Poensgen: Die Schule Schloβ Salem im Dritten Reich

Ruprecht Poensgen. "Die Schule Schloβ Salem im Dritten Reich." Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 44, January 1996: 25-54.

From the opening page of this factual but short essay, Poensgen addresses the problem of Salem. A boarding school founded on liberal ideology, drawing on the traditions established by Hermann Lietz, Salem nearly collapsed once the NSDAP came to power and terminated its Jewish headmaster, Kurt Hahn. Poensgen caught my attention when he criticized previous histories of Salem during the Third Reich as not having been critically evaluated.

Poensgen based his essay on primary source materials found in the Badisches Generallandesarchiv in Karlsruhe, together with Kurt Hahn's archives which are housed at Schule Schloβ Salem, yet seem to be ignored by most who write about the school's history.

This relatively short essay is critical for anyone who wishes to understand why Wittenstein's "testimony" about his alleged resistance activities with White Rose friends is false. Poensgen's words contradict Wittenstein's narrative line by line. There is little of Jürgen Wittenstein's "memory" that is supported by Poensgen's research. From the Nazis' perception of Salem's founder (NSDAP called him "Red Max"), to their utter contempt for Kurt Hahn, Salem after Hahn's firing became an antisemitic, virulently National Socialist private school.

Although Hahn did not approve of the Treaty of Versailles, he also did not approve of Hitler's solution to that treaty. And while Hahn wasn't a fan of parliamentarianism - ironic, since he left Germany and founded Gordonstoun, where Prince Philip and King Charles III were educated - neither did he like National Socialism. Nationalism, yes. National Socialism, no. He advocated for a return to Bismarck's era.

Once Hitler assumed power, Kurt Hahn and Salem were among their earliest educational targets. The Bodensee Rundschau attacked Hahn personally in March 1933.  For the NSDAP, it was simple. Salem was Hahn, and Hahn was Jewish, therefore both needed to be purged.

Contrary to Wittenstein's legend, on May 6, 1933 the NSDAP ordered all Jewish teachers at Salem to be terminated. Instructors who had been close to Hahn or who were otherwise politically suspect were interrogated, if not immediately dismissed. Salem became a divided house. Denunciations were common. Non-Nazi teachers (note - non-Nazi, not anti-Nazi) received threats, both at school and at home. It looked like Salem would be shut down.

Hahn himself became a lightning rod. Even the most antisemitic among the families at Salem wrote letters on his behalf. Hahn is a Jew, but he behaves like a Christian. ... I personally cannot stand Jews, because they usually use business for monetary gain for themselves. But Hahn is not like that. Or they argued that he was a "good Jew" and perhaps could be an exception to NSDAP policy.

Although the founder continued his attempts to ban Hitler Youth, he relented to save the school. Before Hitler Youth was declared the only acceptable youth club in Germany, Salem moved in that direction, even to the point of allowing students to wear Nazi symbols on their school uniform. 

Salem quickly adopted a strong antisemitic atmosphere. It was not a place where Jewish teachers or youth were welcome. Salem aligned itself to National Socialism, in the process losing its mission.

My only "complaint" with Poensgen's essay: He stops at June 1933 and does not track Schule Schloβ Salem through the end of the war.

But fascinating to me as someone interested in the details of White Rose history: Poensgen never once mentioned Wittenstein. He was not included in the body of Poensgen's essay, nor footnoted. On the other hand, personages like Golo Mann, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, Jörg von Bennet (the boy who had written directly to Adolf Hitler on behalf of Kurt Hahn), and the Speer family - Poensgen quoted and footnoted them.

But not Wittenstein.

Perhaps a scholar with money and time will research Jürgen Wittenstein in the Badisches Generallandesarchiv in Karlsruhe, together with Kurt Hahn's archives which are housed at Schule Schloβ Salem. What would those archives reveal?

To learn more about issues with Wittenstein's testimony, check out Evolution of Memory.

(c) 2023 Denise Heap.