The Postcard Terrorists April 2, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
The German resistance to Hitler was trifling and for the most part misdirected: the maniac, after all, survived till the end of the war, while taking apart his country bridge by bridge and bombed-out-town by bombed-out-town. But let’s celebrate if not the achievement then the courage of Otto and Elise Hempel, the Postkarte terrorists. Naturally, these ‘miscreants’ did not survive the war, the Gestapo were nothing if not efficient: the couple were tried (if it is fair to use that word for Nazified courts) and then beheaded for crimes against the state and for undermining army moral. Indeed, they have the unfortunate record of being the only people in history to have had their heads removed for sending postcards: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com. We say ‘sent’, actual their modus operandi didn’t involve stamps or post boxes. Typically, Otto would spend a long time carefully writing out postcards with subversive sentences, sentences full of spelling mistakes reflecting the couple’s lack of education and often confused political philosophy: appeals to freedom of the press stood next to shouts about the workers and plutocrats. For example, the postcard above has the earth shattering words: ‘Germans wake up! You must free yourselves from Hitler!’ Other postcards included doggerel verse (below), all in the same labored sign-writers style.
The Hempels took these postcards – they wrote about 200 before the Gestapo snapped on the handcuffs – and left them in stairwells so that passers-by could see the dangerous words. The couple began their activities in 1941, the death of Elise’s brother on the western front in 1940 inspired them, and they managed to keep going for two years. Three things strike Beach about this story – immortalized by Hans Fallada in a postwar novel. First, what kind of lunatic state actually cares enough about a couple writing badly-spelt postcards with sentences that do not scan? Second, what kind of country had Germany become by 1941-1943 that most of these postcards were handed into the authorities by citizens, allowing the Hempels to be caught? And third, did the work of Otto and Elise serve at all?
The answer to the first two questions is not going to be a happy one but the answer to the third question is enough to steal a smile from a babyl. The photos of this pair of unlikely heroes has no optimism and no meaning. The postcards themselves are perhaps better testaments to sullen, instinctive resistance, the bloody-minded refusal to bend the knee that in the end is all that lifts us up above what the Hempels neighbours had all too often become.
5 April 2013: Wade here makes a point that I regret not making. ‘As to your second question in the post about what kind of country had Germany become by 1941-1943, that the citizens would turn in the postcards, I can think of a reason that this might actually be reasonable self-preservation. If I suspected a discarded stairwell postcard was some sort of insane loyalty test run by the Gestapo, I might very well turn the card in to avoid being seized by the state.’ Thanks Wade!