June 13, 1936, a Saturday, is a red letter day at the Blohm+Voss shipyard in Hamburg. No less a personage than Adolf Hitler is gracing the yard with his presence. He’s there for the launch of a naval vessel, the Horst Wessel. A crowd of workers greet Hitler with apparent adulation and a forest of Nazi salutes. But a certain August Landmesser stands out like a sore thumb from the throng.
The Nazi Party was founded in Germany in 1920, the progeny of another far right group, the German Workers’ Party. By July 1921 Hitler was its leader. And by 1933, through a combination of electoral success and political machinations, he had maneuvered himself into the effective dictatorship of a Germany ruled by the Nazis.
Hitler’s rise to power was based on a poisonous mixture of populist economics, ruthless violence and skillfully orchestrated political theater. A centerpiece of the Nazi’s mythology, for example, were the sinister mass rallies held in Nuremberg each year. These events used symbolic pomp and pageantry to affirm the ascendancy of the Nazis and their ideology in Germany.
But there was another, more common custom through which the grip of the Nazis on Germany could be demonstrated. That was the stiff-armed Nazi salute that became the conventional greeting throughout the nation. Often accompanied by a barked Sieg Heil! or Heil Hitler! it became an almost universal practice.
Despite the fact that Sieg Heil translates as “hail victory,” and the somewhat ludicrous formality of the raised arm, the Nazi salute became de rigueur even in quite domestic situations. Even children were expected to show their loyalty to the Nazi ideals with this weird but strangely menacing salute.
In July 1933 a government decree made the use of the Nazi salute mandatory for all Germans employed in the public sector. By 1937 Jews were forbidden to use the salute. And enforcement of the saluting rules occasionally verged on the farcical. A Nazi note circulated to police stations said, “There have been reports of traveling vaudeville performers training their monkeys to give the German greeting… see to it that said animals are destroyed.”
There’s no doubt that when Hitler arrived at the Blohm+Voss shipyard on that June Saturday in 1936, the crowd of workers there to greet him would have been expected to give the Nazi salute. And as photographic evidence confirms, this is indeed what they did. But in the photo one man in particular catches the eye.
August Landmesser stands impassive with his arms determinedly crossed. Refusing to give the Nazi salute was a serious matter. Indeed, the Nazis set up special courts in 1934 for the purpose of punishing citizens who failed to salute. These courts could mete out sentences as draconian as being sent to a concentration camp.
So who was this defiant German? August Landmesser was born in 1910, the only child of August Franz and Wilhelmine Magdalene Landmesser. His birthplace was the town of Moorrege, some 19 miles from Hamburg. We know little of Landmesser’s childhood, although he’s said to have done well at elementary school.
We do know that Landmesser, along with various family members, joined the Nazi Party in 1931, hardly an unusual thing for a young German man to do at the time. It seems he hoped this affiliation would improve his job prospects. Clearly, the events that would turn Landmesser against the Nazis lay in the future.
Certainly, Landmesser did have a job by 1935 – as we’ve seen he was working at the Blohm+Voss shipyard. Founded in 1877, this well-established company went on to build one of the German Navy’s most famous Second World War battleships, the Bismarck. It’s easy to believe Landmesser’s Nazi Party membership might have helped him land a job there.
So what had turned Landmesser against the party he had voluntarily joined? Love was the answer. Landmesser had fallen in love with one Irma Eckler. But romance could be a difficult and even deadly game in Nazi Germany. The thing was, Eckler was a Jew.
And being a Jew in Hitler’s Germany was a huge disadvantage, to put it mildly. Landmesser and Eckler got engaged in 1935, something that put paid to Landmesser’s party membership. And from this date forward persecution would hang over Landmesser, and in particular his fiancée, like a dark cloud.
In fact, the so-called Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 made it illegal for Landmesser and Eckler to marry. This was despite Eckler giving birth to the couple’s first child, Ingrid, in October 1935. Designed to protect “the purity of German blood,” the Nuremberg Laws in effect enshrined discrimination against Jews into German law.
It was all too clear which way the wind was blowing for Jews in Germany. So Landmesser made a clandestine attempt to escape from Nazi Germany to Denmark in July 1937. The plan was to find work there and then send for Eckler and Ingrid to join him. But he was caught and thrown in prison.
By then, Eckler was pregnant with the couple’s second child, Irene, who was born in August 1937. Landmesser was charged with having relations with a non-Aryan woman – Rassenschande, a repellent word that translates as “race disgrace.” Surprisingly he was found not guilty at his trial in May 1938 and was released.
But Landmesser’s happy reunion with Eckler and the two children was all too brief. Rearrested in July 1938, he was charged with Rassenschande for a second time, and on this occasion he did not escape so lightly. Landmesser was sentenced to two and a half years of penal servitude at Germany’s Börgermoor concentration camp.
But things were much worse for Irma Eckler. Three days after Landmesser’s July arrest, she too was seized. Ingrid and Irene, respectively aged two and 11 months at the time, were taken from their mother and put in an orphanage. After a spell in detention, first in a police cell and then in Hamburg’s remand prison, Eckler was sent to two concentration camps before ending up at a third, Ravensbrück.
The last that anyone heard from Irma Eckler was a letter she sent to her mother in January 1942, presumably from Ravensbrück concentration camp. In 1949, Eckler was formally declared to have died in April 1942, most likely at the Bernburg extermination center.
August Landmesser was actually released from prison in 1941. But after a time working for a haulage firm, he was sent with a penal unit in 1944 to fight the Russians in Croatia. He was killed in action in October 1944. It was his daughter Irene who recognized her father in the shipyard photo when she saw it in a German newspaper in 1991. The picture has become an iconic image of resistance to the Nazis.