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They almost invented Twitter

To understand social media, it helps to think about how people lived before. So, a story:

This true story begins simply enough. The couple, Elise and Otto Hampel, lost a family member serving in a war they did not believe in, a war of conquest. They could not explain away or justify his death. In their grief, they looked for a way to protest, but they had no political skills or alliances, no say in the workings of their country. Even though they lived in the capital city, their government was out of reach; Elise and Otto might as well have been mute. And to make matters worse, this was Nazi Germany, one of history’s most brutal dictatorships. They knew the consequences of opposing Hitler.

And yet there in Berlin, in the midst of war and tyranny, they hit upon a mechanism for protest. They began to print messages on postcards, no more than a couple of dozen words on each card, in large block lettering, denouncing the dictatorship. Over many months, Otto left these little messages, each one about the size of a Twitter posting, in public places around the city. Frightened citizens or patriots turned the cards over to the police. Eventually the Gestapo, the secret police, took up the case.

This story is told as fiction in the recently-translated 1947 novel, Every Man Dies Alone, by German writer Hans Fallada.* But the book’s appendix offers pages from Otto and Elise’s real Gestapo files. You can see the couple’s stern mug shots, taken after their arrest, the typed confessions they signed after interrogation and, likely, torture, and Otto’s own handwriting on a few of the postcards themselves. Der Hitler Krieg ist dess Arbeiters Tod, he writes. Hitler’s war is the workers’ death. Seventy years ago this spring, the Hampels were convicted of treason and beheaded in a German prison. If their police files had not come into the hands of the novelist, most likely their story would have been lost.

Fallada’s novel is suspenseful and chilling. Written just months after the war, Every Man Dies Alone is thick with details that hint at the every day, every minute terror of Nazi tyranny. But those self-composed faces in the mug shots and the bold script on the postcards get at something that can outlast terror, something that tyranny seeks to eradicate. And that is the sound of a dissenting voice. The beauty of the novel and its appendix is in large part that in the direst of circumstances there is someone who intends to keep speaking.

But Fallada considered how little these brief messages probably accomplished amidst the chaos of world war. Full of doubt, he raises the question explicitly in a stunning passage—but to say much more about that late chapter would ruin a portion of the novel for you. Imagine the issue yourself: Elise and Otto invented something like Twitter, little messages that they hoped would matter, and sent them out into the world that was not ready to receive them.

Commitment, reflection, writing meant for a public audience–traits that cover a good portion of what we now call social media–produce messages that need somewhere to land. They need a social structure that welcomes and thrives on commitment. The authors of these little messages need a civic and social world to bond to. Reflection, writing, publishing, creating bonds in a functioning civic society, and taking action as a result–the Hampels had no chance to accomplish the fourth and fifth of these steps. There was no functioning civic society to receive them.

Their bravery is indisputable. The justice of their position is undeniable. Their example still shines for us. But their story shows that a citizen needs more than a space for reflection and the courage to speak. Next time I will turn to another historical episode where hopes were pinned on tiny messages, this time Twitter messages submitted into the noise and static of the Internet. This next story will help clarify what else besides a citizen’s thoughtful bravery a society needs.

This post follows up on issues raised in the “Disenchantment, democracy, and blogging” post.

*Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone, trans. Michael Hofmann (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2009).

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