The Gestapo Has No Sense of Humor – Düsseldorf 1933

The National Socialists took control of the German government on January 30, 1933 and consolidated their power with great speed.  Political street violence had been part of German life for a long time, but the Nazis escalated that pattern rapidly and brutally, using terrorist tactics to wipe out political opposition in a matter of weeks.  My father, Johannes (1904-1977), was the first victim in our family, when he was arrested in March and imprisoned for several weeks because of his liberal politics, and my grandfather, Rudolf (1873-1953),was next when he was expelled from his professor’s position the following fall, in part because of actions he took against Nazi students.  The situation with my mother’s brothers was something else entirely.

My mother had three younger brothers who, in 1933, were in their mid-twenties. All three were good looking and charming, with cheerful dispositions and a taste for evenings with friends in the taverns of Düsseldorf’s Altstadt, taverns with names like the Golden Kettle (Im Goldenen Kessel) and Fatty’s Irish Pub, which are still popular today. On the night of Tuesday, November 7, 1933, my uncles Paul Fischer (1909-1947), a recent law graduate still in training, and Herbert Fischer (1907-1992), by day in business with his father, went out for an evening of socializing.   Their father Franz (1868-1937) and older brother Günter (1906-1979) were away on a business trip for several days.

Herbert Fischer (1907-1992). This picture was taken several years after his imprisonment by the Gestapo in 1933.

The social evening lasted until 3 :00 in the morning, when the bars closed.  Paul and Herbert, whose state after a long night of drinking can only be guessed, got into the car of a friend who drove them home.  Still joking as they tumbled out of the car, Herbert spotted a poster that had been pasted on a nearby wall and was partially coming off. Tearing the poster off the wall, Herbert crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the car at his friend saying, “Here! You can use this to clean your windshield!”  It seems that Herbert didn’t recognize the poster as Nazi propaganda, nor did he notice the Stormtrooper watching nearby.  Although lacking legal authority, the hundreds of thousands of brown-shirted Stormtroopers of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung constituted a militia of the Nazi Party and were free to attack and bully citizens  who showed any sign of dissent from the regime.  Although Herbert was non-political, the waiting Stormtrooper saw his petty vandalism as a political act and took him into custody.  Paul went along to be a witness in his brother’s defense, but soon found himself taken into custody as well.

Paul Fischer (1909-1947). This picture was taken a couple of years after his imprisonment by the Gestapo in 1933.

As Paul and Herbert got passed on from the Stormtrooper to a bicycle policeman to an automobile police squad to the police station, the story of the incident grew from a tipsy prank to an organized conspiracy against the state.  By dawn, both Herbert and Paul were arrested and imprisoned and their case turned over to the “political police,”  a part of the recently formed Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo). Apparently the fact that Paul was a lawyer in training (Referendar) increased the Gestapo’s suspicions.  The brothers were held for more than a week without charges and were subject to repeated beatings.

The day after the arrest, my grandmother and my father and mother began agitating with the police for the young men’s release.  It took three days just to identify the official with authority over Paul and Herbert’s case.  My grandmother was so desperate for her sons’ release that she forced herself to mumble “Heil Hitler!” to the police official, the only time in the entire Nazi period that she ever used that hated salutation. As my father wrote at the time, “Endless approaches, endless waiting, walking down endless corridors, daily hopes, daily disappointments, long negotiations and discussions, after the third day with the help of a lawyer.”  After a week, Paul was released with no explanation either for his arrest or his beatings or his release.  He left the city immediately to recuperate from the wounds he received in the beatings. Herbert continued to be held, inexplicably, because, as my father wrote, “He never at any time ever engaged in any political activity whatsoever.” Nevertheless, it took another week to negotiate his release, again without explanation, but, as my mother wrote, he came out “relatively undamaged.”

In the end, it all came to nothing and the brothers returned to their respective occupations.  But the reality of being arrested and beaten and held for many days for no reason was part of the atmosphere of terror that would be part of daily life in Germany for the next 12 years.

Johennes Höber’s letter to his parents telling of the Gestapo’s arrest of his brothers-in-law, Herbert Fischer and Paul Fischer, on November 8, 1933. (Deutschleser: Bitte klicken für ein größeres Bild.)

More stories about the Hoeber and Fischer families are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at Amazon.com

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4 Comments on “The Gestapo Has No Sense of Humor – Düsseldorf 1933”

  1. This is a gripping and important story, Frank. Thank you for sharing it. Before the death camps Germany looked a little bit like, well, a Trump rally.

    • Frank Hoeber says:

      Louis Greenstein: Thanks for your comment. Fortunately our situation here is quite different. We have nothing like the level of political and street violence prevalent in Germany once Hitler’s dictatorship took hold, nor hundreds of thousands of uniformed political thugs like the stormtroopers to support the regime’s most repressive measures.. And the basic institutions of our culture – judiciary, press, public speech and even the legislative branch – are functioning to maintain the stability of our system. Whatever you may think of the drastic changes in American politics this year, and the paranoid psychology that drives them, I believe that comparing our situation with that of Germany in the 1930s is inaccurate.

  2. A compelling account, Frank. A terrifying experience, but ultimately lucky in the outcome.

    • Frank Hoeber says:

      Thanks for your comment. As I write this blog, I am ever aware that, as difficult and alarming as my family’s experiences were, they were far more fortunate than millions of others in escaping Hitler’s Germany before the worst of the regime’s terror.


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