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15 February 2015

Fifty Years Ago: "The Eight Rebels of Dithmarschen"

Picture: Spiegel Magazine

This is the only English language document I have been able to find on my Dad's battle with my home town's Nazis. It' s an article published February 13, 1965, fifty years ago, in the Winnipeg Free Press.  

By the way,  the pastor's "eldest child mocked at school", that's me at age 7. One day, as we (my mom, my sister and I) entered the local butcher shop, the owner said to my mom, "You are no longer welcome here.  Something might happen to you if you do come back."  I have seen the "spittingly obscene postcards, unsigned".


"By Neal Ascherson.
WESSELBUREN, Schleswig-Holstein

... In the salt fens of Dithmarschen, six young school-masters, an old politician and a pastor are fighting a battle whose echoes are ringing through all Germany. Their enemies are the guardians of tradition in this dark, flat land by the North land from which the Saxons set out for the English shore, where Christianity came late and ineffectually, where faith in bonds of blood and earth survived among xenophobic farmer clans to find expression in the racial myths of the Nazis, and survives still.

Stinging wet snow blew across the graveyard of Wesselburen, as the minister showed me fresh tombs of the "Geschlechter", the clans. Huge dolmen slabs, they bear a family name but no Christian sign or prayer. Some of them are ornamented with reliefs, of horses dragging a plough, of a wolf rampant or a hooded rider. Here lie the men of Dithmarschen, the families who ruled a primitive agrarian republic destroyed in the sixteenth century, whose lineage is still retold and glorified by a Clan League with members. Local museums insist on the pre-historic origin of the "Geschlechter" - identifying them with the builders of the megalithic tombs of Dithmarschen.

Pastors find it hard to stay long in a parish like Wesselburen. There is, for instance, a sect here which among other rites celebrates the solstice on a mound called Wotan's Hill. Its members are often ex-Nazis, but three of them are school-masters in the parish, and the pastor says that the children are reticent about what they learn there. An Anti-Christian course ... he told me. "They talk about a 'Light in the North.' As a minister, I was taught that the Light came from the East."

In the cemetery stands another raw slab cut with a solar disc:  the new monument to Adolf Bartels. Mr. Bartels, a local savant with a pointed beard and gold-rimmed spectacles, died in 1945. He wrote novels rejoicing in the blood-and-soil mysteries of Dithmarschen, but he also wrote a mass of impossibly vile anti-Semitic propaganda which the Nazis, in their time found very savory. He remains an honorary citizen of Wesselburen, with a street named after him here and in the nearby market town of Heide. Those who during the Third Reich ran the "Adolf-Bartels-Bund" (self-guaranteed pure Arians sworn never to marry a Jew or traffic with Rosicrucians and Jesuits) continue busily to venerate his memory.

Relics Of Past. "Just relics of the past, of another [time]", the mayor of Wesselburen assured me. He looked uneasy. For the "relics" have become bold, these last years, and reached out for the generation of the young. They and the mayor want to rename the primary school after Mr. Bartels. They have put up the Bartels monument in a Christian graveyard, and the mayor swore on it to renew Bartels' fame in Dithmarschen. They plan to reissue his novels, of which one ends in triumph as Hitler speaks in Dithmarschen. They brought out last autumn a jubilee number of the folk- study magazine Dithmarschen; with an article which praised Mr. Bartels, spoke meaningfully of eugenic research, and sneered at the Weimar democracy. It also offered a select local bibliography, and suspicious readers followed up several references.

In some recommended pre-war books, passages like this were found: "Over the Oder poured the migrant rats from the East, bringing with them the stench and behavior of oriental ghettoes ..."

Then they went too far. Prizes were offered to local schools, for an essay on Dithmarschen, by the regional culture society which explained that, "through joyous competition, our youth will learn to sense our Dithmarschen as the primal source of their being." The society, one should mention, is run by a certain Mr. Zietz, an outspoken Jew-baiter before the war who served Hitler in the "Race and Lineage Bureau" in Berlin. The prizes are woodcuts by that respected local artist Prof. Gross, who taught at a "Nordic Art College" under the Third Reich.

Six young schoolmasters now decided that they have had enough. In a letter to the local paper they denounced the Bartels mythology and its pseudo-pagan manifestations, and charged that "for generations here, obvious laws of human existence and society have been sentimentalized into an esoteric folk cult, and dangerously schematized into rules or racial and genetic hygiene".

At the same time, Pastor Wendt of Wesselburen told his shocked congregation from the pulpit that "a man who must bear far more guilt even than Adolf Eichmann and his henchman is Adolf Bartels of Wesselburen".

The fight was on. The Six were harshly attacked by the Christian Democrat member of Parliament; the big men of Wesselburen called Pastor Wendt a "180 per cent pro-Jew" and called for his transfer to another parish.

In Kiel, the state government of Schleswig-Holstein offered no support to the breachers of the peace in Dithmarschen; instead, it sent down a gentleman from the education department who asked one of the Six a few solicitous questions: "Do you suffer from depression?" he inquires ...

It is a heartening experience to meet the rebels. The Six are led by Wolff Hattendorff, square and black-bearded, who taught for four years at the German school in Teheran. His flat has become a campaign headquarters piled high with incoming letters and Third Reich literature red-pencilled in the margins; his colleagues come in from the snow bright with "war-like" excitement, a Persian samovar bubbles, the telephone rings. All of these young men, come from Dithmarschen. None of them belongs to any political party. They told me: "If there was an Integrity Party, we would join that. The Christian Democrats here are behaving like a Mafia. They want to go on serving up this muck, and they demand that we help them. As teachers, we must stand up and say that we will not tolerate this return to the past."

They have been joined by Kurt Grosser, once their teacher, and until recently chairman of the Christian Democrats in the area. ... He says modestly, "I am not brave like the Six, I merely had a problem of conscience." Preoccupied with the political aspects, he is an elderly, intelligent conservative who sees his party infected by a deadly and intolerant extremism. In this constituency, he feels, it has become a union at the expense of Christianity and Democracy. The sitting member has begged him not to create a constituency scandal ... but Mr. Grosser goes on lecturing against Adolf Bartels and besieging Kiel with evidence of patronage and coercion in the local party machine.

He is not in serious danger. The Six, as civil servants, are. Their superiors watch eagerly for a "false" move. One was reprimanded for starting a class a minute late ... In Wesselburen, Pastor Wendt is being sued by the mayor for showing a television team some Nazi books in the town library; there are difficulties about getting served in some shops, and his eldest child has been mocked at school. But he says quietly, "Of course I shall stay on. Could I betray the decent small people here who resent the ruling clique but dare not raise their voice?"

And slowly, with gathering force, those voices are raised and the eight men of Dithmarschen find their allies. Firmly, they all believe that a majority in the land supports them and silently despises the nonsensical rites performed in its name. At first it was hard to fight alone, and the Six even thought of emigration to England. Then a professor of German at Kiel, an authority in the learned world, came to their aid.

... The national press and television "discovered" the affair in Dith- marschen, and steadily the letters in the local paper began to turn in favor of the rebels. The Social Democrats in Kiel weighed in, behind them, trade unions ... Now the mayor of Wesselburen must be dislodged from the church session there, and from the synodal council in Heide. The mayor himself, a few weeks ago bold and aggressive, is now plainly alarmed. He apologizes for the Nazi books in the library, and says that the Clan League has brought him into embarrassment. If only the press would lay off, he pleads, the council could consider renaming Bartels Street and revoking the honorary citizenship.

...Long, marvellous letters of encouragement from all over Germany arrive almost daily for the eight men; their enemies send short, spittingly obscene postcards, unsigned. This is, then, a story of hope. In this obstinate, reactionary corner, of Germany, a tiny group of brave men have challenged the oak-hard governing "system" and its poisoned traditions, and found support beyond their dreams. They have plans. Already, Mr. Zietz has been voted off the board ...

How far liberal, urban ideas can penetrate a self-obsessed farming community like Dithmarschen remains to be seen."

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