“Ever heard of what they call ‘shot while attempting to escape?'” Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon describes his brief brush with arrest and imprisonment in early 1933
Despite his deep involvement in the radical-nationalist politics of the Weimar era, nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon was regarded with some distrust by the National Socialist government following the 1933 Machtergreifung. von Salomon was an ‘Ehrhardt man’, a follower of prominent Marine Brigade Freikorps leader Hermann Ehrhardt, whose relationship with Hitler and the NSDAP had been largely antagonistic and was probably the original source of much of the regime’s suspicion. Ehrhardt had helped stymie Hitler’s attempts to march on Berlin in 1923, had been behind the (absolutely disastrous) alliance between Otto Strasser and SA-rebel Walter Stennes in 1931, and his more prominent followers had moved fairly openly in National Bolshevik or similar circles prior to 1933. The company the writer kept following Hitler’s accession to the Chancellorship would not have helped allay any latent mistrust, considering he tended to mix with those who the new state regarded as politically unreliable. von Salomon’s reputation as a potential troublemaker was further compounded by an incident which occurred while visiting the home of writer friend Hans Fallada on 7 April, 1933, shortly after the NSDAP took power. Fallada had attempted to shock his housemaid by telling her that his guest was an “assassin”, a reference to von Salomon’s role in the Rathenau-murder and his (alleged) involvement in the Landvolk bombings of the late ’20s. The housemaid promptly gossiped about the mysterious houseguest to Fallada’s landlords, who in turn decided to report this “assassin” to the authorities, reasoning that they had intercepted a plot to murder the Führer. The inevitable result was both men being picked up by the police on the 12th and held without charge for a fortnight or so, a period of internment that was thankfully brief due to the intercession of friends helping clear up the misunderstanding. von Salomon’s account of this experience is transcribed below, taken from the 1954 English translation of his post-WWII bestseller Der Fragebogen.
Easter of 1933 found me living at Grünheide near Erkner, a suburb to the east of Berlin. The owner of a guest-house on Lake Peetz had furnished for me a small building some distance from his pension. It consisted of one room only, but it was big enough and comfortable enough for me to be able to sleep in it and work in it as well. Rowohlt lived a hundred yards away, in a small house with a narrow garden that led down to the lake shore. I could see from the light in his sleeping porch whether or not he was at home. He usually returned exhausted and then he would throw me out by noisily lowering the bed on his veranda. One evening I went over, thinking that I might be able to discuss something with him, but he pulled down his bed; I strolled back to my own place, feeling rather depressed, worked for a little, and then went to bed. It seemed to me that I had only just fallen asleep when I was awakened by noise and a tremendous banging on my door. I cried:
“All right, Rowohlt, what is it?”
But it wasn’t Rowohlt. It was the police. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was precisely six a.m. I thought, with a certain satisfaction, that they were acting exactly according to form. I turned on the light and opened the door. Immediately the room was filled with powerfully built men, who brought with them the fresh morning air. They fell upon my bed and table, and rummaged through my trunk and my suits.
“Why didn’t you open the door at once?” one of them asked me. I replied that I had wished to check that it was really six o’clock. The man said:
“So you know all about it, eh?”
I assured him that I did know more or less all about this sort of thing. That was a mistake, for the man said at once:
“In that case I needn’t waste a lot of words on you. You’re under arrest.”
I asked politely that I might be allowed to see his warrant. The man showed me his badge. I said patiently:
“And the warrant?”
The man said:
“Don’t exist any more. Time’s changed.” Then, by way of improvement, he added: “You’re my prisoner.”
“That’s something else again,” I said, and he, giving me a look which he took to be penetrating, informed me:
“I’m Commissar Fendrich.”
So this was Commissar Fendrich. The whole city was filled with his name. Officials of the crime department have always been pretty good at publicity, but this man had made a positive art of it. The newspapers were forever printing stories concerning him and his genius, he was spoken about on the radio, he could even be seen on the newsreels, a brisk young man with a hat brim smartly turned down, wearing a leather coat with a collar smartly turned up, engaged in the act of arresting a trembling old man in a caftan. Now the commissar turned to my table, picked up a book that lay open beside my typewriter, read the title, held it up so that his assistants might all see it, and cried triumphantly:
It was Lenin’s Revolution and the State, from which I had been making extracts the evening before. The commissar said:
“Can’t you find anything better to read? For instance Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf?”
“If you care to look,” I said, “you’ll find it on the other side of the typewriter.”
I had been making extracts from that book too. The commissar checked upon this, gave me a puzzled look, and said ungraciously:
I dressed. The officials had by now created considerable chaos. They stuffed papers that were lying about into my brief-case, which they thrust into my hands. Outside in the mist stood a large car. I could see a light on Rowohlt’s sleeping porch. So they had been to him, too, but he was not in the car. They had probably asked him about me. So he would know that I had been arrested. This was good news. We had often discussed this possibility at length and had arranged what he should do if the contingency were to arise. We drove into Berlin and I wondered where they were taking me. At the thought of the Pape Strasse I felt my mouth go dry. But the car did not head south-west, so we were going to the Alexander Platz. I breathed again. However, before we reached the Alexander Platz the car drew up in front of a house in the Bülow Platz. This was the Karl Liebknecht Building, though of course by now the inscriptions and emblems of what had once been Communist Party Headquarters had all been removed. It had been re-named the Horst Wessel Building.
I was taken through a small iron door beside an enormous iron gate which opened onto a little, triangular courtyard. I climbed a narrow, twisting staircase. On each landing there were corridors, and off the corridors many empty rooms from which the sounds of banging and hammering were audible. The building had only been taken over a couple of days before and was apparently being prepared as a new police headquarters. Right at the top I was led into a room where, around a red-topped table consisting of many tables pushed together, were seated a number of officials. They were doing nothing, they were doing literally, absolutely nothing. The commissar pointed me towards a chair in the corner and said:
“You wait there!”
I waited. The officials showed no interest in me. After some two hours one of them, who had spent this time fiddling with an empty folder, asked me if I had had any breakfast. I said I had not. The official produced a few sandwiches from his brief-case and offered me some of them. I was hungry and I ate.
Suddenly the commissar burst into the room.
“Terrific!” he cried. “Just seized a secret printing press!”
The officials congratulated him. They seemed genuinely pleased at his success.
As he went out he saw me seated in my corner and remarked:
“Your turn’s coming!”
Towards noon all the other officials disappeared and only the one with the folder was left. I asked him:
“Why actually have I been arrested?”
The official looked at me:
“The commissar will tell you quick enough.”
I waited and passed in review all the various possible explanations. There were quite a number. But I knew from experience that there was always one valid one which had been forgotten. So I tried to console myself by imagining that once I had thought of a reason for my arrest it was automatically eliminated as the real one.
I waited. I waited until five o’clock, I waited until six o’clock. At last one of the officials got up, went into the next room, came back at once, and said:
“The commissar has gone home already.”
The officials whispered together, and every now and then they would glance in my direction. Finally one of them left. He was gone for some time. When he came back he was carrying a piece of paper. He handed this to the one with the folder. The latter read it and announced firmly:
“I won’t do it!”
The officials looked first at him and then at me. One of them said:
“In that case we’ll have to get one of the guards!”
He went out and soon returned with a stunted SA man. The SA man asked:
“What do you want me for this time?”
The man with the folder handed him the piece of paper. The SA man read it and asked:
“Who ordered this, then?”
The official said:
The SA man stared at me. They all stared at me. The SA man said:
“Me every time, every bloody time. I suppose the officials think they’re too good for this sort of job!”
Nobody said anything. The SA man pulled a pistol from his pocket, walked over to me and asked:
“Ever heard of what they call shot while ‘tempting to escape?”
Yes, I’d heard quite a bit about that. I said nothing. The SA man said:
I went with him. Going down the stairs he walked behind me. My knees were stiff and my legs seemed half-paralysed. Downstairs we passed a guardroom, which was full of SA men sitting about. My SA man glanced in and said:
“Got a fine gent here wants to shoot our leader Adolf Hitler!”
The men all got up noisily and followed along behind. Now I was standing in the little three-cornered yard. The SA man said:
“Get up against that wall.”
I was already by the wall. In silence the SA men drew their pistols and began to snap cartridges into the chambers.
I heard the sounds from the streets, the horns of cars, the rattle of wagons, the footsteps of passers-by. So I understood what was happening. These gay fellows were having a game with me. The noise of shots must certainly be heard in the street, and that they would never risk. I said:
“Now put your cannons away like good boys. You’ll never frighten me with guns of that calibre.”
The SA men began to laugh, and they put their pistols back in their holsters. My SA man slapped me on the shoulder. He seemed pleased as he said:
“You’re a proper fellow, eh? But yesterday we had an old yid down here, you should have heard him holler.” My amiable SA man went on: “All right, come on.” And we went to the Alexander Platz.
The good old Alexander Platz police prison! It was all just as it had always been. Even the bugs were the same in the rags behind the W.C.’s. The soup was still cold, as it had always been, and indeed it was the same soup. Time passed as it had always done. There was no sense in keeping track of the days. On Sundays there were dumplings in the soup, otherwise there was no change. All that was different from the old days was that when I demanded I be brought before a judge I was told: “Aren’t any nowadays. That’s all changed.”
“But it’s the law,” I said.
“Daresay it is,” said the official. “But just you tell me this. Where are we going to find all the judges?”
One day the official opened my cell door and said:
“Bring everything. You’re getting out.”
I was led into a big hall, filled with tables. At each table sat a delinquent who was being interrogated. My escort led me to a table where no delinquent was seated. The examining official fiddled with his typewriter until my escort had left the hall. Then he suddenly looked up and said:
Wonderful. That was the greeting of the old Marine Brigade. I said:
“First we must make a note of your personal data.”
He took a form and proceeded to do so. Then he asked me:
“Do you know what the accusation is against you?”
I said I had not been officially informed. The official said:
“Really not? And they call themselves policemen!”
He asked me:
“Do you know a certain Herr…” He looked through some papers. “Herr Fallada, Hans Fallada?”
I knew him well.
“Fine friends you’ve got!” said the official. I said at once that Fallada was a most highly respected person, a famous writer with a world-wide reputation.
“Oh,” said the official, “he’s a story-teller, is he? I might have guessed as much. Well, I’ll tell you a story. It seems Herr Fallada has a girl who works for him, and this girl is friendly with the daughter of Herr Fallada’s landlord. But Herr Fallada is on bad terms with the landlord, something to do with the rent. One day Herr Fallada told this girl who works for him that a most remarkable man was coming to lunch next day, an old assassin. And the girl told this to her friend and she told her daddy, and her daddy scratched his head and thought: ‘Assassin? Assassin? Who’s he going to assassinate?’ Well, the answer to that one was easy. There’s only one name springs to mind. And so off he trots to the authorities.”
“So that’s the way it goes.”
“Yes,” said the official, “that’s the way it goes in this wicked world. Incidentally, Herr Fallada is inside too, though not here. He’s in Fürstenwald.”
“And what now?” I asked.
“Now,” said he, “we write out the protocol.”
“Let me dictate it,” I said. And I began: “The accused, having been informed of the charge against him, denies it.”
He tapped at his machine . . . denies it. . . . He glanced up. He said:
He typed: denies it indignantly.
The door opened and a sea-breeze blew through the room. In walked my old friend Walter Muthmann, his footsteps re-echoing, his sailor’s cloak billowing out behind him. He certainly never muffed his entrances. He said to the official:
“Ahoy!” and sat down on the corner of his desk. Then, to me:
“The trouble you’ve caused me. You’ve no idea what a time Rowohlt and I had finding out where you were!”
“Well, everything’s in order now, Herr Muthmann,” said the official.
“The whole Brigade,” said Muthmann, “was alerted and have polished their pistols.”
“How many men have you got?”
“Eight,” said Muthmann. “They’re strategically located all around the Alexander Platz at this moment.”
“Sign here,” said the official. “And then you can go home.”
“I can’t,” I said. “My brief-case is still missing.”
“I’ll find it for you,” said the official, and walked out.
He was soon back with my brief-case. It had not even been opened.
“Call themselves policemen! Call themselves policemen!” said the official. “Well, ahoy!”
Fallada was released a week later. When he walked into Rowohlt’s office and saw me there he said:
“You’re the one I’ve to thank for all this!”
But since I had made exactly the same remark at the same moment, we each had to offer the other a wish. We produced identical wishes. In fact it was granted, twelve years later, but by then we didn’t want it anymore, for it was just wrong.
EXCERPTED FROM ERNST VON SALOMON’S THE ANSWERS OF ERNST VON SALOMON, TRANSLATED BY CONSTANTINE FITZGIBBON (1954), PUTNAM