Berlin Massacre

Rudolf Breitscheid, the Man Behind the Square

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The square chosen for Germany’s worst post-war act of terrorism was named after Rudolf Breitscheid, a noted anti-Nazi opponent.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Rudolf Breitscheid was born in Cologne in 1874 and after working briefly as a journalist, became a politician, voting against Hitler’s power grab in 1933 in the Reichstag.
    • For his anti-Nazi stance, Mr. Breitscheid was publicly scorned and ridiculed, and eventually fled Nazi Germany to France in 1940.
    • Mr. Breitscheid was eventually turned over to the Gestapo in Arles, France, and later died in 1944 in Buchenwald concentration camp. Some reports say he was killed by Allied bombing; others say he was shot by the Nazis.
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    Audio

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The site of the Berlin Christmas massacre is named after Rudolf Breitscheid, a Nazi opponent and German Social Democrat who died in Nazi captivity at the end of World War II. Source: DDR Stamp

Whoever drove that tractor-trailer rig into the Christmas market on Monday night in the heart of west Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 48, probably had no clue of the irony behind his heinous act.

But the murderer couldn’t have chosen a better place for his craven massacre: Breitscheidplatz, or Breitscheid Square, an unspectacular but historically significant expanse of concrete between Budapesterstrasse and Kurfürstendamm in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Remembrance Church.

The square is named after Rudolf Breitscheid, the interior minister of Prussia and a leading Social Democrat in the Reichstag who was one of the few to publicly oppose Hitler. The church on the square is a ruin, preserved at the end of WWII to remind Germans of the insanity of war and ideological “krieg.”

While most photos of Monday’s terror attack have focused on church and its striking, jagged spire, it is no coincidence Berlin’s most-visible memorial to the dangers of mass hysteria is named after Mr. Breitscheid, a native of Cologne.

 

“History will treat harshly not only those who did wrong in life, but also those who silently looked on while wrong was being done. ”

Rudolf Breitscheid, Former Prussian Interior Minister, Hitler Opponent

After voting in 1933 in the Reichstag against Hitler’s infamous “Ermächtigungsgesetz” or Enabling Act, Mr. Breitscheid became an object of public ridicule and scorn in Nazi Germany, and was held up as a traitor.

He fled through Switerzland to France, and tried to help organize a faction of the Paris undergound called the Lutetia Circle in 1935 and 1936. The group named itself after a hotel in Paris, the Hotel Lutetia, where ex-pats opposed to Hitler gathered regularly to plot the dictator’s demise.

Their effort ultimately failed, and Mr. Breitscheid struggled on in the Paris underground until the Wehrmacht reached the French capital in 1940, forcing him to flee to Marseille. But his cover was later blown, and he was turned over to the Gestapo, where his historical trail ends, for the most part.

“History will treat harshly not only those who did wrong in life, but also those who silently looked on while wrong was being done,” Mr. Breitscheid, a former journalist and liberal thinker in the Weimar Republic, once said.

To be sure, the perpetrator of Germany’s worst post-war act of terror no doubt believes his wanton theft of human life last night is somehow compensation for wrongs committed elsewhere by others, in time zones far, far away.

More than 70 years ago, the Nazis also believed the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, the physically disabled and other “undesirables” was clearly justified in the service of a twisted, racially-driven creed.

Those who didn’t conform, like Mr. Breitscheid, risked ridicule, scorn and death. His end reportedly came in 1944 when he was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. According to a plaque on the square, not far from where the tractor-trailer ended its grisly run last night, Mr. Breitsheid died during Allied bombing of Buchenwald at the end of World War II.

Some historians dispute the explanation, saying the Nazis shot and killed Mr. Breitscheid in the waning days of the war, before the bombs fell.

However he met his end, Mr. Breitscheid apparently never gave up hope, and never turned tail or sold out his principles to save his skin. In his courageous and fearless example, he provides a lesson today for all those mourning in Berlin, and around the world, who are facing an invisible, but palpable evil.

Like Rudolf Breitscheid, we will not bend.

 

Kevin O’Brien is editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To reach him: obrien@handelsblatt.com