The Making of a Nazi Hero: The Murder and Myth of Horst Wessel
By Daniel Siemens. 20 pp. I. B. Tauris, 2013. $20.
Horst Wessel was a rank- and-file storm trooper, an SA Brown Shirt, whose murder in 1930 made him a propaganda icon as the Nazi Party rose to power, and then a subject of heroic memorialization in the Third Reich. The party anthem became “The Flag on High” (better known as “The Horst Wessel Song”), whose lyrics Wessel had written, and it was performed at rallies and belted out by SA troopers parading through the streets. After 1945, both the East and West German governments buried this Nazi symbol as their necessary first step to claiming moral high ground for a “new” Germany.
But Wessel’s story is well worth exhuming, for it offers a multifaceted case study of political violence in the Weimar Republic and political vengeance in the Third Reich, the workings of Germany’s legal system before and after 1933, and of the mythmaking that was central to National Socialist identity and rule. Historian Daniel Siemens rises to the challenge of integrating and contextualizing these narratives. Masterfully combining exhaustive archival research with scholarly literature, he reconstructs how a criminal case metastasized into a cultural and political phenomenon.
Wessel and his milieu were products of the Great War and its chaotic aftermath. A Protestant pastor’s son, Wessel repudiated his bourgeois identity in favor of the violence at the heart of National Socialism. He found his place in 1920s Berlin. Siemens brilliantly describes this turbulent scene, where politics informed the mundane, where the Nazi “community of action” provided structure and meaning, and where a dispute over unpaid rent could get a man killed.
That was what happened to Horst Wessel. His shooting was not, as the Nazis claimed, a Communist plot. Nor was it personal—pimps quarreling over a streetwalker, as was also claimed. Nor was the killers’ trial shaped by politics, Nazi or otherwise. The verdict was harsh and the sentences long. But Siemens establishes the complex and contradictory nature of the evidence in this “assassination”—in fact, the kind of crime that big-city courts often consider a useful excuse for getting thugs off the streets, one way or another. And so away they went.
To the Nazis, however, Horst Wessel was an instant centerpiece in the movement’s pantheon of martyrs. His death helped authenticate and legitimize National Socialism’s mission. Elevated to cult figure, Wessel was endlessly heralded in classrooms and in pulpits as an example of the new Germany. He inspired books, songs, poems, and statuary—all distinctly bad. Wessel’s iconic status atrophied as the war brought new heroes and new victims. But the Reich and its dedicated minions had long memories.
Of the 16 people convicted for Wessel’s murder, two were murdered in 1933. Two were executed after a 1935 show trial. Four died in concentration camps. After the war, Wessel’s “avengers” got off lightly: closing the books and starting over involved overlooking small fry deemed to have “gone with the flow” during the Nazi regime. But it was not until 1998 that the German government legalized the reversal of National Socialist criminal verdicts deemed unjust. Siemens calls this symbolic gesture important. In an imperfect world, it’s better than nothing.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.