Horst Ludwig Georg Erich Wessel, born 9 October 1907 in Bielefeld, was a Nazi Party (NSDAP) activist known for writing the lyrics to the “Horst-Wessel-Lied”. His death in 1930 was used by the party for propaganda purposes.
By 1926, the German National People’s Party decided that Wessel had become “too radical” and he was removed. That December, he joined Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party; NSDAP) and its paramilitary organisation the Sturmabteilung (“Storm Detachment”; SA).
Wessel soon impressed Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s Gauleiter of Berlin, and in January 1928, a period in which 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, he was appointed district leader of the SA for Friedrichshain, where he lived. In October 1929, Wessel dropped out of university to devote himself full-time to the Nazi movement.
Wessel played the schalmel (shawm), a double-reed woodwind instrument. 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 (“fight song”), 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 (“Raise the Flag”) and finally the “Horst Wessel -Lied” (“Horst Wessel Song”). The Nazis made it a co-national anthem of Nazi Germany, along with the first stanza of the Deutschlandlied.
Flag high, ranks closed,
The S.A. marches with silent solid steps.
Comrades shot by the red front and reaction
march in spirit with us in our ranks.
The street free for the brown battalions,
The street free for the Storm Troopers.
Millions, full of hope, look up at the swastika;
The day breaks for freedom and for bread.
For the last time the call will now be blown;
For the struggle now we all stand ready.
Soon will fly Hitler-flags over every street;
Slavery will last only a short time longer.
At around the same time, the Alexanderplatz, the centre of Berlin’s nightlife, was part of the territory of Wessel’s SA troops. 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. The landlady was Elisabeth Salm, whose late husband had been an active Communist. Some sources claim Wessel earned money as her procurer. After a few months, there was a dispute between Salm and Wessel over unpaid rent.
In the evening of 14 January 1930, at around ten o’clock, Wessel was shot in the face at point-blank range by two members of the KPD in Friedrichshain. The attack occurred at Große Frankfurter Straße 62, the building where Wessel and Jänicke lived. Seriously wounded, he died in hospital on 23 February from blood poisoning he contracted during his hospitalisation. He was 22 years old.
By 17 January 1930, the police announced their manhunt for their prime suspect: KPD member Albrecht Höhler
, Jänicke identified Höhler as the gunman. It was then reported by a democratic-minded newspaper that Jänicke knew about the existence of Höhler prior to the murder because Wessel had used her for espionage. Jänicke responded by saying she had never been a spy for Wessel, and that she only knew Höhler as an “acquaintance from the streets”. The police and courts believed Jänicke, and Höhler was quickly arrested. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment for the shooting. Three years later, after the Nazi accession to power in 1933, Höhler was executed by the Gestapo.
Wessel was buried in Berlin on 1 March 1930 on the St Nikolai Cemetery in Berlin with his father. Contrary to Nazi claims, there were no attacks on the funeral procession. His funeral was filmed and turned into a major propaganda event by the NSDAP. Wessel was elevated by Goebbels’ propaganda apparatus to the status of leading martyr of the Nazi movement. Many of Goebbels’s most effective propaganda speeches were made at gravesides, but Wessel received unusual attention among the many unremembered storm troopers.