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The Rising Star of the German Right

Ich war dabei

by Franz Schönhuber
Langen Müller (Munich), 344 pp., DM 14.80 (paper)

Freunde in der Not

by Franz Schönhuber
Langen Müller (Munich), 416 pp., DM36

Macht: Roman eines Freistaats

by Franz Schönhuber
Langen Müller (Munich), 320 pp., DM32

Trotz allem Deutschland

by Franz Schönhuber
Langen Müller (Munich), 264 pp., DM28

When Alan Bullock, the author of what remains the best biography of Adolf Hitler in English, began planning his magisterial life of Ernest Bevin as trade union leader, wartime minister of labor and national service, and postwar foreign secretary, he met his subject’s widow for the first time. Mrs. Bevin gave him a searching, but not unfriendly, look and, as if desirous of putting him on the right track from the beginning, said, “My Ernie warn’t no ‘itler!”

It is a little early to make the same kind of statement with the same kind of conviction about Franz Schönhuber, the leader of the right-wing Republican party, which changed the complexion of German politics by its unexpected breakthrough in the February communal elections in Berlin, where its success in winning 7.5 percent of the vote drove the CDU government from power and allowed a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to take over the government of the city. Schönhuber’s far from ascetic appearance doesn’t resemble Hitler’s in the least—indeed, he looks like what he is, a television talk-show host who has strayed into politics—and it is vested with none of the demonic power that hypnotized and moved Hitler’s audiences. He has indeed been careful to discourage the association of his name with that of the Führer and in 1987 won a court judgment against a television journalist who had broadcast that Adolf Hitler had been his model and his idol.

Yet it seems unlikely that his skill in detecting and playing to the hidden resentments and desires of the German people has not benefited from the Führer’s example, or for that matter his technique of expressing contempt for sentiments to which he then gives striking and memorable formulation. He claims, for example, to scorn anti-Semitism, but adds that “as a German, one has the impression that the Central Council of Jews is becoming the fifth occupation power in Germany” and that “we are not going to permit our history permanently to be reduced to Auschwitz.” These skills may not be enough to assure the survival of Schönhuber’s Republicans as a political force, despite his triumphant cry in the Bavarian town of Cham after the Berlin elections that “No power on earth will remove us from the German arena!” But it is possible, even if Berlin should be his last triumph, that Schönhuber’s true importance in German politics will have been to act as a drummer (which is what Hitler once said was all he hoped to be) encouraging the more dangerous forces to the right of his own party to assemble for an attack upon German democracy.

Schönhuber’s story can be reconstructed from his four books—including a novel—and from the recent articles on him in the German press. He was born in 1923 in Trostberg an der Alz in the Chiemgau, the heart of Bavaria, and was educated in local schools and, after his family had moved to Dresden in 1935, in Oberrealschulen in that city. His father was a butcher who became a member of the National Socialist party in 1931, largely because of its promises to lower taxes on slaughterhouses, and it was his party connection that determined the move to Dresden, where he secured a position in the central stockyard and abattoir. Since his work had brought him into close contact with Jewish cattle traders, he was never affected by the party’s anti-Semitic doctrines, and he passed his feelings on to his son, which did not prevent the latter, as a member of the Hitler Youth, from joining his comrades in lusty, but probably unreflective, choruses about drowning all the Jews in the Red Sea and committing other enormities against them. By his own account, the marching and the music and the fireside rituals that the party afforded made Schönhuber’s youth a happy and exciting time, and his heroes were people like the party martyr Horst Wessel; the Hitlerjunge Herbert Norkus, who died in a street fight with Communists; and the freecorps leader Leo Schlageter.

It was not surprising, therefore, that when he completed his school-leaving examinations in 1942 Schönhuber should volunteer for the Waffen-SS, a military glamour-troop with a reputation similar to that of the French Paras or the US Marines for fortitude and élan in battle and a policy of rewarding achievement without regard for social distinction. He was assigned to the division in the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, served on the southern front, and was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for bravery at Bastia in Corsica, where in September 1943, after Italy’s defection, his unit withstood the attacks of a greatly superior Italian force and made good its escape to Elba. Subsequently, he was sent to Bad-Brückenau as instructor and translator in a training program for the Charlemagne Brigade of French volunteers to the Waffen-SS (the graduates of which were among the last defenders of the Führer’s bunker in Berlin in 1945). Then, as the war wore down, he served briefly in Prague, probably escaped death on the Oder line because he was stricken by venereal disease and shipped west for treatment, and was finally interned by the British when their forces reached Schleswig. He seems to have gotten on well with his captors and helped pass the time by organizing a high school for his fellow internees and, because he was an excellent linguist, giving instruction in English and French.

Once released from detention, Schönhuber, without any professional training that might have determined his career, drifted from occupation to occupation. He returned to his native village and took care of cattle and poultry for a while, graduated from that to the theater, acting in small companies in Bavaria and the north (among his roles was Valentin in a production of Faust by the Passau Stadt-theater and that of Friedrich Eilers in Carl Zuckmayer’s anti-Nazi drama The Devil’s General) and giving poetry readings in secondary schools. Tired of this, he resolved to go to Munich and try to find an opening in television journalism. His knowledge of athletics, in which he had himself been a tournament competitor in skiing and football, gave him the entree needed, and his imagination and energy in arranging interviews all over Europe with great athletes of the recent past soon made him a personality in his own right.

His ascent to power was rapid, particularly after his program Jetzt red I (“Now It’s My Turn”) became the most popular Bavarian talk show. He was chairman of the Bavarian Association of Journalists for six years and member of the Press Council for two, was chief editor of the newspaper tz, and—not least of all because of his personal friendship with the imposing Franz-Josef Strauss, the leader of the Bavarian-based Christian Socialist Union—gradually advanced to the highest echelon in the Bavarian Television Corporation.

If Schönhuber’s novel Power: A Novel of a Free State is to be given any credence, life among the ruling elite in the land that one of its characters calls Absurdistan resembles—or at least did so in the days of Franz-Josef Strauss’s ascendancy—life at the court of an oriental despot, for whose favors the nobility ceaselessly conspire, weaving snares for their rivals and whispering rumors of their malfeasance or moral delinquencies into their master’s ear. It is a highly entertaining book, if not one that deserves to be compared, as Schönhuber’s fans believe, with Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel about Munich politics in the early Twenties.1

Schönhuber’s Power is the story of the politics of the television industry and the wrecking of the protagonist’s career by innuendo and slander. The plot is based roughly upon the author’s own experience. In December 1979, when the Television Council was considering his nomination as chief departmental director of the Bavarian Television Corporation, anonymous letters began to circulate charging him with having been a bloodthirsty SS officer during the war and also with having had Communist and/or Nazi connections since. These representations were so absurd that he had no difficulty in discrediting them, but he was left with the realization that there must be many like himself who had fought bravely for their country during the war and were now being traduced. This was particularly true of veterans of the Waffen-SS, who suffered from the wholly false assumption that they had spent the war administering the extermination camps.

Schönhuber conceived the idea of writing a memoir to clear this confusion up and to tell the story of his war service, of which he was proud, and he persisted in this intention despite warnings from friends, who told him that he would be taking a useful alibi away from his countrymen, who needed the SS in order to be able to say, “They did it, not I.” This Schönhuber found offensive. “Aside from the submarine crews,” he wrote later, “we had the greatest blood toll. Every third one of my comrades…is either dead or gravely wounded. And I should deny them posthumously?” His memoir, under the title I Was There, appeared in 1981 and has by now gone through eleven printings and sold 130,000 copies.

It has done so not only because Schönhuber is a good storyteller, with a fast-moving, breezy style and a sardonic turn of phrase, but also because of the frankness and gusto with which its author tells what he did and felt during the Nazi period and the scorn that he expresses for those among his countrymen who protest too loudly their freedom from any connection with Hitler and his works. A glance at the facsimile edition of the Nazi magazine Das Reich, he writes, would be enough to show how many of the Prominenzen of the Federal Republic had not hesitated to lend their presence and their pen to Nazi enterprises, although it was these same persons who now challenged the democratic convictions of people they didn’t like. Even worse were those who had allowed themselves to be “reeducated” with a vengeance by the victors and now had no opinions about either past or present that were not acceptable to the Americans. Schönhuber describes himself as a “true wolf of the steppes” in comparison with these “opportunistic cockroaches and political windsurfers,” and he quotes Clemenceau as saying of his countrymen that they “know no middle line. In good times they glorify their ideals to the point of self-sacrifice, but after the defeat they dirty their own nest merely to please us.”

For Schönhuber’s enemies, Ich war dabei was a godsend. It enabled them to claim that its defense of the Waffen-SS threatened good relations with the Western powers, who had declared at Nuremberg that that service was a criminal organization. They cited his idealized picture of the foreign volunteers to the Waffen-SS and his stated admiration of leaders such as Jacques Doriot, Aimé Joseph Darnand, and Léon Degrelle as proof of an inveterate antipathy to democracy and his praise of their devotion to the idea of a New Europe as disguised Nazism. They pointed to his description of his emotions when news came of Hitler’s death as proof of his unalloyed dedication to the Führer. All these charges weakened his position in the power structure of Bavarian Television. Even more damaging was the frankness with which Schönhuber had discussed his adventures and misadventures with women during the war years. As a result, as he tells us in his second book, Friends in Need, which describes the reactions to his first book and the events that led to his fall,

  1. 1

    Lion Feuchtwanger, Erfolg: Drei Jahre Geschichte einer Provinz (first published in 1930; new edition, Hamburg, 1955).

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