Joachim Lerchenmueller


The case of the Nazi-turned-Liberal Professor Hans Schwerte demonstrates that Germans still have some lessons to learn from their past.

Once a criminal, always a criminal? Or should we allow people to return to the democratic process who forsake the path of violence and advocacy of a bloody ideology? Can we take such people seriously, or will their conversion always remain tainted with what they did in the past? They are questions heatedly debated in Germany, too.

In spring 1995, in the midst of preparations to celebrate their country's defeat in World War Two, Germans got suddenly reminded that in May, 1945, not everyone subscribed to what is now the official point of view, namely, that Germany was liberated by the Allies. To the day fifty years after some SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Dr Hans Ernst Schneider fled Berlin to avoid Russian capture and then disappeared from the scene, the renowned former president of Aachen University, Prof Hans Schwerte, was forced to acknowledge on April 27th, 1995, that in fact, he is Dr Schneider. That a Nazi fugitive, officially proclaimed dead with the help of documents fabricated by his former SS colleagues, rose to be one of West Germany's outstanding representatives in the fields of learning and cultural politics, has sent profound shockwaves through society. Not only was Hans Schwerte one of the few scholars that addressed early on the critical role German studies played in laying the ideological groundwork for National Socialism; in the so-called student revolution of 1968, he sided with students' demands for reform of both university and society, much to the chagrin of most of his academic colleagues. Thus in 1970, Schwerte was elected president of Aachen university against the majority vote of professors, relying instead on students' and lecturers' support. The Socialist-led government of North Rhine-Westphalia sought Schwerte's advice in matters cultural and academic, appointing him as special liaison with the Netherlands and Belgium. Schwerte was bestowed with many honours, including the West German equivalent to the OBE. Were it not for the revelation of his former identity, Hans Schwerte would have died an honourable man. It was not to be.

Hans Ernst Schneider, born in East Prussia in 1909, worked as a Germanist for the Ahnenerbe, or Ancestral Heritage, a research institute set up in 1935 and controlled by Himmler's SS. In World War Two, Schneider was ordered to go to the Netherlands to head the so-called Germanischer Wissenschaftseinsatz , a propaganda mission designed to recruit volunteers for the Waffen-SS and to win over the 'Germanic' peoples of Northern and Western Europe to the idea of a postwar German-led 'commonwealth' of peoples. Schneider's job was effectively to collaborate with pro-German political splinter groups and with völkisch-minded academics, setting up an institute to revive Germanic heritage, promote German culture and spread Nazi ideology. Schneider edited a number of academic journals and popular magazines, organized exhibitions and lectures, and the like. In short, his job was rather similar to what we nowadays call cultural management, except for the fact that he was a convinced Nazi in the service of Himmler's SS, an institution declared to be a criminal organization in the Nuremberg trials. However, this in itself would hardly explain the excitement surrounding the outing of Hans Schwerte; all the more since many German academics were involved in similar missions in World War Two, for example Celtic scholars like Profs Leo Weisgerber and Ludwig Mühlhausen, who carried out identical tasks in occupied Brittany.

The public outcry in Germany and beyond is to do with the fact that, in 1943, Schneider was ordered by his Berlin superiors to requisition medical equipment in the Netherlands that was later used by Nazi physician Siegfried Rascher in human experiments carried out in the concentration camp at Dachau. Hundreds of prisoners were used as guinea pigs, and many of them died as a result. Schneider's alleged involvement in Rascher's experiments is now at the core of the criminal investigation against Hans Schwerte. The Professor denies any knowledge of Rascher's evil doings and insists he did not know at the time what the equipment was intended for. Some historians specialized in the history of Schneider's department, the Ahnenerbe, tend to subscribe to Schwerte's statement. It is ten years ago that Dr Gerd Simon, of Tübingen University, found the document ordering Schneider to requisition the medical equiment. Asked about it, he says: "I realized instantly that this was the very equipment Rascher used in Dachau. However, the only reason that I did know lies in the fact, that as a specialist in the history of the Ahnenerbe, I have consulted most of the Ahnenerbe papers. The likelihood that Schneider, as a philologist, could grasp at the time how a sadistic and perverted mind could misuse this medical equipment for human experiments is very small indeed. If Schwerte claims he did not know anything of Rascher's human experiments in Dachau, I believe him. They were kept a secret even within the Ahnenerbe. Besides, just look how difficult it was for the Allied prosecutors at Nuremberg to trace information and documents on what Rascher did in Dachau."

It is, of course, absolutely necessary to ascertain in a criminal investigation whether Schwerte acted as an accessory to murder. However, it would appear to me that there is a real danger that, with everyone being preoccupied with this question, the public fail to concern themselves with what Schneider's work actually entailed, namely, to have put his academic qualification as a scholar at the service of National Socialism. This is an issue that clearly goes beyond the individual case under discussion, and it is one that has been largely ignored in Germany to this day. I cannot help but feeling that, once again, a number of people in Germany think that to punish one particular person would suffice to settle the matter. Should not the publicity surrounding Hans Schwerte be availed of to address the question how it was possible that the German academe in the 1930s by and large willingly embraced National Socialism, adjusted their methods and research to incorporate Nazi ideology, and then went on to utilize results for practical purposes? This seems to me the real pressing and relevant question. And it will not go away by singling out Hans Schwerte and having him punished. (Which is not to say that he should not be made accountable for what he has done.)

How difficult it is to discuss the case of Hans Schwerte in all its relations, let alone to move the discussion beyond it, was demonstrated at a symposium at Erlangen University, Bavaria, on 15 February 1996. It was in Erlangen that Schwerte began his 'second', postwar academic career, repeating his courses for a doctorate in Germanic studies. In the wake of last year's revelation, two professors of Erlangen University have made an application for Schwerte's doctorate to be revoked; the faculty's decision is still pending. The governments of Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, however, have already revoked Schwerte's status of civil servant and stopped payment of his pension. The North Rhine-Westphalian education minister, a social democrat, justified her decison by saying that she wanted to make sure Schwerte receives some form of immediate punishment since he is 86 years old and may not survive until the court has decided. Even though the Erlangen symposium was intended to address Schneider's wartime activities, Schwerte's postwar academic achievement and the intricate question of how to relate one with the other, most of the audience was preoccupied with the question of whether or not Schwerte's doctorate should be revoked. The arguments employed in this sometimes heated debate reminded some of those invited to lecture of methods from a not-so-distant past. The Dutch psychiatrist Hans Keilson put it bluntly: "All this talk about Schwerte being 'worthy' of his academic honours is reminiscent of Nazi methods." Keilson, whose family died in Auschwitz, was during the war in the Dutch resistance movement under the cover name Dr van der Linden. His wife, Dr Marita Keilson-Lauritz, of Amsterdam University, is a former student of Hans Schwerte. She too is shocked and depressed about the way Hans Schwerte is now treated. In our lectures, Mrs Keilson-Lauritz and myself protested against the fact that both Erlangen and Aachen universities (where a similar symposium took place in October last) did not care to invite Hans Schwerte, nor to even officially inform him about the event. Neither professors nor students seem to realize that this way of denying someone the right to defend his own case, while everyone keeps accusing him, is dangerously close to patterns of behaviour prevalent at German universities in Nazi times. I for one would not have believed it possible that in 1996 a German student would stand up in public and say that it was "a matter of the faculty's political hygiene" to revoke Schwerte's doctorate - irrespective of whether or not he will be convicted of anything in a German court. Nor would I have believed it possible that a German professor would ever again resort to describing a person's physical characteristics as indicative of his political and moral integrity.

Sadly, the Erlangen symposium was, and Mrs Keilson-Lauritz and her husband confirmed my impression, a very German event. Preoccupied with matters of principle, many people forgot that it is a human being they were talking about. Evidently, some people would deny a former Nazi any claim to human dignity. Let me be clear on one thing: there is no way you can play down the crimes committed by the Nazis; nor, I should add, can you play down the fact that someone rose to the rank of Hauptsturmführer in the SS. No-one got that high up in the hierarchy by accident. Every person that joined the Allgemeine SS (as distinct from the Waffen-SS) and worked in the Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt, as Schneider did, bears special responsibility for the horrors of National Socialism. It is also self-evident that many members of the SS gave up their human dignity by what they did. And yet, as a democrat I cannot and will not treat any human being as though they had no right to human dignity, however painful it is to stick to that conviction in the face of the crimes they committed. At the Erlangen symposium, many speakers referred to the victims of National Socialism as a reason why Schwerte should be treated with the utmost disregard. What struck me was that not one person cared to ask the only victim on the panel a question. Was it to do with the fact that Mr Keilson voiced opinions they did not like to hear, let alone from a victim? The question seems to be whether we ought to judge Hans Schwerte solely on the basis of what he did in Nazi Germany. Put another way, do Hans Schneider's deeds in his capacity as SS-Hauptsturmführer in and of themselves betray his postwar achievement as lies? Hans Schwerte firmly protests against this way of looking at the issue: "None of that was a lie. Only the name was a lie." There is no disputing the fact that Schwerte has remained silent on his former identity for decades, and that this was wrong and is damnable. In comparison, however, we should bear in mind that there have been an estimated 100,000 Germans assuming false identities in the immediate aftermath of the war, and they did so for many reasons. Schneider's change of name, therefore, is in itself no indication that he participated in war crimes or other atrocities. If Hans Schwerte had been convicted of any crime in a German court, he would have been deserving of the utmost contempt. Since this is not the case however, he is innocent as far as the legal judgment is concerned. Morally, he has put himself in the wrong at least twice: by joining and actively supporting National Socialism, and by assuming a false identity after the war.

What remains, then, is the question how we are to assess his postwar development. Did he forfeit the moral right to play an active role in German academic life through his former membership of the SS? I would answer in the affirmative. It is however a fact that, sadly, a number of former SS members either remained in their academic positions or entered into professorships after the war. Hans Schwerte, as opposed to many other Nazis, evidently managed to critically reflect on his former beliefs and as a result, he embraced democracy. This poses the general question as to whether we should allow former advocates of violence and an inhuman ideology to integrate into the democratic process, and secondly, whether their metamorphosis into democrats can ever be taken at face value? It is the answer to these questions that reveal the hypocrisy of some of those that have been quick to condemn Schwerte's postwar achievement as a fake. They are hypocrites because at the same time, they demand for ex-members of the West German terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF) the right to get a second chance. At this point, I should elicit my own viewpoint. I am all in favour of giving people this second chance. Human beings commit errors, and we should all have the right to learn from our mistakes. If people have come to the conclusion that they have been advocating something wrong, and demonstrate the sincerity of their conversion in word and deed, then I can see no reason why a truly democratic society should not give them a second chance. Put another way, I am strongly convinced that a truly democratic society is defined by her ability to offer this second chance. To be sure, I am not putting terrorism on an equal footing with National Socialism. However, guilt and innocence can, in the last instance, be attributed to individuals only, not to a body of thought. It is against this background that I refer to some critics of Schwerte as hypocrites. They strongly rebuff the idea that Schwerte ever had the right to a second chance, although at this point in time he is not committed of murder or accessory to murder; at the same time, though, they advocate that this right be granted ex-terrorists committed of multiple murder. A similar predicament has come to haunt unified Germany in recent years with regard to members of the East German communist party (SED) and the Stasi, the former security service in the East. After unification, the (de facto West German) Government tried to cleanse especially universities and schools by excluding former members of the Stasi from civil service professions. Not only have many students, East and West, protested against this instance of Siegermentalität, meaning despotism of the victorious; the highest German court has meanwhile ruled that any dismissal must merit the individual case and cannot be based on mere membership of an organization. Again, let me state clearly that I am not equalling National Socialism with communism; my argument pertains to the individual case only, and any judgment should be based on what a person did or did not do. It is interesting to see how some people argue that any witch-hunt against former communists is unworthy of a democratic society, that they must be given a second chance, while at the same time they would not believe that a former Nazi has successfully managed to turn himself into a democrat. My impression is that, en effet, some people reproach Hans Schwerte for being still with us. Would it not have been so much easier for us if he had died without us knowing of his former identitiy? Had we learnt of it after his death, we would have been excited, shocked, angered, and - then we would have carried on as usual. But he is still with us, forcing us to think about how we best deal with him and the problem he poses to the way we see ourselves as democrats. This is no ,academic’ debate you have in front of the open fireplace, this about real life, this is about a human being. And much to our chagrin, Hans Schwerte defies clear-cut categories, for his 'denazification by self-experiment' has been successful. His academic work shows that he has been willing and able to critically reflect on his former convictions and to transform himself into a full-hearted democrat. Former students of his report, that in the 1950s, Schwerte "literally forced us to embrace democracy". His is a learning process that many of his former academic colleagues in Germany have neither been willing nor able to go through. It is a tragedy, both for himself and for German society, that Schwerte never got round to outing himself in time. I would argue that his democratic convictions would have been even more impressing had we known earlier that in his youth he was a Nazi. By waiting until he was forced to reveal his past, Schwerte has incurred the risk that many people will not believe him anything any more. Yet, resorting to the ideological viewpoint that Nazis will always remain Nazis, is too easy an answer, it seems to me, for it is dangerously close to the thought that someone is born a Nazi. National Socialism did not come from outer space, it evolved in specific socio-economic, political and cultural conditions. Peoplebecame Nazis that, had different circumstances prevailed, may well have become anything but Nazis.
As for Hans Schwerte's postwar betrayal, some critics tend to forget that not only he resorted to a change of name. The Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949, but as far as its citizens, their individual history and moral responsibility are concerned, there never was a Zero Hour. German postwar society went through a collective change of name, calling themselves no longer Volksgenossen (national comrades) but Bundesbürger (federal citizens), and they tried to learn (and did so quite successfully) what it means to be a democrat; yet for decades, they remained silent on what had been before. In this respect, the life of Hans Schneider alias Schwerte is a metaphor for Germany's conversion from National Socialism to democracy. I am not at all condoning the way Germans approached, or rather failed to approach, the issue of their responsibility for, and involvement in, the horrors Nazi Germany wrought upon humankind. I would only beg to notice that Hans Schwerte has been among the few academics to critically address the infamous role scholarship played in forging and advocating notions that effectively helped National Socialism seize power. This does not alter or excuse the fact that he failed to publicly account for his own entanglement. And yet, I hope the scholars and students that now categorically condemn Hans Schwerte, will not rest on their laurels when they will have succeeded in getting Schwerte's doctorate revoked. I hope they will not mistake this symbolic action for their due part in the real task that is still before us, namely, to come to terms with our history. I hope these people will actively participate in the quest to identify the factors that contributed to German scholarship's becoming an accessory to the most abominable totalitarian system humankind has ever experienced.

Finally, let us return to the questions posed in the introduction. Should we allow people to return to the democratic process who forsake the path of violence and advocacy of a bloody ideology? Is their conversion to democracy to be taken seriously? I would argue that those who categorically deny the very possibility of Schwerte's metamorphosis into a convinced democrat, might well think about what this viewpoint entails for Germany and, indeed, for today's societies in Eastern Europe and South Africa as well as for the peace processes in the Middle East, Bosnia, and Ireland.

© Joachim Lerchenmueller, Feb 1996 + 28 May 1997

letzte Änderung: 21.09.2001
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