For his Country
The chapel in Brasenose College, Oxford, like any college chapel, is festooned with memorials: principals, senior fellows like Walter Pater, and on the southern wall of the ante-chapel, a handful of former students. The first few are Indian Civil Service, and the very first one attempts to capture life and death in a modern colonial bureaucracy in Latin: the ICS becomes CIVILE MUNUS APUD INDOS. Thereafter they stick to English, no doubt wisely, but one of them is for my money the most remarkable, thought-provoking epitaph in the whole building, possibly in Oxford. It’s a plain sheet of brass, as restrained in its language as its form:
What the viewer realises with a start, of course, is that the country for which Justus Carl von Ruperti fought and died was not this country but Germany. The presence of a memorial to an enemy combatant in an Oxford chapel is arresting enough; the fact that it was first proposed in 1950, as it turns out, is something I find stunning. All in all, even though Richard Davenport-Hines gets the details a bit wrong (Ruperti’s memorial is separate from the main World War II memorial), he’s right that it “is heart-stopping to anyone who sees it.”
What follows are the fruits of some research on Ruperti’s plaque, all driven by my fascination for a memorial to a German soldier erected within a very few years of the War. I’ve found some information in the records of Governing Body meetings in Brasenose, although they record the very minimum, and Justus Carl’s nephew, Lippold von Klencke, has been incredibly generous with information from family documents. Ruperti’s student file, though again extremely spare by today’s standards, had some interesting details. But I’m sure there’s more to know, so please don’t hold back if you can help. For example, I find not a hint of controversy surrounding the decision to commemorate Ruperti, and that surprises me. There are a few memorials to German war dead around Oxford (Oxford had had many German students), but they’re not a subject that’s much talked or written about. At New College there’s a separate memorial for World War I, but none for World War II. At Merton College two names of German dead were added to the World War I memorial in 1994. At Balliol College I know that the inclusion of five German names from World War II, only one of them a combatant, provoked objections from old members when it was proposed in 1947. When Konrad Adenauer, the German Chancellor, toured Oxford in 1951, visiting the memorial in Balliol that carried his nephew’s name, there were protests at Oriel College which forced him to change his itinerary. At Brasenose, there is very little information at all.
Justus Carl von Ruperti, always Juscar to friends and family, was a Prussian aristocrat, his father Max von Ruperti a high administrator, Regierungspräsident of Allenstein, one of the three administrative regions of East Prussia: the regional capital, Allenstein, is now the Polish city of Olsztyn. Within Ruperti senior’s jurisdiction, to the south of the city of Allenstein, stood the Tannenberg Memorial, which commemorated an overwhelming German victory over Russia in 1914 by evocation of the medieval Teutonic Knights, folkloric champions of Christianity and defenders of the eastern frontiers of Germany. Tannenberg was a potent expression of German national identity.
I mention the Memorial because it gives a sense of the times, and because in 1932 it was the catalyst for conflict between Max von Ruperti and the NSDAP, the Nazi Party. Hitler, characteristically, saw Tannenberg as an opportunity to promote his own political agenda, but Ruperti refused to allow a Nazi rally to be held at the site, on the grounds that it contravened the essentially non-partisan nature of the Memorial. When Hitler came to power after the elections in March 1933, Ruperti was summarily sacked as a consequence.
What I’ve been trying to do in the last few weeks is understand the motivations of Juscar von Ruperti, who after all died fighting in Hitler’s war, and understand the thinking of the Brasenose fellows who decided to commemorate him. One thing that helped me understand was one of the first things I discovered, which was that the moving force behind Juscar’s memorial was Barry Nicholas, a Law Fellow and later the Principal of Brasenose, who had himself served in World War II. I knew Nicholas myself very much in passing, but found myself studying his life in some detail a few years back when I had the nerve-wracking job of composing a Latin memorial for him after he died in 2002. It now hangs on the wall just a few feet from Juscar’s. What I discovered about Nicholas is what Harry Judge describes in this obituary: he was a remarkable man, principled, humane and profoundly wise, someone I would trust implicitly to be right about something like this.
But back to Tannenberg. The memorial is now totally obliterated. This blog tells the story of the aftermath of its abandonment in the face of the Soviet advance in 1945. But while it existed it was an unapologetically nationalistic monument, and when we, in 2015, look at images of its severe, völkisch architecture, we struggle to dissociate what we see from expressions of Nazi ideology. But the Memorial was conceived and built well before the Nazis took power, even though later appropriated and redesigned by them, and Max von Ruperti combined patriotism with courageous and principled opposition to the NSDAP.
In 1931 the Canadian Kathleen Coburn stayed with the von Ruperti family in Allenstein. She found them open-minded, opposed to militarism, and motivated by a strong social conscience. Coburn accompanied Frau von Ruperti, Juscar’s mother, to see the welfare initiatives that she patronised in Allenstein, impressive efforts to counter the impact of the Depression. What is striking, though, is that this social work took place in an overtly patriotic framework. An institute visited by Coburn provided education for “girls from lower-class farm families”. They were trained in practical skills such as handicrafts, but also introduced to folk music and culture, and central to the whole exercise was discussion of German politics and the cultivation of a “national” culture. There was no belittling of non-German cultures, Coburn noted, but there was a notion of social development which saw it as an essential part of the creation of a better and stronger Germany. East Prussia, at the eastern edge of German territory, was a place where German identity was especially vulnerable. But the combination of patriotism and high principle is a thread that runs through other accounts of the period: for example, the portrait of Adam von Trott, executed in 1944 for his role in the Bomb Plot against Hitler (his name is on the memorial at Balliol), in the biography by Giles MacDonogh. This is not to say that Hitler wasn’t also motivated by nationalism, of course, just that German nationalism and National Socialism were not, despite Hitler’s best efforts, straightforwardly interchangeable. At any rate, what Coburn witnessed happening under the aegis of the Vaterländische Frauenverein, the Patriotic Women’s Association, suggests the environment in which Juscar spent his childhood. (I found the account of Coburn’s visit in C. Morgan, ‘A Happy Holiday’: English Canadians and Transatlantic Tourism, 1870-1930 (Toronto), 356-8.)
Juscar was born in 1914, and at the time of his father’s enforced retirement in 1933 was 18 years old, a student in Law with History and Economics at Munich University, having done a first term at Königsberg (it was standard practice to move between universities within one degree). In the same year he won the Rhodes Scholarship that brought him to Brasenose College, where he stayed for two years (earning himself a diploma in Economics and Political Science) from October 1933 to June 1935 before returning to Germany with the intention of finishing his law degree at Göttingen, where his parents now lived.
In actual fact he was obliged to serve with the army for the two years after his return to Germany, and only resumed his degree in October 1937. He remained a student until 1941, when he submitted a research dissertation. At Brasenose he was highly regarded, bright, engaged and (important for a Rhodes Scholar) a team player, rowing in the Brasenose 1st VIII. He and his contemporary Fritz Caspari, a determined opponent of the Nazi regime who left Germany in 1939, set up a scheme for non-German Rhodes Scholars to visit Germany. It was normal for German Rhodes Scholars to spend two rather than the standard three years at Oxford, but Ruperti left open the possibility of returning at a later stage for a third year. In the event, by the time he finished his law degree in Germany, war had broken out between the two countries, something the Rhodes Scholarship had been expressly designed to prevent.
In letters back to the Principal of Brasenose, William Stallybrass, excerpts of which were published in the college magazine at the time, Juscar describes military life, and offers his perspective on developments later in the 1930s. In 1936 he reads The Times of London while acting as an instructor of new recruits; in 1937, in a snowstorm in Lüneburg, he reminisces about rowing at Oxford; in 1938 he admits to a grudging fondness for military life, adding that the army “is one of the few institutions in this country, which are not so intensely affected by politics as most things are.” In June 1939 Stallybrass ends the “Principal’s Scrapbook” with a message from Juscar on “how genuine a wish for peace there was in Germany” (“This is a good note on which to end,” wrote the Principal). In 1941, under the heading “OUR GERMANS” he records that “J.C. von Ruperti (1933) has sent a message via America that he is well and at Göttingen writing a thesis.” At the time of his application for a Rhodes scholarship he was said to be aiming to join the Diplomatic Service. But he was soon back in the army, and in August 1943 was killed in Russia, in the aftermath of the decisive Battle of Kursk.
Photos of Juscar from his 1933 application to Brasenose
Back in 1938 Juscar had written to Stallybrass about the Anschluss of March 1938. It is the most challenging thing I’ve read related to Juscar, but it tells me again how well Hitler played the nationalistic consensus within Germany in the 1930s:
“As regards politics, I feel like sitting in a big bus, with perhaps a map, to ascertain from time to time where I am, but with not the least chance of influencing the course which the driver takes. I can’t say that I disagree with the driver’s choice of places where to get, and sometimes he even seems to take the right approach… Our bus, by the way, has been going at 100 m.p.h. again for some days in March; and again, as so often before, all the passengers were genuinely delighted to get where she took them. There was indeed general approval of the Anschluss and admiration for its speedy perfection, also among some parts of the intelligentsia as stand somewhat apart on many other occasions; since they, more perhaps than others, have a feeling for the historic importance of the development. Moreover, in this union of the Greater Reich a number of imponderables come into play, which is hard to explain, although their effects cannot be denied.
Please remember me to everyone in College. Oxford, I am sure, is as peaceful and pleasant as ever. May it continue like that for ever.”
Adam von Trott responded similarly to the Anschluss. MacDonogh comments that “it took a while before Trott was able to appreciate fully what had happened on 11 March, and to differentiate between a legitimate alteration of what he believed to be an unjust treaty [i.e. Versailles], and a step towards world domination on the part of a criminal adventurer” (p.114).
In the Brasenose archives, thanks to Georgie Edwards our archivist, I got to read the Vice-Principal’s Register (the minutes of the College Governing Body) and trace the process of approving and realising the plaque for Ruperti. When the process started, basic information was lacking. An initial proposal was made in June 1950, and approved by the college “if Mr Nicholas could find out whether [J.C. von Ruperti] was in fact killed during the war.” There is then silence for three years, by which time Juscar’s death, and date of death, had evidently been properly established. In September 1953 an approach was made to the renowned engraver Leslie Durbin, best known for a ceremonial sword presented to Stalin in 1943, but Durbin proved too expensive. The plaque, engraved in the event by Messrs William Pickford for £20, was finally affixed in 1954. On July 29, 1955 the Principal (by now Hugh Last) shared a message with the Governing Body from the Chairman of the Association of German Rhodes Scholars: “At their Annual Meeting held last month in Francfort, the association of German Rhodes Scholars, on being informed that a memorial to Justus v. Ruperti had been put up in the chapel of B.N.C., passed a vote of thanks for this chivalrous and noble act.” The German Rhodes scholarships were in fact suspended until 1969, as they had been after World War I until 1929. One of the first scholars after the suspension was lifted in 1969 was Juscar’s nephew, Lippold von Klencke.
There is a great deal that this record doesn’t say, especially about Barry Nicholas’ motivations for proposing this memorial, and the reactions of other members of the Governing Body. Perhaps there were none, but if so, why not? I can only assume that even in 1950 Nicholas had clear evidence that Ruperti was no Nazi sympathiser, and was, on the contrary, a man of liberal political opinions. Nicholas had also been a Brasenose student in the 1930s, and although he didn’t coincide with Ruperti, they must have had acquaintances in common. For me my confidence on this point came from a document that Juscar’s nephew Mr von Klencke was kind enough to show me, an entry from Juscar’s diary dated August 9, 1943, just a few days before his death.
It is a remarkable, and poignant, insight into his thinking. He describes the desperate situation he and his men found themselves in after the Soviet victory at Kursk, in headlong retreat, on the front line, and without air support. They were doomed, and knew it. In these circumstances Ruperti candidly shares with his diary his thoughts on Germany’s future, and then describes a friendly dispute about politics between himself and a fellow Oberleutnant from Hamburg, Grießbauer, the man who would communicate news of Juscar’s death to his family, and die himself soon after. There is patriotism in their conversation: they are both intensely concerned about what will happen to Germany. There is not a hint of Nazi ideology. Juscar writes of Germany’s need to find its way back from pride and arrogance to an awareness of human limitations, to value over and above the national interest the worth of humanity in general. “Germany must be strong and remain so, but internally just and just in its relations with neighbours and other countries, not guided by dogma but by concern for decency, human dignity, and mutual assistance.” “The value and freedom of the individual, though bound by Law and Justice, Morality and finally God, must be reestablished.”
I return again to that laconic phrase on the memorial, “Fighting for his country,” a simple (but heart-stopping) assertion of Juscar’s lack of ideology, his common humanity with the enemy that was commemorating him. In the first paragraph of the diary entry that patriotism, which I think is key to the story of Justus Carl von Ruperti (and which I think Barry Nicholas also thought was key), finds a different expression, as Ruperti talks about his responsibilities to his men (he was the commander of a “Schwadron” or company), and his attempts to give them the Germany they were very unlikely ever to see again:
“What depresses me most these days is that you cannot explain yourself to the men, cannot say to them how you really think… I ought to be totally frank with them even in these circumstances, but it can’t be done. It is too dangerous… All that’s left, then, is to try to understand them in human terms, to make this time easier for them, and to let them find a home (Heimat) in the comradeship of discipline and rules.”
In the words of Principal Stallybrass, this is a good note on which to end.