Photo Gallery: A History of Abuse at Odenwaldschulde

Foto: DDP

The Roots of Abuse Decades of Molestation Haunt Odenwaldschule

For many, the Odenwaldschule was an educational Eden. For others it was more like a living hell. Historical documents suggest that teachers began sexually assaulting pupils at the school, once attended by writer Klaus Mann and other luminaries, shortly after it was founded 100 years ago.

The victims and their families want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the goings-on at the Odenwaldschule. They will probably have to make do with mere fragments.

"I remember being woken up as a 13-year-old by Gerold Becker sucking my penis like a possessed man," recalls one former pupil.

"Everyone should have known what was going on," says Brigitte Tilmann, a former judge whom the school called in to investigate the allegations.

"I'm terribly sorry, but I can't remember," says one former teacher in response to an ex-pupil's claim that he had told him about the abuse at the time.

After so many years of silence at the school, every sentence that is uttered is a step in the right direction, a step closer to the truth. The veil of silence was finally lifted in the school auditorium two weekends ago, when the most famous and now infamous school in Germany invited victims, alleged perpetrators, and experts to speak at the exclusive institution's centenary.

And nothing was to go unspoken or be swept under the carpet.

Brigitte Tilmann and a lawyer published a report on the school in the run-up to the anniversary. Their no-holds-barred appraisal paints a frightening picture of widespread abuse at the Odenwaldschule. They identified more than a dozen perpetrators, more than 70 victims, and cited 17 witnesses alone who testified against the school's long-time principal, Gerold Becker. Indeed the two legal experts amassed so many accounts of sexual impropriety that no-one dares doubt anymore that abuse was rampant at this once prestigious and elite boarding school, which was known for educating such luminaries as author Klaus Mann and Green Party politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

And yet the more the evidence piles up, the more people wonder how it had all been possible. Was the abuse systematic? Why didn't the victims speak out? And what would the consequences have been for such an educationally revolutionary idyll if the word got out?

Abuse from the Beginning

The answer lay right under everyone's noses, hidden in the heart of the picturesque school grounds and its smart villas: Among other things the school archive contains thousands of letters sent to the board by the parents of pupils since the elite boarding school was founded in 1910. Founder Paul Geheeb -- who liked to be addressed as "Paulus" (St. Paul) -- still enjoys a hallowed status within the education-reform movement. No-one would deny his achievement in building up a modern school decades ahead of its time in an era when a regimental approach was the norm in education in Germany. The letters, however, provide glimpses of a darker side, and there appear to have been several cases of abuse almost at the very beginning.

On Sept. 13, 1924, a mother wrote to Geheeb's wife Edith, who had built up the school with him. This mother, E.M., described in detail her 12-year-old son's allegations that he had been abused by a teacher.

It wasn't the first such claim. Three weeks earlier a father had taken his daughter out of the school on the grounds that she had been "very disturbed" by the "nocturnal visits by adults" that she had witnessed. Educationalist Christl Stark says the school received a number of such letters from concerned, shocked parents over the years -- with some pointing the finger at older pupils, others at the teachers.

Parents Shied Away from Confrontation

For a dissertation she wrote on the issue, Stark analyzed thousands of letters that had been stored in 61 boxes in the cellar of one of the school buildings. "Although there were complaints about the homoerotic activities of Geheeb's colleagues, far more parents demanded an explanation for suspected or proven sexual relations between their daughters and staff at the Odenwaldschule," Stark says.

As undeniable as the evidence seemed, the parents shied away from open confrontation. Although some enclosed the love letters their daughters had received from teachers while on vacation, the parents showed remarkable restraint. One mother even went so far as to assure the school that she had no intention of "causing a scandal" that might cast the Odenwaldschule in an "unfavorable light".

This huge pool of correspondence from parents helped Stark piece together a multifaceted image of the school and its principal, Paul Geheeb. Some of this makes for amusing reading. In some instances, mothers or fathers complained about the size of the helpings at mealtimes, about wrongly addressed invoices or the dirty beds in the "absolutely slovenly mess," as one father put it. But these letters also contain accounts that should not be taken lightly under any circumstances.

On Feb. 23, 1931, Geheeb wrote to a female pupil who had asked for his help. He had sent the 17-year-old girl to a friend of his in London; a fellow teacher who was supposed to help improve her English, but whom she said molested her. Geheeb defended his colleague vehemently. "He bravely treads new ground in the realm of sexuality in particular, and has discovered new successful methods that are of course extremely infuriating for 'high society' and its hypocritical sexual morality," he wrote.

'Stupid Little Girls Immediately Feel Sexually Threatened'

Geheeb advised her not to make such a fuss. Faced with such a personality, he said, "it's natural that stupid little girls immediately feel sexually threatened, call him a 'pig', and maybe even call for the police to get involved." Stark was suitably harsh in her condemnation of the renowned educator's behavior. "You can hardly describe it as educational to fob off a young woman in such a way when she clearly finds herself in a moral quandary and repulsed by the unwanted advances of a stranger!" she wrote.

The girl was forced to leave the school, and her father complained to Geheeb, but took no further action.

The girl's father was a lawyer. Why then didn't he press charges against Geheeb? "Because he was a Jew with few clients, and his daughter had generously been offered a scholarship for several years," Stark posits. If this is true, it is a sign of a pattern which decades later would explain the worst of all the accusations leveled at the Odenwaldschule: That the victims of abuse were primarily children whose parents weren't powerful enough to support them.

Did Abuse Inspire Klaus Mann Story?

The parents' letters also cast new light on a literary text penned by a former pupil in 1925. The pupil was a scion of one of the many distinguished families that sent their children to the school, and the text created quite a stir when it was published.

Klaus Mann's "Der Alte" (The Old Man) is the story of a school principal who is attracted to young girls. After dinner the principal lies down on a sofa, and listens to the sounds of playing and singing children. A girl comes in, the principal speaks to and then "becomes intimate" with her. Mann wrote: "He began stroking the girl. He even laid his head, his white, unimaginably old head with its faun mouth, in her lap." The text goes on to report about "urgent, greedy caresses" and of another girl whom, "looking her straight in the eye, he threw himself at, and kissed."

The text reads like a portrait of Geheeb, who promptly and vociferously complained to Klaus' father, Thomas Mann. The principal said he was shocked because of "the damage that such a story could inflict upon the Odenwaldschule," according to educationalist Martin Näf, who wrote a major biography about Geheeb. Yet as vehemently as he responded, "He didn't say anything about the topic Klaus Mann had raised."

It's doubtful anyone will ever be able to determine how much truth lies behind Mann's words. Like so many historical stories, if you address them decades later, you must do so with utmost caution. In the summer of 1918, for instance, a pupil wrote to Geheeb that she "depended" on him, and had "a right to a ring" in view of "all that had happened" so that she could be "safe, or at least safer". Was this evidence of a relationship, or simply wishful thinking on the part of a pubescent girl?

One thing is certain: Looking back over the history of the Odenwaldschule, it's clear that the seeds of many later problems were sown at the very beginning. In an advertising leaflet Geheeb produced shortly before the school's opening in 1910, he stressed that the children and adults at the school would live together like a family. "The close relationship between young and old, the increasingly friendly contact particularly within the 'families' of 6-8 children focused on a teacher" would promote a sense of community, he claimed.

A Pedophile-Friendly Environment

In many ways the Odenwaldschule was perfect for teachers with pedophilic tendencies, since it has traditionally been more liberal and permissive than state schools, and its rules are not as rigid. It was this and the familial structure that the alleged main abusers -- principal Gerold Becker and music teacher Wolfgang H. -- took advantage of in the late 1960s. The two men lived in the same house, one at the bottom of the building, the other at the top, together with their respective residential groups. From these "families," it appears they targeted specific children to service their needs. The bedrooms were only a few steps away. Pupils would later recall that they were groped in the morning and forced to masturbate the teachers in the afternoon. "Back then we children didn't even discuss the things we saw and experienced on an almost daily basis," says Adrian K. "It was a closed system."

The school's 10th anniversary celebrations in 1920 were cancelled because a female member of staff had killed herself. The woman had had a relationship with Geheeb, who led the school with his wife. Indeed the principal and his lover had spent Christmas together only a few months earlier.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary in 1930, some the girls at the school posed naked for a photographer. Geheeb was then presented with an album of the photos; "a particularly risqué, semi-ironic, semi-serious gift unthinkable in the present day," Geheeb's biographer Martin Näf wrote in 2006.

Morning Exercises, 'Au Naturel'

"The farmers in the Hambach Valley were astounded by the sight of pupils engaging in their morning exercises 'au naturel'" reported educational historian Ulrich Herrmann in his speech on the school's centenary. Herrmann criticized the logic behind such nude exercise: "Did anyone ever stop to think what this might have meant for adolescent boys and girls? Probably not -- entirely in keeping with the prevailing spirit of unconventionality."

Eventually the permissiveness became almost total, and it wasn't the tormentors but the tormented who were made to feel guilty. "The declared minimum objective was to be bisexual. If you didn't achieve that, you were a failure," says former pupil Gerhard R., who came to the school in 1975 and was first abused by his music teacher the following year. "We knew one thing: Everything was permitted at any time," Gerhard R., the alumnus who recalled Gerold Becker fellating him like a possessed man, says of his schooldays.

German television presenter Amelie Fried attended the Odenwaldschule starting in 1969. In a book published to mark the school's centenary, she recounts how a teacher coaxed her into playing strip poker in his apartment. She says he mercilessly goaded her for being a "prudish, petty bourgeois Swabian girl" until she "finally caved in to the pressure," though she was "terribly embarrassed" and subsequently repressed her memory of the incident for decades.

A Vow of Silence, Passed on from Generation to Generation

Clearly the perpetrators felt safe in the knowledge that the vow of silence would be more or less passed on from one generation of pupils and teachers to the next.

The town of Heppenheim is five kilometers (three miles) away from the school down a winding country road. Even today, cell phone reception is patchy in many areas of the campus. As a result, a kind of parallel universe developed up on the school hill; one in which critics were quickly seen as traitors and condemned as "Judases," as was the case of a teacher who agreed to answer the questions of an inquisitive reporter in 1999.

Geheeb enthused about the school's "insular seclusion" in his advertising leaflet of 1910, promising that his educational establishment would cultivate an "esprit de corps". Pupils and staff alike were encouraged to consider themselves something special, and Geheeb often chose the most superlative words when describing the Odenwaldschule. In his 1909 application to establish a school, he spoke of an "exemplary institution that should arouse the broadest of interest given that it will put into practice the most advanced pedagogical theories." Speaking to the first 15 pupils at the opening a year later, Geheeb announced: "This is the start of a great endeavor."

Geheeb did indeed manage to give the school an excellent reputation in the space of just a few years. "People came to visit every day to see the teaching," a pupil in Geheeb's biography is quoted as saying. "We led educated adults through the school. It must have been tremendously impressive for psychologists." But at least one pupil recognized the dangers: "We were taught that we were different from everyone else. And what child, what person can remain unmoved by the sense of constantly being marveled at? We were real daredevils in our own paradise behind golden gates."

This appears to be the mechanism that many teachers and pupils would later fall victim to. "Whenever Gerold Becker gave a speech, he always said ours was the world's best school with the world's best teachers," former teacher Salman Ansari recalled during a debate held as part of the centenary. In the book released to mark the school's 100th anniversary, Amelie Fried noted, "The fact that I'm a former Odenwaldschule pupil always sets me apart from others, and will always connect me to all Odenwaldschule pupils."

The school's reputation was also shaped by the illustrious names that were associated with it. Former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, who sent one of his children to the school, chaired the Friends of Odenwaldschule organization for many years.

By the 1920s, the Odenwaldschule could already boast famous alumni like painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, publisher Ludwig Thoma, dollmaker Käthe Kruse, philosopher Martin Buber, playwright Frank Wedekind, sculptor Ernst Barlach, artist Käthe Kollwitz, and historian Golo Mann. Geheeb himself had contact to several senior figures. His list of "good friends" included Prussian Culture Minister Carl Heinrich Becker.

Becker's son Hellmut would later play a key role in the school. Hellmut Becker helped draw up West Germany's education reforms after World War II, and was the first director of the Max Planck Institute for Education Reform, a division of the prestigious German research organization. As a young lawyer, he defended Ernst von Weizsäcker, the father of the future German president. Becker had an excellent network of contacts, not least because he and other important men shared a passion for the poet Stefan George, the founder of an elitist, homoerotic, anti-establishment grouping that mainly attracted young men.

'Better Protection for Human Sexuality'

Becker's words therefore had a firm place in the book published to commemorate the Odenwaldschule's 50th anniversary. In this he described independent schools as "a kind of incubator within the public school system." He went on to say, "This applies in particular to boarding schools in which relaxed encounters between parents and pupils provides better protection for human sexuality."

It was this Hellmut Becker that Gerold Becker (no relation) brought to the school. The two men were part of an extensive network that some called the "Protestant mafia". Members of this group included Hartmut von Hentig, Gerold Becker's common-law partner, an education reform guru whose acolytes were so enthusiastic that they almost worshipped him, just like Paul Geheeb's fans had in his day.

It wasn't long before Hellmut Becker had evidence of educational malpractice when he received a plea from his own godson, who was at the school at the time. The boy sought help from his influential godfather because he said Principal Gerold Becker was climbing into bed with him with unambiguous intent. Given the severity of the allegation, Hellmut Becker's reaction was astonishingly mild. He merely recommended his protégé Gerold Becker seek treatment, and even ensured the affair was played down. The head teacher thereupon allegedly took a sleeping cure -- and then focused his attention on other boys instead.

One can only guess how many opportunities were missed to recognize that abuse was being committed, to put a stop to it, and punish the perpetrators. Two former pupils say they told Walter Schäfer, Gerold Becker's predecessor as principal, about several cases of abuse. A former employee, Barbara B., says she told Gerold Becker's successor in 1985 that a pupil had confessed to having slept with Becker the previous night, for which he had been rewarded with a stereo and a pair of sneakers.

Schäfer is dead, and Becker's successor, Wolfgang Harder, says he can't remember the conversation. And so the search for the truth continues, fragment by fragment, sentence by sentence. As long as the perpetrators refuse to talk, the truth will never come to light. And many perpetrators have already taken their knowledge to the grave. Even Gerold Becker, the widely accused and seriously ill former principal, died the night before the centenary.

"It is regrettable that he didn't live long enough to answer some of the more pressing questions," Johann von Dohnanyi, the spokesman of the board of trustees, said on the evening when the lid was finally prized off Pandora's box. The publicized title of the evening's debate -- "Truth" -- now looks set to remain an unfulfilled promise.

A few hours earlier, a small group of artists hung a series of posters in the school as a comment on Becker's untimely demise. One of these shows a wilting rose in a vase and a few sprigs of box in front of a black gravestone. The stone bears a simple, but pithy inscription: "I died my way out of taking responsibility."

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt