(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this day in 1943, a working-class German couple were executed for treason and sedition in Berlin, Germany: Otto and Elise Hampel’s reign of postcard-writing terror had finally come to its conclusion.
On the surface, the Hampels seemed like two very ordinary people. Elise had an elementary school education and worked as a domestic servant before she married Otto in 1935. Otto, a World War I veteran six years older than Elise, was a factory laborer.
They lived modest, anonymous lives in Berlin and doubtless would have continued to do so if Elise’s brother, a soldier in the German Army, had not been killed in action in France in 1940.
Elise’s brother’s death was the catalyst for the Hampels’ tragically brave and utterly ineffectual two-year campaign of resistance against Hitler’s Germany.
Together the couple hand-wrote over 200 postcards and leaflets speaking out against the Nazi regime. The postcards urged people not to serve in the German Army, to refuse to donate to Nazi organizations, and generally do everything they could to resist the government. Otto and Elise scattered the cards in mailboxes, stairwells and other locations all over Berlin. The idea was that people would find the cards, read them and show them others, and thus the seed of rebellion would take root.
What actually happened was that almost all the cards were delivered to the authorities immediately. Nobody wanted to be caught in possession of such dangerous words.
Because of the sheer number of postcards and the long duration of their distribution, the Gestapo at first thought they were dealing with a much larger group of traitors. Doubtless they were frustrated that this riffraff, who couldn’t even write properly (the postcards were full of grammatical errors and misspellings), were able to evade them for so long. But the Hampels’ resistance activities eventually caught up with them.
They were unrepentant after their arrests in October 1942, and had little to say for themselves, beyond Otto’s statement that he was “happy” about protesting against Hitler. Roland Freisler‘s People’s Court duly condemned them to die for “preparation for high treason” and “demoralizing the troops.” They were executed by guillotine in the Plötzensee Prison.
For some reason, unlike their equally courageous, foolish and doomed counterparts in the White Rose, the Hampels’ story didn’t really catch on with historians.
They were saved from oblivion by the dangerously unstable, drug-addicted author Rudolf Ditzen, aka Hans Fallada, who came upon their Gestapo file after the war.
His 1947 novel, Every Man Dies Alone, written in just 24 days, is closely based on Elise and Otto’s story. This book was Fallada’s swan song; he died weeks before its publication. Titled Jeder stirbt für sich allein in Germany, it was not translated into English until 2009 — but it then became a runaway bestseller in the United States and (under the title Alone in Berlin) in Great Britain.