1943: Elise and Otto Hampel, postcard writers

(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.


Two of the treasonous postcards.

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.

21 thoughts on “1943: Elise and Otto Hampel, postcard writers”

  1. You can add Walterr Süskind. According to the German Wikipedia he died in Auschwitz on Feb. 28 1945. But the details of his death are unkown. He is known as the Oskar Schindler of the Netherlands. I learned about him today while I was walking around Gießen and I came upon a street named after him. That is how I get paid for walking around.

  2. Great movie and Superb acting,
    Really, 200 post cards is a low number and hardly enough to create a big impact especially if they were turned in. One thing we know, German people at that time were motivated by fear. The author wrote the story about Otto and Elise from a file he found not from folklore.
    I wouldn’t call Otto’s motivation courage; its more likely from hopelessness, loss and nothing to live for.
    Still it rang true and I was fully engaged in he movie. I think it wise to change the brother to son because some of us find intense love hard to relate to except for children.

  3. Alone in Berlin is an extremely timely movie, considering the political climate in the U.S. today, and the budding authoritarianism we are witnessing. The Hampels were incredibly brave. They may have died alone, but they continue to inspire and enoble those who dare to speak truth to power.

    1. Budding authoritarianism in the USA a new thing? Timely movie?? Hope you’re enjoying your Kool-Aid with a chaser! Excellent movie with two very talented actors. Courage is not the absence of fear, but calculated resolve in spite of it.

      1. Bimcclur says:
        14 March, 2017 at 11:40 pm
        This is a Timely movie. Resist unjust & evil regimes. Do what is Right! History will vindicate those who resist.
        People seem to be afraid to speak out for fear of the Tweet.
        Speak out against injustice & unjust laws.
        This is just the beginning. More craziness to come from this administration.
        More sand in the machines please

  4. What brave people OTTO & Elise Hapel to stand up for true when there country men & woman were to scared to do anything to bring down this tyranny of Nazium, I hope we can be brave when the One World Government comes to fruition to cause us to take a mark on our right hand or forehead to be able to buy or sell.
    No way will I take the mark as my stand against tyranny.
    God bless you all in your stand too!

    1. @ Richard Porter: I just watched “Alone in Berlin.” The Hampels surely knew how hopeless it was to go up against the might of the Nazi machine but they still decided that if they did not at least try to do something about the situation then nothing would truly happen to change anything. I know that I could never be as brave as they (and all the other resistance fighters in the history of mankind) were.

      1. i completely agree. it’s amazing to see the courage of all these people that sacrificed there lives- for the lives of others. i hope i have that dignity- a fraction of that courage-and am able to bring it forward before i die

  5. Ineffectual and foolish?
    They were brave and at least tried to do something.
    They may not have influenced the majority, and we may never know who was inspired to quietly rebel; but their story is now out there, and who knows who may be inspired by them in the future.
    “What you do in your lifetime will echo down through eternity”, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius.

    1. @Jacqui Yes, I would like to believe that the actions of the Hampels did have a positive effect on anyone else who happened to read the cards and pamphlets they wrote and distributed. The “seditious” thoughts that were expressed and put in writing probably made others think twice and delve more deeply into how Nazism was destroying Germany.

  6. It takes special people to stand up against tyrants.The few who dare to do so like Otto and Elsie enable us no longer to fear and enjoy our precious freedom.

  7. Yesterday I watched “Alone in Berlin”, a movie made last year based off of Fallada’s book. I liked the movie; it followed the book very closely. You can’t buy it on Amazon.com but you can rent it on streaming video for $5.99.

  8. Excellent film, these 2 brave, courageous people should be honoured for standing up for right and truth, would that others had joined them. They should be honoured. Evil prevails when good people do nothing. Speak up for truth and justice, God bless them.

  9. Saw the movie “Alone in Berlin” today. They certainly were very brave people who weren’t scared to stand up for their beliefs.

    1. This is a Timely movie. Resist unjust & evil regimes. Do what is Right! History will vindicate those who resist.
      People seem to be afraid to speak out for fear of the Tweet.

      Speak out against injustice & unjust laws.
      This is just the beginning. More craziness to come from thos administration.

      More sand in the machines please.

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