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Feb 2014 Journal

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A tale from the November Pogrom

In June 1987, AJR Information published a letter from David Fisher, who, with Anthony Read, was writing a book on the ‘Crystal Night’ pogrom of 9-10 November 1938. In line with the growing trend among historians to supplement archival material and written documents with eye-witness testimony, Read and Fisher wished to include first-hand accounts of the events of that night in their book. Fisher’s letter requested AJR members who ‘have stories to tell which have never found a wider audience than their immediate family circle’ to contact him. The book appeared, first under the title Kristallnacht: The Nazi Night of Terror, then as Kristallnacht: The Unleashing of the Holocaust (1990), and has since disappeared from view.
Fisher’s letter elicited at least one response, from Mrs C. K. Rosenstiel, née Meumann, of Putney, London SW15, a Jewish refugee from Berlin, who had a very unusual story to tell. I am indebted to her son, Mr Colin Rosenstiel of Cambridge, for sending me her reply and other documents that provided the inspiration for this article. Mrs Rosenstiel’s letter recounted the remarkable story of the offer by a high-ranking German army officer to help his Jewish neighbours escape arrest during the pogrom:
In the afternoon of 9th November 1938 our neighbour, the wife of Colonel, later General Hans Oster, called to offer the shelter of their home to my father who was a lawyer aged 58. The news of the arrest of Jewish men had spread to both our families. The Osters and our family lived on the same floor of a Berlin apartment block. There were two staircases, one for tradesmen. Mrs Oster proposed that if the Gestapo called at the front door, my father could easily slip across to their flat by the back door.

In the event, the Meumanns decided that the plan represented too great a risk to the Osters and opted instead to send their young daughter to seek refuge for her father elsewhere. What none of the family then knew was that Oster was deeply involved in the clandestine activities of a group of senior military figures opposed to Hitler. Oster, who became deputy to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence service, was to continue these activities until 1943, when men close to him were found to have arranged the escape of 14 Jews, disguised as Abwehr agents, to Switzerland; this led to his dismissal. Arrested in the wake of the ‘Bomb Plot’, the failed attempt on Hitler’s life of 20 July 1944, Oster was tried by a Nazi court, sentenced to death, and hanged with Canaris and the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Flossenbürg concentration camp on 9 April 1945. The conspirators against Hitler were forced to strip naked before being taken to the gallows.

Mrs Rosenstiel concluded her letter to Fisher by taking the story of her family and the Osters up to 1987:
I am still in touch with his surviving daughter and am planning to attend the family celebration of the 100th anniversary of Hans Oster's birth in Hamburg in August. Needless to say the Germans have never adequately recognized Oster's heroic efforts to save them from Hitler.

As the photo of the memorial plaque that was erected to Oster in 1990 on the site of his erstwhile residence in Berlin, at Bayerische Straße 9, shows, his role in the resistance to Hitler has now received the recognition that Mrs Rosenstiel found lacking in 1987. Her son, a long-serving city councillor in Cambridge, carried on the family connection to the Osters. He recalls meeting Oster’s son Achim, a former playmate of his mother, and more recently had contact with Oster’s granddaughter when she lived in Heidelberg, Cambridge’s twin city. It was in part thanks to Colin Rosenstiel’s father that the plaque to Oster’s memory was installed in 1990 and its inauguration was the last occasion on which his parents visited Berlin.

The military resistance to Hitler has received decidedly mixed judgments from historians in recent decades, partly because in the predominantly conservative atmosphere of West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s it had been depicted as a group of right-minded (in both senses of the word) Germans who chose the road of honour in opposing Hitler and paid the ultimate price for doing so. During the Cold War, the military resistance was given pride of place in West Germany over the Communist and working-class resistance to Hitler, which was felt to be too close in its values and loyalties to the regime in East Germany. Modern historians now largely agree that the military resistance was politically a very mixed bag. As Gordon A. Craig demonstrated in The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945 (1955), senior officers in the Wehrmacht, the German army, were notorious for their antipathy to parliamentary, democratic forms of government, for their aggressive militarism, and for their disregard for civil rights and freedoms.

Army officers had sworn a ceremonial oath of loyalty to Hitler in August 1934 and had been more than content when he repudiated the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the provisions of which had severely limited the size of the German armed forces, and proceeded to rearm at full speed. Nor were they critical of Hitler’s policies towards his domestic opponents: they raised no objection when he crushed the Communist Party and the trade unions and destroyed the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic. They were also thoroughly supportive of his initial aims at expansion; for the military, the Versailles settlement of Germany’s eastern borders was a standing grievance and its rectification meant, for them, the reincorporation into Germany of territories awarded after 1918 to Poland and other Eastern European states. Their principal objection to Hitler before 1939 was that his policies risked precipitating a war with Britain and France before Germany was fully prepared and, after 1942-43, that he was leading Germany into the abyss of defeat.

Most of them, as conservative nationalists, opposed Hitler not from a standpoint of moral or political principle but because they saw that he was losing the war. That lack of a coherent moral and political alternative to the barbarity of Nazism was a crucial weakness in the right-wing resistance to Hitler. It contributed to the failure of the conspirators once they finally acted, on 20 July 1944, when the bomb planted by Colonel Graf Stauffenberg at Hitler’s military headquarters at Rastenburg, East Prussia, failed to kill him, leading to the rapid suppression of the attempted coup d’état and the arrest, execution or suicide of most of those involved. The hub of the right-wing resistance to Hitler consisted of senior military officers, many of whom, such as former Chief of General Staff General Ludwig Beck, were hesitant about committing themselves to outright opposition to the Nazi regime in time of war. The resistance also had adherents in the Foreign Office, among them State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker, another whose commitment was less than full-hearted. The resistance won to its cause some civilian politicians, including Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, a former mayor of Leipzig who would have served as chancellor in a post-Hitler government, and Wilhelm Leuschner and Julius Leber from the banned Social Democratic Party.

There was, however, no doubt about Hans Oster’s principled stand against Hitler. As his offer to help a Jewish family on the night of 9-10 November 1938 showed, he was one of the few officers to retain his moral values; these were to override his sense of military and patriotic duty to Germany even after the outbreak of war. Oster did not hesitate to pass information to the Dutch government about Hitler’s plans to invade the Netherlands in 1940 – information that would have cost the lives of tens of thousands of German soldiers if the Dutch had heeded the warnings and taken the appropriate military precautions. ‘Second to none in his detestation of the regime,’ in Professor Ian Kershaw’s words, Oster’s role in the resistance dated back to 1938, when he was at the centre of a group of conspirators opposed to Hitler’s plans for an attack on Czechoslovakia; on that occasion, Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler at Munich cut the ground from under them.

But the Abwehr continued to provide Oster with the ideal cover for his clandestine activities, its intelligence work allowing him to set up contact with other opponents of the Nazis like Henning von Tresckow, who organised attempts on Hitler’s life from his position as a senior staff officer with Army Group Centre on the eastern front, or General Friedrich Olbricht, who held a key strategic position in Berlin. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, who as Tresckow’s adjutant had smuggled a bomb onto a plane carrying Hitler from Army Group Centre back to Germany in March 1943 and who only escaped execution in February 1945 when the ‘People’s Court’ before which he was being tried took a direct hit from an American bomb, described Oster as ‘a man such as God meant men to be, lucid and serene in mind, imperturbable in danger’.

Anthony Grenville

next article:‘Yes, I remember Vienna’