Whom we remember – totems of Nazi resistance

11 Dec 2023

What do Kurt Huber and Walter Klingenbeck have in common? They both resisted the Nazi regime, they were both guillotined by the Nazis in 1943, and they were both underappreciated by our culture of remembrance for a long time.

The freshly laid ‘stumbling stone’ memorial of Walter Klingenbeck in the entrance portal of St Ludwig's University Church. | © LMU

Practical skills, good ideas, deep religious faith, and an equally deep aversion to the Nazi regime united the three apprentices Walter Klingenbeck, Hans Haberl, and Daniel von Recklinghausen. They used their technical know-how to build a forbidden radio transmitter in Munich to broadcast information from enemy radio stations such as the BBC.

Unfortunately, their idea of dropping regime-critical fliers out of a model airplane went unrealized, when an indiscretion led to their denunciation and arrest. In the subsequent trial, Justizrat (Judicial Counsel) Dr. Lorenz Roder, who had previously defended Professor Kurt Huber, managed to save Haberl and von Recklinghausen from the guillotine. However, Walter Klingenbeck was executed in Stadelheim on 5 August 1943 at the age of 19, having claimed sole responsibility for the group’s actions.

The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising is investigating the possibility of initiating a beatification process for Walter Klingenbeck. But obtaining information and source material on the history of this small resistance group and its members is no easy matter. “There are only a few archives, much of which consists of chance discoveries. With the exception of a photographic reproduction of a farewell letter by Walter Klingenbeck, there are hardly any so-called ego-documents – diaries, letters, and the like – by the young people,” explains Dr. Denise Reitzenstein, who researches and teaches at LMU as a senior lecturer in the Department of Ancient History. Together with LMU church historian Professor Franz Xaver Bischof and lawyer and former chairman of Maxvorstadt District Council, Klaus Bäumler, she is a member of the committee set up by the archdiocese to compile the historical facts about the young resistance fighter. Spokesperson for the committee, Reitzenstein is a longstanding volunteer in the parish of St. Ludwig, and it was for this reason as well as her expertise as an historian that she was approached by the archdiocese to perform this role.

In its intensive search for materials, serendipity sometimes comes to the aid of the small team. And so it was this past September at the Ludwigskirche, where Walter Klingenbeck was baptized, and at the entrance to which a ‘stumbling stone’ memorial was laid on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of his death: “I met his grandniece there, who is studying Walter’s life as part of her research into their family history. Such encounters help us a lot in our work,” says Reitzenstein. It was important to the historian to talk publicly about the team’s work “because we are part of the culture of remembrance in our capacity as members of this historical committee.” Moreover, public discussion might lead them to further historical information that could help establish “a solid degree of veneration,” as the beatification process requires. In addition, there are numerous memorials to Klingenbeck: two ‘stumbling stones’ – one in front of the church in which he was christened and another in the old botanic gardens – a commemorative stele in front of the house where he lived in Amalienstraße, and the street named after him near the state library.

Walking a tightrope between facts and emotional identification

When it comes to facts, there are powerful tensions at play in commemorative culture – and not just as regards historical revisionism. This is something that Dr. Benedikt Sepp, historian at LMU and great-grandson of White Rose member Kurt Huber, is very much aware of. Together with his colleague Dr. Kristina Milz from the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, he published an article in the Die Zeit about the friendship between his great-grandfather and the Korean Mirok Li, who fled his homeland to escape the Japanese forces of occupation. He enrolled at LMU, where one of his lecturers was Kurt Huber.

They exchanged letters, and a subsequent reunion deepened their friendship and discussions. Huber’s execution shocked Li, whose literary work caused his German friend’s story to become very well known in postwar Korea. During the same period, Huber received comparatively little attention in Germany, even though commemoration of the White Rose resistance began immediately after the war – including at LMU.

In an essay they are writing on this topic for the quarterly historical journal Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (VfZ), Kristina Milz and Benedikt Sepp discuss the shortcomings in how historical facts are treated in our culture of commemoration – in the use, say, of invalid comparisons. The mechanisms of suppression in Germany and occupied Korea, for instance, were implicitly equated in screen adaptations of Mirok Li’s autobiographical novel The Yalu River flows. However, “there is no standard model of suppression,” says Sepp. “The particular manifestations in the two countries should be addressed. For example, the murderous antisemitism we saw in Germany was absent in Korea.”

“Moreover, these movies convey a problematic image of Germany, in which all German characters are either faceless Nazis with no personalities or shining moral exemplars who are being harshly oppressed,” adds Kristina Milz. This image not only glosses over certain facts, but also ambivalences in the individuals concerned. Kurt Huber, for example, was a conservatively minded person, whose views were compatible with National Socialist ideology in some ways and diametrically opposed to it in others. “If we stick to the historical facts, we see that Huber offered resistance squarely from a conservative perspective. Opposition to an inhuman ideology mut not necessarily come from the left of the political spectrum.” The example of Walter Klingenbeck reaffirms this.

Remembrance, says Benedikt Sepp, is like walking a tightrope. “On the one hand, it’s important as an historian not to forget that the past and the people who lived there are alien to us today. Therefore, we have to reconstruct the context of the specific times, without subjectively identifying with historical figures. But the culture of remembrance is about the opposite: about emotional identification.” These competing demands can rarely be reconciled.

Zwei Bronzereliefs zeigen Kurt Huber, der nach unten blickt, im Hintergrund eine Rose und Mirok Li, auch er blickt sinnend nach unten. Im Hintergrund ist ebenso ein florales Blumenmotiv zu sehen.

Two memorial plaques in Kurt-Huber-Straße in Gräfelfing commemorate the White Rose member and Mirok Li.

© Benedikt Sepp

Shadows and light – the ‘waves’ of commemorative culture

In public commemorations on notable anniversaries, the same handful of historical figures are generally held up to portray the German resistance: the White Rose and above all the Scholl siblings, the plotters of 20 July 1944, who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and so forth. And certainly these people are more than worthy of this recognition. But even though Huber was in the inner circle of the White Rose, the light of remembrance shines on him much less frequently, and on Walter Klingenbeck even less so.

Kristina Milz observes that remembrance culture is strongly inflected by the prevailing social circumstances and current events. “During the Cold War era, for example, the Communist resistance was widely ignored in West German society for political reasons.” And the plotters of 20 July led by Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg were not celebrated as German society came to terms with the Nazi regime in the immediate postwar period and for many years beyond. “They were often thought of as traitors to their own army, and many people in the postwar period found it difficult to identify with them.”

As a rule, resistance fighters who operated in a political context or belonged to political parties or groups are less suited to the role of remembrance icons than, say, the student members of the White Rose. “The latter are the least problematic politically,” says Benedikt Sepp. “You can see this at commemorative events or in the texts of school projects: terms such as bravery, moral courage, and uprightness are associated with their resistance work – values that everyone can embrace. Words like conservatism or nationalism, by contrast, are more problematic in terms of universal acceptance.”

“Moreover, remembrance comes in waves,” notes Milz. “There was a phase in which Kurt Huber played a more prominent role in our culture of commemoration than today. Now the focus has shifted more to the Scholl siblings.” It is a similar story with Walter Klingenbeck, who was commemorated in the postwar period, until he disappeared again from our collective memory.

The role of background

Denise Reitzenstein posits another reason for the unequal prominence of different resistance fighters in public memory: their social background. “Walter Klingenbeck came from a non-college-educated family home. He was an apprentice and came from a social environment that is unfamiliar with the codes of the intellectual class, which tends to overlook his contribution as a consequence.”

Reitzenstein has some personal insight into these dynamics as the first in her family to get an academic high school diploma and go to college. In cases like Klingenbeck’s, the social background could also mean that descendants are more reticent in talking about their family member or putting his legacy into the public sphere. “I think the fear of causing upset, and a lack of resilience in this regard, could be decisive factors as regards the reticence of the descendants,” adds Reitzenstein. In this context, she praises the work of the late Dr. Jürgen Zarusky from the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History, who did a lot of research into Walter Klingenbeck’s life and contributed a lot to his remembrance.

In other families, there are different challenges associated with remembrance and bringing stories to public awareness. The issue is ever-present in Benedikt Sepp’s family, “because we were in Munich and it’s a local hero story to some extent. If we wanted, we could attend some remembrance event or other every few months as his descendants.” In his family, the shadow of the past still looms over the present. His grandmother, who witnessed the arrest of her father and was able to visit him a few times in prison before his execution, was undoubtedly traumatized and suffered her whole life. The effects on Benedikt Sepp’s descendants reach down to the present day.

But there is also a practical reason why descendants should not hide the light of their family histories under a bushel – one that is dear to the heart of Denise Reitzenstein and all other historians: “The families are sitting on archives that could and should be made available to researchers,” says Milz. “No doubt there are many stories there which have not yet been told.”

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