Elisabeth von Thadden

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Elisabeth Adelheid Hildegard von Thadden (29 July 1890 in Mohrungen, East Prussia, now Morąg, Poland – 8 September 1944 in Berlin, executed) was a German educator who founded a private school that now bears her name, and an outspoken critic of the Nazi régime. She was put to death in the wake of the July 20 Plot, although it appears highly unlikely that she was involved in any plot to overthrow the Nazis.

Early life and family[edit]

Elisabeth von Thadden was from a long-established noble family. Her parents were Adolf von Thadden-Trieglaff (1858-1932), administrator of the Kreis of Greifenberg (now in Poland and called Powiat Gryficki), and Ehrengard von Gerlach (1868-1909). She was the eldest of five children. In 1905, the family moved to the Trieglaff estate in Pomerania, where von Thadden grew up in a big family in the Christian-Protestant spirit.

Elisabeth von Thadden's brother, Reinold von Thadden (1891-1976), grew up to be a famous theologian and jurist, and her nephew, Reinold's son Rudolf von Thadden (born 1932) is a well-known German historian. Her half-brother Adolf von Thadden (1921-1996) rose to be the National Democratic Party's chairman after the Second World War in West Germany. Von Thadden herself never married, and has no direct descendants.

Upon her mother's death in 1909, von Thadden took over the running of the family estate, as well as the care of her youngest siblings. Trieglaff was also the scene of conferences organized by von Thadden and her father. These Trieglaffer Konferenzen attracted politicians, theologians, jurists and scientists of many political stripes.

Von Thadden always felt a keen connection with her fellow human beings, and this showed up early on when, during the First World War, she made it possible for many city children to spend time in the somewhat more idyllic setting of Trieglaff.

Career[edit]

In 1920, von Thadden's father remarried – her stepmother was Barbara Blank (1895-1972) – and von Thadden herself left Trieglaff to go to Berlin to pursue a career in education. She attended Alice Salomon's Soziale Frauenschule where she came into contact with educational progressivism. After training there, she got a job at a children's camp in Heuberg in the Swabian Jura, later also gaining experience at the Hermann Lietz and Kurt Hahn schools. Having been offered the opportunity to lease an unoccupied stately home, Schloss Wieblingen near Heidelberg, in 1926, von Thadden quickly found a use for it. At Easter 1927, after receiving government approval to do so, as well as obtaining the requisite monies, Schloss Wieblingen became the home of von Thadden's Evangelisches Landerziehungsheim für Mädchen, a private boarding school for girls incorporating the Christian ethics that von Thadden had been brought up with and held dear, and Kurt Hahn's educational ideas. The initial enrolment was thirteen girls, whom von Thadden hoped to train "strictly and fairly to (be) independently thinking, emancipated women."

The 1920s were also the time when the National Socialists were rising to prominence. By the time von Thadden founded her school, Adolf Hitler had already been released from prison after the Beerhall Putsch, and the Nazis were gaining popularity. Von Thadden herself even found a certain appeal in Nazi ideas in the beginning, but she soon decided otherwise, and came to regard the Nazis' vision for Germany as one quite at odds with her own humanitarian views. Even so, von Thadden – along with many of her contemporaries – was quite blind at this time to the threat posed by the Nazis.

Third Reich[edit]

After the Nazis seized power in 1933, tension between the authorities and von Thadden's school began to grow. Von Thadden disregarded official edicts and continued to enroll Jewish girls at her school, sometimes even reducing the boarding fees in special cases. She also kept seeing her Jewish friends. Von Thadden was also not shy about stating her views out loud, and for this reason she was ever more under the Gestapo's gaze. Even a schoolgirl denounced the school to the Gestapo and the SD in October 1940, after the school had been evacuated to Tutzing in Bavaria because it had been too near the French Maginot Line. The Bavarian Culture Ministry threatened the school with closure for "activities endangering the state" because there was no portrait of Hitler hanging in the school building, and because at worship services, biblical – and therefore Jewishpsalms were being read. Von Thadden decided to take the school back to Wieblingen where she hoped that the school's widely acknowledged good name would keep the harassment away.

It did not, however. In May 1941, the Baden Education Ministry saw in von Thadden's school "no satisfactory guarantee for a National-Socialist-aligned education", whereupon the school was nationalized and Elisabeth von Thadden was unceremoniously suspended from the school's governing board without compensation.

Von Thadden went back to Berlin and joined the Red Cross as a nursing assistant. Here, according to her sister Ehrengard, she learnt, among other things, that letters reaching Germany from German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union had to be destroyed because Hitler believed that they would weaken morale at the front.

Arrest and execution[edit]

Von Thadden developed contacts with opponents of the Nazi régime such as Helmut Gollwitzer, Martin Niemöller and Elly Heuss-Knapp and also engaged in activities such as gathering food stamps for people in hiding and affording those threatened by the régime a chance to leave the country. In doing so she either underestimated how dangerous these activities were, or acted without regard for her own safety.

She also belonged to the "Solf Circle", a group considered by the Nazis to be part of the German Resistance. Led by an ambassador's widow and her daughter, and much like the Trieglaffer Konferenzen of von Thadden's youth, it attracted people from various walks of life with assorted political views who came to discuss pressing issues. At one such meeting on 10 September 1943, hosted by Elisabeth von Thadden, one of the guests was a Swiss doctor named Paul Reckzeh, who, as it turned out, was a Gestapo informant. He had been sent to make contact with the Solf Circle to find traitors to the Reich. His report to his Gestapo superiors was quite damning, leading the Gestapo to observe the participants to uncover their connections abroad. Over the next few months they were arrested, including Elisabeth von Thadden on 12 January 1944, at her post in Meaux, France.

There followed months of dreadful treatment and lengthy interrogations in various prisons and in the penal bunker at Ravensbrück concentration camp. On 1 July 1944, the Volksgerichtshof, presided over by Roland Freisler, sentenced Elisabeth von Thadden to death for conspiring to commit high treason and undermining the fighting forces (Wehrkraftzersetzung). Ten weeks later on 8 September 1944, at 17:00, she was beheaded at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. Her last words were: "Put an end, Lord, to all our sufferings".

Legacy[edit]

A doctor from Charité saw to it that von Thadden's body was returned to her family for cremation. The urn was entombed after the war in the grounds of the now renamed Elisabeth-von-Thadden-Schule, the school that von Thadden founded in the 1920s, which is once again a private school in Heidelberg-Wieblingen, although it is nowadays coeducational (since 1982) and no longer a boarding school (since 1992). It does, however, retain a strong bond with its eponymous founder's philosophy and her memory.

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