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  • The killing of Horst Wessel: Uncovering a Berlin Nazi murder mystery


The killing of Horst Wessel: Uncovering a Berlin Nazi murder mystery

Horst Wessel was shot in his apartment in 1930. Years later, the exact motive for his murder is still unclear.

After his murder in 1930, Horst Wessel became a propaganda icon. Photo: IMAGO/Heritage Images

On a cold, dark Berlin night in 1930, Horst Wessel heard a cowbell ring. His landlady had rung it to let him know that he had a visitor. It was 10pm on January 14, when the 22-year-old opened his bedroom door and saw a massive stranger was standing on the other side. As Wessel stepped back, the stranger took a pistol from his jacket pocket and pulled the trigger.

The young man collapsed, bleeding, with a bullet lodged in his neck. Wessel’s girlfriend, Erna Jaenichen, got a good look at the shooter. “Is that you, Ali?” she asked. The attacker, and three more home invaders, fled into the night. Instead of calling an ambulance, Jaenichen called the National Socialist German Workers Party, the NSDAP. Wessel was a local leader of the Nazi party in the deep-red neighbourhood of Friedrichshain.

Photo: IMAGO / piemags

Two competing myths arose from the shooting that night. The Nazis claimed that Wessel had been taken out by a communist hit squad, while the Communists countered that Wessel had been a pimp shot by another pimp, and their politics were irrelevant. Today we know that the truth is actually somewhere in the middle, though we can’t really put a finger on it. (In its third season, hit television series Babylon Berlin posited a much bigger conspiracy for the sake of entertainment.)

In 1933, three years after the shooting, Hitler said that Wessel had made the “supreme sacrifice”, and that in hundreds of years, “when perhaps not a stone will be left standing in this giant city”, Wessel would “remain unforgotten in the minds of the people”. Well, here we are, 94 years later, and he’s been forgotten by many, so why was his death of such significance at the time? After all, being a Nazi leader wasn’t exactly among the safest jobs in the world. To understand, we need to look at how – and why – Wessel died.

Photo: IMAGO / Gemini Collection

The Martyr

The news that there had been a shooting travelled quickly, and within minutes of the incident, local doctor Max Selo, who lived right around the corner, reached the apartment. But a local Nazi who had rushed to the scene declared: “Don’t come with that Jew or I’ll throw him down the stairs so he breaks his neck!” It took an hour before a Nazi-approved doctor arrived and an ambulance took Wessel to the nearby Friedrichshain hospital. An operation saved his life but couldn’t remove the bullet from his neck. The wound grew infected, and after 53 days in a fevered delirium, Wessel died of sepsis.

At trial, medical experts for the defence said he might have been saved had Dr Selo been allowed to clean the bullet wounds – meaning that it was Wessel’s own antisemitism that killed him in the end.

It was Wessel’s own antisemitism that killed him in the end.

The Nazi Party recognised the value of presenting Wessel as a martyr and tried to turn him into a fascist demigod. A poem by the young Nazi was put to music, and the ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’ (“Horst Wessel song”) became Nazi Germany’s national anthem. In May 1933, what is today Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz was named Horst-Wessel-Platz. The whole district of Friedrichshain became Horst-Wessel-Stadt. The hospital was also renamed after Wessel, as were streets and schools across Germany. But still, it wasn’t clear: what had led to the shooting?

Photo: IMAGO / United Archives International

The landlady

At 2pm on January 14, about eight hours before the home invasion, Elisabeth Salm walked into the police station on Magazinstraße. (Although this part of Friedrichshain was almost entirely razed during the war, this one stone building is still standing, and is, in fact, still used by the police.) At just 29, Salm was a widow, and she had taken a tenant into her apartment.

Her complaint was that while Wessel paid good money for a room, his girlfriend had moved in as well, prompting Salm to demand a surcharge for an extra tenant. The real problem was more likely that Wessel would hold drunken Nazi meetings until the early hours of the morning. Salm wanted him out, but he refused, so she went to the police. The police offered no help, telling her: “In your apartment, you are your own police.”

Who would help a young widow? She remembered the comrades of her deceased husband, who had been a Red Front Fighter – a member of a banned paramilitary organisation close to the Communist Party. Around 8pm that night, Salm showed up at Baer’s tavern, in the middle of the poor Jewish neighbourhood known as Scheunenviertel. Once she described her situation, the communists were even less helpful: were they supposed to serve as volunteer bailiffs in the middle of winter?

Salm added that they might know her subletter – and they did. The Second Squad of the Red Front Fighters League of Mitte decided to give Wessel a “proletarian drubbing”. What does that mean? A later trial offered a precise legal definition: “It’s without weapons, just with fists, but in such a way that the person lands in the hospital”.

The gangster

As they set off on the 20-minute walk back to Salm and Wessel’s apartment, the Red Fighters realised that Wessel had a gun, and they did not. So they first visited their comrades from the Third Squad, at a tavern just 350 metres away on Mulackstraße. One fighter, Ali Höhler, grabbed his pistol and joined the ad hoc drubbing group.

32-year-old Höhler made money as a pimp in Scheunenviertel – and was also a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, which was not a contradiction in the extremely poor neighbourhood north of Alexanderplatz. Jaenichen, Wessel’s girlfriend, had worked as a prostitute in the area. It doesn’t seem that Höhler had ever exploited her – but he was friends with Jaenichen’s pimp, who was furious when she left the trade for a relationship with Wessel. This is how the rumour of Wessel himself being a pimp came about – his girlfriend was a former prostitute.

On January 14, when the antifascists reached the apartment at Große Frankfurter Straße 62 (now more or less Karl-Marx-Allee 41), most of them stayed downstairs. Four went up to Salm’s apartment. Notably, the one who ended up pulling the trigger had not been part of the original group who formulated the plan for a drubbing.

Why did Höhler shoot? At trial, he said he thought Wessel had been reaching for a gun, and that he shot in self-defence. But of course he would say that. As Höhler left his Kiez, was he planning on a beating or a shooting? Did he want revenge against Wessel as a communist, or as a pimp? After multiple criminal trials and more than 90 years of historical research, we have no clear answers.

Disciples and desecrators

Almost everyone involved in the shooting of Horst Wessel was eventually killed by the Nazis. In 1930, Höhler was sentenced to six years of hard labour for manslaughter. But as soon as the Nazis were put in power, they took Höhler from prison and murdered him in a Brandenburg forest. Even people indirectly connected to the murder, such as Sally Epstein, a Jewish communist who had been standing guard on the corner when the shooting took place, were executed – and this was before the mass arrests of Jews began in late 1938 (and murders in 1942). After the East German historian Heinz Knobloch wrote a moving biography of Epstein, a Stolperstein for him was placed in the park on Max-Beer-Straße.

Photo: IMAGO / Arkivi

Wessel was buried in the St Nicholas Cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg. His gravestone was destroyed by the Red Army in 1945, yet the grave itself remained easy to find as a marker for Wessel’s father stood next to it. In 1990, after fascism was legalised in East Germany, neo-Nazis began making pilgrimages to the site. In 2002, a group of “autonomous gravediggers” announced they had dug up Wessel’s skull and thrown it into the Spree. Cemetery administrators finally dug up the grave and removed the father’s headstone in 2013. The exact location of Wessel’s final resting place is now a mystery, just like the real reason for the murder. Was he assassinated by communists, killed in a dispute between pimps, or taken down over a subletting spat? The truth will stay buried with him.

  • To find out more about the murder of Horst Wessel, join Nathaniel Flakin’s walking tour on May 26, meet at U-Bahn station Schillingstraße, 14:00.