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The riddle of the “Devil”

In Persons, SS organisation on April 26, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Persons SS organisation

July 1st, 1934. An elusive fellow has received instructions to meet with a contact person on Bülowstrasse. Most probably he has no real suspicions, although it cannot have escaped him that something alarming is going on. Perhaps he assumes that this assignment has something to do with that. The next day his dead body is found from Grunewald forest, some 10 kilometers from the centre of Berlin – a favourite recreation spot for Berliners and the largest green area in the German capital.

Who was this unfortunate fellow named Othmar Toifl – his surname phonetically translates to “Teufel”, “Devil” – and what was the motive behind his killing? Not much is known of his private life, let alone childhood and youth – the main source being his short autobiography, Lebenslauf, being part of his NSDAP and SS personnel files.

Toifl was born as Othmar Berthold (alternatively Berchtold) in 1898 in a tiny Lower Austrian town of Herzogenburg. He went to school until the age of 17 when he began working as an apprentice to a Viennese baker. In 1917 he was drafted to the Austrian army but due to abdominal problems, Toifl managed to avoid front postings. After the war, he moved to Germany and somehow found a job as an informer to the police and military authorities of the new republic. In 1920, he married a young Berlin woman, Ida Helene Ranke. They had two children, a girl was born the same year and a boy only a year later.

The year 1930 was tumultous for the national socialists in Berlin. The leader of the Berlin SA, Walter Stennes, led his men to a short-lived mutiny against Hitler and the Munich-based headquarters of the NSDAP. The eastern SA had accumulated bitterness and frustration towards Hitler who had preferred – at least nominally – more law-abiding line which was interpreted diminishing the importance of functionally independent SA. Although the situation was grave, Hitler managed to persuade Stennes and his men to lay down their revolt and the matter was settled for a while. Othmar Toifl, who had joined Berlin branch of the NSDAP in September of the same year and received the membership number 312 782, leaned with Stennes to some extent. Albeit he later revised his standing, the stigma stayed and in July 1934, his index card in the Berlin warrants register included the pencil-written remark “Stennesanhänger!” which was probably added after his killing.

In Spring 1931, the SS coined its renowned motto, “Meine Ehre heisst Treue“. It was result of another crisis, known as the second Stennes revolt. On Wednesday, first of April, a group of SA men again led by Stennes violently occupied the NSDAP Berlin headquarters on Hedemannstrasse. Now it was more about Röhm, whom Hitler had appointed the Chief of Staff for the entire SA but also the lack of interest the party leadership allegedly had for resourcing the SA adequately. The enraged Gauleiter Joseph Goebbels was compelled to call the much-loathed Berlin “Schupo”, the Blue Police of the Republic, for assistance. This time Hitler could not forgive Stennes anymore. He was swiftly dismissed from the party and the SA, forced to exile Germany by Fall 1933 and ended up as the head of the bodyguards for Chiang Kai-shek in China! Although the SA mutineers were finally overpowered by the police, the SS had carried out their specific duty: they had remained loyal to their Führer and tried to resist the coup. In a letter of gratitude, sent by Hitler to the head of the Berlin SS, Kurt Daluege, the phrase later reproduced in the SS belt buckles was expressed for the first time.

By now the role played by Toifl was now completely different. As an SS member of the private “intelligence bureau” of Gruppenführer Daluege since October 1931, he had also appeared as a witness in the murder trial of a Hitlerjugend member Herbert Norkus – whose untimely death would later become another martyr myth of the Kampfzeit. Toifl was apparently efficient and devoted in his duty, becoming one of the closest associates of Daluege. His name was beginning to distinguish and his loyalty and standing as a special trustee was to be rewarded later. Simultaneously tragedy struck Toifl family in 1932, when their 10-year old son drowned in Mecklenburg where they resided for most of the time. According to Heinz Höhne, Toifl was possibly involved in raids on cattle dealers in Mecklenburg due to which a search warrant was issued. Höhne doesn’t explain the matter further – nevertheless it appears that it didn’t block Toifl’s later short-lived police career. Perhaps during 1933 Daluege made sure that any undergoing investigations were turned down.

The Prussian political police, Geheimes Staatspolizei[amt] was a new institution without direct predecessors and one of the first institutional creations of the new overlord of Prussia, Prime Minister Hermann Göring. Headed by Rudolf Diels – an opportunistic remnant of Prussian civil service – it was stationed in the former art school on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. In April 1933, Diels had received a letter of commendation from Daluege, who had been appointed de-facto chief of Prussian police in the Ministry of Interior. Daluege was asking for a posting to his associate whose financial situation was poor and Diels finally reluctantly accepted in May. Othmar Toifl now entered the ranks of Prussian Gestapo, first as a Kriminal-Angestellte, a low-level position indicating temporary employment. Possibly he was regarded part of the auxiliary police, a 50 000 strong and duly authorized force set up by Göring to supplement the regular police during the turbulent months in anticipation of a communist uprising. Since the author of this essay had not been able to review Toifl’s SSO file at Bundesarchiv, his exact employment details are difficult to trace. It is nonetheless well known that sometime in June he was made the actual commandant of the Columbia-Haus police prison.

Today the only visible reminder of Columbia-Haus is a memorial stone at the corner of Gollsener Strasse and Columbiadamm, right at the eastern end of Tempelhof airport grounds. The prison, being part of a large barracks complex, was built in 1896 as a military gaol for the Imperial German army. By late Spring 1933, the holding facilities at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse had become cramped due to increasing amount of political detainees. At the same time police authorities had observed that opponents of the new regime received too “mild” treatment in regular prisons of Greater Berlin which were still under the traditional Prussian code. To counteract these factors, it was decided to find use for the former military prison which was conveniently located only couple of kilometers away.

Whereas the head of the Berlin SS (SS-Abschnitt III, part of the SS-Gruppe Ost), Oberführer Max Henze, was nominally responsible, it was Toifl who actually ran the new Gestapo prison, titled simply “Columbia-Haus”. First killings of prisoners most probably took place during Fall 1933, followed by more cases on the next Spring. Although on paper under Gestapo jurisdiction, Columbia-Haus had become an independent domain of the Berlin SS, an extra-legal prison where brutal maltreatment of inmates was more a routine than an exception. But tides were now turning for men like Toifl, whose adopted surname Rudolf Diels once underlined as “descriptive of his character”. According to Diels, “…wie zum Symbol war ein Mann namens Toifl der Leiter. Er hatte sich durch nichts anderes als durch Eifer und Sadismus seine dominierende Stellung verschafft”. This personality description should however be taken with some reservation. When his memoirs were published in 1950, the first chief of Gestapo was doing his best to distinguish himself from the likes of Toifl. It was very same Rudolf Diels who had the final word in giving Toifl command over Columbia-Haus and who due to his position must have been aware, at least to a certain degree of events taking place there. As a representative of the bygone regime and not a national socialist, Diels had to play his cards carefully. This included making select concessions and aligning oneself with the various power factors – perhaps this explains his acceptance of an honourary SS membership in Fall 1933. In spite of all, by March 1934 Diels had lost the game. He had to hand over his Gestapo to Himmler and Heydrich, being posted to Cologne as an administrative president. His name was later struck off from the death list by Göring, who still seemed to have momentary loyalty left for his one-time protégé.

The events of the Blood Purge and political developments leading to it had been widely described. It is however still ambiguous, why and how SS-Truppführer and Kriminalkommissar-Anwärter Othmar Toifl, aged 35 years, ended up on the execution list. There are two main theories to follow. The first includes a prerequisite that the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933 was engineered by the national socialists themselves, namely the Berlin SA under Gruppenführer Karl Ernst. Some historians like Fritz Tobias connect Toifl to this episode, suggesting that he did provide some technical assistance or knowledge for the preparations. Another one – and far more likely – is that Toifl simply became more a liability than he was useful.

If this hypothesis is accepted, there is a comparable case to follow to some extent: the fate of three SS men from Stettin who had operated a “private” concentration camp in an abandoned part of the Vulkan shipyard, abusing and blackmailing prisoners. This case with all of its dimensions is worth an essay on its own but to put things short, Sturmführer Dr. Joachim Hoffmann and his cronies had received strict sentences from a Stettin court and consequently had been dismissed from the SS. But that was not enough for Himmler and Göring who, after a year of almost daily uncontrolled violence – were prepared to set a warning example. On June 30th, Hoffmann together with former SS men Fritz Pleines and Gustav Fink were shot on the courtyard of Gollnow prison in Stettin (some sources assert that they were executed in Berlin, though).

By Spring 1934, Toifl had gotten deeper in trouble. He was now under investigation by the Prussian state attorney for attacking a foreign diplomat. That must have been the last straw. It is noteworthy that a co-suspect in this case was a certain SA-Standartenführer Karl Belding, a one-time member of Breslau Gestapo office who also ended up in front of a firing squad.

According to Hans Bernd Gisevius, in the evening of June 30th a telephone rang in the apartment of Toifl family on Körnerstrasse in Steglitz borough of Berlin. Othmar Toifl was asked to report immediately at Gestapo headquarters for an important undercover mission. There he had received further orders to meet with a Gestapo official named Berger on Bülowstrasse during the small hours. Another version relates that he instead received a folded letter through the door with instructions to the meeting point. The only known witness – and associate – for nightly killing of Othmar Toifl, “SS-Scharführer Berger” was living in West-Berlin under another name still in 1967. Most probably he has been never questioned about it.

The next day Toifl’s widow Helene, was asked to identify a body laying in the morgue on Hannoversche Strasse which had been recovered from Grunewald around 3 o’clock on the night of July 1st. Othmar Toifl had been shot dead, his body apparently thrown from a running car. To this day exact circumstances of his death are yet to be uncovered. Besides the above presented theories, his widow had suggested to author Fritz Tobias that Toifl might have had acquired incriminating material against Reinhard Heydrich who was his ultimate superior as the new chief of Gestapo. The “evidence”, it was claimed, dealt with Heydrich’s rumoured Jewish ancestry. This suggestion is contradicted by the fact that his ancenstry was carefully investigated by the NSDAP genealogy office under Dr. Gerke already in 1932 when the suspicion surfaced for the first time. It is nevertheless possible that Toifl had reawakened the matter and even though he probably hasn’t been able to endanger Heydrich’s position by any means, he might have at least attracted his anger.

The story goes that Daluege had later tried to query Himmler for grounds of the murder of his friend and protégé, also asking about the two sealed letters which Toifl was allegedly about to send him but as a response is said to have only received his mugshot from the Berlin police register of wanted persons. For the twelve years of the Third Reich, the Toifl case was now closed with his widow receiving a monthly pension of 150 RM after a long dispute. It will never be known what these letters contained. It is easy to categorize Toifl as a typical mediocre thug figure of the early years of national socialist rule but he clearly had appeared as a real threat to someone and the Blood Purge provided convenient means to get rid of him.