The following account is based on documents I recently received from the Schleswig-Holstein State Archives in Schleswig, Germany. I am indebted to my friend, archivist Dagmar Bickelmann, who has been endlessly helpful in locating records relating to my grandfather’s time at the University of Kiel.
My grandfather, Rudolf Höber (1873-1953), was elected Rektor (Chancellor) by the faculty of the University of Kiel in March 1930. Shortly after his installation, the university community was shaken when the local chapter of the National Socialist German Student Association forcibly disrupted a lecture by the distinguished professor of international law, Walther Schücking (1875-1935).
Schücking had served in 1918 as a German delegate to the Versailles peace conference that ended World War I. Thereafter, he became a strong advocate for the League of Nations, the international organization dedicated to ending war, and spoke often on the struggle for world peace. On Monday, May 26, 1930 he was scheduled to speak in the ceremonial hall of the Seeburg, the student center on Kiel Harbor. His lecture was entitled “The Moral Idea of the League of Nations.” The Nazis opposed the League of Nations, just as they opposed “pacifism.” They claimed that ending war and supporting the League would cause Germany to live for decades under the onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which they believed could be reversed only by a new war.
Prof. Schücking’s lecture meeting was chaired by a distinguished panel of academics and jurists. The Nazis packed the hall early, making it difficult for anyone else to find a seat. When Schücking began to speak, the Nazis interrupted his presentation, shouting insults and catcalls. His discussion of the accomplishments of the League of Nations was derided by the audience and met with raucous laughter. As Schücking continued his lecture, the disruptions got louder. During a discussion that followed Prof. Schücking’s talk, a Nazi party member, Schalow, screamed that the League was a fraud and that leaders who preached the “emasculating” doctrine of pacifism were cowards. He claimed that the presiding panel was nothing but a bunch of Jews. The panelists intervened vigorously in the debate. A jurist condemned the “murderous activities of the SA,” the Sturmabteilung or Nazi Stormtroopers who often physically assaulted their opponents. Nazis screamed that one of the panelists was a member of the Reichsbanner, a pro-democracy militia of the Social Democratic party. When it became apparent that the most disruptive speaker, Schalow, was a student, one of the professors threatened to bring him before the university disciplinary tribunal for violation of the university’s code of behavior. This temporarily brought the meeting back under control.
Near the end of his talk, Prof. Schücking spoke critically of the political ineptness and rudeness of German political fanatics. The Nazis showed their displeasure by stamping their feet so loudly that the meeting had to be brought to a close. Triumphant at having prevented Prof Schücking from finishing his lecture, the Nazi students launched into a chorus of the Horst Wessel Lied, an anthem of the Nazi Party. They finished the evening by standing, giving the Nazi salute, and shouting “Heil Hitler!” in unison. In response, someone in the audience, possibly another professor, shouted “Pfui!,” in those days roughly the equivalent of yelling “Disgusting!” Someone else in the audience – according to the Nazis, an angry “German worker,” not a student – responded by punching that person in the face. The meeting thus came to a tumultuous end.
As it happened, the Nazi student group had reserved the same room in the Seeburg student center for a meeting of their own two days later, on Wednesday, May 28. On the afternoon of the scheduled Nazi meeting, however, a notice was posted from Rektor Höber that read, “Because of the events on Monday evening … we hereby withdraw the permission previously granted for the use of the large hall for a National Socialist meeting.”
The president of the National Socialist Student Association, a student named Münske, went to the office the Rektor, who agreed to meet with him. Rektor Höber, however, refused to allow the Nazi meeting, in order to ensure there was no repetition of the violence of March 26. In a letter to Rektor Höber three days later, Münske renewed his claim that the Nazis should not be held responsible for disrupting Prof. Schücking’s lecture and should not be excluded from use of the hall in the future. Rektor Höber dictated a file memorandum noting that he would not respond to Münske’s letter, since he had discussed the matter with him on May 28. The memo included evidence showing the Nazis as a group to be responsible for breaking up the Schücking meeting.
The Schücking affair was a marker in the advance of the Nazi assault on liberalism, internationalism and academic freedom of speech. It was a precursor to the Baumgarten affair five months later, when Nazi students disrupted a sermon of the liberal theologian Otto Baumgarten, branding him a pacifist, “Jew-lover” and traitor to the nation. In response, Rektor Höber expelled the students involved and permanently banned the National Socialist German Student Group from the University campus. This action was one of the factors held against Höber when the Nazis took control of the country in 1933, leading to his expulsion from the faculty and emigration to the United States.
More stories about the Hoeber family 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
Robert Kempner was my parents’ friend and, like them, a Social Democrat and activist against the Nazi Party before 1933. Like them, he fled Germany for America before World War II. At the end of the War the U.S. government recruited Kempner, a lawyer, to be one of the lead prosecutors at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg. The fact that he was bilingual made Kempner particularly effective in cross examining the Nazi leadership. He also was a witness against Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1960.
While my parents were able to escape Germany before the War, my mother’s mother and three brothers were trapped there for the duration. After the war, communications between Americans and German nationals continued to be restricted for many months. Desperate for news about her family, and unable to communicate through civilian channels, my mother wrote to Robert Kempner in Nuremberg asking him to find out if they were alright. As a prosecutor, he had access to the American military mail system, and wrote my parents an extraordinary postcard in response. The original is preserved in my family’s papers.
The first surprising thing is that Kempner used a Nazi-era card with an Adolf Hitler postage stamp. There is great irony in the inscription on the lower left: The Führer knows only war, work and care. We want to take whatever part [of that burden] off him that we can. By the time this postcard was written, the Führer’s cares were long over, since he had killed himself more than six months earlier when the Nazis were crushed by the Allies.
The trial of Major War Criminals had begun on November 20, 1945 and would continue until the end of the next year. There was evidently a Christmas recess in the proceedings, since Kempner writes that he was on a vacation trip (!) to places like Heidelberg and Mannheim where he and my parents had been associated in anti-Nazi activities years earlier. Note, by the way, that Kempner wrote in English, even though his and my parents’ first language was German. American military censors would probably not have allowed letters through if they were written in a language other than English.
Kempner did not respond directly to my mother’s questions about her family (he probably wasn’t able to contact them) but he responded to reports of widespread starvation and freezing conditions in the war-devastated country. This was probably my mother’s biggest concern and Kempner wrote, “The Germ.[an] situation is not to [sic] bad, they need more fat and meat but they have enough bread and also enough coal for [heating] 1-2 rooms.” Overall, though, Kempner shows little sympathy for the suffering of the Germans, far too many of whom denied any involvement in the nation’s atrocities. Here is the full text of the postcard:
Dec 26Dear Elfriede and Jonny:It was very nice of Elfriede to write me. Thanks for the letter. At present I am travelling (5-6 days) for vacation, visiting Heidelberg, Mannheim, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt.The Germ. situation is not to[o] bad, they need more fat and meat but have enough bread and also coal for 1-2 rooms. Of course, they don’t like the de-nazification program. You know they all ‘had’ to join the Party, were helpful to Jews, if not having a Jewish grandmother, or at least participants of July 20, 1944, which was, if all the allegations of participation were true, a mass movement of the first rank. The Communist vote will be pretty low because of the happenings in the Russian area where fraternization without giving cigarettes is called rape. There are a lot of openings for Elfr. & Jonny but I think we better stay around Philadelphia Pa. Hope you will write me again.Yours,Robert MWK
“July 20, 1944” refers a failed attempt by eight military officers to assassinate Hitler. After the war, totally unrealistic numbers of German claimed to have supported it.
The comment about the Russians is unclear, but it was well known that the occupying Soviet Army committed massive rapes of German women, including elderly women and young girls.
Kempner’s comments about “lots of openings” refers to the fact that, as exiled Germans committed to democracy, my parents would have opportunities in a new government to be installed by the Allies — but Kempner didn’t recommend it. In any event, my parents never considered returning to the country from which they had been driven out.
It was an idiosyncrasy of Kempner’s that he addressed my father as “John” or “Jonny.” My father was adamant about not Anglicizing his name, which was Johannes. During his lifetime Robert Kempner was the only one with the temerity to address him as John.
Years later, Robert Kempner successfully sued the German government for restitution on behalf of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of victims of the Nazis, primarily in Israel and America. My parents were among the clients for whom he secured some compensation from the German authorities for the losses they had suffered.
More stories about the Hoeber family 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
To all of you who are readers of this website, and who mean so much to me:
I am pleased to let you know that my book, Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, about my parents’ flight from Germany to America just before World War II, will be published by the American Philosophical Society Press on September 1, 2015.
You are invited to join me for a reading and reception at the historic building of the American Philosophical Society adjacent to Independence Hall at 104 South 5th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 at 5:30 P.M.
In a nutshell, here’s the story of Against Time: My father, Johannes Höber, left Nazi Germany for America in November 1938. My mother, Elfriede, and my nine year old sister, Susanne, were unable to leave until nearly a year later. Fifty years later, I found an old folder containing the long letters Johannes and Elfriede exchanged during the anxious months they were separated. In these letters, Elfriede describes the worsening situation in daily life under Hitler’s regime and Johannes describes his rapid entry into American political life in Philadelphia. Against Time collects those letters with an introduction, notes and an epilogue that set the letters in the context of their time. Johannes and Elfriede were both political scientists and activist Social Democrats, so their letters are of more than just personal interest. Together, the letters tell the intense story of a remarkable couple in one of the most tumultuous periods in world history. You can learn more about the book and read excerpts and view the illustrations at www.againsttimebook.com .
Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939 is available for ordering at a pre-publication discount from the American Philosophical Society Press by clicking here . Copies are set to be shipped on September 1.
Thanks so much for your interest.
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.
Germany was in an uproar on Saturday, November 12, 1938. The nation was reeling from the events of November 9-10, events that Americans know as Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ broadest attack on the country’s Jews up to that time. During the night, storm troopers attacked and destroyed tens of thousands of Jewish homes and businesses. Thousands of Jews were “arrested” without charges and placed in prison camps. Most of the synagogues in Germany were burned in that one night. My parents, Johannes and Elfriede Höber, spent most of the night seeking out their Jewish friends and helping where they could. My father’s account of that night has already been published here in a prior post.
Weeks before Kristallnacht, Johannes and Elfriede had already decided that Hitler’s Germany had become intolerable and that they would leave if they could. Life was becoming increasingly dangerous for them. Years earlier, the Nazis had imprisoned Johannes because of his Social Democratic politics and more recently the Gestapo had interrogated him about his socialist friends. In addition, his mother’s parents were Jewish, exposing him to additional danger. Johannes and Elfriede’s original plan was for Johannes to leave in late November with Elfriede and their daughter Susanne to follow later. The events of Kristallnacht, however, caused them to change their plans and for him to leave immediately.
On Saturday morning, November 12, carrying a single suitcase, Johannes boarded a train in Düsseldorf and headed for Switzerland. He avoided talking to anyone during the nine-hour train trip, and approached the German-Swiss border toward evening. The station just inside the border, the Basel Badischer Bahnhof, has a peculiar status. Although the station is several miles inside Switzerland, a 19th century treaty provides that the tracks and arrival platforms are legally German territory. The train platforms are connected to the station by an underground pedestrian tunnel, and the German-Swiss border is in the tunnel.
Years later, Johannes described his arrival at the station and his fear as he approached the German exit checkpoint. Would he be stopped? Would the Gestapo be looking for him after they interrogated him the previous day? Would the border authorities check whether he had paid the emigration tax? Might someone have informed the border authorities about his past activities as a Social Democrat or about his Jewish grandparents? Would he be arrested as so many were on Kristallnacht two days earlier? With his anxiety built up, it almost seemed like a trick when he was allowed to pass through the German exit control without a single question. But the Swiss passport control was some 50 meters away at the opposite end of the tunnel – a kind of no man’s land separated the checkpoints. Carrying his suitcase, with his head up but with his heart pounding, he walked straight ahead, trying to look confident. Johannes told his children years later that those 50 meters were the longest walk of his life. To his immense relief, he quickly swept through the second checkpoint, out of Nazi Germany and into the security of Switzerland. He got away from the Badischer Bahnhof as quickly as he could, and took a fifteen minute tram ride to the Schweizer Bahnhof, the station for Swiss trains. There he got the train to Zürich. He was free.
The lapel pin pictured above was worn by those who supported democracy and representative government in Germany before 1933.
With the defeat of Kaiser Wilhelm’s forces at the end of World War I in 1918, Germany became a parliamentary democracy for the first time. Not everyone supported the Weimar Republic, however, which was subject to continuous attacks from both the left and the right. In 1923, there were two failed coups, one on the left by the Communists in Hamburg and another by the Nazis on the right in the attempted Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. In response to these attacks, the Social Democrats and centrist parties formed a non-partisan organization devoted to protecting the Republic. They called the organization Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold , or Black, Red and Gold National Flag, the colors of the flag of the democratic Republic. There was a civilian political wing of the Reichsbanner as well as a paramilitary wing. The latter was able to provide resistance to the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet) of the aristocrats and military, the Sturmabteilung (SA or Stormtroopers) of the National Socialists and the Rotfrontkämpferbund (Red Front Fighters Brigade) of the Communist Party.
Both my grandfather Rudolf Höber , a Liberal, and my father Johannes, a Social Democrat, became members of the Reichsbanner. They undoubtedly wore the pin of the organization, publicly declaring their support for democracy and against dictatorship. My father later became a member of the paramilitary wing and was more than once involved in violent conflicts with Nazis in the months before they took over the government.
After the Nazis were given control of Germany in January 1933, the Reichsbanner was quickly suppressed and past membership became a basis for persecution. My grandfather’s membership in the Reichsbanner was one reason cited by the Nazis in expelling him from his position as Professor of Physiology at the University of Kiel. My father was dismissed from his job in the government of the city of Mannheim and arrested. With experiences like these, all evidence of the Reichsbanner quickly vanished. Although there had been hundreds of thousands of members in 1931 and 1932, anyone associated with the organization quickly divested themselves of any evidence of their membership, including their membership pins. As a result, the pins, these symbols of freedom and democracy, nearly disappeared.
But I have one. My Dresden friend Achim, who has appeared in these posts several times, is a researcher and archivist of exceptional skill. He recently found one of the few surviving Reichsbanner pins, 80 years after the organization was crushed by the Nazis. Knowing that I would value this memento more than almost anyone, Achim sent it to me for Christmas. It is a rare gift in every sense.
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.