Tuesday 23 April 2013

Denounced by Leslie Wilson

This is a photocopy of a letter written eighty years ago this week, denouncing my grandfather, Lieutenant Bernhard Rösel, of the Zabrze-Hindenburg police force in Upper Silesia, to the new Nazi authorites in Germany. It was written by his superior officer, First Lieutenant Goede, (who  sat on the commission that tried his case.) The story I have to tell is mainly based on his police file, which I read in the German Federal Archive and then had photocopied. I wrote an article about it years ago in the London Review of Books (the link is at the end of this blog piece).

My grandfather had belonged to a kind of police trades union, the Schrader League (now the official association of the Saxon police force), which had a Social Democratic orientation. His crime was that he had refused to apply to join the Nazi-oriented Police Officers' Association when Goede had invited him to before Hitler came to power, but preferred to remain in the Schrader League. 
My young grandparents on their wedding day

After the Reichstag Fire, the Nazis were rounding up Social Democrats and taking them to so-called 'wild' concentration camps, along with the Communists. This was the first great purge of Nazi Germany and many of its victims died in those camps. The Schrader League was therefore closed down, and its former members would have good reason to feel terrified. But colleagues of my grandfather who were already members of the Nazi police officers's association (which was now the only possible police association) suggested he should apply to join. 

He grasped at this lifeline and applied. Goede spoke against him, quoting Rösel's earlier turn-down, and said he had only joined because the Nazis were now in power, therefore he wasn't suitable to join. However, the other police officers wanted Rösel in (he was always respected and liked by his colleagues) and he was admitted to the POA.

The next item in the file is a transcript of a statement by a police constable called Kullik, who was hauled in to answer accusations relating to a conversation he was supposed to have had with my grandfather in 1931. There seem to be two documents missing, as Goede's denunciation is 003 and Kullik's statement is 004. It is clear that Kullik was answering accusations my grandfather was supposed to have made against him. Now, when I wrote about this for LRB, I assumed that my grandfather had denounced Kullik, maybe to get in before Kullik could speak against him. I didn't like that, but, it has to be said, I didn't much like my grandfather (see the personality of Hanno's father in Last Train from Kummersdorf) and was perhaps unfairly inclined to think he had done such a thing.

Now, reading the documents again, this seems less clear. There is no written denunciation from my grandfather, and it seems possible, on re-reading, that my grandfather and Kullik had had this dangerous conversation and someone else reported it to the Nazi authorities. Perhaps he was hauled in for questioning and told that Kullik had made allegations against him, whereat he came out with what Kullik had actually said.  

I do believe that my grandfather did in truth say he couldn't understand how Goede could belong to the Nazi party, and called him that wonderful word 'Gesinnungslump' (ideological slob). It's just the kind of word he loved to use. Then Kullik apparently said that if Goede led the Nazis in an attempt to gain control of the police station (which would hardly have been unlikely in that era of street-fighting and imminent civil war) Kullik would have been the first to shoot a bullet into his belly. Kullik then said that my grandfather totally agreed with this. My grandfather's answer, when he was then read Kullik's statement, was that he had never said any of these things, and that he had always tried to remain politically neutral as a police officer. But had the Nazis attempted a coup in 1932, to fight them off would have been the duty of a politically neutral police officer.

There had also been an article in the Ostfront (a Nazi Upper Silesian daily paper) in early 1933, complaining that there had been a Communist meeting in Biskupitz (now Biskupice, a district of Zabrze) and saying that the local police clearly didn't realise there had been a 30th January (the date of Hitler coming to power). According to one Senior Constable Franz Rückert, he mentioned this to my grandfather, who remarked, perfectly correctly at the time, 'that the meeting had been authorised, and if the National Socialists had tried to break up an authorised meeting, they should have been controlled with truncheon blows.' This remark, again, was not dangerous at the time - but by the date Rückert was interviewed, the 24th July, not only the Communist party, but also the Social Democratic party had been forbidden. 

The investigators: Captain Bär and First
Lieutenant Goede

Thus began nine months of hell for the family. Reading the documents, what I find there is always terror.
The law that hung over my grandfather's head was the Law for the Reform of the Civil Service (policemen were civil servants). The aim of this law was to get rid of leftists and Jews. The threat that hung over Bernhard Rösel might seem bad enough for an ambitious young officer with a wife and little daughter to support; being sent to a different police station, to spend the rest of his life as a lieutenant with no chance of promotion.

However, Goering, when introducing this law, said: ‘You must bear in mind that your signature is often equivalent to a death sentence.’ What it meant was spelled out by the Nazi women who, my grandmother once told me, used to descend on her at home, inspect the books on the shelves, and say: 'You're scum. You'll go to concentration camp.' After the war, my grandfather said to my mother: 'I could have resisted the Nazis, but I had you and your mother to think of.'

A letter to the commission, written by my grandfather in August: he says he was shown nothing in writing, only had the accusations against him read out to him. Much of what he said in his defence was not written down by the commission. He had been at firing practice, at 9.45 in the morning, when he was fetched without warning and taken to the commission on the back of a motor bike, not knowing, as he was questioned, whether he was 'an accused or a witness.' I can imagine that motorbike ride, and the fear he must have felt. On the other hand, I can also imagine that he had been rehearsing what he would say whenever that happened, probably any time he had leisure to do so.

 My mother remembered my grandmother's headaches, how she was depressed and would lie in a darkened room. She remembered that one day she heard my grandmother cry out: 'No, Bernhard, no!' and something fall on the floor. Then her parents left the room and little Gerda went in, to see her father's revolver lying there. I guess this was in August, when the commission decided against him. My mother heard her father say: 'He told me it was the only way.' Perhaps 'he' had told my grandfather that his suicide would have given my grandmother a widow's pension.
Breslau, 14th August, judgement passed on
Bernhard Rösel 

Only then my grandmother went off, dressed in her best clothes, and begged 'a very important person' to help. And sure enough, when the case went up to Berlin for ratification, the authorities there decided that it wasn't proven and my grandfather should remain a police officer eligible for promotion.

 Happily ever after? Hardly. My grandmother took an overdose of something and was taken off to hospital. She suffered thereafter - as I have written before - from acute anxiety and periodic nervous breakdowns, and a 'paranoid' conviction that Hitler would destroy Germany. And thus she became a hostage for my grandfather's 'good' behaviour - as he once indicated in a letter to my mother.

As for my grandfather, he had to live with the fact that the regime he had been kicked into shape to support had made him complicit in its crimes. During the war he came home on leave and one night my mother found him drinking in the kitchen. He told her he had seen dreadful things. Done dreadful things, probably, but there was no evidence against him, and there is nothing in the file.

 This blog has already got longer than it should; but I have to say this. What do all these events, eighty years ago, mean to me today? What do I draw from them?

Well, I have long realised that I couldn't condemn my grandfather unless I had stood where he stood and done differently. I do clearly remember what it was like to stand in the dock having committed civil disobedience in order to contest the deployment of nuclear missiles; to feel as if the whole of society was against me. It wasn't good. And that was in a democracy, and nothing worse than a fine was going to happen to me.

 From what I've read about Nazi Germany, and from psychological experiments that have been carried out since (like the Milgram experiment) it's clear to me that once there is an authoritarian situation, backed up by terror, only a very few people will stand out. Heroes are rare. And no decision is simple, especially not if you have a family. It is too easy to say, as people have said to me so often: 'The Germans should have defied Hitler.' Harder to do it.

We live, at present, in a culture where people are being lied to about disabled  people. They have been told that welfare fraud is rife among them, that most of them are scroungers, and guess what? People start abusing the obviously disabled and even attacking them.

apologies for home-made cartoon!
It is only weeks since legislation was passed in this country to establish secret courts, whose purpose is partly at least to avoid damaging disclosures coming out about our secret services' involvement in torture. They have attended torture sessions and questioned the victims. But we will hear no more of this from now on. There is, of course, a reason given, to protect 'agents in the field.' I just wonder if the reason is good enough. The screams coming from the 'wild' concentration camps in 1933 were supposed to be justified by the cessation of the pitched battles on the streets between Nazis and Communists. Order had been restored, most citizens thought, and were relieved.

Britain is not a dictatorship, and yet human rights abuses have been creeping in, not to mention abrogation of our rights not to be snooped on by the state, of our right to protest - and most people, like the Germans of that time, just get on with their lives and allow these things to happen. Objectors are called naive, even traitors.

Yet if we 'defend' our democracy by setting up abusive systems, then we ourselves become the people who are destroying it.
You can read an extract from the London Review of Books diary piece and download the rest at



H.M. Castor said...

This is fascinating and deeply important for us now, as the cuts bite and the hardest hit are demonised... Thank you, Leslie.

Katherine Langrish said...

Sobering post. What a terrible choice lay before your grandfather, and no 'good' outcome either way. We've all got to be grateful never to have been placed in such a position - though as you say, these things do still happen.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I too am seeing so many parallels to Nazi Germany in our present situation, Leslie. It's terrifying. You can see how step by step it could all happen and who will speak out? How far is it from demonising and persecuting the disabled to actually doing away with them? We must remember how the Nazis also began, as our government are doing, by presenting them as a burden. Ugh. Similar terror tactics are also being used to frighten people away from direct protest - harsh sentences, brutal policing. The seeds are all there.

Leslie Wilson said...

Well, and for some people, being refused benefit by these terrible ATOS people is a death sentence - they commit suicide, and it's maybe to cynical, but I can't help thinking it is convenient for the government to get rid of them. But there was a RCN report written up in today's paper, about how managers intimidate nurses who speak out about problems with patient care - and many of them don't dare say anything, because their jobs would go. That also reminded me of my grandfather. People's jobs are a very good way of controlling them.

Miriam Halahmy said...

None of us know what we would do if put into a situation like the Nazi era. I wrote a poem once which asked, "Would I have saved a Jew?" and I am Jewish. None of us can be judgemental or complacent or certain - even though we want to be. A good post as always Leslie and a brave one.

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you Leslie. I agree there are worrying similarities with our own times. It's the little changes that gradually build up...