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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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 Amazon.com


Witness to Kristallnacht — November 9, 1938

Johannes U. Hoeber's eyewitness account of Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938.

Johannes U. Hoeber’s eyewitness account of Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. (Click image for larger view.)

JUH account scan part 2

The following is the unedited account by my father, Johannes U. Hoeber, of what he experienced on the night of November 9-10, 1938 in the large north German city of Düsseldorf . 

Wednesday November 9, 1938.  The Nazis had been celebrating that day, as every year, the anniversary of Hitler’s 1923 putsch.  That night an old friend of ours had come to see us.  We had been associated in the early days of the Third Reich in some underground activities, trying to build out of the remainders of the Catholic, liberal, Socialist and Communist opposition a group of resistance against the rising tide of Fascist tyranny.  He had been caught in 1934 circulating illegal leaflets and sentenced to 18 months hard labor.  He had served his term and now lived in a small village far remote from his former center of activities.  He rarely could risk to come to see us, because no Gestapo agent would have believed either him or us that we would talk anything but politics.  Only a few weeks before he and we had again been subject to a Gestapo investigation and therefore had to be more on our guard than ever before.

The conversation had centered around the recent political events, Chamberlain’s Munich surrender and its repercussions on Germany’s internal policy.  Munich undoubtedly had bolstered the regime’s declining morale and everybody viewed with alarm the reviving arrogance of the Nazis after a period of relative moderation.  Incidentally our friend told us that he had heard on his way to our house that Herr vom Rath, secretary of the Paris German embassy, who had been shot by a young Polish Jew, driven to despair by the treatment of his parents by the Nazis, had died that afternoon.  We did not discuss the implications of this news item.  Not because we did not fear them.  But in the past six years of our life under the Nazi government we had developed a habit that might be called a technique of mental self defense:  not to speculate on the possibilities of disaster implied in any news, before we were confronted with this disaster and could cope with the concrete emergency by concrete maneuvers.  No one of our company that night was Jewish but we all had some very close Jewish friends.  I myself have some Jewish ancestors, not enough to make me subject to the humiliating clauses of the infamous Nüremberg laws, yet enough to brand me as a second class citizen in the Germany of today, the Germany of the Bohemian born Hitler, the Egyptian born Hess and the Baltic born Rosenberg.

The possible consequences of vom Rath’s death were uppermost in my mind, when I drove to the station at about 11 p.m. to mail some letters.  [Illegible] in the streets I noticed an unusually large number of brownshirts.  First I thought they were on their way home from some of the day’s celebrations.  Then I noticed that they did not go in the direction of the residential quarters but hurried towards the center of the city.  So, on my way home, I drove through some of the main thoroughfares of the downtown business section and found on two different places brownshirts gathering quietly in front of Jewish business establishments.  I went home and without telling my wife what I had seen offered our friend who had to leave at midnight to drive him to the station and asked my brother in law to accompany us.  After having dropped our friend at the station we hastily drove downtown.  We had not to drive very far to find what we had anticipated.  In front of a large shoe-store, owned by a Jewish woman whose husband had been killed in action in the world war and who therefore, despite of six years of Nazi boycott, had still one of the largest businesses in the field, a detachment of brown shirts had assembled.  We just came in time to see two of them starting – on a given signal – to break the shop windows.  This done they forced the entrance and the whole group rushed into the store.  It was one of those modern outfits with plenty of glass, attractive wood paneling on the walls, every shelf full of shoe-boxes.  Twenty minutes later it was so completely devastated that no bombshell could have done a more thorough job.  No piece of glass, no piece of wood was unbroken.  The carpets were cut up, the lamps torn from ceiling and walls, shelves, tables, chairs smashed to pieces.  The problem to destroy thousands of shoes in a hurry otherwise than by fire had been solved in an ingenious way:  they had been strewn all over the place and then oil paint had been poured over and into them.  When they had finished their job the wrecking crew on the blow of a whistle assembled in front of the store, in a line two deep, stood at attention in perfect military discipline, drilled into them by endless training, and marched off.

We got into our car and drove on.  A few blocks away we encountered another group of stormtroopers looting a fashionable lady’s outfit store.  This was on our city’s “Fifth Avenue” and the wrecking crew corresponded to the distinction of the district.  Our city is the seat of a higher district leader of the Nazi party.  Every such district leader has a staff of his own and a body guard of his own whose members are easily recognized by red squares on the lapels of their brown uniform coats.  The squad that wrecked this store was composed almost entirely out of members of the district leader’s staff and body guard under the personal command of a well known Nazi-Lawyer and S.A. officer.  A few yards away a police car with two higher police officers was parked at the curb.  The two officers watched with apparent interest the work of destruction carried out under the leadership of the chief aide of their superior.

The next time we stopped in front of a tailor’s workshop.  Here a particular problem presented itself to the wrecking crew:  how to destroy the stock of bolts of cloth.  It was solved no less efficiently than the shoe problem had been solved:  one man unrolled the bale and another poured ink over it from one end to the other.  Then they left it lying in the street.

After an hour of driving around town we were convinced that not one single Jewish business in [Düsseldorf ] would survive that night and that more than a hundred thousand people would have to pay for one man’s act of despair with the destruction of their lives’ work and their basis of existence.

What happened during the next hour, however, outgrew the wildest anticipations any one of us, trained by six years’ lessons of terror and used to incredible brutalities, had ever entertained.  At 1.30 A.M. we stopped in front of an apartment house, because we noticed two SA sentries guarding the house-door.  On the opposite pavement stood a small group of civilians looking at a brightly lighted apartment on the fourth floor.  We joined them and asked one of them what were going on.  “They are revenging von Rath” he said.  “Which firm has its offices up there?” I asked.  “That is no office, that is a private apartment occupied by a Jewish tenant.”  Before we could continue our conversation one of the S.A. sentries came across the street and ordered us to move on.  A few seconds later the windows of the apartment came down in splinters and one after the other the lights went out in the apartment, the last one being a large crystal lamp that we saw wildly swinging up and down before we heard it crashing to the ground.

Then panic gripped us. …

The account ends here. Johannes and my mother, Elfriede, spent the rest of the night and the next day helping rescue friends and neighbors whose homes had been attacked.  Then, three days later, Johannes fled to Switzerland and from there to America.

November 9th this year [2013] marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis launched the most vicious attacks to that point against Germany’s Jews and their businesses, homes and synagogues.   This account, written in English in a tiny, painstaking script on small sheets of tablet paper, was discovered among Johannes’ papers in May 1989, 22 years after he died and some 50 years after he wrote it.  

Johannes U. Hoeber, 1938

Johannes U. Hoeber, 1938

NOTE ON THE TERM “KRISTALLNACHT”: In Germany, the events described here are known as Reichspogromnacht, or the night of the pogrom of the Third Reich.  The term Kristallnacht suggested the breaking of crystal, implying that the Jewish victims that night were wealthy.  The current usage in Germany avoids that derogatory stereotype.  I have nevertheless used the term “Kristallnacht” in this English version because the events are still known by that term in 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


Confronted by the Nazis — 1930 – 1933

Rudolf Höber (1873-1952).  Picture taken around the time he served as Chancellor of the University of Kiel.

Rudolf Höber (1873-1952). Picture taken around the time he served as Chancellor of the University of Kiel.

My grandfather, Rudolf  Höber, was a gentle soul.  Although he was a hard-driving, extremely serious scientist, he was much beloved by his students in the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel, in northern Germany.  They admired his sweet disposition and his passion for the exquisite objects of study in the world of natural science.     But my Opa Rudi could also be a fighter when someone tried to interfere with teaching or research.

In 1930, three years before Hitler took over Germany, Rudolf  Höber served a term as Chancellor of the University of Kiel.  In October of that year, a group of Nazi students tried to prevent liberal theologian Otto Baumgarten from lecturing at Kiel because he was a “pacifist” and “Jew-lover.”  Rudolf expelled the Nazi ringleaders from the University for their interference with academic freedom.  These expulsions led to nationwide demonstrations by right wing students calling for Rudolf’s ouster from from the University — but he persevered in his teaching.

“Baumgarten and the National Socialists,” a report containing Rudolf Höber’s order expelling Nazi students from the University of Kiel, 1930.

A little over two years after this incident, in January 1933, the Nazis took complete control of Germany.  One of Hitler’s first assaults was against thousands of the most prominent professors at the country’s vast university system on the ground that they were either Jews or political opponents of the Nazis.  Rudolf was one of the early targets of Hitler’s thugs.

A group of Stormtroopers, Hitler's jackbooted paramilitaries.  They were also called Brownshirts because of their uniforms.  In German they were known as the Sturmabteilung or SA.

A group of Stormtroopers, Hitler’s jackbooted paramilitaries.
They were also called Brownshirts because of their uniforms. In German they were known as the Sturmabteilung or SA.

Troops of the SS or Schutzstafel.  They were much more disciplined and much more dangerous than the Stormtroopers of the SA.

Troops of the SS or Schutzstafel. They were more disciplined and dangerous than the Stormtroopers of the SA.

On April 24, 1933, Rudolf was administering examinations to a group of premedical students in the Anatomy Building at the University of Kiel.  During a break, he was returning to his residence when he was accosted by a group of Nazis who threatened to kill him unless he abandoned his post as a teacher.  Here is his report to the Provost of the University:

Kiel, April 24, 1933

To His Excellency the Provost of the University of Kiel.

Your Excellency:

In accordance with our discussion, I am submitting this report to you concerning the events of this morning.  This morning, as chairman of the Examination Commission for the premedical examination, I was present in the Anatomy Building as proctor for a makeup examination.  On my way home I was accosted on Hegewisch Street [where I live] by five SS and SA men and two civilians who told me in the coarsest possible terms that if I did not want to endanger my life I had to keep out of the classrooms and laboratories of the Institute and that I no longer had the right to administer examinations.  They talked about the use of hand grenades, about the need to comply with their demands, about the use of force and things like that.  When I replied that as chair [of the Examination Commission] I also had to participate in other examinations, I was forced to return to the Anatomy Building, escorted by the troops, in order to share the prohibition orally with Professor Benninghoff and the remaining four examinees in the remaining four institutes.

In the Anatomy Building the people around Professor Benninghoff realized gradually that this oral announcement was meaningless, and therefore accompanied me to the Physiological Institute and left me at my residence.  In the meantime, the following had taken place in the Institute:  about 30 SS people filled the corridor.  They accused Assistant Professor Dr. Netter of being a Jew; the same thing happened shortly after that with Professor Mond.  In addition, they issued an order that these men were no longer allowed to administer any examinations either.

          I immediately notified Police Chief Count Rantzau by telephone, who promised me to pursue the matter and inform me of the result this afternoon.

                                                  s/ Höber

Copy of Rudolf Höber's report to the Provost of the University of Kiel, April 24, 1933. Obtained from Rudolf's personnel file in the Prussian Secret State ARchives in Berlin.

Copy of Rudolf Höber’s report to the Provost of the University of Kiel, April 24, 1933. Obtained from Rudolf’s personnel file in the Prussian Secret State Archives in Berlin.

There is no record of what action, if any Count Rantzau took, but Rudolf defied the threats of the SA and the SS and returned to his classroom and laboratory within a matter of days.  He continued teaching for several months more, and his students loyally attended his lectures despite the threats.  This situation couldn’t last, however, as the Nazis tightened their grip on the nation and the German people.  In November 1933, Rudolf was permanently dismissed from his professorship.  Unable to continue his research and teaching in Germany, he, like so many other brilliant scientists, emigrated, first to England and then to the United States.  In 1934 he was appointed Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he continued his pioneering work in physiology until a few years before his death in 1952.

Rudolf Höber in his laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1934

Rudolf Höber in his laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1934

After World War II and the defeat of the Nazis, the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel was renamed the Rudolf Höber House and a street through the University campus still bears his name.