Franz Schönhuber
Franz Schönhuber; drawing by David Levine

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,

The mater Bavariae, Marianne Strauss [Franz-Josef Strauss’s wife], entered the stage. In confidential circles, she expressed her disapproval of the erotic scenes in my book, and her consort allowed himself to be perceived as sharing that opinion. The “Union of Yea-Sayers” carried the news to the party faithful.

Before long Schönhuber found himself faced with an attempt by the director of the Munich City Youth Office to have his book placed on the forbidden list so that it would not fall into the hands of young people.

He was able to defeat this maneuver, but this did not relieve his situation. He had irretrievably lost his influence at the court of the man he calls the Landesvater, Franz-Josef Strauss, and in April 1982, after a complicated and muddled bureau-cratic reorganization, was unconditionally dismissed as chief editor of Bavarian Television. One gathers that he was not sorry to go. He was tired of working with journalists whose undoubted ability was sterilized, he writes, by “the compulsory exercises in self-denial and repression that [they] must indulge in so that a recognizable democratic Paul might emerge from a brown Saul.” He was increasingly irritated by the editing of programs to make sure that they were inoffensive to the Americans, Israel, the democratic left, and the Church. “Ja Kruzitürken,” one of the characters in his novel says, “mir kenna doch net allerweil auf de Knia daherrutschn! [For God’s sake, we can’t spend all our time crawling around on our knees!]” He saw no reason why the United States should be taken as a model for Germans, given the decline of American moral authority in the world and the low level of American culture, as evinced in the television programs that it exported. And politically,

…total commitment to the American way of life seems to me to be unnecessary. We must go our own way…. To me personally the Russians are, as far as mentality goes, closer than the Americans. That has nothing to do with the fact that I am naturally for NATO and the defense of freedom. But not unconditionally. The smear campaign against the Germans that still prevails in the American mass media at times raises doubts about their willingness to accept us as equal partners. We ought to consider ourselves too good for cannon fodder.

He resolved to go into politics in order to be able to say these things publicly.

He began this process, he tells us in his book of essays, Despite Everything, Germany, in 1983, at a time when the debate over the emplacement of the Pershings and ground missiles was dividing the spirits, and he did so by joining a conservative seminar headed by Armin Mohler and Helmut Diwald that hoped to start a discussion of the national question in both parts of Germany. In December 1983, this group, which called itself the Deutschlandrat (Council on Germany), issued a statement that has a striking relevance to the present debate on Germany’s relationship with NATO. Claiming that in any future war Germany would be the victim of nuclear destruction, it declared:

Only one who can decide his fate for himself is free. This is also valid for the life of peoples. Only the one that is sovereign can be a reliable alliance and treaty partner. Every state must have the ability to dispose of the weapons on its own soil….

We cannot live permanently—and this holds for our domestic as it does for our foreign policy—in a state of emergency. We want to be a normal nation once more. That will necessitate the decriminalization of our history as a condition of a self-confident national consciousness.

No one, however, seemed to have much interest in what the Deutschlandrat had to say, and Schönhuber, seeking an organ with more resonance, joined the new Republican party, which first won a sizable number of votes in the Bavarian Landtag elections of 1986 and then, as we have seen, went on to a greater success in Berlin in February of this year. The public program of that party, of which he is now the national leader, is variable and opportunistic, but to the extent that it has fixed principles it is probably safe to assume that they conform with those that he lays down in his book of essays, in a chapter called “Has the German Right a Chance?”

Here he flatly refuses to be tarred with the brush of Neo-Nazism, pointing out that every patriotic movement since 1945 has been forced onto the defensive by being stigmatized in this way. It is time to start refusing to allow Hitler to determine the German future. “The German patriot must in the first instance argue politically, not historically. This may hurt a lot of people, but it must nevertheless be asserted: With backward-looking nostalgia for the Reich one cannot cope with the present and the future.”

The German Right must above all pull itself out of the fug of clubbiness. Out of the cellars of denial. As understandable and welcome as meetings to promote comradeship and tradition may be, it is not enough to fight the battles of yesterday. It is important to form a front against the dangers of today: unemployment, the menacing loss of national identity, the destruction of our environment, a deficient historical consciousness. The Federal Republic runs the danger of abandoning German history to the DDR… [while] we continue to go on squinting fearfully at our democratic tutor [and asking] “May we do that? Can we do that? Should we do that?”

An Americanized and “condomized” republic will not have the moral strength to face up to the challenges of the present and future. Schönhuber’s vision is that of a reunited Germany with Berlin as the capital of the Reich. That this will mean a loosening of the tie with the United States and the rejection of the dream of European union, which must yield priority to reunification, is inevitable.

As far as Europe is concerned, there is a rough correspondence between Schönhuber’s ideas and those of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the xenophobic French Front National, and it is significant that the two parties have exchanged expressions of mutual admiration and established formal contacts. (The two leaders had their first meeting in March of this year and Schönhuber’s party newspaper, Die Republikaner, subsequently printed their joint statement that without patriotism peoples lose their national identity and cannot survive.) Schönhuber’s slogan for the pending European elections is characteristically cryptic: “Ja to Europe, but not to this European Union!” Whatever that means, it is clear enough that Germany comes first.

As long as Germany is divided, there will be no assured peace in Europe. And how does one attain reunification? Certainly not against the will of the Soviet Union. Therefore one must distinguish between the necessary ideological struggle against communism on the home front and foreign-political maneuverability against Moscow. The Soviet Union has remained Russia. And Russia is nearer to us than America, not merely geographically. Here I am a follower of Bismarck, who believed that the key to the fruitful development of our fatherland lay in a positive relationship with Russia.

It is questionable whether those Berliners who gave Schönhuber’s party 7.5 percent of the vote in the February elections did so because they were moved by all of these arguments and were thinking in national terms. Five of the ten electoral districts in which the Reps, as they are popularly called, made their greatest gains lay in the old working-class districts of Neuköln and the others were either in “Red Wedding” or predominantly lower-middle-class Reinickendorf. Here the primary motive for the swing toward the Republikaner seems to have been the feeling that the interests of these districts were being neglected by the major parties, as well as concern over rising unemployment and the shortage of decent and affordable housing. There was also dismay over the reckless destruction of whole districts of small stores and comfortable Kneipen in favor of gigantic living quarters that are alien to the older population, fear of the effects of the drug culture on public safety, and resentment over the increasing number of foreign immigrants and political exiles who compete for local jobs and housing. A vigorous attack upon these problems by the new city government might very well make the Republikaner a transitory factor in Berlin polities.

But even if that happened and if they failed in their next big test in Bavaria, they have already helped to dramatize the national issue in a way that may work to the advantage of the whole spectrum of right-extremist politics in Germany. Already in the April communal elections in Hessen, where the Republikaner campaigned in only two of the twenty-one electoral districts, doing well however in both, the National Democratic party (NPD), a party that had a brief hour of glory in 1968 and then went into deep decline and one that Schönhuber dismisses as a crowd of “asinine and unteachable neo-Nazis,” was able to win 10 percent of the total vote. In addition, as a long and circumstantial article in Die Zeit pointed out recently,2 there are now stirrings among the more dangerous ultras of the extremist fringe. These include the Freiheitliche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (FAP), reorganized last year by its new leader, Friedrich Busse, who put its more violent elements (such as the Dortmund Borussenfront of SS-Sigi Borchardt) under wraps, provided it with a program that hides under a pseudodemocratic varnish its National Socialist substance, and set up election headquarters in six Länder; the well-financed Deutsche Volksunion (DVU) of Gerhard Frey, publisher of the Deutsche National Zeitung and other right-wing papers, who aspires to bring all the extremist parties together in a solid front; and the new National-Sammlung of the former Bundeswehr lieutenant Michael Kühnen, an open idolator of Adolf Hitler whose followers—one of whom said recently, “We’re not going to let this Jewish Republic wear us down!”—are as rabid as he.

All of these groups were heartened by Schönhuber’s success in Berlin and hope to profit from it, and they may in the end do so at his expense. If they succeed, his place in the history of German politics will be not that of a new Führer but rather that of an animateur de la victoire of a new nationalism, the cunning exploiter of irritations that have accumulated since the days of the fight over the Pershings and Bitburg and are now being exacerbated by the bullying of the Kohl government by Mrs. Thatcher, Defense Secretary Cheney, and spokesmen for the Bush administration who insist not only that the Federal Republic accept more powerful short-range missiles but that no negotiation over them should be sought with the USSR. Schönhuber may indeed turn out to be the man who made the public expression of national ambition and national defiance respectable (salonfähig) again. It is, after all, something new in the history of the Federal Republic when a German politician pounds the table and cries, as Schönhuber did at Cham: “The counter for tickets to Canossa is closed! The epoch of re-education is ended! The exclusive responsibility for the Second World War is no longer ours!”

This Issue

June 15, 1989