Lucy Lethbridge

Fresh air and fascism in the Bavarian Alps

Oberstdorf, a remote farming village turned health resort, provides a microcosm for studying the appeal of Nazism in rural communities

Fresh air and fascism in the Bavarian Alps
A 1938 travel brochure promotes Oberstdorf as a fashionable ski resort. [Getty Images]
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A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives Were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism

Julia Boyd and Angelika Patel

Elliott & Thompson, pp. 416, £25

The village of Oberstdorf lies in the Bavarian Alps, geographically remote but, as this gripping book demonstrates, deeply etched by the politics and violence of the Third Reich. Julia Boyd and Angelika Patel have used diaries, letters, newspaper reports and the official papers of Oberstdorfers as a lens through which to look at the rise of Nazism in Germany. The result is a fascinating and often surprisingly discordant cacophony of experiences.

Oberstdorf was a small village but it had a wide range. By the early 1920s it was a favoured tourist spot: its population of 4,000 was swelled to 9,000 by visitors who came for health cures and winter sports. There were several hotels, a cable car, a cinema and a sanatorium. It had been on a railway line since 1888 and there were two local newspapers. The authors paint a picture of a community already emerging from a peasant economy of Catholic farmers to a commercial economy, pulling in a mass of influences from elsewhere. The villagers were broadly conservative, but, as this book reveals, were nonetheless surprisingly unpredictable.

We begin with a young soldier returning home to the village from the Front in 1918. Wilhelm Steiner walked 200 miles from Alsace to get to Oberstdorf and found the mayor struggling to feed the expanding population on rations that extended to one weekly egg per person. The 1920s saw increasing economic expansion, coupled with political insecurity. The villagers seem barely touched by the political vicissitudes of the early 1920s, but the first real Nazi, a postman called Karl Weinlein, arrived in 1927. He found the inhabitants resistant to political propaganda and decided it was because they had been corrupted by tourist money. Their response to his anti-Semitic placards were that they didn’t mind who came to the village as long as they paid, and they disliked the occasional marches by brownshirt SA visitors singing the ‘Horst Wessel’ song.

There were notable voices of dissent, including that of the village priest, Fr Josef Rupp. But a growing number of Oberstdorfers came to be persuaded that only the Führer could keep out both the inter-national Jewish alliance and the communists. In 1945, in the postwar de-Nazification, 445 villagers were listed as registered Nazis, roughly ten per cent of the population. But individual case studies often defy the moral categorisation of historical hindsight. Ludwig Fink, who became mayor in 1934, was apparently a devoted Nazi – but he protected not only Jews but also the Franciscan nuns who ran the primary school. Local loyalties appeared to carry more weight than national or political ones. When a defrocked pastor came to give a talk, protected by Nazi militia, he was greeted with fury when he attacked a popular village figure.

After 1933, the ‘iron broom’ of the Reich began its hideous sweeping. There were several Jews living in the village, including the Polish dentist, who escaped with the help of the Dutch aristocrat who ran the children’s hospital. The regional newspaper published a picture of him boarding a boat at Hamburg with the crowing caption ‘One Jew less!’ But when tenants complained about a Jewish woman living in their house, the landlord turfed them out instead of her. Nothing prepares the reader for the horror, recounted here in cold detail, of the murder of the blind teenager Theodor Weissenberger, whose family owned a hotel and who was gassed for living ‘a life unworthy of life’.

The eagerness with which the young caught the feverish conformity of the Hitler Youth and the German League of Girls, with their amateur theatricals, gymnastics and folk-dancing activities, unnerved the older villages. A tearful altar boy was told he had to choose between Hitler and the church, and chose Hitler. The 14-year-old Liselotte hanged herself when she learned that her mother, apparently a fervent Nazi, was in fact half Jewish. The provincial bureaucracies of Oberstdorf facilitated a culture of spying and informing on the non-compliant. Nazism embedded itself deeply in the infrastructure of the village, and the small democracies of communal life were chipped away. In 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, the anti-Nazi farmer Hans Dorn resigned as secretary of the veterans’ association when he was ignored over the issue of flags in the square. Old authorities meant nothing. Even in the 1920s, notices in the local paper reveal a society in which behaviour was closely policed: ‘The thief who stole laundry off Herr Lutz’s washing line during the night is warned that he has been recognised by a neighbour.’

Among dozens of vividly depicted Oberstdorfers, we meet new residents, such as the artists Hermann Hoyer and Rudolph Scheller, Nazis both, and staunch traditionalists, in retreat from Bauhaus and Expressionism. Hoyer’s painting ‘In the Beginning Was the Word’ depicts Hitler as a messiah. Then there is Bebe Thomsen, the Nazi diplomat’s wife who carried a live red squirrel around on her shoulder; and Herman Schalhammer, the director of tourism, who believed fresh air and ice-skating would root out decadence. The celebrated mountaineer Anderl Heckmair, another resident, was the first to climb the north face of the Eiger and was a friend (perhaps lover) of Leni Riefenstahl.

The war ended in the village relatively quietly, with no bloodbath, no destruction. The local resistance group, the Heimat-schutz, rounded up the known Nazis and locked them in the town hall cellars. But it didn’t stop there, as this humane and richly detailed book goes on to explore. Oberstdorf may have been left physically unmarked by the war, but it was psychologically riven by recriminations and distrust.