Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel
9 October 1907
|Died||23 February 1930 (aged 22)|
|Political party||Nazi Party 1926–30|
Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel (9 October 1907 – 23 February 1930) was a Berlin leader of the Nazi Party's "stormtroopers" – the Sturmabteilung or "SA" – who is best known for being made into a martyr for the Nazi cause by Joseph Goebbels after Wessel's murder in 1930.
Wessel first joined a number of youth groups and extreme right-wing paramilitary groups, but later resigned from them and joined the SA, the brownshirted street-fighting stormtroopers of the Nazi Party. He rose to command several SA squads and districts. On 14 January 1930, he was shot in the head by two members of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Albrecht "Ali" Höhler was arrested and charged with his murder. Höhler was initially sentenced to six years in prison, but was forcibly taken out of jail and killed by the SA after the Nazis came to power.
Wessel's funeral was given wide attention in Berlin, with many of the Nazi elite in attendance. After his death, he became a major propaganda symbol in Nazi Germany. The march he had written the lyrics to was renamed the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" ("Horst Wessel Song"), and became the official anthem of the Nazi Party. After Adolf Hitler came to national power in 1933, the song became the co-national anthem of Germany, along with the first verse of the "Deutschlandlied", also known as "Deutschland über alles".
Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel was born on 9 October 1907 in Bielefeld, Westphalia, the son of Wilhelm Ludwig Georg Wessel (born 15 July 1879), a Lutheran minister in Bielefeld, and later in Mülheim an der Ruhr, then at the Nikolai Church, one of Berlin's oldest churches. Wessel's mother, Bertha Luise Margarete Wessel (née Richter), also came from a family of Lutheran pastors. Wessel's parents were married on 1 May 1906. He grew up alongside his sister Ingeborg Paula Margarethe (born 19 May 1909) and his brother Werner Georg Erich Ludwig (born 22 August 1910). When they moved from Mülheim to Berlin, the family lived in the Jüdenstraße.
Wessel attended Volksschule (primary school) in Cölln from 1914 to 1922, and thereafter attended high school at the Königstädtisches Gymnasium, briefly at the Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster ("Protestant Grey Cloister Gymnasium"), and for his final two years at the Luisenstädtisches Gymnasium, where he passed his Abitur examination. On 19 April 1926, Wessel enrolled in Friedrich Wilhelm University to study law.
The Wessel family, influenced by the politics of the father, avidly supported the monarchist German National People's Party (DNVP), and when he was 15, Wessel joined the DNVP's youth group Bismarckjugend ("Bismarck Youth"), from which he resigned in 1925. At the time, the DNVP was the most influential right-wing party.
Wessel soon began to frequent low-life bars and hang out in flophouses, and also founded his own youth group, the Knappschaft, the purpose of which was to "raise our boys to be real German men." He also joined the Wiking Liga ("Viking League"), a paramilitary group founded by Hermann Ehrhardt – the stated goal of which was to effect "the revival of Germany on a national and ethnic basis through the spiritual education of its members" – near the end of 1923. Wessel himself described the Viking League of having "the ultimate aim" of the "establishment of a national dictatorship." He soon became a local leader, engaging in street battles with youth members of their adversarial groups, such as the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD).
Later, Wessel joined groups with a more sinister reputation, including the Black Reichswehr and the "Olympia German Association for Physical Training", a powerful paramilitary group which was the successor of the disbanded Reinhard Regiment.
In the Nazi Party
Joining the SA
The Viking League and the Olympia Association were banned in Prussia in May 1926, when it was discovered they were planning a putsch against the government. Wessel, realizing the League would not achieve its self-defined mission and was moving in the direction of tolerating the parliamentary political system, resigned from it on 23 November 1926 at age 19. Two weeks later, on 7 December, he joined the paramilitary Sturmabteilung ("Storm Detachment" or SA) of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party) He later commented that over two-thirds of his colleagues from the Viking League had already joined the SA and the Nazi Party.[a]
Part of the attraction of the NSDAP to Wessel was Joseph Goebbels, the Party's newly appointed Gauleiter (regional leader) of Berlin, about whom he would later say "There was nothing [Goebbels] couldn't handle. The party comrades clung to him with great devotion. The SA would have let itself be cut to pieces for him. Goebbels – he was like Hitler himself. Goebbels – he was 'our' Goebbels."
Writing in his diaries – he kept two, one for his political life and one for other matters – Wessel described the differences between the groups he had been a part of, and the appeal of being involved in the Nazi Party:
Bismarck League, that was pleasure and enjoyment, the Viking League was adventure, the atmosphere of the putsch, playing at soldiers, albeit against a background that was not without its dangers. But the NSDAP was a political awakening. ... The movement's centrifugal force was tremendous. ... One meeting followed hard on the heels of the last one. ... Street demonstrations, recruiting drives in the press, propaganda trips into the provinces creating an atmosphere of activism and high political tension that could only help the movement.
It was Goebbels who had created this atmosphere, which prompted right-wing youth to leave organizations they felt had let them down for the excitement of the Nazi Party's highly visible activism.
For a few years Wessel lived a double life, as a middle-class university law student and as a member of the primarily working-class SA, but in some ways the two worlds were converging in ideology. At university, Wessel joined a dueling society dedicated to "steeling and testing physical and moral fitness" through personal combat, while with the SA, which was always interested in a good street fight, he was immersed in the antisemitic attitudes typical of the extreme right-wing paramilitary culture of the time. His study of jurisprudence at school was seen through the filter of his belief that the application of the law was primarily an instrument of power; and his personal beliefs, already geared toward anti-Jewish attitudes, were heavily influenced by the novel From Double Eagle to Red Flag by the Russian Cossack general Pyotr Nikolayevich Krasnov, published in Germany in 1922. The antisemitic Krasnov accepted as fact The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hoax that purported to show the plans of "International Jewry" to control the world. According to Wessel's sister, Krasnov's book was tremendously influential with her brother.
In August 1927, Wessel traveled in a group of fifty SA men to the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, joining other Berlin-based Nazis to make a group of 400, led by Goebbels. At that time the SA was banned in Berlin. When they returned, they were arrested.
Wessel soon impressed Goebbels; and in January 1928, a period in which the Berlin city authorities had banned the SA in an effort to curb political street violence, Wessel was sent to Vienna to study the National Socialist Youth Group, as well as the organizational and tactical methods of the Nazi Party there. He returned to Berlin in July 1928 to recruit local youths, and was involved in helping to implement a reorganization of the NSDAP in the city into a cell-structure similar to that used by the German Communist Party (KPD). Wessel did this despite SA rules forbidding its members from working for the Party.
In 1929, Wessel became the Street Cell Leader of the Alexanderplatz Storm Section of the SA. In May, he was appointed district leader of the SA for Friedrichshain where he lived, SA-Sturm 5. with the rank of Sturmführer. In October 1929, Wessel dropped out of university to devote himself full-time to the Nazi movement. In that same year, Wessel wrote the lyrics to "Die Fahne hoch!" ("Raise the Flag!"), which would later be known as the "Horst Wessel Song". Wessel wrote songs for the SA in conscious imitation of the Communist paramilitary, the Red Front Fighters' League – in fact, the music to Die Fahne hoch!" was taken from a Communist song book – to provoke them into attacking his troops, and to keep up the spirits of his men. Wessel was recognized by Goebbels and the Berlin Nazi hierarchy as an effective street speaker; in the first 11 months of 1929, for instance, he spoke at 56 separate NSDAP events.
Wessel's Friedrichshain Sturm 5 unit had a reputation as being "a band of thugs, a brutal squad." One of his men described the way they fought against the Communists (KPD):
Horst made Adolf Hitler's principle his own: terror can be destroyed only by counterterror ... The places where the KPD met were often visited by a mere handful of loyal supporters, and our standpoint was made unequivocally clear to the landlord and all who were present. In the East End [of Berlin] Horst Wessel opened up a route through which a brown storm tide poured in unceasingly and conquered the area inch by inch.
By the period 1929–30, the continual violence in Berlin between the street fighters of the Nazi Party and other extreme right-wing groups, and those of the Communist Party and other parties on the left, had become a virtual civil war the Prussian police were powerless to control. This physical violence was encouraged by Goebbels, the Nazi Gauleiter of Berlin, who had been given by Hitler the difficult task of establishing a reorganized Nazi presence in "Red Berlin" – a city sympathetic to the Communists and the Socialists – one that was under the firm control of the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich and was not controlled by the northern branch of the party under the Strasser brothers with their socialist leanings. Goebbels' violent approach was appreciated by Wessel, who preferred it to the official restraint he experienced as a member of the Bismarck Youth and the Viking League.
Oddly, although Wessel kept two journals, one specifically about his political life, in them he does not describe in concrete terms his physical participation in these street skirmishes: he refers to "we" – i.e. the SA – and not to "I". Wessel had a weak constitution: he had broken one arm several times while horseback riding as a schoolboy which deformed it, and had been given a permanent exemption from physical education. Nonetheless, he boxed and practiced martial arts while in the Viking League, and boasted in one journal of having mastered ju-jitsu, a primarily defensive art he may have needed to compensate for his lack of physical power. Still, the limitations of his physicality would have prevented him from taking as full a role in the street brawls as his ideology called for, and he may therefore have ratcheted up his rhetoric in an attempt to compensate for his physical disability.
Wessel became well-known among the Communists when – on orders from Goebbels – 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 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 started the fight. Wessel was marked for death by the KPD, with his face and address featured on street posters. The slogan of the KPD and the Red Front Fighters' League became "Strike the fascists wherever you find them."
In September 1929 Wessel met Erna Jänicke, a 23-year-old ex-prostitute, in a tavern not far from Alexanderplatz. Some sources claim Wessel earned money as Jänicke's procurer. On 1 November, she moved into his room on the third floor of 62 Große Frankfurter Straße (today Karl-Marx-Allee), which he sublet from 29-year old Elisabeth Salm, whose late husband had been an active Communist Red Freedom Fighter, although she described herself as apolitical. After a few months, there was a dispute between Salm and Wessel over unpaid rent in which Salm claimed that Wessel threatened her. The landlady – who may have feared that she could lose them if Jaenicke, who she assumed was a working prostitute, was found to be living there – wanted Jänicke to leave but the latter refused to, so on the evening of 14 January 1930 Salm appealed to Communist friends of her late husband for help. At first the Communists were not interested in helping Salm, as she was not well-liked by them because she had given her husband a church funeral instead of allowing the KPD to give him the standard burial rite used for members of the Red Freedom Fighters' League, but when they realized that Horst Wessel was involved in the dispute they agreed to beat him up and get him out of Salm's flat by force. Knowing they needed a tough guy, they sent word to a nearby tavern that they needed Albrecht "Ali" Höhler, an armed pimp, perjurer and petty criminal. Höhler, a heavily tattooed cabinetmaker who had just recently been released from prison, was a Communist and a member of the Red Freedom Fighters' League.
At around ten o'clock that night, Höhler and Erwin Rückert, another member of the KPD, knocked at the front door of the room where Wessel and Jänicke lived, while the remainder of the gang of at least a dozen men waited on the street outside. When Wessel, who was expecting a visit from the leader of another SA Sturm group, opened the door, he was almost immediately shot at point-blank range. Although it was later claimed that Wessel had attempted to draw a gun and so had been shot in self-defense, this was denied by eyewitnesses, who said that Wessel had no time to react. The attackers searched the room, removed a pistol from the wardrobe and a rubber truncheon, and then fled the scene, meeting up with the rest of the men in the street. The entire group then returned to their usual nighttime activities.
Even as Wessel was lying seriously wounded in hospital, Goebbels was already releasing reports asserting that those who had carried out the attack were "degenerate communist subhumans". Wessel received medical attention and recovered somewhat, but eventually died in hospital on 23 February from blood poisoning he contracted in hospital.
Following his death, the Nazis and Communists offered different accounts of the events. The police, led by Chief Inspector Teichmann, and several courts determined that both political and private reasons had led to Wessel's assassination. By 17 January 1930 the police had announced that Höhler, whom Jänicke had identified as the gunman, was their prime suspect.
It was then reported by a non-Nazi and non-Communist newspaper that Jänicke knew Höhler prior to the murder because Wessel had used her to spy on her former clients who were Communists. The Communists, in turn, claimed that Höhler had been Jänicke's pimp until Wessel stole her from him, and that this was the motive behind the shooting.  Jänicke denied these stories, saying that she had never been a spy for Wessel, and that she only knew Höhler as an "acquaintance from the streets". The police and courts believed her, and Höhler was quickly arrested. After a trial, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment for the shooting; the light sentence was the result of the court's finding of extenuating circumstances. Seven accomplices were also found guilty and sentenced to jail.
Three years later, after the Nazi ascension to national power in 1933, Höhler was taken out of prison under false pretenses by then Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels and members of the SA, and illegally executed.
On 10 April 1935, five years after Wessel's assassination, and two years after the SA murder of Höhler, two persons accused of being involved in Wessel's killing were put on trial and subsequently beheaded in Berlin's Plötzensee Prison: Sally Epstein, a Jewish painter, and Hans Ziegler, a barber. The two had been arrested in August 1933, and were put on trial in May 1934 with a third defendant, Peter Stoll, a tailor. In 2009 the sentences against all three of them were rescinded by the Berlin public prosecutor's office.
Goebbels had been looking for someone to turn into a martyr for the Nazi cause. His first attempt was with Albert Leo Schlageter, a member of the Freikorps and a saboteur who was caught attempting to blow up a train in the Ruhr region while it was under occupation by French troops in retaliation for Germany's not making its schedule of reparation payments. Schlageter was executed by the French, and his gravesite later became a Nazi shrine. There were also the 16 Nazis who had died during the Beer Hall Putsch, and would have a memorial built for them in Munich which was required to be saluted when passing by, and who were honored with a public ceremony every year when the Putsch was remembered. With two other party members who headed the list that the party later made of "Those Members of the Movement Who Have Been Murdered", Goebbels did not even make an effort to martyr them.
Goebbels saw in Wessel's shooting the possibility of a propaganda bonanza. He eulogized Wessel in his newspaper, Der Angriff, in overtly Christian tones:
A Christian Socialist! A man who calls out through his deeds: 'Come to me, I shall redeem you!' ... A divine element works in him. making him the man he is and causing him to act in this way and no other. One man must set an example and offer himself up as a sacrifice! Well, then, I am ready!
Goebbel's plan was to turn Wessel's funeral into a mass demonstration full of speeches and processions of SA men in uniform, but he could not get the necessary police permits to do so, even after Wessel's sister requested President Paul von Hindenburg to relent.
Wessel was buried in Berlin on 1 March 1930. Contrary to Nazi claims, there were no attacks on the funeral procession, which Goebbels claimed was watched by 30,000 people. The funeral was filmed and turned into a major propaganda event by the NSDAP. Wessel was elevated by Goebbels' propaganda apparatus to the status of leading martyr of the Nazi movement. Many of Goebbels's most effective propaganda speeches were made at gravesides, but Wessel received unusual attention among the many unremembered storm troopers. In an editorial in the Völkischer Beobachter ("People's Observer"), Alfred Rosenberg wrote of how Wessel was not dead, but had joined a combat group that still struggled with them; afterwards, Nazis spoke of how a man who died in conflict had joined "Horst Wessel's combat group" or were "summoned to Horst Wessel's standard". The Prussian police had outlawed public gatherings and the display of swastikas at the funeral procession, with the exception of a few Nazi Party vehicles. Wessel's coffin was paraded through large parts of the center of Berlin in a procession that took many hours.
As the coffin reached Bülowplatz (now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz), Communist hecklers began singing "The Internationale" in an attempt to disrupt the event. The police were unable to prevent abusive shouts and, at some points, flying rocks. No major clashes occurred, although someone had written "To Wessel the pimp, a last Heil Hitler" in white paint on the cemetery wall.
In attendance of Wessel's funeral was Goebbels, who delivered the eulogy, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, Hermann Göring, and Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia. Prior to the event, Goebbels and Göring had discussed the possibility of Hitler attending. In his diary entry on the day of the funeral, Goebbels recalled: "Hitler isn't coming. Had the situation explained to him over the telephone and he actually declined. Oh well"  Goebbels blamed Rudolf Hess for preventing Hitler from coming, but, in reality, Hitler's decision not to come was based on the advice he received from Göring that the danger of an attack on Hitler in the heart of "Red Berlin" was too great.
As a Nazi martyr
Although Goebbels could not get Hitler to attend Wessel's funeral, Hitler did speak at Wessel's grave three years after his death, on 22 January 1933, for the dedication of a memorial. Sixteen thousand members of the Berlin and Brandenburg SA and SS marched past the Communist Party headquarters on Bülowplatz (now the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz) – the Karl Liebknecht House – in a deliberately provocative act that Goebbels was very proud of having staged, calling it a "terrible defeat" for the Communists and "a proud and heroic victory of the SA on behalf of the party". He felt that the Communists had "a loss of prestige that could never again be made good", as they were relegated to fuming on the side streets. Once the "enormous procession ... led by Hitler, Goebbels, Ernst Röhm, and other top officials of the [party], ... marched to the St. Nicholas Cemetery ... Hitler spoke of Wessel's death as a symbolic sacrifice."
That night, Hiter addressed a memorial service at the Berlin Sportpalast, at which the "Funeral March" from Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung was played, and the stage was set as an altar made from "laurel trees, branches, candelabra and a larger-than-lifesize portrait of Wessel". Hitler lavished praise on "those fanatics who are consumed by the great task of their age" – "fanaticism" being a positive virtue among the Nazis – "who live for that task and who die for it ... [they would] later be not only the martyrs of their struggle but also the seed from which the subsequent harvest [would come]".
Goebbels continued to use the martyrdom of Wessel as a propaganda device for years. At the 1934 Nuremberg Party Rally, a group of Hitler Youth sang an anti-Christian song which included the lines "We don't need any Christian truth ... We follow not Christ but Horst Wessel". Wessel's name was frequently invoked by the Nazis to bolster core tenets of National Socialist ideology during the remaining existence of Nazi Germany. For example, a wartime article from the Nazi-owned Völkischer Beobachter newspaper called Wessel "the hero of the Brown Revolution" and referred to his "sacrificial death" that "passionately inflamed millions who followed". The paper further referred to Wessel as "the driving force behind the struggle for freedom of the armed services and the homeland of the Greater German Reich".
Horst Wessel Song
Wessel played the schalmei (shawm), a double-reed woodwind instrument which was played in groups called Schalmeienkapellen ("Schalmeien orchestras or bands"), and which is still used in folk celebrations. Wessel founded an "SA Schalmeienkapelle" band, which provided music during SA events. In early 1929, Wessel wrote the lyrics for a new Nazi fight song Kampflied ("fight song"), which was first published in Goebbels's newspaper Der Angriff in September, under the title Der Unbekannte SA-Mann ("The Unknown SA-Man"). The song later became known as Die Fahne Hoch ("Raise the Flag") and finally the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" ("Horst Wessel Song"). The Nazis made it their official anthem, and, after they came to power, the co-national anthem of Nazi Germany, along with the first stanza of the Deutschlandlied. The song was also played in some Protestant places of worship, as some elements of the Protestant Church in Germany had accepted and promulgated the Horst Wessel cult, built as it was by Goebbels on the model of Christian martyrs of the past.
It was later claimed by the Nazis that Wessel also wrote the music to the song, but it was considered more likely that the tune was in reality adapted from a World War I German Imperial Navy song, and was probably originally a folk song. The authorship of the melody was finally determined by a German court in 1937 as not by Wessel.
Hans Westmar: One of the Many was one of the first films of the Nazi era to idealise a version of Wessel's life. Goebbels, however, disliked the film, considering it to be crude in its use of propaganda, and on the day of its intended premiere issued a ban prohibiting it from being shown. Putzi Hanfstaengl – an old friend of Hitler's – who was one of the film's backers, and had composed its music, went personally to Hitler and Goebbels to complain about the ban, which was eventually reversed when enough of the Nazi Party hierarchy weighed in on Hanfstaengl's side. Goebbels, however, insisted on alterations to the film, the primary one being that the main character's name was changed to the fictional "Hans Westmar". Part of the problem with the film was that the authentic depiction of stormtrooper brutality, including violent clashes with Communists, did not fit the more reasonable tone the Nazis initially attempted to present after coming to power; unlike Wessel, Westmar preaches class reconciliation and does not alienate his family. It was among the first films to depict dying for Hitler as a glorious death for Germany, resulting in his spirit inspiring his comrades.
The Berlin district of Friedrichshain, where Wessel died, was renamed "Horst Wessel Stadt", and the Bülowplatz in the Mitte district was renamed "Horst-Wessel-Platz" on 26 May 1933. The U-Bahn station nearby was also renamed. After the war, the name Friedrichshain was restored and Horst-Wessel-Platz (which was in East Berlin) became "Liebknechtplatz" (after Karl Liebknecht). In 1947 it was renamed "Luxemburg-Platz" after Rosa Luxemburg (it has been called Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz since 1969). Passau named a street Horst-Wessel-Straße.
In 1936, Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine (navy) commissioned a three-masted training ship and named her the Horst Wessel. The ship was taken as a war prize by the United States after World War II. After repairs and modifications, she was commissioned on 15 May 1946 into the United States Coast Guard as the USCGC Eagle (WIX-327). She remains in service to this day.
Examples of German military units adopting the name of this Nazi-era "martyr" in World War II include the 18th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division, known as the "Horst Wessel" Division, and the Luftwaffe's 26th Destroyer (or heavy fighter) Wing Zerstörergeschwader 26, as well as its successor day fighter unit Jagdgeschwader 6, which was similarly named the "Horst Wessel" wing. The Jagdgeschwader 134, formed in 1936, and Jagdgeschwader 142 were also named after Wessel. In 1938, the Nazi Party's Central Publishing House, the Franz Eher Nachfolger Verlag in Munich, published Jagdgeschwader Horst Wessel ("Horst Wessel Fighter Squadron") by Obersturmbannführer Hans Peter Hermel to commemorate the presentation of the squadron to Hitler.
After World War II, Wessel's memorial was vandalized and his remains were destroyed. Such activity became common for buried Nazis in East Germany. The gravesite was long marked only by part of the headstone of Wessel's father, Ludwig, from which the surname "Wessel" had been removed. Later in 2011, a group of anti-Nazi activists attacked Wessel's grave and sprayed the words Keine Ruhe für Nazis! ("No Rest for Nazis!") on the remains of the grave marker. In August 2013, the grave marker was removed and the grave of Wessel's father was levelled as well, as the church wished to stop the site from being a rally point for Neo-Nazis. Since 1989, two petitions have been filed asking that Wessel's gravestone be restored to the St. Nicholas Cemetery. Both were denied.
In the modern era, some ultra-right-wing groups have attempted to revive Wessel's name as a symbol. For instance, the Young National Democrats (JN), which is the youth wing of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), uses his name and his "history" – which was largely invented by Goebbels – to attempt to inspire their members.
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