‘Indifferent Honest’? The Posthumous Charm of a Rassenreferent

Prof. Dr. Johannes Max van Ophuijsen (Amsterdam)

On October 6th and 7th, the conference “Forms and dimensions of resilience under German occupation 1939-1945 – Hans Georg Calmeyer in the context of the Nazi administration” will take place in Osnabrück town hall. The program of the conference can be found here.
In the guest article by Prof. Dr. Johannes Max von Ophuijsen (Amsterdam) the author comments on the discussion about Hans Calmeyer and his posthumous honor. On the second day of the conference on Friday (October 7, 2022), Prof. von Ophuijsen will discuss together with Robert van Galen, Prof. Hirschfeld, Deborah Hartmann and Lioba Meyer  the topic “Prosoziales Handeln während des Zweiten Weltkriegs – Potentiale für eine Pädagogik der Gegenwart?” (Editor’s note)

It need not come as a surprise that the occupation of the Netherlands by the German ‘Third Reich’, and the genocidal regime imposed by the occupying force in particular, have continued to move hearts and minds on both sides of the border between these neighbouring countries even ‘unto the third and fourth generation’ descending from the parties originally involved.

Hans Calmeyer: Lichtbild aus seiner Personalakte (NLA OS Rep 940 Akz. 2001/015 Nr. 4).

These parties included victims, perpetrators, a few protesters risking their lives and those of their near and dear ones to offer resistance, and a wide array of witnesses or at least bystanders: some of them ignorant and some naive, some innocent, some cheering, conniving and betraying, some profiteering; and by far the greatest number, as is only natural but continues to hurt none the less, just looking away.

It seems more surprising that a relatively minor player in the occupation and subsequent discriminatory regime established in The Hague — city of Peace Palace and International Court of Justice — a lawyer from that other ‘Friedensstadt’ Osnabrück, who was not even a member of the National Socialist political party, has continued to cause deep division and heated debate both within his native city and within the Netherlands, but also in places far removed from these, along dividing lines to which location is irrelevant.

The chief explanatory factor in the controversial nature of ‘the Calmeyer case’, to borrow the title of Dr. Geraldien Von Frijtag Drabbe Künzel’s penetrating and balanced account of this case (2008; unfortunately still awaiting translation into either English or German), is doubtless in the fact that even while World War II was raging, as the registration and the deportations of Jews and other ethnicities to the East gained momentum, Hans Calmeyer (1903–1972) came to be known by name to several thousands of offspring from ‘mixed marriages’, as the ‘Rassenreferent’ of the occupying regime, and the head of the ‘Entscheidungsstelle’ deciding on their requests (Anträge) to be considered as non-Jewish by application of the Nürnberg Rassengesetze, in force throughout the Reich since the mid-1930s and by now progressively enforced in the occupied Netherlands.

Inevitably, in view of a tendency to take things personally that is merely human, those who survived owing to their request being granted, were inclined to think well of the man whose decision in their favour had seemed to go against the purport of these laws in general. In fact we owe more than one spirited defence of Calmeyer to such survivors: one in Dutch by the late Ruth van Galen-Herrmann (2009), written in response to Von Frijtag’s monograph, but also one in English, by Laureen Nussbaum, that deserves note less for adding to the scholarly literature than for introducing its story to Anglophone audiences in the USA and in Israel not otherwise familiar with the subject-matter.

So, again, it was hardly surprising that a lot of heat was generated in early 2020 by Alfred Edelstein and Els van Diggele bringing to light the memories of an at once quite exceptional and quite ordinary individual: a lady, now in her early nineties, who as the biological child of an ‘Aryan’ by the letter of the law might on the strength of a well-formed request have escaped deportation, but who in fact was, due to formal defects in her file, sent to Westerbork and by several stages on to Auschwitz, and who yet as a 16-year old girl miraculously lived to see that camp liberated, and to bear her inexpressible traumas for the rest of her life, and indeed ‘unto the third and fourth generation’ of her now grown-up grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Nor is it a cause for surprise when her sons, now in advanced middle age, but formed and deformed by the compulsive mechanisms that enabled their mother to cope with her repressed memories back in the ’fifties, are to this day willing to carry sandwich boards through the streets of Osnabrück proclaiming “Keine Ehre für Calmeyer”. No matter how preposterous and absurd both the evil rules and regulations and the compromised anomalies and grounds for this or any other exception may have been, it takes a particularly unashamed elitist hardness of heart to miss the point of Van Diggele’s dedication of her book

To all those window cleaners’ children who never returned’.

This reminder of how much of effective race discrimination correlates with class discrimination in a way balances at the opposite end of the social scale the beautifully documented question of the status of the ‘Portuguese’ Sephardic Jewish or arguably ‘Mediterranean’ race with which Calmeyer also occupied himself extensively; a very different instance of fine distinctions, far from effacing or mitigating race discrimination, actually expressing, articulating and reaffirming it.

But what ‘Ehre’ were Femma Swaalep’s sons and (great-) granddaughters objecting to, just three years ago?

The controversy over former Rechtsanwalt Hans Calmeyer came to a new head in recent years as the city of Osnabrück decided to devote its former Nazi headquarters, the Villa Schlikker, to housing a ‘Friedenslabor’ as part of its Museumsquartier — just next to the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus preserving the works of the eponymous artist who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.

The Bundesregierung was found willing to sponsor this praiseworthy endeavour around a time when the Osnabrück community council framed an intention to have this former Nazi stronghold renamed after Hans Calmeyer.

In the month of May, 2020, in which then Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel had accepted an invitation to speak in The Hague on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands, a letter was presented to the German ambassador in The Hague, requesting that the Bundesregierung should make its support for this honourable project conditional upon the Friedenslabor not bearing Calmeyer’s name.

It is worth dispelling a few misconceptions sometimes found to attach to this petition.

It was not a Dutch minority initiative. Of the circa 275 signatories, one third, and many of the most distinguished names, were not from the Netherlands but from Germany, the Anglo-Saxon world, Israel, and in fact all five continents.

Nor was it by any means an exercise in Calmeyer-bashing. The text was drafted in strict suspension of judgment and subject to nuanced revision and refinement in light of careful consideration by experts with a view to expressing a conviction shared by a wide platform, including from the Dutch side a former Prime Minister, a former Vice-Premier, and former Mayors of the two largest cities most tragically maimed by the Occupation, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, as well as a number of authors and authorities in the field; and from abroad, a wide range of first-rate historians and scholars in history and other relevant fields.

The conviction they subscribed to may be brought into relief from different angles.

From one of these angles, the city of Osnabrück was reminded that it would be a diplomatic faux pas, a downright gaffe, to name a public building after a servant of a regime unlawfully occupying a neighbouring and now once more friendly country.

From another angle, two exceptionally distinguished authors and scholars, Philippe Sands and Timothy Snyder, spelled out the way to what they called a ‘precautionary approach’:

“It is apparent that reasonable, informed and independent persons have raised serious concerns about aspects of his <i.e. Hans Calmeyer’s> actions and role in the Netherlands under its occupation after 1940.

Adopting a precautionary approach is, in these circumstances, justifiable. This suggests that in the face of information as to real and reasonable uncertainty it would be premature to honour a memorial space with the name of a particular person untiI it is established beyond reasonable doubt that this person had no involvement in actions which, if they were to be established, would cause a different decision to be taken.”

From a third angle, the author of an authoritative monograph on the concept of liberty in 19th-century German Idealism, Alan Wood of Stanford University, expressed a sentiment shared by many when he subscribed to putting his name under any petition against honouring any official who had served the former Third Reich.

One of the most welcome results of the debate rekindled these last few years was its opening up communication between and beyond the confines of any entrenched sects or factions who might previously have seemed to be committed to established views on the subject.

As early as July 2020, this led towards an initiative being taken by the Wissenschaftliche Beirat of Osnabrücks Museumsquartier in the person of its judicious chair, Professor Alfons Kenkmann of Leipzig, to organise a colloquium bringing together scholars in relevant disciplines from different countries.

After this colloquium has had to be postponed twice, it is all the more joyful that it is finally about to take place.

I hope and trust we may by now take it as understood and agreed that there is no defensible case to be made for renaming the Villa Schlikker after Hans Calmeyer.

It seems worth pointing out that the object of the upcoming colloquium is largely a practical issue — just as the question of the name of the museum was — in the sense that it is not primarily about the establishment or conceptualisation of past or present facts, but about choices and decisions affecting or determining practice, i.e. future actions. Its stated aim is that

am Beispiel Calmeyers und anderer Akteure exemplarisch Strategien sowie Möglichkeiten und Grenzen ihres Rettungshandelns im besetzten Europa zwischen 1939 und 1945 diskutiert werden”, which is projected to be followed up by “Fragen des Erinnerns und der Vermittlung historischen prosozialen Handelns in der Gegenwart.“ The concluding Podiumdiskussion will expressly bring any such “Prosoziales Handeln während des Zweiten Weltkriegs” to bear on the question of its “Potenziale für eine Pädagogik der Gegenwart?” (Question mark taken from the programme.)

Inevitably our conceptions of the facts enter into and inform these practical decisions. I certainly do not mean to play down the importance of access to our primary sources, the records of the facts. I consider it deplorable that there should exist a substantial body of documentary evidence that, although it has been made available to successive scholars, still has not been published, reproduced or multiplied and is not accessible to a wider public.

The two points I would like to highlight are that, on the one hand, facts are never sufficient grounds for such decisions, which always involve valuations; and that, on the other hand, our decision-making cannot be put on hold pending more solid establishment of any facts of the case.

Referring back to Snyder and Sands’ ‘precautionary approach’: while research and debate over the past 77 years have somewhat narrowed the boundaries of likely outcomes of new inquiries of a factual nature, nonetheless what current policy with an eye to any foreseeable future most urgently demands is reflection on our priorities in the realm of values.

It follows from this practical nature of the more pressing questions, that the state of these questions cannot be assessed by experts in one discipline to the exclusion of others.

For half a century, as World War II receded in time and memory, the study of its horrors, and of the scars left by these, gradually fell to professional historians. For the first few decades, these might themselves be victims of the war, and might be personally acquainted with the agents whose actions they recorded. In the Netherlands they centered around the RijksInstituut voor OorlogsDocumentatie (RIOD, later Nederlands Instituut, NIOD).

It has surely been a factor in shaping the debate surrounding Hans Calmeyer for the decades to come, that three major authors embodying this Instituut, to wit J. Presser, B. Sijes and L. de Jong, were personally in touch with Calmeyer until his death in 1972. In fact De Jong was writing the pages devoted to Hans Calmeyer in volume Six (1974) of his long authoritative history of the Netherlands during World War II, around the same time that he was expressing his condolences to Calmeyer’s widow.

It is unclear to what extent De Jong took into account the findings of his colleague Sijes, who in 1967 traveled to Osnabrück for the marathon interview in the course of which Calmeyer notoriously recalled that he had at a certain unspecified point ‘appeared to himself like a murderer’ (Ich kam mir wie ein Mörderer vor).

What does seem clear is that both Presser in his Ondergang and De Jong in his Koninkrijk evinced considerable empathy with the plight of a German fellow intellectual, a man of some culture and taste, whom they were confident they found sufficiently ‘full of the milk of humankindness’ to be able to nourish, however paradoxically, a sense of kinship with him.

Although arguably a measure of fellow feeling and imaginative identification is an asset to the historian, if not a requirement for balanced and fair historiography, it is only natural and indeed right that this almost intimate familiarity between Calmeyer and the historians appointed to chronicle his deeds, has prompted a younger and more detached generation to review the evidence in the case more soberly and dispassionately.

Until these historians came to cast a colder eye on Calmeyer’s various exploits, the favourable tide marked by De Jong’s virtual canonisation gained momentum, leading at once to the Israeli and hence international recognition of Hans Calmeyer by Yad Vashem as one of its ‘Righteous among Nations’, and to the local movement focused upon Osnabrück of a ‘Hans Calmeyer-Intiative’ that took the ‘exemplary’ nature of Calmeyer’s legacy for granted, qualifying it, and the man himself, as ‘vorbildhaft’ and ‘beispielgebend’ in its very statutes.

Faced with such committed efforts, historians may find themselves in a tie: as historians they are no better or more authoritative for adopting a partisan stance, yet avoiding such a stance leaves them and their readership at the mercy of less scrupulous publicists.

It is common knowledge that both the more global and the more local canonisation met with considerable opposition, and were — and still are — hotly disputed. In a way the ambivalence that surrounded Calmeyer in the heighday of his tenure as head of the Entscheidungsstelle, and the deep divisions that he revealed or gave rise to in the wake of the Dutch liberation, followed him through and beyond the quarter century of his natural life remaining to him in Osnabrück into a periodically contested back-stage Nachleben at home and abroad.

It is ironically appropriate that the reputation of this able and accomplished lawyer who repeatedly attempted to stretch the constraints of the letter of the law, should repeatedly be made or marred by fellow lawyers in turn stretching the boundaries of their competence in the strict and formal sense. In a way the historians mentioned above only took off where lawyers had left the Calmeyer case: in the uncharted No man’s land of the ‘Bijzondere rechtspleging’, instituted after the Dutch liberation to steer legal and juridical practice away from the enforced illegitimate Nazi system back to something that could count as a continuation of what was established as law and justice before the war, without necessarily being identical to it — for the future of the country was contested by widely diverging political forces, and far from clear. Even the simple task of finding a lawyer willing and suited to defend Calmeyer in court brought to light the awkwardness not only of his own position, but also of that of a number of Dutch colleagues with whom he had been accustomed to deal in the exercise of his function, whether in his employment at the Entscheidungsstelle, or as ostensibly independent practitioners representing those who submitted their requests to this office, or as civil servants in the administration operating under the constraints imposed by the occupying regime in widely varying degrees and shades of independence, loyalty and subservience or indeed servility.

Just as historical understanding is necessary but not by itself sufficient to evaluate the Calmeyer case with a view to deciding practical questions as to how to deal with his legacy, much the same may be said of legal and juridical understanding. A case in point is the issue of the alleged arbitrariness of a number of Calmeyer’s decisions, and the consequent perception by observers (whether contemporary or more recent) of his character as either unfathomable or, as the case might be, wayward and fickle. Distinguished lawyers or legally trained historians and scholars have been able to establish that a large majority of his decisions was in fact perfectly consistent with the legislation at the time governing them. Since arbitrary is rarely a term of praise, it is tempting to construe the methodical correctness of Calmeyer’s proceedings in comparison as something in the nature of a virtue; but it should be obvious that considerations of capability, competence or indeed conscientiousness, however favourably they might seem to contrast with what we know of some of Calmeyer’s colleagues and other contemporaries whether on the Dutch or on the German side, are utterly and simply irrelevant to any assessment of his performance that does not shy away from the inescapably moral dimension of the evaluation.

Given that both historical expertise and legal expertise are necessary but not sufficient conditions for doing justice to the Calmeyer case in what I (loosely) just called its moral dimension, it is surely a master stroke on the part of the organisers of the upcoming Symposion that they have invited a contribution from a philosopher as distinguished as Bettina Stangneth, whose eminent qualifications as an original thinker in ethics are matched not just by her authoritative publications on Immanuel Kant, but most relevantly by her seminal and epoch-making study of Eichmann vor Jerusalem. Without prejudging, let alone preempting, the questions Dr. Stangneth will address, I would like to make it clear that I conceive of the use for philosophy in these matters not in terms of the need for the vantage-point of yet another professional discipline, a different academic specialisation and expertise, but in the hope of informed guidance while we are following (practical) reason where it leads, studying to take into account the sum of all relevant circumstances and considerations deliberately from the unifying and universalising Archimedean point of view and point of departure for action that constitutes at once the rational thinker and the fully moral agent.

To supplement these Cartesian and Kantian terms with premodern and Spinozist ones: after zooming out, from alleviating circumstances and arguably redeeming graces encountered in a corner of Europe temporarily occupied by the Third Reich, to regain a view of the grossness and flagrancy of the abuses forming the context and background against which these touches of relatively innocent humanity offer some incidental slight relief, we must re-descend to the particulars of our own situation, in which we are to take decisions and actions of a civil and civic, an in the original sense political nature. We should come to appreciate that, just as charity begins at home, so praise and blame, reward and retribution, and above all the enduring self-reflection that we wish to nourish by our commemoration of the past, have their place in the situation in which they are functional and to which they are precisely for that reason appropriate. The Zivilcourage we may hope to instill is to be demonstrated and illustrated in a somehow present situation. In the light of duration rather than eternity, with a view to raising our children and children’s children, educating the next generation, and building inhabitable communities for lives worth living, we need prudence as practical intelligence (Aristotelian phronesis) to take account of transient opportunities and to balance limited options. We do not need all of humankind to agree on a verdict about our generally careful and diligent Rassenreferent that will be definitive for all times. To some of us it may make a difference whether or not Yad Vashem was right and did well to admit Hans Calmeyer to its band of Righteous, and whether or not it could improve the record by reopening the case and reviewing its decision. To others, this may be just about as interesting as the question whether a certain book should be or should not be on the Vatican’s Index. Choosing and seeing ways to exercise their judgment independent of any authority — heeding only Kant’s call to ‘dare think for yourself’, sapere aude — they might be excused for feeling that what is put to a trial here is not the human agent or the book that forms the occasion, but is rather some institution made by humans and hence fallible.

In the fashionable jargon of present-day identity politics, they may even feel there is an element of cultural appropriation in appealing to the criteria for Yad Vashem’s decisions at all, deriving as these do from values originating in a specifically Judaeic intellectual and moral tradition.

Likewise, the independent critic thus narrowing down her practical deliberations from the common viewpoint of human dignity to policy decisions at the level of local and regional communities or cities, may feel that the place to do justice to the mixed legacy of a Calmeyer is not Osnabrück, where none of the action for which he is remembered took place, but The Hague, where he took office; or perhaps Westerbork, the first stop on the trail to which his Entscheidungsstelle, willingly or not, assigned some two thousand of its requestants, and the last station to which its employees occasionally accompanied these unlucky travelers.

Such a critic might also feel that it will be more fitting — because it would defeat any conceivable suspicion of escapism — for the city of Osnabrück in its own Museumsquartier to trace the fate of its Jewish community, and other minorities or dissidents, in the sphere of influence of the Nazi HQ at the Villa Schlikker within its own walls.

Indeed this critic may well feel that there is something peculiarly tasteless and downright unsavoury about dwelling on the operations of the Entscheidungsstelle in The Hague in, of all places, a former bulwark of the Third Reich that appears almost strategically adjacent to the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus.

Our critic need not flatter herself that she has attained access to the black box of Calmeyer’s evolving intentions, from the days when long before the war he found himself persona non grata as a Rechtsanwalt in his native Osnabrück, through his career move to the quiet comforts of The Hague, the vicissitudes of the office he ran, his subsequent employment elsewhere in the occupied Netherlands, his detention and trial after the Liberation, his relatively sheltered post-war years back in Osnabrück, and his modest but telling share in breaking the silence and uncovering the dismal and shocking facts of the war. Nor need she accuse or presume to judge Calmeyer, or to speculate as to what fatal flaw might underlie what failure of intellect, or character, or just nerve. She may be aware of ‘the fragility of goodness’, and appreciate that what earned Calmeyer the nickname Hans-im-Glück was in the end not any moral luck. She may value the pangs of his conscience as a gesture or even a step in the direction of justice, indeed righteousness, without either condemning or excusing him.

The critic may accept that Calmeyer’s recurring or successive motives add up to an ongoing process rather than to a fixed essence, and a process that could not easily be summarised even supposing that more of it could be attested, as opposed to remaining forever conjectural.

Our critic might consider that, rather than either blackening or white-washing Calmeyer, his belated acknowledgement that he was able at times to view himself as a murderer, put him in the league of young Hamlet, confessing to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that

I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.

There are subtle ambiguities and delicate half-tones here; too delicate and subtle to lend themselves even to the cautious simplification that facilitates moral education; or, in a worst-case scenario, to escape distortion at the hands and in the mouths of possible future propagandists of different stripes in a darkly divided Europe. The school girls and boys getting off from the bus at Lotter Straße in front of the Villa Schlikker and the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus for a tour around the Museumsquartier of the Friedensstadt, are in for a challenge even under the most favourable, i.e. least confusing circumstances.

And confusing it would already be just to devote more than one room to a figure as ambivalent as Hans Calmeyer. He has acted, for better and for worse, and cast his spell, first while in action, then perhaps more decisively after his actions, and certainly beyond his grave.

Recognition Hans Calmeyer demands, and commemoration — within strict and firm limits — he deserves; but his charm needs even now, fifty years after his death, to be resisted, and his spell needs to be broken.

To be sure, before a court of law, it is only fair to pronounce in dubio pro reo. But this does not here and now apply. Calmeyer had his trial and was acquitted; ne bis in idem.

What Calmeyer is now — and what we are now — up against, is the temptation of having a human face to put on to what is essentially inhuman; the danger of seduction by the luring image of a putative, token ‘good Nazi’ — all the more when the alleged representative is not even a Nazi in the strict sense of an NSDAP party member.

The very virtues or graces that recommend Calmeyer to many of us as the fair-minded, understanding, reasonable educated persons that we like to be, threaten to make of him not a call to self-critical moral vigilance — to face the Mr Hyde, the collaborator and the corruptible seed within most of us — but on the contrary an alibi: a soothing, flattering excuse for complacency, opportunistic compromise and pallid conformism.

For whatever good Calmeyer may have done, he has a right to be remembered. But acknowledging and conveying the fundamental, irredeemable wrongness of the role he consciously, deliberately and actively sought and assumed, is not to focus on just one side of his mixed legacy. It is simply to begin viewing this legacy in any fully moral, and hence in any pedagogically and educationally viable, light at all.

About the author:

Johannes Max van Ophuijsen.

Johannes-Max van Ophuijsen did his graduate work at Leiden and Amsterdam in Philosophy and Classics. He has divided most of his professional life as a university teacher in three continents between undergraduate work in core courses at Liberal Arts Colleges and in Great Books Programs, and more specialized graduate work in Departments of Philosophy, centering around relations between reason, meaning, truth and identity. 

(His employment at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, together with his descent from Dutch Orientalists as well as formerly Jewish German authors and activists, has somewhat qualified his parochial old-style grammar school Eurocentrism.)

His personal development has been stamped by his role in reuniting a father who had served time as a prisoner of war in Japanese labour camps, with a mother who had between Amsterdam and the evacuated coastline maneuvered their two children as well as her ageing mother and half-Jewish father up to or through the ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944 to 1945.


Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Gastautor (2022, 27. September). ‘Indifferent Honest’? The Posthumous Charm of a Rassenreferent. Osnabrücker Geschichtsblog. Abgerufen am 21. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/prgp

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