In the early eighties, rare book librarian John Rathe pulled down a dusty box, wrapped in twine, from a remote corner of the Rare Book room. Attached to the box was a label that said: "Do not open until war is over." Which war? The Civil War? The War of 1812? What he discovered was a box filled with disguised anti-Nazi tracts hidden in packets of tea and shampoo and concealed in miniature books both popular and scholarly.
Notice the concealed pamphlets sticking out of the packets of shampoo, tea, and tomato seeds.
A Brief History
On January 30, 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. On February 27, 1933, Germany's parliament, the Reichstag, was set on fire. Hitler blamed the Communists and used this as a pretext to suspend civil liberties. A terror campaign of murder and mass arrests followed. Detention camps spread across Germany. Dachau, the first concentration camp, was set up on March 22, 1933, just 51 days after Hitler came to power. "Communists, Social Democrats and trade unionists-formed the overwhelming majority of the 100,000 or more people held in makeshift camps of 1933 and 1934."1
"Those who escaped went under cover... and came out camouflaged. Those known to have moustaches shaved them off. Others grew beards. All changed their names and residences... Many walked across the Czech, Swiss, or French border in the dead of night..."2 They not only hid their identities, but concealed their communications. Without freedom of speech, press, and assembly, opponents of the regime began to use camouflaged writings or tarnschriften to communicate with their supporters.
The majority of the political refugees fled to Prague, which became the center of opposition. Czechoslovakia was favored as a country of exile because no visa was required, there was a sizeable German population, and the wooded and mountainous terrain along the border made it possible to slip across undetected.
Resistance groups in Czechoslovakia published newspapers, books, and pamphlets that were smuggled into Germany. (Material also came in from the borders regions of Switzerland, Denmark, and France.) The German Communist Party, the KPD, produced about eighty percent of the camouflaged literature, the rest were the work of the Socialists and trade unions.
To escape detection, this material had to be small and cleverly disguised. They were "[h]idden in innocent-looking sample packets of some popular brands of foods, shampoos, shaving soap, or tea; disguised as dime novels, cheap editions of the classics…"3 From 1933 to 1945 approximately 900 camouflaged anti-Nazi booklets were published with runs on average of 10,000, according to Heinz Gittig.4 Very few of these publications have survived. The Library has almost a hundred camouflaged booklets, as well as many miniature editions of anti-Nazi newspapers printed on tissue paper or photostatted in minute print. Most of this material has not been catalogued.
Although the production and distribution of this anti-Nazi literature required great courage (if caught one faced imprisonment or death), it was built on the illusion that there was widespread opposition to the Nazis and that these pamphlets would provoke an uprising in Germany. "[M]ost resisters continued to deceive themselves by their belief that that an anti-fascist mass movement would emerge and overthrow the Nazi regime."5 By 1938 this was no longer believable, and these groups turned their efforts to fighting against the coming war.
While this anti-Nazi literature demonstrates German resistance to the Nazis, and challenges the notion of German collective guilt, it was the work of only a small number of people. As the German historian, Hans Mommsen, argues, in contrast to the resistance in countries occupied by Germany, the German opposition was "a resistance without people… that…drew support from a... small proportion of the population."6 The sad fact is that the majority of Germans either supported or were indifferent to the regime.
Below is a purported guidebook to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Translated, the main title is Learn About Beautiful Germany. Actually, it is a pamphlet describing conditions in Germany under Hitler. Inside it has a map marking the locations of concentration camps and prisons in Germany.
Included in this collection in Rare Books is a letter sent to the library from Germany in 1941. It is addressed simply to the Library, Room 1923, New York City. On the back of the envelope is stamped Geoffnet (opened) by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Military High Command). The contents of the letter are missing.
- Before the Holocaust: Concentration Camps in Nazi Germany, 1933-39 / Christian Goeschel. http://intl-hwj.oxfordjournals.org/content/68/1/305.short
- 66, The German People Versus Hitler / Heinrich Fraenkel
- 55, German Exile Politics / Lewis Edinger
- Illegale Antifaschistische Tarnschriften, 1933-1945 / Hans Gittig
- 268, "German Society and the Resistance Against Hitler" in The Third Reich: The Essential Readings / Hans Mommsen
- ibid., 260, 272