How Tyranny Begins

Seeburg Student Center, University of Kiel, where Nazi students prevented the lecture of Prof. Walther Schuecking, May 26, 1930.

Seeburg Student Center, University of Kiel, where Nazi students prevented the lecture of Prof. Walther Schücking , May 26, 1930.

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.

Clipping from Nazi newspaper boasting about suppressing academic freedom by disrupting Prof. Schücking's speech. Schleswig-Holsteinische Tageszeitung, 31 May 1930.

Clipping from Nazi newspaper boasting about suppressing academic freedom by disrupting Prof. Schücking’s speech. Schleswig-Holsteinische Tageszeitung, 31 May 1930.

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.”

Rudolf Höber, Professor of Physiology, University of Kiel. He was actually a more cheerful and charming person than this rather serious picture shows him to be.

Rudolf Höber, Professor of Physiology and Rektor of the University of Kiel, around the time he banned the Nazi party from the University because of its disruption of free speech.

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.

Rektor Rudolf Höber's memo concerning the Nazi attack on Prof. Schuecking, 7 June 1930.

Rektor Rudolf Höber’s memo concerning the Nazi attack on Prof. Schücking, 7 June 1930.

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

Proud Memento of Resistance to Tyranny

Membership Pin, Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, before 1933

Membership Pin, Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, before 1933

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.

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.

Johannes Höber “Taken into Protective Custody” by the Nazis, March 13, 1933

Report of Johannes Höber’s Arrest by the Nazis, Mannheimer Tageblatt, 13 March 1933

The newspaper article pictured above comes from the Mannheimer Tageblatt, one of the major newspapers of Mannheim, a city of half a million people.  Dated March 13, 1933, the article reads as follows:


The Police Report states: Over the course of the last several days the following leaders of the SPD [Sozialistisches Partei Deutschland, or German Social Democratic Party] were taken into protective custody:

    • City Division President and State Representative Ernst Kraft,
    • Division Leader of the Reichsbanner [SPD militia] Dr. Helffenstein, dentist,
    • Dr.Höber, member of the Divisional leadership of the Reichsbanner [SPD militia],
    • District Councillors Werner and Meier and neurologist Dr. Stern.

Protective custody was imposed on Mayor Dr. Heimerich at Theresa Hospital, where he is presently located.

The following individuals upon whom protective custody has been imposed have not been located: Senator Roth, State Representative Reinhold, the editor Harpuder, the editor Dr. Schifrin, attorney Dr. Kirschner, and reporter Diamant.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.  In the rigged Reichstag election of March 5, the Nazis received a plurality (though not a majority)  of the votes cast and declared themselves rulers of the nation.  In the wake of this takeover of the national government, state and local Nazi groups attacked the seats of government in state capitols and cities throughout the country.  On March 8, local Nazis, supported by armed Storm Troopers and SS squads, forcefully drove the elected officials of Mannheim out of the city hall, burned the flag of the democratic Weimar republic in the city’s main square, and hoisted the Swastika banner on the city hall.

Johannes Höber, 29, was a promising young member of Mayor Hermann Heimerich’s Socialist administration when the Nazis seized control of the city.  He was also an activist in the German Socialist Party (Sozialistische Partei Deutschland, or SPD) and the Reichsbanner, the Socialist Party militia formed to protect Socialists from Nazi Stormtroopers.  Johannes’ “protective custody” in the city jail lasted five weeks.  At one point, Johannes and the other Socialists asked to be released.  In response, the Nazis took them to a balcony overlooking the courtyard of the jail, where a prearranged crowd of brown shirted Storm Troopers screamed for their blood, purportedly justifying the prisoners’ continued detention.

After he had been held for some time, Johannes’ father, Rudolf Höber, a professor of physiology at the University of Kiel, travelled to Mannheim to talk to the Nazi leadership there.  Rudolf negotiated a deal under which Johannes agreed to leave Mannheim and never return in exchange for his release from “protective custody.”  He and his wife, Elfriede, and his daughter, Susanne, moved to the north German city of Düsseldorf, where they lived for five years before emigrating to the United States.  In fact, Johannes did not return to Mannheim for 28 years.

Rathaus (City Hall) in Mannheim where Johannes Hoeber worked and was later imprisoned by the Nazis