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Horst Wessel

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Horst Wessel
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1978-043-14, Horst Wessel.jpg
Born Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel
(1907-10-09)9 October 1907
Bielefeld, Westphalia, Germany
Died 23 February 1930(1930-02-23) (aged 22)
Friedrichshain, Berlin, Germany
Political party Nazi Party 1926–30

Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel (9 October 1907 – 23 February 1930) was a local leader in Berlin 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 Josef 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. He 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 Nazi propaganda symbol in the Third Reich. The march he had written the lyrics to was re-named the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" ("Horst Wessel Song"), and became the official anthem of the Nazi Party. After Adolf Hitler came to 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").

Early life[edit]

Wessel as an infant with his mother and father, 1907

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,[1] one of Berlin's oldest churches. Wessel's mother, Bertha Luise Margarete Wessel (neé Richter), also came from a family of Lutheran pastors.[1] Wessel's parents were married on 1 May 1906.[1] He grew up alongside his sister Ingeborg Paula Margarethe (born 19 May 1909) and his brother Werner Georg Erich Ludwig (born 22 August 1910).[1] When they moved from Mülheim to Berlin, the family lived in the Judenstraße[2]

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,[3] where he passed his Abitur examination.[4] On 19 April 1926, Wessel enrolled in Friedrich Wilhelm University to study law.[5][6]

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.[7] Near the end of this time, he also founded his own youth group, the Knappschaft, the purpose of which was to "raise our boys to be real German men."[8] He also joined the Wiking League ("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.[9][10] He soon became a local leader, engaging in street battles with youth members of their adversarial groups,[8] such as the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Communist Party (KPD). Later, Wessel joined groups with a more sinister reputation, including the Black Reichswehr[11][12] and the "Olympia German Association for Physical Training", a powerful paramilitary group which was the successor of the disbanded Reinhard Regiment.[13]

In the Nazi Party[edit]

Joining the SA[edit]

Wessel in his Sturmführer uniform leading an SA unit at a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, 1929; Wessel is at the front left[14]

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 that the League would not achieve its self-defined mission, resigned from it on 23 November 1926.[15] 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)[6] Part of the attraction to Wessel was Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi 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."[5]

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 brownshirted SA, which was always interested in a good street fight, he was immersed in the anti-Semitic 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, which was published in Germany in 1922. The anti-Semitic Krasnov accepted as fact The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hoax which 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.[16]


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 the time, the SA was banned in Berlin. When they returned, the brownshirts were arrested.[17]

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 organisational and tactical methods of the Nazi Party there.[18][19] 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 its members from working for the party.[19]

In 1929, Wessel became the Street Cell Leader of the Alexanderplatz Storm Section of the SA.[19] In May, he was appointed district leader of the SA for Friedrichshain where he lived,[20] SA-Sturm 5.[21] with the rank of Sturmführer.[22] In October 1929, Wessel dropped out of university to devote himself full-time to the Nazi movement.[23] 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".[24] 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.[22]

Wessel's Friedrichshain Sturm unit had a reputation as being "a band of thugs, a brutal squad," and 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, which the Prussian police were powerless to control.[25] This physical violence was encouraged by Goebbels, the Nazi leader 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 party headquarters in Munich and was not controlled by the northern branch of the party under the Strasser brothers with their socialist leanings. Goebbel's violent approach was appreciated by Wessel, who preferred it to the official restraint he experienced as a member of he Bismark Youth and the Viking League.[26][27]

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 his arm several times while horseback riding as a schoolboy, which deformed his arm, and had been given a permanent exemption from physical education. Nevertheless, he boxed and practiced martial arts while in the Viking League, and boasted in one journal that he had mastered ju-jitsu, a primarily defensive art which 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 inabilities.[28]

Wessel became well-known among the Communists when – on orders from Goebbels[29] – 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 began the fight.[29] Wessel was marked for death by the KPD, with his face and address featured on street posters.[22] The slogan of the KPD and the Red Front Fighters' League became "Strike the fascists wherever you find them."[29]

Erna Jänicke[edit]

In September 1929, Wessel met Erna Jänicke, a 23-year-old ex-prostitute, in a tavern not far from Alexanderplatz.[30][18][11] Some sources claim Wessel earned money as Jänicke's procurer.[18][11] On 1 November she moved into his room on the third floor of 62 Große Frankfurter Straße (today Karl-Marx-Allee),[31] which he sub-let from 29-year old Elisabeth Salm,[32] whose late husband had been an active Communist Red Freedom Fighter, although she described herself as apolitical.[18][30][32] After a few months, there was a dispute between Salm and Wessel over unpaid rent, Salm wanted Jänicke to leave, but she refused to, and Salm appealed to Communist friends of her late husband for help on the evening of 14 January 1930.[30][18][32] At first the Communists were not interested in helping her, as she not well-liked by them because of her refusal to allow the KPD to give her husband the standard burial rite used for members of the Red Freedom Fighters League, but when they realised that Horst Wessel was involved, they agreed to give Wessel a beating and get him out of Salm's flat by force.[33]


Mug shot of Albrecht Höhler, the man arrested and later killed for Wessel's murder, wearing the new suit given to him by the Communist Party[34]

At around ten o'clock that night, 14 January 1930, Wessel was shot at point-blank range by two members of the KPD [24][35] at the front door of the apartment where Wessel and Jänicke lived. The two were part of a gang of at least a dozen men who had headed off to beat up Wessel. They went to the flat, where Wessel, who was expecting a visit from the leader of another SA Sturm group, opened the door. Wessel was shot almost immediately, although it was later claimed that Wessel had attempted to pull out a gun, and therefore had been shot in self defense; this was denied by eyewitnesses, who said that Wessel did not have time enough 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.[36]

Even as Wessel was lying seriously wounded in hospital, Josef Goebbels was already releasing reports asserting that those who had carried out the attack were "degenerate communist subhumans".[37] Wessel received medical attention and recovered somewhat, but eventually died in hospital on 23 February from blood poisoning he contracted during his hospitalisation.[24][35]

Following his death, the Nazis and Communists offered different accounts of the events.[38] The police – led by Chief Inspector Teichmann – and several courts determined that both political and private reasons had led to Wessel's assassination.[38] By 17 January 1930, the police had announced that their prime suspect was KPD member Albrecht "Ali" Höhler,[39] a pimp and procuror[34] whom Jänicke had identified as the gunman.[39] 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. [39] 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".[39] The police and courts believed Jänicke, and Höhler was quickly arrested.[39] After a trial, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment for the shooting;[40][41][42] the light sentence was the result of the court finding that there were extenuating circumstances. Seven accomplices were also found guilty and sentenced to jail.[43]


Three years later, after the Nazi accession to power in 1933, Höhler was taken out of prison under false pretenses by the SA and illegally executed.[41][42]

On April 10, 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 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.[43] In 2009 the sentences against them were rescinded by the German government.


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.[44]

Wessel was buried in Berlin on 1 March 1930.[45][46] Contrary to Nazi claims, there were no attacks on the funeral procession.[45] His funeral was filmed and turned into a major propaganda event by the NSDAP.[45] Wessel was elevated by Goebbels' propaganda apparatus to the status of leading martyr of the Nazi movement.[47] Many of Goebbels's most effective propaganda speeches were made at gravesides, but Wessel received unusual attention among the many unremembered storm troopers.[48] 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."[49] 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.[45] Wessel's coffin was paraded through large parts of the center of Berlin in a procession that took many hours.[45]

As the coffin reached Bülowplatz (now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz), KPD members began singing "The Internationale" in an attempt to disrupt the event.[45] The police were unable to prevent abusive shouts and, at some points, flying rocks.[45] No major clashes occurred,[45] although someone had written "To Wessel the pimp, a last Heil Hitler" in white paint on the cemetery wall.[50]

In attendance of Wessel's funeral was Goebbels, who delivered the eulogy, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon, Hermann Göring, and Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia.[51][46] Prior to the event, Goebbels and Göring had discussed the possibility of Hitler attending.[45] 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" [45] Goebbels blamed Rudolf Hess for preventing Hitler from coming.[44]


Goebbels continued to use the "martyrdom" of Wessel as a propaganda device for years, including in January 1933, when "an enormous procession ... led by Hitler, Goebbels, [Ernst] Röhm, and other top officials of the [party],... marched to the St. Nicholas Cemetery ... [where] Hitler spoke of Wessel's death as a symbolic sacrifice, and dedicated a memorial to him.[52] 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".[53]


Horst Wessel Song[edit]

Main article: The Horst Wessel Song

Wessel played the schalmei (shawm), a double-reed woodwind instrument[54] which was played in groups called Schalmeienkapellen ("Schalmeien orchestras or bands"), and are still used in folk celebrations.[54] Wessel founded an "SA Schalmeienkapelle" band, which provided music during SA events.[54] 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").[11] The song later became known as Die Fahne Hoch ("Raise the Flag") and finally the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" ("Horst Wessel Song").[11] The Nazis made their official anthem, and, after they came to power, the co-national anthem of Nazi Germany, along with the first stanza of the Deutschlandlied.[55] 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.[56]

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.[11] The authorship of the melody was finally determined by a German court in 1937 as not by Wessel.[11]

Posthumous notability[edit]

Hans Westmar[edit]

Hans Westmar was one of the first films of the Nazi era to idealise a version of his life.[57] 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".[57] Part of the problem was the authentic depiction of stormtrooper 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.[58] It was among the first films to depict dying for Hitler as a glorious death for Germany, resulting in his spirit inspiring his comrades.[59]

Memorial namings[edit]

Passau named a street Horst-Wessel-Straße.[60]

The USCGC Eagle, formerly the Horst Wessel

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".[61] The U-Bahn station nearby was also renamed.[61] After the war, the name Friedrichshain was restored and Horst-Wessel-Platz (which was in East Berlin) became "Liebknechtplatz" (after Karl Liebknecht).[61] In 1947 it was renamed "Luxemburg-Platz" after Rosa Luxemburg (it has been called Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz since 1969).[61]

In 1936, Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine commissioned a three-masted training ship and named her the Horst Wessel.[62] The ship was taken as a war prize by the United States after World War II.[62] 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.[62]

In 1938, an area of reclaimed land in the rural area of Eiderstedt in Schleswig-Holstein was named the "Horst Wessel polder".[24]

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.[63]

Post-Third Reich[edit]

After World War II, Wessel's memorial was vandalized and his remains were destroyed.[64] Such activity became common for buried Nazis in East Germany.[46] The gravesite was long marked only by part of the headstone of Wessel's father, Ludwig, from which the surname "Wessel" had been removed.[64] 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/headstone.[65] In August 2013, the grave marker was removed and 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.[64][66] Since 1989, two petitions have been filed asking that Wessel's gravestone be restored to the St. Nicholas Cemetery. Both were denied.[67]

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.[68]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Siemens 2013, p. 22.
  2. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 24.
  3. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 30.
  4. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 35.
  5. ^ a b Reuth 1993, p. 82.
  6. ^ a b Siemens 2013, p. 41.
  7. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 30–34.
  8. ^ a b Siemens 2013, pp. 34–35.
  9. ^ Friedrich, Thomas (2013) Hitler's Berlin: Abused City Spencer, Stewart (trans). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-16670-5. pp. 61, 69.
  10. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 35–39.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Mann 1938.
  12. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 35–37.
  13. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 38.
  14. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 61.
  15. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 39.
  16. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 42–44.
  17. ^ Reuth 1993, p. 93.
  18. ^ a b c d e Jewish Virtual Library 2015.
  19. ^ a b c Reuth 1993, p. 101
  20. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 73.
  21. ^ Siemens 2013, p. xiii.
  22. ^ a b c Burleigh 2000, pp. 116–120.
  23. ^ Quinn 2009, p. 89.
  24. ^ a b c d Siemens 2013, p. 3.
  25. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 73–74.
  26. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 60.
  27. ^ Reuth 1993, p. 75.
  28. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 54–56.
  29. ^ a b c Reuth 1993, pp. 107–108.
  30. ^ a b c Burleigh 2012, p. 138.
  31. ^ Reuth 1993, pp. 111–113.
  32. ^ a b c Siemens 2013, pp. 4–7.
  33. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 7.
  34. ^ a b Siemens 2013, p. 79.
  35. ^ a b Longerich 2015, p. 123.
  36. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 7–9.
  37. ^ Baird 1992, p. 82.
  38. ^ a b Siemens 2013, p. 4.
  39. ^ a b c d e Siemens 2013, p. 14.
  40. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 15–16.
  41. ^ a b Reuth 1993, p. 178.
  42. ^ a b Burleigh 2012, p. 120.
  43. ^ a b Schumann 1936, p.367
  44. ^ a b Reuth 1993, p. 112.
  45. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Siemens 2013, p. 17.
  46. ^ a b c World War II Graves 2015.
  47. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 3, 14.
  48. ^ Baird 1975, p. 14.
  49. ^ Cecil 1972, p. 97.
  50. ^ Reuth 1993, p. 113.
  51. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 15, 17.
  52. ^ Reuth 1993, p. 160.
  53. ^ Baird 1992, p. 106.
  54. ^ a b c Siemens 2013, p. 27.
  55. ^ Bonney 2009, p. 116.
  56. ^ Siemens 2013, pp. 126–129.
  57. ^ a b Welch 2001, pp. 66–67.
  58. ^ Koonz 2005, p. 85.
  59. ^ Erwin 1975, p. 24.
  60. ^ Rosmus, Anna Hitlers Nibelungen, Samples Grafenau 2015, pp. 249f. ISBN 393840132X
  61. ^ a b c d Luisenstadt 2015.
  62. ^ a b c German Propaganda Archive 2015.
  63. ^ Baird 1975, p. 127.
  64. ^ a b c Walden 2015.
  65. ^ Linksunten Indymedia 2015.
  66. ^ Kurier 2013.
  67. ^ Siemens 2013, p. 229.
  68. ^ Siemens 2013, p. xiv.



External links[edit]