Saturday, April 5, 2014

Robert Wagner

Vonau's book describing Wagner's role in Alsace

Last Monday Red Baron listened to a presentation by le professeur Jean-Laurent Vonau, historian de Strasbourg, about Robert Wagner. My American friends will immediately think of the husband of Natalie Wood, but here I refer to the so-called bourreau d'Alsace (executioner of the Alsace) of the same name. His original name was Robert Backfisch, as the lecturer informed the big audience. 

Literarily translated, Backfisch means fried fish but is an archaic German label for a teenage girl. The origin of the word is not clear. Some attribute it to the Mediaeval Latin word baccalaureus for an unfinished student; others think it has to do with fishing and the English word back, i.e., the throwing back of fish into the water being too small to be kept. Whatever the final explanation may be: Backfisch is not a name for a man who wants to make his way in life, mainly when he is an unconditional Nazi follower and admirer of Adolf Hitler. Eagerly, at the age of twenty-six, Robert opted for his mother's name Wagner.

There he was in good company with his master Adolf. Hitler's father Alois had been an "illegitimate" child born to Maria Anna Schicklgruber. Later, Maria Anne married Johann Georg Hiedler, who was not Alois' father. Nevertheless, Maria Anna's husband adopted young Alois at the age of five, but when registering the boy, the government official transformed the name Hiedler into Hitler. So in 1889, Alois' son was born as Adolf Hitler and not as Adolf Schicklgruber. Some historians claim that a guy named Adolf Schicklgruber would have never made it to become der Führer.

Back to Robert Wagner. During the First World War, he bravely fought at the Western front and was highly decorated. Like many young soldiers, he was depressed by the war's outcome, particularly by the Treaty of Versailles, making Germany the one and only war culprit. He joined Hitler early, and on November 9, 1923, he took part in the infamous Beer Hall Putsch and convinced his colleagues at the Munich officer training school to join him. He, therefore, was condemned for high treason and imprisoned at the Landsberg fortress together with his master. When the Nazi Party was again permitted in February 1925, Wagner under his adored Führer's spell rapidly climbed the party hierarchy being a Kämpfer der ersten Stunde (Combatant of the first hour).

Comrades awaiting their sentences in front of the Munich Justizpalast (courthouse).
The man on the right is Robert Wagner (©Bundesarchiv)
For the following, I shall limit Wagner's biography to a few facts - you may dislike reading in Wikipedia. In May 1933, he was Gauleiter in Baden and became Reichsstatthalter, i.e., the deputy of der Führer in southwest Germany. Following France's defeat in 1940 and Alsace's incorporation into the Reich, Wagner increased his power. He now resided on both sides of the Rhine River, either in Karlsruhe or in Strasbourg.

Gauleiter Wagner's task was to Germanize and to nazificate the annexed Alsace. To this end, he recruited many of his Kreisleiters (district leaders) among Alsatian autonomists. These so-called nanciens (people from Nancy) had fought against French rule and been prosecuted by the former government. At the beginning of the war, the French government, afraid of a fifth column, had evacuated "unsure" people from Alsace into southern France, sometimes under inhuman conditions. The Statthalter had most of them repatriated, receiving them with open arms.  In some sort of exchange, Wagner now deported "incorrigible" French persons into the part of France under the Vichy government. Between July and September 1940 more than 23,000 disliked French people and Jews were forced to leave Alsace for Vichy-France, a zone unoccupied by the German Wehrmacht.

Once in full swing, Wagner became active in Baden in the fall of the same year. On October 21 through 23, all Jews, a total of 6504, from Baden and Palatinate were herded up and jammed into nine trains that took three days and four nights to reach Gurs, a former detention camp in Vichy-France. Located at the foot of the Pyrenean Mountains, the Camp de Gurs had served to intern Spanish refugees who had escaped into France during the Spanish civil war. Proudly Wagner reported to his Führer: Baden ist als erster Gau judenfrei (Baden is the first district free of Jews). In August 1942, the Jews who had survived the detention in Gurs - about 4300 - were transported to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Freiburg's memorial for the deported Jews in the form of a German traffic sign
at the Square of the Old Synagogue near the university campus.
Professor Vonau only briefly mentioned this crime against humanity. For him, Wagner's ultimate crime was introducing the general compulsory military service in Alsace, recruiting young men into the German army, and even into the Waffen-SS: French people were forced to shoot at their compatriots. Deserters were court-martialled and shot. Today's views on Wagner and his crimes are pretty different on the two banks of the Rhine River.

In Wikipedia, we read: At the end of the war, Wagner was arrested by the French, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by the Permanent Military Tribunal in Strasbourg in 1946. The sentence was carried out by firing squad on August 14, 1946.


  1. "Some historians claim that a guy with the name of Adolf Schicklgruber would have never made it to become der Führer." -- I wonder if these guys were surprised that a man named Arnold Schwarzenegger could make it to the governorship of California.

    1. Interesting, Jim. But doesn't Schwarzenegger sound rather Germanic? A man harrowing the black soil of the "Sturmstaffel". I don't know about California but in Germany a man with such a name would have made it. Those Austrians, always good for a surprise.