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 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.

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.