Released: September 15, 2022
In 1931—before the Nazis come to power— radical antisemite, Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorff, organizes a violent riot against Jews on a vibrant Berlin avenue. This catches the attention of high-ranking Nazis. What role will Helldorff play once the Nazis take control? Featuring Museum historian Dr. Lindsay MacNeill.
Erin Harper: This is the story of a Nazi you’ve never heard of: Wolf-Heinrich, Graf von Helldorff. Helldorff is a rioter, and he’s angry. And this all starts before the Nazis have come to power. Right now, it’s 1931. Germany is a democracy, called the Weimar Republic, which has brought many new social and political freedoms. And while many Germans are embracing this era, Helldorff is not.
He disapproves. He fought in WWI— and he’s furious that Germany lost the war. And his anger is brewing below the surface. Helldorff has turned to the radical ideas of Nazism, and he’s about to unleash an all-out riot.
From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper.
It’s Saturday night, September 12, 1931. Today is Rosh Hashanah— the Jewish New Year. In Berlin, people are out walking and socializing with friends on restaurant patios. Many have flocked to a popular boulevard they call Ku'damm, short for Kurfürstendamm. And just around the corner, Helldorff is ready to riot. He climbs into his open car, and starts driving down Ku’damm boulevard. Suddenly, his men — more rioters— appear out of nowhere. Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: About a thousand men basically appear from within the crowd on the streets and start attacking people.
Erin Harper: That’s Dr. Lindsay MacNeill, a historian at the Museum.
Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: They grab people who they think are Jewish. They scream at them and then they beat them. They scream things like “Germany awaken,” “Jews die.” So this is really violent and terrifying. Erin Harper: Meanwhile, Helldorff keeps driving up and down the street, directing his men to attack and screaming insults at the Jews.
Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: And he's in an open car, so everyone can really see him, what he's doing and what the men are doing to Jews who live there. And so it's really an act of terror. Erin Harper: Let’s pause here for a minute. Why is Helldorff so angry, to the point he’s leading a riot? It all goes back to WWI, which ended just over a decade earlier. Germany was defeated in WWI— and was also held accountable for starting the war, and held financially responsible for the damages. Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: And so there are a lot of people in post-war Germany who are angry, humiliated, who feel ashamed and outraged by the end of WWI. They are furious that Germany's lost its great-power status, that Germany's been blamed for the war. And some of these people turn to radical political movements and even armed organizations as a way to take out their anger and their frustration, and to try to fix, quote unquote, what they see as Germany's problems. And so Helldorff is one of those guys. Helldorff has fought in WWI. He's been awarded medals for his service. He's 23. He’s still a young guy, but he's an adult, and he gets really involved in radical, right-wing movements.
Erin Harper: He gets involved in many ways— from participating in coups to overthrow the Weimar democratic government, to holding elected office in state politics in the mid-1920s. All of this is driven by his radical right-wing ideas. And of those radical ideas, he’s most interested in Nazism.
And, it’s important to note, that even from the very beginning, antisemitism — hatred or prejudice against Jews —has been a major pillar in Nazi ideology. So Nazi Party members, and other like-minded Germans, are irrationally taking their anger out on Jews. They’re wrongfully blaming Jews for anything and everything they’re upset about— like, inflation, unemployment, or the growth of communism. Helldorff is a radical antisemite, so the Nazi’s anti-Jewish sentiments directly appeal to him.
Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: And he's very interested in the early Nazi Party, which is really a radical fringe movement. It's very small and very extreme. But Helldorff believes in them. And he comes from an aristocratic family. And he actually spends some of his fortune trying to support them, financing this movement. He's an appealing figure for the Nazis. He seems to bring some cachet with him. And he eventually finds his way to become friends, or at least friendly, with Nazi leaders, including Hitler. Erin Harper: In fact, Helldorff can often be seen at parties and events, drinking champagne and rubbing shoulders with Nazi leaders. As the Nazi Party starts to become more popular in Germany, Helldorff is right there with them. And in 1931, just before he stages his riot on Ku’damm, Helldorff gets promoted higher in the ranks of the Nazi Party. He is made the regional head of the SA— the Nazis’ paramilitary group, which is basically a civilian militia associated with a political party, not with the government.
The SA Nazi paramilitary group are also sometimes called Storm Troopers or Brownshirts because of their brown uniforms. In the region surrounding Berlin around this time, more than a thousand men had joined the SA. They often parade around the city, proudly wearing their brown uniforms, and red armbands with swastikas. This brings us back to our story on Ku'damm. The men Helldorff is leading, and instructing to commit violence are these SA men. The attack goes on for more than an hour. The men have injured dozens of Jews, and others, they’ve thrown tables through restaurant windows and destroyed entire businesses.
Finally, Berlin police arrive on the scene— because, of course, it’s illegal to assault people, vandalize private property, and disturb the peace. They arrest Helldorff, and only a few of his men. Eventually, the men are tried, convicted, and sentenced to varying lengths of prison time. But Helldorff himself gets a minimal punishment, because he has a very powerful friend: Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels is the leader of the Nazi Party in Berlin, and will later become propaganda minister of Nazi Germany.
Goebbels intervenes on Helldorff’s behalf, and, in the end, Helldorff only pays a fine for his crimes. Still, Helldorff’s ability to organize and create chaos gets the attention of other Nazi Party leaders. Because they think he might be useful— that his ability to organize violence in the streets will help the Nazis win followers and make headlines in the news.
Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: And so Helldorff has really shown that he is willing to go for it. He is willing to engage in antisemitic violence, public rowdiness, and to do that as himself in the car driving down the street.
Erin Harper: This appeals to some of the Nazi leaders. In fact they believe in him so much that they support him on a personal level. See, Helldorff’s personal life and finances are in disarray. Even though he comes from an aristocratic family with a lot of money, he loses much of his fortune through gambling at the racetrack, partying, and living outside his means. Now he has major debts. So Hitler himself, and other Nazi leaders bail him out of debt. And over the next few years, they keep Helldorff afloat. Meanwhile, the Nazi poitical movement is gaining steam. They’re winning more votes in the Parliamentary elections. Some Germans are attracted to the Nazi Party in part because it’s still the Great Depression, and the economy is shattered.
Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: The Nazis start to gain more and more followers by promising to fix the economy, promising to govern in a new way, and to make Germany a great power again. This all comes to a head on January 30th, 1933, when President Paul von Hindenburg appoints Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany. Erin Harper: Now with Hitler appointed Chancellor— as the head of the government— he quickly starts to grant himself unlimited power, and transform Germany into a dictatorship. Some Germans are content with this. Others are terrified. Either way, the Nazis are now the government.
Hitler gives a public speech in Berlin, and Helldorff is there, right next to the stage, whispering with Goebbels. And now, Helldorff has expectations. He led the Berlin SA, he contributed to the Nazi rise to power, and now, he thinks he’s owed a high-ranking job. Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: So when the Nazis come to power, one of the first things that they want to do is to take control of the police. The Nazis know that controlling the police is a great way to control the state, the government. And so they replace the police chiefs with Nazis. And this is where Helldorff gets his chance. Once again, thanks to his friend and mentor Joseph Goebbels. Erin Harper: Goebbels convinces Hitler and other top Nazi leaders that the Berlin police need Helldorff in charge. So in June 1935, Helldorff is appointed Chief of Police in Berlin. And he immediately turns his attention to Ku’damm. Remember how Helldorff had led the Berlin SA in violent antisemetic attacks on Ku’damm in 1931? Now, in the summer of 1935, the SA is at it again. Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: Frustrated Nazis who want to take out their antisemitism are once again on Ku'damm, attacking Jewish-owned businesses, attacking Jews, and in particular attacking Jewish-owned ice cream parlors. And this is so bizarre, upsetting. Ice cream parlor— it’s such a symbol of innocence, right? It's not nightlife, even. It's just very sort-of wholesome, almost. And so these Jewish-owned ice cream parlors become the target in the summer of 1935. And the Nazis vandalize and terrorize their customers. Now the police are under Helldorffs control. So this really symbolizes how the Nazi movement has changed. That you've gone from outsider opposition, fighting against the government, to now, they are the government. And Helldorff is really the perfect symbol of this. He's the perpetrator in 1931 and then he's the police in 1935. And so the police essentially, once they're under Helldorff’s command, just don't intervene.
Erin Harper: A few months later, the regime enacts the Nuremberg Laws, which strip Jews of their rights of citizenship, and ban Jews from marrying non-Jews. And these laws also open the floodgates of antisemitic legislation. So across Germany, local governments and police chiefs announce new restrictions on Jews.
And in this role as Police Chief, Helldorff is especially malicious. In the summer of 1938, Helldorff writes 76 guidelines that will allow his officers to further target and harass Jews. For example, he organizes raids of Jewish-owned businesses, and he forces Jews to pay fines five-times higher than non-Jews. And all of this is on top of national laws against Jews. Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: As Police Chief of Berlin, Helldorff has a lot of power over the lives of Jews in Berlin. And so this some 160,000 people are subject to Helldorff’s whims, essentially. It becomes more and more difficult to live in Berlin, as a Jew. You are restricted from where you can travel, where you can work, if you can even travel and work.
One of the really nefarious things that Helldorff does is in the summer of 1938, he starts to use minor traffic violations as a way to harass the Jews of Berlin. He starts to order his policemen to give jaywalking tickets and he says, give them to Jews. If you catch somebody jaywalking who's not Jewish, you can let them off with a warning. But Jews should be given the maximum fine. We're going to impose the harshest restrictions we can think of in the most creative ways. That's really what he's doing. So his appointment to please President Berlin has an enormous effect on Jews living in the city. It becomes clear to Jews that they cannot go to the police, that it is more dangerous to call the police to help them, than it is to just deal with the consequences, the violence, the vandalism, alone. People say, “I couldn't call the police,” or “I called the police and they hung up on me.” Jews go from being confident that they can expect protection under the law, to confident that they cannot. This for them is so abrupt. This change, that the police are not coming, the police will not help you, the police are not your friend or your helper, you have to avoid them because you're Jewish.
Erin Harper: And Helldorff’s harassment escalates over time. Eventually, he bans Berlins’ Jews from going to concerts, museums, fairgrounds, and swimming pools— among other public spaces. He severely restricts the hours in which Jews can shop for food to only one hour in the late afternoon, forcing Jews to pick through the leftover scraps after a busy day. He starts shutting down Jewish-owned businesses, entirely. The list goes on and on. Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: And the goal is really to drive Jews from social, economic and political life in Germany, to basically exclude them to the point that they leave. And Helldorff is doing this on the local level for Berlin, transforming the city into a Nazi city full of restrictions, especially for Jews, but also for other Nazi opponents.
Erin Harper: And on top of all of this, Helldorff decides to profit from the persecution of Jews in Berlin.
Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: He's an opportunist. And there are several stories that Helldorff manages to help some Jewish families emigrate from Berlin, but he does it for a fee. Helldorff basically extorts them. He takes as much money from them personally as he can to help them escape Nazi Germany. Helldorff again, his finances have been in total ruins, right? He's a financial mess. But he suddenly has multiple residences. His fortune seems to be restored. And this is at least partially because of this extortion, because he is using his position of power to make money.
Erin Harper: Meanwhile, as Helldorff is persecuting Jews in Berlin — above him on the national level— Nazi authorities are escalating their campaign‚ and taking more extreme actions against Jews. In 1939, the Germans invade Poland, starting WWII, and two years later, the Nazis begin deporting Jews from Germany to Nazi-occupied territories in eastern Europe. Many of these Jews are later murdered.
But it’s not only high-ranking Nazi officers participating in the actions of mass murder. For example, in Berlin, Helldorff and his police have deepened their involvement, and are helping support the deportations of Jews.
Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: And it's the uniformed police who guard these deportation trains. So members of the uniformed police accompany transports of people to their deaths. And the police almost certainly know that that's what they're doing. These police units in Berlin, for example, are under the control of Helldorff. Normal traffic-cop police end up being sent abroad and they too become perpetrators of horrific crimes. They end up carrying out massacres of Jews in German-occupied Poland and German-occupied Soviet Union.
Erin Harper: So Helldorff, his officers in Berlin, and thousands other local police across Germany have become complicit in the Nazis’ mass murder. By the end of the Holocaust, more than six million Jews would be murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators— including 60,000 Jews from Berlin, who were under Helldorff’s jurisdiction.
So, how was Helldorff responsible, exactly? And what impact did he have? Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: The Holocaust would have happened without Helldorff. But the Holocaust happened the way it happened in Berlin because of Helldorff. He is coming up with policies. He is thinking of ways to torment Berlin's Jews and drive them out. And he's not acting as just an individual. He's acting as the head of the police. He has thousands of men under his command who have to enforce what he does.
Erin Harper: Then, in July of 1944, Helldorff decides to change course, and make his next move. Shortly before the fall of the Nazi regime, Helldorff, and others decide they’re not happy with how the war is going, and they want Hitler out. So Helldorff joins other conspirators, mostly aristocrats and high-ranking officers in the German military, in an assassination attempt on Hitler. It’s often referred to as “the July 20th plot” or “Operation Valkyrie.” Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: We want this plot to have been a condemnation of the Holocaust and of the ideas of Nazism. But it wasn't. It was not a principled stand against Nazi crimes. It was not a principled stand against the Holocaust, against the mass murder of Europe's Jews or the crimes of the Nazis. It was an attempt on the part of a group of nationalist Germans to correct course late in WWII.
It kind of fits perfectly with what we know about Helldorff. It's a conspiracy, it's a little bit haphazard, not quite fully thought out, it's aristocratic, it plays on his sense of self-importance. This is not a man who is mad about the Holocaust, right? This is a man who's mad Germany is losing the war. Erin Harper: For Helldorff, this last act doesn't go his way. The July 20th plot fails. They don't succeed in assassinating Hitler. For his involvement, Helldorff is arrested, tried, and executed in August of 1944, along with several others who were involved. Dr. Lindsay MacNeill: If you walk away with one piece of information about Helldorff, it should not be his involvement in the July 20th plot. The thing to remember about Helldorff is that he was a radical antisemite who deliberately made life miserable for the people in his city, especially for the Jews. For me, the story of Helldorff is really about what happens when a radical antisemitic movement goes from being an opposition force to becoming the government. What's so interesting about him is this– how he represents this change, how he represents what happens when a fascist movement goes from outside the system to trying to destroy the system to then being the system. We can see how the guy who once was driving down Ku'damm encouraging violence then becomes the man who is harassing Jews and helping to coordinate their deportation and their deaths. What happens when people like that get into positions of power? What happens when the rioter becomes the police?
Erin Harper: From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. Joining me was Dr. Lindsay MacNeill, a historian at the Museum.
Our story is informed by the work of Molly Jean Loberg, Ted Harrison, Wolf Grünner, Richard N. Lutjens Jr., Peter Longerich, and Christian Faludi. Our show is produced by myself. Our stories are researched by Meredith Gui. This podcast is funded in part by support from Crown Family Philanthropies, and from the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation.
Listeners, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this episode. Send an email to email@example.com, or talk to us on social media. We are @HolocaustMuseum. And if you love our show please follow us on your favorite podcast app, and tell your friends about us. Thanks for listening.
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