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.

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.