Again and again, signs saying "Never convicted!!!" have been placed at the grave of Wilhelm Koppe in the Rüngsdorf cemetery, near Bonn. The signs reveal his past as a high-ranking Nazi leader in occupied Poland — and the fact that he was never held accountable. Cemetery staff usually swiftly remove them.
Koppe's grandchildren, Alexandra von Rotberg and Beatrix Hofmann, pay for his grave's upkeep. Twenty years ago, they began researching Koppe's past, learning about his crimes as a high-ranking Nazi Protection Squadron (SS) and police commander. What they found was "shocking," they told DW.
They were 11 and 13 years old, respectively, when Koppe died in 1975. Both remember their grandfather as authoritarian, stern and a "somewhat tyrannical" figure, who nevertheless had affable and generous moments.
An ambitious Nazi
Koppe was born in 1896. Prior to World War II, he worked as a Hamburg-based businessman. He joined the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), Assault Division (SA) and paramilitary organization SS long before Adolf Hitler came to power. In 1933, Koppe began serving as NSDAP lawmaker in the German parliament, the Reichstag.
In 1939, Koppe — who, behind his back, was nicknamed "little Himmler," after Heinrich Himmler, the second-most-powerful man in Nazi Germany — became the SS and police leader in Nazi-occupied Poland. He and his family moved to the city of Poznan. In the following years, Koppe oversaw countless murders in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Koppe was an ambitious, hard-working man. He was also known as "the wild Koppe" because he compensated for any lack of expertise with a gruff, commanding tone. Heinrich Himmler, who headed Nazi Germany's SS and police force, admired Koppe's brutal persecution of Jews and ruthless resettlement of Poles.
Koppe staged numerous public executions in occupied Poland. On June 9, 1942, he ordered the hanging of 15 Poles in the village of Tuchorza after the killing of a German police officer. The people in question, however, had nothing to do with the officer's death. Some 200 villagers were forced to watch the execution.
Koppe ordered German security police to kill anyone involved in assassinations and acts of sabotage — along with their male relatives. During a meeting of the German administration in occupied Poland, Koppe suggested that if resistance occurred, executions should target not only those who were responsible, but all males between 16 and 60 years old in the nearby area as well.
Surviving an attempt on his life
In response to Polish underground resistance, Koppe proposed shooting 50 Poles in retaliation each day and without trial. Koppe himself survived an assassination attempt by the Polish resistance in July 1944, but was wounded.
During these years Koppe's wife, Käthe, and their two children, Ursula and Manfred, lived in a villa in the city of Poznan. Photographs from this time show they enjoyed a carefree life. Were they aware of Wilhelm Koppe's crimes?
As World War II drew to a close, the Koppe family prepared to go underground. In April 1945, a month before Germany surrendered, Wilhelm Koppe was issued a new passport under his wife's maiden name, Lohmann, complete with a fake birthplace and date of birth. They also changed their son's surname. Käthe Koppe changed her maiden name to Jünemann — and claimed that her husband Wilhelm was deceased.
After the war, Wilhelm and Käthe Koppe — now equipped with fake identities — lived near the city of Hannover, albeit 15 kilometers (9 miles) apart, pretending not to be connected. Wilhelm Koppe, now masquerading as Wilhelm Lohmann, resumed his career as a businessman.
After several years of staying off the radar, the family reunited, moving to the city of Bonn. Wilhelm began working at the Trumpf chocolate factory in Aachen, eight years later taking over as its director. Wilhelm Koppe claimed that none of his employers or colleagues knew about his past as a high-ranking Nazi leader. He said he had always avoided being recognized as the former SS leader Koppe. This was possibly the reason why he was reticent in making contact with neighbors.
Koppe's wife, Käthe, was less averse to attention, however. She reveled in the fact that her daughter Ursula — working as a secretary at Germany's Defense Ministry — had tied the knot with aristocrat Arnold Freiherr von Rotberg, a lieutenant colonel in the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Their marriage — the first with military honors in post-war Germany — was a spectacular affair.
Arnold Freiherr von Rotberg, however, later found his career ambitions somewhat hampered by Koppe's dark past — von Rotberg rose to the rank of general later than he had hoped.
Bit in the early 1960s, Wilhelm Koppe's cover was blown. He spent over two years remanded in custody but was eventually released on bail. Koppe's son Manfred, by now an attorney, began working on his father's defense strategy and gathering evidence to prove Koppe's innocence.
Koppe was charged with aiding and abetting murder. Among other things, he was accused of complicity in the murder of 145,000 people at the Kulmhof extermination camp, and of 1,558 mentally ill patients in the city of Dzialdowo. The trial was halted, however, when doctors attested that Koppe suffered from circulatory disease, high blood pressure and vascular sclerosis, making him bedridden for most of the time. In August 1966, Bonn's public prosecutor terminated the proceedings.
Wilhelm Koppe's first granddaughter, Beatrix, was born while he was still remanded in custody. She does not know how her family explained away his long absence. Even years later, the matter was not spoken of. After his release, both granddaughters — Beatrix and Alexandra — regularly visited Koppe in his small apartment the district of Mehlem in Bonn. They remember how he needed a cane to walk.
He died in 1975, aged 79. Bernhard von Rotberg, Alexandra und Beatrix' older half-brother, recalls his grandfather as a "friendly" character who was "well-liked by his family." By the time he learned about Koppe's Nazi past from his sisters, Koppe had already died, so the time was past for any questions.
In the 1970s, Polish reporter Krzysztof Kakolewski was writing a book about Nazi war criminals who escaped justice. In 1977, he wanted to meet Wilhelm Koppe — the man who "spent the war in Poland and dedicated his time to Poland's destruction" — to confront him with a long list of questions. But by then, Koppe was already dead.
Instead, Kakolewski contacted Koppe's son, Manfred Lohmann, asking him about Koppe's fake identity after the war. Manfred lied to the reporter, telling him he had wanted nothing to with his father. In reality, the two were certainly in touch, though they were not on the best of terms. During the 1960s, Manfred Lohmann, along with other lawyers, sought to achieve an amnesty for Nazi criminals. After his death, he was buried in the same grave as his father.
Alexandra and Beatrix vividly remember their uncle. In his time, Manfred Lohmann was a well-known attorney, and served as the managing director of the German Association for Economic Cooperation (DGWZ). He was a handsome, friendly and humorous man. Lohmann married late in life, but the marriage did not last long. Over time, he developed mental problems. Lohmann died in a psychiatric clinic. The circumstance of his death remain unclear, though evidence suggests he committed suicide.
Alexandra and Beatrix remember times when Koppe's past could have come up in family settings, for instance, when their mother showed them a magazine report about a family get-together. In it, Koppe was called the "hangman of Poznan" and a "bloody butcher." Beatrix says her mother reacted very emotionally to the report.
Suppressing memories of the past
Alexandra von Rotberg remembers visiting her mother, Ursula, some 15 years ago and witnessing something unusual. "I came home one evening and she was sitting in front of the television, sobbing. They were showing a film about the Holocaust." Alexandra says her mother kept saying how awful that time had been. She believes her mother's tears were not only because of the sad film.
Several years later, Ursula began suffering from dementia. Her daughters wonder whether the illness could have had something to do with her attempts to forget the past. After her death, they found old family pictures and mementos that they used to piece together their family history.
This article is part of the Guilt without Atonement project by DW's Polish desk in cooperation with Interia and Wirtualna Polska.