by Thomas Speelhoffer
On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Köpenick Blood Week, June 21 – 26, 1933
A short time line leading up to one of the earliest great atrocities of the Nazi period:
- 1929 elections – Hitler’s Party wins 6.3% of the vote in the Köpenick District Assembly elections.
- 1930 elections – Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers (NSDAP) Party gains 18% of the national vote.
- 1932 elections – Hitler wins 37% of the vote in a runoff election challenge to President Paul von Hindenburg.
- Jan. 30, 1933 – Von Hindenburg succumbs to pressure and appoints Hitler Reichskanzler (Reich chancellor).
- Feb. 27, 1933 – Hitler blames the fire in the Reichstag on Communists; he is granted emergency powers.
- Mar. 12, 1933 – NSDAP wins over 42% of the votes in the Köpenick District Assembly elections.
- Mar. 22, 1933 – Hermann Göring authorizes the SA to function as a “reserve police force”.
- Mar. 24, 1933 – Reichstag passes the Enabling Law, makes itself redundant and gives Hitler dictatorial powers.
- Mar. 24, 1933 – Minister of the Interior decrees that members of the SPD, KPD and DNVP must be expelled from municipal representative bodies, such as the Köpenick District Assembly.
- Apr. 1, 1933 – Propagandist Joseph Goebbels announces a boycott of Jewish businesses and professionals.
- May 2, 1933 – Unions are declared illegal by the Nazi leadership; collective bargaining is abolished.
- May 10, 1933 – German Student Association burns 25,000 books by Jewish and foreign “un-German” authors.
Then on June 21, 1933, the SA uses the courthouse prison in the Köpenick section of Berlin as an interrogation and torture center and prison. They begin to arrest about five hundred (500) citizens who are leaders or members of other political parties or who are known opponents of the National Socialist leadership, from Berlin-Köpenick and neighboring districts, assisted by SS and Gestapo groups.
In the days that follow, those arrested are accused of political activities opposing the new leadership. They are from all walks of life and they range in age from teenagers to retirees. One site the SA chooses for their “interrogations” is the former prison chapel. According to an eyewitness, “the tortures were such that chunks of flesh and brains were lying about in the prayer room and great pools of blood were flowing out from beneath the door.”
Members of the SA torture both men and women and their methods are so extreme that many of those imprisoned do not survive the interrogations. It is estimated that 25 people who are opponents of National Socialism are murdered outright, although some victims are injured so badly that they still succumb to their injuries as much as seven years later. It is obvious that the entire intent of the arrests is to intimidate members of opposition parties and to discourage anyone from opposing the NSDAP.
Who Were the Victims of the “Köpenicker Blutwoche”?
Although the main groups targeted for house searches, arrest and acts of terrorism in the beginning were members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD), others singled out were trade unionists, members of the Confessional Church, Jewish citizens, members of the “German National Fighting Units” (the German National People’s Party – DNVP), workers’ youth organizations and even members of sports clubs organized in various workplaces. Some were found tied into sacks floating in the river, others were hanging in the woods, while many others died in the hospital.
In June 1933, the population of Köpenick was about 87,300 and many were employed by large industrial companies such as AEG and Kodak, but there was also a large number of civil servants and salaried employees.
Where is Köpenick?
Köpenick lies in the far southeast corner of the city of Berlin. In 1920, the formerly independent municipalities of Köpenick, Friedrichshagen, Grünau, Müggelheim, Rahnsdorf, Bohnsdorf, and Schmöckwitz became the 16th administrative district of the city of Berlin, with the combined name of “Köpenick”.
Those familiar with German literature and 20th century German history may remember the story of Wilhelm Voigt, the Captain of Köpenick (Der Hauptmann von Köpenick), based on an incident that happened there in 1906. Herr Voigt thought that he was being treated unfairly by an unfeeling government, so he took a stand and used the system’s weaknesses against it and, in the process, made it the laughing-stock of the entire country.
In 2001, years after the reunification of Germany and of East and West Berlin, an administrative reorganization took place and the 23 boroughs of Berlin were reduced to 12. At that time, Köpenick was merged with Treptow, forming the newly consolidated borough of Treptow-Köpenick.
A memorial museum for the victims of the Köpenick Blood Week of June 1933 is maintained to this day by the borough administration of Treptow-Köpenick. The museum is housed in the very room, the former chapel, where horrible tortures and murders were conducted at Puchanstraße 12. Exhibits are open to the general public every Thursday from 10:00 AM until 6:00 PM. Visits to archives and guided tours must be arranged in advance.
The Growth and Influence of the SA (Sturmabteilung)
One of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles had been the limitation of the German military (army, navy and air force) to 100,000. The SA, which had started out as a group of beer hall brawlers and included many ex-military who were working class and unemployed, started out as a paramilitary arm of the Nazi Party. Their original purpose was to protect party officers and speakers, to prevent disruptions at party gatherings and to eject hecklers.
SA membership grew rapidly under the leadership of Ernst Röhm. In 1932, their ranks had swollen to about half a million, but by the time Hitler took power the following January, their number had already exceeded 2,000,000 (twenty times the allowable size of the entire German military). Röhm saw his group as a “substitute German army” and hoped that the two would be merged sometime in the future with himself as the leader. Following up on one of their maxims, “All opposition must be stamped into the ground,” members of the SA began using extraordinary police powers to search people’s homes, confiscate possessions, drag people to interrogation locations, and to intimidate any members of opposition political parties or anyone who might oppose Nazi ideology or methodology.
Even though large numbers of SA members were in their teens and twenties, their units were renowned for their brutality. Once Hitler’s party was officially in power, the SA took it upon itself to quash other parties, to punish enemies of the Nazi leadership and, generally, to help consolidate Hitler’s dictatorial grip on the nation. Röhm was only able to assist in that effort until the “Night of the Long Knives,” on June 30, 1934, when Hitler was finally convinced that the SA was a threat to his own power and he had hundreds of their leadership arrested and about 100 of them murdered immediately.
Although he initially decided to spare Röhm because of contributions that he had made to the rise of the party, two days later, Himmler and Göring were able to convince Hitler that Röhm had to die. He was offered the chance to commit suicide with a pistol. He refused and was shot at point-blank range by an SS officer, Michel Lippert, ten minutes later.
The SA in Köpenick
In June 1933, the SA was still riding roughshod over the general population. Teams of SA members began invading homes in the area of the Köpenick S-Bahnhof (fast-train railway station). The rumor had already been spreading and it was considered an “open secret” that the Köpenick SA had served as the sentries in the Reichstag’s Presidential Palace. It was therefore logical that suppression would begin where opposition to the SA was starting to grow. The Nazis were determined to silence opposition and “nip it in the bud.”
The SA presumed, in an operation that began on Wednesday, June 21, 1933, to have the authority to investigate, interrogate, judge and execute, resulting in unprecedented terrorization in Köpenick. Johann Schmaus, 56, and his son, Anton, 23, were both trained carpenters who were active in their union. In addition, Anton was attending night school and learning about construction trades, because he had the ultimate goal of becoming an architect.
Johann, who had been union secretary for years, became unemployed on May 2nd when the Nazis declared that unions were forbidden. He was attacked on the street in Köpenick a few evenings before June 21st by SA members, who beat him viciously and left him lying bleeding on the pavement. A compassionate cab driver, who witnessed the situation, waited until the SA disappeared, then drove up, assisted the helpless Johann Schmaus into his car, and drove him home.
From then on, Anton spread the word everywhere: “If anyone dares to touch my father again, I will gun him down.” Probably to avoid the SA, Johann did not spend too much time at home any more. Instead, he took turns staying overnight at the homes of friends. Most of the time, Anton was home alone with his mother, Katharina, and his thirteen-year-old sister, Grete.
The Political Situation in Köpenick
Although the NSDAP won the greatest number of votes (almost 44%) in the Reichstag election on March 5th, they failed to achieve a majority; they were disappointed that the Social Democrats and the Communists had still received more than 1.2 million votes. They decided that it was time to suppress the vote of those two main opposition parties. On March 18th, a bank clerk was appointed Acting Mayor in Köpenick. He had been a Nazi since 1922. The previous mayor had had no party affiliation. Members of the SPD and the KPD in Köpenick, including the Deputy Mayor, were brutally interrogated and mistreated on the night of March 20th. In the beginning of April, purging of the two main opposition parties in the Köpenick local government began.
The Case of Johann and Anton Schmaus
By June 21st, it is clear that the SA will be searching for Johann and Anton, because of their involvement in the labor union and their intense activity in the SPD. Neither father nor son is at home around 11 a.m., when the SA invades the Schmaus home looking for the two men and searching all of the family’s belongings. Before leaving, they confiscate all of Johann’s precious books, clearing the bookcase of Shakespeare and Marx, books about animals and world history, even stories by Jack London and detective novels. His wife calls him on the phone after the SA leaves, to tell Johann that they have taken all of his books. He stops back at the house to evaluate the situation.
When Anton is on his way back home from his night school classes that evening, he encounters two of his friends and neighbors at the train station. They warn him that the SA has been to his house around midday and has been searching for him and his father. Anton rejects their advice to flee with the comment: “I’m sick of the lack of rights. I don’t want to have to constantly hide.”
It appears that Anton has already firmly made up his mind to resist, but nobody believes him. For days, he had been telling fellow students at his night school, “If you ever read in the newspaper that there are dead SA men in Köpenick, then it was me.” He has even been known to try to provoke Nazis walking along the opposite side of the street, by giving the Hitler salute, then calling out, “This is how deep the snow in Italy is!”
That night after dinner, it is still hot and humid. As the youngest son in a family of five siblings, Anton has his bedroom in the attic, even though the two oldest girls and his only brother have already married and moved away. He opens the narrow attic window as wide as it will go, removes his white shirt and is wearing only a bathing suit as he sits at his desk trying to concentrate on his architectural drawings in spite of the heat, but to no avail. He constantly wonders if the SA could return that night. But after 11 p.m., he is fairly sure that he can finally relax. A few things are not quite clear from the historical record: Whether his father is still downstairs or whether he has gone to the home of another friend and whether Anton is still sitting at his desk or whether he has already gone to bed and begun to sleep.
All we know is that around 11:30 p.m., there is a loud pounding on the front door. Four armed men burst into the narrow hallway. They begin to search the entire first floor again, but Anton’s mother blocks their path. They push her back with a kick and knock her to the ground. Anton hears his mother’s cries for help and reaches for a pistol, which his older brother had given him for self-defense and which he had hidden in his room. Anton arrives at the top of the stairs just in time to see the SA men bounding up toward him on the second floor. He calls to them to leave the house, otherwise he will shoot.
When the men continue advancing, Anton begins to fire. The first two SA men are dead immediately. The third is mortally wounded, but doesn’t die until a few days later. However, the third man blocks the line of fire of the man behind him, giving Anton a chance to jump out of a window and escape. Wearing only his bathing suit, he heads for the woods, where he runs into a neighbor, who tells him that the woods are surrounded and that he can’t help him. But he advises him where to run. However, Anton does not expect to be able to get that far. He wants to turn himself in to the police, because he knows that in Köpenick, the police still have the reputation of standing for law and order.
When word spreads among the SA personnel about the killing of two of their members, treatment of those being interrogated at SA centers becomes increasingly brutal and bloody. Instead of the 100 named on the original list, the SA now drags over 500 opponents of fascism out of their apartments. Those arrested are tortured and drug off. The SA also uses pubs where its members often hang out and there is a steady and ample supply of alcohol, as interrogation centers, in addition to the chief location at the Puchanstraße Prison. So many people are being delivered to the SA, many with the help of the SS and Gestapo units, and they are arriving so rapidly, that there is not even time to take note of all of their identities. It is estimated that about 70 victims disappear altogether, without any proof that they have even been held by the SA.
Prisoners are subjected to a tremendous bloodbath, beaten with chairs, whips and sidearms. Their clothes are pulled off and the SA tramples them with their boots. Oxalic acid is poured into body cavities and tar is spread over the wounds of the prisoners. Blood and pieces of skin and muscle are swept together and carried out in buckets.
News of the atrocities spreads like wildfire. Courageous citizens of Köpenick try to intervene. So many are injured that doctors protest. Dr. Lehmann writes to the President of the Berlin Police Force, noting that the previous night he had treated eleven people, of whom nine had to be admitted to hospitals and one died in the hospital as a consequence of mistreatment. In his letter, he also writes, “the outrage about the actions of the SA is very great, even in ‘national’ (Nazi) circles.” Reverend Ratsch, pastor of the Reformed Church, and his wife, protest in person against the brutal actions of the SA to Karl Mathow, the Nazi mayor of Köpenick, even while they are hiding some of the persecuted opposition in the house of the church about four blocks from Köpenick City Hall.
In the night leading to June 22nd, Anton’s mother, Katharina, is brought to the prison of the district court. She is forced to clean up all traces of the torture from the chapel floor and the stairway. The filled buckets are emptied over her head. She is finally brought to the hospital as a police prisoner with hematomas over her entire musculature, and she stays there for two to three months, during which time no one is allowed to visit her. Even Grete, Anton’s thirteen-year-old sister, is picked up by the SA, but released later that night.
After the shootings, Anton’s father, Johann, is overpowered in the yard of his house, first locked in the cellar, then in the kitchen. They try to force him to curse his son. They put a hat on him, then beat him over the head until his eyes pop out. Later, his jacket is found left behind, covered with blood. The following day, he is discovered hanging in his shed. They claim he has committed suicide out of desperation. A sympathetic police officer, however, tells the family at his funeral, “A dead man cannot hang himself.”
Meanwhile, confident that his will be considered a case of self-defense, Anton makes his way from the woods to a train station, then on to the Köpenick police station, where he gives himself up. SA members turn up at the local police station, demanding that they take Anton into custody immediately. To prevent that, the police send Anton to the police headquarters at Alexanderplatz during the night, accompanied by two police guards. On the way, a mob of, according to some reports, 40, but according to other reports, 80, SA men try to stop his transport vehicle and to wrest Anton from police control, but they are unsuccessful.
At police headquarters, Köpenick Sturmbannführer (SA leader) Herbert Gehrke leads a troop of SA members throughout the building, until they track Anton down. Although Anton is still accompanied by two police guards, Gehrke fires a shot at Anton’s back, smashing his spinal column and damaging his liver.
Paralyzed from the waist down, Anton is brought to the state-run hospital in the Berlin borough of Mitte. His brother, Hans, can be warned in time; he is able to flee to Prague. Anton’s other relatives, his older sisters and their husbands, also have to flee to keep from being captured by the SA.
Each week, Anton is allowed to receive one visitor. He has a girlfriend named Gertrud, to whom he is evidently engaged. When Anton’s mother finally gets out of the hospital, she and Gertrud take turns visiting Anton. They joke with him, “Soon you’ll be able to ice skate again.” But his little sister, Grete, flees to Prague with her sister and brother-in-law and never sees Anton again.
Although he remains paralyzed, Anton is on the road to recovery. The Gestapo is interested in the state of his health and requests the professional opinion of physicians about his life expectancy. In September 1933, they are told, “a few months”.
On January 14, 1934, the SA picks him up from the hospital. The following day, the police summon his relatives to the hospital. Anton cannot speak, he cannot move, he has a wound on his neck and dirt under his fingernails. He can barely whisper, “It doesn’t matter any more.” One day later, on January 16, 1934, Anton dies during the night. The autopsy report has never been located.
Anton’s brother, Hans, is eventually captured in 1934 and spends a year and a half in the concentration camp at Dachau. His sister, Maria, who has fled to Prague, returns to Berlin years later, but his other sister, Christine, flees to New Zealand with her spouse and never returns to Germany. Anton’s mother, Katharina, succumbs to cancer in a hospital in 1943.
The brutality of the crimes is hushed up by the propaganda arm of the party, but the torturers whom Anton has shot receive a state funeral, which is even attended by Goebbels, and they are treated as heroes. Streets are named after them and memorial plaques are dedicated to them.
As long as the Nazi Party was in control of Germany, the crimes associated with “Köpenick Blood Week” went unpunished. With the defeat of Nazi Germany and the control of the eastern part of Berlin, including Köpenick, by the Soviet Union, it is not surprising that Germans who had tortured Communists came under close scrutiny after the war. As a result, a series of three trials were held in 1947, 1948 and 1950.
In the first two trials, only six people were charged and some minor sentences were handed out. But at the last trial, 61 SA men were charged with crimes, although only 32 were present. The charges covered 350 pages and 400 witnesses were heard. Fifteen received death sentences, thirteen received life sentences and the others were sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to 25 years.
Today, newer memorial plaques are on the buildings, and the streets in the area around Köpenick’s train station carry names such as Schmausstraße, Janitzkystraße, Essenplatz, and Stellingdamm, honoring Anton, Johann and other known victims of the Köpenick Week of Blood.