During the Nazi era, the Horst Wessel Song became an anthem sung at all official and solemn Nazi occasions alongside Deutschlandlied, the German national anthem. Named after the young man who penned its lyric, Horst Wessel died on 23 February 1930 from a gunshot wound sustained five weeks earlier.
The son of a Lutheran minister, Horst Wessel was born on 9 October 1907 in the German city of Bielefeld. Much to his mother’s displeasure, he dropped his law studies and became an active member of the Brownshirts, a paramilitary wing of the Nazis. His fanatical devotion to the Nazi cause soon attracted the admiring attention of the future propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels who, in 1928, sent Wessel to Vienna to learn the subtle art of Nazi leadership and tactics.
On returning to Germany, Wessel relished the street brawls with the rival communists. (At this stage, the Nazis, although a powerful force in Germany, were not yet in power.) In one concerted assault, Wessel organised an attack on a regional communist headquarter in Berlin.
On 14 January 1930, Wessel got into an argument with his landlady Elisabeth Salm, whose late husband was a communist. The finer details are lost in the mists of time – but it centred round his rent and Wessel’s female guest: either he was refusing to pay an increased rent demand or refusing point blank to pay it at all, or that the young woman, Erna Jänicke, a former prostitute, was staying in Wessel’s flat for free. Either way, his manner was abusive, and the aggrieved landlady stomped to a local bar filled with communists and complained to whoever listened about her troublesome tenant.
The communists had been looking out for Wessel for some time and had resorted to pasting up ‘wanted’ posters in eastern Berlin. Now, thanks to Mrs Salm, they knew where he lived. A group of men promptly went round to Wessel’s flat to administer a ‘good proletarian hiding’. But Wessel, on opening the door, was shot in the mouth. The perpetrators tried to disguise the political nature of the shooting by claiming that Wessel was a pimp and had been shot over a disagreement about Jänicke. Ali Höhler, the man who shot Wessel, escaped to Prague but returned to Berlin within weeks where he was arrested and, along with his accomplices, sentenced to prison. On coming to power, in January 1933, the Nazis had him shot.
But he is happy
Wessel was taken to a hospital seriously wounded. Goebbels visited frequently and waxed lyrical about the ‘young leader’ in his diary. When first told of the shooting, Goebbels ‘trembled with fear’, and ‘felt as if the walls were collapsing around me. It was unbelievable’. On visiting Wessel, Goebbels wrote, ‘A bullet in the head has done terrible damage to this heroic lad. His face is distorted. I hardly recognize him. But he is happy … His young, bright smile overcomes the blood and wounds. He still believes [in the Nazi cause].’
Five weeks after the shooting, on 23 February 1930, Horst Wessel died. He was 22. On hearing of the death, Goebbels eulogised, ‘One day in a German Germany, workers and students will march together singing his song. He will be with them. He wrote it in a moment of ecstasy, of inspiration. The song flowed from him, born of life and bearing witness to that life … In ten years, children will sing it in the schools, workers in the factories, soldiers on the march. His song makes him immortal.’
The Nazi Martyr
The song Goebbels refers to was a lyric that Wessel had written, designed to be sung to a traditional German marching song. Called Raise the Flag, Goebbels had the song played at Wessel’s funeral (pictured), an elaborate affair attended by some 30,000 Nazis. The martyrdom of Wessel had begun. His grave became a shrine, streets and ships were named after him, and his life the subject of numerous films, books and plays. One particularly gruesome tribute wrote, ‘How high Horst Wessel towers over Jesus’.
Raise the Flag, now commonly known as the Horst Wessel Song, became a Nazi anthem to be played alongside the national anthem, for example, the night Hitler was appointed German Chancellor and, seven years later, at the signing ceremony following France’s defeat to Germany in June 1940. Horst Wessel had become a true martyr to the Nazi cause.
See also: The Horst Wessel Song lyrics