• resisting the abuse of power

    'December 1931. A horrible year comes to an end, full of crises, collapses, and useless conferences. The economy is on a precipice.'

    'February 1932. Huge worries in my factory. I go to a meeting of the League for Human Rights.'

    During the 1920s and 1930s, Herbert Sulzbach was a businessman in Berlin. His diary records increasing political and economic turmoil, and escalating racial violence.

    He responded by writing letters to newspapers, and also joined the German League for Human Rights. This organisation had been set up in 1914, and was committed to lasting peace in Europe. By 1922, when Sulzbach became involved in resisting totalitarianism and making a positive contribution, the League was working to foster better relationships with Germany's neighbours – particularly France. Sulzbach renewed friendly contact with the French people with whom he had lodged during the war.

    In January 1933 Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Ten days later:

    '27 February 1933, The Reichstag burns. Every day there are killings. Newspapers are prohibited. There is trouble everywhere.'

    That summer, Sulzbach wrote in his diary,

    '30 June 1933. The National Socialist revolution has come to an end. We have totalitarianism. All Jews have been removed from public office, countless numbers have emigrated. It is a completely different Germany.'

    By then, resistance was impossible for Jews. Sulzbach fled to Britain.

    Only after the end of the war did he begin to appreciate the extent of resistance that had developed. He was grateful and much encouraged that – after all – the values of the 'other' Germany had survived. He became friends with some of the resisters, such as Otto John and Fabian von Schlabrendorff, and spread the word about others:

    'A vast cross-section of Germans - working class men, Trade Unionists, Labour movement leaders, Civil Servants, soldiers, officers - had formed groups of anti-Nazi movements; even students dared to issue and distribute leaflets (the Scholl group in Munich for example) telling of the horrors of Nazism.'

    For Sulzbach, resisting the abuse of power was a moral necessity, an empowering activity for those involved, and an encouragement for those at the receiving end of abuse.

    (photo: Nuremberg rally 1933. text: © Ainslie Hepburn. original diaries: © Yvonne Klemperer)



  • protesting fascism

    Just a year before Britain declared war on Germany for the second time in the 20th century, Herbert Sulzbach wrote to Neville Chamberlain, to say,

    'Please never forget that the motto of the new German Right is:

    “Recht ist, was Deutschland nützt.

    Unrecht ist, was Deutschland schadet.'

    (Right is what is useful for Germany.

    Wrong is what does damage to Germany.)”'

    At the time, October 1938, Sulzbach was living in Basel, Switzerland. He had no paid employment, having fled the Nazis in Germany and been unable to continue his business in Britain. In Basel he stayed with friends who shared his values and together they worked day and night to fight fascism. As he wrote in a letter to the editor of the SS paper, 'Das Schwarze Korps', the following month,

    'If only you and your seduced people knew what people think of them! It is not hatred, because hatred includes a certain respect – it is boundless, unending contempt.'

    Sulzbach and his friends planned to prepare material to oppose and resist Nazi propaganda. They were concerned that 'ordinary people' in Germany and elsewhere were swayed by the 'blackmail' of their leaders, so they prepared

    'a short booklet in three languages, with slogans about the crimes of the leaders of the Third Reich, to enlighten the people – not the leaders – about this murderous Reich.'

    But events moved too fast for them.

    'The breathless speed of events continues and is simply incomprehensible. Who can uphold the law? It seems to me that all good Europeans, true friends of peace, should come together before it is too late!'

    In furious desparation, Sulzbach wrote countless letters to leaders of Western European countries and America, to editors of newspapers in Switzerland, France and England, and offered himself to serve in the armies of every democratic country in Europe. He could see only too clearly where the fascist policies of Hitler were leading but his counter-propaganda had little impact.

    In June 1939, having spent a year in Basel protesting fascism, he returned to London. Throughout the next few years he never ceased to 'fight Nazism with my mouth.'

    (photo: Herbert Sulzbach in Basel, August 1938 ©Yvonne Klemperer; text © Ainslie Hepburn)



  • escaping Nazism – a refugee in 1930s Europe

    'Some people had the illusion that anybody who had fought in the First World War would have privileges, but it was all the same to Hitler and his gang whether they were Jewish, half-Jewish, or Communists. They were condemned to death if they didn't leave.'

    Herbert Sulzbach had found himself unwanted in his own country. Notices on the lamp posts announced that Jews were not welcome. Creeping legislation had led to his business being compulsorily purchased and him being made stateless. He used the money from the sale of his business to fund the considerable emigration tax.

    Sulzbach emigrated to England in 1936, returning in 1938 to take his wife and her sister to London with him. Over that time, many months were spent collecting the necessary documents and trying to ensure that they fulfilled all the requirements for exit from Germany and entry to England. Sulzbach relied on his remaining wealth to ease the process, and on his friends within the system to help with documentation.

    Being a reputable businessman helped. The British government, throughout the 1930s, pursued a highly restrictive immigration policy. A Cabinet decision in April 1932 approved the entry of refugees who were 'prominent Jews', 'who had achieved distinction'. The policy was not entirely altruistic -

    'This would not only obtain for this country the advantage of their knowledge and experience, but would also create a very favourable impression in the world, particularly if our hospitality were offered with some warmth.'

    Refugees like Sulzbach brought useful business and trading contacts to Britain, but the reality for the refugees themselves was a severely reduced lifestyle, with family members taking lowly jobs, and the need to share cramped living space with lodgers and fellow refugees. However, misery and poverty were preferable to likely death in Germany.

    During the 1930s, many in Germany did not believe that the 'madness' of the Nazi regime would last, and periods of relative calm between the periods of violence gave them hope. But, as Harold Nicolson observed,

    'Hitlerism is a doctrine of despair, a catastrophe for this country.'

    By 1938, the visa systems that were set up in countries of possible refuge limited Jews' chances of immigration, and there began a frantic scramble for documentation and acceptance. Those who had been successful remained with feelings of 'a great sadness', loneliness, rootlessness, homesickness - and guilt at leaving their parents behind.

    (Photo: Herbert Sulzbach, last day in Germany, May 1938, © Yvonne Klemperer. Text: © Ainslie Hepburn)



  • a philanthropic banker

    'I always call my father the most modest millionaire I ever met in my life.'

    Herbert Sulzbach could as easily have been talking about his grandfather, Rudolf, as much as his father, Emil. The family tradition of sharing and passing on their privilege of wealth was strong.

    Rudolf Sulzbach was born in Frankfurt am Main almost two hundred years ago, in April 1827, to Abraham – a merchant and banker – and Sara (born Beyfuss). Thirty years later he and his elder brother, Siegmund, established a private bank which later became known as 'Gebrüder Sulzbach' – 'Sulzbach Brothers'.

    From the beginning, the bank was especially active both in Germany and abroad in its dealings with new and emerging industries, such as electrical engineering, chemicals, railways and other transport. In 1870 it was one of the founders of Deutsche Bank, and the following year moved its premises from Rudolf's own residence to an even grander building on the corner of Bockenheimer Landstrasse in Frankfurt.

    From this vantage point overlooking the new Opernplatz, he could watch the city's opera house being built, and the whole family could view such displays as the Kaiser's birthday parade taking place in the square below.

    When Rudolf died in 1904, aged 77, his funeral procession stretched for a kilometre from this building, and commerce came to a halt. He was honoured and celebrated as a man who had helped to establish Frankfurt as a centre of German trade and industry, who had been an influential member of the chamber of commerce, and who had

    'supported an endless number of associations and undertakings for the benefit of the public and those in need of help. It was typical of the modesty of Rudolf Sulzbach that he had refused the offer of an hereditary title.'

    In memory of their father, Emil and Karl Sulzbach established the 'Rudolf Sulzbach Foundation' of 100,000 Marks for the education and training of young businessmen, for the benefit of those in need of help, and for the relief of poor traders.

    'Gebrüder Sulzbach' was 'Aryanised' in 1938, and the Foundation dissolved in 1941, with its residual assets being transferred to Frankfurt's chamber of commerce.

    (photo: premises of Gebrüder Sulzbach 1871 – 1904, taken in early 20th century, from 'Bestand im Wandel' by Franz Lerner, published by Gerd Ammelburg, 1956. text: © Ainslie Hepburn)



  • a lot can happen in 25 years

    It was a novelty for Herbert Sulzbach to find himself in the queue for those with British passports as he left Dover in January 1949, travelling to the continent to pick up old business contacts after his eight years in the British army.

    He had last been in Paris in 1924 on business to see 'Muller et Fils'. Twenty-five years later he was horrified by conditions there:

    'In England we still live in a paradise when you see France! Paris has changed: there is no sense of gaiety.'

    When he met 'Muller' this time it was one of the sons of the family firm whom he saw. Alfred was the only one alive of the four sons who were to have carried forward the business. Other family members had been murdered in Auschwitz or had died while working for the French Resistance.

    At the time of his visit in 1924, Sulzbach had been the director of a small fancy paper factory near Berlin and had travelled frequently and extensively to build up contacts – despite the difficult financial and political climate in Germany in the 1920s.

    Since he was Jewish, he had been forced to sell his factory for a derisory sum at the end of 1936 and it had become premises for producing colour film for the neighbouring film industry. His business friends were generous and supportive:

    'Good luck! And a handshake from your Fritz Blankenstein, Société Anonyme Hoedhaar, le Lokeren, Belgium.'

    Sulzbach kept in touch with as many of them as he could and as his service in the British army came to an end he asked his wife,

    'Should I ask my previous good customers - Henningsen in Copenhagen, and Hunkeler and Wysmuller in Amsterdam – what the sale and demand for fancy paper is? Or should I ask the famous London firm, Sanderson? Sandersons bought a lot from us twenty years ago.'

    But Sulzbach's life as a businessman had ended, although his contacts remained very useful. After a fruitless search for work, he was able – through the new German Embassy - to continue the inspirational work that he had begun with PoW. His work for reconciliation and Anglo-German friendship over the next thirty years brought close and lasting European ties for many individuals, families, organisations and civic institutions.

    (photo: an envelope addressed to Sulzbach on one of his pre-war business visits to London © Yvonne Klemperer. text © Ainslie Hepburn)



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On my blog I write about biography, Anglo-German reconciliation, and the life of Herbert Sulzbach.


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