Anybody can be a Hero: The Story of Lilo Hermann
Whenever Mike Stuchbery travels to Stuttgart, he is reminded that the courage to resist authoritarianism and tyranny isn’t restricted to a particular kind of individual.
Not too far from where I used to live, in the south of Stuttgart, there stands a rather nondescript three-storey building.
It would be utterly unremarkable, but for a glimpse through the windows – punks, anti-fascists, revolutionaries of various stripes, planning, debating, having a beer and sharing something (invariably vegan) to eat.
Hermann involved herself in protests against the emerging Nazi party – an activity that grew increasingly dangerous, as the number of party members on campus grew.
This is the Lilo Hermann Haus, a very active commune named for one of the city’s pre-eminent anti-fascist heroes.
Born to be Mild?
Liselotte Hermann’s upbringing was hardly what you would expect from a resistance fighter.
Born in 1909, she grew up in a comfortable Berlin home, relatively untouched by the privations endured by many in the post-war Weimar Republic.
An intelligent, well-read adolescent, much of Hermann’s time growing up was dedicated to art – sketches and water colours of nature scenes – exhibiting a creative flair.
Hermann’s interest in politics, and the wider situation facing Germany, didn’t crystallise until 1929, when she was a chemistry student at Berlin’s Humboldt University.
Observing the aftermath of the ‘Blutmai’ – bloody May Day protests in which the police killed several protesters – Hermann was drawn towards the KPD, the country’s Communist party.
Over the next four years, Hermann involved herself in protests against the emerging Nazi party – an activity that grew increasingly dangerous, as the number of party members on campus grew. She was heckled, jostled and her possessions damaged on a regular basis by the SA and Hitler Youth.
Hermann was finally expelled from the university in July 1933 as a result of an edict excluding Jews, leftists and other ‘enemies of the regime’ from study.
A New Arrival
Hermann initially decided to stay in Berlin and continue her resistance to the regime there, but things would take a dramatic turn.
That year, she became pregnant. The father was Fritz Rau, a fellow KPD member, who would only months later, be beaten to death following his arrest by the Gestapo.
As a single mother, Hermann decided to make the move to Stuttgart, where her parents now moved. There, she gave birth to a son, Walther, and – while her grandparents helped raise the child – she went to work at her father’s architecture firm.
Hermann was confined in a number of prisons, interrogated – sometimes multiple times a day – and subjected to brutal punishments.
Hermann’s convictions and loathing of the Nazi regime were not that easily suppressed.
When she realised that plans for armament factories and other facilities essential for a coming war were passing through the office, she contacted the anti-fascist resistance and managed to have copies smuggled out of the country. These would prove useful in understanding Nazi Germany’s rearmament program.
Hermann was able to keep up this traffic of information for months, until the inevitable happened.
Hermann was caught up in a series of raids on those known to be involved with the KPD on 7 December 1935.
Her parent’s house was searched, and plans for an armaments factory found. She was arrested on the spot and taken to the feared police prison in the centre of Stuttgart. Walther was left with his grandparents.
For the next two years, Hermann was confined in a number of prisons, interrogated – sometimes multiple times a day – and subjected to brutal punishments. She never cracked, never revealed the names of her collaborators, even after the direst threats.
Somehow, during this time, she was able to get her hands on watercolours, and made small paintings for her son – although these wouldn’t come to light for another 50 years.
When it became clear that Hermann wouldn’t reveal anything about her network, she was sentenced to death on the 12 June 1937.
Hermann’s sentence provoked cause global headlines and protests, both formal and informal, came from countries across the world. It was no use, however. The Nazi state wouldn’t give a reprieve to a enemy of the regime.
Hermann was executed by guillotine on 20 July 1938, at Berlin’s Plötzensee prison.
An Emerging Legacy
As a member of the KPD, and subsequently elevated to the status of a hero by the East German state, Hermann hasn’t quite had the recognition she deserves in what was former West Germany.
Stuttgart’s city authority has dragged its feet over a memorial, and there are still calls by students at the university there to erect some form of permanent memorial.
With the digitisation of Nazi-era records, and a growing interest in combating the rise of the authoritarian Right, Hermann is starting to receive some of the acclaim she deserves for standing up to a despotic regime and doing what she could to thwart it.
That’s why, when I return in a few weeks, I’ll pull up a chair in the Lilo Hermann Haus, alongside punks, nerds and trots, and raise a glass of the local Stuttgarter Hofbrau.
Anyone can be a hero, when it counts. Lilo was.
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