by Merilyn Moos
While it was not the subject of our book, we thought it would be interesting to note what happened to the anti-Nazis mentioned in our book, ‘Anti-Nazi Germans’, who fled Germany and ended up, even if temporarily, in the UK. What emerges however is how different the trajectories were: of the seven political refugees considered here, only one of whom, as far as we could establish, settled permanently in the UK.
These refugees did not have an easy time of it here. Just getting in was exceedingly difficult. The British state did not welcome anti-Nazis, whom, generally, they equated with Communists. Indeed, up till the Anschluss in 1938, there probably only were only two or three hundred political refugees accepted into the UK out of a total of about 2000 refugees altogether. This is not surprising. The British government stipulated no political activity and threatened expulsion for doing so. There was a deep suspicion about Communists and other lefties. MI5 were devoted to the surveillance and investigation of communists (Brinson and Dove, 110). These refugees found it difficult if not impossible to remain politically active here, unless under cover of some other activity. Indeed, as Brinson and Dove show, MI5 collaborated with the new Nazi authorities: in 1933, the Prussian Secret Police (about to become the Gestapo) even allowed them to inspect their documents on the Comintern (Brinson and Dove, 16). MI5 almost certainly knew the names and activities of almost all the anti-Nazis who arrived here. Most of these refugees returned to Germany, though not always to the East.
The refugees included here are not typical: many German anti-Nazis, especially those from the organised left, were murdered or were in camps, those who escaped Germany did not generally come (or want to come) to the UK (c.f. Steve’s part of book on Germans who fought in the Spanish Civil War), while many of the people included here escaped between 1933 and 1938 and finally, the people in our study were part of a working class movement, some Jewish , some not, and fled because of the Nazis’ virulent anti-Bolshevism, rather than fleeing principally because of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic practices.
None of the people detailed here were the bureaucratic leaders of their organisations, whether ‘left’ political parties, such as the KPD or SPD, or of the trade-unions but then our book was about anti-Nazis from within the working class movement. (The trajectory, for example, of the (highly disputatious) Social Democratic leaders who got into the UK reveals a very different story.) The brave anti-Nazis, listed here, are, largely, part of the forgotten.
The men included here are also not typical of the small earlier cohort of left-wing, often Communist, German refugees who had actively opposed the Nazis up till 1933 and whom the Nazis hunted straight after the Reichstag fire (c.f. my book: ‘Beaten but not Defeated, a biography of my father), and who escaped soon after Hitler became Chancellor, some of whom attempted, secretly, to rebuild a network and to continue to be politically active in the UK.
And the people included here are all men: it is not that there were no women in the resistance (c.f. our book), but their numbers were much fewer and, although it is impossible to be sure, proportionally far fewer women fled overall, whether because they did not have the financial means to survive exile, felt responsible for family, were less likely to be an acknowledged part of an underground network or, possibly, preferred France or Spain (cf Steve’s section of book).
It is remarkable that so little publicity has been given to these brave anti-Nazis, all of whom had risked their lives before arriving here. The information here is at times very patchy as these peoples’ lives were generally fairly invisible, as is still the case for so many refugees. It is to be hoped that this glimpse provides a spur for others to look further at them!
It is assumed this will be read in conjunction with the book: ‘Anti-Nazi Germans’ and the details from there are not generally repeated here; the order here is based on their first appearance in the book.
Walter Loewenheim ( 1896 – 1977)
Walter Loewenheim joined the German Communist Party (KPD) with his younger brother, Ernst. In the 1920s. The two brothers became increasingly critical of KPD’s failure to take Nazism seriously and to build an underground organisation and left in 1927. In August 1933 Walter Loewenheim wrote “Neu Beginnen” (New Beginning) under the pseudonym “Miles”, published by SOPADE (the executive committee of the Social Democratic Party in Exile) in September 1933 in Prague, around which a loose group formed. Its focus was on training a cadre within the divided German labour movement. Though opposed by the majority, after multi-arrests of their members, by 1934 Walter and Ernst Loewenheim had become convinced that underground work was futile, claimed too many victims and that the cadre of about 30 should emigrate. In 1935, Walter emigrated to Prague and then Britain in 1936. Loewenheim briefly maintained a loose grouping in the UK though its membership was largely intellectuals. He was interned from 1940 to 1941, After 1945, he changed his name to Lowe, managed an engineering company together with his brother, and did not make any further political appearance, dying in London in 1977.
Fritz Wienst (1895-1983) had joined the youth organisation of the Socialistische Arbeitpartei (SAJ, a split off from the SPD), the Social Democrats (SPD) and in 1917, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD, soon to form the Communist Party: the KPD). He was arrested as early as 1918 for his political activities and then again after the March Action of 1921. He was also an active member of the Metalworkers Union. From 1922, Wiest was employed at the KPD headquarters; he had been active in worker sports and became responsible for worker sports in the trade union department of the KPD. Repeatedly arrested, he was excluded from the KPD after he opposed their ultra-left turn and joined the Communist Party Opposition (KPO, a split off from the KPD) in 1928. In 1933, he was the union leader in the KPO in Berlin.
He fled in 1935, initially living in France and then (probably) in Prague, where he stayed until 1938. Then he fled to Norway via Belgium and Denmark. In 1940 he emigrated to Scotland on a British warship with his wife Anna, as Norway was occupied by German troops. Wiest was interned in Scotland and was then sent to a British camp in Canada. (The Government interned a disproportionate number of ‘Communists’ in the ‘Dominions’.) In 1941/42, he was transferred to a camp on the Isle of Man and released in 1942. Then he and his wife, Anna Wiest, lived in London, where Wiest returned to being a metal worker. They only returned to W. Germany in 1957. (Weber, Hermann, Andreas Herbst : German Communists. Biographical handbook 1918 to 1945, Karl Dietz, Berlin 2008).
Ludwig Gehm was a lathe operator, was a member of the International Socialist Combat League (ISK) from 1927 in Frankfurt am Main, a small group whose original members had been expelled by the SPD. The group disrupted Nazi rallies, committed sabotage, and saved political refugees. Gehm was its regional head, coordinating with the SAP and the KPO. He was arrested on several occasions, survived appalling conditions at Buchenwald and was then sent to the death battalion 999 in Greece. He then went over to the Greek resistance, ELAS. Captured by British soldiers, he was sent to in a British POW camp in N Africa. Large numbers of German POWs –about 400, 000 in 1946, were held by Britain but it has not been possible to find further details about Gehm’s time in the North African camp. He later returned to W Germany where he became a SPD councilorGehm has become better known in Germany after a film: ‘Ein deutscher Widerstandskämpfe’ and a book: ‘Der treue Partisan: Ein deutscher Lebenslauf, Ludwig Gehm’, 1989 were produced about him.
Eric Richter, a KPD activist in the Pirna region, near the Czech border, was head of the Pirna branch of the Red Front, an organisation especially hated by the SA and SS because of the years before 1933 when they had been the main organisation confronting them. The Red Front had been banned in 1929 following the ‘illegal’ May Day march so Richter, like so many of the Red Front, had experience of working illegally in a way many, probably most, of the KPD did not. Working with or alongside the Gebauer anti-fascist group, he succeeded in transporting a press at night, including the ink, in order to print flyers calling for a fight against fascism. They hid the press in a rock-cave in a quarry at Satanskopf, which the ‘Red Climbers’ used as a secret office and hiding place. He first emigrated to France, then to Czechoslovakia, then, in 1939, to Britain. Later, he returned to E. Germany. (http://en.pirna.de/Citizens/History/Pirna-city-archive/4168l1/).
Kurt Hager, KPD from 1930 and Red Front from 1932, was active as a courier to Czechoslovakia on behalf of the German Communist Youth Association, a highly dangerous activity. Arrested and sent briefly to the Heuberg camp, after release, he worked briefly underground for the KPD in Switzerland where in 1936, he was arrested before moving to Paris. (Switzerland did not have a good record in their policies towards anti-Nazis.)
From 1937-1939, he worked as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War where he ran the “German freedom broadcasting station”. In 1939 he emigrated to but was detained in France and then left for Britain. Here he was in part responsible for the foundation in 1939 of the ‘Free German League of Culture’, alongside other luminaries such as Wilhel Koenen, Prof Kuczinski and his (notorious) son, Jurgen. (In practice, this organisation was not ‘a German League’: it was boycotted by members of the SPD and even its own –KPD- members fell out with each other.)
Hager wrote under the pseudonym “Felix Albin’ and became responsible for KPD international organisation. Hager was interned at Huyton in 1940 and later on the Isle of Man, along with many German anti-Nazis.
He returned to Berlin, in what was to become E. Germany in 1945/46 where he had an illustrious if chequered career. Until 1946 he worked as forestry worker and welder and then became an editor, then a lecturer. In 1946 he joined and rose in the SED up to the level of Politburo, specialising in propaganda. Following his later opposition to glasnost, Hager was removed from his functions In November 1989, and in 1990 was expelled from the SED. Hager died in Berlin in 1998. (Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur: Biographische Datenbanken)
Bruno Retzlaff- Kresse was another courier who regularly smuggled himself over the border into Czechoslovakia, a highly dangerous activity. He was a part of a well organised local resistance though, in his memoirs, he recounts the foolhardiness of young hot-heads as late as May 1933 counter attacking the SA. But this tells us more about his KPD mainstream politics than about the desirability of this initiative.
He was got out thanks in part to the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia who miraculously succeeded in getting out about 1000 people. Kresse had ended up on the Czech side of the border during his couriering activities. Moved on to Manchester, with the active support of the Manchester Society of Friends, the comrades set up a KPD branch, though the group encouraged a belief that they were anti-fascist Social-Democrats and trade-unionists, presumably to both reassure the Quakers and avoid the attention of the British state. At the same time, they tried to contact their Communist comrades and campaigned amongst trade-unions, the Labour Party and the Left Book club. But there were problems with their British comrades who did not prioritise the anti-Nazi so much as the anti-Franco struggle (Bill Williams, Jews and other foreigners, 194-196).
After the end of the war, Kresse found he was not allowed to leave Manchester, recalling later the irony that the British authorities who had once tried to prevent them from entering were now wanting to keep them in the UK at all costs. According to Brinson and Dove, the explanation yet again lies in the British state’s anti-communism; they wanted to prevent communists playing an active role back home (A Matter of Intelligence, 220). In the end, Kresse went back to E Germany. (Illegalität Kerker Exil – Erinnerungen Taschenbuch von Bruno Retzlaff-Kresse, 1980, Ian Wallace, eds, German-speaking Exiles in Great Britan).
Rudolph Vrba , a Jewish Slovakian biochemist, appears in a chapter in our book, not so much as a member of the resistance, but because he was one of the most famous to escape Auschwitz and then attempt to publicise the mass murders occurring there.
Early in March 1942, in a rebellion against the deportation laws, Vrba ripped the yellow Star of David off his clothes and left his Czechoslovakian home in a taxi, heading for Britain via Hungary. Later, having been intercepted by frontier guards, he was first sent to the Novaky transition camp in Slovakia, where he tried to escape, but again was caught and beaten, sent to a number of camps, ending up in Auschwitz in 1942.
Miraculously, he survived an escape in October 1943 and was one of the first to present a report, giving first hand evidence on its horrors, submitted to the Slovenian Jewish council. It warned that preparations were being made for the murder of nearly 800,000 Hungarian Jews and that 3,000 Czech Jews, in Auschwitz would be gassed within a few months. The – belated – distribution of the report in Switzerland is seen as having helped halt the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz in July 1944 but Vrba felt very strongly that the Hungarian and Slovakian Jewish leadership had not prioritised the report, thus contributing to the deaths of many Jews.
On 29 August 1944 the Slovak Army rose up against the Nazis and the reestablishment of Czechoslovakia was announced. Vrba joined the Slovak partisans in September 1944 and was later awarded the Czechoslovak Medal of Bravery. Vrba then studied chemistry in Czechoslavakia , but, disliking Soviet control, left to work in Israel where he stayed for two years. But he thought that some of those who had failed to publicise his report were now working in Israel. He was not popular there and said later that he had not been able to continue living in Israel because the same men who had, in his view, betrayed the Jewish community in Hungary were now in positions of power there. In 1960 he moved to England, and became a British citizen in 1966, where he worked for two years in the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit in Carshalton, Surrey, and seven years for the Medical Research Council. Then he moved to Canada (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/apr/13/guardianobituaries.secondworldwar)