Georg Flatow was born in Berlin on 2 November 1889. His family lived at Wallner-Theater-Straße 18 at the time, in what is now the area between Holzmarktstraße and Karl-Marx-Allee. He was born and raised with and in socialism, as his daughter later wrote.
His father Robert Flatow ran a linens and cottons business, and was an active Social Democrat, known as “Roter Flatow” (Red Flatow) to his friends. He was highly esteemed among his comrades, famed for having shown solidarity when the German Empire’s Anti-Socialist Laws were in force. During this time, he accepted packages from Social Democrats in Zurich at his business address “Leinewand” and passed them on to their intended recipients, as comrades wrote in his obituary in 1912.
Robert Flatow’s son had ‘higher’ hopes for his future. His parents sent him to the Königstädtische Gymnasium, the same secondary school that Sebastian Haffner attended. After completing his Abitur school-leaving diploma here in 1908, he immediately embarked on a course of law.
He completed his studies at the universities of Berlin and Munich within three years and passed his first state examination (to become a trainee lawyer) in Berlin in 1911. His father lived, then, to see his son building a successful career.
Georg Flatow graduated as a doctor of law in Heidelberg in 1915. As a postdoctoral student, he became an assessor at the Berlin court of appeal, but his training was repeatedly interrupted by periods of army service. He took his second state exam (to become a legal advisor) in Berlin in 1917.
When the new German government under Scheidemann was formed, Dr. Georg Flatow was appointed private secretary to member of parliament (or ‘people’s deputy’) Rudolf Wissel in the Reich Chancellery. He subsequently worked as an assessor in the Ministry of Economy, changing to the Ministry of Labour in July 1919 (where he became a senior civil servant in 1920). From 1923 to his dismissal in 1933, he was undersecretary in the Prussian Ministry of Industry and Trade (later the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labour). He was, then, active in the ministry that produced the Work Council Act (Betriebsrätegesetz) at the time of its inception.
He was ousted from office in two stages. In April 1933, he was suspended, and on 1 October 1933 he was dismissed under article 3 of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. This marked the end of a career as a committed and successful employment law expert of the Weimar Republic.
Georg Flatow made a significant contribution to building the legal foundations for work constitutions and the labour court system.
In my opinion, Flatow made a positive impact as a Social Democratic reformer, and helped channel the revolutionary soviet movement into a democratic evolution. Others, however, have interpreted this as a betrayal of the working class.
Controversy has surrounded the legislation since its enactment. It was not just one law among many of the Weimar Republic. It focused the intense disputes in the early years of the Weimar Republic over which political form of government to adopt. After the November revolution of 1918 it was initially unclear what path the young republic would take. Should it become a soviet republic following the Russian model or a social democracy? The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was divided, not only over the question of war loans but also over fundamental issues such as democracy and socialism. Georg Flatow supported social and parliamentary democracy, was part of the ‘majority SPD’. The Work Council Act still has an impact today; it formed the basis for the Federal Republic of Germany’s work constitution law that came into force in 1952. In view of this, it is surprising that Georg Flatow is rarely mentioned in contemporary literature on the subject.
Georg Flatow made a mark not only in his career. On 26 March 1918, he married Hedwig Wiener and in 1929, after living at various temporary addresses, he moved with her to a newly built house at Niklasstraße 5 in the Schlachtensee district of Berlin. No doubt they hoped and expected to be able to live out their retirement years there together. But these hopes were destroyed in 1933 when they suddenly found themselves branded by the Nazis as Jews and therefore deprived of their rights. And as Social Democrats, they were doubly unwelcome. Their daughter later described the situation as follows: “The catastrophic developments overturned all their thinking and activities. They tried to be useful in other areas and stayed in Germany although they had plenty of opportunities to go. To some extent they stayed because of their socialist convictions, though in retrospect it is difficult to understand why – they wanted to help in what they regarded as a ‘Fascist crisis’. ‘You can’t leave a sinking ship,’ they would say. On the one hand, it was their strong attachment to Germany, on the other, their attitude: always be prepared to help others. And an endless number of people were helped by my parents, they gave advice on and practical help with emigrating in all corners of the world; many owe their lives to them.”
Disaster first struck the Flatow family personally on 10 November 1938, when Georg Flatow, like many other Jewish men, was taken from Berlin to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He was given the prisoner number 8324, but was released on 15 December 1938 on condition that he immediately leave Germany. With the help of his good friend Prof. Dr. George van den Bergh from Amsterdam, Georg and Hedwig Flatow emigrated to Amsterdam on 11 February 1939.
Even less is known of the Flatows’ time in Amsterdam than of their experiences up to 1939. Through descendants of Professor van den Bergh, however, a commemorative book was found on Werkdorp Wieringen, a project in the Netherlands aiming to prepare Jews from all over Europe for emigration to Israel, which Georg and Hedwig Flatow had helped to set up. The book contained one photograph titled “Dr. G. Flatow”. It is the only photo that has hitherto been found of him. Apparently, there are no photographic documents of his time as a government undersecretary.
For some time after their escape to Amsterdam, Georg and Hedwig Flatow lived with friends of Prof. Dr. George van den Bergh. Later they moved into their own 3-room apartment, not far away, at Jan van Eijckstraat 35, Amsterdam-Zuid, where they lived until their arrest. On 20 June 1943, they were taken from here to Westerbork assembly and transit camp. On 14 September 1943, they were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto via Bergen Belsen, where they were interned until 25 January 1944, reaching Theresienstadt on 27 January 1944. On 12 October 1944, they were sent on their last journey, on the “Eq” transport to Auschwitz.
Leo Baeck, the well-known rabbi and Hedwig Flatow’s cousin by marriage, met Georg and Hedwig Flatow in Theresienstadt and accompanied them on their last journey on 12 October 1944. In 1945, he wrote in a letter to their daughter, “Both stayed upright, even physically; it was especially striking in your father, despite the sicknesses they had to endure. I can still see them now, on their way to the train that was to take them to the east, and I can still hear them talking, saying that they will face every journey standing tall. And then they talked about you again, and they asked me, if I am saved, to tell you what you now know: how you fulfilled their lives. Only now that dismal care has become grim certainty am I telling you what you can hear without words.”
Georg and Hedwig Flatow’s daughter had the day of their deportation from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz declared their date of death.