His gesture remains engraved in the minds of people around the world, yet August Landmesser’s name is not widely known. He is the man in the iconic photograph which depicts a crowd performing a Nazi salute, while he defiantly stands with his hands crossed.
The picture was taken on 13th of June, 1936, when Adolf Hitler attended the launch ceremony of the naval training vessel, Horst Wessel at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg. The men in the photograph were all workers from the shipyard.
This sort of disobedience was considered very insulting in Nazi Germany, and Hitler spent his first years in power purging the ones who opposed him.
To understand Landmesser, we need to dive into the historical context of post-WWI Germany. The Versaille Treaty sealed the fate of German economy, which was already devastated by the first world war. The unemployment rate was extremely high. Some reports state that in 1926, there were two million unemployed Germans. By 1932, the number had risen to six million.
The black market was booming, as unemployed men and women were becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Weimar government. The Nazi Party seized the momentum, by enabling jobs for their members. With a strong lobby, they attracted more and more people to join them.
As the situation became worse, people were easily seduced by Hitler’s aggressive rhetoric, but many joined only to survive. August Landmesser became a Nazi Party member in 1931, two years before Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. He wasn’t keen on the whole “racial purity” narrative, but he kept his head down, in order to get a job. In 1935, he fell in love with a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler, and they became engaged soon after.
The couple was waiting for a child. This alone was enough for him to get expelled from the Nazi Party, but he didn’t mind. His wedding plans were violently interrupted when a set of racist laws was enacted. The infamous Nuremberg Laws introduced the official racial policy of Nazi Germany.
The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour was in effect, which stated that “Marriages between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood are forbidden. Marriages nevertheless concluded are invalid, even if concluded abroad to circumvent this law” (Article 1.1) and “extramarital relations between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood are forbidden” (Article 2.1).
The laws came into force on the 15th of September, 1935. On October 29th, just one month later, Landmesser’s and Eckler’s daughter, Ingrid, was born. The Nuremberg Laws explicitly forbade any sort of relationship, let alone marriages, between Jews and Germans, so the couple remained unmarried.
Raising a child with a Jewish woman, who wasn’t legally his wife (nor she could be), in Nazi Germany was hell, but what followed was far worse.
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