The Making of a Nazi Hero
The Making of a Nazi Hero: The Murder and Myth of Horst Wessel
I.B. Tauris 316pp £20
Horst Wessel, or so ran the propaganda legend created by Goebbels, was the ideal Nazi hero. Young, idealistic and dedicated to the movement for which he had sacrificed his middle-class status and a promising career. Moreover he was a talented speaker and Stormtroop organiser and a few lines of doggerel penned by him became the ubiquitous Nazi anthem Die Fahne Hoch ... aka the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’. Finally, to set the myth in stone, he had been murdered by ‘subhuman Communist bandits’. The truth, as Daniel Siemens convincingly demonstrates in this definitive study, is rather different.
The book is organised in three parts. The first is a biography of Wessel, an exploration of his political commitment and a detailed forensic account of his messy death and the trials of his killers. The second tells the story of how his life was posthumously fashioned by the Nazi regime into a propaganda symphony that, like Wessel’s endlessly repeated song, reached into every area of Germany’s new existence. The final section is a revealing and minutely researched account of the very different fates of those who knew him: his surviving family; the gang that killed him; and his erstwhile comrades who eventually avenged him.
Born into impeccable respectability as the son of a Protestant pastor, Wessel’s adolescence coincided with the upheavals following the Great War. Drawn into nationalist student politics, the young man grew ever more extreme, becoming an SA Stormtroop leader in east Berlin, hitherto a staunchly ‘Red’ bastion. Socially a cut above his rough-hewn comrades, Wessel was earmarked for a leading role by Goebbels, the Gauleiter tasked by Hitler with conquering Red Berlin for Nazism. Based in the Communist-dominated Friedrichshain quarter, Wessel had his work cut out.
Siemens is excellent on the close contact between the SA paramilitaries and their ostensible deadly opponents, the Communist Red Front Fighters. Living in the same streets and tenements, frequenting the same bars and clubs, using the same violent rhetoric and tactics and appealing to the same working-class constituency, Nazis and Communists were birds of a similar feather, even if their ideological plumage was of different hue. Both groups had close affinities with Berlin’s criminal underworld.
Rejecting his stuffy background, Wessel plunged into this underworld. He left the parental home, abandoning his law studies in favour of sharing a room with his ex-prostitute girlfriend Erna Jaenichen, wielding coshes and broken beer glasses with relish and supporting his lifestyle with occasional work as a labourer or cabbie. Piquantly illustrating the intimacy of Nazis and Communists in east Berlin, the landlady whose apartment Wessel and Erna sub-let and shared, Elisabeth Salm, was the widow of a Marxist militant who still maintained contact with her husband’s former comrades, which laid the seeds for Wessel’s downfall.
The young SA man was marked down for death by the Communists because of his success in attracting Communist defectors into the SA’s ranks. As Siemens shows, his murder was not the sordid result of a brawl between pimps over a street-walker’s favours with one of Erna’s ex-lovers, which was the ‘line’ put out by the Communists, but a long-planned assassination by them of a dangerous Nazi leader, using an easily expendable tattooed thug named Ali Hohler as the assassin and a quarrel over Frau Salm’s unpaid rent as the pretext.
Shot by Hohler in the face at point-blank range, Wessel took more than a month to die. Goebbels built up the legend of the dying man as the ideal Nazi martyr. After the Nazis gained power the Wessel cult reached monstrous proportions: streets and squares, the former Communist party HQ and his former Fredrichshain stamping ground were named after him; statues were erected; a ship named for him and a best-selling novel and film were based around his life. Any Communist with the remotest hand in his killing, as well as innocents who had nothing to do with it, were hunted down and either beheaded, murdered, or consigned to concentration camps.
Ali Hohler himself was dragged out of prison, where he was serving his sentence for the murder, and shot and beaten to death by a squad of high-ranking Nazi killers including Rudolf Diels, the Gestapo’s first chief, Karl Ernst the SA leader in Berlin, and – as Siemens shockingly proves for the first time – the former kaiser’s fourth son ‘Auwi’, Prince August-Wilhelm of Prussia, one of the proletarian SA’s few royal members. In stark contrast to the fates of the Communists, those Nazis involved in Hohler’s killing and many worse atrocities, escaped scot free to die in their beds long after the war. As much as anything else, this book is an indictment of postwar German ‘justice’.
An exemplary piece of research (Siemens even tracked down the bullet that killed Wessel and bits of his bones, neatly filed in the archives of the East German Stasi) and a gripping narrative of crime and punishment, as well as political history of the first order which fills in a blank space in the well-marked map of Nazi history, I cannot recommend this book too highly. Siemens is a young German historian who has just taken up a post at UCL’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. If this debut is any guide, a glittering future lies ahead.
Nigel Jones is the author of Tower: an Epic History of the Tower of London (Hutchinson, 2011).