AGAINST THE WIND
95th Birthday of Kurt Nelhiebel
By PD Dr. Irmtrud Wojak
Kurt Nelhiebel reads the “Letter from the Father” at his desk in Bremen 2017.
For today’s 95th birthday, we would like to share this video (even though the camera was unfortunately running with auto-focus).
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Anyone who wants to look back on Kurt Nelhiebel’s life’s work on the occasion of his 95th birthday today can do so on his website “kurt-nelhielbel.de”, starting with his time as a soldier in the German Wehrmacht. Kurt Nelhiebel was born in the time of the world economic crisis of the 1920s, and as the son of an anti-fascist he experienced the rise of the Sudeten German Nazis and the occupation of his homeland by German troops. A journalist after the war and his expulsion, and later a longtime editor at Radio Bremen, Kurt Nelhiebel not only became the author of a large body of contemporary historical texts, short stories and poems, as well as an accurate caricaturist of the political zeitgeist. Even at the age of 95, Kurt Nelhiebel is still a passionate commentator on the political course of events in letters and in contributions to the Frankfurt Weltexpresso. In 2017, Nelhiebel published his stories and essays on current affairs from ninety years at PapyRossa under the title Against the Wind and drew a conclusion:
“The quintessence of my work was the desire to see those responsible for what happened during the Second World War and afterwards disappear into oblivion once and for all. Not only because justice demanded it, but also because I felt it was necessary as a precaution for the future. Hence my fight against forgetting, hence the remembrance of Auschwitz and the causes of the expulsion.
The fact that the Federal Republic of Germany did not irrevocably separate itself from the guilty, but accepted them in grace and entrusted them, of all people, with the construction of a democratic state, thus infecting it, certainly unintentionally, with Nazi insanity, while its opponents were excluded from participation in the new construction, that therefore a self-purification never took place, that is the burden I carry along with me.”
Particularly impressive – even more so, unfortunately, in light of the current war in Ukraine – is the personal correspondence with his father, Eugen Nelhiebel, from the years of World War II, as well as Kurt Nelhiebel’s diary entries from the period immediately after. They document the father’s encouragement of the nascent author and journalist’s ongoing confrontation with the ruptures in his own history.
Drafted as a young man, the almost schoolboy barely survived the final phase of the war and ended up as a Soviet prisoner of war in Berlin. A letter from his father saved his life on the arduous walk back to his beloved North Bohemian homeland.
“The decision must be made soon, shall our youth bleed to death completely? When will the people finally be redeemed from the war furie?”, the father had written to the son on January 28, 1945. This question, which was life-threatening during the Nazi era, and which Kurt marked in red, was his salvation. Czech “partisans”, who wanted to shoot him on his way home, found the letter in his pocket and thereupon let the just Wehrmacht soldier go home.
Kurt Nelhiebel often told me about this saving letter from his father and it certainly did not come to my mind by chance recently. Are such letters now written in Russia, too? Is it possible that one of the old “Red Army soldiers”, whom the young Wehrmacht soldier Kurt Nelhiebel met on the way to his homeland and who let him go with a laugh, is writing a letter to a grandson or great-grandson who is a soldier in the Ukraine? Do Ukrainian fathers write such letters now? Or for the Ukrainian fathers of the young soldiers who are now fighting in the Donbass against the attacking Russian troops and against the separatists, such questions are outside their thinking? Immoral perhaps, because they are the unlawfully attacked?!
Whoever reads the various Open Letters of recent times, most recently the one from Ukraine entitled “Fight for a Unified Europe” – an appeal for more military support, printed in the taz – is faced with such questions. The same is true of the letter writers’ accusation that it means sacrificing Ukraine and forgetting the “vision of Europe” if we in Germany do not now choose the “right side”.
Kurt Nelhiebel experienced persecution during the Nazi regime in his Bohemian homeland, and later the misuse of love of one’s homeland for nationalist purposes by the associations of expellees with old Nazis as spokesmen. After the inevitable move to the Federal Republic of Germany, he took the side of the anti-fascists in the face of rearmament. He repeatedly criticized the failure of denazification and the establishment of anti-communism as a state doctrine, not least the fact that “double standards” were applied following German-German reunification. Against this background and with this experience, the war against Ukraine cannot deter him, as much as it affects him personally. On February 19, 2022, he already made Russia’s imminent attack on Ukraine a topic in Weltexpresso under the title “Zündeln am Pulverfass.” On March 4, his “Open Letter from an Anti-Fascist to Vladimir Putin” appeared under the title “Caesar Delusion.”
“Mr. President,” Nelhiebel writes, “this Open Letter is written to you by the son of a German anti-fascist who had to fight in the war for Hitler against his will and fell into Soviet captivity during the battles of Berlin. In the meantime I have reached the age of 95 and have spent my whole life warning people against the evil spirit of Nazism and a new world conflagration. In doing so, I have always stood by Russia’s side. And now you are stabbing me in the back.
Your attack on Ukraine destroys everything that has been painstakingly won over the course of decades, for example the realization that military force will not solve any of the problems arising from the gap between rich and poor. One hundred billion euros are to be spent on strengthening the armed forces in Germany alone over the next few decades, because your war against Ukraine scares everyone. You want to demilitarize Ukraine while causing an unprecedented arms race.”
Today, two and a half months after these lines by Nelhiebel, Finland and Sweden have joined NATO as a result of the war, after Turkish President Erdoğan cleared the way for it – of all things. It was less than a week ago, on June 23, 2022, that the Bundestag’s Committee on Human Rights accused President Erdoğan in a public hearing of increasing repression of opposition and civil society and a “dramatic deconstruction” of the rule of law.
If anyone knows the misuse of anti-fascism for bellicose political purposes and how dangerous this is, it is Kurt Nelhiebel. In countless texts and stories he has shown how this abuse, masked in the garb of love of one’s homeland, comes along as national salvation from invaders or so-called foreign influences and blinds people. And so it is again now. For all his indignation, however, Kurt Nelhiebel does not get carried away. He has remained true to his human and journalistic ethos and looks at both sides, even when he is personally affected. On June 23, 2022, under his pseudonym Conrad Taler, his article “One hand washes the other. What about the fight against corruption in Ukraine?” in Weltexpresso.
Kurt Nelhiebel was awarded the Villa Ichon Culture and Peace Prize in Bremen in 2014 for his journalistic work, and the Federal Cross of Merit with Ribbon in 2018 for his anti-fascist commitment.
Photos: Header and cartoon ©FRITZ BAUER FORUM/ BUXUS STIFTUNG, Feature image/ portrait of Kurt Nelhiebel on the starting page: Manja Hermann
Website of Kurt Nelhiebel: www.kurt-nelhiebel.de, ©FRITZ BAUER FORUM/ BUXUS STIFTUNG