Why Was Hans Grohmann an Enigma?

Photo of Conrad Veidt, ca 1930, attributed to Hans Grohmann.

Ever since I began this blog, back in 2013, one of the many mysteries plaguing me has been the real story behind Hans Grohmann. As a victim of history, during his short life, he seems to have played a pivotal role in one, if not two lives that I know of. Yet, even, with new information that’s recently turned up, he still remains an enigma. That’s because of the mystery that continues to surround his untimely death, and how that may have affected the lives of at least two of his close friends.

So, please follow me as we explore how all of this may have happened – and how those possibilities may have been connected in some way to why Grohmann died.

So far I’ve learned that Hans Grohmann was born in 1898, possibly in Mülheim or nearby Duisberg, Germany. He was the son of a Protestant Minister. In 1924 and ’25 he studied art at the Folkwang School of Design in Essen. Later he shared a studio in Duisberg with a friend and fellow artist, but lived with his mother, Margaret in same city.

His art involved him with the Expressionists group known as the “Young Rhinelander’s”, whose works were often part of the regular display at Johanna Ey’s gallery in Dusseldorf. Fondly known as “Mother Ey”, according to one art historian, Johanna Ey’s portrait was painted more often than that of any other woman in Germany. Grohmann was one of those contributors. But it certainly wasn’t her beauty that led to her popularity as an artist’s model.[1]

Mother Ey as sketched by Hans Grohmann.

Most of them were also anti Nazi and members of the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists, using their art to fend off the spread of Nazism.

But with Hitler’s successful rise to power in 1933, nearly all the artists associated with Frau Ey were denounced as degenerate.

In addition to Grohmann’s art, it’s been rumored that he was also working as a journalist and an international correspondent. But whether he was or not, he travelled a great deal throughout Europe, and was part of the Gay community.

But let’s backup. I only learned about him in 2002, when I found an old friend of my parents, who after a 60 year absence, turned up in a retirement community, about 60 miles from my home near Los Angeles.

The old friend was a woman by the name of Marlies Natzler. I found her living in Laguna Niguel, just south of us, in Orange County. She and her parents had been dear friends of my parents going back to 1933 when they all immigrated to America, shortly after Hitler became Chancellor.

Marlies’s father, Dr. Adolph Natzler, had been a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon in Germany, until the Nazi’s drove him out. Our two families remained very close, even after he passed away in 1940. A close relationship that lasted until 1944, after my mother suffered an emotional breakdown.[2]

Dr. Adolph Natzler ca 1913.

But what does this have to do with Hans Grohmann, you ask? Well…after my chance discovery of Marlies, I made the trek down to her Orange County home where I interviewed her. Realizing that the last time I’d seen her, I was only ten years old, I knew she’d have some very important things to tell me about both her family’s history and mine. Plus her reaction the details surrounding my mother’s breakdown. So, I recorded her on videotape.

During that interview the name, Hans Grohmann, came up for the first time. That’s when I learned of the impact he had on the Natzler family. And quite possibly on more people, including a world famous German movie star.

But as Marlies recounted his story, I realized I was finding out more about his legacies than about Hans himself.

Nevertheless, those legacies were significant for the Natzlers. As an extremely accomplished artist, he had chosen to give the family a number of very expensive Japanese prints, which I assume he brought back from the Orient some time in the distant past.

Those prints also had a significant impact on me as a small child, because I remember them well from our many visits to the Natzler household. They were mainly of Japanese Samurai warriors, which used to scare the bejesus out of me at my tender age.

Samurai Warrior

But even more significant for me was to find them here, on display in Marlies’s little house in Laguna Niguel, sixty years later.

What I had not remembered from way back then however, were Grohmann’s other legacies. They were represented by four large framed sketches that he had done of the Natzler family: one each of Adolph and Hedwig, plus one of Marlies as a young girl, and one simply a whimsical look at her collection of dolls and stuffed animals. I currently have three of them in my possession:

Adolph, Marlies and her dolls and stuffed animals.

During those early years, when our families were still close, I learned that they had been friends with the German actor, Conrad Veidt, through his close ties to Grohmann. And he too had emigrated from Germany in 1933. Only he went to England.

Then, to cap off our conversation about Grohmann and Veidt, Marlies gave me a photo of the two together, while Hans was sketching his friend, Conrad. Taken circa 1930, it’s the only photo I’ve ever seen of Grohmann.

Conrad Veidt having his portrait done by his friend, Hans Grohmann.

But then Marlies dropped a bombshell!

On May 26, 1933, a night when Hans had just returned home from a trip to France, he was picked up by Nazi SS guards, and taken to the nearby woods, and 
summarily executed. But not satisfied with their act of savagery, the SS guards then called Hans’s mother, Margaret, and told her to come and get the corpse

Poor Margaret, in her distraught condition, could do the only thing she could think of, and called her friends, the Natzlers, who lived nearby in Mühlheim. She asked Dr. N. to please come and get the body of her beloved son out of the woods.

Not that it made any difference, but the official cause of death was “Suicide”!

This for the Natzlers remained the most appalling legacy of all that Grohmann left the family. But there was more…

Possibly due to Dr. Natzler’s friendship with Hans, a short time later he was notified by some colleagues that the Gestapo wanted him. But for what, we don’t know. However, it seemed serious enough that the Catholic Nuns at his hospital in Mühlheim, where he was head of Orthopedics, hid him and his family long enough to allow him finish his commitments before fleeing the country with his wife and daughter.

Natzlers emigrating to the U.S. l-r Adolph, friend, Marlies and Hedwig

Was there a connection? Or was he wanted for other reasons? Hard to believe there could be other causes, because he had brought worldwide fame to Germany and German medicine as a result of his breakthrough discoveries in the use of orthopedic techniques treating broken bones and amputated limbs.

These were techniques that he developed as a German Army medical officer during WWI, where he had spent years treating the severe physical damage sustained by thousands of German soldiers in the front lines, during the many horrific battles of the War.

Dr. Natzler’s new walking cast technique.

But what had Hans done, or written about, or whom had he possibly consorted with, that would motivate the Gestapo to interrogate and/or arrest Dr. Natzler? While the complete truth will never be known, there are some possible reasons for his murder.

As an artist, and possible journalist, Hans was critical of the Nazis, plus he was gay, which under Hitler, was already against the law. But I find that explanation rather limited, because we really don’t know of anything that he could have done wrong in the few months since Hitler’s rise to power. At least not enough to murder him. Plus so many of his contemporaries and fellow artists, had the same or greater antipathy toward Hitler and his Nazi thugs…and many were Jews. Yet most had been immune during those early months.

Having only been in power since January 1933, the Nazi’s were just beginning to torment the Jews and political dissidents. But Hans wasn’t even Jewish. And as a political dissident, while he certainly ran the risk of being arrested and put in a concentration camp for awhile, he shouldn’t have been murdered.

But maybe the real answer had to do with his friend, Conrad Veidt.

As a very popular German film star, Veidt was very much on the world’s stage, and anything he did had tremendous impact on world opinion. And like Hans, Conrad was also critical of the Nazi’s. He had, in fact, taken on a couple of movie roles in which he played sympathetic Jews.[3] And that absolutely infuriated Hitler to the point that he was put on their death list….for awhile.

But then wiser minds prevailed when they realized that killing Veidt would only bring world wide scorn and derision to the Third Reich. So, he was removed from the list, and allowed to leave his homeland and emigrate to England safely. But not without a lot of red tape to overcome before he could make it happen.

“Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” – Cesare. Best known in U.S. for “Thief of Bagdad” – Jaffar,
“Casablanca” – Col. Strasser

Ironically, his final act of defiance before leaving for good, was to list his religion as Jewish on his emigration forms. Although he was definitely not.

While this can never be proven, I can’t help coming back to what appears to be the one legitimate reason for the Nazis to murder Conrad’s friend, Hans Grohmann. It was in retribution for his defiance against them and the one way they could show him that they were still very much in control and not to be trifled with.

The motivation is certainly there and the dates fit. Veidt left Germany for good in April, 1933 and Grohmann was executed one month later in May.

And so far no other evidence has appeared that might change my hypothesis.

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[1] Ironically I found German Art Gallerys on EBay that were selling Gromann’s work, some of which are now on Flikr: Junges Rheijnland

[2] Life with an Insane Parent-Prt.2

[3] “Joseph Süss”, formerly “Jew Süss”, and “The Wandering Jew”

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Pete Vanlaw - Thanks for both your reply and your amazing “in-depth” knowledge about Veidt and his life style. You’ve really helped to fill in so many details and suspicions that I had developed from J.C. Allen’s limited bio – which was really a puff piece – and the scant bits and pieces I found on the internet. You’ve also lent more credibility to my hypothesis that the Nazi’s used Grohmann’s execution as not only retribution for Veid’t anti Nazi activities but a threat to force him to do what they wanted.

Snowgrouse - Big Conrad Veidt fan dropping in here–it’d seem to me like this was done to intimidate Connie, absolutely. Have you heard of his detainment by the Nazis in 1934 when he returned to Germany to fulfill a film contract he’d made a decade or so earlier (to star in a talkie version of a film on Wilhelm Tell, in which he’d played Gessler)? There are scans of the relevant chapter in the very poor bio on him by Jerry C. allen here:

http://aikainkauna.tumblr.com/post/40205417891/details-on-conrad-veidts-imprisonment-and

They released him eventually (a great deal of this having been due to his wife, Lily, pressuring the studio bosses in England to do something). He was most certainly put back on the Gestapo’s hit list by the late Thirties, and was among the people listed to be detained if the Nazis ever invaded Britain. This was after Goebbels himself had been making sugary phone-calls to him trying to lure him back to Germany to make propaganda films for them, which he–of course–refused. They even offered to give Lily an honourary Aryan status, but he didn’t believe them for a moment.

Reading your posts, my theory–and I don’t want to be sordid here–is that the Nazis might have had reason to believe Grohmann was Veidt’s lover, even though, of course, killing a good friend of his would have hurt him whether that bond was Platonic or not. In the early Thirties, Veidt was having a rough time in both his career and his private life. The talkies had necessitated his return to Germany from Hollywood in 1929 (as his English wasn’t up to starring in English-language talkies yet), the Nazis were making life miserable for liberal people and artists, and on top of that, he was going through a second divorce. He was given the custody of his daughter, Viola, by the judge but gave it up because he sincerely believed his being away at the studios for long days would harm her, and thus he left her to be brought up by her mother. Viola didn’t like her mother at all and the bond between father and daughter was–in their words–telepathic, even, so he was absolutely heartbroken at having to give her up; even when he lived in England he would write to her and/or call her every single day (by the mid-Thirties, he’d spirited Viola and his ex-wife to Switzerland, where they could live in relative safety and where Viola could go to school).

From whatever patchy evidence we have of that era, it looks like Veidt threw himself into partying and drugs pretty heavily during that time, until he met Lily in 1933. She got him back on his feet and he sobered up considerably after that, and even more so after his detainment and escape. (You can even see it in some of his films–during the filming of F.P.1, and going by anecdotes, he seems to have been off his rocker on stimulants, but after 1934 his whole style of acting changes from relative flailing to a markedly slowed-down subtlety.) But between 1929 and 1933, he lived a very fast and wild life. Of course, since during this time homosexual activities were numbered among sinful diversions, his diversions included him having affairs with men as well as women. He was pretty much as openly bisexual as a man could be in Germany at the time, and took part in the gay culture of Berlin. He was spotted at gay bars, at times in drag, and was a special guest of honour at one of Dr. Hirschfeld’s all-male balls at his Institute for Sexual Knowledge. (He’d appeared with Dr. Hirschfeld in the gay rights movie, Different From the Others, in 1919, playing the first explicitly gay character in cinema, and signed gay rights manifests–I’ve heard something about him having contributed a celeb perspective kind of thing to a gay magazine once or twice, but haven’t been able to track anything down yet.) So even if he wasn’t “out” in the modern sense of us having a statement from him saying “I’m bisexual,” it certainly was an open secret and the Nazis would’ve known about it.

Now, I don’t mean to number Grohmann among Veidt’s random pick-ups, as it seems they’d known each other for years, but this is all to show that Veidt did have plenty of room in his life for lovers at the time, including men. So whether they were lovers or not, it makes sense to assume the Nazis would’ve put two and two together and decided to kill Grohmann as a warning–to get Veidt where it really hurt, and also to bully him out of his staunch defending of LGBT rights. That’d make a great deal of sense to me.

Apologies for this having got long; I just wanted to explain it thoroughly to avoid sounding too obviously scandal-mongering.

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