A 10-Minute German History Lesson

Bidding was brisk at the latest auction for dozens of lots at the Syracuse Stamp Club. But no one seemed interested in the stock page of German commemorative stamps from the 1980s. The asking price was one dollar, and I raised my hand. I am not an active collector of German stamps, but since I lived there for nearly three years in the 1960s (my father was director of America Haus in Heidelberg), I had accumulated a semi-decent collection. Since I had almost no stamps from the 1980s, I was fairly confident that while these commemoratives may not be worth much (despite the alleged catalog value of $24.25), at least they didn’t duplicate stamps already in my collection.

There were no other bidders, so I got the whole page for a buck. (“Going once … going twice … SOLD to Mr. Fiske!” shouted the cheerful volunteer auctioneer.) I brought home my prize and it sat for several days on my desk. Last night I was about to add the stock page, without more than a fullsizeoutput_f9dglance, to my loose-leaf album of post-1960s German stamps — when I paused. Should I just snap in the page, shelve the stock book and go on to other business? No! I determined to take a closer look at these commemoratives. After all, each one was a minor work of art, or illustration, or example of graphic artistry.

As I drew one stamp after another out of the slotted strips on the page, I noticed most of them had small inscriptions. With a magnifying glass, I began to decipher the lettering, using my rusty but still serviceable German. Some commemorated old German cities — 1,000-year-old Wallsroede, 1,250-year-old Bad Hersfeld, and the almost unimaginable 2,000 years of the city of Trier. (Actually, it seems Trier was founded by the Celts in the late-4th century BC as Treuorum, which would make it more than 4,000 years old. It is considered among the oldest cities in Germany, needless to say.) Other stamps marked anniversaries of events  and/or institutions — the centennial gathering of the association of Catholic student unions,  the centennial of the German “skat” card-playing congress, the 450th year of German beer sanitation laws (“Reinheitsgebot fuer Bier”). There also were stamps honoring noted Germans, including Bach, Brahms and Kafka (was he really German?). I began to notice stamps in this latter category that paid tribute to individuals who lived from the later part of the 19th century through the 1960s. It occurred to me that all these folks had to make their way through the years of Hitler’s rule, from 1933 to 1945, as mature adults. How did they cope? How did they manage to navigate the mined waters of the Nazi era and emerge  as distinguished Germans, worthy of a posthumous postage stamp in their

Since I wasn’t familiar with some of these names, I turfullsizeoutput_f9bned to Wikipedia for help. Here is a brief rundown of these worthies, and the differing ways they dealt with the
rise and rule of the self-styled Third Reich.

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) — This Italian-born Catholic priest was a prominent theologian who in the 1930s criticized Nazi doctrine
and was forced to resign from his prominent academic post in Berlin. He withdrew to a rural parish until the war ended and he could resume his career. He died in Munich.

Egon Erwin Kisch (1885-1948) was a dfullsizeoutput_f9aashing communist j
ournalist born in what is today the Czech Republic. He traveled widely and wrote popular accounts of his adventures, calling himself der Rasende Reporter (the frenzied journalist). After 1933 he was driven out of journalism by the Nazis, who arrested d briefly jailed him before expelling him and burning his work. Bouncing from England to Australia to Spain, France and the United States, he finally found a welcome in Mexico. After the war he resumed his career in Prague, though he died three years later.

James Franck (1882-1964) and Mfullsizeoutput_f99.jpegax Born (1882-1970) were brilliant physicists,   close collaborators and good buddies (hence their joint appearance on the same stamp.) Franck won the Nobel Prize in 1925 for his study of electrons. Born, who won in 1954, was considered a father of quantum physics. As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933, Franck resigned his post at the University of Goettingen in protest, and helped Jewish physicists find jobs abroad before decamping himself. After a stay in Denmark he moved to America, where he worked on the  Manhattan Project. He issued a report urging that the atom bomb not be dropped on Japan without prior warning. Born wrote dozens of groundbreaking papers in Germany, but because he was Jewish, he  skedaddled in 1933. He resumed his remarkable career in England, and returned to Germany in 1952.

fullsizeoutput_f98Josef Kentenich (1885-1968) was a Pallotine priest and founder of the Shoenstatt Movement, emphasizing service and sacrifice. Protesting against the Nazis (“I see no place where the water of Baptism could run there …”) he was arrested by the Gestapo and spent three years in the Dachau concentration camp, where he continued his work. Somehow he survived and was able to resume his benevolent work.fullsizeoutput_f97

Oskar Kokoshka (1886-1980) — now there’s a name I recognize. The Austrian artist, poet and playwright was a prominent member of the expressionist movement in art. Naturally the Nazis branded him a “degenerate,” and he fled Austria under the shadow of the Reich in 1934, settling in Scotland. After the war he lived in Switzerland.

Otto Warburg (1883-1970) wafullsizeoutput_f96s a  physiologist and doctor who won the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his study of the respiratory enzyme. Although his father was Jewish, Warburg was spared by the Nazis because of his key ongoing cancer research. He was officially listed as “one-half  Jewish,” or maybe “one-quarter,” since the Nazis placed more emphasis on the matrilineal line. He was granted equal rights with gentiles, and stayed put — even though the Rockefeller Foundation offered him a post if he emigrated. After the war he did explore moving to America, but was turned down.

Karl Barth (1886-1968). Bfullsizeoutput_f95orn in Switzerland, Barth is considered among the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century. As a professor in Bonn, he challenged the Nazis’ effort to establish a state religion. He was sacked in 1935 for refusing to swear an oath to Hitler, and returned to Switzerland for good. After the war he published an influential statement promoting both German penitence and reconciliation.

Pope Pius XII
(1876-1958) may seem an odd choice for a German tribute. Considered by some “Hitler’s pope” for not sufficiently resisting the Nazis after taking over the Vatican in 1939, the former Eugenio Pacelli nevertheless is honored on this stamp marking the 88th commemoration of Catholic Day in 1984.

Edith Stein (1891-1942) wafullsizeoutput_f94s a Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun.  After Hitler’s takeover, she had a premonition she would not survive the Nazis. Fearing for her safety, her order transferred her to the Netherlands. But after the Nazis occupied Holland, and  Dutch bishops publicly condemned Hitler’s racism, the German occupiers rounded up all Jewish converts, like Stein, who previously had been spared.  A Dutch official, impressed by her faith,  offered an escape route, but she refused him, declaring her intention  to “share in the fate of my brothers and sisters.” She perished in a gas chamber at Auschwitz in August, 1942. In 1987, she was beatified as St. Theresa of the Cross.

This compilation of thumbnail biographies is the kind of mini-history lesson that makes stamp collecting such an intriguing and rewarding hobby. I come away from this particular exercise with a new appreciation of how some prominent Germans managed to maintain their values and integrity despite the rise of Hitler — and for the most part, survive intact.

The final stamp pictufullsizeoutput_f91red here demonstrates how Germany atoned for its past. The inscription on the stamp includes the word “Widerstand”  — resistance to Nazism  between 1933 and 1945. The other word, which I had to look up — “Verfolgung” — means pursuit and persecution.  Verfolgung und Widerstand — pursuit and resistance. By such  redemptive acts — commemorating resistance to the Nazis, and acknowledging its trespasses and persecutions — Germany has long since reaffirmed its place of honor in the community of nations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s