Horst Wessel may not be the first name that springs to mind when studying the Nazi Party, but he is without doubt one of the most influential members of the NSDAP.
A member of German National People’s Party (DNVP) youth group from the age of 15, he would happily brawl regularly with members of the SPD (Social Democratic Party) and the KPD (Communist Party) in the streets. After a stint in the secret parliamentary organisation the Black Reichswehr, his extremist ways saw him expelled from the DNVP in 1926, so he lurched even further to the political right and joined the NSDAP where his stock with the Nazis would rise rapidly.
A member of the SA from the start, Wessel idolised the mastermind behind Nazi propaganda and rhetoric, Joseph Goebbels. Soon though, it would be Goebbels who would be impressed by the fanatic young Nazi. By July 1928, Wessel was a recruiter in Berlin and had successfully re-organised the party’s structure to make it more efficient and a model of the already successful KPD cell-structure system. He was rewarded by being made leader of the Alexanderplatz storm section of the SA.
By October 1929, Wessel had dropped out of university to concentrate fully on extremist politics and a party in which he was becoming a leading light.
Wessel’s ascension through the ranks didn’t go unnoticed and he became a top target for the KPD. At 10pm on the evening of 14 January 1930, he was approached by two gunmen on the street outside his home where he was living with prostitute Erna Jänicke. Wessel was shot in the face at point-blank range, and as he lay dying just outside his front door, the two men fled. The headstrong Nazi managed to survive for more than a month but eventually succumbed to his wounds on 23 February after the bullet poisoned his blood.
The most fanatical of Nazis was dead at the age of 22.
A manhunt got under way and the prime suspect was named, with help from Jänicke, as KPD member Albrecht Höhler. The murderer was given six years in prison but this wasn’t the end of it, and when Hitler came to power, he ensured that Höhler be punished more severely for the assassination of such an ardent Nazi. Höhler was brutally murdered by the SA.
Wessel’s death wasn’t the end of his legacy with Germany’s far right. His funeral was orchestrated by Goebbels and became a mass procession that was filmed for propaganda purposes. The martyrdom of Horst Wessel endured for years after his death and he was engraved in to the memory of the Third Reich with the introduction of the Horst Wessel Song, which became the co-national Nazi anthem, as well as the film Hans Westmar, a fictional portrayal of his life.
A martyr for the cause, Horst Wessel was as fanatical a Nazi as you could get, and Hitler and Goebbels both knew it.