Revolutionary Politician — Great-great Uncle Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim (1819-1880)

Doctor of Law degree granted to Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim by the Univeristy of Heidelberg, 20 March 1839.

Doctor of Law degree granted to Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim by the University of Heidelberg, March 20, 1839.

In the extensive archive of my family’s papers, I found the University of Heidelberg law degree bestowed on my great-great-grandmother’s brother, Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim. This was in 1839 and he was just 19.  Although he taught law for a time, Heinrich was denied a position as a professor of law because he was Jewish. Later, however, his legal training enabled him to become a well-known journalist and commentator for liberal and left radical causes for nearly 40 years.

As a young man, Heinrich was a member of the intellectual and literary circle around  Countess Bettina von Arnim in Berlin.  Although he was short and had an odd voice and accent, he was known as a great conversationalist and a man of “uncommon wit” (Carl Schurz).  His boyish appearance and sparkling talk made him a favorite with women. In the von Arnim salon he befriended some of the leading European thinkers and progressive political figures of the day. For a time he shared rooms with theologian Abraham Geiger, one of the prime founders of Reform Judaism, and he was good friends with the young Karl Marx.

In March 1848, Heinrich participated in the political uprising in Berlin in a failed attempt to wrest a more democratic form of government from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia.  He addressed several of the mass demonstrations in the Tiergarten park in the Prussian capitol. Later in 1848, Heinrich fled to the southern Duchy of Baden where he continued his revolutionary activities with a left extremist wing led by Gustav Struve in Karlsruhe and Lörrach.

Declaration of the short-lived German Republic by Gustav Struve, Lörrach in the Duchy of Baden, September 21, 1848. Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim was was one of the leaders of this attempt to establish a constitutional form of government.

Declaration of the short-lived German Republic by Gustav Struve, Lörrach in the Duchy of Baden, September 21, 1848. Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim was was one of the leading voices in this failed attempt to establish a constitutional form of government.

In July 1849, the Baden revolution collapsed and Heinrich was driven into an 11-year exile in Switzerland, France, Belgium and England. He was unable to return to Germany until 1861. During his political exile, he continued to publish pro-democracy commentary, much of it in French.

Revue Germanique, Paris 1858 inclding articles by Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim

Revue Germanique, Paris 1858, including articles by Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim

 

Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim,, Letters on Modern Historians of GErmany, 1858

Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim, “Letters on Modern German Historians,” Revue Germanique, Paris, 1858.

When he was finally able to return to Germany, Heinrich continued his liberal political writing.  In 1879-80 he earned recognition for his articulate opposition to a sudden onslaught of antisemitism led by the prominent historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Oppenheim’s articles targeted the attacks as a political strategy of conservatives to discredit governmental reforms being pressed by liberal activists, many of whom were Jews.

Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim's rebuke to the notorious anti-Semites Heinrich von Treitschke and Adolf Stöcker, Die Gegenwart, January 1880.

Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim’s rebuke to the notorious antisemites Heinrich von Treitschke and Adolf Stöcker, Die Gegenwart, Berlin, January 1880.

On March 29, 1880, a few weeks after publishing his rebuke to the Berlin antisemites, Heinrich died of a chronic lung ailment .  His funeral was attended by many representatives of the Berlin news corps as well as liberal political activists from all over Germany.  Shortly thereafter, his colleagues published a long pamphlet collecting numerous speeches about him and the obituaries published in the many newspapers in Germany.  The pamphlet contains the only known portrait of Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim.

Memorial brochure of tributes to Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim, Berlin, 1880.

Memorial brochure of obituaries and tributes by public figures dedicated to Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim, Berlin, 1880.

The funeral for Heinrich took place in his home in Berlin and a long procession accompanied his casket to the Schönhauser Allee cemetery.  In December of that year, the family arranged for the erection of a grave monument of pink granite.  My family’s papers includes the original text of the gravestone inscription, written by the liberal political leader Ludwig Bamberger.

Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim's grave inscription written by Ludwig Bamberger, 1880.

Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim’s grave inscription written by Ludwig Bamberger, 1880.

“In memory of Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim, born Frankfurt a/M 20 July 1819, died Berlin 29 March 1880.

True and good of heart, strong and bright in spirit, always a ready fighter, always a helping friend, expert in learning and life, compassionate to the least of men, faithful to the greatest of men, willingly accepting and even more willingly giving all that a man can give, thus he worked for his country, thus he lived for others to his last breath, thus unforgettable, irreplaceable, he lives in the memory of his family and his friends.”

Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim's grave (left), Schönhauserallee Cemetery, Berlin. The grave of his sister Amalia, my great-great grandmother, is on the right.

Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim’s grave (left), Schönhauserallee Cemetery, Berlin. The grave of his sister Amalia, my great-great grandmother, is on the right.

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

 

 


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.