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Carl von Ossietzky * 1869

Grindelallee 1 (Eimsbüttel, Rotherbaum)

JG. 1869


Carl von Ossietzky, born on 3 Oct. 1889 in Hamburg, died on 4 May 1938 in Berlin

Grindelallee 1

Carl von Ossietzky was the only child of his parents, who had moved from Upper Silesia to Hamburg, where they hoped for a better life. The mother, Rosalie Pratska, had worked as a maid. The father, Ignatius von Ossietzky, had long served in Upper Silesia as a career non-commissioned officer.

After moving to Hamburg, the couple ran a "Milchhalle und Speisewirthschaft” ["milk bar and eating house”] in the Gängeviertel near St. Michael’s Church (Michaeliskirche) in the harbor area, at Grosse Michaelisstrasse 46. The father also worked full-time as a stenographer in the lawyer’s office of Max Predöhl, a senator at the time and later Hamburg’s mayor. Ignatius von Ossietzky died two years after Carl was born. Carl was baptized a Catholic because his mother was Catholic; his father was Protestant.

After the early death of his father, his mother continued to run the restaurant on her own, and Carl was placed in the care of his sister-in-law, Maria von Ossietzky, a strict Catholic. Despite the difficult circumstances, the mother wanted the son to receive a good education as a prerequisite for a corresponding profession, and so he attended the Rumbaumsche Schule, a school where wealthy Hamburg families had their sons educated. This was possible because Senator Predöhl continued to support the family.

After his mother had remarried, Carl, by then 12 years old, returned from the aunt to stay in the new family. His stepfather was the Social Democrat and sculptor Gustav Walther. He introduced Carl von Ossietzky to the ideas of Social Democracy.

Carl was always a bad student, and the mother’s wish for her son’s social advancement and a secure civil servant position was not to come true. After he had failed the examination as a student in the one-year graduating class ("Einjähriger”) twice, he was refused to take a third repeat examination. As an 18-year old, he therefore had to earn his living without a vocational or school-leaving certificate. In 1907, he applied to the Justice Department, but he was initially rejected. It was not until his patron Max Predöhl intervened that he was hired as an assistant clerk. Because of the low salary, he continued to live with his mother.

Carl von Ossietzky’s youth can be described as unhappy and torn. Outwardly, he acted the responsible clerk, but his interests were quite different. He was critical of his religious upbringing; he felt that Christian ethics fed people with promises of heaven to distract from injustices on earth. With his friends, he hung on to dreams and longings, despising the world of the Philistines. At the age of 19, he dutifully pursued his work as a clerk at the land office during the day; in the evenings, he attended lectures, for example by Bertha von Suttner, but also events featuring the Social Democratic politician August Bebel. Socialist ideas, however, were not what he was looking for. He joined the German Monist League (Monistenbund). This freethinkers’ movement is committed to the belief in progress and focuses on the further development of knowledge and the natural sciences with the aim of achieving a stateless, i.e., domination-free society. Carl von Ossietzky did not commit himself to party politics. Only for a short period, from 1908 to 1910, he was a member of the social liberal Democratic Association (Demokratische Vereinigung).

His first documented publication was an article in the journal Das freie Volk, which appeared in Berlin on 25 Feb. 1911.

In Hamburg, Carl von Ossietzky met Maud Hester Lichfield-Wood, the daughter of a senior British officer and an Indian princess. Having been born in India, after her father’s death she moved with her mother when she was seven years old to Britain, where the mother committed suicide a year later. As the daughter, Rosalinde von Ossietzky-Palm, later wrote, Maud was already suffering from anxiety as a child, which she tried to numb with alcohol. She had received proper training at English boarding schools, improved her language skills in Switzerland and Paris, and joined the suffragettes in England who fought for women’s suffrage. In Hamburg, she was employed as a governess for the children of the First Mayor of Hamburg. The relationship between Carl von Ossietzky and his wife was intense, despite all the difficulties. To each other, they were important dialog partners.

The two married in Essex in 1913. The marriage became the subject of the tabloid press at the time and led to Maud Hester Lichfield-Wood and her family breaking off contact. Back in Hamburg, the couple resided as subtenants for a short time, but then moved in with Carl von Ossietzky’s mother. The couple lived in very poor circumstances. Maud persuaded Carl to give history lessons; she herself gave English and bridge lessons. Carl von Ossietzky had meanwhile accepted a position in the administration of justice, which he gave up in Jan. 1914, however, in order to work as a journalist, for, among others, the freethinking German Monist League. The First World War, however, led to Ossietzky distancing himself from this organization, as it abandoned its pacifist attitude at the beginning of the war. Not so Carl von Ossietzky. However, his opportunities to earn money through journalistic work and lectures were dwindling. At the beginning of 1915, he had to resume the disliked position at the administration of justice.

In 1914, he had his first experiences with the judiciary: He was sentenced to a fine or imprisonment for an article about a verdict of the Erfurt Military Court.

In 1916, Carl von Ossietzky was drafted and deployed as a soldier in a reinforcement unit on the western front. He was therefore not actively involved in combat operations, but was used in the construction, maintenance, and operation of the fortifications.

Toward the end of the war, a breakdown of relations occurred between Carl von Ossietzky and his mother, which meant that the young couple had to find a new home. Carl took a poorly paid position at Pfadweiser Publishing. In 1919, he joined the Hamburg "Menschentum” ("Humanity”) Masonic Lodge, and also in 1919, he became chairman of the German Peace Society (Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft) in Hamburg. Maud was pregnant by that time.

The young family had to change apartments frequently, and their last address in Hamburg was Grindelallee 1, before finally moving to Berlin in June 1919, where Carl von Ossietzky had found a job as secretary of the German Peace Society. He then became a Berlin contributor to the Berliner Volkszeitung. The couple’s financial situation was so bad that their daughter Rosalinde was born on 21 Dec. 1919 in Berlin at the home of Helene Stöcker, the pacifist and founder of the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund für Mutterschutz – BfM), in Berlin.

Carl von Ossietzky tried one more time to get into party politics. Together with Karl Vetter and Fritz von Unruh, he founded the Republican Party (Republikanische Partei). This party represented a radical democratic program and turned against the "big-whig party” ("Bonzenpartei”) SPD. In the 1924 Reichstag elections, however, the party did not succeed, so that the project was quickly abandoned again.

On 26 Apr. 1926, Carl von Ossietzky joined as a collaborator Die Weltbühne, a weekly magazine he took over in the fall of 1927. Only from this time on did the family live in relatively secure financial circumstances and Maud no longer needed to give English and bridge lessons. However, the couple and their daughter still lived in "furnished” accommodations and had no household effects of their own.

In 1927, Carl von Ossietzky was convicted for "insulting the Reichswehr,” the rudimentary German armed forces at the time, based a magazine article, but he did not have to start serving the two-month prison sentence. In 1929, he was again charged for a contribution in which he uncovered the covert armament efforts of the German air force, the Luftwaffe. It was not until Nov. 1931 that the trial against him as editor-in-chief and Walter Kreiser as the author of the article began, with the trial taking place behind closed doors for "security policy reasons.” Carl von Ossietzky was sentenced to 18 months in prison. In the course of the Christmas amnesty in 1932 and due to public protests, he was released prematurely, but only for a short time.

On 28 Feb. 1933, immediately after the Reichstag fire, he was arrested again and interned in Spandau near Berlin. In Feb. 1934, he was transferred to the Esterwegen concentration camp in Emsland. Friends succeeded in bringing his daughter Rosalinde to Britain in 1933; his wife Maud stayed in Berlin.

Carl von Ossietzky’s friends and fellow travelers initiated a campaign in 1934 to award him the Nobel Peace Prize. A first attempt failed for formal reasons, as the application was submitted too late and the applicants had no right to apply. The second attempt was successful. The application was supported by Albert Einstein, Ernst Toller, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Willy Brandt, and many other celebrities from Europe and the USA. Among the emigrants, however, the initiative was controversial because many friends assumed that the prisoner’s situation would deteriorate as a result. The Gestapo tried every means to prevent Carl von Ossietzky’s nomination, including a fictitious interview in which the prisoner allegedly reported on good prison conditions and his good health. The German government not only threatened the Nobel Committee, but also tried to put pressure on the Norwegian government. Carl von Ossietzky took the prize despite everything. Even the fact that Reich Marshall Hermann Göring summoned him for a talk could not change this. However, he was unable to accept the prize in person on 23 Nov. 1936, as he was refused permission to leave the country. The prize money was handed over to a lawyer who then embezzled it, so that neither Carl von Ossietzky’s nor his wife Maud’s situation improved.

Carl von Ossietzky was transferred from the Esterwegen concentration camp to the Nordend hospital in Berlin-Niederschönhausen on 28 May 1936, already terminally ill; his wife was always with him. He died of tuberculosis on 4 May 1938. Fourteen days later, he was buried in Berlin at the Buchholzer Strasse cemetery. He did not get a tombstone. Today his resting place, an honorary grave, is located in the Berlin-Pankow municipal cemetery.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the dispute over Carl von Ossietzky and his life began rather late. At the beginning of the 1980s, an initiative to name the Hamburg State and University Library after him was formed at what was then the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. The renaming did not come about. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi burning of books, in 1983, the library was merely designated with the addition of "Carl von Ossietzky.” This was preceded by a petition with several thousand signatures. Both the then director of the State and University Library, Professor Horst Gronemeyer, as well as library staff vehemently opposed a renaming, as emerges from a note dated 3 Dec. 1982. Only a single room was to bear Ossietzky’s name. Wolfgang Tarnowski, the Senator for Culture at the time, was committed to see the renaming through. He wrote to the Jewish writer Arie Goral-Sternheim from Hamburg, one of the initiators, "I have just received the original of your letter dated 31 December of last year, which in its deep resignation I feel at the same time to be something like a withdrawal of trust. You will surely understand that I am disconcerted.” He mentioned that although First Mayor Klaus von Dohnanyi had publicly spoken out against the renaming, the Senate was "still at liberty to vote differently in its entirety.” This also applied, he continued, if a "turnaround” of some persons who had already publicly committed themselves was necessary.

This change of opinion indeed occurred and the library opposite the last Hamburg address of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate murdered by the National Socialists now bears his name in the addition: State and University Library Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky. In many places in the GDR and the Federal Republic, streets, squares, and schools were named after Carl von Ossietzky.

Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.

© Charlotte Wilken

Quellen: 1; StaH 363–6 Ii Kulturbehörde II 363; Goral-Sternheim: Der Hamburger Carl von Ossietzky; Vinke: Carl von Ossietzky; Suhr: Carl von Ossietzky; (letzter Aufruf: 7.3.2016); Fromm: Eine Kampfnatur.
Zur Nummerierung häufig genutzter Quellen siehe Link "Recherche und Quellen".

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