I first met Hans Schmitz a few years ago in in Düsseldorf at the BiBaBuZe libertarian bookshop. We (the Düsseldorf FAU) had invited historian Dieter Nelles to give a talk on the historical FAUD and its fight against Nazism. Sitting in the front row there was an elderly man who continually interrupted Dieter, sometimes to put a question, sometimes on a point of information and, to Dieter’s surprise sometimes to tell him things which he had yet to learn. From that day on, Hans not only took part (health permitting) in the meetings of the Düsseldorf FAU but also in rallies and activities.
From a very early age Hans was active in the anarchist and trade union movement. First as part of the children’s/youth anarchist group, the Morgenröte Libertarian Youth, the SAJD (German Anarcho-Syndicalist Youth - the FAUD’s youth wing) and later in the FAUD (Free Workers’ Union of Germany), as well as in the Schwarzen Scharen (Black Hordes), an anarchist anti-Nazi activist organisation.
Young anarcho-syndicalists saw fit to launch just such an organisation as the latter (in fact it was pacifist, or at any rate anti-militarist in its outlook) due to the growing “Nazi terror”. Quite simply the aim was to offer resistance to the Nazi storm-troopers. Later some members of the Schwarzen Scharen moved on to Spain to carry on the fight against fascism, by force of arms this time. However, Hans remained in Germany and was called up for military service on the day of his wedding. The adoption of a uniform by the Schwarzen Scharen provoked objections from with FAUD ranks but the Wuppertal members of the Black Hordes were often used to steward FAUD meetings and demonstrations in the region.
In those days the wearing of a black shirt could create a lot of difficulties. Hans used to recount how, in 1931, he was arrested while wearing a black shirt “for possession of a deadly weapon”, a pen-knife carried in his pocket. Only a few metres away the Hitler Youthy were on parade with machetes that seemed not to concern the police in the least and indeed they were carrying them in leather holsters.
In 1933 when the Nazi Party came to power, anarcho-syndicalist groups were forced to disband. As was the Wuppertal branch of the SAJD, of which Hans was treasurer. Not that this spelled an end of resistance and opposition. With a grin of satisfaction on his face, he would tell us how, on the day the Nazis came to power, the NSDAP organised a torch-lit march by night. That march quite literally disappeared into the river Wupper “spoiled” by communists, anarchists and trade unionists. The march had to be postponed until the following day. On the first day the things of the SS were on the march and were hailed by crowds of people on each side with raised arms and cheering. Hans Schmitz and about ten young communists, anarchists and trade unionists began to shove the crowd on one side into the path of the march, pushing towards the Wupper. SS members thought that they were being attacked by the crowd who had been applauding and cheering them and started to lash out with their torches. This happened a couple of times in a row until the SS realised what the source of the disorder was. At which point the activists realised that it was time to scarper.
In the months and years that followed, there were lots of instances of antifascist operations: for instance, lots of posters were put up, but they had to be quick about it. The comrades would put up posters using a mixture of glue and broken glass so that it was none too easy to tear them down and in order to damage the hands of the removers. The SS stopped doing this job themselves and drafted in political prisoners to do the job as a means of humiliating and torturing them. The anti-Nazis also started to use suitcases as big stamping machines. They attached rubber stamps to the base of the suitcases and moistened them with ink. They would set the case down and an imprint would be left on the pavement. They then picked up the case and repeated the procedure for as long as they could without their cover being blown.
The most important task of the underground anarchist groups was smuggling victims of political persecution out to the borders. Hans Schmitz played a courier role in this (riding his bicycle), disguised as a cyclist in training for some race or other.
In 1935, during a brawl with the Hitler Youth, Hans met the girl who would later become his wife; she was a member of the ‘Düsseldorf Pirates’ and they met when Hans and his friends came to their aid. Young people opposed to the Hitler Youth often organised themselves into ‘Edelweiss Pirate’ groups, wearing check shirts and with red bandanas around their necks. Usually these groups were called after the local rivers. Right after this incident a group of ‘Wupper Pirates’ put in an appearance.
On 1 April 1937, Hans Schmitz was visited by the Gestapo at his workplace in the course of one of their regular crackdowns. He was tipped off in time and they found nothing to betray his antifascist sympathies. Even so, he was sentenced to a “mere” two years in prison. In which he was very lucky for lots of his anarcho-syndicalist comrades received massive sentences. On release he was pronounced “unfit for military service”, which suited him down to the ground. He promptly returned to resistance activity.
Unfortunately, his unsuitability for military service did not last long. When he got married in 1942 his wife’s boss saw to it that he was found fit for military service, in order to stop her from moving away with her husband to Wuppertal and leaving her jobs at the munitions plant.
Hans Schmitz had to join the services. Opposition mounted from within the army was of course a hard and rash thing to do but even then some discreet opposition was feasible; Besides listening to enemy wireless broadcasts and striving to keep as far away from the front as he could, his opposition and survival strategy took the forms of self-harm and sabotaging of munitions. As second-in-charge of the weapons maintenance section, he served in France as the war drew to an end in an anti-aircraft battery (four guns). The team was rewarded with one ring for every enemy plane downed. Hans sabotaged their guns so that the battery he was to maintain never managed to down any.
When the war finished, Hans joined the FFS (Libertarian Socialist Federation) launched in 1945, the successor to the pre-war FAUD. He was frustrated to find that most of the comrades had died and those still living had no desire to remain part of the anarchist movement. Many were broken physically and emotionally and died during the first few years after the war. In spite of which he remained active up until, in his 90s, he became an “honorary member” of the Düsseldorf FAU group.
After the war food shortages resulted in the deaths of thousands. Hans orchestrated an effective strike at the firm where he was working. Ensuring that the firm would pay every employee with a slice of buttered bread at break times and also that they won the “right” to erect a brazier in the workshop. In conversations with the boss, he was told that he had little future with the company if he continued with this line but Hans remained with it up until retirement age.
To me, Hans was more than just an elderly comrade. His cordial, friendly manner, the way he asked questions and his sarcastic grin captivated me from the outset. In recent years the pair of us toured a number of cities to present the documentary ‘Deeds are never in vain. Workers in the resistance to fascism’ and lead subsequent discussions with the mostly young anarchists, libertarians and anti-authoritarians. Especially at the beginning, Hans ensured that I was completely swept along by the situation. He was never loath to talk about the unpleasant experiences in his life such as imprisonment, torture and the war. When he spoke about these a lump would come his throat and tears would well in his eyes. At which point I felt the urge to throw my arms around him, but was never brave enough to do so. With time, remembering came more easily to him, especially when he sensed people’s interest and that they really wanted to know how things had been for him. Listening to him was always a treat. Talk of his young days triggered a succession of anecdotes. Unlike other witnesses from those times, Hans’s main focus was on private and family life and he was averse to taking about episodes in his life which might these days be deemed mistakes by listeners on the left. He was not offering history lessons delivered from a professorial chair but talking about his life experience: the political commitment, love, the ghastly experience of “living through Nazi rule”. That survival and his experiences represented an open wound that needed healing and that healing came from his recounting everything he had been through. It was always a painful story but it was also optimistic in that, one after another, he would drop in anecdotes as to how to wipe the smirks off the faces of the thugs of the SA, SS and Hitler Youth.
But Hans did not talk only about “the old days”. He often donated money from his meagre pension to support comrades who were being victimised in strikes or demonstrations or to pay for placards and all sorts of meetings. In some of the discussions by our Düsseldorf group his experience came as a big help to us.
I was especially struck by Hans’s contribution to the Sehnsucht nach .. (Craving for ..) theatre project of the M.A.S.S.A.K.A. drama group. In this case he spoke openly not just about his desires (all manner of desires, including sexual) but also insisted that he still yearned for anarchism.
Even at his advanced age he still attended anti-Nazi demos. Not because he enjoyed them - he had other tastes when it came to entertainment - but because he felt that they were still needed or had become very necessary again. A couple of years ago he went with the comrades from the Düsseldorf FAU and a couple of other anarchists on an anti-Nazi demo in Wuppertal. The Nazis were not marching through the city as they had in 1945. Hans, like the rest of us, was determined to stop that but we failed (we and the many other antifascists there) due to the massive police escort deployed.
I couldn’t say everything I’d like to about him here. There wouldn’t be enough room. But I don’t want to leave out a mention of his meeting up with his friend and companion of his youth, Helmut Kirschey. Helmut was slightly older than Hans. He was too was born in Wuppertal and they had both been friends and had had similar experiences and enged in similar activities since their youth. In 1933 their lives parted when Helmut fled to Holland and then moved on to Spain to fight in the civil war as part of the Durruti Column’s Erich Mühsam centuria. They hadn’t laid eyes on each other since then. Helmut was promoting his memoirs A las barricadas, Erinnerungen eines Antifaschisten (To the Barricades. Memoirs of an Antifascist) at the BiBaBuZe bookshop in Düsseldorf. They hadn’t seen each other for 63 years. After Hemut’s introductory talk, the whirl of questions began and they both started to talk about everything that had befallen them over those 60-odd years. It turned into a dialogue between old friends with dozens looking on, enchanted and with our appetites whetted by the encounter.
After the chat with Helmut Kirschey, Hans was cockahoop and ready to celebrate. He dragged us all along to an antifascist ‘do’ that he had organised elsewhere in the city and at 3 o’clock in the morning was still calling for one more beer when all the younger folk were already getting ready to go to bed.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the manner of his death. The passage of the years had left its mark on his body and Hans was well aware of it. He knew only too well that he could not go on forever. On 22 March, after several weeks in hospital, he passed away. And fell asleep forever.
Scarred by the fascist regime in Germany, he nevertheless never lost his hopeful outlook on life. when someone asked him what was the point of the anarcho-syndicalist opposition to fascism, his answer was always the same: after briefly citing German peasant revolts and how they couldn’t have had foreknowledge of what was to follow, he would always say: ‘Deeds are never in vain’ (and this was said in the most unadulterated Ruhr Valley working class tones. That short phrase summed up the philosophy by which his life was guided. That, and lots of other memories, are what I will retain of Hans. Not just memories but also a spur.
Hans died as he had always hoped to, in his sleep. On 10 April 2007 his final wish was granted when his ashes were buried in an unmarked grave in the Nordfriedhof cemetery in Düsseldorf.
May the soil lie lightly upon you, comrade!
Hans Schmitz (Wupperthal, 16 May 1914-Düsseldorf, 22 March 2007)
From: CNT (Madrid) No 336, July 2007. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.