Hamm-Brücher: Zerreist den Mantel der Gleichgültigkeit

Hildegard Hamm-Brücher. “Zerreisst den Mantel der Gleichgültigkeit.” Die “Weiβe Rose” und unsere Zeit. Edited by Wilhelm von Sternberg. Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997.

In this small book, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher briefly tells her life story and what she knew about White Rose leaflets and secret conversations. To her credit, Hildegard Hamm-Brücher never claimed to have been part of the resistance work around Leipelt. Hamm-Brücher was a remarkable woman.

One of Hildegard Hamm nee Brücher's grandmothers was Jewish and had converted to Protestantism. Hildegard Brücher was raised Lutheran – first in Berlin, then in Dresden with that ‘not-Jewish’ grandmother, Else Pick. 

In 1937, she was enrolled in Schule Schloβ Salem – yes, the same boarding school where Jürgen Wittenstein was educated. She was expelled a year later when they learned she had a Jewish grandmother. The NSDAP looked at “ethnicity” only, not religion, when determining whether someone were Jewish. Unless the person had converted to Judaism. They were Jewish then as well.

After Hildegard Brücher passed the Abitur (1939), she fulfilled her Reich Labor Service (through December 1939), after which she enrolled in Munich’s chemistry department (January 1940). Heinrich Wieland, department chair, used a loophole to permit so-called “half-Jewish” students to study. She therefore became well-acquainted with the circle around Hans Leipelt.

Hildegard Brücher’s friendships with “half-Jewish” chemistry students also put her in contact with anti-Nazis on campus, including the medical students of the Second Student Company. She intuited who was not Nazi, but when she received one of the White Rose leaflets, she did not ask around about authorship. She read it while sitting on the toilet and then cut it up into little pieces.

For her, 1942 was a difficult year. In January 1942, the grandmother in Dresden had been advised that since she was Jewish, she would be transported to Theresienstadt. Else Pick chose suicide over death in the camps. Hildegard knew that her life and the lives of her four siblings were now in danger. Oh, and she had pneumonia for months on end that year.

In 1943, the leaflets returned. Hildegard recalled one in particular that spoke to her, said the things she had been thinking. Stalingrad! Yes. She would not have known that the very popular Professor Kurt Huber penned it. But that leaflet! Idealistic, maybe, but political clarity. It would be fifty years before she could read them all together, first through sixth. She never could forget the one about Stalingrad.

The real value of Hamm-Brücher’s book lies in her description of life after the war. She mercilessly told of the unwillingness of her fellow countrymen to face up to the reality of their misdeeds. The Allies gave Germany opportunity for a new beginning. “Can a new beginning succeed without taking personal responsibility for one’s guilt, [without] catharsis?”

She depicted the “DP” or displaced persons, mostly Jewish survivors of the camps, skeletons who had been marched westward from the extermination camps in the East, with large groups deposited in Starnberg, south of Munich. Hamm-Brücher condemned her fellow Germans – instead of compassion or pity, they (relatively well off, she noted) shunned the DPs and wanted nothing to do with them.

“German guilt was great, but the shame regarding [that guilt] was only experienced by a few. Almost no one wanted to hear about collective responsibility much less about collective guilt. When an American officer asked me if I had known about the KZs [concentration camps], I truthfully answered yes. Why were so few truthful?”

Hildegard Hamm-Brücher said that the scope of the atrocities was so great, she could not then, nor could she in 1997 as she wrote this book, imagine how great the atrocities had been. Her words were heavy, deliberate. She let no one off the hook.

Although she acknowledged the Lutheran church’s postwar “confession” led by Martin Niemöller, Helmut Gollwitzer, and Gustav Heinemann in Stuttgart, she declared that that confession – the closest thing to an apology issued after the war to millions of Jewish neighbors and people who had been murdered – that that confession was not nearly enough. “We brought sorrow to many people and countries…” To Hildegard Hamm-Brücher, scientist and politician, the enormity of the sin demanded more than a vague we’re sorry. Jews, the disabled, crimes against humanity committed by German soldiers in the name of the German people – Hildegard believed the “apology” needed far more specificity than “sorrow to many people and countries.”

That the greater Lutheran church in German rejected even that weak apology as “fouling one’s own nest”? Hamm-Brücher found the unwillingness to accept responsibility for grievous murders something so reprehensible…

Which brought her back to the fourth Leaflet of the White Rose, where Hans Scholl called for a “revival of the deeply wounded German spirit from within.” Hamm-Brücher saw the words of the White Rose as applicable to her Germany after the war, to the stubborn refusal to deal with their national crimes.

She used as example a 1947 article quashed by the Vicariate General of Freiburg. The Catholic youth magazine Fährmann [Ferryman] planned a piece which would have spoken positively about White Rose resistance, especially praising Christoph Probst’s actions. The Vicariate censored it, stating, “Even revolution against an unjust regime is not allowed.” She noted that Willi Graf’s friend Heinrich Bollinger remarked that resistance to the Nazi dictatorship still was deemed a “grave sin” by the official Catholic church [Amtskirche] well into postwar years. Resistance to the Nazi dictatorship!

Back to the DP camps: Hamm-Brücher was angered that fifty years after the war ended, when some citizens of Starnberg wanted to memorialize the DP camps and the suffering of the displaced persons, they had to fight the conservative citizenry. One mayor argued that it was wrong to honor the DPs, because there had been criminals among them (he said).

In one of the bitter ironies of an otherwise magnificent little book, Hamm-Brücher held up Inge Scholl as example of someone who tried to live democratic ideals after the war. In the same chapter, Hamm-Brücher wrote of Persilscheine that allowed Nazis to reinvent themselves, and guilty parties who had been ardent Nazis who suddenly pretended to have known nothing about National Socialism. Inge Scholl did a great job of covering her tracks.

Hamm-Brücher completed her PhD in chemistry in 1945 – Heinrich Wieland was her Doktorvater. In 1949, she benefited from the educational exchanges set up with the United States and studied political science at Harvard from 1949-1950. She had already dipped her toe into politics, becoming a member of the Munich city council in 1948.

Before I knew anything about the White Rose, I knew who Hildegard Hamm-Brücher was. Although her primary interest in government revolved around the functioning of government (she was a fearless politician), she would also speak or write about education. I remember reading one of those speeches in the 1980s, moved enough to write her a letter. I did not hear back from her, but I recall my immense respect for her person.

Small irony (or coincidence) related to this little book: It was published by Aufbau-Verlag, the same house that would publish Detlef Bald’s awful book a few years later.

Finally: Although Hildegard Hamm-Brücher was at Salem in 1937, although she traveled in the same circles as Hans Leipelt, although she received copies of the leaflets… she never once mentioned Wittenstein as a person she knew between 1937-1945.

The language in Hildegard Hamm-Brücher’s book is conversational German. Originally delivered as a speech, not intended to be published in book form, we “hear” this great woman speaking. Because of the accessibility of the language, it would be an important addition to an undergraduate – or even advanced high school – class about the importance of White Rose, both then and now.

(c) 2023 Denise Heap. Please contact us for permission to quote.