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Horst Wessel
Born (1907-09-09)September 9, 1907
Died February 23, 1930(1930-02-23) (aged 22)
Place of birth Bielefeld, Westphalia, German Empire
Place of death Berlin, Weimar Republic
Allegiance Sturmabteilung (SA)
Years of service 1922 - 1930

Horst Ludwig Wessel (October 9, 1907 – February 23, 1930) was a German Nazi Party activist and an SA-Sturmführer 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" ("The Flag On High"), usually known as Horst-Wessel-Lied ("the Horst Wessel Song"), which became the Nazi Party anthem and, de facto, Germany's co-national anthem from 1933 to 1945. His death also resulted in his becoming the "patron" for the Luftwaffe's 26th Destroyer Wing and the 18th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division during World War II.

Early life

Wessel was born in Bielefeld in Westphalia, the son of Dr. Ludwig Wessel, a Lutheran minister at the Nikolaikirche, one of Berlin's oldest churches. Wessel's mother, Luise Margarete Wessel, also came from a family of Lutheran pastors.[1] Wessel disappointed his father's hopes that he would go into the ministry himself.[2] The family lived in the nearby Judenstraße (the Jews' Street),[1] which in medieval times had been the centre of Berlin's Jewish community. Wessel's father was a supporter of the monarchist 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 youth members of the Social Democratic Party and . Later, he joined groups with a more sinister reputation, including the Viking, Organization Consul and finally the Black Reichswehr.[3]

Wessel attended the Volksschule (primary school) of Köllnisches Gymnasium from 1914 to 1922, thereafter the Königstädtisches Gymnasium (high school) and for his final year of school the Luisenstädtisches Gymnasium, where he passed his Abitur examination. In April 1926 he enrolled in the law faculty of Friedrich Wilhelm University Unter den Linden.[4]

Nazi activist

Sturmführer Horst Wessel leading his unit, SA-Sturm 5 of Berlin-Friedrichshain, Nuremberg 1929

By 1926 Wessel had become too radical for the German National People's Party, and in December of that year he joined the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi Party), and its paramilitary organisation, the Sturmabteilung (SA).

Wessel soon impressed Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party's Gauleiter, and in January 1928, during a period when the Berlin city authorities had banned the SA in an effort to curb political street violence, Wessel was sent on a trip to Vienna, to study Nazi organisational and tactical methods. In May 1929, Wessel was appointed leader of SA-Troop 34, based in the Friedrichshain district, where he lived. In October 1929 he dropped out of university to devote himself full-time to the Nazi movement.

Wessel played the schalmei, an instrument which uses a plastic 'double-reed'. They are played in groups called Schalmeikapelle 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), 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" and as the "Horst Wessel Song". It was later claimed by the Nazis that Wessel also wrote the music, but it is likely that the tune was 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 [5]

At that time, the Alexanderplatz, the centre of Berlin's nightlife, was part of the territory of Wessel's SA troop. 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.[6] After a few months, there was a dispute between Salm and Wessel over unpaid rent.[7]


In 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. Wessel lingered in hospital until he died on 23 February. Albrecht Höhler, an active member of the local Communist Party (KPD) branch, was sentenced to six years' imprisonment for the shooting, and was executed by the Gestapo after the Nazi accession to power in 1933.[8] The KPD, however, denied any knowledge of the attack and said it resulted from a dispute over money between Wessel and his landlady. It is possible that Salm asked her late husband's old comrades to help deal with her recalcitrant tenant.[9] Another version says that Wessel's murderer was a rival for the affections of Jänicke.

Posthumous fame

Wessel was elevated by Goebbels' propaganda apparatus to the status of leading martyr of the Nazi movement. Goebbels himself began the process with his 27 February 1930 account of Wessel's death "Raise High the Flag!"[10] Many of Goebbels's most effective propaganda speeches were made at gravesides, but Wessel received unusual attention among the many unremembered storm troopers.[11]

Wessel was buried on 1 March in the Nikolaifriedhof, in Prenzlauer Allee. It was reported that 30,000 people lined the streets to see the funeral procession.[citation needed] After the funeral Communists painted "a final Heil Hitler to the pimp Horst Wessel!" on the wall of the cemetery.[12]

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. Wessel's story was spread over Germany; when Naumann, a student who worked for Goebbels, had attended the funeral and taken the train to Gorlitz, he found that everyone at a Nazi rally was speaking of Wessel, and when they discovered he had attended the burial, insisted on his taking the stage to tell them of it.[11] In an editorial in the Völkischer Beobachter, 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."[13]

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.

Nazi propaganda glorified his life. The bimonthly Der Brunnen - Für deutsche Lebensart (Frithjof Fischer ed.) in its issue of 2 Jan 1934 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!"[14] Wessel was commemorated in memorials, books and films. Hanns Heinz Ewers wrote a novelistic biography of him.

Hans Westmar

One of the first films of the Nazi era was an idealised version of his life, based on Ewers' 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".[15] Part of the problem was that the authentic depiction of Stormtroopers, including picking fights with Communists, did not fit the more reasonable tone the Nazis adopted while in power; Westmar does not alienate his family and preached class reconciliation.[16] It was, however, among the first films to depict dying for Hitler as a glorious death for Germany, resulting in his spirit inspiring his comrades.[17]

Memorial namings

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 1947 it was renamed Luxemburg-Platz after Rosa Luxemburg (since 1969 more precisely Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz).[18]

In 1936, the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) commissioned a three-masted training ship and named her the Horst Wessel.[19] 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), and is still in service.

Examples of German military units adopting the name of the Nazi-era "martyr" in World War II include the 18th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division, known as the "Horst Wessel" Division, and the World War II era 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. During the Battle of Britain, one successful attack on British planes was celebrated as the name of Horst Wessel represented absolute "devotion to duty", so too would they carry on until victory.[20]


The alleged "martyrdom" of Horst Wessel led directly to the Horst-Wessel-Lied, also known as Die Fahne hoch ("The Flag is High") from its opening line, being promoted as the anthem of the Nazi Party from 1930 to 1945. From 1933 to 1945 the Nazis made it a co-national anthem of Germany, along with the first stanza of the Deutschlandlied.[21] With the end of the Nazi regime in 1945, the Horst-Wessel-Lied was banned, and the lyrics and tune are illegal in Germany and Austria except for educational purposes. In early 2011, this resulted in an investigation against Amazon and Apple for selling the song to German users.[22]


After the fall of the Third Reich in May 1945, Wessel's grave was in Communist-ruled East Berlin. The memorial was destroyed and Wessel's remains apparently were disinterred and also destroyed. 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.[23] This too was destroyed around 2005 and the site is now marked only by a raised mound of earth bounded by ivy, with two iceplants in the centre. However, the nearby grave of relative Clara Wessel (1876–1951) has been given a new headstone.[citation needed]

See also

Others given posthumous fame by the Nazis


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Horst-Wessel-Lied - A Reappraisal
  2. The Daily Telegraph, 1934-09-22, 1.
  3. School for Barbarians, Erika Mann, 1938, p. 64
  4. Lesser known facts of WW II
  5. Erika Mann (1938) School For Barbarians, pp. 65-66
  6. Erika Mann (1938) School For Barbarians, pp. 65
  7. Michael Burleigh (2000) The Third Reich, A New History, Pan p. 138
  8. Joachim Fest, Hitler
  9. History Today, October 2007 p.27
  10. Joseph Goebbels, "Raise High the Flag!"
  11. 11.0 11.1 Jay W. Baird, The Mythical World of Nazi War Propaganda, p 14 ISBN 0-8166-0741-9
  12. Uwe Klussmann (29 November 2012), The Ruthless Rise of the Nazis in Berlin Der Spiegel
  13. Robert Cecil, The Myth of the Master Race: Alfred Rosenberg and Nazi Ideology p97 ISBN 0-396-06577-5
  14. quoted in Schumann, F.L., Hitler and the Nazi Dictatorship, London, 1936, p.368
  15. Welch, D., Propaganda and the German Cinema, pp. 61–71.
  16. Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience, p. 85 ISBN 06740117204
  17. Erwin Leiser, Nazi Cinema p. 24 ISBN 0-02-570230-0
  18. Horst-Wessel-Platz
  19. "The Launching of the Training Ship Horst Wessel"
  20. Jay W. Baird, The Mythical World of Nazi War Propaganda, p 127 ISBN 0-8166-0741-9
  21. Geisler, p.71.
  22. Hannoversche Allgemeine - LKA ermittelt gegen Apple und Amazon, 3. February 2011
  23. See photos of Horst Wessel's grave

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