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German Climbing History Captured in ‘Above the Reich’

On June 22, Gripped editorial director David Chaundy-Smart will be talking about the link between Nazis, the German Alpine Club and the history of mountaineering. This is one of the most interesting presentations about European climbing in the early 20th Century.

The German Alpine Club was the first major sporting group to exclude Jews in the 1930s and their feats became part of Hitler’s propaganda machine. In David Chaundy-Smart’s new book Above the Reich, the leading protagonist is Lukas Eichel, a young alpinist from Munich who “struggles to stay above the fray and the base instincts of the valley – the political and militaristic impulses – that threaten to destroy all that he knows, and remain in that higher, more peaceful Reich of the high Alps.”

Friederike Kaiser, head of an exhibition at the German Alpine Club Museum in Munich said, “It was this triumph of man over nature that the National Socialists, ruling Germany and Austria at the time, knew to use well for propaganda.” Kaiser organized an exhibit called Berg Heil, which details the club’ history from 1918 to 1945.

“The führer-cult and notions of German nationalism paved the way for racial hatred and anti-Semitism in the German-Austrian Alpine Club, which was seen at the time as the voice of mountaineering,” said Kaiser. Flags with swastikas began appearing over mountain huts in 1924, 10 years before Hitler took power. The flags were followed by signs reading, “Jews not welcome here.”

One online review for Chaundy-Smart’s book reads, “Spare, taut prose and a gripping plot. Yes that pun was intended. It’s Hemingway hanging off a cliff. Above the Reich is an excellent historical novel. It’s perhaps the best fictional handling of a fascinating a subplot of the Second World War: the Nazi obsession with mountaineering.”