Professor August Hinderer’s stand of defiance
You know a house is abandoned when trees grow where the roof should be and where each floor was a roof in turn until there were none. Hierarchy to hieranarchy. The bombs fell from the heavens to open them up.
Nature has been slowly reclaiming this war-torn ruin since the night of March 23-24, 1944, when yet another air raid over Berlin did the business. “BOOM! BOOM!” the bombs went. Or so I imagine. I’m grateful not to be writing from experience.
The villa belonged to Professor August Hinderer at the time. He owned it afterward too, only it was destroyed, engulfed in flames, with family belongings wiped out, the library burned, 20 years’ research work extinguished – all consumed by war’s ferocious appetite.
No one died in the house that night, but all they had was gone. Gone. War destroyed all but everything.
The wooden staircase that went up the side of the house was cut short. It was ended before the end. Now it’s a stairs to nowhere. I didn’t go up. It looked a bit dodgy, but it’s still there, appearing remarkably well for a structure wrecked and abandoned 70 years before.
The glazed red brick walls still stand proudly too, unbowed, and the magnificent arched window frames attest to its former glory. Now it’s literally a shell. A proud shell and an awe-inspiring shell, but a shell all the same.
Professor Hinderer, an old classmate of the novelist and poet Hermann Hesse, wrote a letter on February 6, 1945 in which he gave a glimpse of the ongoing destruction.
Evidently the war was getting on his nerves a bit. His house was already destroyed and he wrote about what was happening the rest of the city, albeit in a reserved way…
“Life in the capital is gradually getting awkward. The inner city looks pretty bad: castle, (Berliner) Dom galleries, universities all razed to the ground.”
Hinderer had Nazis for neighbors, though he wasn’t one himself. He was a big wig in theology, director of the Evangelical Press Association of Germany (EPD) from 1918, and the honorary professor for evangelical journalism in 1927.
By the following year, the EPD, which was independent despite maintaining close ties to the church, produced more than 1,900 separate brochures with a total circulation of 17 million copies. So somebody was reading the stuff.
Hinderer bought the villa that same year, but it wasn’t long before he got into trouble with his neighbors’ pals…
A work colleague, Dr. Hans Liepmann, who had been recommended to Hinderer by none other than Theodor Heuss (then a journalist, later the first president of West Germany), wrote of going home on June 24, 1933. He had heard of Hinderer’s arrest by the Nazis and knew that he’d likely be arrested too. Friends “confirmed that there was a gathering of brownshirts in front of our block of flats.”
Both Hinderer and Liepmann had been discharged from all duties without notice.
“Hinderer was re-instated after a fortnight’s incredible activity on our part and controversy between different authorities. We celebrated the occasion in Hinderer’s house,” Liepmann wrote.
Hinderer’s troubles weren’t over, however. He was arrested again following the Night of Long Knives or ‘Röhm affair’ in 1934, when he was incarcerated and almost killed at the Gestapo’s Columbia-Haus concentration camp at Tempelhof.
He survived and stubbornly persevered with his life’s work despite the danger, until the religious publications were halted in 1941. By then, of course, the Nazis were fully in control and Party leader Martin Bormann was leading the persecution of the churches.
“I kept managing under a barrage of all types of hostility so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of [the Nazi-supporting] German Christians or other party officials with their political objectives – partly to take over the church press, partly to manipulate it, partly to destroy it progressively – until the ecclesiastical popular press as a whole was brought to a standstill at the behest of the Nazi Party (Bormann) under the pretext of saving paper for the war,” Hinderer wrote several weeks before he died on Oct. 26, 1945.
If only there had been more like him. Liepmann lamented that others didn’t share the power of his convictions and their failure to take a stand “when Hinderer implored them to do so – at a time when a stand might have made all the difference.”
Liepmann added: “That there could be a spiritual attitude which would make people speak against Hitler, whatever their blood was, or whatever the color of their skin, was not thought possible, which alone, to my way of thinking, condemns the educated classes in Germany and their church.”
Hinderer had a daughter, Diemut, and two sons, Hermann and Fritz. They believed they could restore the ruined house up to the late 1950s. But a lack of money and fear of the Russians put paid to their plans – West Berlin was about to be surrounded by what was in effect Soviet East Germany at this time. Even after the construction of the Berlin Wall, those fears persisted.
“In fact shortly before he died in 1986, my father couldn’t imagine anything else but that West Berlin would be part of the GDR sooner or later. The ‘Iron Curtain’ dividing the land into East and West seemed irrefutable,” Hermann’s daughter told Abandoned Berlin.
“From 1945 to 1954 Papa worked hard to ensure the garden and ruin stayed in the family’s possession,” she said, explaining that he felt his efforts had been in vain.
Fritz Hinderer, who was an astronomy professor at the nearby Freie Universität, was the last of the Hinderer kids. He lived to 79 and tended the gardens and fruit trees right to the end.
“Fritz went missing from August 21, 1991, when we couldn’t get him on the phone,” Hermann’s daughter said. “Days later, police found his body in the ruin. Our dog showed me the place where he must have lain, a few months after that.”
Hermann’s daughter – August Hinderer’s granddaughter – inherited the site. She lives in Munich but makes regular trips to tend to the ruin, and she still harbors dreams of restoring it and living there some day. It’s not easy though.
“I can only say that life is full of detours,” she said. “They may also lead to good things.”
The house still stands despite the bombs and intervening years, as if to remember the stand once taken by its occupant. Defiant, unbowed. There are some things not even war can destroy.
After I first published this post in 2014, Professor Hinderer’s granddaughter got in touch to say she had “better summer trips to make than across Germany to Berlin with a roll of barbed wire to repair the fence, just because some bored hooligans have fun breaking it.” Hence there is no location information for this one.
She was very nice and later helped fill in a lot of the blanks on her grandfather’s fascinating story. She also provided the old black and white photos and is happy for them to be republished here.
Many thanks to Peer Sylvester for the tip. And to Mark Rodden for copy editing.
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