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German teenagers help strip Hitler of honorary citizenship

Ben KnightFebruary 2, 2016

German teenagers have won a prize for digging into the Nazi past of their hometown of Uetersen to prove that Hitler had never been stripped of his honorary citizenship. They say the town authorities tried to dodge them.

Adolf Hitler NSDAP Rede vor Mitgliedern
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Keystone

Eight teenagers have won a German national civil courage award for a school project that showed that Adolf Hitler had never been stripped of the honorary citizenship of their hometown of Uetersen.

The eight teenagers spent over a year on their research project, questioning the town's mayor, who in turn questioned the Bundestag's research service. Both initially referred the children to a Wikipedia article claiming that honorary citizenship expired with Adolf Hitler's death in 1945.

But there was no proof of this, and the town eventually corrected the error at a ceremony in December. The students' tenacity was rewarded with the Bertini prize for Civil Courage in Hamburg in late January. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't exciting," said Arvid Maiwald, one of the students.

The students made an eight-minute film for a sociology and media class in which they interviewed historians and local officials, none of whom could come up with a good reason why the Nazi dictator was still an honorary citizen of the small northern German town of around 18,000 inhabitants.

Deutschland Berlin Bundestag Gedenken Holocaust Norbert Lammert
The president of the German Bundestag responded to the mayor's questionImage: Reuters/F. Bensch

"There was a suspicion that there was a problem with the honorary citizenship in Uetersen, that had been around for a while - that something could be rotten about it," the 16-year-old Maiwald told DW. "We picked that up and unraveled it again."

Forgotten story

The students' video begins by noting that Hitler had been offered the honorary citizenship in November 1934, a year after his rise to power, and had accepted it in writing. It then shows an email exchange with Uetersen Mayor Andrea Hansen, who did not want to be interviewed on camera, in which the students asked for evidence that the citizenship had been withdrawn.

According to the students, the mayor responded by referring them to a Wikipedia article on Hitler's honorary citizenships, which stated that the honorary citizenship had been withdrawn "after the end of World War Two." Though she denied this to the NDR regional broadcaster, she admitted that no documents could be found backing up the claim.

The students then tracked down the author of the Wikipedia article, but he was also unable to produce any evidence. Another city official, Adolf Bergmann, could only say that he had heard that the council had stripped Hitler of the honor in 1946, and that this was recorded in some "handwritten" records, but he did not know where they were. "It was very clear that it was the whole procedure was very uncomfortable for the town of Uetersen," said Maiwald.

In the meantime, in fact, Andrea Hansen took the question to the German parliament's own research service - which only referred the mayor to the un-sourced Wikipedia article, and suggested looking in the non-existent city records.

Let sleeping Nazis lie

In the students' opinion, the authorities were notably reluctant to dig up the issue, and dragged their heels about formally stripping Hitler of the honor. "It was something that they could have done in a matter of minutes," said Maiwald. "They could have done it before."

"It started getting interesting when we began corresponding with the Bundestag's research service," remembered Florian Steig, another of the students. "That was when we started concluding that not everything had been made public and that things were being covered up a bit. And things started being unclear."

"The city of Uetersen definitely didn't want to hear anything about this," Steig told DW. "Until the end they kept denying that Hitler was still an honorary citizen. That was why they contacted the Bundestag, to buy some time and somehow get us off their backs."

Steig also thinks many German towns have a problem with facing up to the Nazi past. "We do think that going over the Nazi past leaves something to be desired, and that people don't really want to hear about it."

Around 4,000 towns and villages in Germany (plus a few in Austria) made Hitler an honorary citizen during his life, and some have been very late in stripping him of it. Dozens of others have never formally stripped Hitler of the honor.