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.

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