Back to the Archive

14 May, 2013

Have you ever read something, or come across a snippet of information that makes you question what you have been teaching, often for a long time, about a topic? Just because something is in the textbook – or all the textbooks – doesn’t mean that things happened that way. Original source material can fundamentally affect your health!

A recent example that made me think again about how I teach something was a novel about life in Berlin during WW2, Alone in Berlin.[1]  This is the thinly fictionalised story of Otto and Elise Hampel who successfully defied the Nazis for two years before being betrayed, tried, convicted of treason and executed in April 1943. We generally teach our students that it was dangerous to oppose the Nazis. The Gestapo were everywhere, informers were on every street corner, and opponents were very quickly rounded up and put into concentration camps after 1934. We use images of cheering crowds, of children in uniform to show how much people loved Hitler, often forgetting that virtually all these images were propaganda in a controlled media.  We might mention The Edelweiss Pirates, young people not enamoured of the Nazis, or the White Rose Movement, but the implication is that they were quickly snuffed out. Yet the first anti-Jewish shops boycott was quickly called off, due to the number of people who continued to use the shops. We also forget just how many Jews [and communists] survived the war living inBerlin, kept safe by well-wishers.

Otto and Elise Hampel were ordinary German working people – he had fought in the First World War, she was a domestic servant until she married. He was a fitter in a factory, she was a member of the [Nazi] Women’s League, living normal lives until her brother was killed during the invasion of France.

Otto and Elise’s Gestapo mugshots             Otto and Elise’s Gestapo mugshots2

[Otto and Elise’s Gestapo mugshots 2]

Together, for more than two years, they wrote and distributed over 200 handwritten postcards and delivered them across Berlin, leaving them in stairwells, on window ledges or in public places.


[One of the postcards written and distributed by the Hampels]

The text was openly defiant, asking people not to contribute to Nazi charities, for example, or to refuse to go to war. The first card wrote ‘Mother! The Führer has murdered my son. Mother! The Führer will murder your sons too. He will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.’  The Gestapo were convinced they were trying to track down a major organisation, refusing, even after their capture, to believe it was the work of only two people. Enormous resources were put into finding the culprits who were only captured by chance in late September 1942. Of course the question remains just how effective their actions were. Most postcards were instantly handed in to the police, probably unread. But the fact remains the Hampels were able to defy the Nazis and the Gestapo for more than two years, in the centre ofBerlin, in what we happily describe as a totalitarian state firmly controlled by the Party. How many more cases are there that we don’t know about?  The German Resistance Memorial Centre online database contains over 450 biographies of people known to have played some part in opposing the Nazis. How many of these figure in our teaching?

The point I am making is that history is complicated. It is not one simple narrative or story. Individual cases are different. What happened in one area of the country during evacuation is very different to what happened elsewhere – the WRVS Archive proves that. We must not oversimplify what we learn about the past. It is also the individual stories, like that of Otto and Elise Hampel, which provide the endless fascination that appeal to us as historians, and to our students. A trip to the archives can enrich and challenge.

Alf Wilkinson May 2013.

[1] Hans Fallada, ‘Alone inBerlin’  , Penguin Books, £9.99, published in 2009,

[2] German Resistance Memorial Centre website:]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *