The Nazi Who Almost Got Away

| 11 Nov 2014 | 09:54

    While prominent German professor and university administrator Hans Schwerte couldn't twitch his facial muscles and turn into another man, he demonstrated a remarkable capacity for reinvention. From 1945 to 1995, Schwerte existed as somebody else, brilliantly exterminating his life as a Nazi officer on the personal staff of SS boss Heinrich Himmler to blossom into a respected academic?the recipient in 1983 of the Federal Service Cross, First Class, one of the nation's highest civilian awards, for his contributions to German scholarship.

    Schwerte's self-transformation was a work of genius, its intricacies reminiscent of plot elements from a midperiod Hitchcock thriller. Born Hans-Ernst Schneider in the German town of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, in Russia) in 1909, he earned his doctorate in German literature in 1935. Two years later he joined the SS and, shortly thereafter, the Nazi Party. Married with a daughter, he ascended through the SS ranks, eventually becoming an obersturmfuhrer (chief company commander) in its Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) division, which promoted Hitler's pan-Germanic ideals, examined persons' Aryan credentials and, most ominously, oversaw hideous medical experiments on men and women in concentration camps.

    In summer 1942 in Berlin, he assumed directorship of the Ahnenerbe's Research Center for the Impact of German Sciences. His duties apparently included requisitioning microscopes, centrifuges and such from hospitals in the Netherlands, then occupied by the Nazis. Shipped to Dachau, the instruments were used in various experiments, notably in tests to determine inmates' pain thresholds and the effects of extreme cold and low pressure on the body (presumably connected to research into high-altitude flight). Hundreds died.

    But as the Allies descended on Berlin in 1945, Schneider made a crucial decision: dressed as a civilian, he hopped aboard a bicycle and hightailed it northwest to Lübeck, not far from the Baltic Sea. An array of contacts helped him to obtain documents that stated he was ex-German soldier (not SS) Hans Schwerte. Resurfacing in Munich, he remarried his wife, Annemarie, who, as part of her husband's scheme, explained to officials in 1947 that Hans-Ernst Schneider had perished in the fiery fall of Berlin. Next he adopted his real daughter. In keeping with the motif, he chose the academy as his profession, but with his doctorate in German lit as Schneider now worthless, he enrolled at the University of Erlangen, and in 1948 earned a new one. He then became an admired lecturer, making his reputation as a Goethe expert.

    As a full professor, Schwerte in 1965 joined the philosophy department at Technische Hochschule (Technical High School), a university in the western city of Aachen, spitting distance from the Belgian border. Regarded as an innovative thinker, he attained the post of rector, emerging as a student favorite when he embraced some of their grievances during late-60s campus demonstrations, then initiated liberal educational reforms that engendered the ire of his more conservative colleagues. Showered with distinctions for his achievements at Aachen, he retired in the late 70s, settling comfortably with his wife in Aschau-im-Chiemgau, nestled against the Bavarian Alps.

    But Schwerte finally met his Pop Marshak. In 1993 anonymous phone calls and unsigned letters, some bearing incriminating photographs, threatened to expose him. Still, he sat tight until April 1995 when, at the age of 85, confronted with the imminent broadcast of a Dutch tv documentary fingering him as former SS, he wrote to the administration at his old school, admitting his true identity. "I wore that uniform," he told The New York Times weeks later. "But I never committed a crime in that uniform. My work was purely academic. I never took part in any medical matters. I never went to a concentration camp. I had nothing to do with that."

    He confessed to the German press that a few people knew of his deception: his wife, a handful of friends. Immediately, he was stripped of his Federal Service Cross, and in late 1998 his state pension was revoked, but a panel at Erlangen permitted him to retain his degree and, tellingly, criminal charges against him never materialized. When he died in a Bavarian retirement home on Dec. 18 at the age of 90, Schwerte remained unrepentant. "You are not looking at some old Nazi," he observed in May 1995. "When I left Berlin on that bike in 1945, I knew that I had to start a new life, and that all this must never happen again. I wanted to help create a different Germany, and I saw two rails ahead of me that seemed to form a track: my own new identity and the new Germany. What I taught was worth dedicating my life to, my life which is called Hans Schwerte and nothing else. I do not know who Schneider is. But I am going to have to stand and answer for him."

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