Niederkirchner, Käte (1909–1944)

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Niederkirchner, Käte (1909–1944)

German anti-Nazi who was celebrated in the German Democratic Republic as a hero and martyr of the resistance. Name variations: Käthe Niederkirchner; Katja Niederkirchner. Born in Berlin, Germany, on October 7, 1909; executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp on September 27, 1944; daughter of Michael Niederkirchner (1882–1949) and Helene Niederkirchner; sister of Max, Paul, Helene, and Mia.

Involved in anti-Nazi activities before Hitler came to power; moved to the Soviet Union (1933); during World War II, made broadcasts to Germany over Moscow Radio and was involved in educational work among German prisoners of war; captured after parachuting into Nazi-occupied Poland (October 1943); after interrogations and torture, taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and executed there (1944).

Käte Niederkirchner became a highly controversial figure after East and West Germany were unified in October 1990. The struggle over which historical memories would be appropriate for the new Germany intensified with each passing year; by 1995, a street named in Niederkirchner's honor in the heart of Berlin was changed to another, less divisive designation. Only a few years earlier, the situation had been dramatically different. In the former East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Käte Niederkirchner had for decades enjoyed the status of a revered martyr of the resistance movement, celebrated for having given her life in 1944 in the conflict with Hitlerite Germany. Countless streets, squares, parks, and schools were named in her honor in the GDR, and her life story was enshrined in its history books and popular literature.

Käte Niederkirchner was born in Berlin in 1909 into a working-class family. Her father Michael Niederkirchner had grown up in his native city of Budapest as a member of an ethnic German family. A pipefitter, he earned his living as a skilled worker and was from his earliest years an active member of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party. Käte's mother Helene Niederkirchner also had memories of an impoverished childhood, having grown up in Slovakia as a member of a landless rural family. In 1905, the Niederkirchners moved to Germany, living first in Regensburg and then settling in Berlin, where Michael was able to find steady employment. Having been a trade unionist as well as a socialist in Hungary, in Berlin he became a member of the political party of the German working class, the Social Democrats. He also became an active member of his trade union, the Deutscher Metallarbeiterverband (German Metal Workers Union or DMV); by early 1914, he had become a union leader, serving as branch representative of pipefitters within the DMV organization.

While growing up, Käte heard much talk of politics at home and soon became aware of the cross currents swirling through the Social Democratic and trade union subculture of Berlin. These political controversies would be dwarfed by the start of World War I in August 1914. Like all German families, the Niederkirchners were affected by the conflict. Since he (and his entire family) had retained their Hungarian citizenship, Michael was drafted to serve in the armed forces of Austria-Hungary. In March 1915, when he became a Russian prisoner of war, Helene and her five children found themselves in a precarious situation. Survive they did, but over the next four years the family lived with ever-diminishing food rations, inadequate heat for their flat, and a shortage of clothing and shoes. Helene worked long hours in a Berlin armaments factory, but the Niederkirchners were fortunate in that Michael returned from the war in early 1919 (more than three million German soldiers perished), and no one succumbed to tuberculosis or other diseases linked to the severe malnutrition that was a universal fact of life, particularly among members of the industrial proletariat.

While Michael was a prisoner of war, Russia had overthrown the tsar, gone through a brief episode of chaotic democracy, and in November 1917 had experienced a revolutionary takeover by Vladimir Lenin and his radical Marxist Bolshevik Party. Michael had become even more radicalized. Soon after his return, he joined the pro-Bolshevik Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). By 1920, he had become dissatisfied with USPD policies and joined the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD).

During these years, Käte grew into an intelligent, sensitive young woman. She had a close relationship with her father and often had long conversations with him on political topics. Profoundly influenced by his political views, she became a Communist activist, first joining the "Fichte" workers' sports organization. By age 16, she was a member of the Young Communist League of Germany (KJVD), and in 1929 she became a full-fledged member of the KPD. Throughout the life of the ill-fated Weimar Republic (1919–33), Käte and indeed the entire Niederkirchner family were involved in some of Germany's most intense left-wing politics.

Käte made her living as a seamstress; she also learned typing and stenography. Although denied a higher education because of her working-class background, she was intellectually curious, loved music and literature, and studied foreign languages on her own. She also attended countless KPD meetings and rallies and spent hours working with unemployed women, a group whose numbers increased dramatically during the winter of 1929–30 with the onset of the world economic depression.

As an active Communist, it was only a matter of time before Niederkirchner encountered the hostility of the German authorities toward "Bolshevik agitators." In November 1932, she was arrested after having given a particularly militant speech to an assembly of women. She was expelled from Germany in 1933 as an "undesirable alien." Even more at risk during these years was her father Michael, now a leading member of the KPD (he was one of the party's leading trade unionists and in 1929 was elected a member of the Central Committee). In 1933, only weeks after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, the KPD was destroyed in a reign of terror. Although Germany's Communists had long proclaimed themselves to be a revolutionary movement, they were in fact

pitifully ill-prepared to wage the kind of class warfare that might bring them to power. Revolutionary rhetoric was no substitute for the kind of political pragmatism, a blend of terror and persuasion, that the Nazis had perfected. In late February 1933, Michael was arrested hours after the Reichstag fire gave the Nazis a pretext to create their anti-Communist dictatorship. After brutal mistreatment in several concentration camps, he was expelled from Nazi Germany in June 1934—an exile made possible because he had retained his Hungarian citizenship despite almost three decades of residence in Germany.

By the end of 1934, the Niederkirchner family had resettled in the Soviet Union. Despite difficult living conditions, initially the USSR appeared to them to be truly the land of socialism. With the second Five Year Plan underway, all signs pointed to the successful construction of a new, egalitarian socialist society. But soon, the malignant nature of the Stalinist dictatorship began to reveal itself. With the start of the great purge in 1936, German exiles lived lives of terror. Despite their loyal record, the Niederkirchners were not spared from the general bloodletting: in 1938, Käte's brother Paul was arrested by the dreaded Soviet NKVD and absurdly acused of espionage. A contemporary source has testified that Paul died in Moscow's Butyrka prison, most likely after torture. Then Michael became seriously ill.

On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launched a massive attack on the Soviet Union. Although their ranks had been decimated by the paranoia of Stalin's regime, the anti-Nazi Germans in the USSR offered their services, including Käte who volunteered for front-line duty with the Red Army. Though her request was approved, it was decided that she could be best utilized behind the lines, visiting prisoner-of-war camps and explaining to captured German soldiers how they had been misused by Hitler's regime.

Käte also underwent intensive training for many months as a parachutist and irregular member of the Soviet armed forces. Finally, in early October 1943, Niederkirchner and another German exile, Theodor Winter, were to be parachuted into German-occupied territory. Their mission was to travel to Berlin and establish contact with the small but still active Communist resistance cells operating in the capital. They parachuted successfully out of a Soviet plane, landing at night in the vicinity of the small town of Parzow, in the Lublic district. By chance, Käte landed not in an open field but in a tall tree. When Winter, assisted by Polish partisans, found her tangled high in the tree the next morning, she was still unconscious. She was brought down safely and after several days of rest was sufficiently recuperated to embark on the next phase of the dangerous mission. While on her journey to Berlin, Niederkirchner was arrested at the Danzig (modern-day Gdansk, Poland) train station. Winter succeeded in getting to Berlin, but he too was soon captured and murdered by the Nazis, most likely in April 1945.

Over the next months after her capture, Käte was moved from prison to prison and subjected to interrogations and torture. Finally, convinced that they could extract no important information from her, her captors sent her to the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. Between September 21 and 27, 1944, certain that she had only days to live, Niederkirchner wrote down a series of notes which included a farewell letter to her family dated September 25: "You must inform my dear and ever-steadfast father that I did not dishonor him. I betrayed no one." On September 27, 1944, a few hours before her execution, Niederkirchner penned her last note: "27.9.44. In the morning. This morning the commandant came and announced the verdict to me in a manner that was so mocking, debased and filthy. These people are of course so habituated to murder that they derive special pleasure when they feast their eyes on the sufferings of their victims. But he had no such luck with me. Most likely it will take place tonight." Niederkirchner's final notes and letters were preserved by other Ravensbrück internees.

Michael died in 1949, while Helene survived as a revered Parteiveteranin (party veteran), dying in East Berlin in June 1967. On September 3, 1959, a semi-postal stamp with Käte Niederkirchner's portrait was issued by the GDR post office. Because of its proximity to the Reichstag building, the Niederkirchnerstrasse in the heart of Berlin's government district (after 1990 the site of newly united Germany's Parliament), managed to offend many conservative politicians. In the eyes of some, the street honored not a German heroine, but a wartime Soviet parachute agent and Communist traitor. In 1995, the street officially took on a more traditional mantle, that of "Am Preussischen Landtag."


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia