German General Interest

'Little-Known Rebel' Georg Elser Memorial Unveiled

At 17 meters high, Georg Elser's face will float just above the trees that line Wilhelmstraße. Ulrich Klages, a Berlin-based artist, was selected in a recent competition to design a monument to this little-known rebel. i

At 17 meters high, Georg Elser's face will float just above the trees that line Wilhelmstraße. Ulrich Klages, a Berlin-based artist, was selected in a recent competition to design a monument to this little-known rebel. Ulrich Klages hide caption

itoggle caption Ulrich Klages
At 17 meters high, Georg Elser's face will float just above the trees that line Wilhelmstraße. Ulrich Klages, a Berlin-based artist, was selected in a recent competition to design a monument to this little-known rebel.

At 17 meters high, Georg Elser's face will float just above the trees that line Wilhelmstraße. Ulrich Klages, a Berlin-based artist, was selected in a recent competition to design a monument to this little-known rebel.

Ulrich Klages

If it weren't for unpredictable weather, Georg Elser might have changed the course of history.

In November of 1939, Elser, a carpenter from Königsbronn, hollowed out a pillar in a Munich beer hall and filled it with home-made explosives.

As the Nazi high command poured into the hall for festivities on November 8th, they had no idea that a ticking detonator was concealed just meters from the podium.

The blast killed eight people and injured more than 60, yet Elser's plan had failed. Hitler spoke at the ceremony but left early to catch a train after his plane was canceled due to fog.

When the bomb exploded 13 minutes later, the speaker's rostrum was reduced to smithereens.

"You can debate whether he was a hero or a criminal," says artist Ulrich Klages, "but it's clear that he felt it was his duty."

Klages, a Berlin-based artist, was selected in a recent competition to design a monument for this little-known rebel. His winning concept - an elevated outline of Elser in profile - will be unveiled on Wilhelmstraße on Tuesday, November 8th, the anniversary of the attack.

Few will recognize the ghostly portrait. Unlike Stauffenberg - whose military plots inspired Tom Cruise to don SS uniform in the film Valkyrie - Elser is scarcely remembered. It's a strangely fitting legacy for a man who sought no fame in his own lifetime. Stauffenberg laid out an entire cabinet before unleashing his plans. Elser had no such aspirations.

Georg Elser i

Georg Elser dpa hide caption

itoggle caption dpa
Georg Elser

Georg Elser

dpa

"He identified himself as a worker, and that was how he wanted to remain," Klages says, "but he was disgusted by the increasing poverty of the working classes and horrified by the lack of freedom."

Watching the Nazis march into Czechoslovakia and then into Poland, Elser felt compelled to intervene and prevent Germany from slipping into another bloody conflict. Under interrogation, he revealed no ties to wider resistance movements and no ambition for power. His motive was simple: "I wanted to stop the war."

The explanation was met with derision; A barrage of accusations followed the explosion, hurled back and forth by the big men of Europe.

The Nazis said it was a British plot, the British retorted that it was a Nazi-organized spectacle. Elser, the lone dissident, was lost in the clouds of recrimination. It wasn't until the 1960s, when the Gestapo records were made public, that historians accepted him as the sole architect of the attack.

Not that you can blame the conspiracy theorists. In 1939, Germany was swarming with Gestapo and impoverished informers. Executions were frequent and high profile. Even today, it's tempting to imagine that Elser was being paid by foreign agents or spurred on by fellow resistance fighters.

And yet, there was no one. For over a year, Georg Elser led a double life. Having traveled alone to Munich to identify his target, he spent a year silently hatching a plan. To gain access to the necessary materials, he quit his carpentry job and sought work in a metal factory.

Unbeknown to his colleagues, he made over 250 pieces of explosives in the workshop, stashing them in his wardrobe at home. Even his girlfriend knew nothing of the intricate hand-drawn plans hidden in his apartment.

When he visited his sister to bid her farewell two days before the attack, he refused to tell her why he had to leave. Perhaps he was trying to protect those closest to him, perhaps he felt they couldn't be trusted. Either way, as he crept into the Beer Hall to lay the explosives, he did so alone.

Initiated by the writer Rolf Hochhuth, the government backed competition marks an interesting turn in Berlin's public art.

In a city full of Denkmäler, or memorials, Hochhuth invited artists to submit something more ambiguous: a Denkzeichen, or symbol of thought. The final piece, Klages says, is supposed to inspire discussion, not adoration

"It calls on its audience to take a critical look at what happened."

Not that we should get too caught up in scholarly debate. I ask Klages if he is concerned that people will not identify the outline.

He isn't.

"It doesn't matter. What they will see is a person. That's what I wanted to show."

At 17 meters high, Elser's face will float just above the trees that line Wilhelmstraße. At night, the sketched profile will be softly illuminated. Here, in the midst of embassies and political offices, will rise a silhouetted human face, visible 24 hours a day, come rain, shine or fog.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

About