Hans Magnus Enzensberger is one of the most original and exciting thinkers of our time. Like Umberto Eco, Stephen Jay Gould, or Richard Rorty, Enzensberger has the gift of making complex ideas about our world engaging and understandable to anyone—and he writes with rare wit and elegance, never resorting to jargon or obscurity.
Born in a small Bavarian town in 1929, Enzensberger is a generalist and public intellectual in the grand old sense, and has been hailed around the world as a poet, dramatist, and editor. But it is as a cultural essayist and social critic that he has attained his widest acclaim. The Los Angeles Times has declared him "that most rambunctious of all critics—an iconoclast" and Newsweek has commended him as "a raconteur of mordant wit, a trenchant political thinker [and] a pleasure to read."
Zig Zag is the definitive statement of Enzensberger's provocative worldview. In twenty extraordinary essays—some new and translated here for the first time, the rest chosen by Enzensberger himself from throughout his career—he makes an elegant case for open-mindedness in the face of the complexities of contemporary life. The essays cover such topics as: the false importance of consistency; why our ideas about the end of the world and "progress" have changed; Adolf Hitler vs. Saddam Hussein, the increasing "casualization" of contemporary culture; and what luxury will mean in the future.
Finally, the book also includes Enzensberger's moving evocation of his deep ambivalence about the United States and American culture, from his memories of fleeing American tanks and the joy of discovering American literature in the waning days of World War II, to seeing "applause" signs for the first time in Hollywood in 1953, to teaching at a sleepy American college during the campus uprisings of 1968, to getting lost in Texas shopping malls just last year. As in so many cases throughout the book, Enzensberger's "fifty years' effort to discover America" end in a kind of sublime contradiction: "After so many exciting expeditions, I realize I have failed to discover America. How could I make up my mind about it, torn as I am between shock and gratitude, bliss and frustration, dismay and surprise? Of all my lifelong failures, this is one which I would hate to do without."
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About the Author
Hans Magnus Enzensberger was born in Bavaria in 1929. One of the leading social critics in Germany, his essays have appeared in a wide range of journals. He is the author of Civil Wars: From L.A. to Bosnia, Europe, The Consciousness Industry, Political Crumbs, Politics and Crime, and, most recently, The Number Devil. He lives in Munich, Germany
Read an Excerpt
1) SECOND THOUGHTS ON
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Once upon a time there was a black American revolutionary by the name of Eldridge Cleaver. He spent some years in jail, wrote a few books, became a Black Panther, went into exile, attempted a comeback as a revolutionary designer of men's trousers, and has not been heard of since. During the 1960s, however, Cleaver coined a memorable phrase. "Baby," he said, "you're either part of the problem, or you're part of the solution."
To many people and for a not inconsiderable period of time, this seemed an apt maxim. Clearcut, unequivocal, uncompromising, it had the deceptively simple sound of a quotation from the Bible. For some years afterward, it was adopted by politically minded people, not only in the USA, but also in Europe and in what is sometimes called rather sweepingly "the Third World." The only trouble with Cleaver's handy dictum is that it does not happen to be true. First of all, the solution is nowhere in sight. There does not seem to be such a thing. Of course, there is a huge supply of quick fixeszillions of little remedies have been offered by bodies as adverse as IBM, EST, and the KGBbut even their promoters would hardly claim they merit the majestic singular of Cleaver's phrase.
More importantly, however, it has become very clear that everybody is "part of the problem." Supposing, for the sake of argument, that one was able to identify the "good" side in any or all of the many conflicts that beset the world, and granted that one would be willing totake it, this would in no way entitle one to a feeling of justification, since one would inevitably continue to participate in the web of situations, arrangements and traditions which are, precisely, "part of the problem." In stating this rather obvious fact, I do not wish to imply that the "baddies" cannot any longer be identified. On the contrary, this is fantastically easy. What I find nearly impossible is the opposite operation. To point out a "goody" does not any longer seem feasible, least of all if a mirror is used.
This is a very disagreeable state of affairs, especially for concerned intellectuals, who for a century or two have thrived on basic tenets like the following: It is good and necessary to establish first principles. It is difficult but laudable to hang on to them at any cost. Compromise in the face of adversity, cutbacks and reaction is bad. A radical should be radical. Opportunism is sinful. Consistency is good.
I should like to think, though I cannot be sure, that these rules were laid down in simpler and harder times than ours. A man who was a devoted socialist in 1912, for example, was certain to be faced with difficulties, but he could hardly be blamed if he thought of himself as "part of the solution." The same may be said of a Spanish anarchist of the 1930s, or of a kibbutznik starting a new life in Palestine. A few of these men and women are still alive, and if you meet them you will find that they inspire a feeling close to awe. Unfortunately, their deep conviction has been inherited by a much lesser breed. Since the early 1960s, a peculiar type of intransigent has made his appearance, a type who is very much a part of our problem, since he is uncommonly close to ourselves, our work, our milieu and our private lives. He is easy to recognize, but difficult to define, since he comes in a great number of varieties. I cannot be sure about America, but in Europe we have seen them all: the stern critic of monopoly state capitalism tucked away safely in a state-run university with tenure for life; the slave of intellectual fashion coming out strongly against intellectual fashion and its followers; the well-endowed bureaucrat of culture with a nauseating fondness for "subversive" artists; the peace research fund director bullying his elegant female office staff, and so on. Needless to say, all these people are full of principles. Indeed, the hazier their identity, the keener they are on the rhetoric of commitment. They all cherish a radical stance, untarnished by considerations arising out of their everyday existence.
Now, it might be thought that there is nothing new in all this. The hypocrite and the pharisee are, after all, well-established and ancient types in the comedy of manners. And indeed, if this were just another instance of self-righteousness and of double standards of morality, we should be confronted with a cast of characters quite familiar from an Ibsen play. The point, however, is precisely that we are not dealing with individual characters or with a subjective deficiency, but rather with an absence of character and with an epidemic of objective proportions. The people I have in mind do not embrace principles because they believe in their inherent truth. They use them as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon others. Principles are needed only for the purpose of defining others as opportunists, careerists, sellouts; moral, political, or aesthetic renegades. The only person beyond suspicion is the one who has got hold of the microphone and who represents, at the moment of speaking, a higher reality of which, alas, he himself is not a part.
It is hard to identify this sheriff of conviction, this watch-dog of basic values; this guru of principle. Indeed, it may turn out to be impossible. Speaking about him involves a moral paradox; this is a phenomenon that one risks becoming a part of the moment one speaks about it. No amount of sincerity will save one from the condition of moral schizophrenia which has become a universal of our intellectual existence. The very claim to a state of superior ethical grace is self-defeating.
Not many people are prepared to resign themselves to such a state of profound and permanent moral ambiguity. There is a heavy demand for idols who refuse to be part of the general quagmire, and a supply-side economy will not fail to provide what is needed. This is why we find, in our cultural marketplace, an unlikely assembly of cult figures who are supposed to be beyond suspicion. What they do for a living is of secondary importance. They may be philosophers or therapists, mystics or ideologues, artists or criminals, gurus or terrorists. The main demand made upon them is that they be part of the solution, not of the problem; that an unquestioned integrity can be ascribed to them that they be untainted by doubt, compromise, and equivocation. The result of this search is a curious Hall of Fame, a Madame Tussaud's of postmodern morality, crowded with figures such as Sid Vicious and Mother Teresa, Castaneda and Einstein, Samuel Beckett and Josef Stalin, Charles Manson and Erich Fromm, John Cage and Henry Abbot, Jian Qing and William S. Burroughs, Karel Woytila and Ulrike Meinhof, the Reverend Moon and Professor Beuys.
What is it, then, that we are so keen on that we want to acquire it at almost any cost, even if it means looking foolish, or crazy, or obscene? It must be something utterly lost. I believe that this something is consistency, the notion that there ought to be a large degree of congruence or at least compatibility between what we are, what we think, and what we do. Consistency is not a simple concept, and I am not sure of its status in Anglo-American philosophy. German philosophy, however, has traditionally been very strong on this notion, for which German philosophers have developed the term Konsequenz. This is, first of all, a logical category. In any rational discourse, judgments were supposed to follow from certain assumptions or first principles. In other words, one should not simply jump to conclusions or defend any old phrase that happened to pass through one's head as if it were a valid proposition. Contradictions would have to be avoided, overcome, or at least explained. Very soon, and rather imperceptibly, this rule acquired moral overtones, and finally it became a postulate, an ethical imperative, and even something of an obsession, at least in Germany.
Mine is a culture which historically has been prone to believe that to possess principles and to act them out to their utmost consequences is good. Possibly this has to do with the Reformation, with the turn the Protestant ethic took in Prussia; in any event, it is a recurrent theme in the rosary of German idealism, from Kant to Fichte to Hegel, from Hegel to Marx. But I refuse to believe that we are dealing here with a specifically German obsession. After all, the utopian thinkers of Renaissance Italy, the theologians of Imperial Spain and the French Jacobins indulged quite heavily in the passion for consistency at any cost. And in our own century, dozens of nations, from Korea to Chile, from Cuba to Bulgaria, not to mention Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, have organized their social systems on the basis of principles that are odiously threadbare and ludicrously hypocritical but which happen to be thoroughly consistent. (It is interesting to note that the models on which most existing one-party systems are constructed are of German origin.)
Entire continents are filled with the monotonous drone of unequivocal speech. In this type of rhetoric, decisions are always "irrevocable," support is invariably "staunch," the laws of history are "iron," and determination is "unflinching." People who long for consistency are notoriously easy to organize in larger groups, in schools, churches, armies, sects, or parties. The man who desperately wants to be "true to himself," will end up, paradoxically, by surrendering to a collective identity. The private resolve to adhere to a set of principles and to follow them to their utmost consequences is no moral safeguard. Indeed, there is often something schematic, something reminiscent of the bureaucrat, about an all too blatant devotion to principle. Those who pride themselves on their loyalty to ideas should remember that abstractions cannot be betrayed, only people.
Consistency, as a logical category, is empty. It is possible to be a consistent vegetarian, a consistent thief, Trotskyist, Mormon, dandy, or Fascist. It is therefore not quite clear how consistency could ever lay claim to the status of a moral postulate. Another little problem arises as soon as one asks oneself whether consistency is to be understood as a demand on thoughts or on actions, or on both. In the first case, the risk to the outside world is minimal, but one may well end up a crank. Schelling's theory of electricity, for example, is entirely based on deduction. It is derived, with a great deal of precision, from the first principles of his Naturphilosophie, and is thus quite unblemished by empirical observation. With all due respect to a great mind, it must be said that it is complete nonsense, albeit of an entirely harmless and even entertaining kind. The point here is that consistency places an enormous strain on learning, and makes it exceedingly difficult for a change of mind to take place. If the postulate is then extended to include actions, some real trouble may be the result. The idea of Schelling fixing a lightbulb according to his theories is almost too much to bear. And yet this is a relatively innocuous example. Quite a few brave and decent people, a decade or so ago, concluded from principles which I cannot call unsound that the best way to deal with napalm was to bomb Dow Chemical. Most of them have learned by experience to think otherwise, even at the cost of consistency. Those who refused to pay this price would seem to be in for a lifetime of attacking Dow Chemical with homemade explosives.
But even if one just happens to mind the slashing of welfare or of food-aid programs to desperately poor countries, one ought to think twice before claiming consistency. Any such claim will lead to a particularly obnoxious sort of blackmail which has become very popular in certain quarters. As soon as one voices objections, some horribly well-groomed politician is sure to get up and say: This is all very well, but it is just talk. If you are so keen on foreign aid, or on the welfare of the poor, why not do something about it? Why not live up to your principles? Be consistent! If you happen to be a Christian, for example, the least one may ask for is that you go and spend the rest of your life in an African leper colony instead of sitting here and getting on our nerves. And if you don't like capitalism, why not go away and fight like Che Guevara?
This type of argument is not an argument at all; it is an echo of the voice that can be heard on the streets whenever a potential suicide is crouching high on the windowsill of an office building. It is a mob shouting: What are you waiting for? Why don't you jump? In Germany there was once a most courteous gentleman by the name of Adorno who had an answer to this cry. He said: "The ability to distinguish between theory and practice is a great achievement of civilization."
Now, given the confusing state of affairs I have been describing, I should like to point out some of the advantages and even joys of inconsistency. I do not claim that inconsistency, in itself, is a virtue. There is something neutral and rather unassuming about it, and I daresay that it can be abused. I am not advocating incoherent babble, and I rather like rational discourse. Besides, the case of inconsistency cannot be made consistently without inviting a logical conundrum.
Instead, I would suggest that we owe our lives to vacillation, indecision, and unprincipled action. You would not now be in a position to mind what I am saying, or agree with it, if it were not for the late Mr. Khrushchev, who behaved, as we all know, like a disgraceful opportunist in 1962. Did he not back out with his rockets? Wasn't he simply yellow, as they say? Did he not throw overboard the most sacrosanct principles of Marxism-Leninism? And no one in the whole Kremlin had the guts to stand up and say that selling out to imperialism is bad. No, all those old militants just had one thing on their minds; they wanted to save their own skins, and in the process they happened to save our skins as well. Consistency would have dictated quite a different course of action. It generally does. Let me mention just a few examples:
Take any economic doctrine whatsoever, apply it, proceed logically with your project, and you will eventually destroy the very economy you had set out to save.
Act out the fundamental tenets of capitalism to their ultimate consequences, and you will end up with a state of civil war and/or a Fascist dictatorship.
Attack the social system you live in by any means at your disposal, and you have terrorism; defend it by any means, and you have a Gestapo running the place.
Be a rigorous ecologist and defend nature against man with no holds barred, and you will end up leading a Stone Age existence.
Build communism, be uncompromising about it, and your militancy will take you straight into what is rightly known as the socialist camp.
Pursue economic growth at any price and you will destroy the biosphere.
Join the arms race, be consistent about it, and you will blow yourself to pieces.
In this sort of situation, which has become quite frequent, principle isn't what it used to be. For those who are still looking around for a maxim to follow, I would suggest this: Consistency will turn any good cause into a bad one. It is a luxury we can no longer afford. For philosophers who are interested in keeping their thinking as straight as possible, this must be an unwelcome thought, but for people at large it will not come as a surprise. In our parts of the world, a vast if not vociferous majority of citizens has come to realize, I believe, that their only chance of survival is based not on one or two Big Ideas but on a constantly changing set of marginal options. They are quite prepared to face a lengthy and contradictory process of muddling through, of trial and error. Even in Germany, a society traditionally much given to principles, the last decades have seen a deep change in attitude. Social scientists have taken little note of this process, perhaps because they prefer to deal in Big Ideals or in statistical data. Nations as diverse as the Greeks and the Japanese, the Swedes and the Venezuelans, indeed most of the peoples who are given a chance to choose, will opt for the blessings of a more or less social democracynot, I think, because of any deep-seated ideological conviction or loyalty, but because they feel instinctively that a sort of halfway house has become their only alternative to barbarism and self-destruction.
And now a word about ourselves. I hope you do not mind my using the first person of the plural form. Let us avoid categories such as "the intelligentsia," or even worse, "the cultural workers," and just think of ourselves as a set of people who make a living by coming up, every now and then, with a new idea, a new image or a new shape. It is easy to see why the end of consistency is not something we would relish. The state of affairs I have tried to sketch goes against the grain of our most cherished habits. One of our main satisfactions in life has always been our ability to carry our ideas to extremes. Ever since we have existed as a social groupthat is, for at least two centurieswe have been gainfully employed in going too far. Historically, the winner among us has always been the fellow who went further than anybody else. Never has this game been played with greater fervor than in the first half of the twentieth century. In the heroic age of modernism, the logic of consistency was extremely powerful; the whole prestige of the avant-garde depends on its single-minded courage, on its determination to follow an ideological or aesthetic theorem to its very end.
It is true that not much blood was shed in the process. The radicalism of the Euro-American avant-garde did not lead to massacres. At worst it led to a certain amount of intolerance, sterility, and dreariness. Thus we can afford to look back without anger to those days. There is even something touching about those black squares on the walls of museums and galleries, and about the critics who saw in them the culmination of art history. Some of us still remember the times when poets who filled a whole book with lower-case "i"s and "e"s were considered the salt of the earth. Treaties were written on the "objective state of composition," as applied to the man who gave a one-hour talk "On Nothing," in front of breathless audiences.
All these games, however, were innocent only as long as they were practised as an indoor sport. When architects started to write manifestos demanding that our cities be scrapped, this gave rise to shrill debates that must have been great fun. When they turned out to be consistent enough to reduce our living space to piles of white cubes, this had rather dire consequences, especially for the unfortunate people who were doomed to live and work in the ensuing concrete dreams. And wherever advanced political theories were consistently applied, things took a decidedly tragic turn.
In the late 1950s, the Political Science department of the University of Paris had become a very cosmopolitan place. All sorts of things were being taught: the political economy of underdeveloped nations; the importance of central planning; the modernization of traditional tribal societies; the dynamics of anticolonialist revolutions.... It is therefore not surprising that the lectures and seminars of the faculty were largely frequented by a motley crowd of students from the former French colonial empire, from Vietnam and Morocco, from Madagascar and Somalia, from Algeria and Guyana.
Some of the more radical teachers had come to the conclusion that liberation movements in the poorest parts of the world would have to undo the structure of the colonial societies inherited from the age of imperialism, if they wanted to put an end to the endemic misery of their countries. It was no good, they said, to do away with foreign domination and to take power if existing social structures were left untouched. The radical solution they advocated had three major aspects.
First of all, the relationship between town and country had to be reversed. The urbanization of the poor countries introduced by the colonial powers was disastrous. The parasitic cities siphoned off the productivity of the land. Industrialization would require a huge amount of foreign capital, and it would inevitably favor the local bourgeoisie. It should therefore be postponed. Absolute priority should be given to agriculture.
Second, a poor country must take care not to be integrated into the world market. Terms of trade would inevitably follow the pattern of international capitalism and perpetuate its domination. Isolation for a considerable length of time was the only solution. Economic self-sufficiency must be the goal. A subsistence economy would bring initial hardship for the more privileged part of the population, but it would permit antarchy and thus, in the long run, put an end to exploitation from abroad.
Lastly, it was necessary to protect the underdeveloped countries from the baneful cultural influence of the West. It was held that the educated elites in postcolonial nations posed a threat to independence because they clung to the ideas and values of the metropolis. Merchants and functionaries, teachers and doctors were especially dangerous elements, since they had adopted Western ways in their formative years and would infest the whole nation with their thoughts and their lifestyles. This corrupting influence would have to be ended, and the bourgeoisie would have to be liquidated as a social class.
This program, which was advocated by teachers from North Africa and Asia, and was influenced by the Algerian war and by Maoism, is remarkable for a number of reasons. One of its more baffling aspects is the fact that it is curiously self-referential. Quite clearly, its proponents belonged to the educated elite in their own countries; they had spent their formative years in European schools, and their ideas are in great part derived from Western traditions. It would thus seem that they were, in terms of their own theory, at least as much part of the problem as they may have been part of any future solution. Granted that their ideas were based on the experiences of several poor countries, the empirical data they could draw upon still did not make any sense unless it was interpreted. And for this interpretation they depended on principles they took over from European thought. Being progressive people, they did not avail themselves of the obscure dogmas and the ideological patent medicines the West has produced in great abundance; they did not pick up political messages such as racism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism, which are very much part of our heritage. No,they took the very best we had to offer; the basic tenets of the French Revolution, the teachings of the Enlightenment, the idea that it was both necessary and possible to abolish the extremes of injustice, oppression, and exploitation.
Among the students attending those courses were quite a few who came from Southeast Asia. One of them was called Kieu Samphan, another Jeng Sary, and a third one Saloth Sar, better known by his nom de guerre of Pol Pot. They all graduated with honors, packed up their notebooks, and went home. Fifteen years later they started to put into practice what their professors had taught them. They were very earnest, very devoted; their consistency cannot be doubted. The results are known to everybody who reads newspapers or who owns a television set, and the only open question by now is whether the Khmer Rouge's experiment has claimed half a million or two and a half million lives. I try in vain to imagine what their teachers feel when they happen to think of their former pupils.
Mind you, I am not saying that it is a crime to follow a line of thought, any line of thought, to its ultimate logical conclusion. We are all extremely curious people who cannot bear to leave unthought anything that is thinkable, and we dearly wish to know where our latest hypothesis might take us. That, after all, is part of our work. Neither is there anything shameful about the fact that most of our trains of thought will sooner or later take us to a dead end. In a finite world, this is only to be expected. And if some of us feel like spending a lifetime in our respective blind alleys, this may seem a boring exercise, but, as long as it remains purely a matter of theory, I do not see why we should object to it. The little parable I have just told goes to show, however, that some people are unable or unwilling to draw a line between theory and practice. They are so desperately consistent that they don't know a dead end when they see one. The fact that there is no way ahead inspires them to an ever more frenzied activity. The result, as we have seen, may well be murderous.
It must be said that there is a much simpler and less violent way out of a blind alley. Once you are sure that you have reached the end, and with a bit of foresight you can find out well in advance, you can turn around and try another route. The trouble is that people who have been nurtured on principles often feel that such a course of action spells defeat or even betrayal. Many of them have reached positions of great power. I am thinking of Mr. Castro, Mr. Begin, Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Khomeini, to name just a few. In their respective dead ends, they hang on to their anachronistic dreamsterrifying remnants of those heroic days when a person could still imagine himself to have been in the right, just because history was on his side, and because the baddies were against him. In other words, by being sufficiently principled, and militant, and brave, a person could become, as it were, infallible.
Some of us may deplore the passing of the Age of Consistency. They might find some consolation in military science. The classic teachers of strategy have always held that there is no greater feat in warfare than orderly retreat from an untenable position. Only a fool bent on self-destruction will call such a move an act of cowardice. I would rather go along with Paul Feyerabend when he says: "Stamping out opportunism will not make us better men; it will just make us more stupid. What we ought to get rid of is rather, our tendency to dream up, in our egotistical way, some sort of 'good' or 'rational' or 'responsible' life, which we then try to force down other people's throats in the guise of objective values."
Inconsistency is not the answer to our predicament, but it has its advantages and its attractions. It cannot be preached. It increases our freedom of thought and our freedom of movement. It is good for our imagination. It is fraught with intellectual risks. It also takes a lot of training, but, if you put your mind to it, you may end up not only being less afraid, but even less afraid of being afraid. Inconsistency might even provide a much-needed dose of irony and a measure of gaiety in the face of the prevailing mood of depression. We can never know what we have at the back of our minds, but most likely it is more than our principles allow for, and more than consistency will tolerate. Alas, the end of ideology is not in sight, and its monotonous noise seems to go on forever. Amidst all the static and the clutter, the anachronism and the propaganda, nothing could be more tempting, and, perhaps more helpful, than the forbidden fruit of our brains.
Let me now jump to my conclusion, which may turn out to be quite different from yours. A tirade against consistency, however timely, may well bring comfort to the scatterbrained. Immersed as we are in the daily mush of the media, half-dazed by the relentless passage of trends and styles and quirks and fashions, exposed to the most banal and most routine sort of amnesia, an apology for the jellied mind is hardly what we need. To defend the charms of inconsistency is to ask for trouble. Misunderstanding being an essential mode of communication, some of you must have concluded that I have been making a plea on behalf of the Man without a Memory. I would therefore like to conclude with a tale in praise of obstinacy. Obstinacy, you see, is not a matter of principle. It does not need an ideological framework, and it does not offer justifications. The obstinate man is a modest animal, devoid of missionary ambition. He does not actually depend on a theory, and his deeds cannot be said to be derived from abstract postulates. His thoughts do not show up in opinion polls, and the technicians of political control will have a hard time making him out. He is also very difficult to organize. In short, he is a dangerous animal and, needless to say, there is no guarantee, there is only a possibility, that he will do some good. "You go on talking as long as you like," the obstinate man will say. "I know what I want, and I'll keep my thoughts to myself." Then, when he walks out of the door, he will drop a cryptic phrase. He will say: "There is no other way."
Take the inconspicious man, for example, who is boarding the express train from Munich to Constancefor, although we can do without idols, we still need examples. Just look at him sitting across the aisle, in the smokers' compartment: a quiet, friendly fellow looking out at the dim November afternoon. It gets dark early at this time of year. He has gray eyes, he is in his mid-thirties, his clothes are old but neat, he looks like a craftsman, you can tell by his deft and slender hands. A mechanic probably, or a joiner. In his spare time he will go to his club and play the guitar or the accordion, and if he has some money left he will spend an evening at the small-town dance hall by the river. No, he does not read newspapers. Every now and then he will go to church on a rainy Sunday, but he does not really care deeply about religion, and neither is he very much interested in politics.
Finally, the train arrives in Constance. He gets off and walks alongside the lake. He obviously knows his way, but he does not seem to be in a hurry. There's an old suburb with overgrown gardens and warehouses. It is now a quarter to nine. In a minute or two, he will have reached the Swiss border. Two officers from the nearby customs post walk up and ask him for his papers. He produces his passport. It turns out that the document has expired a few weeks before, and so they ask him to empty his pockets. No contraband is found, but there are a few shreds of paper in his pocket, and old badge issued by the Red Front Militia ("It is just a memento," he will explain later); some bolts and screws and springs, and finally there is a picture postcard showing the interior of a Munich beer cellar called the Bürgerbräu. The customs men don't quite know what to do with him. In the end they ask him to come along for a routine check.
While he is sitting down on a bench in the office hutthe wall calendar shows the date 8 November 1939, and it is now exactly 9:10 P.M.a bomb explodes in Munich, three minutes after Adolf Hitler has left, earlier than planned, the beer cellar where the big Nazi November rally had been held. George Elser had spent four months making the bomb before planting it in a pillar of the Bürgerbräu vaults.
Elser, born on 4 January 1903 in Hermaringen, and murdered in Dachau concentration camp on 9 April 1945, Hitler's most dangerous enemy, did not belong to any organized group, nor did he act on the orders of any party. In planning, preparing, and carrying out his attempt to kill Hitler, he was entirely on his own. There is no trace of his story in the textbooks used in German schools. In the scholarly works of German historians, Elser figures in a footnote if he is mentioned at all.
Experts will tell you we are living in a society made up of manipulated zombies, and that there are now entire generations suffering from anomie, narcissism, and loss of self. They may well have a point. But I think that obstinate man is still very much with us, just as he was forty or four hundred years ago. You will meet him at the next street corner if you look out for him. He has no specific sociological location. Obstinacy is not a privilege of the intellectuals, quite the contrary. I believe that it will never disappear, but I cannot offer any proof for this contention. I cannot explain where people like Elser come from, what makes them tick, or what may be the source of their determination. Like most of the things worth bearing in mind, it remains an open question.