Every picture may tell a story, but some pictures need a novel. In this instance, that novel has been recently written, ‘The Silences of Hammerstein’ (Hans Magnus Enzesberger, 2009), part biography and part speculative fiction, an effort to grapple with a particularly puzzling, heroic, and frustrating chapter of German history. The charming young woman pictured in 1933 aboard her motorcycle is Marie Therese von Hammerstein, whose father, Kurt von Hammerstein, happened to be head of the Reichswehr (German army) at the end of the Weimar Republic, just before Hitler’s rise to power.

Marie Therese von Hammerstein in 1933

Whatever stereotypes or prejudices her parentage might conjure would be entirely misplaced; Kurt von Hammerstein was a fascinating character, a man of strong opinions and succinct words, a friend of progressive trade unions, an aristocrat, and an outspoken opponent of Adolf Hitler. He also praised laziness in intelligent men, feeling that such fellows bring ‘clarity of mind and strong nerves to make difficult decisions’. He parented a large brood of remarkable, strong-willed, and free-minded children, all of whom made, or attempted to make, their mark on German history.

The three von Hammerstein’s daughters (there were two brothers as well): Marie-Therese, Marie-Louise, and Helga.

Marie Therese was clearly such. The mere fact of an aristocratic woman riding a motorcycle in 1933 is exemplary, but with such a father, her motorcycle became a tool for an entirely more serious purpose. That General von Hammerstein survived Hitler’s rise to power is remarkable, especially as he made no secret of his hatred of Hitler, and attempted to lure the Fuhrer to his fortified compound in Cologne to kill him. Hitler demurred every time. As Hammerstein learned of Nazi plans to arrest and kill Jews, he supplied Marie Therese with the names of the targeted, and she rode her motorcycle as far afield as Prague (still independent) to ferry Jewish intellectuals to safety. One plucky duck.

Kurt von Hammerstein, head of the Reichswehr until 1934, and outspoken hater of Adolf Hitler

Marie Therese and her two sisters married Jewish intellectuals and labor organizers, and of course all of them had to flee Germany by the mid-1930s. Their father died of cancer in 1943, after being relieved of his military service by 1934. Her two brothers were involved in an attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944, and escaped because they knew a secret passageway used by the military which connected to the U-Bahn (subway). They survived the war. Other siblings had a hard time of it, as after the failed plot, her two younger siblings and their mother were interred in a concentration camp until the end of the war. Marie Therese and her husband John Paasche fled to Japan, as Paasche had studied Asian languages in college. They lived out the war there, ‘with the police camped out across the street, watching’. In 1948 they moved to San Francisco, where Marie Therese died in 2000, aged 90.

Apparently the only photo with Hitler and Hammerstein in the same place, in 1934, at the funeral of Edwin Bechstein, whose widow Helene stands left. The Bechstein family firm made pianos, and were big supporters of Hitler in the 1920s.