In the early 1930s the French government informed the German reich that it had discharged all the prisoners of war taken during World War I. All soldiers still missing had to be presumed dead. But in May 1932 this statement appeared to be contradicted when a soldier, Oscar Daubmann, returned to Germany, claiming he had spent the last sixteen years in a French prisoner-of-war camp.
Daubmann told a dramatic tale of imprisonment and escape. He said he had been captured by the French in October 1916 at the Battle of the Somme and was placed in a prison camp. After killing a guard during an unsuccessful escape attempt, he was sentenced to 20 years hard labor and transferred to Algeria. There he was tortured, starved, and kept in solitary confinement. Finally, years later, he was transferred to the prison tailor shop on account of good behavior, and from there was able to make a successful escape. He walked 3000 miles along the coast and was picked up by an Italian steamer that took him to Naples. He then returned to Germany.
The Germans treated Daubmann as a national hero. His return inspired new hope in many families that their missing relatives might still be alive in French foreign-legion camps. This inflamed tensions between Germany and France.
His aged mother, upon first seeing him, fainted to the ground. But both his parents claimed to recognize him and took him into their home.
Newspapers praised his courage, bravery, and stamina. Thousands turned out to hear him speak about the horrors he had suffered at the hands of the French. Brass bands greeted him in every new town. A story of his life was rushed into print and sold 180,000 copies. Two film companies expressed interest in making a movie of his "dramatic and heroic career." He was made an honorary citizen of 18 towns and was elected honorary president of the Society of Ex-War-Prisoners.
The Nazi party, in particular, adopted him as one of their own and paraded him around as a poster-boy for German strength and virtue. He was a main attraction at many of their rallies, and his story helped them drum up anti-French sentiment.
However, some people, particularly those in favor of reconciliation with France, had doubts about his story. Former comrades of Daubmann failed to recognize him, and the police became suspicious. Inquiries were made with the French through the German ambassador, and the French began a search of their records.
Finally, the French government officially notified Berlin that after a thorough search of the records of its prison systems, courts-martial and medical service, it could find "no trace" of Oscar Daubmann. The Nazis dismissed this news, denouncing the French claim as "a shameful evasion of responsibility" and "a new sample of French duplicity."
Exposed as an Imposter
It is possible that the French investigation alone led to Daubmann's arrest by German authorities. However, a more dramatic version of his exposure circulated widely.
According to this tale, Daubmann was in a small town in Bavaria to give his now customary speech about his imprisonment and escape, but before he could start speaking an old man stood up in the crowd, pointed a finger at him, and said, "You are not Daubmann. You are my son, Alfred Hummel. Get down from that platform, you faker!" Daubmann fainted to the ground.
Whatever the circumstances of his exposure might have been, Daubmann confessed to the authorities in September 1932 that he was an imposter. His real name was Alfred Hummel. He was a tailor from the town of Offenbach and had never served in the army. Instead, he had been in jail for ten years on a burglary charge.
He explained that, following his release, he had bought a second-hand uniform in a shop. In one of the pockets he had found a soldier's passport in the name of Oscar Daubmann. This inspired him to invent the story about a heroic journey home from an African cell. The real Oscar Daubmann had been killed in the war.
Links and References
- "German prisoner flees French camp." (Aug 12, 1932). Salamanca Republican Press.
- "Poses as Hero, Fools Officials." (Nov 18, 1932). The Lethbridge Herald.
- "Germany's 'Idol Martyr' of French Cruelty Proved Faker by His Own Father." (March 14, 1933). Syracuse Herald.
- "Cruel Hoax. Dead Soldier's Parents Deceived." (Oct 15, 1932). The Melbourne Argus.