Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Daniel Siemens
Publisher: IB Tauris
Price (RRP): £20
The devil has all the best tunes, so they say, and Horst Wessel’s rousing ‘Lied’, penned in 1929, was no exception. An unofficial anthem of the Third Reich and a staple of Nazi ceremonial, it was required from 1934 that every German citizen should raise their right arm in a ‘Hitler greeting’ upon hearing it. But for his song – and the circumstances of his death – Wessel would doubtless have languished in obscurity. The middle-class son of a Protestant pastor, Wessel fell into the violent subculture of Weimar-era Berlin, emerging as a prominent member of the Nazi ‘Brownshirts’ – the SA – who battled their political opponents on the capital’s streets. Ultimately, Wessel died in the manner in which he lived; shot by a communist gang in January 1930.
However, as Siemens’ excellent book relates, what followed was something like a Nazi apotheosis. Shot in the face, Wessel languished in hospital for five weeks before succumbing to septicaemia. But in that time, he was expertly elevated by Goebbels to the status of a martyr to the Nazi cause, in spite of the fact that his death appears to have been caused by nothing more political than a sordid squabble over a prostitute.
In the years that followed, Wessel was immortalised across Germany, with a film, numerous books and countless monuments dedicated to his memory, as well as a Berlin suburb, a Waffen-SS division and a Luftwaffe squadron all being named after him. He became the ‘poster-boy’ of the Nazi Kampfzeit – the ‘Time of Struggle’.
Siemens expertly dissects Wessel’s brief life and his later myth, producing a highly scholarly yet thoroughly readable text, which tells its complex story with considerable élan. He shines a stark light not only on Wessel’s squalid murder and his ‘beatification’, but also on the revenge meted out by the Nazis to his killers, and on the rather tortured efforts of postwar Germany to unravel the resulting legal mess. His approach is rigorous and comprehensive, with liberal use of the original documents, some of which are apparently examined for the first time.
If there are complaints to be aired, they are minor. Very occasionally the book lapses into social science jargon, which might momentarily befuddle the non-specialist reader. Also, Siemens’s tone tends to be archly critical, with a few prejudicial asides that serve to dent the impression of objectivity. Certainly, there is little to admire in Wessel, but one feels that a more consistently neutral tone might have been more appropriate.
These are petty quibbles, however. Siemens has delivered an outstanding work of history, which illuminates and educates, yet wears its considerable erudition lightly. He has taken a tale long entwined in and obscured by its own mythology and stripped it back to its essentials, allowing us to evaluate it afresh. With this book, Siemens has raised the flag for serious, well-written, accessible history and given his subject the thoroughgoing scholarly treatment that Wessel’s ‘martyr’ status, however repugnant, undoubtedly deserves.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939—45 (Vintage, 2011)