An Unexpected Meeting
It was spring 1934 in Vaasa, Finland. My grandmother was out on her lunch-break from school, when a German couple stopped to ask her for directions. Aira, who was 15 years old at the time, knew German, and was happy to help them. Delighted to find a such an obliging local, the couple’s attempt to locate the county museum turned into an afternoon of making new friends. The couple introduced themselves as Christel W. and Kurt K.
Christel had recently graduated from school, and Kurt was a University clerk. They were engaged to be married, out on a sailing trip on Christel’s yacht – her father was a rich butcher in Königsberg. Aira and Christel enjoyed each others company, and exchanged addresses with promises to write.
Friendship at a Historical Time
I first found out about their correspondence when I recently took over a cardboard box of my grandmother’s old documents (more about that in a Tribute to My Grandmother, A Survivor of War and a Science Communicator 1950-1980). In the collection, among old family certificates and photographs, was a pile of worn-out letters, all with the stamps meticulously cut out – my grandmother collected stamps. I had not known Aira spoke German however, and with my curiosity kindled, I leafed through a couple of letters at random.
First I read about Aira and Christel’s thoughts about German and Finnish authors, and questions about the differences in their school systems. Then I happened by a letter from August 1934, where Christel sent Aira a couple of newspaper cutouts of the death and burial of someone called Hindenburg.The Hindenburg I knew about was an infamous airship, so I looked it up. Yes, the airship was named after the very same person, lying on his deathbed in the news footage: a long-time leader and President of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg. I learned that he had politically opposed Hitler, run against him in 1932, and won. But in January 1933, under increasing political pressure, von Hindenburg had nevertheless appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany and, soon after, granted him legal dictatorial powers: suspending several civil liberties of his citizens and allowing him to enact laws at will.
Astonishing – I was reading the words of a young citizen of Germany who had just become legally devoid of her rights to freedom of the press, of assembly, of free speech, of the protection of her rights to property, as well as to postal and telephone secrecy and protection against unlawful imprisonment!
With his new powers, Hitler had promptly imprisoned thousands of his political enemies, mostly communists and social democrats, and banned both parties in 1933. The communist member of the Reichstag in Christel’s hometown in Königsberg, Walter Schütz, had been murdered by the Nazis in 1933. The letter in my hand was from August 1934.
In June, just two months prior to the writing of that letter, Hitler had continued with another political purge, known as the Night of The Long Knives, killing close to a hundred, and imprisoning over a thousand more of his political opponents, this time targeting the leading figures of the left-wing faction of the Nazi party, and other problematic elements on his own side. Murder and imprisonment of so many notable figures could not be kept quiet – instead, in a broadcast speech on July 13th, Hitler declared he had acted as “the supreme judge of the German people” (oberster Gerichtsherr des deutschen Volkes), and all his targets had been guilty of treason. He further promised that “if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot”. Leaders of the army, the political and the judicial system quickly put their hands down and publicly agreed with him.
It must have been a very chilling time to be living in Germany. Or that is what I assumed, until I stumbled onto a letter that testified on Christel’s feelings on the topic.
Inside Perspective into the Mind of an Aryan Citizen
The next letter included another newspaper cutout from August 1934, this one from shortly after Hindenburg’s burial. My grandmother had asked if there were stamps featuring Hitler (!), for Christel answered there were not, because the Führer was such a refined personage and did not like to “parade himself before everyone”. She attached a news photo of Hitler instead.
The letter began pleasantly enough, with Christel praising Aira’s German, saying she had read sections of her last letter aloud to a party of fourteen people. Christel said she enjoyed learning so many new things from an exchange with a foreigner. Aira appears to have been similarly keen to learn more about her perspective, and Christel obliges her curiosity in the passages that follow.
I have done my best to translate them below (for the German originals, please see the end of the piece):
Now, you wanted to hear something about Germany: Hitler himself is the most brilliant and energetic man you can ever think of, never has anyone done what he did for Germany. He has united Germany and eliminated the multiplicity of the parties. There is no German who does not look with admiration at this man.
The fact that we do not shine very brightly economically speaking, is the result of the disgraceful peace treaty of 1918, in which our representatives consented to things which subjected the German people for years, I would say, for centuries to servitude, but after the National Socialist revolution, the German people, with Hitler at the lead, have in all possible ways attempted to lighten these obligations of the people. We all believe that the manifold measures of our Führer will be successful. Only one thing we want and desire: peace. For how would it be for us, if our German men had to go back into the war, which in the present state of technology would mean mass death. We, especially the women, desire nothing more than peace.
Christel’s account is an astonishing compact report of many of the historical factors that lead to Hitler’s rise. Impoverished people, check, who feel they have been wronged, check, believe they are finally going to get the better life they deserve, check, and are enthralled by the promises of a proud authoritarian leader – check.
Hitler “eliminated the multiplicity of parties”? Christel seems eager to view this a strength rather than a warning sign of dictatorship. She does not appear to know or want to believe that Hitler would persecute people unjustly or cruelly, or least of all, lead Germans into a war.
What About The Jews?
In the next breath, Christel feels a need to defend her country against claims she has heard talked of abroad, concerning Jews.
The concentration camps, at the time of her writing of that letter, which she may or may not have known about, were reserved for political enemies and “social misfits” (detained under the legislation of established eugenics laws and sterilisation programs), but persecution of Jews was set in motion in 1933 through a process of heavy legal discrimination that paved the way for the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws, introduced one year after the time of her letter.
The measures already in place included:
- campaigns to boycott Jewish businesses, starting with a nationwide day on 1st of April 1933, one Jew was shot, and vandalism was common;
- the ‘Aryan laws’, also in place in April, forbidding Jews to work in law, universities, or civil service, later applied to other professions;
- public burning of books of Jewish authors in May 1933;
- barring Jewish children access to public schools;
- and stripping naturalised Jews of their citizenship, July 1933, enabling legal deportation.
In effect, Jews were ‘encouraged’ to leave Germany voluntarily under threat of harassment and harsh economic and societal pressure.
These laws were defended in a widely distributed Nazi propaganda pamphlet, Why the Aryan paragraph?, in 1934, and reading the passage below, Christel’s words, written soon after, echo the sentiments of that pamphlet eerily well. Christel writes to my grandmother:
As far as the persecution of the Jews is concerned, I can only say, and it is the conviction of the majority, that it was necessary to exterminate this race as completely as possible. They were at odds with the German sense with their selfish and unfair Jewish spirit. In their hands – thanks to their refined business tricks – accumulated the capital, which they managed to lure out of our poor German comrades, and this money and property they then took with them abroad. If this persecution had not been carried out with all force, it would not have succeeded, and it was better to do it so – for the Jews, with their pronounced sense of selfishness and creep, would otherwise always have found ways of taking advantage of Germany unfairly.
You, therefore, must not find these persecutions too harsh, for, from a distance, it was not possible to see the effects of Judaism; The people and the middle class probably did not know before that the Jews were the cause of many evils and misfortunes, because they know how to cover up well, but our eyes were opened.
And now, after having escaped with their capital from Germany, they are spewing such filth and abomination-propaganda against the German Reich, that one shudders to think that anyone would take these things to be true, that the other countries would stir up and believe this barbarism, of which the Germans are, in reality, not at all capable.
Christel’s word slammed the air right out of my lungs. She truly wrote the words “necessary to exterminate this race as completely as possible” – and then went on to add with sincerity that Germans would not be at all capable of barbaric acts. Such open eyes!
Christel seems naively to have believed that the laws of 1933 and the uprooting of Jews from the legal, academic, and economic systems were, and would be, the extent of the “extermination” (alt. “extirpation”).
Granted, thanks to anti-semitic influences in the area, under the leadership of the Gauleiter and Oberbürgermeister Erich Koch since 1928, many of the Königsberg Jews did emigrate to the UK and US before the war.
In 1933, 54 % of the Königsberg population had voted for the Nazis.
The Königsberg Jewish population had decreased from its peak of 5,000 in 1880, to 3,200 by the year 1933, of which 2,100 were left to experience the mass-imprisonments of the Kristallnacht, and the burning of their Synagogue in 1938, the beginning of the end.
The Language of the Holocaust
What is haunting is how the very language Christel used describes what actually followed – Hitler’s “Final Solution“, the literal extermination of millions of Jews – and demonstrates how arguments for that plan of action were introduced into the vocabulary, cemented in the regular way of thinking of the German people many years prior to the Holocaust. In his speech in the previous month, Hitler had actually used the very same verb as Christel did: ausrotten (to exterminate) also in a non-literal way, inspiring outrage supposedly channeled toward just measures, when he argued that “we must exterminate the vestiges of poisonous elements” upon the German people.
These elements were initially spotlighted as the threat of communism – this had been the driver for acquiring dictatorial rights – but he soon introduced the idea that Jews, paradoxically, were not only unjust hoarders of German goods, but also the main source of this Marxist “poison”. From the 1934 pamphlet Why the Aryan paragraph?:
We think it necessary to mention that the Communist wave that threatened to destroy Germany politically, economically and intellectually can primarily be traced back to Jewry.
Hitler managed to convince the populace that his ‘extermination’ was merely a ‘civilised’ matter of economical pressure and immigration laws, while he spread the conspiratorial view that this process was necessary for restoring the proper order and welfare of the German society.
In fact, the pamphlet Why the Aryan paragraph? claims that Hitler saved Germany from a hostile Jewish takeover:
The Jewish attorney Maurthner in Vienna said back in the 1880’s: “It is not just a matter of fighting anti-Semitism. We want to oppose it with Jewish domination!”
They made the attempt. If the German people had not recovered their senses at the last moment, and if they had not had a Führer and Chancellor named Adolf Hitler who recognized the danger and woke the German people, we would have fallen into slavery.
Reading about the strength of Christel’s belief in the propaganda against Jews and her unwavering trust in Hitler left me speechless.
Hitler took something real: the threat of communistic Soviet Union; misleadingly presented an individual act of arson (Reichstag fire) as a systemic violent manifestation of that threat within Germany; then fabricated a Jewish conspiracy behind the communist threat; and promised to solve Germany’s problems by ridding them of that element. And people like Christel ate it up.
Theoretical vs Visceral Knowledge
It’s not that this was something fundamentally new to me. I had understood from history lessons that Hitler had the support of the majority, that a great many believed his propaganda. But it’s a different thing altogether to hear my teacher say so, than to read that conviction on a yellowing piece of paper with smudges of ink, typed by someone my grandmother knew.
A real, young, schooled person said these things. A person, furthermore, who was living in a city that would in ten years time be heavily bombed, then sieged, and after 90 % of Königsberg was destroyed, taken over by the Soviets, and its German population forcibly expelled. The Soviet Union would rename the city Kaliningrad. (It is to this day a Russian ‘semi-exclave’ and an important military location on the Baltic sea.)
This realisation very rudely hit me in the face: the Nazi political take-over really happened. While it happened, people convinced themselves that it was for the better. And something like this could happen again.
A Need to Understand
If my discovery of this letter would not have been gruesome enough on its own right, it happened to coincide with the week of violent white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville in the US.
I was very unsettled. The recent increase in popularity of many nationalistic parties across Europe, and the loud voices of the white supremacists in US seemed like history returning to haunt us.
These letters demonstrated something about racial supremacist ideology that I needed to understand. There were so many questions I wanted to ask my grandmother – but she had passed away when I was six. Did she buy Christel’s view of Hitler and the Jews? She was only 16 at the time of that letter. Hitler Jugend sometimes toured Finland, but national socialist movements in Finland never gained much popularity. If Aira didn’t believe Christel’s account of the Jews, how could she go on corresponding with her?
More importantly, how could a person, not to mention a whole nation, come to believe such things – and how could I learn to understand this piece of history in its context, and make sure that I would know enough to recognise and understand the dynamics that might lead to such a path?
I started reading more about the early history of Nazism. Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it, and so forth. I took a more systemic approach with the letters, ordering and reading through them all – to the best of my ability, and with some help from friends where the handwriting had deteriorated to such careless state that it makes me wonder if the past generations did not possess some lost art of visual analysis.
In her first letter, May 1934, Christel describes her sailing trip after Vaasa, where she had met Aira. She and Kurt continued past Skagen in Denmark, along Norway’s coast, and to Holland (the Netherlands). They visit Rotterdam, Haag, Scheveningen, and Delft, where the famous dutch blue-white porcelain comes from. She is not happy with Holland, however. She writes:
Holland is a very beautiful and rich country; but very small, and unfortunately I do not like it, for many Jews from Germany have gone there, and they produce such propaganda against Germany. Their diatribes are spread in books and newspapers, they are all completely untrue or horribly exaggerated.
She tells Aira a bit of the history of Königsberg. She explains about the difficulty for women to get a place in the over-full Universities, but says she plans to marry in a year or two: “That is, after all, the best profession for a woman, isn’t it true?” I rolled my eyes at that. Let’s just say I would be very surprised if my grandmother was in agreement.
The second letter is not very particular, there is some talk about Christel’s great love of nature, and her comments on the romantic movement – she mentions author E.T. A. Hoffmann. But the envelope is interesting. It has been ripped, resealed, and stamped “opened for foreign exchange surveillance” in Königsberg 22th of June. Germans and their lost right to postal secrecy. The customs checking that no inappropriate information leaves the country?
Stealing a Letter?
The Night of the Long Knives happens shortly after letter two – at least 77 politically inconvenient leaders are killed and over a thousand imprisoned. Christel’s third letter is missing (my grandmother has numbered them), and I wonder if it would have mentioned something about Hitler’s “heroic acts of doing away with the traitors.” Fourth letter, in August 1934, is the one with news about Hindenburg. In the fifth, Christel asks Aira what the people in Finland think about Germany and Hitler (if only I knew what she answered!). Christel says she is asking “in order to come closer to you and your people.”
Nazis counted the Nordic people racially as next-best after Germans, and Finland had sympathies for Germany from the start of the century, since Germany’s war with Russia gave Finland a tactical advantage in declaring our independence in 1917 – and the two countries were allies against the Soviet Union in the beginning of World War II. From the letters I understand that Finnish art and culture is featured quite a bit in German newspapers.
The sixth letter is the one that sent me off on this historical exploration to begin with, and which I have quoted at length before. By now, at least, Christel has shown her true colours. What did my grandmother think of it? I wish I could ask her. Christel also provides the address of one recent graduate Else G. for Aira’s classmate who has asked for a German pen-pal of her own.
The seventh letter is from October 1934. Aira and Christel discuss Finnish rumours about Hitler’s plans to marry, and they discuss Finnish and German literature. Christel makes a most peculiar request: she wants Aira to borrow a letter from her classmate on some pretence, and send it for her to see – she suspects something is not as it should be about Else, the pen-pal Christel had arranged.
Could it be that Else is not as true a nationalist as she should be? Perhaps Christel doesn’t want any “dreadful propaganda” about the political and ethnic persecution of the Jews to be spread abroad? Does Christel wish to find evidence of her acquaintance writings on inappropriate topics? Perhaps I’m reading too much into things – it might be nothing but personal intrigue.
I don’t know whether to be proud of my grandmother that she apparently does not comply, or frustrated that she continues the correspondence at all, after a break of a couple of months.
Brave New People and Their Forbidden Words
In letter eight, January 1935, Christel mentions that the matter with Else is passeé in any case, as she has “moved away without even giving Christel her new address!” (Or… emigrated? Her family imprisoned? My imagination is racing.)
In letters eight and nine (January and March 1935) Christel also gushes over the Swedish Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, attaches samples of the Finnish national epos Kalevala in a German newspaper, talks more about the close ties between Finland and Germany, and celebrates the Saar referendum, mentioning again with bitterness the Versailles treaty, which ceded that area to France 1919. The Saar Basin has voted to be united once more with Germany – a political victory for Hitler.
In letter ten, May 1935, Christel sounds stressed and unhappy. She asks how people are in Finland, and writes:
Here everyone is nervous, young and old, recently we have introduced in Germany a Störungsschutzwoche [a week of protection from disturbance] that takes place several times a year; the cars can only honk in an emergency, the electric trains can’t ring, and the motorcycles are not allowed to make unnecessary noise – everything to spare the nerves of the people and make big cities less harmful. Well, maybe it does help! It would really be desirable that a new, more resistant (beautiful word!) people should arise.
A new people, huh? Neues Volk was the name of the monthly magazine of the Office of Racial Policy in Nazi Germany.
On a side-mention of Hitler her spirits do not seem to have dampened, and she adds:
…he is a man whom we all greatly honour, and Germany has a lot to thank him for.
She describes the 1st of May, their greatest national holiday, saying they all marched singing to Erich-Koch-Platz, named after their current Oberbürgermeister Koch, who later resided over the occupied areas of Poland and Ukraine, and who was found guilty of the war crimes of murdering 400,000 Poles. The wedding of Luftfahrtminister Herrmann Göring and Staatsschauspielerin (‘State’s actor’) Emmi Sonnenmann in Berlin is also big news to Christel.
The next passage mentions another influence on common terminology for a political purpose: Christel says she would like to tell Aira about things that she finds especially interesting, but isn’t sure what they would be. But in saying so, she catches herself using two “forbidden foreign words”: speziell and interessierendes. They are not German enough.
Our Motto now is: speak German! Or eat German fruit and you stay healthy […]
Christel also asks how it is with the Finnish military, and mentions seeing aired beds and soldiers laughing at her when she and Kurt had happened to wander over to the barracks in Vaasa during their trip the year before. This sounds to me like a strange thing to bring up. I don’t know what to make of it.
The Celebration of Germanism by Germans among Germans in Our German Fatherland
The letter eleven is from June 1935, and it describes the importance of a celebration taking place in Königsberg this year: the ‘VDA-holiday’ (Verein für das Deutschtum im Ausland, an organisation for Germans living abroad) where they dress in traditional costumes and celebrate their “Germanism”:
And for us it has a profound and a tragic meaning – through the treaty of Versailles after the war, in 1919 our German fatherland was [greatly reduced] above all the borders – which means that the Victory Powers or Allies forced us to cede these countries. To name a few: Lithuania, Latvia, Schleswig-Holstein, Poland, Böhmen, and also all the German colonies in Africa and America. In all these countries are now German men, German men and women who now struggle hard for their Germanism. Once every year the German brothers and sisters come to their German fatherland, to be Germans among Germans, and on this occasion a large festive procession marches through the streets of the city in which the conference takes place[…]
That someone writes this in all earnestness is astonishing to me. But then again, if you listen to much any of Hitler’s speeches, he does use just this type of national pathos. When you listen to him long enough, perhaps it is to be expected that some of it rubs off on you.
Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Flex
Letter twelve, August 1935, is mostly about philosophy. Christel quotes Walter Flex:
To remain pure and to mature, that is the most beautiful and most difficult skill in life.
Themes of romantic idealism, like purity and the spiritual beauty of nature, surface time and again throughout the correspondence. When Aira asks Christel about her life philosophy, she answers with what I find to be a strangely self-conscious statement:
There have been many great philosophers and thinkers all over, and when one engages a little more in their writings, one finds that every time epoch has its heroes and different spiritual directions. A man is a product of his time.
She mentions Nietzsche as the philosopher closest to the German people of her day, because “He loved the people of the future, the Übermensch.”
Aira has also asked her about the German view on the tightening Italy-Abyssinia conflict, which Christel says the Germans scorn Italy for, and she reports in turn of the plans to build a great new highway through Germany.
Nuremberg Laws and the Summer Olympics
It’s the autumn of 1935 and the correspondence is nearing its end. A month after the philosophical letter twelve, Nuremberg Race Laws are introduced, stripping all Jews of their citizenship, and most opportunities for profession and trade. They must give up 90 % of their property upon emigrating. “Racial defilement” – an Aryan and a Jew having sex or other intimate physical contact – becomes punishable by prison, is later followed by a transport to concentration camp.
Letter thirteen arrives two months after Nuremberg Laws, and talks almost exclusively of Christel’s wedding plans the following spring, her dowry, how each generation must make their own decisions despite what their parents want, and what she will need to buy for her future household.
The last letter, number fourteen, arrives in January 1936. Christel regrets she and Kurt will not be able to come visit Aira in Finland, for after they marry, they will head to Kiel, where Kurt will work at the University as a law docent. She is very excited for the Olympics, particularly for the fact that the sailing competitions will be held in Kiel. What a grandiose experience it will be!
The harsher enforcement of Nuremberg Laws was delayed, for reasons of maintaining an easier international image, until after the Olympics in summer 1936.
Two years after the Olympics, it would become almost impossible for potential Jewish emigrants to find a country that would take them. In the end of that year, 1938, on Kristallnacht, 30,000 Jews would be sent to concentration camps, and hundreds killed. By 1941, the Holocaust would be in full force, resulting in the death of millions of ethnic or political undesirables – different estimates put the total death toll between 15-20 million.
There are no more letters after that. My grandmother mentions her initial meeting with Christel and the beginning of their correspondence in her family biography, but nothing else. At some point in her youth, she mentions seeing the rigidly parading Hitler Jugend out and about in Finland, and talks of the rise of their ‘megalomanic leader Hitler’. Perhaps she was not so naive as to be swayed by Christel’s description of the events after all? On the other hand, she mentions her and her classmates at occasion going to listen to national socialist talks, because ‘that’s just what young people did back then’. The movement never really took off in Finland in that time.
I wonder how long Christel held on to her views of Hitler as the saviour, the Jews as the perpetrators, and the German’s “not at all capable of barbaric acts”? Did she or her family die in the bombings of Königsberg eight years later? I will probably never know.
Is It Possible to Learn from History?
What this letter brought home to me in a powerfully convincing way, is how much freedom of the press matters. How much facts matter, and how important it is to have a way and a willingness to verify claims – by news sources, or your fellow party members. What difference would it have made, if Hitler’s political assassination and imprisonment sprees would have had a free press reporting on them? Would he already have censored the German internet, should it have existed at the time? Times and situations change, and the circumstances are always different. But some very similar trends rise time and again.
It is haunting to observe the persistent waves of bigotry in human history. Are we doomed to carry this tendency to hostility and condescension towards such groups of people among us, who we in some manner are able to differentiated as “other”? Is it a recurring phenomenon to conflate a set of problems as an inseparable consequence of a certain people and their ancestry, rather than questions of complex circumstance – of the economic, educational, societal, political, or religious context of the times?
It is frightening to think that this tendency to intolerance could be harnessed again and again in situations of hardship, condensing power into the hands of the kinds of leaders who succeed in conveying to the public a sense of their own inherent superiority, feeding them the convenient idea that the freedom from their struggles and the unleashing of their bigoted tendencies would be one and the same.
I would hate to let myself be fooled into thinking that one group of people is the root of our problems, and that ridding ourselves of those people one way or another would be the solution. Things rarely are so simple.
Christel’s story is a sad testament to what it is like to be fooled. What if we find ourselves in the dark once more, angrily pointing fingers at the culprit most conveniently placed there for us to see? If man indeed is a product of his time, how can we steer our times away from such a path?
I would very much like to thank Zosia Baranczuk, Lennart Meier, and Marie Alexis for their gracious help with deciphering some of the more difficult parts of the handwriting.
If you would like to learn more about the life and work of my grandmother, you can do so in A Tribute to My Grandmother, A Survivor of War, and a Pioneer Science Communicator 1950-1980. If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy.
Sometimes it may take some time before I find the time to sort through and accept comments, especially if they make strong claims without evidence. In a nutshell:
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.
PS: In the case that these letters would be of interest to historians or museums somewhere or other, feel free to drop me a line to ask about them, or let me know whom to contact.
The originals of Christel’s letter number six – the one which shocked me into reading the whole correspondence. My grandmother has numbered the pages and made some Finnish translations in handwriting. Page 1, the pleasantries:
Page 2, about my grandmother’s schooling, second paragraph on Christel’s admiration of Hitler:
Page 3 What concerns the persecution of the Jews:
Page 4, switching from justifying persecution of Jews and back to pleasantries: