Articles

The LAST SURVIVOR of the HITLER GANG

IAN SCLANDERS April 1 1952
Articles

The LAST SURVIVOR of the HITLER GANG

IAN SCLANDERS April 1 1952

The LAST SURVIVOR of the HITLER GANG

Otto Strasser helped prop Hitler into power, then broke with his Führer and had to flee for his life. Now, from above a grocery in Paradise, N.S., he dreams of returning to power in a divided Germany that flatly refuses to let him cross its border

IAN SCLANDERS

PARADISE, N.S., has a name that suits it. Quiet, peaceful, contented, it’s set among the apple orchards of the Annapolis Valley and sheltered by rolling hills. No place could seem more remote from cloak-and-dagger drama, more isolated from political intrigue.

But from this village of a couple of hundred people a curious figure in twentieth-century history, Otto Strasser, once a lieutenant of Adolph Hitler, is carrying on a campaign he hopes will make him chancellor of Germany. He mails instructions to followers on the other side of the Atlantic each day, even though he’s so short of funds he sometimes has to do without meat to pay the postage.

A man without a country, wound-scarred, grey, fiftyfour years old, he lives by himself in a small bare flat over a co-operative grocery store. His only income is an allowance of fifty dollars a month from his brother Paul, who is a Roman Gatholic priest at College Hill, Minn., and another forty or fifty dollars a month which he earns writing about German politics for German-language newspapers in Canada, the U. S., South Africa, Argentina, Holland and Switzerland.

He cooks his own meals, washes his own dishes, sweeps his own floors. His wife and their two children—Hannelore, a daughter, twenty, and Gregor, a son, sixteen are in Switzerland where Frau Strasser’s relat ives support them. He hasn’t seen them since 1939.

Outwardly he’s always cheerful but his neighbors suspect he is desperately lonely. To most of them he’s an amiable and slightly pathetic eccentric who wears a white linen cap in midwinter, uses big words, sits up half the night, sleeps until noon and bows low and kisses the hands of women to whom he’s introduced. When he smilingly tells the fruit growers and poultry ranchers and dairy farmers of the district that he’s “busy raising hell from Paradise” they chuckle politely af his little joke.

But his activities provoke no mirth among European statesmen, for this stocky, bald, heavy-browed man who looks like an absent-minded professor is too clever, too resourceful, to be dismissed as a crackpot. He’s the same man who helped engineer Hitler’s rise to power, then challenged Hitler’s supremacy in the Nazi Party when they had a falling out. He still has influence with many in Germany and si ill preaches doct rines not unlike those of t he Nazis.

The Adenauer Government, in Bonn apparently distrusts and fears him so much that it has refused to grant him a passport or to restore his citizenship, which Hitler deprived him of by a special act of the Reichstag in 1933. In January last Strasser announced to Montreal newspapers that he had received a permit to reside in Bavaria, but, as the Bavarian provincial legislature can’t issue passports, he still can’t get across the German border. Strasser feels, however, that his Bavarian document is a promising foot-in-the-door and that the Bonn Government must eventually grant him a passport.

In Canada Strasser’s status is that of an unwelcome guest. He was admitted in 1940 as a stateless person, a

refugee. He has tried unsuccessfully to obtain a Canadian certificate of identification a document which, for a stateless person, serves as a passport. Ottawa says Strasser is free to go any time and that all that is keeping him here is the fact that no other country will have him. Federal officials, who will not be quoted by name, add that Strasser is a nuisance and Canada would like to be rid of him but is unwilling to press West Germany to take him back. As for the identification certificate, they say if this were issued to him it would imply that the Canadian Government endorses his application to enter some other country, which it does not. The ROMP keeps an eye on Strasser, but he’s violating no laws.

Strasser’s platform calls for “a free and unoccupied Germany, united from Aachen to Beuthen, from Memel to the Saar.” It also calls for an economic system in which the means of production would be owned jointly by capital, labor and the state. In the case of a factory, for instance, the present owners would retain one third of the shares and the other two thirds would be divided equally between the employees and the government. The government would abolish taxes and finance public expenditures from the profits from its shares. Strasser, in addition, promises to revive Germany’s cultural and spiritual life. Like the Nazis he lays great emphasis on nationalism.

Who Are His Enemies? — Everybody!

In spite of the fact that Strasser is an ocean away and has been an exile for nineteen years West Germany has lately broken out in a minor rash of Friends of Otto Strasser clubs. In smoky beer halls members of these groups circulate mimeographed copies of his messages from Paradise and drink toasts to the day he will guide them to glory.

At newsstands they buy foreign publications that run articles by Strasser, an author and journalist who was Nazi press chief until he split with Hitler in 1930. His chief Canadian outlet is Der Courier, a Canadian Germanlanguage weekly printed in Regina. The journals for which he writes either pay Strasser a pittance or don’t pay him at all. but he contributes to them gladly because they’re a medium for his propaganda.

Recently Strasser has been attacked in Germany in newspaper editorials and by speakers at public meetings. He says this is because his strength is growing and his enemies are worried. Who are his enemies? He says that all the existing political parties, of which there are many in West Germany, are against him because they don’t want competition, that the industrialists hate him because he’s a socialist, that the old-line Nazis despise him because he defied Hitler, that the Jews are after his hide because he was once associated with Hitler, and that the governments of Britain, the U. S. and France are down on him because he demands a reunited Germany while their aim is to keep Germany partitioned.

While Strasser may exaggerate his own importance there’s no doubt that he’s enough of a factor in Germany’s

turbulent postwar politics to be causing some concern in high places. It’s difficult to realize that the Strasser who is being denounced in Europe and the homesick Strasser at Paradise are the same man.

When 1 talked with him he was dressed in a brownand-tan sport shirt, rumpled tweed trousers, soft bedroom slippers. He remarked that by changing from boots to slippers at his door he avoids tracking in dirt and doesn’t have so much cleaning to do. He’s naively proud of his sport shirt. Half in fun, half in earnest, he says it’s a sensible garment for all occasions and that the global upsurge of proletarianism has doomed that bourgeois symbol, the white collar.

His tiny sitting room, with its rickety furniture, is littered with newspapers and books. There are two maps—one of Germany, the other of all Europe— on the white plaster walls, but no pictures. A square of cheap linoleum covers the floor.

He depends on the range in the kitchen for heat and has been burning softwood kindling in it this winter, hardwood being scarce and expensive. Out of his income of ninety to a hundred dollars a month, he spends twenty-five dollars for rent, thirty for food, twenty for postage, five for fuel and five for electricity. The books he reads are borrowed from Nova Scotia’s free traveling library. He allows himself nothing for entertainment and he doesn’t smoke. “The one luxury 1 can afford,” he sighs, “is lying in bed in the morning.”

The man who aspires to lead Germany’s millions to a Utopian destiny grumbles about the drudgery of dishwashing, dusting, sweeping and bedmaking, but says that cooking is an art he enjoys. When he was the affluent publisher of three daily newspapers, six weekly newspapers and a monthly magazine in Germany, he was known as a gourmet with a vast appetite. Now he speaks fondly of epicurean dishes and vintage wines—and dines on thirty-five cents’ worth of hamburger. Toward the end of the month he substitutes cheese for meat to balance his budget.

His social life at Paradise consists mainly of chatting over the post-office counter with Wilfred Chesley, the postmaster, or strolling to Wilfred Bishop’s service station to swap opinions with the proprietor, who is his landlord. He and his neighbors exchange pleasantries, but not invitations.

He’s alone in his cheerless flat most of the time and stays up until two or three in the morning writing letters and articles. He drafts them in shorthand, then types them on a portable machine. In the afternoon he emerges to do his shopping, visit the post office (he receives about a hundred letters a week) and take a walk.

At Bridgetown, five miles from Paradise, he has two fairly close friends. They are William A. Moir, a wealthy retired chocolate manufacturer, and David Lewis, a young schoolteacher who was formerly on the staff of the Canadian Press at Halifax and has written plays for the CBC.

Moir and Lewis admire Strasser’s wit and intellect and are fascinated by his flow of conversation, his vivid phrases, the wide range of his knowledge. Strasser has been unable to escape the stigma of having been mixed up with Hitler but Moir and Lewis are convinced he believes firmly in democracy and has a sincere desire to promote world peace.

An Iron Cross in the Trenches

Moir says that in the struggle against Russian Communism, Strasser could be as valuable to the Western nations as a million soldiers. Lewis says Strasser is the “most honest man” he has ever met, “probably too honest for his own good.” They both maintain it’s wrong to regard Strasser as tarred with the same brush as Hitler.

Strasser himself says that, while he was a National Socialist, he was not Hitler’s kind of National Socialist, and it’s a matter of record that in 1930 he and Hitler had an epic row. After that Strasser led the antiHitler Black Front. His fight with Hitler cost him his home, his newspapers, cost the life of his brother Gregor and turned Otto into a fugitive with a price on his head.

But whether he broke with Hitler for ideological reasons or was just motivated by a ruthless ambition to grab the Nazi leadership for himself hasn’t been clearly established. At Paradise, Strasser gave me his own version of his story, beginning with his childhood.

He was brought up at Deggendorf, Bavaria, one of five children of a minor civil servant. His first political conviction, he says, was a hatred of Communism. He was seventeen when World War I started. His older brothers, Paul and Gregor, were reserve army officers and were immediately called up. Soon Otto interrupted his education to follow them

into the trenches. He was twice wounded and won the Iron Cross.

In 1918, as a lieutenant, he was one of those assigned to the task of bolstering the sagging moi'ale of German troops. That, he says, is what converted him to socialism. “I lectured a group of soldiers on their duty to the Fatherland,” he explains, “and afterward one of them said to me: ‘That’s all right, lieutenant, but to me Fatherland means the land that owns my father. My father owns no land, and I don’t either. When we defend the Fatherland we defend the land of the rich who own it and who own us. If we were defending our own land our hearts might be in it.’ Talking with that soldier, I realized that Germany should build a society that would give everybody a stake in the nation, an economic system in which all could participate as co-owners. It’s still my basic idea.”

A Certain Overemotional Corporal

When the armistice came Communists seized control in Munich. Strasser went to Ulm, eighty miles away, where loyalist elements were being mustered to put down the uprising. He was with the armed columns that retook Munich.

At the subsequent trials of soldiers who had sided with the Communists, Strasser saw a pale skinny corporal with burning eyes and a comic mustache-—a prosecution witness whose testimony was vindictive and savage, who had to be reminded that he was on the witness stand and not on a soap box, but who swayed the court with his eloquence. He was, of course, Adolph Hitler.

Demobilized, Strasser completed his last year in high school, taking a prize in shorthand which helped him get a job in Berlin as an official reporter at the Reichstag. There were no morning sittings of the Reichstag so Strasser was able to study at the University of Berlin where he earned one doctor’s degree in law and another in economics.

Meanwhile his brother Gregor had graduated from the University of Munich, set himself up as a druggist in Deggendorf and identified himself there with a new political party, the National Socialists. It was at a luncheon at Gregor’s in 1921 that Otto met the corporal he had seen in the courtroom. He sized Hitler up, he says, as undereducated and overemotional, but was impressed with him, and concluded that Gregor might be right in insisting that Hitler— with someone to guide him—could be a great man.

Otto joined the Nazis in Dec., 1922. At a dinner Gregor gave to celebrate the event those present, besides the host and his brother, were Hitler, Rudolf Hess and Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was Gregor’s secretary.

For the next seven years Otto played on Hitler’s first team, manufacturing propaganda and publishing Nazi newspapers. When Hitler, Gregor Strasser and others were imprisoned after the abortive Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 Otto held the Nazi Party together and was instrumental in securing pardons for the ringleaders.

As Strasser tells it, he believed he was working for decent and necessary social reforms, and Hitler didn’t show his real colors until the late 1920s. Then, Strasser says, relations between them grew strained. His account of their final break in 1930 is that Hitler, who had sold out to the big industrialists, ordered him to stop supporting trade unionists who were on strike in Saxony and flew into a rage when he refused to obey.

Strasser was drummed out of the Nazi Party and also lost control of his newspapers. He then launched a string of weekly papers, founded the Black Front with other Nazi dissidents, and addressed anti-Hitler meetings almost every night. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933 he immediately sent the Gestapo after Strasser. Strasser skipped for Austria wearing, he says, a fake Hitler mustache and wig for disguise. He walked across the Alps. His wife, who was taken in by the Gestapo for questioning, was stripped, handcuffed to a steel filing cabinet and beaten almost to death.

From Austria Strasser wrote pamphlets which Black Fronters distributed by the millions in Germany. These argued that Germany had to choose between Hitler and war. In 1934 Gregor Strasser, who had remained a Nazi but was suspected by Hitler of siding with Otto, was murdered in the Nazi blood purge. Otto says two of Hitler’s gunmen caught up with him in Vienna the same year and wounded him, hut that he emptied his revolver at them and escaped, leaving both of them flat on the pavement.

His next stop was Czechoslovakia and there, he claims, he and some sympathizers set up a radio station, the Voice of the

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Black Front, and broadcast news and propaganda to Germany until Gestapo I agents wrecked the station and killed one of his men.

According to Strasser, he struck back j by sending a sniper to Germany to shoot Hitler from ambush on the road j to Berchtesgaden, but the sniper hit Hitler’s chauffeur. He says he masterj minded a second attempt to assassinate j Hitler soon afterward but that it failed ! when a troop train was mistaken for Hitler’s train and dynamited.

When the Germans marched into j Czechoslovakia on Oct. 1, 1938, Strasser j flew to France on the last plane that left the Prague airport without being searched by Nazis. From France be went to Switzerland where he had a reunion with bis wife and children, who had escaped from Germany in 1934. Then he went back to France and went into hiding. In May1940 he was picked up by French police in Paris as a suspected Nazi fifth columnist and put in a concentration camp. He was released a couple of days before France fell and joined the refugees who were streaming south. At Vichy the Netherlands consulate gave him a visa for the Dutch island of Curaçao and, because be bad this, Spain allowed him transit privileges.

He reached Canada via Spain, Curaçao and Bermuda, and, as a sworn j foe of Hitler, was more or less welcomed. His articles, attacking the Nazis and predicting Hitler’s defeat, were soon appearing in Canadian newspapers. He wrote two books describing Nazi crimes —Hitler and 1, and Flight from Terror. He made lecture tours.

For a while his earnings were fairly substantial but early in 1943 he was ordered by Canadian censors to stop writing and lecturing for the duration of the war. He says this was after he had refused a Russian request, relayed to him by “one of the richest men in Canada,” that be agree to form a German puppet government at Moscow. He also says the censors told him his anti-Communist views were detrimental to Russo-Canadian friendship.

Ottawa’s version is that Strasser was admitted to Canada on the express condition that he would take no part in politics and that when his writings and lectures began to involve him in political controversy an order-in-council to prohibit his activities was passed under the Defense of Canada Regulations.

Making Something of a Shirt

Strasser was in Montreal when censorship cut off his income. He was scraping the bottom of bis bank account when be met Adolph Schmidt,

! a Czech who had once been a news! pa per man at Prague. Schmidt owned j a farm in the Annapolis Valley, was not living on it then, and offered ! Strasser the use of it free, so Strasser moved to Nova Scotia and has been j there nine years. For a long while he ! was virtually forgotten and it’s just lately that he has popped back into the limelight as a man whose political I aspirations are being taken seriously in Germany, even though lie’s an exile.

Called a thinly camouflaged Nazi by I his detractors, Strasser admits bis j doctrines are nationalistic and socialI istic. But whereas the goal of Hitler’s nationalism was to conquer and exploit other countries, that of Strasser s nationalism t'says Strasser) is the ! restoration of Germany’s cultural and ! spiritual values, independence and selfI respect. Hitler’s brand of socialism

enslaved the people. Strasser’s socialism (says Strasser) would bring Germans real economic security within the framework of a democracy, would involve no Gestapo, no concentration camps, no negation of human rights, and would leave “everybody free to tell anybody to go to hell—which is genuine freedom.”

Those who suspect Strasser can retort that Hitler talked that way once. They can point out that Strasser’s whole career reflects ruthlessness. They might even make something of his slightly juvenile pride in the brownand-tan sport shirt he wears at Paradise —Hitler and Mussolini both put a lot of stock in shirts.

Then, too, anti-Semitism lards Strasser’s conversation. Like so many anti-Semites he says he has many Jewish friends but be goes on to complain that “Jews don’t assimilate”; that, although they are citizens of Germany, they always remain Jews. What would be do about this? “I’d tell them that we’ll be very happy to have you assimilate and be Germans, but otherwise it would be best if you went to Israel.” Strasser is against equal rights for Negroes and Orientals in a white country and is quite frank about it.

He’s dreaming a lot these days of a triumphant return to Germany and claims he already has there the skeleton of an efficient political organization which could swiftly be turned into a full-fledged national party. At its core are Strasser’s old Black Front pals who, like himself, are veterans of World War I and ex-Nazis.

The Cookies Didn’t Come

Is Hitler really dead? Strasser says he’s positive he is, and that the Russians bid his body. They did so, he adds, with a purpose. Although he has no proof he claims they have in Moscow a man who is Hitler’s double and that in the event of war the Russians will try to pass him off as Hitler in a bid for Nazi support.

Strasser’s moods are mercurial. He can be serious and intense in one breath and gay in the next. At Paradise, when we talked of Hitler be scowled darkly: Hitler was “the demon of destruction who destroyed everything, even the faith of Germany’s youth.” But bis scowl vanished as he remarked that Hitler, although he went through a wedding ceremony with Eva Braun, was sexually impotent and also had such a weak stomach that, he couldn’t touch meat or liquor. “He hungered for power to compensate him for his organic defects. Beware” Strasser was laughing now “of the politician who doesn’t likt; girls, thick steaks and good wine.”

Serious again, Strasser said be would like to bring bis family to Canada and settle down permanently, perhaps to teach in a college. “That’s what I’d prefer, but I couldn’t, because I have worked for thirty years for the rebirth of Germany and now I feel 1 have a chance to succeed. 1 must get back there somehow.”

A train whistled. The mail had arrived. I walked to the post office with Strasser. He was expecting a box of sweet cookies somebody was sending him—the kind of cookies he used to eat in the homeland he hasn’t seen for nineteen years. He was like a kid hurrying to a candy store.

But there was no package for him when he enquired. The sugar cookies hadn’t come. Strasser’s shoulders slumped. As he turned away from the wicket he didn’t look like a man who might be destined to lead Germany. He just looked disappointed and lonely and grey. ★