September 21, 2007


A Song for Hitler: The sordid murder of Horst Wessel, a young Nazi storm troop leader in Berlin in early 1930, might have passed almost unnoticed. Just one more death amid the chaotic political violence that marked the years before the Nazi seizure of power. However, in the hands of the propaganda genius Joseph Goebbels, Wessel’s killing became emblematic of the Nazi struggle to ‘save’ Germany from Communism, and Wessel himself – thanks to a few lines of doggerel he had written – the leading martyr of Hitler’s movement. On the centenary of Wessel’s birth Nigel Jones recalls his death and the black legend that sprang from it. (Nigel Jones, October 2007, History Today)

There is no doubt that Wessel – like his later mentor Goebbels – was one of those radical Nazis who took the word ‘Socialist’ in the party’s name seriously. ‘The parties of the right … called us National Bolsheviks or National Marxists because of our socialist posture’, Wessel wrote:

... They were correct, for the National Socialists in general had more sympathy for the [Communist] Red Front Fighters’ League than for the [Conservative] Stahlhelm. … In the red camp there were just as many – perhaps even more, fanatical idealists ripe for martyrdom than on the other side. Added to that was the whole shocking realization of the unbelievable delusion and abuse of the entire working class. And that’s how I became a socialist.

Aware that the son of a pastor might lack proletarian credentials, he refused to practice law and earned his living as a labourer and taxi driver; determined to live in the same conditions as the men of Sturm 5, the Berlin branch of the SA that he swiftly rose to command. Wessel, who clearly had charisma, intellgence and courage, relished a challenge, and in basing himself in the Friederichshain quarter, a Communist bastion with a population of some 350,000, he was provocatively pushing his head into the Communist lion’s jaws.

The brawling Nazis and Communists in late 1920s Berlin had, despite their bitter and bloody battles, a grudging mutual respect born of their shared working-class origins, and aped each other’s uniforms, organization, propaganda and militarized mindset.

Ever since the bloody suppression of the Spartacist revolts in 1919 – with the Freikorps’ murder of the KPD’s founding leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg – Berlin had been considered a Red citadel. The vast working-class quarters in the east, such as Friederichshain and Wedding, with their ill-lit, swarming tenement blocks, smoking factories and subterranean drinking dens, were Communist strongholds. Any attempt by the Nazis to break this iron grip was fiercely – and violently – resisted in the same way as Al Capone saw off the attempts to encroach on his territory by the Bugs Moran gang in contemporary Chicago.

Even in Weimar Germany’s most prosperous and ‘peaceful’ period of 1924-30 around thirty Nazis and ninety Communists were killed in political violence; along with twenty-six Stahlhelm nationalists; and eighteen Reichsbanner socialists. Far left and extreme right infiltrated each other’s meetings; attacked each other’s marches; disrupted each other’s funerals and routinely trashed the bars where their members met. All the time, however, another battle – one for hearts and minds – was in progress as the two sides struggled to win over and convert Communists to Nazis and vice versa. [...]

Returning from Vienna in early 1929, Wessel continued his work in Berlin and in March wrote the words of the song that would later bear his name. In August he led his men in a parade at the annual Parteitag or national rally at Nuremberg. After returning to the capital, Wessel was passing the Café Mexico off Alexanderplatz, in the heart of east Berlin one night, when he saw a young woman being attacked. He intervened to save her and soon discovered that the girl, Erna Jaenicke, was a prostitute, and that the man assailing her had been a client who had turned nasty.

Wessel fell in love with Erna and in September rented a small room at 62 Grosse Frankfurter Strasse where they could live together. His choice of landlady might seem strange. Elizabeth Salm’s recently deceased husband had been a Communist militant and she had shared his political leanings. But given the intimacy with which Communists and Nazis frequented the same shops and streets such domestic arrangements were not uncommon. Neither Wessel’s mother and sister, nor his party bosses, approved his choice of lover, especially as Horst’s party work appeared to slacken off the more he enjoyed the delights of home life with Erna, who, he claimed, had given up her former profession. [...]

Meanwhile, Wessel’s unhappy relationship with his landlady was reaching crisis point. Frau Salm, herself only a tenant, was worried that she would lose her lodgings if Wessel continued to hold political meetings in the flat, or if Erna reverted to her old profession and used the place for immoral purposes. There were also squabbles over the kitchen, which Wessel, Erna and Frau Salm shared – and the rent, which, Salm claimed, was in arrears. By mid-January, she had had enough of her troublesome tenants and decided that they needed to be taught a lesson.

Her thoughts turned to her late husband’s old comrades in the local 2 Bereitschaft [‘Readiness-squad’] of the Red Front Fighters’ League. Despite a minor clash over her insistence on giving Herr Salm a Christian, rather than a Marxist, funeral, the party was the only organization ruthless and strong enough to give Wessel the drubbing she felt he deserved. At The Bear, Salm outlined her problem to Erwin Ruckert, the twenty-six-year-old leader of the 2 Bereitschaft. Learning that Wessel was alone in the apartment with Erna, Ruckert swiftly summoned reinforcements from the nearby 3 Bereitschaft. Ruckert and his deputy, a thirty-one-year-old tattooed thug and career criminal with sixteen convictions for violence and pimping, named ‘Ali’ (Albrecht) Hohler, led a dozen Communists off to Wessel’s home to administer what one of their number, Max Jambrowski, assured Salm would be a good ‘Proletarian hiding’.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2007 2:20 PM

A guttersnipe fighting song, chillingly similar to the "Streets belong to the people," of the Communist thugs trying to disrupt the 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago.

The words are here:

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 21, 2007 3:12 PM

For most people, the divisions within the NSDAP are irrelevant. But yes, there were radicals and moderates within the Nazi Party.

Tha radicals were centered around the Strasser brothers, and Gregor Strasser was the biggest rival to Hitler's leadership within the party. They had the most extreme economic views, and Goebbels was one of their disciples. In addition to these was Ernst Rohm and his Brownshirts. That is the reason why Goering said they had stopped a "second revolution" when he announced the killing of Rohm and others after the Night of the Long Knives.

Goering was considered a moderating influence because of his ties to big business and celebrities. Hitler, bizarrely, could be counted among the moderates as well since he desired the support of German industrialists and resented the powers of his rivals Gregor Strasser and Ernst Rohm.

The bizarre mysticism of Himmler and his acolytes could also be classified as radical, but they were insignificant until after the Night of the Long Knives. Both Himmler and Hitler shared the same racial ideals, but even Hitler looked contemptuously on Himmler's more mystical ideas. Still, it is this racial aspect, as opposed to economic doctrines, that define the identity of the Nazi Party.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at September 21, 2007 3:42 PM

Yes, and Rohm and his crew had the added homosexuallity...

Hard to believe, but the Nazi's radicalized even more (re: the Jews especially) when the Austrian Catholics began to flood into their ranks...

Posted by: Benny at September 21, 2007 4:11 PM

Radical Nazi

They call themselves "Progressives" these days.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 21, 2007 4:31 PM

Exactly. At the point where you're arguing Hitler was a moderate you've entered Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.

Posted by: oj at September 21, 2007 6:12 PM

Mel Brooks wrote a better one.

Posted by: Mike Morley at September 21, 2007 7:25 PM