Horst Wessel as a Hero-Martyr of the Nazis


On 23 February 1930, in Berlin hospital, 22-year-old Horst Wessel died. He was an activist of the Nazi movement and the leader of the local storm troopers. The cause of death was as hot resounded in the conflict of local pimps, to whom Wessel belonged. Since the whole of Germany was divided into at least two radical camps, there was nothing surprising in the fact that the killer of Wessel was an activist of the Communist Party. Despite the fact that Wessel was an ordinary SA man and laborer, who had love affair with a prostitute, a Reich Minister of Propaganda of the Nazi Party, Joseph Goebbels, decided to make him a national hero of the Nazi Germany.“…Wessel was an identifiable ideal that Goebbels knew could be very valuable if tweaked and mythologized” (Bjel). “For Goebbels, it was insufficient to intone chants over the bodies of countless SA men. He was convinced that generalities do not move the masses; only easily identifiable symbols would serve such a purpose. The agony and death of Horst Wessel, killed by communists in the winter of 1930, was exactly the theme that the Gauleiter [i.e. Goebbels] needed to offer his propaganda the unifying symbol it lacked” (Bjel).

There might be pointed out two main reasons for Goebbels’ desire to make Horst Wessel a hero and a martyr of Nazi Germany. The first one is connected with Wessel’s tragic early death at the hands of the communist Ali Hohler, in the period of a violent struggle for power between the National Socialists and the Communists. The second reason lies in the fact that Horst ideally approached to the role of the hero due to the nature of his personal character. He was a strong-willed, single-minded man devoted to the ideals of the Nazi party. His cruelty, bordering with courage and bravery, uncompromising firmness, fine oratorical qualities, and the ability to attract people could not stay unnoticed by an experienced propagandist Goebbels. Goebbels was able to mythologize the image of Horst Wessel, providing it with the missing qualities and hiding unnecessary and inexpedient qualities. Current paper analyzes the personality of Horst Wessel on the basis of the facts of his life, as well as the features of his mythologizing as a hero-martyr by Joseph Goebbels in the eyes of the Nazi Party.

The Facts from the Biography and the Personality of Horst Wessel

Horst Wessel was born on 9 October 1907 in Bielefeld in a family of a military priest Ludwig Wessel (The Song of Hitler). His father died when Horst was only 15 years old. The death of his father left the family penniless. After the death of his father, Horst joined the youth organization of the German National Party Bismarckjugend. Two years later, Wessel has become the leader of one of the groups of the organization. In 1926, he joined the Faculty of Law at the Institute named after Emperor Frederick William. On December 7, 1926, Horst Wessel joined the Nazi Party and the storm troops (SA). Wessel started to write poems, which he then published in different newspapers and magazines. In 1927, Wessel personally got acquainted with Joseph Goebbels. Probably, the young author made an impression on Goebbels as the Gauleiter allowed Wessel to give speeches at Nazi rallies. In January of 1928, Goebbels sent Wessel to Vienna to oversee the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party.

Having returned to Berlin on July 1928, Wessel began to organize the SA – division called Alexanderplatz. Mostly unemployed and even some former communists joined his division. At this time, Wessel began to show his extraordinary oratorical qualities and ability to convince even his ideological opponents in ineligibility of their views. In 1928, the Horst Wessel wrote the poem The Flag on High and shifted it to the tune of the Kaiser’s naval songs. The poem was published in the appendix to Der Angriffin 1929. On 1 May 1929, Wessel obtained the rank of troop-führer of SA. A little later, for his skillful leadership over his coy, he was promoted to the rank of Sturmführer of SA. He worked actively as he quickly manned his squad with new volunteers and made him one of the most combat-ready units. Wessel’s troop scrupulously clashed with the prevailing forces of the Social Democrats and the Communists. Goebbels continued using Wessel as a party spokesman since Horst Wessel has quickly become one of the major Nazi speakers after Goebbels.

After returning from Vienna Wessel met Erna Jaenichen and later started to live with her. It soon became clear that Erna Jaenichen used to be a prostitute. She stopped her “activity” after her pimp had been jailed. Wessel forgave the woman and continued to cohabit with her. Meanwhile, a former pimp of Mrs. Jaenichen, Alois Hohler, got out of jail. It turned out that he belonged to the Communists and was known in the criminal world of Berlin under the alias Ali. Hohlermet with Jaenichen and demanded the resumption of the “contract”. Jaenichen refused him and said that she was under the protection of Horst Wessel. The tragedy of the situation was that the young people were shooting at the house of the widow of communist by the name Elisabeth Salm. The hostess often had domestic disputes with her guests.

On 14 January 1930, a regular quarrel between Frau Salm and her guests took place. After the quarrel, the hostess went to the pub, where local communists - the friends of her late husband were gathering. Salm told them about her problem and asked for help in evicting Wessel. Among them Hohler was present. With his two friends, he broke into the apartment of Wessel where Hohler shot him in the mouth. Then the attackers fled. The wounded Wessel was taken to the Hospital. Hohler’s bullet shattered the upper jaw and severed carotid artery of Wessel. Initially, the state of Wessel was stable, and there was hope for recovery.

From the very first days of Wessel’s appearance at the hospital, Goebbels started to create an image of the hero-martyr. The very next day, the first article of Goebbels full of indignation, sadness and anger has appeared in the newspaper Angriff. Goebbels visited Wessel at the hospital, and every detail of these visits was published in the Angriff. Goebbels did not believe in the possible death of his ward and often said that the walls were crumbling around him and the ceiling was threatening to crush him. As killed propagandist always maintained, that Wessel belonged exclusively to the party and the storm troopers, which were unthinkable without him. Wessel enjoyed the sympathy of the members of the party, and Der Angriff daily published the information about his state. Goebbels sentimentally scored the number of his visits to the wounded hero. Wessel was able to say only a few words, something like “we must hold”, and the Gauleiter declared it as one of the most pathetic and unforgettable moment in his life. Goebbels promised to destroy his killers and often quoted the words of a poem by Wessel: “Comrades, who died at the hands of the Communists and the reaction are marching with us in our ranks!”.

Until the death of Wessel, which happened on 23 February, Goebbels’ articles in Angriff painted a bright image of the ideal of national-socialist, a courageous fighter, a martyr who shed his blood “for the movement”. The fact that Hohler was an active member of the Union of Red Front greatly helped Goebbels draw a bright image. The Communists, not disputing the fact of the murder, strongly rejected the political implications of the incident, insisting on the consumer version and arguing that Wessel was a usual pimp.

The Glorification of Wessel in the Eyes of the German Nazis

Wessel’s funeral was a triumph and the beginning of the ascent to the universal popularity of the imperial head of the Propaganda the Nazi Party Joseph Goebbels. He has turned this funeral into a show, and made Wessel a hero and a martyr, who died in the unequal struggle with communism. At the burial, a song written ostensibly on the poetry of Wessel was first performed. However, it is still said that it was Goebbels’ hoax. Immediately, the song became the anthem of the Nazis, and after they came to power - the actual anthem of the Reich. At the funeral, Goebbels chanted: “Horst Wessel!”, and the Nazis replied in chorus: “Among us!”.

Goebbels called him not only a true socialist, but also a saint. He has proclaimed a cult of Wessel as a person who was able to atone for the sins of all those who became his followers. The glorification of the image Wessel as a brave hero, who was a perfect example for the young Nazis, was not confined to words. Later, many streets, buildings, ships, as well as the battalions and the divisions of SA and even air compounds (for example, Fliegergeschwader Horst Wessel) in Nazi Germany received the name of Wessel. As noted by Siemens (3), “in 1938, a ‘Horst Wessel polder’ was inaugurated in the rural district of Eiderstedt in Schleswig-Holstein. Its namesake was a Nazi hero, a ‘martyr of the movement’ (Blutzeuge der Bewegung), who was to serve as a role model, especially for young people”. Wessel’s tomb became a place of the worship of the Nazis.

Thus, a criminal has turned in to an ideological fighter who had been killed by communists. Moreover, his sister and mother became honorary members of almost all the Nazi propaganda activities. Those people who had not known anything about the deceased Horst, especially outside of Berlin, wittingly or unwittingly believed the words of Goebbels. Those who did not want to believe were forced to believe! Wessel was endlessly spoken and written only that which was necessary for the National Socialists. Later, most of the storm troopers were simply physically destroyed by SS in the “Night of the Long Knives”. Consequently, the mystery of Goebbels was kept even safer as there were not living witnesses, and all the records were in the possession by the Gestapo, totally subordinated to Heinrich Himmler. The myth of Wessel has become one of the main myths in the election campaign of the Nazis and Hitler.


As one might see, the personal qualities, as well as the tragic fate of a young activist of the Nazi party Horst Wessel were the perfect opportunity for Goebbels to create an image of the hero-martyr who could be imitated by the young soldiers of Hitler. He was said to have a set of heroic qualities as, namely, determination, courage, perseverance, self-confidence, self-sacrifice, and loyalty to own political ideals. Moreover, Wessel had fine oratorical qualities and charisma with which he could gain the attention of the people around him and bring them to his side. His early death at the age of 22 years had also a huge role in his glorification.

The latter fact was supposed to cause both compassion and admiration. Compassion was associated with regret that the life of a perspective Nazi ended so early. In turn, the Nazis could not help but admire that to his age, he managed to do so many things and to achieve career heights. Through the efforts of Joseph Goebbels the image of Horst Wessel has become an integral part of the Nazi mythology. In turn, his song has become a part of the ideology of the movement. Horst Wessel was presented as a modern saint who lived for his beliefs and died for them. In other words, “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” (Jones 62).

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