Welcome to our history workshop.
Here you will find writings on resistance in East Germany and biographical information about prominent personalities from the labour movement.
„Widerstand war bereits,
sich dem NS-System nicht unterzuordnen,
wie viele Deutsche es taten.“
One of the most interesting destinies of the young rebels against the Nazi regime in Friedrichshain is probably that of Rainer Küchenmeister. In the early days of his youth he joined the rebellious group, “Red Chapel”. He was arrested in 1942 and, after a long sentence in a prison close to Alexanderplaz, he was sent to the youth concentration camp Moringen. After WWII, he became a painter. After his breakthrough in 1964 at the Documenta art festival in Kassel, he became a professor in 1969 at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. He also became a full member at the Academy of Arts in Berlin.
Childhood and early years
Rainer Küchenmeister was born on October 14th in Ahlen/Westfalen. He was the oldest of three sons. His father, Walter Küchenmeister (1897-1943), had been a member of the Communist Party since 1920. Walter Küchenmeister was a newspaper editor in West Germany, and was exiled from the Communist Party for “anti-proletariat behavior” because he stole money from the party’s cash box during a time of financial desperation. When the Küchenmeister family moved to Berlin, they were not able to find an apartment and were forced to live in a homeless shelter. Walter Küchenmeister worked as an author and editor, and scraped together enough money to rent a newly-built apartment in the Johannisthal district of Berlin.
After the fire in the Reichstag in February of 1933, Küchenmeister was arrested as a Nazi-opposer and spent several weeks in prison. The family wasn’t able to keep their apartment, and moved to a room in Palisaden Street in Friedrichshain. Eventually, the family found a place to live in 1934, in a tenement house at 65 Koppen Street. The family stayed poor, as Küchenmeister was forbidden to work, and couldn’t earn money for the family. In 1934 he was arrested again and was kept in the Sonnenburg concentration camp until 1935. In the concentration camp he was infected with chronic tuberculosis, which made it even harder for him to find work.
In 1936 he met the doctor Elfriede Paul, who, like himself, was active in the rebellion. She took care of him as her patient. In 1937 he moved to her appartment in Saechsische Street in Wilmersdorf. Walter Küchenmeister also took his sons Rainer and Claus to his new home in Wilmersdorf. His middle son, Anselm, stayed with his mother on Koppen Street, and his other two brothers visited him and their mother as often as possible. In 1941, Rainer Küchenmeister began an education as a painter.
The “Rote Kapelle”
Elfriede Paul’s practice in Wilmsersdorf was also an important meeting place for the rebellious group, the “Red Chapel”, with Harro Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack. This circle was a network of about 150 critics of the regime which had already been involved in rebellious activities since 1933, by helping persecuted people; spreading flyers; and hanging up posters which were critical of the regime. They collected and redistributed information about German preparations for war, even to representatives of other nations. They also spread information about atrocities committed by German armed forces and Nazis. The “Red Chapel” was in contact with other foreign oppositional groups and foreign forced laborers. They called the people to disobedience against Nazi representatives and discussions of drafts for a possible post-war order.
Since secret radio operators of the group were called “pianists”, the Gestapo decided to give the rebellious group their name, “Red Chapel”. This name is still used by the group today. Through a Soviet secret agent, information about the Red Chapel was sent via radio to the Soviet Union, an enemy of Germany at the time. The Gestapo took the Red Chapel for a Soviet spy organization.
Rainer Küchenmeister came into contact with the Red Chapel early on, through Elfriede Paul and his father. He attended group meetings, distributed informational leaflets, and graffitied walls with regime-critical slogans with his brother Anselm.
On September 16th, 1942, Rainer Küchenmeister was arrested and interrogated along with his father and Elfriede Paul. This happened during a wave of arrests of people with connections to the Red Chapel. Even though Rainer was only 16 years old, he refused to speak while under pressure from the Gestapo.
Arrest, concentration camp, and penal batallion
“…I just want to live, live, live….”
Cato Bontjes van Beek in a secret letter to Rainer Küchenmeister
(Police prison Alexanderplatz, December 1942/1943)
The first station in which Rainer was kept during his time of suffering was the police prison Alexanderplatz, where he was kept in a single-person cell. In the cell directly above him were women who sang many songs to keep their spirits up. It was possible for him to make contact with them. They were women who were also involved in the “Red Chapel”. He especially developed a friendship with Cato Bonjes van Beek. They spoke with each other at night through the floor. The young woman gave him courage during his imprisonment. They wrote each other secret messages, and soon developed a loving relationship, which could be described as one of a kind, and which still impresses many people today. Cato encouraged the young man to never give up on his wish to become a painter. Rainer, however, was never able to personally see Cato. They planned to meet in the corridor between their cells, but this was never able to happen. A mirror, which Rainer was given by a fellow prisoner, also didn’t work in allowing him to catch a glimpse of Cato. Rainer was never able to see the person who was possibly the first meaningful love of his life. The letters which Cato wrote to this desperate young man to give him courage during his imprisonment are special documents today. She herself was condemned to death and was executed on the 5th of August, 1943. Rainer’s father, Walter Küchenmeister, had already been executed on the 13th of May of that year.
After his stay at the police prison Alexanderplatz, Rainer was brought to the notorious youth concentration camp in Moringen. In March of 1945, he was sent to the warfront with a penal betallion. He was then captured and held for a short time in soviet custody.
When he was eighteen years old, Rainer Küchenmeister returned from the war. His father had been executed and his mother had died in a bombing attack. Rainer sought shelter under Elfriede Paul’s roof. Paul had served a sentence in a penitentiary and was working as a doctor again in Burgdorf, close to Hannover. Rainer began an education at an art school in Bielefeld. When Elfriede Paul moved to East Berlin, Rainer followed her and transferred to an art school in Weißensee. Rainer, however, was not able to put up with the strict regulations in East Germany and was expelled from his art school. He then moved to West Berlin and painted abstract paintings, which would not have been popular in the GDR. Although he had already taken part in art installations in the 1950s, his breakthrough came in 1963 when he took part in the art festival, Documenta III, in Kassel. His art was gained international attention for the first time, especially in France. He became a professor at the Academy of Arts in Karlsruhe, and a staff member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. His figures have a special quality to them, as they were depicted without faces. His success begs the question: How much of his life as an artist was influenced by the encouragement of his fellow prisoner, Cato? One can only speculate. Rainer spent the end of his life in France, and passed away on the 6th of May, 2010.
“It was difficult to realize the strength within this quiet, motherly – appearing woman.”
Lucius D. Clay
Louise Schroeder is the best-known woman in Germany at the end of the 1940ies, the beginning of the 1950ies. When Churchill gave a breakfast to the German delegation during a meeting of the Strasbourg Council of Europe in September 1950, he said to Mr Plünder, the head of the delegation: “I leave to you the selection of the persons to be invited – on one condition: Mrs. Schröder must be my neighbor.”
Louise Schroeder’s great reputation stems from her time as acting mayor for Greater Berlin, from May 1947 to December 1948, one of the most difficult phases of Berlin’s urban history. The combination of her social engagement with her political goals of a liberal socialism earned her great respect.
The Berlin workers’ welfare, too, is much obliged to “their Louise”. Starting from May 1946, she used all her political weight and diplomatic skill to push through, also against Soviet resistance, the readmission of the workers’ welfare forbidden under National Socialism.
“Berlin has always been a city of resistance.”
Although Franz Neumann coined this sentence in connection with the resistance against the Third Reich, his life as a whole is a life of resistance. A life marked by resistance to National Socialism and resistance to the unification of the SPD and KPD. During his almost thirty years as chairman of the executive committee of the Workers’ Welfare Organisation, he also provides important impulses as a lateral thinker.
“Eine der großen Begabungen von Marie Juchacz war, dass sie verstand, Menschen für die von ihr vertretenen Ideen zu gewinnen, ja sie zu begeistern; sie scheint ständig auf der Suche nach Menschen gewesen zu sein, von denen sie erwarten durfte, dass sie für die fachliche und wohlfahrtspolitische Entwicklung des Verbandes hilfreich sein könnten.”
Marie Juchacz was one of the most notable women of the Social Democratic women’s movement. Coming from a humble background, ending a hapless marriage she escaped with her children and her sister Elisabeth the narrowness of the province and moved to Berlin. In the late imperial era, she got involved for the SPD and slowly climbed up the party hierarchy. After World War I, she became one of the most influential politicians of the young republic and at the same time devoted herself to establishing the “Arbeiterwohlfahrt” (workers’ welfare) she had initiated. National Socialism forced her into exile, where she organized support to other refugees and later, after World War II, to the needy population in Germany.
As the first woman ever to speak in a German parliament and as the founder of Arbeiterwohlfahrt, she is one of the great women of German Social Democracy.
Ernst Fraenkel (1898-1975)
26.12.1898 Birth as the son of wealthy Jewish parents in Cologne
1919-1921 study of jurisprudence and history in Frankfurt / Main
1923 promotion with Hugo Sinzheimer
1925 completed the legal clerkship
1925 lecturer at the economics school of the German Metalworkers Union in Bad Dürrenberg
1927 Joint law firm with Franz Neumann in Berlin, Syndic of the German Metalworkers Union
From 1933 resistance in the “International Socialist Combat League “(ISK). Represents in the course of the first Trials against Berlin Social Democrats, many of them persecuted. He achieved some spectacular acquittals; on the grounds that the confessions were made under duress.
1938 Emigration to the USA
1939-1941 studied American Law at the Law School the University of Chicago
Afterwards several publications (inter alia with Hedwig Wachenheim) for the political reconstruction of Germany after World War II.
1941, Fraenkel’s scientific paper on National Socialism “The Dual State” published in the USA, in English.
In 1944 joined the US government service
1945-1950 Advisor to American authorities in Korea.
1951 return to Germany and lecturer at the German College of Politics in Berlin
1953-1967 Professor at the German University for Politics or the Otto Suhr Institute of the FU. He develops the scientific concept of a normatively oriented “neo-pluralism”.
1975 Death in Berlin
“For the struggle and rise of the working class, confusion is more dangerous than clear opposition.”
National Socialism and Welfare
Hedwig Wachenheim, our association’s namesake, is almost forgotten today. During the Weimar Republic, however, she was a well-known and committed, albeit untypical, representative of the workers’ movement.
As a young professional with a bourgeois Jewish background, she co-founded the Workers’ Welfare Organisation (Arbeiterwohlfahrt) putting special emphasis on the principle of non-discrimination in social work. She was one of the pioneers of professional social work.
As a civil servant and politician she contributed to the democratization of the former imperial administration and stood up against National Socialism.
As a scientist, she established herself in exile, much like her former colleagues, such as Herta Kraus, Erna Magnus, Walter Friedlander, and Hans Staudinger, in the US social science community.
From 1945 to 1951, she has advised the US military government in Germany. Although she had the opportunity to regain her footing in Germany, she returned for short visits only.
As the Hedwig Wachenheim Society, we are committed to implementing her attitude to social work, to the principle of non-discrimination and a high level of professionalism.
Here you will find more in-depth information about the life and work of Hedwig Wachenheim: Hedwig Wachenheim biografische Skizze
“Politics shall become again what it must be: The science of the order of life, the relationships between people. This is the legacy of the socialist workers’ youth. We fought and suffered for it. I put it in your hands; keep it. Proceed on this path. Freedom”
Kurt Schmidt 10.02.1946
When the first Berlin WORKERS’ WELFARE ORGANISATION board of directors was formed on 2 May 1946, Kurt Schmidt, 33, was by far the youngest. Nevertheless, the engineer was already full-time secretary of the youth committee of the Berlin SPD and 2nd district chairman of the SPD in his home district of Neukölln. Despite his youth he already had an eventful life behind him. It was marked by resistance against National Socialism and the prevention of a merger of SPD and KPD. He still had a brilliant political career ahead of him with his gripping and stirring personality.
Work in the SAJ
Born in 1913, he became involved very early in the Weimar Republic with the SAJ and as a carer for the children’s friends influenced by Kurt Löwenstein. In 1930 he was elected to the Berlin board of the Socialist Workers’ Youth (SAJ). There he worked in the last months of the Weimar Republic and in the first months of Hitler’s government in the illegal Committee of 7 of the Berlin SAJ. This secret committee, which was under the influence of the group “Neu Beginnen”, made preparations for the SAJ’s move into illegality in order to fight National Socialism from the underground.
Thus they stood in opposition to the mother party, the Berlin SPD, which at the beginning of 1933 still pursued a legality strategy based on the belief that if one worked strictly legally, the SPD as an organization could also be maintained under a National Socialist government. In April 1933, the conflict with the party leadership over Franz Künstler came to light and Kurt Schmidt was expelled from the SPD along with other SAJ officials such as Erich Schmidt, Theo Thiele, Eberhard Hesse, Kurt Mattick and Fritz Erler.
After his expulsion from the party, Kurt Schmidt continued to work at Neu Beginnen. In 1935, Neu Beginnen split, as the founder Walter Löwenheim regarded National Socialism as solid and continued the resistance from exile. 1935/36 there is a great wave of arrests in which a total of 36 members of Neu Beginnen are arrested. Kurt Schmidt and Fritz Erler are spared this wave of arrests and reorganize the group. They make contact with the exile committee of the SPD in Prague and Schmidt meets Paul Hertz, a member of the exile committee, after an illegal border crossing into the CSR.
The aim of the meeting was to initiate cooperation in Germany with a resistance group of former USPD members of the “German People’s Front”. The result was a joint 10-point declaration which was illegally distributed. The usual security rules for new beginnings had to be loosened and the Gestapo was able to strike the decisive blow against the illegal circle in autumn 1938. Over twenty members, including Kurt Schmidt, were arrested.
The People’s Court sentences him to 12 years in prison. Shortly before the end of the war he managed to escape on 16. April 1945 on a transport of prisoners. He hides until liberation and begins to collect the former members of Neu Beginnen in a working group immediately after the end of the war.
Against the unification of SPD and KPD
In June 1945, Kurt Schmidt rejoins the SPD and helps to build up the department in Britz. In August he joined the central committee of the SPD in Gustav Klingelhöfer’s political office, where he worked on the speeches of Otto Grotewohl.
After Grotewohl’s move into the line of party fusion set by the Soviet military administration, Kurt Schmidt became the intellectual head of the resistance in the Neukölln SPD, which was strongly influenced by the pro-unification Max Fechner. In Februrary 46 he met Kurt Schumacher for the first time and on March 17 he became known throughout Berlin when he unexpectedly pushed through a resolution against unification with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at a district delegate assembly of the SPD Neukölln. One week after the strike ballot, which heralds the split of the SPD in Berlin, he becomes 2nd district chairman of the SPD Neukölln. Starting in May, he will be the full-time secretary of the youth committee of the SPD-Berlin.
A too short work for the WORKERS’ WELFARE ORGANISATION
On 2 May 1946 Kurt Schmidt is appointed as an observer to the first WORKERS’ WELFARE ORGANISATION state executive committee. A letter from Luise Schroeder to the Allied Commandant’s Office identifies him, along with Luise Schroeder, Franz Neumann, Ida Wolff and Bruno Lösche, as one of the five founders of the Berlin WORKERS’ WELFARE ORGANISATION. At the district delegates’ conference on April 20, 1947, he was appointed to his office.
Max Fechner is probably one of the tragic figures of the German labour movement. Against the background of his experiences with the rise of National Socialism and his suffering in the concentration camp, in 1945 he advocated the merger with the KPD (Communist Party) like hardly anyone else in the SPD (Social Democrats) and became the 2nd chairman of the SED (Socialist Unity Party). As Minister of Justice of the GDR, he clearly positioned himself for the striking workers in the aftermath of the workers’ uprising of June 17, 1953. As a result, he was removed from all offices and sentenced to eight years in prison. His homosexuality was seen as aggravating the punishment.
1892-1933 From the Worker’s Child to the Apparatus of the Labour Movement
Max Fechner was born on 2 July 1892, as the son of a bricklayer. After elementary school he did an apprenticeship as a toolmaker. In 1908 he joined the SAJ, in 1910 the German Metal Workers’ Union (the predecessor organisation of today’s IG Metall) and in 1911 he joined the SPD. In 1917, like most Social Democrats in the Berlin area, he joined the USPD. In 1920 he became an employee of the Central Committee of the USPD and in 1921 a district councillor in Neukölln. He held this mandate until 1925. In 1922 he returned to the SPD and in 1923 he became a member of the Prussian Landtag and full-time secretary to the main executive of the SPD. Specifically, he was head of the local political central office and editor of the local political magazine of the SPD “Die Gemeinde”. Since welfare work took place mainly at the municipal level, Fechner was also elected in 1924 to the executive committee of the Workers’ Welfare Association as deputy treasurer.
1933-1945 KZ prison and old contacts
In 1933 Fechner as an employee of the SPD first became unemployed and continued to work politically in illegality. In 1933 he is arrested and charged in one of the first trials against leading officials of the SPD. The Social Democratic and Jewish lawyer Ernst Fraenkel, who worked in Berlin until 1938, was acquitted in the 1934 trial by succeeding in “impressing the chairman of the criminal chamber by arguing that the statements were made under physical coercion”.
Nevertheless, Max Fechner was still imprisoned, deported to a concentration camp and released only in 1935. He then acquired a small dairy business in Neukölln, which soon became a meeting place for mainly older Social Democrats who remained loyal to the banned party. In the last years of the war 1944/45 he was imprisoned again and already in the last days of April 1945 he had the reputation to have contact with approachable communists.
1945-1953 The idea of the united working class and its failure
If at all a Social Democrat, was enthusiastic from the beginning for the idea that in the future a united workers party could ensure that in a new Germany something like the decline of the republic at the beginning of the 1930s would not be repeated, it was Max Fechner. Already on 28 April 1945, i.e. before the complete occupation of Berlin by the Red Army, he wrote Walter Ulbricht “a letter with the offer to immediately create a unified Workers’ Party; the latter claims not to have received the letter; in the further fusion process this offer again and again plays an important role as proof of the original will for unity of the Social Democrats”.
In the central committee of the SPD, which soon constituted itself, he was elected one of the three chairmen and soon became, alongside Otto Grotewohl, the most important leader of the Social Democrats in the Soviet Zone. However, as the party association progresses, he is increasingly plagued by doubts and does not necessarily agree with the actions of the Soviet military administration and its cryptic to open support for the KPD. In a confidential KPD material of August 3, 45, it says: “He is not clear whether the Communists want the united front honestly. Does Zhukov mean it honestly when he said to ZA leaders that the SMAD must rely more on the SPD?” The SPD’s program is much more radical than that of the KPD. When asked whether the SPD could support the communists, he said: “The SPD is unencumbered. We will soon have local elections and have to be careful not to burden ourselves”.
On February 10 and 11 he chairs the ZA meeting, which decides by majority on the course for unification with the KPD. In the first ballot he abstained and only voted yes in the second ballot. In spite of his reservations he remains in the last consequence an advocate of the unification to the SED. It is also painful to him that in his home district of Neukölln, on the morning of April 7, 1946, the district delegates’ conference voted with a narrow majority for the change to the new regional association of the SPD, which is to be constituted in the Zehlendorf Zinnowald School in the afternoon of the same day, and excluded Max Fechner from the SPD.
In the Soviet zone of occupation and from 1949 in the GDR, he first made a career and is one of the leaders of the SED. At the KPD and SPD Unification Party Congress for the SED on April 20 and 21, 46, he is elected second chairman of the SED alongside Wilhelm Pieck. 1948 he becomes president of the German central administration for justice and in 1949 first minister of justice of the GDR.
Another major turning point in his life occurred in connection with the aftermath of the workers’ uprising of 17 June 1953. Two weeks after the events around 17 June, when it was a matter of dealing with the criminal law aspects of the uprising, the “Neue Deutschland” published an interview with the GDR Justice Minister that caused a stir. With regard to the first trials against so-called ringleaders, Fechner explained: “Only persons guilty of a serious crime may be punished. Other persons are not punished. This also applies to members of the strike committee. Even ringleaders must not be punished on mere suspicion…” Two days later, the “Neue Deutschland” added to this by printing Fechner’s statements from the interview, which had originally not been published due to a “technical error”. Fechner had declared: ” The right to strike is constitutionally guaranteed. The members of the strike committee will not be punished.” Against the background of these remarks, which in particular emphasized the legality of the right to strike even for a socialist system such as the GDR, the hope of something like the rule of law in the GDR germinated especially among those arrested in the GDR, their relatives and many others. A deceptive hope, because this was Fechner’s last interview.
On 14 July 1953, the Politbüro took the following decision:
1. Max Fechner is expelled from the party because of anti-party and anti-state behaviour.
2. Fechner is removed from his function as Minister of Justice and placed under pre-trial detention.
3. The secretaries of the district leadership are informed that the Politbüro considers Fechner’s interview to be false and harmful.
Max Fechner was sentenced to eight years in prison in 1955 for “crimes against the state”. Fechner’s “homosexual tendencies” were considered aggravating the punishment.
In April 1956, the so-called “thaw period” after the XXth Party Congress of the KPDSU, Fechner was pardoned and released from prison. In 1958 he was reinstated in the SED. Max Fechner died on 13.9.1973.
As Minister of Justice, Max Fechner was followed in 1953 by Hilde Benjamin, who was not averse to any bourgeois conception of the law. Even after the judgments of the GDR judiciary in the aftermath of 17 June, there could be no doubt about this: Criminal proceedings were instituted against 3449 persons. Charges were brought against 2134. 1526 persons were convicted. These included 2 death sentences, 3 life sentences in prison, 13 sentences of 10-15 years, 99 sentences of 5-10 years, 824 sentences of 1-5 years and 546 sentences of up to one year. It is not only Max Fechner who has paid bitterly enough for his view of the rule of law.