There he became involved in the Strasserite anti-Hitler “Black Front”. To Hirsch’s grief, this organization had been thoroughly penetrated by pro-Hitler spies.
In December 1936, Hirsch embarked on a train. His mission was to bomb something in Germany. The details of the plan remain murky to this day; Hirsch’s subsequent trial was held in secret and his worried family only learned the whereabouts of their son three months missing when they heard a radio broadcast in March announcing his condemnation for “preparation of high treason and criminal use of explosives endangering the public.”
It seems that Hirsch was supposed to have disembarked in Nuremberg and there picked up some left luggage deposited by a fellow conspirator; he may have been meant to deliver this payload Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg, or perhaps to the offices of Julius Streicher’s propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.
The young would-be terrorist would tell his family in prison letters that he had instead bypassed Nuremberg and kept going all the way to Stuttgart to meet a friend, hoping the latter would talk him out of his wavering commitment to the plot. Instead, he was arrested that night by the Gestapo.
This case made news in the United States during the spring of ’37 because Hirsch’s father, Siegfried, was a naturalized American. That made Helmut a U.S. citizen, too, even though the son had never set foot in the United States.* U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the American ambassador to Germany William Dodd lobbied the Nazi government to spare Hirsch** — but to no avail.
Hirsch’s sister Kaete Hirsch Sugarman later donated her brother’s papers — letters, photos, architectural drawings — to Brandeis University, which maintains them as the Helmut Hirsch Collection. They include this touching final letter the young man wrote to his family on the eve of his execution.
Dear Mother, dear Father,
I have just been told that my appeal for clemency was turned down. I must die then.
We need not say anything any more to each other. You know that in these last months I have really found the way to myself and to life. Real beauty must stand before unswerving honesty. You know that I have lived every moment fervently and that I have remained true to myself until the end. You must live on. There can be no giving up for you. No becoming soft or sentimental. In these days I have learned to say “yes” to life. Not only to endure it but to love life as it is. It is our own inner gravity, the force by which we have entered life.
It must help you in some way that I know I have finally reached my own inner image and feel complete. And in this feeling is much of our time and our world.
The only way I know how to thank you is by showing you until the last moment that I have used all your love and goodness towards becoming a whole being of my time and my heritage. Do not think of the unused possibilities, but take my life as a whole. A great search, a foolish error, but on its path to finding of final truth, final peace.
Please care for Vally [his girlfriend, Valerie Petrova] as for a child. I embrace you, dear mother and you, my father, once more for a long, long time. Only now have I realized how much I love you.
* Siegfried Hirsch was a naturalized American who had lived in the U.S. for a decade prior to World War I. Siegfried’s U.S. citizenship had been revoked in 1926 because he had left to live abroad, but when the matter came to prominence in 1937 it was reinstated and Helmut Hirsch explicitly acknowledged as a U.S. national.
** The shoe has been on the other foot for death-sentenced German nationals in the present-day U.S.
On this date in 1942, 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener was executed at Plotzensee Prison for listening to the BBC.
Huebener was a Mormon youth with the political perspicacity to abhor fascism from a very young age: the former Boy Scout (Mormons really take to scouting) ditched the Hitler Youth after Kristallnacht, which happened when Huebener was only 10 years old.
As Germany forged ahead towards worse horrors in the years, conscientious people of all ages had moral dilemmas to resolve. Mormons in Nazi Germany weren’t persecuted per se and to keep it that way that small community generally kept its head judiciously down.
Horrified by the privations of their Jewish neighbors, Huebener with fellow Mormon teens Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe began illegally listening to foreign radio broadcasts and using the material to compose anti-fascist pamphlets for distribution around Hamburg.
Themes like Germany’s coming defeat (a Huebener circle favorite) never went over well with the authorities; a 1939 law decreed that “Whoever willfully distributes the broadcasts of foreign stations which are designed to endanger the strength of resistance of the German people will, in particularly severe cases, be punished with death.”
Huebener’s friends, aged 18 and 16, were judged only sufficiently severe for hard labor sentences; both survived the war but have since died. Huebener as the ringleader got the death penalty. (The local Mormon congregation expediently excommunicated him, a judgment later reversed from church headquarters in Salt Lake City.) And clearly Huebener was failing to “support the troops”, in the present-day parlance: his own older brother Gerhard had been drafted into the Wehrmacht and was away at the front.
“My Father in heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong,” young Helmuth wrote shortly before his beheading. “I know that God lives and He will be the proper judge of this matter.”
The Latter-Day Saints church, not usually thought of as a hive of anti-authority activity, has only gradually warmed up to celebrating its appealing young resistance martyr.
There the Vichy government arrested her in 1942 (Juchacz got out to the United States), and deported Kirchner to Germany to answer as a traitor.
She had a sentence of “only” ten years at hard labor, but the case was unexpectedly reopened in 1944 so that the cartoon villain of fascist jurisprudence, Roland Freisler, could give her a spittle-flecked death sentence for having “treasonably rooted herself in the evilest Marxist high-treason propaganda.”
Kirchner’s native Frankfurt has a Johanna-Kirchner-Straße, and in the 1990s awarded a Johanna-Kirchner-Medaille to anti-fascists.
From the Birmingham (England) Daily Post, Nov. 1, 1893 (and also reproduced here)
A WOMAN BEHEADED IN GERMANY.
The Berlin correspondent of the Daily News telegraphs that on Monday, for the first time in many years, a woman was beheaded in Germany. The prisoner had murdered her husband by poisoning him, after he had brutally ill treated her and her children. At the trial the woman said she would reserve her defence, but she was sentenced to death, and the Emperor confirmed the sentence. Yesterday the woman, whose name was Zillmann, was informed that she was to die. She had hoped to be pardoned, and burst into tears.
She was on Sunday taken to Plotzensee, where the execution took place. There she asked for coffee and a well-done beefsteak, saying, “I should like to eat as much as I like once more.” To the chaplain the woman declared her innocence to the last moment. In the night she spoke continually of her miserable married life, and of her five children. On Monday morning, however, she was quite apathetic while being prepared for the execution. Her dress was cut out at the neck down to the shoulders, and her hair fastened up in a knot, her shoulders being then covered with a shawl. At eight the inspector of the prison entered Zillmann’s cell, and found her completely prostrate, and not capable of putting one foot before the other. Two warders raised her up, and led her to the block. Without a sound she removed the shawl from her shoulders, and three minutes after eight the executioner had done his work.
On this day in 1943, a retired transport worker known only as Wilhelm H. was executed for high treason. He was seventy-four years old and had no prior criminal history.
His crime? Writing messages in a public toilet. The story of the events that lead to his death is recorded in Tom Lampert’s work of documentary history, One Life, which is the sole source for this account. Unfortunately Mr. Lampert did not disclose Wilhelm’s last name.
The story begins in August 1942, when Wilhelm wrote the following inscription in a public toilet in Berlin:
Hitler, you mass murderer, you must be murdered, then the war will be over.
Good citizens who saw the graffito promptly reported it to the authorities and it was erased. However, the exact same message appeared in the same location twice more over the next eight weeks.
On October 28, 1942, a local resident finally caught Wilhelm H. red-handed writing the subversive message on the wall, and made a citizen’s arrest.
Wilhelm initially denied having written anything and the police couldn’t find any writing implement on his person, so they were forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Two weeks later, however, when questioned again by authorities, Wilhelm admitted he had written the message. When asked why, he replied that wartime inflation had reduced his pension to a pittance. He and his wife got only 78.80 reichsmarks a month and had to pay 34.05 of that in rent.
Wilhelm held Adolf Hitler responsible for the war and hence his own privations, and as he felt incapable of action himself he resolved to call other people to rise against the Führer. He said he believed things would be better if the Führer wasn’t there anymore.
The senior district attorney turned his case over to the People’s Court, saying, “Even if the seventy-three-year-old accused does not otherwise appear to have ever engaged in harmful political activities, the suspicion that a crime has been committed here according to paragraphs 80ff. of the Penal Code [conspiracy to commit high treason] cannot be dismissed.”
During the pretrial investigation it waslearned that Wilhelm was born in Klein-Reitz in 1869. He had an elementary school education and worked as a farm laborer until the age of twenty, after which he did military service for three years. Once his term of service ended he moved to Berlin and worked for the next thirty-five years as a transport laborer. He retired on a disability pension. He had never been politically active and his neighbors described him as quiet and reclusive.
In January 1943, Wilhelm was indicted on three counts:
calling for the Fuhrer to be killed;
treasonously attempting to alter the constitution of the German Reich through violence, whereby the crime was aimed at influencing the masses by means of the written word; and,
aiding and abetting the enemy during a war against the Reich and harming the military powers of the Reich.
A physician at the Plötzensee Prison certified that Wilhelm was mentally and medically fit for trial. The trial itself, on March 8, 1943, lasted only an hour. Wilhelm was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. The court stated:
The wording of the inscription … is clear. There is nothing about the sentence or its meaning to quibble over. Given H.’s selection of a public location, the inscription must be regarded as a call on the populace to kill the Führer of the German Reich. Nor can there be any doubt about the seriousness of H.’s intentions here … as his repeated writing on the inscription demonstrates beyond any doubt.
Since H. wrote his demand quite legibly in crayon on the wall, it could be read by all German comrades visiting the toilets, and this in a neighborhood made up primarily of manual laborers. In addition, the designation of the Führer as a mass murderer and the claim that the war would be over if the Führer were dead both created the appearance of oppositional movements in the Reich and stirred up visitors of the public toilets against the Führer and his Nazi regime, inciting them to acts of violence…
And all of this because H. desired greater buying power for his pension and because he himself wanted to lead an “adequate and contented” life. H.’s old Marxist views — evident in his past votes for the Social Democratic Party — resurfaced at the moment when he believed National Socialism didn’t offer him enough for his personal needs. He has placed the life of the Führer and the fate of the entire German people at risk in a reckless and wanton manner, and all this merely for his own personal well-being. In so doing, H. has expelled himself from the community of German people, who share a common destiny, and thus passed sentence on himself. He deserves to die … The People’s Court has thus sentenced H. to death, a punishment which, given the heinousness of the crime, also takes into account popular German sentiment.
Joseph Goebbels himself, Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, voiced his support for the death sentence. Wilhelm H. was calm and did not resist when he was taken to the guillotine on May 20, 1943.
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.
The monarchist pol Goerdeler enjoys pride of place as one of the first German elites to opposite Hitler, though that opposition was not quite so early as the very beginning. Goerdeler was a creature of the pre-Nazi establishment, and shared many of perspectives that prepared that world to accommodate national socialism: Goerdeler bitterly opposed the Versailles Treaty, wanted to take a bite out of Polish territory, and had the customary strictly-within-legal-bounds anti-Semitism of his class. Even lying under sentence of death late in 1944, having denounced the Holocaust to his Gestapo interrogators, his “Thoughts of a Condemned Man” reflected,
We should not attempt to minimize what has been happening, but we should also emphasize the great guilt of the Jews, who had invaded our public life in ways that lacked all customary restraint.
A German patriot, then, committed to a “a purified Germany with a government of decent people”; a humanist Liberal from a bygone age, who had no weapons to fight a terror state.
As Mayor of Leipzig, he openly opposed the Third Reich’s excesses and pushed to moderate its policy.* In 1937 he copped a principled resignation and started cultivating contacts abroad, warning of Hitler’s aggression — also managing to impress his foreign interlocutors with his incapacity to affect events himself. His many memoranda urging Hitler to moderate this or that outrage went for naught.
The resistance circle around Goerdeler, which drew in his fellow-sufferer Popitz,** would be marked throughout the war years by that incapacity — a monument to high-minded failure, eternally short of the last ounce of will or that one key resource.
Goerdeler’s name adorned the ministry of many a fanciful post-Hitler government, but he himself, according to his friend and fellow-conspirator Gerhard Ritter, “preferred to begin with a debate rather than a power stroke”.
To be sure, the man looked in vain for some decisive form of aid: within the Reich, the sympathetic Wehrmacht brass couldn’t quite see their way to something as radical as breaking their loyalty oaths; without, he got no terms short of unconditional surrender from the Allies.
But even come the summer of 1944 when all was well past lost, Goerdeler entertained delusions of persuading Hitler to give up power voluntarily, and opposed Stauffenberg‘s assassination gambit.
Indecision would be no defense when he was hailed before bloodthirsty judge Roland Freisler for treason.
Goerdeler and Popitz, both viewed as influential with Germany’s Western enemies, were kept alive for months after the judicial purges commenced: Himmler‘s hope for a back channel deal. Our man had many hours in this Gethsemane for that essential contemplation of the 20th century.
In sleepless nights I have asked myself whether a God exists who shares in the personal fate of men. It is becoming hard to believe it. For this God must for years now have allowed rivers of blood and suffering, mountains of horror and despair for mankind … He must have let millions of decent men die and suffer without moving a finger.
We do not know what account Goerdeler gave of himself to the afterlife; even the account he left of himself for our terrestrial posterity is disputable.
“I ask the world to accept our martyrdom as penance for the German people,” he wrote in prison. Is it enough to accept for Goerdeler himself? His actions, intrepid by the standards of most countrymen, were fatally unequal to the heroism demanded of his circumstance. By any measure, his is a very human tragedy.
Carl Goerdeler’s brother Fritz shared the same fate a few weeks later. Other family members were imprisoned at Dachau; Carl’s son, Reinhard Goerdeler, became an accountant after the war and is the “G” in the big four firm KPMG.
* Including Berlin’s heretically expansionary economic policy. Goerdeler hated Keynes; his prescription for the capitalist crisis of the 1930s was falling wages, low deficits, a mighty Reichsmark, and free trade. (The April 1938 Foreign Affairs published a Goerdeler essay entitled “Do Government Price Controls Work?” Answer: no.)
It would be too much to say that Berlin’s profligacy outraged him as much as the fact that it was being squandered on dishonorable war, but said profligacy was definitely on the bill of attainder.
** Father Delp, the other man hanged this date, was involved in the resistance but even Freisler’s court decided he wasn’t in on the July 20 plot.
That designation, assigned by Nazi intelligence rather than the networks themselves, has basically stuck and colored their postwar reputation with the anti-Communist politics of the Cold War.
Red affiliations that blackened Die Rote Kapelle’s memory west of the Berlin wall were more readily embraced by the Warsaw Pact. This East German stamp also honors John Sieg, a member of the circle who committed suicide upon his arrest.
And not only in retrospect: according to Gerald Reitlinger, the capture of known lefties misbehaving became the occasion of a McCarthyesque freakout full of internal political score-settling among the Nazis.
The affair of Burgess and Maclean will give some idea what capital can be made when someone with a leftish record enters and betrays a position of trust. The emotions roused are out of all proportion to the things that have been betrayed. [German military intelligence chief Wilhelm] Canaris declared that the conspiracy had cost the lives of 200,000 German soldiers.
While the cells in France/Belgium and Switzerland also covered by the “Red Orchestra” designation look like straight NKVD espionage operations, the Berliners were apparently more of a loose network of civilian dissidents who got pulled into (amateurish) spying as a part of their variety of quixotic protests from the very citadel of the Third Reich. When not nicking sensitive documents from Schulze-Boysen’s day job and haplessly attempting to ship them to the Russians, they made futile White Rose-like gestures of conscience, like anti-Nazi placarding under the cover of darkness, and more calculated stuff, like collecting war crimes evidence in the hopes of indicting their perpetrators after the war.
Well, what is one supposed to do as an anti-Nazi in Berlin in 1941?
And what if one is in a position to answer that question with, “provide effectual aid to the enormous army poised to destroy Hitler”?
On this date in 1943, an Austrian farmer was beheaded in Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison for refusing to fight for the Third Reich.
Franz Jägerstätter, who lost his own father in World War I, was anschlussed right into the Third Reich when Germany absorbed Austria in 1938.
In Solitary Witness is the aptly-titled biography of the man; though his fatal refusal of mandatory military service (and his critique of Nazi Germany) sprang from his deep-rooted Catholicism, it was far from the norm for his German-Catholic neighbors.
“We must go courageously on the way of suffering,” he wrote, “whether we begin sooner or later.” Somewhat oddly neglected as a martyr figure in the immediate postwar period, Jagerstatter was recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI — a German himself, of course, who did not refuse his tiny measure of youthful service to the Wehrmacht in those years, and who assuredly grasps the untapped public relations potential of this compelling figure.
An icon of Franz Jagerstatter, and a naked Nazi imp.
On this date in 1941, Nazi Berlin disposed of its railway killer.
Roger Moorhouse, author of a forthcoming book about Ogorzow, tells the story of this unjustly neglected homicidal maniac on his blog, and in a BBC History Magazine interview:
Paul Ogorzow (German link) plied his trade in a city blacked-out against British bombing, but he provides an illuminating glimpse at criminal investigation.
While Ogorzow benefited from Berlin’s preternatural darkness, he didn’t go greatly out of his way to cover his tracks otherwise. At least four of his eight murders were within a mile of his house; one woman who survived his attack reported the assailant was wearing German Railways kit.
The police, prone then as now to (sometimes hastily) settle on a theory and seek evidence to confirm it, remained blind to the seemingly obvious possibility that a railway worker was the culprit … even if he also happened to be a Nazi party member in good standing.
The official fixation on Untermenschen may not be surprising given the ideological climate, but Germany had had its share of noteworthy murderers in the interwar years who were neither Jews nor foreign laborers nor British agents — the suspect profiles favored by German investigators while Ogorzow continued his killing spree.
With the slightest measure of care, the S-Bahn Murderer might have plied his hobby unmolested until the wartime manpower shortages started making him look like an attractive bit of cannon-fodder for the eastern front. Alas for him, his voracious appetite for murder — eight victims with similar m.o. in just a few months — eventually made him so obvious that even the police could no longer overlook him.
Although the government kept the crime and its unedifying investigation fairly quiet, it was known. There was even a 1944 true crime potboiler by Wilhelm Ihde (pseudonymously writing as “Axel Alt”), Der Tod fuhr im Zug (Death Rode the Train). According to Todd Herzog,
Alt’s novel is representative of the dominant tendency of the period to celebrate the work of the criminal police while avoiding any portrayal of the totalitarian apparatus that surrounded criminal politics in the Third Reich.
Little surprise there.
Alt’s novel ultimately aligns itself with [Fritz] Lang’s film [M] in showing the methodical work of professional detectives to be ineffective in capturing the modern killer and explicitly calling for … recruitment of the public to aid the police in fighting crime.