Myth and Justice: Book Review of The Making of a Nazi Hero
I have another book to share that the armchair generals and sociologists will appreciate together. The book is The Making of a Nazi Hero: The Murder and Myth of Horst Wessel, by Daniel Siemens, translated by David Burnett, 2009.
The book, or at least the translation, is dry and straightforward, however I get the sensation that there is a virtue of clarity that is gained in this style for this topic. It’s not to be academic, but because the nature of Horst Wessel is so ambiguous and shrouded in a veneer of volkisch propaganda and National Socialist stagecraft that a cool pen prevails. Precesion is very important, not for the sake or parsing out “what is true” or “what is Truth” but to understand what has become truth and what has been constructed.
Before I picked the book up I had no idea who Horst Wessel was, however I did know that Nazi “anthems” or songs of some sort were banned in Germany. His “Horst Wessel March” is one of them.
Before anyone has the chance to leap to conclusions or is just wondering, no, it is not the song in the book burning scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That is the “Königgrätzer Marsch,” a Prussian March. Hitler did like the Königgrätzer Marsch, but do have many others before and since. You can hear it used in Triumph of the Will. If you want to hear the Horst Wessel song, you can also go to Wikipedia for a safe listen and YouTube for other options, though YouTube has its own perils. If you are a gamer, it may be familiar to anyone who has played the Wolfenstein series.
What I did not know was that the young songwriter and SA Man had a cultish following. Nominally a flag raising song (“The Flag on High” was the original or intended title) written by the young SA songwriter to melodies plucked from folk songs, the march became intrinsically tied to Horst Wessel as a party anthem after his shooting and death. Wessel became a martyr for his ultimate sacrifice and the song a rallying cry.
Wessel was shot point blank in the head January 14, 1930 and died February 23rd. Possibly political, possibly personal, his shooting was carried out by local communists who often clashed with the growing SA, the two amounting more to gangs in the Weimar years than political movements. They may have been roused by his landlady or his girlfriend, or there may have been a dispute over the girlfriend’s work as a prostitute. Everyone’s story is conflicted, and many are contradicted, rehashed, retold, suppressed, denied, hushed, ignored, silenced, paid, rewarded, or otherwise altered in some way. Truth is a relative and elusive thing.
What Siemens chronicles, after the basics are told, is the growth of the Wessel mythos after his death and the incursions of reality into it. Names are changed, people make their own songs, curriculum is developed for the children… every facet you can infuse Wessel, the noble young martyr, into is done. In this way, Wessel serves as a fantastic singular example of the propaganda machine for the Third Reich, starting in the Weimar Republic with Wessel’s death and continuing through Hitler’s chancellorship, ebbing and flowing and changing as they needed Wessel. Meanwhile, there are arguments over song and story rights with his mother and sister, and towns that fight over where to put monuments to him for the most honor- and profit. His image is still one that is being used by faulty mortals and there is far more to the story than what Goebbels wants. Goebbels, if anything, could recognize what may were willing to do on their own.
This leads me to the second theme that The Making… is a fair chronicle of: while we have the growth of myth and the state and people’s participation in it on one hand, on the other we must ask why one would want to take part, the attractiveness in it, and how Wessel-a university drop out in various underground clubs and now accused of being a pimp- would seem a hero for youth. Siemens sheds light on Wessel’s generation as one harmed, some metaphorically and some literally orphaned from the Great War, searching for answers in the far left and right when the ineffective middle – the Republic – cannot salve their economic wounds and society and family cannot salve their spiritual wounds. The gang family structure would appeal to youth and the rhetoric inspire a cause for tomorrow, and eventually a rally for action. With this lens in hand, reading Wessel’s history and subsequent beatification of sorts can provide a a very large window both into this time period and the complete adherence of Nazi faithful like those in the SS and SA, but also a comparative text to hold to other groups that provide belonging and family or promise a better future in the face of economic and other disparities, whether Crips, Norteños, or Da’ish (ISIL).
The third chronicle in The Making… is one of justice – or perhaps Justice if you were also interested in the pursuit of Truth. There is not one but two trials for Wessel’s death, neither of which are satisfactory to either the people of the time or to modern sensibilities of what might be fair. The first, in the Weimar period, convicted several involved (including the man who fired the gun) of manslaughter or participation crimes, and netted out sentences gross in comparison to when attacks were made on communists by Nazis. The second trial came from new evidence incriminating participants, and was a public affair for vengeance, doling out death sentences to lookouts. Taking the law into one’s own hands, lack of redress, and the quest for personal vengeance are all a part of Wessel’s story. A large question is where justice ends and vengeance begins, both when the case is handled by the Nazis and later after the war to bring them to justice in turn, and relieve those wronged, by both East and West Germany.
Siemens has commitment to both justice and fairness; he successfully petitioned the Berlin State Prosecutor’s Office to rescind the verdicts made during the Nazi era trial that were greater in penalty to those made during the first Weimar trial. This court decision (and some soft spoken words and memos from political offices) had the effect of officially allowing or sponsoring the quiet detention and murder of those charged earlier who had actually committed the crime itself. Two were known to be murdered and others lost lives in the camp system. While the outcome is laudable, the revision and reparation should give one pause. It is a quiet memorial to their honor, it is fitting closure to the tale, however it was one that takes years of toil to get to. That ending would not have been possible for some time. Siemens is clearly proud of the current justice system but he leaves you questioning much of it through modern years, and perhaps with a reminder that we should never stop questioning our respective systems of government and justice and we should listen to those who say something smells foul.