It couldn’t happen again, could it? The gradual loss of civil liberty, the increasing tyranny of a powerful leader who feeds fear of the Other so as to gain control.
The rise of the far right in parts of Europe and the US brings warning echoes of our not so distant past. Earlier this year Sceptical Scot published an article by Bryan Schatz examining the racism of Alt-Right fight clubs in the US. Here we publish an extract from Von Ripper’s Odyssey, Scottish author Sian Mackay’s biography of the Austrian aristocrat and artist who became a CIA agent in the fight against fascism.
Von Ripper was arrested by the Gestapo in Berlin in 1933 and tortured for assisting friends to escape the Third Reich and for his ‘degenerate’ art.
No nation has faced the past with more honesty than Germany. But with anti-semitism and Holocaust denial gaining currency, von Ripper’s insight has chilling contemporary significance. Hitler Plays the Hymn of Hate, Chapter Five of Von Ripper’s Odyssey, takes us to the respectable town of Oranienburg in Brandenburg. The first prisoners in an experimental concentration camp are Hitler’s political opponents, artists and intellectuals. Residents of the town look the other way.
Hitler Plays the Hymn of Hate
In the seventeenth century the Electress Louise Henriette of Orange-Nassau commissioned Mark Brandenburg to build the first Baroque castle at Oranienburg beside the River Havel. Pleasure gardens were laid out in the Dutch style, complete with an orangery. It would be a prosperous place since the river, three canals and two lakes supplied the new town with ample water for the brewing of beer. In March 1933, a brewery within sight of the Brandenburg castle on Berliner Strasse was taken over by the local SA [Sturmabteilung or Assault Division] and refitted as a concentration camp under the command of SS Rudolph Diels.
Soon after the National Socialists seized power, KV Oranienburg became a key site in the persecution of the opposition: a chilling, small-scale experimental camp serving Berlin before the construction of the System of Terror under the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps between 1938 and 1945. Another building on the outskirts of Oranienburg housed the administrative headquarters of the entire concentration camp system during the Third Reich. The men who sat behind desks in this leafy suburb determined conditions of imprisonment, coordinated forced labour and planned the organized mass murder of millions of human beings.
A photograph, probably taken by a prisoner at Oranienburg who escaped and fled abroad, reveals the shocked pallor of shuffling prisoners dressed in humiliating striped pyjamas. Seized from homes and loved ones, the cultural elite of Berlin have fallen victim to the monster in a nightmare of mythological portent. Anaesthetised by dread, they are force-marched round and round the yard at Oranienburg by jackbooted thugs. This is their punishment for producing art and polemic warning the world to wake up to the coming Holocaust. On 17 March 1934, Rudolf von Ripper found himself here among Bauhaus professors and students, artists and intellectuals, who had been accused of high treason.
Heads down, eyes averted
The citizens of Oranienburg were permitted to see only what the Nazis wanted them to see. When they dared to look behind the high iron gates to the brewery, they saw folk like themselves stripped of their identities, their heads shaven, their heartbreak palpable. Day after day, over one hundred prisoners in boots and overalls were herded into a wagon train and taken up to 12 kilometres from the camp to level hills and lay rail tracks. Rudolf von Ripper was one of them. Each prisoner received coffee and a daily dose of lard coated bread as a meagre lunch.
Day after day, when the townsfolk witnessed detainees being marched through the town to forced labour on behalf of the council, they looked away, kept their heads down and their thoughts to themselves. When might their turn come to find themselves on the other side of that gate? In the subterranean darkness of the cellars the SS experimented on their prey. Some of the first Nazi torture devices were put into practice at KV Oranienburg, including the odious standing cells, so narrow that men and women were forced to stand up day and night. Spaces designed to drive them mad before their inevitable, agonising, protracted death.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus,
nie hätt ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus,
ich sorgte sie stürben morgen,
das ist nun nicht zu besorgen.
In this weather, in this horror,
I would never have let the children go out,
I was worried they might die the next day,
Now that is not something to worry about.
Mental and physical torture
Having endured other detention camps, Carl von Ossietzky arrived at Oranienburg in 1934, where one of his former publishing colleagues was forced to flay him. Erich Müsham came too, having been tortured at the notorious Moabit prison on Lehrter Strasse and at KV Sonnenburg. His teeth had been knocked out, his glasses smashed and his head branded with a swastika. He had been forced to dig his own grave and to endure a mock execution before he was transferred to KV Oranienburg. There, sadistic torturers systematically broke his bones. For days he was left in the cellars, slumped on a sack of straw, almost blind and in agony from a blister bulging out of his ear canal.
Thomas Mann, who had escaped to France, wrote that he felt sick at the thought of what Müsham and others suffered at the hands of the Nazis. In Paris, his friend Harry Kessler noted, they are mentally tortured and thrashed three times a day, morning, noon, and night. But what gets the victims down more than anything . . . is that they are forced to watch the ill usage of their fellows. That induces complete breakdown.
Rudolf von Ripper witnessed the ill usage of his fellows and made sketches on scraps of paper that would later inspire one of his most accomplished drawings, Defence of Culture: And the Walls Live. In the cellars at Oranienburg, guards augmented the prisoners’ suffering by spying on them day and night through grilles in the cell doors. In his drawing, Rip strips away the doors and walls of the cells to reveal the victims as Dante-esque souls in torment, elongated figures transparently naked, crying out to the heavens for a merciful release or hunkering in helpless despair. One victim hangs suspended and immobile in a standing cell, all self-possession lost. Two vulgar, grinning guards supervise the scene. It’s all in a day’s work for brutal fascists serving the Führer.
A centre for ‘re-education’
A former prisoner, Gerhart Segers, described in his eye-witness account, Oranienburg 1933, the obstacle course located in the back yard of the camp. Prisoners already suffering from malnutrition and torture were forced to jump through rods, climb a three meter high saddle horse, jump a wide ditch, then crawl like snakes about ten meters through a thin frame and finally walk a plank suspended over a pit. One day when forced into the obstacle course, five prisoners, Rip amongst them, started singing a traditional workers’ song the Nazis had borrowed as a standard band tune. ‘The men were driven back to their cells and then dragged out for roll call,’ Segers wrote. ‘No one wanted to say who had sung. The commander stood before them and shouted, “We are the masters of Germany now”. A small voice from the ranks of the prisoners asked, “For how long?” As a punishment, the prisoners were herded with rifle butts into a grotesque forced sport, through a maze of obstacles and mines which the SA guards had originally built for their own exercises.’
Visitors, occasionally permitted access to the ground level of the former brewery on Sundays by appointment, had no idea that the floor they stood upon was all that separated them from the Dante-like inferno the SS had constructed below. The Third Reich’s publicity machine swung into action, cunningly concealing its sinister duplicity by promoting KV Oranienburg as a centre for the re-education of opponents of the Nazi party.
Propaganda films shot on the ground floor showed young men like Rip wearing dark sweaters and corduroys and supposedly creating arts and crafts. This select group had been directed to take part in a ‘community education’ programme and, despite his dire circumstances, Rudolf von Ripper came up with an idea to utilize his comedic and theatrical talents. He wrote a script and developed a set for an approved drama called Visit German Castles! Prisoners who had been active in Communist amateur dramatic groups played the principal roles.
In the script, a travel agent recommends a chaperoned American tourist to visit sites with names ending in ‘burg’, including Oranienburg, a scenario that allowed numerous ironical allusions and had the prisoners as well as the guards in the audience roaring with laughter. But another literary endeavour was a step too far and resulted in Rip being sent to the standing cells that were the gruesome invention of the camp commandant. There were two at Oranienburg. Gerhart Segers, wrote that the standing cells were ‘a kind of upright stone coffin, a room with a floor area of 60 to 80 centimetres.’
Portrait of Hitler
To distance himself from the horror perhaps, when Rudolf von Ripper recorded his experience later he wrote in the third person, ‘the door closes right in front of his face, he cannot even stand, and after a while he collapses with his knees against the door and his back against the wall. Four and a half days later, when the door was opened again, he fell out with swollen limbs, completely unable to move.’
SS Diels censored all letters making it impossible for Rip to write to his mother or Mopsa [Rip’s first wife] about the grim reality of Oranienburg or about how they might obtain his release. It was only after Rip had been held for several months that Mutti, Mopsa and René Crevel discovered his whereabouts and sought the intervention of the French Embassy in Berlin. But before that, Fate in the form of Art was preparing to come to his rescue.
SS Diels had noticed Rip sketching fellow inmates and ordered him to paint a large oil portrait of Adolph Hitler. He was marched under guard to an art store in town to get the materials, no expense spared. In this borrowed time, Rip’s wounded heart filled with hope and he lingered over this most odious of portrait commissions. Brushstroke by brushstroke he shaped an image of the ‘silly little monkey’ disguised as the Führer and, stealthily, with the connivance of a comrade, he planned his escape. A friend of his comrade’s wife would visit Rip and sign in as his fiancée, under the pretence that Rip was in the process of divorcing Mopsa Sternheim.
Early in April, before the visit, Rip mixed paint identical to the colour of the enamel mugs visitors and inmates drank from and painted a scrap of paper with it. On the other side he wrote a message to the anti-Nazi Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, via the Embassy in Berlin, informing him of his desperate plight. He fixed the message to the mug he prepared for his ‘fiancée’s’ visit and when he poured out her coffee he said loudly enough for the guard to hear, ‘Darling, your mug’s dirty, you’d better wipe it.’ The woman went to the communal sink, wiped the mug with her handkerchief and removed the concealed message. She returned the handkerchief to her pocket and Rip refilled her mug. This courageous woman, whose name is not recorded, succeeded in getting the message to the Austrian legation.
About two weeks later, Rip was in the courtyard when he noticed a car with diplomatic plates and the Austrian flag parked at the gate and a legation secretary in conversation with the camp commandant. But, however much he longed for his immediate release, it did not happen straight away. Several weeks of negotiations between the Austrian legation and the Prussian Prime Minister ensued before a message was at last sent from Oranienburg to Columbia-Haus requesting delivery of Rudolf von Ripper’s effects: ‘1 shaver, 1 mirror, 1 shirt and 1 pyjamas to be washed.’
On 2 May 1934, Rip confirmed their receipt and signed an affidavit to the effect that no coercion had been exerted upon him and that he would never turn against the new state and its institutions in speech or writing. He was freed on 11 May 1934 with a warning to leave Nazi-occupied territories immediately.
Rudolph Diels’s furious parting shot would haunt Rip for the rest of his life: ‘When you get to Austria, or wherever you go, remember that the arm of the Gestapo can reach across our borders, wherever it is desired. Take my advice. Keep your mouth shut.’
Von Ripper’s Odyssey: War, Resistance, Art and Love published by Sancho Press, is available from Waterstones.
The extract is illustrated by drawings of Rudolf von Ripper from his masterwork Écraser l’Infâme
In this associated article first written for Jewish Renaissance Magazine [Rudolf von Ripper: eyewitness to Nazi terror ] Sian Mackay explains how the extraordinary work of a forgotten artist and CIA agent was uncovered in an empty villa in Mallorca.