The Reichstag elections of March 1933 occurred in an atmosphere of feverish excitement. Everyone in Germany felt that dramatic change was on the way, yet no one could be quite sure how this change would manifest itself. Some were hoping that Adolf Hitler would finally get the popular mandate he desired, Many more were praying that his share of the vote would collapse. The fact is often overlooked that when the election took place--amid unprecedented violence and intimidation--the Nazi Party scored only 44 per cent of the vote. Almost six out of every ten of those Germans who voted did not do so for Hitler.
Among the dissenters was the family of my father-in-law, Wolfram Aichele. Now 87, Wolfram was a nine-year-old boy at the time and remembers his family's cleaning lady urging his artist father, Erwin, to vote for the Communists. 'Vote Ernst Thalmann,' she would say. 'All artists vote for Thalmann.'
But Wolfram's father had no time for extremist parties. He was an old fashioned nationalist who had long wanted Hindenburg to rule Germany. In any case, those who had intended to vote Communist found themselves unexpectedly disenfranchised. The Reichstag fire provided Hitler with the excuse to introduce his infamous Decree for the Protection of People and State. This signalled the arrest of thousands of prominent Communists. It was also the death warrant of the old Weimar Republic.
At the time of the election, Wolfram's family lived in a rambling Italianate villa in Eutingen, a village in southern Germany. It was close to Pforzheim, a provincial town with a deeply conservative population. But aside from their politics there was nothing conservative about the lifestyle of Wolfram's parents. They were an eccentric couple whose unconventional behaviour had already attracted the attention of their neighbours. So, indeed, had their private zoo. As an animal and wildlife artist Wolfram's father needed models for his paintings--wild boar, deer and birds of prey. These were housed in enclosures and aviaries in the garden.
In the seclusion of their hilltop home, Wolfram's parents socialised with like-minded friends who shared their love of art, music and literature. Wolfram and his older brother and younger sister were encouraged to chat with the eclectic acquaintances who gathered here. Frau Aichele told her children to form their own opinions of the world. She did not want them to follow the crowd.
Although Hitler failed to win an overall majority in the March 1933 election, it was clear that dramatic change was now inevitable. Wolfram's father was alarmed. His clientele included many wealthy Jews, who collected his work and, like a number of them, he was also a freemason who enjoyed the weekly meetings at his local lodge. Both Jews and freemasons were now being targeted by the Nazis. Wolfram's mother, Marie Charlotte, was also concerned. A freethinker like her husband, she was deeply involved in the Rudolf Steiner education movement and was worried that it, too, would become a target with its emphasis on the liberty of individual thought, a world away from the Nazi ideology of Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer.
The idyllic atmosphere in Eutingen was shattered within hours of the election result. Nazi leaders immediately raised the swastika on public buildings in nearby Pforzheim. Shortly afterwards it was announced that Robert Heinrich Wagner, a fanatical antisemite, had been appointed Reich commissar for the state of Baden. Wagner's first public address was to a crowd of 3,000 supporters, who roared their approval when he unfurled an enormous swastika from the windows of his new ministry. He then assumed full police powers and began an instant purge of all officers who were not members of the Nazi Party. He next seized control of the regional government, claiming key ministerial posts. Less than 72 hours after the election results had been announced he was master of both Baden's government and its police force. …