Throwing a Pistol in the Rhine — 1933Posted: January 20, 2015 | |
When the Nazis took control of the city of Mannheim in March 1933, they arrested the top Social Democratic leaders in the city government, including my father, Johannes Höber. They kept him in what they called “protective custody” for five weeks, as previously narrated on this website here. In the months before the takeover, Johannes had been involved in the militia arm of the pro-democracy coalition Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold. I previously wrote about that anti-Nazi paramilitary force here. As part of his involvement in the activities of the Reichsbanner, Johannes bought a pistol that he took on forays with other Social Democrats to disrupt Nazi meetings. My father was a little guy and descended from a well-to-do family of serious intellectuals and scientists. He never seemed to me the kind of man who would engage in this kind of reckless activity, but my mother’s head-shaking bewilderment when she told me about it made it clear the story was true.
My mother, Elfriede Höber, was a committed pacifist and disapproved of my father’s heroics with the Reichsbanner and especially disliked his keeping a gun in the house. Even decades later, in America, there was a notable tension between them on the one or two occasions when the story came up.
When Johannes was jailed by the Nazis, Elfriede was left at home alone with their little girl, Susanne, then 3. The pistol was hidden in a stack of bed sheets in the linen closet of their apartment. In the early days of the new regime, no one knew what to expect of the Nazis, but Elfriede feared they might come and search the house for contraband after Johannes’ arrest. Terrified that the Nazis would consider the gun proof that Johannes was an enemy of the regime, Elfriede decided she must get rid of it. But how? The solution that came to her was the bridge across the Rhine River, which had been rebuilt and dedicated in a ceremony just a few months earlier.
To support her, Elfriede asked her best friend, Marianne Daniels, to go with her to get rid of Johannes’ gun. The two young women retrieved the pistol from its hiding place in the linen closet and placed it in a plain paper bag. At night, the two walked out into the dark city, anxious that they might be stopped by a roving squad of storm troopers. After walking for half an hour along the bank of the Rhine, however, they reached the dark bridge unmolested. Hearts pounding, they walked out to the middle of the span and dropped the bag with the gun over the railing. It disappeared into the black waters of the Rhine. For the moment, that peril was out of the picture.
Postscript: Readers of this blog may remember that my dear friend Achim in Dresden has shown astonishing skill in recovering rare items related to my family’s history. This year Achim found an extremely rare copy of the program from the ceremony on November 19, 1932 dedicating the newly reconstructed bridge at Mannheim, where Elfriede later got rid of the pistol. The program book was produced by the Press Office of the City of Mannheim, which Johannes headed at the time.