The Watcher


Werneburg and Quoß placed the Murder Commissions file into the Hildegard Zäpernick case away when all avenues, explored by themselves and Ernst Gennat seemed to come to nought. Hundreds of man hours had been spent investigating, cross referencing, gathering alibis and driving through out the city following the wild goose chases and acting on the niggling suspicions of a city that had been caught in the grips of mystery.

The case first came to my knowledge whilst researching for a book, that might, in the future, see the light of day. It was whilst trawling through the archives of the Volks Zeitung and Vossische Zeitung newspapers of Berlin that it first came to my attention and quickly I found myself, as the people of Berlin had almost a hundred years prior, turning the pages of the daily newspapers looking for news.

I can’t say what it was about this case that caught my attention, but what held it was the lack of resolution. I had, it may be grim to say, found shorter and more compelling stories within the pages, of strange men running down August straße after stealing a gun, of disappearances around the lakes of Berlin, but these were stories that were often resolved within a page or paragraph. For the case of Hildegard Zäpernick I can only suspect that it was the episodic nature the case unfolded in and this is what I have tried to relay onto you, the listener. In comparison to the first series, the series on Hans Globke, I’m sure you will have noticed the formatting was quite different. The decision to tell the murder of young Hilde as a narrative rather than as a factual account was not an easy one but it was a logical one. To have summarised her murder and the case in a factual point by point way would have not done justice to the investigation and herself, and importantly the world in which they lived.

The world of Hildegard Zäpernick, whilst the apartment building in which she lived still stands, no longer exists. The city of Berlin and the nation of Germany today reflects little of their 1920s counterpart. Street names not only have changed but entire districts have disappeared. In the 1920s the world’s eyes were on the first circumnavigation of the globe by the Graf Zeppelin, now if someone were to travel around the world in a commercial aeroplane no one would bat an eye. So to tell her story as a narrative was an attempt to hopefully transport you back to a time, because her murder and the investigation into it were products of that period. These products of the movement of peoples, a burgeoning middle class, the foundation of a modern police department, public transportation, are all important to the story of what happened to Hildegard Zäpernick. But this is also not to say that the narrative is fictitious. All of the interrogations, their locations, and the conversations are all as they happened, albeit translated from their original German. Sentiments of the day were gathered from other sources, such as the city coming to a stop to witness the Graf Zeppelin’s flight over it, events were pieced together from reports, and archival materials helped to illustrate further the city and its troubles of the day.

But for the story of Hildegard Zäpernick there is one final twist in the tale.

From the very beginning of the reports it was evident that, other than the stone unloader Erich Scheffler, suspicion was always focused on the watcher Schulz. The investigators suspected him from very early on. However, the evidence that they could gather always remained circumstantial. He was the only one who remained not to have an alibi. Disturbing reading material was found in his possession. He was often seen playing with the children, even once giving Hilde a photograph and apparently asking for a kiss. Yet despite this it was not possible for District Commissioner Löwenthal to charge him with murder.

Whilst our own opinions, like those of the people of the day and the newspapers of Berlin 1929, may conclude in a guilt for Schulz as he appears to be the only one capable of committing the crime, it has to be said that the Prussian justice system showed itself to be exemplary. In remaining objective and level headed in not passing judgement on Schulz, whether we believe him to have been guilty or not, but purely on evidence gathered, shows it was a fair institution, which sadly within just 3 years with Franz von Papen’s Prussian blow followed by the National Socialist seizure of power would cease to exist, having been replaced with blood judges and blood courts where innocent men walked into the courtrooms guilty.

The twist to this however comes when the file of Hildegard Zäpernick is brought again from the archives in which they were held within the Rotes Rathaus on König Straße.

It was on the 15th of November 1929 when Paul Schiemann returns to the Roteburg to make a statement once again to the criminal inspectors which is noted down and added to the file. Although the exact statement does exist, due to the covid crisis that has effected the world this year the archives in which it is held was forced to close for a time and, even though it is open once again, my own schedule does not permit, for the time, to return, so I summarise now from my notes.

Paul Schiemann made himself present at the Roteburg to report on an argument that he had had with his Granddaughter Erika, the daughter Martha and Richard Schulz. Erika, who in November 1929 was 13 years of age has come to spend more and more time with her grandparents, and the argument erupted when the girl, in tears, refused to return home. After much coaxing finally the girl was able to tell her grandfather why.

Since at least 1927, Schiemann tells the kriminal investigators, his son-in-law, Richard Schulz has been sexually abusing his daughter an act that the grandfather Paul was unaware of. Upon hearing this from his grand daughter Paul Schiemann immediately reports it to the police. The murder kommission, who under Gennat, had an incredible success rate, had of course, felt aggrieved that they had not brought closure to the murder case of Hildegard Zäpernick, were eager to pounce on this new evidence.

Schulz’s wife, daughter and one of the sons are brought in for questioning and it quickly transpires that what Martha had made so clear to say was the truth in her earlier interview with the police was quite the opposite.

Martha had been aware of the abuse of her daughter by her husband but had failed to disclose it to the police. Perhaps the fear of being beaten that she had been subjected to in the past had kept her from doing so, but the statement that her husband was a good father seems to be very far from the truth. The abuse of Erika by Schulz was also stumbled upon once by the son.

The likely hood that Schulz had committed the crime against Hilde was now rising. With the disgust, especially within the father-in-law of Schulz, rising the reassessment of Schulz’s character amongst his family began. Within days of the first statement being made to the police Paul Schiemann was back to give another statement in which he states that he believes, categorically, that Schulz committed the crime, it is a statement that is later echoed by his granddaughter Erika, who, to escape the sexual abuse of her father, would move in with her grand father.

So what happens? Well this is where the case file officially ends. These horrendous acts further exemplified Schultz’s detestable nature but they did not add new evidence as such that would return him to court for the murder of Hildegard Zäpernick. And what would happen to Schulz after these revelations came to light, at the moment I cannot say. However, when time does allow, I will continue to delve into the case and the history.

For the Zäpernicks nothing could bring back their daughter. The following year, after the murder of Hilde, the Gillesbau was completed. Into the newly completed building would move Cabaret Artist, writer and poet Joachim Ringelnatz and famous boxer Max Schmeling.

Today, Sachsenplatz has become Brixplatz, named for the architect Josef Brix. The name change coming in 1947. Much of the square is the way it was, albeit the park itself does not represent the splendour it once had due to lack of investment by the government on public spaces, not just a problem for Brixplatz but across Berlin where the once splendid manicured and respected gardens have turned to sand and scrub to be littered with bottle caps and cigarette butts, although the local community does do its upmost to maintain it as best they can.

However, although 3 of the four sides of the platz look similar to how they did during Hilde’s childhood, there is one thing missing. The Gillesbau.

The bombing of Berlin by the Allies in the sky, followed by the ground offensive of the Soviet Red Army lay much of Berlin to waste, but often the damage was centred on the east of in the centre. On Sachsenplatz the only building really to be destroyed was the Gillesbau. Only a small fragment of it remains, and if it were not for this, it would almost be impossible to picture how it once would have looked, for as far as I have searched, I have been unable to find photographs of it complete. But around it, the world in which Hilde spent some of her childhood does still stand, from the park area in which she played, the gardens in which she ran from when her mother shouted at her for climbing on the trellis, to the school she attended, and finally the apartment in which she lived, in which, I believe her brother lived within until after the time of Germany Unity.

So for now, that brings a year of investigation into Hildegard Zäpernick’s murder for myself to a close. If you’ve enjoyed this series and would like to show your support for Achtung! History please consider leaving a review, and tune in on Friday when we’ll begin a series of one off episodes and research into the next major series continues.

As ever, thank you for joining myself, Simon J. James on this journey into the past.

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