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.

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.

Detectives and road sweepers

I’ve written a lot about British attitudes towards the Germans, but what, I hear you ask, were the Germans writing about the Brits? Since my early posts when I was struggling to find anything, I’ve stumbled across a bunch of German novels, films and television programmes that are all to do with Britain.

Butler Parker, British detective created by Günther Dönges, was never seen without his trusty bowler hat and black umbrella.

Butler Parker, British detective created by Günther Dönges, was never seen without his trusty bowler hat and black umbrella.

The genre is crime and the settings are Sherlock Holmes-esque foggy London streets and quaint English villages reminiscent of Miss Marple stories.The detectives all wear bowler hats, carry umbrellas and drink copious amounts of tea, and the villains are East End fraudsters or snooty aristocrats.

German readers, cinema-goers and TV audiences loved these stories. So much so that between 1959 and 1965, an astonishing twenty-four film adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels were made. Who’s he, you’re wondering? Wallace was one of Britain’s most prolific and popular crime writers in the 1920s and 30s. By the 1950s British readers thought his plots, characters and settings old-fashioned and his works soon disappeared from libraries and bookshops.

But these novels epitomised all that German audiences sought and loved in 1950s crime fictions. Eccentric aristocrats, Dickensian rogues and dotty old ladies, along with shady Thames-side warehouses and thatched countryside cottages – an England that only ever existed in the imaginations of Britain’s crime writers but one that captivated post-war Germany.

Eddi Arent, who played the Jeeves-like butler, in a similar role in another Edgar Wallace film.

Eddi Arent, who played the Jeeves-like butler, in a similar role in another Edgar Wallace film.

The directors even added extra nostalgic details: a comic Jeeves-like butler, a young dashing detective heir to a great fortune, oversized portraits of the Queen adorning the walls of Scotland Yard offices, and additional lords and ladies at every turn.

The Wallace films proved so popular that many other similar films were made in the early 1960s – similar plots, characters, music and cinematography. Several TV series in the same genre also appeared and became known as Straβenfeger or ‘road sweepers’ for their ability to clear the streets of people when they were broadcast. They were watched by up to 90% of the West German TV-owning population! (That’s compared to around 20% of the UK who watched the last series of Downton Abbey… hardly a Straβenfeger!)

British crime fiction had been popular in Germany since the 1920s when all things England-related acquired a new fashionable status. Masses of English crime novels were translated and enjoyed by millions of Germans. The Nazis were so concerned that these novels were acting as propaganda, popularising “British institutions and the British way of life” (according to an official government report), that they were banned!

Their resurgence after the war is hardly surprising. These novels (and their film and TV adaptations) allowed their readers to retreat to a time and place far from their own. A time and place where murderers and fraudsters were hunted down and eliminated, and order restored. A time and place far from post-war Germany where questions of crime, guilt and punishment were in no way limited to fictional contexts. Where each and every German was being forced to contemplate their own guilt or responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. Where mass murderers were still at large and seekers of justice thin on the ground.

Crime stories set in romanticised Britain offered a refuge. The German reader could hate the villains and cheer the heroes without having to ask themselves which category they belonged to.