Strangely enough, New York Times columnist David Brooks today writes about failed Hitler assassin Johann Georg Elser:
Based on the historical record, it appears Johann Georg Elser was the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously a talented craftsman, he could not successfully work his way through the social process of his apprenticeship as a lathe operator. Then, when his wife gave birth to his child, he failed to marry her.
Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to have been a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of his age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the growing share of young men in their 30s who were living craftsmen's existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of Nazi society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and Führer. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of pacifism that were blossoming in his fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of warmongers, the strong belief that military hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to peace, the assumption that human lives have value.
It’s logical, given this background and mind-set, that Elser would sacrifice his career to assassinate Hitler. Even if he did not publicize any manifesto explaining his rationale, he was bound to be horrified by what he saw as a coming war. And, of course, he was right that there was a war coming.
But war was not the only danger facing the country. Another was the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who were so individualistic in their outlook that they had no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.
This was not a danger Elser was addressing. In fact, he made everything worse.
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to the Führer. By deciding to unilaterally assassinate Hitler, Elser betrayed all of these things.
He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. As a German citizen, he was bound by the Führer's will. He rose up against that will.
He betrayed the cause of peaceful government. Every time there is an assassination attempt like this, the powers that be get a little more enraged.
He betrayed the German state. The Führer did not unite the German people under him so that some solitary 36-year-old could make unilateral decisions about who should be Führer. Snowden self-indulgently undermined the will of the people, putting his own preferences above everything else.
Elser faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he was convinced that war was imminent. On the other hand, he had certain commitments as a citizen, as a member of the German people. Sometimes assassins have to assassinate. The situation is so grave that it demands they violate the law.
But before they do, you hope they will interrogate themselves closely and force themselves to confront various barriers of resistance. Is the situation so grave that it’s worth betraying your loyalty to the Führer, circumventing the established decision-making procedures, unilaterally causing a death that can never be undone?
Judging by his comments recorded in the interrogation protocols, Elser was obsessed with the danger of war but completely oblivious to his betrayals and toward the damage he did to social arrangements and the invisible bonds that hold them together.