Baron Rudolph von Ripper (1905-60) was a multifaceted bon viveur, famous in his day as an artist and a soldier. His friends called him ‘Rip’.
After the Second World War he was forgotten by history until the fortuitous discovery of a blue file containing his letters and photographs at an uninhabited villa on the Spanish island of Mallorca made it possible to resurrect his life and art in my biography Von Ripper’s Odyssey.
An Austrian aristocrat, Rip had learned the meaning of political terror as a youthful witness to the First World War, and he enlisted in a fight against tyranny that never ended, even with his death. ‘I hate tyranny even more than war,’ he wrote, and his mission was to expose through his art and active resistance the vulgarities and brutalities of the new ruling classes in fascist countries, under whose hands he suffered torture and imprisonment as a ‘degenerate artist’ when Europe under Hitler was heading for hell.
He actively engaged in the great and tragic dramas of his lifetime that spanned both world wars. He fought with the French Foreign Legion and in the Spanish Civil War, and befriended many luminaries of his age including Klaus and Erika Mann, Salvador Dalí, Ernest Hemingway, André Malraux and Benjamin Britten. He became a sharpshooter and highly decorated American intelligence officer in the Second World War when he captured ‘Hitler’s favourite general’, Otto Skorzeny, in the Austrian Alps (1945).
The house of frogs
Towards the end of the twentieth century when I was working as a journalist in Palma de Mallorca I had never heard of Rudolph von Ripper until a contact offered me a blue file containing letters and photographs found abandoned at Ca’n Cueg, a villa near Pollensa in northwest Mallorca. European visitors or exiles to the Spanish island were the subject of my research at the time. Georges Sand, Frederic Chopin, and Austrian Archduke Louis Salvador were names on my list and my contact knew I was on the lookout for others.
The file was stuffed with letters in English and an old German script, mysterious and flimsy on airmail paper, and photographs that spanned decades: military men from other epochs, women wearing dirndls in the Alps, glamorous parties suggesting Hollywood movies of the 1950s. Who were these people?
My informant knew only that the file had belonged to the intriguingly named Baron Rudolph von Ripper. She had been commissioned by a Scottish artist to rent a villa for a summer art school and, when she viewed Ca’n Cueg (‘The House of the Frogs’) its spacious, light interior struck her as fit for purpose after certain renovations. The neglected swimming pool was covered with green algae, and when she opened the door to the changing pavilion she was astonished to see dinner suits and evening gowns hanging inside, mildewed and frayed with age. She had entered a time warp and, as if in a dream, she followed the trajectory of a large spider running across the bench beneath where the blue file was hidden.
When the estate agent arranged to bin the contents of the pavilion, sensing that the file might be important my contact resolved to salvage it. As I would discover the file, untouched for almost half a century, was extremely important. Whilst its contents by no means contained the entire story of Rudolph von Ripper’s life, they piqued my interest and I set off to discover more on an eight-year detective trail to Germany, Spain and the USA.
Anti-fascist art and imprisonment
My wonder at the achievements of this legendary soldier-artist reached its zenith in the archive of New York Public Library when I came face to face with his masterwork, a portfolio of 16 prints titled Écraser l’Infâme (To Crush Tyranny).
Both before and after his incarceration by the Nazis (1933-34), Rudolph von Ripper found refuge in Mallorca, his ‘haven of peace and beauty’, where many of the drawings for Écraser l’Infâme were created. On his first visit, Rip had been commissioned by the German Resistance to produce anti-fascist political-satirical drawings, and when he returned to Paris several months later Hitler had become Führer of Germany. The French Resistance had produced a pamphlet portraying Nazi tyranny, the Brown Book (Braunbuch or Livre Brun), cunningly camouflaged as an edition of a Nazi approved book, Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea. Rip volunteered to smuggle copies into Berlin and was immediately arrested by Gestapo agents.
At Berlin’s infamous Columbia prison, when Rip protested that as an Austrian national he was being held illegally, stormtroopers responded by fracturing his cranium and throwing him in agony into a grim basement cell. The last thing he remembered before he passed out was the raised arm and clenched fist of one of the thugs reflected in a framed portrait of Hitler hanging on the wall. ‘I didn’t squeal,’ he wrote later. ‘My heart was filled with undying hatred for the Third Reich and all it stands for.’ The prison doctor transferred him to the State Hospital where the SS repeatedly charged him with ‘propaganda, treason and espionage’.
In January 1934 there were no celebrations for his twenty-ninth birthday; instead he endured further torture and witnessed the suffering of others. A terrifying mock execution left him with permanent angina: ‘a two-minute slam as bullets and chunks of mortar flew around my head . . . A sudden agonizing spasm rent my heart, and I collapsed. For three days I couldn’t get up and my heart felt violently clenched.’
Transferred to the experimental SS camp, KV Oranienburg, Rip was ordered to paint a portrait of Adolph Hitler. Instead he used the ‘opportunity’ to devise an ingenious means of escape and, traumatised after seven months of torture, he returned to Mallorca to create his blistering riposte to the Nazi regime. ‘Écraser L’Infâme,’ he wrote, ‘is my answer to the Gestapo commissioner who warned me to keep my mouth shut,’ (about torture in Nazi camps).
Eyewitness artists’ accounts of brutality in Nazi concentration camps are extremely rare and Rudolph von Ripper’s forgotten portfolio deserves to stand alongside the art of his contemporaries Otto Dix, George Grosz and Käthe Kollwitz. Its title derives from the French philosopher and human rights campaigner Voltaire, who signed his letters il faut écraser l’infâme (tyranny must be crushed). Rip also admired the radical poet Arthur Rimbaud whose verses from A Season in Hell preface Écraser L’Infâme. With the Gestapo on his heels he secured its permanence by editioning 100 copies of each drawing in Paris before he fled the Gestapo in 1938.
Somewhere over the rainbow
He arrived to artistic acclaim in New York. Time magazine illustrated its front cover with the print, ‘Hitler Plays the Hymn of Hate’ (January 1939), and its editorial noted that von Ripper’s artistically accomplished and emotionally charged portfolio recalled the artistry and anger that fuelled Francisco Goya’s etchings of the Napoleonic War and George Grosz’s images of the First World War.
Rip’s warnings about the impending Holocaust in Europe fell upon deaf American ears in a nation intent on singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. Then Pearl Harbour brought them to their senses and Rip became an American citizen. ‘Now I can fight and paint,’ he wrote when he joined the Allies in the Italian Campaign as a war artist and intelligence officer. ‘The bravest man I ever saw,’ said an American general. ‘The kind they write books about,’ reported war correspondent Ernest Pyle. So why, then, then did history forget this legendary artist hero?
Post-war, Rip settled at Ca’n Cueg and lived the double-life of an artist and a Cold War CIA agent. Mallorca was promoted internationally as a honeymooners’ paradise at the time, but it was also a safe haven for agents and ex-Nazis, including Otto Skorzeny who moved into a nearby villa. Rip dreamed of restoring his pre-war artistic reputation, yet cut off from the support of mainstream western culture, gradually he slipped out of history and, pursued by his wartime enemies, he died alone in mysterious circumstances at Ca’n Cueg, leaving behind his tremendous legacy.
An exhibition based on Von Ripper’s Odyssey was shown during Edinburgh International Festival 2017 and, following its publication, the blue file was delivered to the Rudolph von Ripper Archive in Vienna.
This article was first published in the Jewish Renaissance magazine. It is published here in association with The accepted rise of fascism featuring Hitler’s Hymn to Hate, an extract from Rudolf von Ripper’s Odyssey by Sian Mackay
The feature image is a detail from Hitler’s Hymn to Hate from Rudolf von Ripper’s Écraser L’Infâme portfolio