|Birth name||Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel|
9 October 1907|
Bielefeld, Westphalia, Germany
|Died||23 February 1930
Friedrichshain, Berlin, Germany
|Allegiance||Sturmabteilung ("Storm Detachment"; SA)|
|Years of service||1926–30|
Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel (9 October 1907 – 23 February 1930) was a Nazi Party (NSDAP) activist known for writing the lyrics to the "Horst-Wessel-Lied". His death in 1930 was used by the party for propaganda purposes.
Wessel first joined the German National People's Party (DNVP), but by 1926 was removed for being too extremist. He then joined the NSDAP, where he wrote songs for Nazi events. 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 Höhler was arrested and charged with his murder. He was initially sentenced to six years in prison, but was executed 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 Nazi propaganda symbol. His name was used for several civilian and military purposes during the time of the Third Reich.
Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel was born on 9 October in 1907 in Bielefeld, Westphalia, as the son of Wilhelm Ludwig Georg Wessel (born 15 July 1879), a doctor and Lutheran minister at the Nikolai Church, one of Berlin's oldest churches. Wessel's mother, Bertha Luise Margarete Wessel (neé 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). The family lived in the Judenstraße ("Street of the Jews"), which in medieval times had been the centre of Berlin's Jewish community. Wessel's refusal to follow his father into the ministry was the subject of many father and son conflicts.
The Wessel family, mainly influenced by 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"). He soon became a local leader, engaging in street battles with youth members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Communist Party (KPD). Later, Wessel joined groups with a more sinister reputation, including the Organisation Consul and finally the Black Reichswehr.
Wessel attended Volksschule (primary school) in Cölln from 1914 to 1922, and thereafter attended high school at Königstädtisches and Luisenstädtisches Gymnasium, where he passed his Abitur examination. In 1926 Wessel enrolled in Friedrich Wilhelm University.
In the Nazi Party
Joining the SA
By 1926, the German National People's Party decided that Wessel had become "too radical" and he was removed. That December, he joined Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party; NSDAP) and its paramilitary organisation the Sturmabteilung ("Storm Detachment"; SA). Part of the attraction to Wessel was the socialist stance taken by the Nazi groups in northern Germany. He was also impressed by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party's Gauleiter (regional leader) of Berlin, about whom he said "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."
In a group of fifty SA men, Wessel traveled to the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in August 1927, joining other Berlin Nazis to make a group of 400, led by Goebbels. At the time, the SA was banned in Berlin. When they returned, the 450 brownshirts were arrested.
Wessel soon impressed Goebbels in turn, 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 organisational 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 reorganisation 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 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. In October 1929, Wessel dropped out of university to devote himself full-time to the Nazi movement.
At around the same time, the Alexanderplatz, the centre of Berlin's nightlife, was part of the territory of Wessel's SA troops. In September 1929, he met Erna Jänicke, an 18-year-old prostitute, in a bar. Soon he moved into her apartment in Große Frankfurter Straße (today Karl-Marx-Allee). The landlady was Elisabeth Salm, whose late husband had been an active Communist. Some sources claim Wessel earned money as her procurer. After a few months, there was a dispute between Salm and Wessel over unpaid rent.
In the evening of 14 January 1930, at around ten o'clock, Wessel was shot in the face at point-blank range by two members of the KPD in Friedrichshain. The attack occurred at Große Frankfurter Straße 62, the building where Wessel and Jänicke lived. As he was lying seriously wounded in hospital, Goebbels was already releasing reports asserting that those who had carried out the attack were "degenerate communist subhumans". He later died in hospital on 23 February from blood poisoning he contracted during his hospitalisation.
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 announced their manhunt for their prime suspect: KPD member Albrecht Höhler. Jänicke identified Höhler as the gunman. It was then reported by a democratic-minded newspaper that Jänicke knew about the existence of Höhler prior to the murder because Wessel had used her for espionage. Jänicke responded by saying 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 Jänicke, and Höhler was quickly arrested. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment for the shooting; the light sentence the result of the court finding that there were extenuating circumstances. Seven accomplices were also found guilty and sentenced to jail.
Goebbels' 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 Hindenburg to relent.
Wessel was buried in Berlin on 1 March 1930. Contrary to Nazi claims, there were no attacks on the funeral procession. His 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), KPD members 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, however 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, referred to as the "Nazi prince." 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.
Goebbels continue to use the "martyrdom" of Wessel as a propaganda device for years, including in January 1933, when "an enormous procession ... led by Hitler, Goebbels, Röhm, and other top officials of the NSDAP,... marched to the St. Nicholas Cemetery ... [where] Hitler spoke of Wessel's death as a symbolic sacrifice, and dedicated a memorial to him. Wessel's name was frequently invoked by the Nazis to bolster core tenets of National Socialist ideology during the remaining existence of the Third Reich. 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".
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 grave site was long marked only by part of the headstone of Wessel's father, Ludwig, from which the surname "Wessel" had been removed. This, too, was destroyed around 2005 and the site was marked only by a raised mound of earth bounded by ivy, with two iceplants in the center. Later in 2011, a group of anti-Nazi activists attacked Wessel's grave and sprayed the words Keine Ruhe für Nazis! (English: "No Rest For Nazis!") on his headstone. In August 2013, 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.
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 are 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 a co-national anthem of Nazi Germany, along with the first stanza of the Deutschlandlied. It was later claimed by the Nazis that Wessel also wrote the music, 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.
On April 10, 1935, five years after Wessel's assassination, and two years after the SA murder of Wessel's killer, Albrecht Höhler, two persons accused of being involved in Wessel's killing were put on trial and subsequently beheaded in Berlin's Plotzensee Prison: Solly 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 them were rescinded by the German government.
Hans Westmar was one of the first films of the Nazi era to idealise a version of his life. Goebbels, however, disliked the film and temporarily banned it, eventually allowing its release with alterations and with the main character's name changed to the fictional "Hans Westmar". Part of the problem was the authentic depiction of storm trooper brutality, including violent clashes with Communists, did not fit the more reasonable tone the Nazis attempted to present initially, 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 a square in the Mitte district was renamed "Horst-Wessel-Platz". 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).
In 1936, Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine 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.
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