In September 1944, the Nazis murdered the teacher Elisabeth von Thadden, the aunt of DER SPIEGEL editor Marianne Wellershoff. She had been denounced by a man named Paul Reckzeh, who had spied on a tea party on behalf of the Gestapo in 1943. Von Thadden was at that tea party. She met regularly with several other academics who were critical of Adolf Hitler's regime, a group centered around the resistance fighter Hanna Solf.
The betrayal of the Solf Circle and the death sentence given to Elisabeth von Thadden by the People's Court, as the Nazi regime's extrajudicial court was called, was a frequent topic of discussion in Wellershoff's family and a source of trauma for her mother Maria. That led Wellershoff to interview Irmgard Ruppel, née Zarden, during a visit to New York in 1995 -- Ruppel had attended the fateful tea party decades before emigrating to the United States. When Wellershoff began looking into Paul Reckzeh for the current issue of DER SPIEGEL GESCHICHTE, the history periodical published by DER SPIEGEL, she found the cassette with the unpublished interview. Ruppel was no longer able to authorize the interview prior to publication: She passed away in 2018. Reckzeh died in 1996 in Hamburg.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Ruppel, you met Elisabeth von Thadden for the first time in 1937 when you started going to her Protestant boarding school in Wieblingen, a district of the southern German city of Heidelberg. Why did your parents send you there all the way from Berlin?
Ruppel: My mother wanted me to learn how to cook and my parents knew that Elisabeth von Thadden opposed the National Socialists. She was a remarkable woman and her boarding school had a very good reputation. She had a background in social welfare. But I wasn't part of Thadden's inner circle and my time there wasn't some kind of life-changing experience. I just had a nice year there.
DER SPIEGEL: How did Elisabeth von Thadden's critical position towards the Nazis make itself apparent?
Ruppel: It wasn't constantly brought up, but the school was extremely pious and Protestant. The Heidelberg pastor Hermann Maas was a good friend of hers and he also did a lot for the Jews in the region -- as far as one could do anything. We also sometimes went to his church. The Nazis were suspicious of Thadden because she didn't try to hide her rejection of National Socialism. For example, I can't remember there being a chapter of the League of German Girls (the girl's wing of the Hitler Youth) at the boarding school. Her stance is also the reason why the school was ultimately closed. She was a very respectable person.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you maintain contact with Elisabeth von Thadden following your year at the Wiebling boarding school?
Ruppel: My parents had contact with her during the war. After the Nazis closed her school, she came to Berlin and lived with her friend Anna von Gierke, a well-known politician and social worker.
DER SPIEGEL: Then she invited people to a tea party on September 21, 1943, on the occasion of the 50th birthday of her sister, Anza Braune.
Ruppel: Yes, it was a group who all knew one another and who shared the same general worldview: Hanna Solf, who lived in our building in Alsenstrasse, my father Arthur Zarden, Hilger van Sherpenberg, Otto Kiep, Richard Künzer. And then the elderly Fanny von Kurowski, whose father had been a cabinet member of Bismarck's during the time of the Congress of Berlin in the late 1870s -- quite a while ago.
DER SPIEGEL: And then there was another guest.
Ruppel: Yes, Paul Reckzeh. He had called Thadden the day before. She had a very good friend in Switzerland, the daughter of the painter Segantini. This daughter knew Reckzeh's father, a professor of medicine in Berlin. The Reckzehs always went on vacation in Sils Maria in Switzerland, so the families had known each other for a long time. Paul Reckzeh mentioned this when he called Thadden.
DER SPIEGEL: What did he say?
Ruppel: That Ms. Segantini kindly requested her to introduce him to people who had similar views in Berlin. Later, of course, Ms. Segantini felt horribly guilty about having sent this horrific criminal into the home of her friend. But Thadden should also have been immediately suspicious: How is it possible that a young man in the fall of 1943 is traveling to Switzerland? He should have been at the front!
DER SPIEGEL: But the conversation didn't raise any red flags for her?
Ruppel: No. She said: I'm having a tea party tomorrow, why don't you come too?
DER SPIEGEL: It was the return invitation for the many times she had been hosted by resistance activist Hannah Solf, in whose apartment academic and aristocratic regime critics would meet and discuss. Your father, Arthur Zarden, who was state secretary in the Reich Ministry of Finance during the Weimar Republic, was a member of the Solf Circle. Were you?
Ruppel: No, I was working in a nearby office and merely picked up my father at Thadden's party on that 21st of September, 1943. I was not there very long, maybe half an hour, but they were almost all still there. I also didn't say much. I was 21 years old and the guests were all much older. It's unfortunate that Thadden had invited precisely these people that afternoon. If Reckzeh had only spoken with her, it might not have been so bad.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you remember Reckzeh?
Ruppel: I remember a young man, not even 30 years old, with a rather flabby face. Pretty average appearance. He was heavily involved in the conversations. Even though people were otherwise so incredibly careful with people they didn't know, nobody that afternoon seemed to wonder who he actually was.
DER SPIEGEL: What was the conversation about?
Ruppel: Unfortunately, the conversation immediately turned to the fall of Italy, the overthrow and arrest of Mussolini and what it might mean for the course of the war. Back then, even the smallest doubts about Germany's ultimate victory was considered high treason. Reckzeh took part in the conversation and then said: I'll soon be heading back to Switzerland and if you have any letters for your friends there, I'd be happy to take them and mail them from Switzerland.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you find that suspicious?
Ruppel: When my father and I were heading home, he immediately said: "I wish I hadn't come. I thought that man was odd." He had immediately noticed that something wasn't quite right, but it would also have been strange if he had left immediately. For a time, nothing happened. But we all noticed that our telephone calls were being monitored, because it was a rather primitive technology and you could hear it clicking.
DER SPIEGEL: Did that confirm your suspicion that something wasn't right about Reckzeh?
Ruppel: We heard via Helmuth von Moltke, who worked in military intelligence, that Reckzeh was a Gestapo informant. In mid-October, Reckzeh called us and said he was soon going to be travelling to Switzerland again and asked if he could drop by. He would be happy, he said, to take letters with him again and mail them in Switzerland. I told my father that it would have been wrong to turn down the visit. So he answered: "Come by on Sunday morning." I was also there, and we had a nice conversation. My father said he had a friend in Lugano to whom he sometimes wrote, but that it was fine if the censors read it. But Reckzeh continued pushing: He was an agent provocateur.
DER SPIEGEL: What happened then?
Ruppel: November came, and then December, but we didn't hear anything and started thinking the Gestapo might have other things to do. But they were, of course, still monitoring the situation. Then, on Jan. 12, 1944, everyone who was at the tea party was arrested. Despite the fact that, in contrast to the July 20, 1944 conspirators (the group around Claus von Stauffenberg that attempted to assassinate Hitler), none of those arrested had been in a position to carry out a violent act against the Third Reich.
DER SPIEGEL: Moltke was also arrested, because he had informed Otto Kiep that Reckzeh worked for the Gestapo. Elisabeth von Thadden was arrested that same day in France.
Ruppel: Yes, she had been given a low-ranking position there with the Red Cross that was far below her capabilities. She was subjected to significant harrassment. I never saw my father again. He committed suicide a few days after the arrest by jumping out of the window at Joachim Friedrich Strasse 2 on January 18. That was a Gestapo building near Kurfürstendamm, where we were interrogated.
DER SPIEGEL: What took place there?
Ruppel: Criminal Investigator Herbert Lange led the investigation. He was known for horribly torturing prisoners, but I wasn't aware of that. And us women weren't subjected to torture. The interrogations were nothing but a fishing expedition. The Gestapo had nothing on us, because there wasn't anything to be had. They arrested all of us and then wanted to construct something out of the interrogations. I said: "High treason? What is that supposed to mean? That was no high treason, it was just a few retired people talking about the events of the day."
DER SPIEGEL: How did you find out about your father's suicide?
Ruppel: Lange told me about it. He was very, very, very uncomfortable. In response, I threw a tantrum and said: "I'm going to survive all this, but you won't!" I always found it surprising that this never had negative consequences for me. But Lange simply ignored it.
DER SPIEGEL: Perhaps you were proven right. He reportedly died in Berlin in 1945.
Ruppel: I don't know. He was supposedly seen after the war in a Russian car near the building where the Russian secret police was. Maybe he gave them a few tips. Ultimately, I can't imagine a man like that could have survived unless he fled to Bolivia or Argentina.
DER SPIEGEL: Did Lange discover anything during his investigation that incriminated you or your father?
Ruppel: In a search of our home, they discovered a postcard from 1931 from Joseph Wirth, who had been Reich Chancellor during the Weimar Republic. Wirth lived in Sils Maria, which became a kind of center for critics of the National Socialists during the war. But my father had had no contact with him for years. The card made Lange unbelievably agitated. I said: "Listen, the man was on vacation, he sent us a postcard. There's nothing to it."
DER SPIEGEL: Why were you moved from Berlin to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg?
Ruppel: Because Berlin was being heavily bombed. In Sachsenhausen, we were housed in wooden barracks. The others who had been arrested were also brought to the camp, but we were isolated from each other. I was never alone. I was so closely watched by the Gestapo broads, they even accompanied me to the toilet. When the barracks trembled and shook during major air raids on Oranienburg, we were told to go into the air-raid shelter. I asked the guards: "Why are you so afraid? I'm not going into the air-raid shelter. I'm staying here. You can go." We were "special inmates" and the Gestapo broads didn't have instructions to force me into the basement.
DER SPIEGEL: What kind of women were they?
Ruppel: Extremely common. Or maybe they were some kind of secretaries who later turned into wonderful, democratically-minded German citizens. I had always gone to private schools, but in the first winter of the war, I had to join a labor commando and that was an excellent lesson in how to interact with these people. Because I refused to go into the air-raid shelter, we were transferred to Ravensbrück where there were no air raids.
DER SPIEGEL: Who do you mean by "we"?
Ruppel: The entire tea party, but we were not allowed to chat with one another. Each of us had one or two SS guards. It was a bitterly cold, snowy Sunday in early February when we headed off. We were all wearing civilian clothing, including the guards, because nobody was to know who we were as we squeezed in among the travelers in third-class. From Fürstenberg (about 100 kilometers north of Berlin) we were then taken by car to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Once there, we were put into a proper cell block, each of us in solitary confinement.
DER SPIEGEL: With two guards?
Ruppel: No, we were rid of them. The men were tortured in Ravensbrück; they were horribly beaten. I didn't see anyone, because we were sitting in our cells. But I know that a lawyer who was also in the concentration camp was horrifically tortured. I therefore assume that Albrecht Graf von Bernstorff and Otto Kiep went through something similar. The men sat in the worse, colder cells that faced north. But it still wasn't warm and you had to wear your coat in the cell. It was winter. I had the crematorium smokestack in front of my window and smoke was constantly pouring out of it. Today, the cell block is painted a nice white, but it wasn't like that back then. It was a horrible gray.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you see Elisabeth von Thadden again in Ravensbrück?
Ruppel: Only on the way there. In Ravensbrück, we had an hour of recreation each day in a courtyard. Either you were alone, or, if someone else had recreation at the same time, you weren't allowed to talk. But I still managed to become friends with a woman named Sarah who had been in Ravensbrück for a while. For a long time, we weren't interrogated and I wondered why not. One day, though, I heard that we were to go to Berlin in late June.
DER SPIEGEL: To go on trial in the People's Court in Berlin.
Ruppel: Yes. The criminal investigator Lange told me: "Keep your head up." I answered: "Easy for you to say. I've been charged with preparation of high treason and with failure to report a crime." I mean, you can't report your own father! But the Nazis didn't see it that way.
DER SPIEGEL: The court hearing was scheduled for July 1, 1944, a Saturday.
Ruppel: Yes, we were brought to the police prison in Moabit (a district of Berlin). Only there were we able to examine the charge sheet for an hour or so. My aunt had arranged a lawyer for me. His name was Dr. Peschke, and he told me: "I can't do anything for you anyway." On the day of the trial, the judge Roland Freisler yelled like he always did. When Kiep, for example, spoke of his service during World War I, Freisler yelled that he didn't want to hear about it. He always yelled so loudly that on the film recordings the sound always had to be turned down because otherwise nobody understood anything. My lawyer didn't say a thing during the trial.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you see Paul Reckzeh in the courtroom?
Ruppel: He was sitting directly behind me. When it was my turn, Freisler asked me: "Why didn't you report the things your father said?" I turned around and said: "I didn't need to because I knew that Dr. Reckzeh, who is sitting behind me, had already reported it to the Secret State Police." And so Freisler said: "It's difficult to counter that argument." I didn't turn around to face Reckzeh after that, and I never saw him again. The court withdrew to consult for a half-hour or an hour, and then Freisler sentenced Thadden and Kiep to death in the afternoon. I was released due to lack of evidence. If I had said that you don't report your own father, the sentence would have been a different one.
DER SPIEGEL: What was your impression of Elisabeth von Thadden during the trial?
Ruppel: She was very composed. Brutes and proles were a completely alien world to her. Thadden was treated horribly after the verdict; she always had her hands shackled behind her back and she could no longer do anything herself. One can imagine how her wrists must have looked, because she had metal shackles. I'm sure she was composed and self-possessed until her head was chopped off.
DER SPIEGEL: Did she anticipate the verdict?
Ruppel: Everyone accused of high treason had to expect such a verdict.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you allowed to go after the acquittal?
Ruppel: No, I was brought to a totally normal jail in Oranienburger Strasse. It was pretty terrible and there were lice. I asked them to take me back to Ravensbrück because that's where my luggage was.
DER SPIEGEL: When were you released?
Ruppel: After two days in Ravensbrück. Before being released, I was made to sign a document promising not to tell anybody about the trial and my imprisonment. And that was it. On July 6, 1944, I was released, which was quite lucky. Because none of the tea-party attendees who were still in custody on July 20 were released, even though they had nothing to do with the attack. Ms. Solf and her daughters stayed in prison until shortly before the end of the war for that reason.
DER SPIEGEL: In 1952, an arrest warrant for Paul Reckzeh was issued, but not executed. It wasn't until the Social Democrats (SPD) debated the case in Berlin that Reckzeh was to be arrested for suspicion of murder -- but he escaped to East Germany in 1955 before he could be arrested. You emigrated to New York in the late 1940s. Did you know about what happened with Reckzeh?
Ruppel: Yes. In 1953 I testified for an entire day in the German consulate. But the idiots in Berlin let Reckzeh escape. I later found out that he became a company doctor in Zeuthen (a town then in East Germany, just outside of Berlin).
DER SPIEGEL: Reckzeh worked in various clinics in East Germany and for years wrote informant reports about his colleagues for the Stasi, the East German secret police.
Ruppel: That was his occupation: informant. You know, there are people that are so colorless that they make ideal informants. Even though, as a doctor, he should have been someone who helps other people. Instead he betrayed 70 people during the Nazi period. Not just us.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you have any encounters with Paul Reckzeh after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989?
Ruppel: In late September 1990, I drove to his house in Zeuthen with a friend. I wanted to know how he lived. We looked at his beautiful property on the lake, his house was set well back in the yard. He had a Mercedes and lived in a way that was unattainable for average East German citizens. I then asked a retired federal constitutional judge, who my friend knew well, if it was possible to relaunch proceedings.
DER SPIEGEL: What did he say?
Ruppel: Yes, give it a try. Which I then did following reunification, but it was all too far in the past. Nothing more came of it.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you disappointed?
Ruppel: Twice in my life, I had dealings with the German justice system. Once during the Nazi period, and once in the Federal Republic. And both times, it was a pretty big letdown, though to differing extents. I don't understand why I wasn't asked to testify, as the last survivor. But no court took on the task. Maybe they thought it was too much work to find this old lady in New York. My lawyer and I did everything we could to restart the case -- but the judiciary wasn't interested.