Two heroes who cleared the path to reconciliation
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Arriving in London as a young girl from Germany in the early 1960s, the woman who is today my German teacher found herself friendless and desperately short of funds. Her kindly rescuer was an elderly businessman who had come to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany, back in 1935. He gave Friederike a job and found her a place to live.
When she asked her benefactor why he, a Jew, was so kind to a girl whose parents lived in Germany during the Hitler years, he told her not to blame herself. No disgrace attached to her for what had taken place before she was born. What mattered, Adel told her, was to strive to live one’s life free of hatred.
It was this same enlightened attitude that had inspired the activities of two remarkable German Jews, who, even before the war was over, dedicated themselves to the re-education of Nazi PoWs. Their aim, in the words of Richard Mayne (the admiring historian of Wilton Park, organised and overseen by Sir Heinz Koeppler), was “to turn ignorance into understanding, prejudice into appreciation, suspicion and hatred into respect and trust.”
Herbert Sulzbach fought for Germany in the First World War and for Britain in the Second. His most challenging war began later. On November 11 1945, this quietly charming and slightly-built man succeeded in persuading the 4,000 Nazi PoWs with whom he had spent the past 11 months to stand alongside him, on Armistice Day, and pledge themselves to return home as good Europeans, “to take part in the reconciliation of all people and the maintenance of peace.”
What was vital was to live a life free of hatred
Subsequently, working among the high-ranking SS officers imprisoned at Featherstone Park in Northumbria, Sulzbach ensured that these more hardened candidates also returned home with a clear understanding of how a liberal democracy should work.
Sulzbach’s persuasive method — he made a point of imposing no form of censorship — proved remarkably effective. The 3,000 ex-prisoners who later wrote to thank him for his endeavours had little to gain at that point from their gratitude. One reformed PoW, Willi Brundert, went on to become a celebrated mayor of Frankfurt. Twenty-five of Sulzbach’s Nazi pupils would freely form a European branch of Featherstone. It was still going strong when Sulzbach died in 1985.
Wilton Park was set up in an 18th-century country house that saw previous duty as a MI19 interrogation centre. Heinz Koeppler, the man with whom Wilton Park will always be identified, had come to England as an Oxford student, after a family friend gave him a life-saving free ticket out of Germany in 1933. Koeppler, who became a distinguished lecturer in history at Magdalen, adored Oxford. He used his beloved college as his model when he was invited to organise and direct Wilton Park as a centre for the re-education of German prisoners.
Here, PoWs wore civilian clothes, ate generous meals and were given the run of a library that included — a typical Koeppler touch — side by side copies of Mein Kampf and Churchill’s works. Truth, Koeppler believed, would prevail.
A stellar list of celebrated men and women spoke to Koeppler’s students (they included Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Nancy Astor and Bertrand Russell). Wilton Park, so Willi Brundert later declared, offered a generation of brainwashed Nazis their first chance “to think for ourselves” and to take that attitude back to Germany.
In 1948, Herbert Sulzbach publicly described the PoWs returning home as the best of envoys for future peace and understanding between Germany and England. Nearly 40 years later, he warned that “first, the old distrust must disappear”.
The time has surely come to pay heed to Sulzbach’s words. Writing my book, Noble Endeavours, I was greatly struck by the spirit of forgiveness I encountered among people who had come to England as Kindertransport children.
Born in Germany and now profoundly attached to England, all of them echoed Sulzbach’s wish for an end to the old distrust. On the eve of a year of remembering the horrors that began in 1914, I hope that recalling the past won’t allow us to undo, or to neglect, the task of reconciliation for which so much was done by two heroic Jews.
Miranda Seymour is the author of ‘Noble Endeavours, the Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories’