Picking Fights with Nazis — 1928Posted: September 30, 2013 | |
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.
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.
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.
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.