Yesterday, April 17, marked the 85th anniversary of what some have called the “Black Forest tragedy.” This refers to an Easter hiking trip taken by a group of boys from a British grammar school in the Black Forest of Germany near Freiburg. The trip ended tragically when the boys got caught in a blizzard and five of them, ranging in age from 12 to 14, died of exposure.
Villagers from the town of Hofsgrund rescued the freezing hikers from the slopes of the Schauinsland mountain where they had been holding out for hours with little protective gear. This occurred in 1936, a time when the National Socialists were eager to make hay of the incident by showcasing not only German cooperation with their English cousins but the role of the Hitlerjugend in caring for the survivors and victims’ families. Hitler’s government even erected a monument to the boys, the Engländerdenkmal, which included the swastika and Reichsadler, or imperial eagle of Nazi Germany (see below).
Two aspects of this tragedy deserve further attention even though I do not cover them here. The first is the use of propaganda to further ideological aims, since this tragedy occurred only a week before Hitler’s birthday and four months before the highly-anticipated Summer Olympics in Berlin. This explains the Nazis’ reluctance to ascribe blame to anyone or anything beyond force majeure. The second, esoteric but fascinating, concerns the Nazi obsession with the cult of the dead. In fact, the Engländerdenkmal contains runes that high-level figures like Himmler used to perpetuate Nazi ideology.
But I’d like to focus on Kenneth Keast, the 27-year-old leader of the group, and the lessons to be learned from his failures in leadership, which really have to do with one quality: humility. It may not be fair to pass judgment on a young man in a leadership position given the unknowns involved and the political situation at that time, but the story serves as an example of the importance of individual virtue and self knowledge. In other words, leaders must lead themselves before they can lead anyone else. That includes a troop of young teenage hikers.
First, the failures. A basic one was the boys’ lack of appropriate clothing for the hike, which stretched for fifteen miles through the Black Forest and over the Schauinsland summit to Todtnauberg. Some wore shorts, light jackets, and sandals while none had a hat or head covering. Another was Keast’s map, which didn’t even show the 4,213-foot summit. Keast could be forgiven for that, since it was the map he was given by the organizers of the trip. But then the day before their departure, when the tourist office had warned him of an impending blizzard, he responded with a curt, “The English are used to sudden changes in the weather.”
According to various accounts, the group followed an Exodus-like route that had them backtracking and meandering through the forest. Along the way, Keast stopped at an inn for directions and was warned that the signposts would be covered with snow. He met two woodcutters on their way home who advised him to turn back. Then he met a postman who warned him against going up the mountain. The postman even offered to lead the group back to a miners’ hostel where there would be warm beds and food. To each of these Keast said no and resolved to push on to the safety of Hofsgrund, not realizing that the summit stood in the way.
Such resolve is commendable when it works out, and Keast may have believed that his British discipline would redeem him in the end. I even imagine Macbeth’s line running through his head: “I am in blood stepped so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as going o’er.” But when the blood is real, pride must be cast aside. No one would have blamed Keast for being prudent, especially since he was the only adult supervising 27 hikers. He shouldn’t have been allowed to take the trip in the first place without help.
The lessons to be learned? Humility is not a nicety or add-on to leadership. It is fundamental, because it puts center stage two characteristics of the human condition that make liars of us all: imperfection and failure. But by being humble, a leader shows that he isn’t afraid to admit he doesn’t have all the answers and needs help. Humility isn’t weakness but a sign of maturity and, in this case, of genuine concern for others. Putting ego aside for the good of the group takes strength. It can also save lives.
In the years afterward, Keast maintained his innocence, insisting that he had done everything possible to save the boys from an unavoidable catastrophe. How can one predict the weather? He was cleared of any wrongdoing by official investigations and even commended for his courage by the London County Council. However, he was hounded for years by one of the dead boys’ father, Jack Eaton, who accused him not just of incompetence but murder. Eaton never recovered from the loss of his son and died in a psychiatric hospital. Keast died in 1971 in relative obscurity if not humility.
The memorial to the boys still stands in Hofsgrund and bears this inscription in German: “The youth of Adolf Hitler honours the memory of these English sporting comrades with this memorial.” Three years later, England and Germany were at war.
Image credits: feature by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash; memorial by Andreas Schwarzkopf – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia; mountains by James Donovan on Unsplash. Primary sources for research and descriptions: Kate Connolly, “The Fatal Hike That Became a Nazi Propaganda Coup,” The Guardian (July 5, 2016); “The English Calamity,” Wikipedia.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Francis Bourdillon (12), Peter Ellercamp (13), Stanley Lyons (14), Jack Alexander Eaton (14), and Roy Witham (14), who remain forever young.