Picking Fights with Nazis — 1928

Johannes Höber was  a little guy but he had a very self-confident manner.  This picture was taken a couple of years before the Torchlight Parade conflict.

Johannes Höber was a little guy but he had a very self-confident manner. This picture was taken a couple of years before the Torchlight Parade conflict.

My father was a troublemaker.  Johannes Höber was raised in an upper-middle-class liberal German academic family, but when he was at the university he got bitten by the bug of Socialism and became an aggressive advocate for the working class.  In 1928, he became head of the  Socialist Student Association at the University of Heidelberg. He promptly started poking his adversaries with a sharp stick.

Student politics at the university reflected the national turmoil that rattled German political life through the 1920s.  Student political groups ranged from Communists and Socialists on the left, to centrist liberals and Catholic democrats in the center, to nationalists, aristocrats, militarists and Nazis on the right.  Many conservative students from the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie joined Heidelberg’s famous dueling fraternities with their quaint uniforms and scarred faces. In this political stew, the Student Senate (Allgemeine Studentensusschuz) became the battleground on which ideological differences were played out.  Johannes fomented one of these battles in an argument known as the Fackelzugangelegenheit, or the Torchlight Parade Affair.  The occasion was the inauguration of a new chancellor, or Rektor,of the University.

For centuries it was a tradition at Heidelberg for the fraternities, religious groups and other student associations to celebrate the installation of a new Rektor with a nighttime torchlight parade through the city of Heidelberg to the old castle above the town, which would be illuminated for the occasion.

Heidelberg Castle illuminated for a celebration in 2010.  This is what it would have looked like when celebrating the installation of a new Rektor in the 1920s.

Heidelberg Castle illuminated for a celebration in 2010. This is what it would have looked like when celebrating the installation of a new Rektor in the 1920s.

When a new Rektor was appointed to take office in the fall of 1928, the Student Senate met to plan the celebration and the Torchlight Parade.  The ancient fraternities announced they would parade in their uniforms as they always had, and the religious associations would march with their banners.   In the midst of the planning, Johannes announced that the Socialist Student Association would also march in the parade.  The Socialists would carry torches like all the other groups, but their contingent would be headed  by a a student carrying large red flag, the banner of revolutionary international socialism.  His statement threw the meeting into chaos.  How could Herr Höber make such a suggestion?  How could he think of politicizing this ancient celebration?  How could he speak of desecrating the university’s traditions by introducing the red flag, the symbol of the working class and the violent overthrow of the established order?  Why was he threatening to disrupt the traditional torchlight parade?  What was such a radical doing in the Heidelberg Student Senate in the first place?  Johannes was insistent.  The Socialists had as much right to march as the Catholics or the fraternities or anyone else — they were students and part of the university and they stood on their right to participate.  Showing a mix of principle and foolhardiness, Johannes and his supporters stood their ground through round after round of debate and harangue.  He argued legalistically, he argued passionately, he argued unreasonably — but he did not yield on his position.  Finally, when the very long and loud argument was at a total stalemate, a group of right wing students called for a caucus.  After rather a long break, the right wing students returned to the Student Senate’s meeting hall.  A spokesman announced that they would resolve the conflict by — cancelling the parade!  New uproar!  After a rapidly called caucus with his supporters, Johannes, realizing he had been outmaneuvered, immediately announced a retreat, and said the Socialist Student Association wanted the parade to continue at all costs, and would even withdraw their participation if that’s what it took.  But the right wingers persisted.  The parade was cancelled, and for years thereafter the Socialist Student Association was tarred with the responsibility for the cancellation of the Torchlight Parade for the first time in anyone’s memory.

Minutes of the Student Senate meeting of July 24, 1928 in which Johannes Höber announced that the Socialist Students Association would march with a red flag in the ceremonial torchlight parade. The minutes were published in the university newspaper.

Minutes of the Student Senate meeting of July 24, 1928 in which Johannes Höber announced that the Socialist Students Association would march with a red flag in the ceremonial torchlight parade. The minutes were published in the university newspaper.

It was a bad loss for Johannes, and it got worse.  A few days after the fateful Student Senate meeting, Johannes went into a student hangout, the old tavern Zum Ritter,  for a drink.  A large drunken crowd of fraternity men and Nazis filled the bar.  One of them spotted Johannes and restarted the arguments and fights of the Student Senate debate.  The argument and shouting quickly escalated.  Suddenly, someone threw a punch at Johannes and lots of others joined in.  He was badly beaten and thrown out of the bar into the street.  It was a painful and humiliating defeat.

Hotel and tavern "Zum Ritter" in Heidelberg.  In the 1920s it was a favored hangout for the fraternities and for Nazis.

Hotel and tavern “Zum Ritter” in Heidelberg. In the 1920s it was a favored hangout for ultra-conservative fraternities and Nazis.

Johannes did not stop resisting the Nazis until their lethal hold on Germany in the 1930s made resistance suicidal.  But forty years later he could tell the story of being beaten and  thrown out of Zum Ritter and convey vividly the terror of that assault.

Advertisements

Thousands of Letters, 1839-2013

Berlin, August 14, 1839.  Letter from brothers Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim and August Oppenheim to their parents in Frankfurt, congratulating them on my great-great grandparents' engagement.

Berlin, August 14, 1839. Letter from brothers Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim and August Oppenheim to their parents in Frankfurt, congratulating them on my great-great grandparents’ engagement. (Click for a larger image.)

Since I started this website two years ago, I have published 41 stories here.  To my astonishment, they have been read by hundreds of people in more than 50 countries.  I have had just under 10,000 hits, far more than I anticipated when I started.  I also did not anticipate that I would become friends with readers previously unknown  to me who discovered the stories here:  ocarina players in Indonesia who connected to the story of my grandfather Rudolf’s ocarina; a Swiss historian writing about the descendants of Moses Mendelssohn, one of whom was the wife of my great uncle Eduard; members of the medical faculty at the University of Erlangen in Bavaria, who were excited to find the portraits of Isidor Rosenthal and Anna Hoeber Rosenthal, who left their mark on that city; and my now-good-friend Phil White of Olathe, Kansas, who is writing a book about the Truman campaign my father worked on.

All of the stories on this website are made possible because of the Höber/Hoeber family’s mania over several generations for saving letters and other paper records.  The earliest letter in the collection was written 174 years ago by Heinrich and August Oppenheim, my great-great grandmother’s brothers, who were congratulating their parents on their sister’s engagement to my great-great grandfather.  The collection also includes love letters my great-grandparents exchanged daily in Berlin in the 1860s.  The collection includes every income tax return my parents filed from 1939 to 1999.  There are my grandparents’ photograph albums from the early 20th century in Zürich  and professional papers my parents wrote from 1940 to 1980.  The variety of material is dizzying. Together, this archive tells the story of a  family that made a mark in business, science and progressive politics in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then started all over again in the United States.

Berlin , 1867-1880, letters from my great-grandmother, Marie Marx, to her husband, Jakob.

Berlin , 1867-1880, letters from my great-grandmother, Marie Marx, to her husband, Jakob. (Click for a larger image.)

Johannes Hoeber's income tax return, 1942.

Johannes Hoeber’s income tax return, 1942. (Click for a larger image.)

Organizing and preserving these family papers has taken years.  I had to study German to be able to read some of the complex papers, and I have translated many documents into English so they are accessible to readers here.  Physically arranging the papers so things could be found was a substantial task.  They are now housed in archival manuscript boxes and filed in acid-free folders so they will be preserved for the future.  The papers have been partially indexed, but I still have work to do in this area.

One of more than 60 archive boxes in which the Hoeber papers are housed.

One of more than 60 archive boxes in which the Hoeber papers are housed.

Eventually I will place the collection of these papers with a large historical manuscript archive here in Philadelphia.  In the meantime, I will continue to write stories based on these letters for you, my kind readers.

The Hoeber Papers, 2013

The Hoeber Papers, 2013