The Horst Wessel Song
"The Horst Wessel Song" (German: Horst-Wessel-Lied; pronounced [hɔʁst ˈvɛsl̩ liːt]), also known by its opening words, "Die Fahne hoch" ("The Flag on High"), was the anthem of the Nazi Party from 1930 to 1945. From 1933 to 1945 the Nazis made it a co-national anthem of Germany, along with the first stanza of the Deutschlandlied.
The lyrics to "The Horst Wessel Song" were written in 1929 by Sturmführer Horst Wessel, the commander of the Nazi paramilitary "Brownshirts" (Sturmabteilung or "SA") in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin. Wessel wrote songs for the SA in conscious imitation of the Communist paramilitary, the Red Front Fighters' League, to provoke them into attacking his troops, and to keep up the spirits of his men.
Wessel – the son of a pastor, with a university education but employed as a construction worker – became well-known among the Communists when – on orders from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Gauleiter (regional party leader) of Berlin – he led a number of SA incursions into the Fischerkiez, an extremely poor Berlin district where Communists mingled with underworld figures. Several of these agitations were only minor altercations, but one took place outside the tavern which the local German Communist Party (KPD) used as its headquarters. As a result of that melee, five Communists were injured, four of them seriously. The Communist newspaper accused the police of letting the Nazis get away, while arresting the injured Communists, while the Nazi newspaper claimed that Wessel had been trying to give a speech when shadowy figures emerged and began the fight. Wessel was marked for death, with his face and address featured on Communist street posters, and the slogan of the KPD and the Red Front Fighters' League became "Strike the fascists wherever you find them."
Wessel took up with an ex-prostitute, Erna Jaenicke, in a room on Grosse Frankfurter Strasse in the house of the widowed Frau Salm, whose husband had been a Communist. When conflicts arose between the couple and the landlady, she appealed to the Communists for help. Shortly thereafter, on 14 January 1930, Wessel was shot by two Communist Party members, one of whom was Albrecht "Ali" Höhler. Seriously wounded, Wessel died in hospital on 23 February from blood poisoning he contracted during his hospitalisation. Höhler was tried in court and sentenced to six years imprisonment for the shooting. Three years later, after the Nazi accession to power in 1933, Höhler was taken out of prison under false pretenses by the SA and executed.
Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Gauleiter and owner and editor of the newspaper Der Angriff ("The Attack"), had made several attempts to create Nazi martyrs for propaganda purposes, the first being an SA man named Hans-Georg Kütemeyer, whose body was pulled out of a canal the morning after he attended a speech by Hitler at the Sportpalast. Goebbels attempted to spin this into an assassination by Communists, but the overwhelming evidence showed it to have been suicide, and he had to drop the matter. Thus, Goebbels put considerable effort into mythologizing Wessel's story, even as the man lay dying. He met with Wessel's mother, who told him her son's life story, his hope for a "better world", and his attempt to rescue a prostitute he had met on the street. Goebbels saw Wessel as an "idealistic dreamer".
Wessel himself had undergone an operation at St. Joseph's Hospital which stopped his internal bleeding, but the surgeons had been unable to remove the bullet in his cerebellum. Wessel was brought to his mother's home to die. In his diary, Goebbels described Wessel's entire face as being shot up and his features distorted, and claimed that Wessel told him "One has to keep going! I'm happy!" After a period where his condition stabilized, Wessel died on 23 February.
Goebbels consulted with Herman Göring and others in the party on how to respond to Wessel death. They declared a period of mourning until 12 March, during which party and SA members would avoid amusements and Wessel's name would be invoked at all party meetings. Wessel's unit was renamed the Horst Wessel Storm Unit 5.
From a mashup of fact and fiction, Goebbels created what became one of the Nazi Party's central martyr-figures. He officially declared Wessel's march, renamed as the Horst-Wessel-Lied ("The Horst Wessel Song"), to be the Nazi Party anthem. Wessel's funeral was elaborately staged to be as provocative to the Communists as possible, and the KPD cooperated by staging a counterdemonstration, which resulted in battles outside the cemetery after the funeral. "The Horst Wessel Song" was sung by the SA at the funeral, and was thereafter extensively used at party functions, as well as sung by the SA during street parades.
When Nazi Führer ("leader") Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, "The Horst Wessel Song" became a national symbol by law on 19 May 1933. The following year, a regulation required the right arm be extended and raised in the "Hitler salute" when the (identical) first and fourth verses were sung. Nazi leaders can be seen singing the song at the finale of Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 film Triumph of the Will. Hitler also mandated the tempo at which the song had to be played.
With the end of the Nazi regime in May 1945, "The Horst Wessel Song" was banned. The lyrics and tune are now illegal in Germany and Austria for any purpose other than educational ones. In early 2011, this resulted in a Lower Saxony State Police investigation of Amazon.com and Apple Inc. for offering the song for sale on their websites. Both Apple and Amazon complied with the government's request, and deleted the song from their offerings.
The words to "The Horst Wessel Song" were published in September 1929 in the Nazi Party's Berlin newspaper, Der Angriff, or The Attack, which Joseph Goebbels owned and ran. They were attributed to "Der Unbekannte SA-Mann" ("the Unknown SA-Man"):
|German original||English translation|
The Rotfront, or "Red Front," was the Rotfrontkämpferbund, the paramilitary organization of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA, also known as the "brown shirts") and the Communist Red Front fought each other in violent street confrontations, which grew into almost open warfare after 1930. The "reactionaries" were the conservative political parties and the liberal democratic German government of the Weimar Republic period, which made several unsuccessful attempts to suppress the SA. The "servitude" refers to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, in which the victorious powers imposed huge reparations on Germany, stripped her of her colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific Ocean, some of which were mandated to the United States and the Empire of Japan, and gave parts of Germany to Belgium, Denmark, France, Poland, and Lithuania.
The line "Kameraden, die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen" is technically ambiguous. It could either mean Kameraden, die von Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen wurden ("Our comrades who were shot dead by the Red Front and Reactionaries") or Kameraden, welche die Erschießung von Rotfront und Reaktion durchführten ("Our comrades who have shot the Red Front and Reactionaries dead"). In spite of this obvious syntactic problem, which was mentioned by Victor Klemperer in his LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii, the line was never changed. The following line Marschier'n im Geist in unser'n Reihen mit. ("March in spirit within our ranks.") however indicates that the aforementioned comrades are deceased, advocating the first interpretation.
Some changes were made to the lyrics after Wessel's death:
|Stanza 1, line 2||SA marschiert mit mutig-festem Schritt||The storm battalion march with bold, firm step.|
|SA marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt||The stormtroopers march with calm, firm step|
|Stanza 3, line 1||Zum letzten Mal wird nun Appell geblasen!||The call is sounded for the last time!|
|Zum letzten Mal wird Sturmalarm geblasen!||The last sound to charge is blown!|
|Stanza 3, line 3||Bald flattern Hitlerfahnen über Barrikaden||Soon Hitler's banners will flutter above the barricades|
|Schon/ bald flattern Hitler-Fahnen über allen Straßen||Already (Soon) Hitler's banners will flutter above all streets|
The dropping of the reference to "barricades" reflected the Nazi Party's desire in the period 1930-33 to be seen as a constitutional political party aiming at taking power by legal means rather than as a revolutionary party.
After Wessel's death, new stanzas were added, composed in his honour. These were frequently sung by the SA, but did not become part of the official lyrics used on party or state occasions.
After Wessel's death, he was officially credited with having composed the music, as well as having written the lyrics, for "The Horst Wessel Song". Between 1930 and 1933, however, German critics disputed this, pointing out that the melody had a long prior history. "How Great Thou Art" is a well-known hymn with a similar tune for example. Criticism of Horst Wessel as author became unthinkable after 1933, when the Nazi Party took control of Germany and criticism would likely be met with severe punishment.
The most likely immediate source for the melody was a song popular in the German Imperial Navy during World War I, which Wessel would no doubt have heard being sung by Navy veterans in the Berlin of the 1920s. The song was known either by its opening line as Vorbei, vorbei, sind all die schönen Stunden, or as the Königsberg-Lied, after the German cruiser Königsberg, which is mentioned in one version of the song's lyrics. The opening stanza of the song is:
Another German song, Der Abenteurer (The Adventurer), begins:
In 1936, a German music critic, Alfred Weidemann, published an article in which he identified the melody of a song composed in 1865 by Peter Cornelius as the "Urmelodie" (source-melody). According to Weidemann, Cornelius described the tune as a "Viennese folk tune." This appeared to him to be the ultimate origin of the melody of "The Horst Wessel Song".
Far-right use outside Germany
During the 1930s and 1940s, "The Horst Wessel Song" was adapted by fascist groups in other European countries. One of the marching songs of the British Union of Fascists was set to the same tune, and its lyrics were to some extent modelled on the song, though appealing to British Fascism. Its opening stanza was:
- Comrades, the voices of the dead battalions,
- Of those who fell, that Britain might be great,
- Join in our song, for they still march in spirit with us,
- And urge us on to gain the fascist state!
(Note that this was a Traditional Falange march (Movimiento Nacional), and not a march of the original Falange. It was sung by some of the volunteers of the 250th division, the División Azul, after the death of José Antonio Primo de Rivera)
In modern Greece, Golden Dawn, an extreme right-wing party, uses "The Horst Wessel Song" with Greek lyrics in its gatherings or events, such as the occasional, public distribution of food "to Greeks only", while its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, often uses the song's key stanzas (e.g. "The flags on high!") in his speeches.
Before 1933, the German Communists and the Social Democrats sang parodies of "The Horst Wessel Song" during their street battles with the SA. Some versions simply changed the political character of the song:
Others substituted completely new lyrics:
These versions were banned once the Nazis came to power and the Communist and Social Democratic parties suppressed, but during the years of the Third Reich the song was parodied in underground versions, poking fun at the corruption of the Nazi elite. There are similarities between different texts as underground authors developed them with variations. Below are several versions.
Another version was
In the first year of Nazi rule, radical elements of the SA sang their own parody of the song, reflecting their disappointment that the socialist element of National Socialism had not been realised:
Kurt Schmitt was Economics Minister between 1933 and 1935.
Following the dismemberment and division of the Reich into occupation zones at the end of the World War II, with the eastern provinces annexed by Poland and the USSR and their millions of inhabitants driven from their homes into what remained of Germany, a version of 'Die Preise hoch' became popular in the Soviet zone, targeting Communist functionaries:
The most notable English-language parody was written by Oliver Wallace to a similar melody and titled Der Fuehrer's Face for the 1942 Donald Duck cartoon of the same name. It was the first hit record for Spike Jones. The opening lyrics give the flavor of the song:
- When der Fuehrer says we is de master race
- We "Heil!" (pffft), "Heil!" (pffft) right in der Fuehrer's face
- Not to love der Fuehrer is a great disgrace
- So we "Heil!" (pffft), "Heil!" (pffft) right in der Fuehrer's face
Each "Heil!" is followed by a Bronx cheer.
In popular culture
- The melody of the song was used various times in the Wolfenstein series of video games, which feature an Allied agent infiltrating Nazi German installations.
- The song "Avenge Dresden" of Creativitist, white power, anti-communist band RAHOWA quotes the song's melody in a guitar solo between the chorus and the bridge.
- It is also sung by folk singer Ian Read on the song "Brown Book" recorded by Death In June. Because of this, their same-titled 1987 album is banned from sale in Germany.
- The song is featured in the 2003 film Hitler: The Rise of Evil, where it is sung by Sturmabteilung members while parading through a street.
- In the anime Hellsing: Ultimate and in the associated manga, the main antagonist, known only as "The Major", sings this song while on their zeppelin before/while attacking London. This is sung in German in both English and Japanese language versions.
- The New York Youth Symphony, after it discovered that a piece it had commissioned included a 45-second musical quote of the "The Horst Wessel Song", which is banned in Germany and Austria, abruptly canceled a Carnegie Hall performance of "Marsh u Nebuttya" (Ukrainian: "March to Oblivion"), a 9-minute piece composed by Estonian-born Jonas Tarm, a 21-year-old junior at the New England Conservatory of Music. The composer would not explain his purpose in using the song in his piece, saying "[I]t can speak for itself", but the symphony said that the usage was not appropriate.
- Nazi songs
- German laws against modern use of Nazi songs
- "Vorwärts! Vorwärts!"
- "Lied der Jugend" ("Dollfuß-Lied")
- "Cara al Sol"
- "Maréchal, nous voilà !"
- Geisler, Michael E. "In the Shadow of Exceptionalism" in Geisler, Michael E. (ed.) National Symbols, Fractured Identities: Contesting the National Narrative UPNE (2005). p.71
- Burleigh, Michael The Third Reich: A New History New YorkL: Hill and Walg, 2000. pp. 116-120. ISBN 0-8090-9325-1
- Reuth (1993), pp.107-108
- Reuth (1993), pp.111-113
- Siemens 2013, p. 3.
- Longerich 2015, p. 123.
- Siemens 2013, pp. 15–16.
- Reuth (1993), p.178
- Reuth (1993), p.103
- Longerich 2015, p. 124.
- Spotts, Frederic. Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics Woodstock, New York: Overkill Press, 2002. p.272 ISBN 1-58567-345-5
- Hannoversche Allgemeine - LKA ermittelt gegen Apple und Amazon, 3 February 2011
- Kershaw, Ian. The "Hitler Myth": Image and Reality in the Third Reich Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1987. p.60 ISBN 0-19-282234-9
- "Wer hat denn eigentlich wen erschossen?", neue musikzeitung, 11/98 -Volume 47
- Weidemann, Alfred. "Ein Vorläufer des Horst-Wessel-Liedes?" in Die Musik 28, 1936, S. 911f. Zitiert nach Wulf 1989, S. 270. Die Musik was published in Switzerland. Articles departing from the Nazi doctrine that Horst Wessel had originated both the lyrics and the tune could not be published in Nazi Germany.
- "Golden Dawn plays Nazi anthem at food handout", DawnOfTheGreeks website, 25 July 2013
- "Golden Dawn moves food handout following police ban", Eleftherotypia, 24 July 2013
- "Anniversary for Imia or for Hitler's ascent?", Zougla.gr, 31 January 2013 (in Greek)
- "Die preise hoch" ("The prices high") lyrics from the MusicaNet website
- Tooze, Adam (2006). The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. London: Allen Lane. p. 71. ISBN 0-7139-9566-1.
- Dümling, Albrecht (1985). Laßt euch nicht verführen! Brecht und die Musik. München: Kindler. pp. 503f.
- Naimark, Norman M. (1995). The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation 1945–1949. Cambridge: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-78405-7.
- Smith, Jennifer (5 March 2015). "Youth Symphony Drops Commissioned Work, Cites Nazi Element". WSJ.
- Smith, Michael. "Youth Symphony Cancels Program That Quotes ‘Horst Wessel’ Song", New York Times, 4 March 2015
- Boderick, George. "The Horst-Wessel-Lied: A Reappraisal", International Folklore Review Vol. 10 (1995): 100-127.
- Longerich, Peter (2015). Goebbels: A Biography. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-1400067510.
- Reuth, Ralf Georg and Winston, Krishna (trans.) (1993) Goebbels New York: Harcourt, Brace ISBN 0-15-136076-6 (orig. pub. in German in 1990)
- Siemens, Daniel (2013). The Making of a Nazi Hero: The Murder and Myth of Horst Wessel. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 978-0857733139.