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Horst Ludwig Wessel

Horst Wessel
Horst Wessel.

Horst Ludwig Wessel (September 9, 1907 - February 23, 1930) was a German Nazi activist who was made a posthumous hero of the Nazi movement following his violent death in 1930. He was the author of the lyrics to the song "Die Fahne hoch" ("Raise High the Flag"), usually known as Horst-Wessel-Lied ("the Horst Wessel Song"), which became the Nazi Party anthem and Germany's official co-national anthem from 1933 to 1945.

Early life

Wessel was born in Bielefeld in Westphalia, the son of a Lutheran pastor, Dr Ludwig Wessel, who from 1913 until his death in 1923 was the minister at the Nikolaikirche, one of Berlin's oldest churches. His mother also came from a family of Lutheran pastors. The family lived in the nearby Jüdenstrasse (the Jews' Street), which in mediaeval times had been the centre of Berlin's Jewish community (and ghetto).

Although he was later portrayed by hostile sources as an illiterate thug, Wessel had a good education and was of at least average intelligence. He attended the Volksschule des Köllnischen Gymnasiums (primary school) from 1914 to 1922, and the Gymnasium (secondary school) in Königstadt from 1922. For his final year of school he attended the Luisenstadt Gymnasium, where he sat and passed his Abitur (the German school leaving examination). In April 1926 he enrolled in the law faculty of Friedrich-Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University) in Unter den Linden, and appears to have been a satisfactory student until he decided to devote all his time to the Nazi movement.

Wessel was politically active from an early age. His father was a supporter of the conservative German National People's Party (DNVP), and when he was 15 Wessel joined the DNVP youth group, the Bismarckjugend. He soon became a local leader, engaging in street battles with the youth groups of the Social Democrats and Communists.

Nazi activist

By 1926, however, Wessel had grown too radical for the DNVP, and in December of that year he joined the Nazi Party and its paramilitary organisation, the SA. Until this time the Nazis had been very weak in "Red Berlin," but from 1926 under the energetic leadership of the new Gauleiter, Dr Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis rapidly displaced the other parties of the right. Wessel was one of the wave of new young recruits Goebbels brought into the party.

Wessel soon impressed Goebbels and in January 1928, during the period when the Berlin city authorities had banned the SA in an effort to curb political street violence, he was sent on a study trip to Vienna, to study organizational and tactical methods of the Nazi movement there. In May 1929 Wessel was appointed leader of SA-Troop 34, based in the Friedrichshain district where he was now living. In October 1929 he decided to devote himself fulltime to the Nazi movement and dropped out of his university studies.

In addition to his political activities, Wessel had some musical talents. He played the schalmei (shawm), a kind of oboe popular in Germany, and founded an SA Schalmeienkapelle, or shawm band, which was used to provide music during SA parades and meetings and to attract new followers. In early 1929 Wessel wrote the lyrics for a new Nazi "fighting song" (Kampflied), which was published for the first time in Goebbels's newspaper Der Angriff in September, under the title "Der Unbekannte SA-Mann" (the Unknown SA-Man). This was the song later known as "Die Fahne hoch" from its opening line, or as the "Horst Wessel Song". It was later claimed by the Nazis that he also wrote the music, but in fact the tune was taken from a World War I German Navy song, and is probably originally a folk tune.

The Alexanderplatz, the centre of Berlin's nightlife at this time, was part of the territory of Wessels's SA troop, and in September 1929 he met an 18-year-old prostitute, Erna Jänicke, in an Alexanderplatz bar. Shortly after he moved in with her, at her apartment in Grosse Frankfurter Strasse (today Karl-Marx-Allee). The landlady was one Frau Salm, whose late husband had been an active Communist. Frau Salm seems to have developed an active dislike for Wessel. After a few months a dispute blew up over unpaid rent.

On the evening of 14 January 1930 Wessel answered a knock on his door, and was shot in the face by an assailant who then fled the scene. He was gravely wounded and lingered in hospital until he died on 23 February. His assassin was Albrecht Höhler, an active member of the local Communist Party (KPD) branch (Höhler was sentenced to six years imprisonment for the assault, but was murdered by the Gestapo after the Nazi accession to power in 1933). The KPD denied any knowledge of the attack and said it resulted from a dispute over money between Wessel and his landlady. The matter was never resolved, although it can be noted that assassination was not a tactic used or approved of by the KPD. It is possible that Frau Salm asked her late husband's old comrades to help deal with her recalcitrant tenant. It is also possible that the shooting was revenge by local Communists for Wessel's alleged role in the murder by local Nazis of a 17-year-old Communist, Camillo Ross, earlier in the day.

Posthumous fame

Wessel was buried on 1 March in the graveyard of the Nikolaikirche, his father's old church. It was reported that 30,000 people lined the streets to see the funeral procession. Goebbels delivered the eulogy in the presence of Hermann Göring and Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia, son of former emperor Wilhelm II, who had joined the SA.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, an elaborate memorial was erected over the grave, and it became the site of annual pilgrimages by the Nazis, at which the Horst Wessel Song was sung and speeches made. With the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, the memorial was destroyed and Wessel's remains were apparently disinterred and also destroyed. The grave site has recently been discovered by amateur historians.

Wessel was elevated by Goebbels' propaganda apparatus to the status of leading martyr of the Nazi movement. Nazi propaganda glorified his life. Die Brünnen, the SA journal, declared, "How high Horst Wessel towers over that Jesus of Nazareth - that Jesus who pleaded that the bitter cup be taken from him. How unattainably high all Horst Wessels stand above Jesus!" Wessel was commemorated in memorials, books and films. Hans Heinz Ewers wrote a novelistic biography of him. One of the first films of the Nazi era was an idealised version of his life, based on Ewers's book. 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".

The Berlin district of Friedrichshain, where Wessel died, was renamed Horst Wessel, and a square in the Mitte district, Bülowplatz, was renamed Horst-Wessel-Platz, as was the U-bahn station nearby. After the war the name Friedrichshain was restored, and Horst-Wessel-Platz (which was in East Berlin), became Liebknechtplatz (after Karl Liebknecht). In 1969 it was renamed Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz after the socialist heroine Rosa Luxemburg, the name by which it is still known.

In 1936, the German Navy commissioned a three-masted training ship and named it the Horst Wessel. The ship was taken as a war prize by the United States after World War II. After repairs and modifications, it was commissioned on 15 May 1946 into the United States Coast Guard as the USCGC Eagle, and is still in service.

The 18th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division was named the "Horst Wessel" Division.

The "martyrdom" of Horst Wessel led directly to the promotion of his song "Die Fahne hoch" as the official Song of Consecration (Weihelied) for the Nazi Party. From 1933 it was adopted as the unofficial second part of the German National Anthem, to be played and sung immediately after the Deutschlandlied. The song was banned along with all other Nazi symbols in 1945, and both the lyrics and tune remain illegal in Germany to this day.

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