On Nov. 8th, 1939, just nine weeks after the outbreak of World War II, Adolf Hitler made perhaps the most fateful decision of the 20th century. He had gone to Bavaria for the evening, as he did every year on that day, to give a speech at Munich's Bürgerbräukeller to commemorate the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, which had taken place on that very site 16 years before.
That year, however, with the Poland offensive distracting him, Hitler needed badly to get back to Berlin. He had planned to take a plane back to the capital, but bad weather had forced the Munich airport to close. Instead, at the last moment, he decided to take a late-night train, a change of plans that required him to end his speech earlier than anticipated. At 9:07 pm, Hitler brought his remarks to a close and exited the beer hall. Thirteen minutes later, the hall exploded, killing eight people and wounding 63 others. The Führer had escaped.
The bomb that nearly changed the course of history had been put there by an unassuming Swabian carpenter named Georg Elser. It took decades, though, for Elser to get proper recognition. For years, Nazi propagandists had claimed that Elser couldn't have pulled off the assassination attempt alone and that Elser was actually a stooge bought off by British Intelligence. The day of his failed attempt, Elser tried to flee to Switzerland, but he was apprehended at the Swiss border. Eventually he ended up in a concentration camp, where he was kept for a planned show-trial after the war exposing his ties to the British. In 1945, though, as Germany's defeat was looking more and more inevitable, Hitler finally gave the order the kill Elser. He died at the Dachau concentration camp on April 9, 1945.
But it wasn't only the Nazis who were convinced that Elser was a puppet controlled by others. Even Germans who fought against the Nazis found it hard to believe that Elser acted alone, and many circulated rumors that the whole event had been staged by the Third Reich to lend Hitler the air of divine protection, to suggest that providence was on his side.
Now, nearly 69 years after his almost successful assassination attempt, the city of Berlin has decided to erect a memorial in Georg Elser's honor. On Wednesday, the city held an Elser-symposium at Berlin's Academy of Art as a kickoff for what will be an open competition to design the heroic carpenter's memorial.
The inspiration and initiative for the memorial came from 77-year-old German novelist Rolf Hochhuth, who earlier this year wrote an open letter proposing the project to Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Hochhuth, who organized this week's symposium along with Berlin State Secretary for Culture André Schmitz, said it was high time the city took action to honor a figure he called nearly "as important as Hitler."
Schmitz emphasized that a monument for Elser is overdue, calling the carpenter from Swabia, a southern German region, an "undervalued figure," and a "model of courage" -- even for our own times. "Not everyone is born a hero," Schmitz intoned, but "Georg Elser decided for himself what was right and what was wrong."
"The Ideal Enemy of National Socialism"
Professor Etienne François, who has written extensively on the collective memory of Germany's wartime resistance, argued at the symposium that Elser has gained in popularity in recent years because his model of resistance fits so well with our contemporary, post-ideological times. According to François, Elser is the "incarnation of the ideal enemy of National Socialism." He worked alone. He was a man of action, not words. He loved freedom, but wasn't fighting for any specific alternative system. Although he attended church services and often voted communist, at his core, he was "neither a Christian nor a communist," but rather a non-ideological defender of individualism.
Speakers throughout the evening were eager to present Elser's softer side. He was a man of courage, yes, but also a man of friendship. He was a skilled dancer, an enthusiastic ladies man and knew how to play three musical instruments.
One prickly question tackled by speakers at the symposium was the location for the memorial. Schmitz, in his opening remarks, tried to pre-empt the question "why Berlin?" by pointing out that Berlin was the city where World War II was planned, and that it therefore bears "historical responsibility" for the war. Schmitz went on to signal his support for placing the monument on the former site of Hitler's Reich Chancellery, where much of Nazi-Germany's war planning took place.
Other speakers were less enthusiastic about prospects for placing the memorial. Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm, an urban planning expert in Berlin, gave a talk in which he criticized the various sites proposed, asking the audience assembled, "Does Berlin really need a Georg Elser memorial?", and, more importantly, "Does Georg Elser need a memorial in Berlin"? A memorial to Elser already exists in his hometown of Königsbronn, and a privately funded bust of Elser was put on public display in Berlin just last month.
Hoffmann-Axthelm was especially critical of the proposal to put a memorial on the former site of Hitler's Chancellery, a piece of land that is now covered by apartments. Hoffmann-Axthelm didn't see the connection between Elser and the location, saying he didn't want to "sabotage anything," but that he didn't think putting a memorial there would be "authentic."
Details aside, the project has received city approval and the competition is on. Disagreements and complications, though, seem inevitable. Perhaps anticipating some resistance, Culture Secretary Andre Schmitz struck an appropriately philosophical tone in his opening remarks, wryly conceding, "In Berlin, we're used to having long discussions about memorials." Long and contentious discussions about historical memory are indeed the norm here. If Wednesday night's kick off is any indication, Georg Elser's memorial is unlikely to buck the trend.