Herrmann, Liselotte (1909–1938)
Herrmann, Liselotte (1909–1938)
German anti-Nazi activist and the first mother in Nazi Germany to be executed for her political beliefs. Name variations: Lilo Herrmann. Born in Berlin, Germany, on June 23, 1909; convicted of espionage and high treason in 1937 and executed in Berlin on June 20, 1938; daughter of Richard Herrmann and Elise Fänger Herrmann; never married; children: son, Walter (b. May 15, 1934).
Celebrated in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) as a national hero in the struggle against fascism, Liselotte Herrmann had many streets and schools named after her before the collapse of the GDR in 1989–90. In the Federal Republic (West Germany), on the other hand, her life and death were known to only a few scholars and leftist activists who disagreed with the official view that Germans who fought Nazism because of a belief in Marxism and Communism were not "genuine" members of the German resistance, but rather traitors motivated by a fanatical willingness to serve the interests of Moscow. Two generations after Herrmann's execution, bitter controversy over those Germans who resisted Hitler as Communists continues to rage in a now-united Germany. Many Germans still believe that such resisters were little more than agents of an equally vile dictator, Joseph Stalin. In the midst of an argument based on stereotypes of what motivated these resisters to risk their lives, the story of Liselotte Herrmann provides a human face to Germany's Communist resistance.
She was born in Berlin in 1909, five years before World War I, into a family that was financially secure and intellectually liberal. Her father Richard was a successful architect; as a result, the Herrmann family remained largely unaffected by the social and economic turmoil that made life bleak for many millions of Germans during and after the war. Lilo, as Liselotte was known, began her studies in 1915 at one of Berlin's respected private lyceums, that of Dr. Böhm in the Invalidenstrasse. Between 1922 and 1927, the Herrmanns lived in Siegen, then in Frankfurt am Main and returned to Berlin in 1927; there Lilo continued her education at the prestigious Viktoria-Luise-Schule in the upscale Wilmersdorf section of the German capital.
In 1929, Herrmann was awarded her Abitur, the school-leaving certificate that qualified her to enroll at one of Germany's universities. By this time, she had already formed strong views on the many problems facing both her country and the world. Although quiet and reserved, she could speak candidly and was described in the student newspaper of the Viktoria-Luise-Schule in the following fashion: "Liselotte is honest and upright, and tells the truth to all, no matter who it might be." She showed aptitude in several fields, had a deep love of nature, and displayed artistic insight, particularly in her sketches and drawings. The year she completed her secondary education (1929) marked the end of a period of prosperity that had in fact never reached the lives of many Germans. Four years of sacrifice during World War I and a devastating monetary inflation in the early 1920s had wiped out the savings of Germany's solid Mittelstand, a middle class that made virtues of hard work and thrift. Embittered, many of these men and women were attracted to radical political movements, including a newly formed Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler.
Although Lilo's parents moved to Stuttgart in the summer of 1929, she chose to remain in Berlin. Having decided to study chemistry at the university, she worked for some months at a chemical factory as a laboratory assistant. Throughout 1929, the political situation in Berlin and indeed in much of Germany took a decided turn for the worse. Bloody May Day demonstrations in Berlin in the spring of that year were a barometer of bitterness among many industrial workers toward a society which they believed was shortchanging them and their children. Disturbed by a society on the brink of social collapse, Herrmann turned to the ideology of Marxism and the political movement of Communism, as did many intellectuals during this period. While still a student, she had written a term paper on Marxism. After graduation, her interest in Marxist theory, as well as the apparently dramatic social advances taking place in the Soviet Union, caught her attention. A more concrete indication of her growing belief in Marxism came when she joined one of the Berlin branches of the League of German Socialist Students.
Starting with the winter semester of 1929–30, Herrmann began her studies in chemistry at the Stuttgart Institute of Technology (TH Stuttgart) and soon resumed her political activities, becoming an active member of the Red Student Group at the TH. She also joined the local branch of the Communist Youth Organization (CYO). Among the local Communist activists whom she met during the next few years was the author Friedrich Wolf, who enjoyed a reputation for his revolutionary plays and defense of women's right to have legal abortions. Years after Herrmann's execution, Wolf would write movingly about her strong social conscience and love of children.
At the end of 1931, after completing four semesters at the TH Stuttgart, Herrmann transferred her field of study from chemistry to biology and moved to the University of Berlin, where she found sufficient time from her studies to engage in almost daily political activities. By the end of 1931, she had joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which had a numerically small but enthusiastic group at the university. With most of its faculty hostile to democracy and in many cases even sympathizing with the growing Nazi movement, the University of Berlin presented an inhospitable terrain for revolutionary-minded Marxist students like Herrmann. She was particularly disturbed by Berlin's Nazi students' use of violence against the university's Jewish students and faculty members. Disregarding threats to her physical safety, she took the initiative on several occasions to attempt to protect these increasingly endangered members of an academic community in decay.
The Nazi takeover of Germany, which began with Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany
on January 30, 1933, rapidly made a dramatic impact on the nation's higher education. A "reform" law in April gave the green light for a drastic purge of both Jewish and "un-German" (i.e., democratic and leftist) students and faculty. In May 1933, Nazi students and their allies publicly burned books they deemed to be subversive of the new national spirit. At the University of Berlin—the intellectual heart and soul of a city which the Nazis would always despise because so many of its citizens were "Reds" or Jews or both—a thoroughgoing racial and ideological purge took place. In July 1933, 111 students of the University of Berlin, including Herrmann, were expelled. The immediate pretext for Herrmann's expulsion was that she had signed a petition attacking the evils of fascism and war. Then, and for the remainder of her brief life, Herrmann viewed fascism as the incarnation of inhumanity. Even before they took over the German Reich, radical elements within the Nazi Party held non-Jews like Herrmann in greater disdain than Jews, expecting "Aryan" men and women to instinctively welcome the dawn of a glorious new era for Germany, the Third Reich.
After her expulsion, Herrmann remained in Berlin working in an increasingly dangerous underground environment. She assumed a false name and stayed active as a member of the German capital's illegal Communist youth cadre. Herrmann earned her living by caring for infants and gave birth on May 15, 1934, to a son she named Walter. Because of the dangers and uncertainties of the underground activities she was engaged in, Herrmann never married the child's father and would not divulge his name. He may have been one of her closest collaborators in the resistance movement, Walter Ehlen. Arrested in August 1936, Ehlen was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor at the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp, where he was killed on May 4, 1945, only one day before the camp's liberation.
By September 1934, the Gestapo and other arms of the Nazi state had infiltrated many of the resistance cells in Berlin, and Herrmann left an increasingly perilous situation in the German capital. Arriving in Stuttgart with her infant son, she moved in with her parents. Soon she found work as a secretary in her father's engineering firm. Herrmann also continued her illegal political activities and, by the end of 1934, had established contacts with Stuttgart's small but active underground Communist movement. In January 1935, she met the political head of the illegal KPD in the province of Württemberg, the pattern-maker Stefan Lovasz (1901–1938), with whom she saw eye to eye on virtually all issues of strategy and tactics. Her responsibilities within the underground KPD organization included gathering information on the morale of workers in Stuttgart's major industrial enterprises, including the Bosch and Daimler factories. She also functioned as secretary of the central KPD organization and was responsible for maintaining contact with allied Communist cells in Switzerland. Part of Herrmann's broad mandate was to discover any and all information on secret German rearmament plans. In this sensitive area, the discoveries made by the young locksmith Artur Görlitz (1907–1938) were of crucial importance. Employed at the Dornier industrial facility, Görlitz was able to find incriminating evidence of major restructuring in his factory from peacetime production to an armaments agenda.
More evidence of Nazi secret rearmament came from Josef Steidle (1908–1938), who worked in the boat division of the Bosch factory. Another member of Herrmann's organization, Eugen Beck, discovered plans for a secret German Army munitions facility to be built in the area of Scheuen near Celle. The final member of Herrmann's resistance circle was the salesman Alfred Grözinger (1904–1959), whose espionage work was of lesser significance to the group. Although, when smuggled out of Germany, the information was published as exposés in the still-free nations, a complacent world was not sufficiently alarmed to take serious measures against the Third Reich.
Betrayed by an agent who had penetrated the KPD organization, Herrmann was arrested in her parents' home early in the morning of December 7, 1935. A search by the Gestapo discovered several highly incriminating documents, including a copy of the plan for the Scheuen munitions plant, numerous papers of the illegal KPD organization, and banned Marxist literature. Incarcerated for the next 19 months in Stuttgart's police jail on the Büchsenstrasse, Herrmann was subjected to various forms of physical, emotional and psychological torture and appeared before the investigating judge on crutches. On one occasion, her captors placed her small son in the next cell and had him ask her when she was coming home. On another occasion, she was warned that Walter would be placed in the home of a dedicated Nazi family if she did not provide information on her comrades. For the dreaded interrogation sessions, she was taken from her cell to Stuttgart Gestapo headquarters, known to locals as the "Hotel Silber" on the Dorotheenstrasse, where despite physical and mental torture she never revealed the desired information concerning the membership and nature of underground KPD cells in Württemberg. She informed her interrogators on March 31, 1936, "I simply do not wish to make any further statements." After this and similar remarks, she was written off by her captors and the word Unverbesserliche (no change can be expected) entered into her file.
The trial of Liselotte Herrmann, Stefan Lovasz, Josef Steidle, Artur Görlitz, and Alfred Grözinger began at Stuttgart's People's Court on June 8, 1937. All defendants were accused of having engaged in "preparations for high treason," a charge that in Nazi Germany almost always resulted in a sentence of death. The first hours of the trial were open to the public but the afternoon session and all of the remaining deliberations of the Nazi court were held in closed session, the ostensible reason being that some of the testimony would be "injurious to the security of the state." Although 27 witnesses had been invited to present testimony, only 14 of these actually appeared during the trial. The outcome did not surprise the defendants. Announced on the morning of June 12, 1937, the verdict was one of guilty for all five. Alfred Grözinger was sentenced to 12 years' hard labor. The other four, including Herrmann, received the death sentence. These four were taken to Berlin, and Herrmann was the first to be incarcerated, at the Berlin women's prison on the Barnimstrasse. In the spring of 1938, a few weeks before her execution, Herrmann was moved to the Berlin-Plötzensee penitentiary. During her last year, she wrote letters to her parents which invariably mentioned her son with tenderness. One letter simply stated, "It is very difficult to leave and also to say good-bye to a child, knowing that Germany will be destroyed by war."
Throughout the time of her incarceration, major protests were raised in many European countries against carrying out her death sentence. The fact that she was not only a woman but the mother of a young child was noted in virtually all of the protests, which took place in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, and several other nations. The Nazi regime remained sensitive regarding its propaganda image abroad, and in a Gestapo report of March 2, 1938, to the Reich Minister of Justice it was noted that in the case of Liselotte Herrmann "for months the protest letters have accumulated to the point that they have turned into virtual mountains."
The worldwide protests were to no avail. After a final authorization from Hitler, the sentence against Lilo Herrmann and her colleagues was carried out by decapitation at Berlin's Plötzensee penitentiary on June 20, 1938. Although a considerable number of women had already been executed on political charges in Nazi Germany by this time—current research indicates the number to be about 15, with many more losing their lives under unexplained circumstances—none of them had been mothers. (The first woman to be executed for political reasons was Emma Thieme in August 1933, followed by Christina Liess that September.) The objections at Herrmann's death were numerous and impassioned. In a "protest against the murder of a German mother" which appeared in the July 3, 1938, issue of the German exile newspaper Deutsche Volkszeitung in Prague, the signers included the renowned authors Heinrich Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger. Even some loyal Nazi women were distressed by the execution of a young mother. One wrote, "Was it really necessary to kill a German mother because of her opinions? With 99 percent of the Volk solidly on Hitler's side, why did someone choose to make her baby motherless?" In the United Kingdom, several aristocratic women sent a joint protest telegram to Adolf Hitler, with copies to the British press, noting that such a bloody deed had endangered the chances of the two nations ever achieving a political detente.
In addition to the streets and schools named in her honor in the former German Democratic Republic, major works of art, including a musical melodrama by noted composer Paul Dessau and a biographical poem by Friedrich Wolf, were created. Herrmann remains for many a powerful cultural icon of that area's historical distinctness, with her name continuing to mark streets and child-care centers in Berlin, Chemnitz, Erfurt, Greifswald, Teltow, Weimar, and other towns and cities. Her legacy of courage and sacrifice, however, remains controversial to many Germans. While some regard her as a genuine hero of the struggle against the evils of Nazism, others continue to see her as an agent of an alien ideology which competed with but was by no means superior to fascism.
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Dessau, Paul. Lilo Herrmann: Ein Melodram für eine Sprechstimme, sechs Soloinstrumente und gemischten Chor nach dem gleichnamigen biographischen Poem von Friedrich Wolf. [Berlin Classics CD 0090702, Music in the GDR, Vol. 2: Vocal Music, 1995].
John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia