In Memoriam: Susanne Zeller nee Hirzel

Susanne Zeller nee Hirzel, August 7, 1921 - December 4, 2012. Full disclosure upfront: We liked Frau Zeller-Hirzel. We met her for the first time mere days before we met Lilo. The two women shared a passion for the arts - both were quite good in their chosen fields.
     Hirzel held a distinction that few women of her era could boast: She was her high school's valedictorian. That honor would have been impressive enough just on the face of it. But Susanne attended the boys' Gymnasium in Ulm - the only girl in the school. That achievement was surpassed only by the fact that the Nazi education minister in Baden-Württemberg gave her the traditional full-ride scholarship to study at university, even though she was a girl.
     But she wasn't just any girl. Hirzel was one of the most gifted musicians in Ulm - she used her scholarship to study cello with Alfred Saal of the famed Wendling Quartet in Stuttgart. And she frequently won athletic competitions. She could do it all. Not exactly what one would expect of a young woman living under Hitler.
     Hirzel could have become a full-fledged Nazi but for two things. First, she hated being coerced into doing anything. Since the National Socialists were especially gifted at coercion, Hirzel chafed under the strictures they imposed. Marching in torchlight parades as a young teenager was one thing. Being told how to live one's life and why, quite another.
     Second, she lucked into a close friendship with the family of Rev. Rudi Daur of Stuttgart's Markuskirche. That church would be the postwar site for Martin Niemöller's fiery sermon that led to the Stuttgarter Schulderklärung, a Lutheran declaration of 'guilt and repentance' for having done nothing to stop Germany's crimes against humanity. These words were penned by the "good guys" who had spoken out against the Nazis to one extent or the other, but who recognized that they could have done more, they should have done more.
     These were the people who shaped Hirzel's thinking in her early college years, with whom she found respite and rational thought. Although she continued to rebuff Sophie Scholl's request to work with the White Rose friends, Hirzel acceded to her brother's appeal to help him mail several hundred leaflets in Stuttgart. Hirzel always thought of herself as a coward who knew what was right, and tried to do it as best she could.
     That is the reason we liked Hirzel as we did. She would not make a heroine of herself. Her memoirs (Vom Ja Zum Nein) paint an honest portrait of her family life, of her friendship with the Scholls, of the students she knew in Ulm. She spares no one, not even her parents or herself. The mirror reflects back the awful pain of growing up in Nazi Germany, especially for teenagers who had a conscience.
     In Hirzel's later years, she and her brother Hans Hirzel aligned themselves with the Republikaner, a far right-wing political group in Germany. Hans Hirzel ran for president of Germany on their ticket in 1994; in a radio broadcast, he publicly repudiated White Rose resistance and claimed not to have been part of it. The Hirzel siblings then blocked access to their Gestapo interrogation transcripts.
     Susanne Zeller-Hirzel eventually became the face of anti-Islam politics in Germany. She trampled White Rose thought, essentially using language towards Muslim Germans that once had been directed at Jewish Germans. She continued to grant "White Rose" interviews about their resistance efforts (and even Hans Hirzel would later modify his repudiation), and in those interviews she would sound like the old Zeller-Hirzel.
     Her private correspondence as well as interviews with anti-Islam groups told another story. While her memoirs deserve to be read and understood, she backtracked on some of her stronger and more meaningful anti-Nazi statements found in that book. For example, she presented an excellent argument against the "revisionist" claim that Hitler didn't know what was happening in the concentration camps. Her book debunks that mythology pretty nicely. Then she threatened to sue us for quoting her argument, asking how Hitler could possibly know - in other words, arguing precisely what she had disproved.
     Zeller-Hirzel provides a good case study for the pitfalls one faces when studying the Holocaust, especially when trying to decipher German resistance during the era. It can be difficult to discern who is telling the truth, or which truth one should believe.
     -Denise Heap.

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