A new book in Germany recounts life under the Third Reich for those labeled: "personal prisoner of the Fuhrer"
Sven Felix Kellerhoff
BERLIN - In Puppi's memory, was a beautiful place where she'd always longed to return. Of course, it wasn't the actual concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, where she dreamed of going back to. Rather, Maria Dolores "Puppi" von Schuschnigg, the daughter of the former Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, missed the idyll in which she was born in 1941.
She spent the early years of her life in Sachsenhausen settlement house with high gables on a 300-square meter property. She was never bothered by the high brick wall around the house and didn't notice the barbed wire separating her from the two neighboring houses. This was probably because she, unlike her parents, could not see over the fence to the directly adjacent barracks of the concentration camp.
In December 1941, Kurt von Schuschnigg described what he could see: "Behind the desolation of the infamous walls housed the army of the gray, nameless misery. Between the barracks sagged haggard figures, with ashen faces, nearly all with blazing eyes."
Several hundred "Special Prisoners'
The Schuschnigg family belonged to a group of several hundred privileged prisoners in Hitler's Germany. In addition to the millions of concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war, and slave laborers, there were many "special" or "honorable" prisoners of the Third Reich. They were housed in remote castles, villas, and requisitioned hotels, or in special areas close to the murderous concentration camps of the Nazi regime. In his new book, "In Hitler's Hands: the Special and Honorary Prisoners of the SS," the journalist and historian Volker Koop expertly tackles this largely unexplored topic.
In Sachsenhausen, four standard settlement houses served as "special camps." Only Kurt von Schuschnigg himself was actually imprisoned here; his wife and daughter lived in the area voluntarily, and were technically permitted to leave the complex. Schuschnigg's son from his first marriage even stayed with him at times.
However, such freedoms were not usually granted to family members of special prisoners. Members of the Bavarian House of Wittelsbach were suspected leaders of an anti-Nazi movement and imprisoned for months on end. The former Crown Prince Rupprecht, who was the real target of the Nazi regime, evaded arrest while his wife and children remained detained.
1945: Elser is moved to Dachau and shot
Hitler's best-known personal prisoner was the failed assassin Georg Elser, who awaited trial under relatively good conditions in the prison camp of Sachsenhausen. After being arrested on November 8th, 1939 for his bombing of the Munich Bürgerbräukeller, he had been tortured and brought to the camp under special custody. Although his execution was only being postponed – and was not likely to be repealed – he spent his years in the cell in remarkably good spirits. In 1945, when the end of the Third Reich appeared inevitable, Hitler ordered that Elser be sent to Dachau and shot.
Another prominent special prisoner was Martin Niemoller, a leader of the Confessional Church, a Protestant church in Germany that arose in opposition to efforts to Nazify the German Protestant church. The former Nationalist and U-boat commander enraged Hitler throughout the 1930s. When his arrest provoked international protest, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler felt compelled to explain that "people who are praised for their anti-state and anti-government activities are automatically taken into protective custody as national traitors."
Niemöller sat for almost eight years in the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and Dachau; only in 1943 was he even granted a two-hour daily walk in the courtyard of the prison building. In contrast to the majority of the camp's inhabitants, his life was not in acute danger. However, he knew that he would be indicted should Hitler win the war, and shot should he lose. Luckily, neither fate fell upon him. Niemöller was liberated in 1945.
During the war, some foreign politicians and state representatives also became prisoners. The Belgian King Leopold III, unlike the monarchs of the Wehrmacht-occupied Netherlands and Norway, did not go into exile. He remained in his own residence under house arrest before being taken to the Hirschstein castle to be kept under surveillance of the SS. Top French officials like the former Prime Ministers Leon Blum and Edouard Daladier, former military commander Maxime Weygand, and the former ambassador to Berlin, Andre Francois-Poncet, were interned at the plush Ifen hotel in Kleinwalsertal.
The variety of different places where these special prisoners were housed caused a financial burden on the regime. For this reason, the Reich Security Main Office looked for a central location to house prisoners, preferably an island in German-controlled territory. In 1942, they discovered an ideal solution: the islands Suur-Pakri Vaike-Paakri in the Baltic Sea, four miles from Baltischport (now Paldiski) at the entry of the Gulf of Finland. SS commander "Ostland" described the benefits of these islands as such: "They are free of ice, sparsely inhabited and far enough away from the mainland to house prisoners."
For most special prisoners, the war had a happy ending. Heinrich Himmler originally intended to use them as a bargaining chip in order to wrest concessions from the Western powers. But the once-powerful SS leader miscalculated: by the end of the war, he was not in a position to negotiate. The prisoners, who had been taken to Tyrol, the last part of Greater Germany under Nazi control, were freed in the spring of 1945. Puppi Schuschnigg was among them.
Volker Koop: "In Hitlers Hand. Sonder- und Ehrenhäftlinge der SS". (Böhlau, Köln. 295 S., 24,90 Euro)
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