seriously their crumpet cravings.

Their penchant for stereotypically English food and drink makes these characters seem very ordinary, very human and very English – just like the cinema audience themselves – despite the extraordinary events.

In contrast, the German characters are rarely seen eating, drinking or discussing such basic human needs and cravings. If they are enjoying a beverage, it’s usually an expensive tipple in a fancy glass. They seem either unhuman, almost machine-like, in their lack of any need for sustenance or inhabitants of a luxurious world detached from that of the ordinary British cinema-goer.

Ironically, Sink The Bismarck is now a beer by BrewDog, supposedly the strongest beer in the world.

Ironically, Sink The Bismarck is now a beer by BrewDog, supposedly the strongest beer in the world.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true that more sausage-eating and beer-drinking in these films and novels would have vastly improved the post-war image of Germany among ordinary Britons. Of course, the intention was often to depict truly repulsive Germans and the lack of eating or drinking was a device to emphasise how different they were to the rest of humankind.

So we’ve made real progress to get to a point where two of the biggest stereotypes about Germany are so positive. In his episode on sausages and beer, Neil MacGregor quotes the Roman historian Tacitus writing about the Germanic tribes, among whom “to pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one”. Perhaps such habits, widespread among Britons and an important part of German identity, could be the twenty-first century glue that binds us all together. Or perhaps not.

The question of Britishness: A German perspective

You’ve probably read enough about the Scottish referendum in the past week to last you until doomsday. But my take on the matter is somewhat different and involves a kilted Scotsman called Bosty, a bewigged George II and a murdering Viscount. An intriguing prospect, I hope you’ll agree.

There’s been lots of discussion about Britishness in the last weeks, plenty of agreement that it’s important and worth hanging onto, but no consensus about what it means.

Cole Morton writing in the Telegraph on Sunday failed to answer the question in his own headline, “what does it mean to be British now?” commenting only (and fairly obviously) that Britishness is “elusive” and incorporates many types of people and identities. Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting’s conclusion that Britishness is “by definition a plural identity” is equally vague.

Having read these albeit interesting but somewhat disappointing articles, I was certainly none the wiser. So I turned to my terrible 1950s German novels and even worse 1950s German films to see what insight they could offer. After all, I’m studying German depictions of the British, so perhaps they had a clearer idea what Britishness meant, at least in the 1950s, than we do today?

Yet British characters, it seems, were few and far between in post-war German popular culture (which could be problematic for my thesis…). There are plenty of specifically English characters and a couple of Scots, but no sign yet of any Welsh or Irish, and none who are identified as British.

Still from "Robinson soll nicht sterben"

Still from “Robinson soll nicht sterben”

The 1956 comedy film Robinson soll nicht sterben (Robinson shall not die) is a fictional story based on the absurd premise that Daniel Defoe’s famous novel has inspired so many English sailors to abandon their ships and seek out a lonely desert island that the novel has been banned and Defoe is now penniless. Although the film is self-consciously farcical and over embellished, the depictions of a highly ornate, rather ugly English court inhabited by royals and nobles flamboyantly dressed and bewigged would have been relished by German audiences obsessed with what they saw as an English monarchy and English traditions.

Similarly, post-war German novels and films were riddled with remnants of the English nobility, often depicted as eccentric relics, sometimes as lunatics, but always undoubtedly English rather than British. If their Englishness isn’t being commented on directly, it is always present in their perpetual tea-drinking, discussions about the weather and obsession with their own noble status.

Indeed, Viscount Blair of Menseley in a 1957 detective novel is so fanatical about maintaining the prestige of his noble heritage that he murders his wife in order to inherit her fortune. His Englishness is highlighted not only by his Oxford accent and English furniture but by the very bloodline he is desperate to protect.

The English aren’t coming out of this too well so far, are they? That’s for another blog post though…

"Das Sonntagskind"

“Das Sonntagskind”

Then you’ve got your Scotsmen, like Bosty McMillar in the comedy film Das Sonntagskind, a Scottish soldier in occupied Germany after the war. Complete with kilt, bagpipes and whisky and speaking very bad German, he flaunts all the Scottish stereotypes available to German film producers in 1956.

So for German filmmakers and novelists in the 1950s, Britishness wasn’t terribly ripe with possibility. Even now, there’s a fair amount of understandable confusion among the Germans I’ve spoken to about what Britain is, let alone how it relates to Great Britain or the United Kingdom.

So it seems we’re on our own in working out what Britain is about. We’ve had the word since the Romans arrived, so there’s no excuse really.


Fantasy, farce and folly: Nazis on the big screen

Good news for all you “Iron Sky” fans out there. Filming for the sequel, “Iron Sky: The Coming Race” is due to start next year for release in 2016.

In case you missed the first one – you lucky, lucky people… – it went something like this. Iron SkyAn Afro-American astronaut, landing on the moon in 2018, discovers a city of Nazis hidden there since 1945 and planning a re-invasion of the earth.

Among other intriguing plot points, a mad, racist Nazi scientist turns the astronaut albino and, in search of smart phones to power their space battleship, the future Führer and his fiancé are roped in as advisors for the American President’s re-election campaign.

Baffled? Don’t worry. I am too, and I’ve watched the film myself. What I’m interested in here, however, is not the plot but the characterisation of the Nazis. These men and women, homogenously attired in their field-grey uniforms, are meant to seem absurd.

Their overly rigid rules and regulations, total lack of individuality and spontaneity, and their ludicrous understanding of the world as divided into capitalists and bolshevists render them farcical and the perfect targets for mockery. Seventy-three years after Hitler’s death, they have not quite got the hang of using the name of his successor, Wolfgang Kortzfleisch, in greeting each other. Even Kortzfleisch himself is greeted consistently with “Heil Hitler”, testament to the complete idiocy of these twenty-first century Nazis.

Although a poorly executed example, “Iron Sky” is part of a recent trend of creating and mocking exaggerated Nazi stereotypes in film. “Inglorious Basterds” was a film that did it far more successfully, but the basic premise was similar. The numerous Hitler Rants Parodies on YouTube, based on that famous scene from “Untergang” (“Downfall”), testify to the same idea – that such extremity of character, ideology and behaviour is all too easily turned into farce.

These films and parodies may seem new and radical. But there’s a whole bunch of films made in the 1950s and 1960s that were doing exactly the same thing, often better. Then, too, Nazis were frequently represented as overly obedient, mechanical, homogenous, tunnel-visioned and excessively self-confident.

In the numerous films set in German POW camps and on wartime battlefields, such characteristics leave ample room for quick-witted, spontaneous, cynical and witty British individuals to run rings around dull-witted Germans.

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in "The Square Peg"

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in “The Square Peg”

For brilliant and wonderfully simple comedy – without the excessive special effects that are sadly “Iron Sky”s best feature – I’d recommend those early post-war films. Norman Wisdom impersonating a German general in “The Square Peg” is utterly hilarious, as are the ludicrous Nazis scattered through the hit POW films “Very Important Person” and “The Wooden Horse”.

“Iron Sky” lacks the tongue-in-cheek attitude that makes those films so enjoyable. In fact, it behaves rather like a stereotypical Nazi, so convinced of its own greatness that it fails to see its own fatal flaws. In the novel “The Wooden Horse” – based on a true story – the German camp officer is so self-satisfied and convinced of his own superiority that he misreads the derisive roar from the British prisoners in response to his morning greeting as enthusiasm: ‘He was popular with these wild-looking British, was he not?’ Such idiocy is exactly the kind being mocked in the films I’ve been discussing.

Similarly, despite the derisive roar from critics and public alike, the makers of “Iron Sky” blindly proclaimed the film a success and forged ahead with a sequel. Such absurdity will surely, rightfully, spawn its own cynical parody and the cycle of mockery will continue.

Generation War?

Generation War, a three-part German drama showing the lives of five young Germans from the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to the end of the war in 1945, was recently shown on the BBC. The idealistic Charlotte happily goes to nurse the wounded on the Eastern front, while her friend Greta remains in Berlin and starts a love affair with a high ranking Gestapo officer in order to get papers for her Jewish boyfriend Viktor to leave the country. Instead, he is captured but, en route to a concentration camp, he escapes and joins the Polish resistance. Friedhelm and Wilhelm are brothers fighting on the Eastern front. Friedhelm, convinced that the war will “only bring out the worst in us”, partakes only begrudgingly but, soon numbed to the violence, he becomes a brutal soldier. Wilhelm, however, increasingly doubts the war’s purpose and deserts, escaping a death sentence by the skin of his teeth.

Controversy has been rife. Germans are falsely shown as innocent victims of the Nazi regime, some claim. Others criticise the representation of anti-Semitic Poles and barbaric Russians. This has led to protests outside the BBC, outrage in the USA and a court case in Poland.

No one challenges the quality of the drama – it’s thrilling, emotive, wonderfully acted and wholly engrossing. Yet the show’s producer Benjamin Benedict has had to work hard to defend it.

Discussing the show along with two eminent British historians and a Polish academic, he faced accusations that aspects of the series were “absurd”, “implausible to the point of being ahistorical” and “frankly preposterous”.

Firstly, Benedict rightly pointed out that there is no simple distinction between German victims and despicable foreigners in the series – there are some downright nasty Germans and some admirable Russians.

Secondly, this television drama was about individuals, not nations. War between countries drives the question of nationality to the fore. It determines the ideology you’re supposed to hold, the uniform you wear, the people you’re allowed to love and asked to kill, whether you’re tortured or rescued by strangers.

Yet Generation War was trying to show that war does not create nations of homogenous individuals. Greta and Viktor, Alina and Sonja are still the unique human beings they always were, not representatives of ‘Germans’, ‘Poles’ or ‘Russians’.

Benedict’s research for the series was based on the study of individual experience – testimony, diaries and letters by those who lived through the war. Yes, it’s implausible that every Berlin friendship group had a Jew in it. Yes, it’s unlikely that every German soldier was as sceptical as Friedhelm. But fictions are not intended to give us the big picture – that’s what historical accounts are for.

The five friends

The five friends

Most of the controversy arises from the assumption that viewers will generalise from these individuals – Friedhelm is shown as a victim, therefore all Germans were victims; a Russian soldier rapes Charlotte, therefore all Russians were sexual abusers.

My research is based on the same belief – that we generalise from the individuals in the fictions we watch and read to categorise whole cultures or nations. But we shouldn’t. Yes, historical dramas have a responsibility not to stray too far from the probable, which Generation War may have done on occasion. But their primary aim is entertainment not education. They tell stories of individuals not nations. If you want the latter, go and read a history book.

The drama’s original title was Unsere Mütter, unsere VäterOur Mothers, Our Fathers. It was intended to provoke discussions between Germans who lived through the war and their descendants. The hope was that this intimate story of individuals would prompt the telling of more such stories. The English title however invites us to generalise by claiming that the drama represents an entire ‘generation’. In doing so, it totally missed the point.

Rubble and walls

I realised very soon after uploading my last post that I made a fairly large generalisation about characters in novels that any discerning reader (let alone my old undergraduate English tutor) would baulk at.

I said that characters are usually extraordinary in some way, anomalies, not representative of real persons from the character’s national, religious or professional group. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon isn’t your average Harvard professor; Fleming’s Dr No isn’t your everyday Chinese man.

But I realise my views have been somewhat skewed by my recent reading material – mostly popular 1950s crime and detective novels filled with larger than life, if not stereotyped, characters. (Le Carré’s nuanced characters and complex plots were still several years off.)

There are of course many novelists, “popular” and more “literary” (whatever those terms mean), who aim to portray ordinary (rather than extra-ordinary) characters – from James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones.

That fact acknowledged, I feel I can safely return to my crime novels, populated as they are with characters far from the ordinary.

For even if, as I concluded last time, readers realise that such characters aren’t representative of their nation or other group, those characters exist within a setting that we perhaps accept as a closer reflection of reality.

Most of us dismiss Dan Brown’s plots and characters as fantastical, but you can be sure he researched the details of the Louvre, the Vatican and his novels’ other settings extensively.

For a novel to remain earthbound amidst outlandish plot twists and freakishly good or evil characters, the places they inhabit must be believable. And the surest way to make something believable is by basing it closely on reality.

The same argument applies to other media too. We hope that the events and characters muppetsin the Netflix series House of Cards are fantasy, but the settings – the White House, the Capitol, the back streets of Washington DC and so on – are sure to be meticulously reproduced. The 2011 Muppets film is pure escapism, but the LA setting is real.

Despite the extra-ordinary nature of the Germans (whether evil Nazi or anomalous good German) that feature in many post-war British crime novels, the places they inhabit are distinctly ordinary.

Many of these novels were written by men and women who were in Germany in the late 1940s as part of the British occupation. They saw the ruinous conditions first-hand – cities turned to rubble, a thriving black market, a moral and political vacuum.

The literary-minded among them saw the potential of these places – as the perfect setting for a crime novel. The post-war years spawned heaps of them.

The idea of Germany, especially Berlin, as the setting for this genre of novel was incredibly successful. So much so that writers such as Manning Coles were still churning them out well into the 1950s, by which time the rubble was mostly cleared, currency reform had quashed the black market, and German politicians were (mostly) proving themselves admirable leaders.

For the average reader of popular novels, however, the image of Germany remained associated with ruin, backwardness and a criminal underworld. This would only begin to be replaced in the 1960s by the Berlin Wall and its peripheral elements – watchtowers, barbed wire and armed guards. Not exactly a more positive image.

It was perhaps Germany’s bad luck that a British obsession with crime and spy fiction coincided with two post-war decades of upheaval and cold conflict in Germany. A writer needed to look no further than Britain’s former enemy nation for the perfect setting. And I’m sure many British readers were glad to see that former nation now struggling with a new set of demons.

Sadly, it meant that the real story of post-war Germany – re-building and re-educating – was lost in an obsession with the criminal potential of rubble and walls.

Extra-ordinary characters

I said I was going to write about “the good German” in this post. I’ll still be doing that but mostly I’d like to mull over an idea that has been roaming my mind for the last while.

Do the novels we read and the films we watch actually affect our ideas about a different nation or group of people? I decided a while ago that it would be impossible to study the effect of reading a particular novel or watching a particular film on the reader/observer’s ideas about the nation/people depicted.

But surely studying the depictions themselves and seeking out recurring themes and images is a far more worthwhile thing to do if you believe (or even know!) that the depictions influence those exposed to them.

Having read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, do we feel that we have been educated in the lives and behaviour of Afghanis or 1920s Americans? Do we feel we understand those groups of people better having read a fictional story?

I wrote last time about the figure of “the German we love to hate” – those brutal, cowardly, cold characters that populate so much 1950s British fiction.

There’s also “the good German” who appears perhaps surprisingly frequently. He or she is usually courageous, kind, heroic and attractive with a passion for justice. There’s Karl Landmann in Roast Pigeon, Franz von Werra in The One Who Got Away and Erika Angermann in Fräulein.

Franz von Werra, extra-ordinary German

Franz von Werra, extra-ordinary German

But these novels certainly aren’t leading the reader to believe in a Germany full of lovely, kind-hearted people. Instead, the hero is very obviously presented as a positive anomaly within an often undistinguished mass of Germans around him or her, who do not have these qualities and often display very negative ones instead.

For isn’t that often the point of characters in novels – that they are anomalous in some way, not representative of the average German or Afghani or 1920s American? And it’s their anomalous nature that makes them interesting enough for a story to be constructed around them that thousands or even millions of people want to read.

We know that Amir and Gatsby aren’t representative of their time and place – they are abnormal or extra-ordinary people to whom abnormal or extra-ordinary things happen. The vicious Nazi Hansen or the justice-loving Karl Landmann are also anomalies – and Karl is overtly depicted as such.

The world these characters belong to isn’t full of Amirs and Gatsbys, Hansens and Karls – and as readers, we know this. We know (as would 1950s British readers) that not all Germans are like Hansen, but nor are they like Karl. (And it would be insulting the intelligence of popular fiction readers to think otherwise.) These are individual figures, created for their special ability to arouse a reader’s hatred, excitement or amusement.

Is all lost for me, then? If readers are fully aware (at least consciously) that the characters they are following offer no revelations about the characteristics of the nation or group to which they belong, what’s the point in studying those characters in connection with the mutual perceptions of two post-war nations?

I don’t think that all is lost. In my next post, I’ll write about the settings of novels – which I believe may have the influence that individual, extra-ordinary characters may lack.