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