HOW DO you make a new monument matter on a busy street?
The street in question, Wilhelmstraße, runs through Berlin’s city centre. It is a street that is busy with the clutter of daily life. But it is also full of signboards and memorials to its various distinguished and not so distinguished pasts.
Wilhelmstr was the main street in the government quarter of the German Empire (from 1871), the Weimar Republic (from 1918) and the Third Reich (from 1933). This role ended after WWII in 1945.
This was the street on which a new monument was to be erected in 2011. What’s more, the person and the act it commemorated were relatively unknown.
The monument was to Georg Elser, a carpenter who in 1939 tried to assassinate Hitler and other Nazi leaders but failed. Unlike the much-lauded Operation Valkyrie in 1944, which also failed, Elser’s bravery was not recognised by historians and the government until the 1990s.
The Berlin monument to Elser is among numerous efforts to right this.
Rising from the surrounds at 17 m tall, it is a large depiction of Elser’s profile, allowing it to stand out from the clutter of Wilhelmstr, particularly at night when it is lit.
However, Elser’s profile is not particularly distinctive.
But that in itself alludes to the enforced anonymity that resulted from the years that he went unrecognised. More powerfully, it highlights the everyman that he was, exalting the courage of his deed as well as serving as an exhortation to individual bravery.
Unlike the majority of attempts to remove the Nazi leadership and/or overthrow the regime, including Operation Valkyrie, Elser’s was not done from a position within the military or government.
His was a wholly individual initiative, stemming from an opposition to the Nazi regime from the time it came into power in 1933. He wanted to avert the war and bloodshed.
Working alone, he planned meticulously for months before planting his home-made bomb at the venue of a key Nazi rally in Munich which was attended by Hitler, Göring and Göbbels.
But Hitler cut short his usually two-hour long speech and together with the other leaders, left the venue 13 minutes before the bomb went off.
Elser was arrested that same night at the Swiss border. He was tortured and imprisoned as a Sonderhäftling (special prisoner) for a triumphant post-war show trial that never materialised. Weeks before the end of the war, he was executed.
Elser’s Berlin monument stands at the former location of Hitler’s Chancellory. Nearby is the former Gestapo headquarters, where he was first interrogated and imprisoned for several years.
There is also a memorial and a permanent exhibition on him at the former Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside Berlin, where he was in solitary confinement for five years.
A plaque to him is embedded in the pavement at the spot he had planted his bomb in Munich.
In addition, he is recognised through a memorial in his hometown, smaller monuments elsewhere as well as numerous place names and schools. ω
I came to the question of Germans’ resistance to the Third Reich in relation to the 1996 tome ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’, which claimed that most Germans supported and participated in the Holocaust.
There was certainly no organised resistance movement to the Third Reich, the like of which existed in France and Poland. Instead, German resistance comprised “small and isolated groups”, according to Wikipedia.
The entry states that 77,000 Germans were killed for acts of resistance but also quotes historian Hans Mommsen that the size of the group that actively resisted the regime was “very small”.
However, another historian, Martyn Housden, discusses a broadening of the definition of ‘resistance’ and opines that “no small number of Germans at some time or other made signs of defiance towards the Third Reich”; amongst them were “passionate resisters”.
Elser is one whose story I find striking. Others are the Scholl siblings and the Weiße Rose (White Rose) student group; Otto and Elise Hampel as fictionalised by author Hans Falada in ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein‘ (‘Alone in Berlin’); the wives of Jewish men beind the Rosenstraße-Protest; and Claus von Stauffenberg of the Unternehmen Walküre (Operation Valkyrie) [stories coming up soon].
About Georg Elser in : the Spiegel – A German Hero: The Carpenter Elser Versus the Führer Hitler; the Georg-Elser-Arbeitskreis Heidenheim (Heidenheim Georg Elser Working Group) homepage (in German); and the Georg-Elser-Initiative Berlin homepage (in German).
About the Georg Elser Monument on Wilhelmstraße, Berlin in Wikipedia (in German).
History of Wilhelmstraße in Wikipedia.