Fritz Theilen: Member of the Edelweiss Pirates, the children who resisted Hitler

 

Fritz Theilen was a working class lad, who as a leading member of the anti-Nazi Edelweiss Pirates narrowly escaped public execution. He was born in the Ehrenfeld district of Cologne, an industrial, working-class area, in 1927. Like most other school boys he was enrolled in the Hitler Youth. He was expelled in 1940 for insubordination but on leaving school at 14 he was taken on as an apprentice toolmaker by Ford motors, which had opened in Cologne in 1931. There he saw the exploitation of slave labourers.

He increasingly sought contact with other youngsters who rejected the regimentation and militarisation of youth. Disillusionment was spreading in the city, which was bombed 55 times. From disparate groups the Edelweiss Pirates emerged, Theilen joining in 1942. There were such groups in various parts of Germany so called because of their Edelweiss badge, often hidden behind their coat lapels. In many cases they came together before the outbreak of the war and went camping together at weekends. Nazi repression increased their political orientation.

Theilen was arrested in 1943 and taken to the Gestapo headquarters in the centre of Cologne, where he was brutally tortured. Released after a few weeks, he did not give up but instead became more active. Among the many activities of his group of 128 Germans and foreigners (according to the Gestapo) were painting anti-regime slogans on walls and rail wagons, listening to the BBC and attempting to disseminate the news, helping escaped prisoners of war, slave labourers and Jews, ambushing Hitler Youth patrols and beating them up, even attacking local Nazi officials. Any of these could have resulted in a death sentence.

By this time Theilen was living with others in the ruins of the city, stealing and looting to survive. He was re-arrested in a Gestapo raid in 1944and moved from one place of confinement to another, ending up in a sub-camp of the notorious Dachau. He escaped, however, and spent the last months of the war in hiding. Some other members of the group were not as lucky; 13 of them, some as young as 16, were publicly hanged in Cologne on 10 November 1944.

Theilen returned to a devastated Cologne in August 1945. He was ready to work again for Ford, whose factory, in spite of the heavy bombing of Cologne, had got off relatively lightly. Production restarted in May 1945 with truck manufacture. However, Theilen found that in some quarters he was regarded as a criminal and a traitor and was apparently only re-employed, in 1946, with the help of the British occupation authorities.

He recalled that he found all the old Nazis still there; in this setting he felt ill at ease and he left, returning in 1960. He joined the Social Democratic Party. Once retired, he joined two other survivors in going to schools to talk to the pupils about his experiences, and published his memoirs in 1984.

Controversy surrounded his claims, and those of his companions, to have been Widerstandskämpfer [resistance fighters] rather than just disaffected youngsters and criminals. Theilen fought several legal battles and won them all. "I never thought I would have to justify myself," he said. The group inspired pieces of music, a stage and radio play and a film. In 2005, at a public ceremony, the survivors were recognised and Niko von Glasow-Brücher's film Edelweißpiraten reached the cinemas. The bravery of Theilen and the four other survivors was finally rewarded, in April 2011, when Cologne's governing mayor, Jürgen Roters, presented them with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the last years of his life, Fritz Theilen lived in the village of Frauwüllesheim, where he died suddenly of a stroke.

David Childs

Fritz Theilen, tool maker and anti-Nazi activist: born Cologne 27 September 1927; died Frauwüllesheim 18 April 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
News
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
news
Life and Style
love + sex
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United 1 player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th-century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Support Analyst

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a career in custome...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - Managed Services Provider

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Eng...

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot