To Defy Hitler: The Life of August Landmesser
© Nicole Paschal, All Rights Reserved
After living in Germany years ago,one thing I learned very soon was that liberal groups held a lot of respect for a man named August Landmesser and very often rotated a picture of him to their followers. Within the picture, taken in 1936, a lone man stood with arms crossed as hundreds of men and women around him held up their arms in salute and allegiance to the Nazi Party and its leader, Adolph Hitler.
In the photo, Landmesser was grimacing with stood with arms crossed. He was strong and defiant as he showed his disapproval by being the only person, surrounded by hundreds, who failed to display support of the Nazi Party that day. What made this photo and Landmesser’s defiance unique is that it represented the protest of one man, in its most sincere and pure form. Despite the pressure from his countrymen and mortal danger his act could bring, Landmesser made the choice that he would not honor the superpower he disagreed with. Certainly there may have been others there that day that did not support the Nazi regime, but the picture represents the power one has, to make the existential choice to adhere to what he believes is morally sound, even when it contrasts with the actions of the majority.
The Shipyard Photo
Although the photo was taken on June 13, 1936, it has only been in recent years that it has received worldwide attention. Despite the fact that some claimed it to be a hoax when it first appeared, independent researchers, as well as a Landmesser descendent, have affirmed that indeed the man in the photo was a shipyard worker named August Landmesser. According to a 2012 Washington Post article, the photo was taken in Hamburg at the Blohm + Voss Shipyard, where he worked. Considered a proud national accomplishment, the ship SSS Horst Wessel, named after the Nazi hero and Sturmführer, was launched that day. Landmesser’s actions were quite risky considering Rudolf Hess and even Adolph Hitler himself was in attendance. Many have wondered just who this man was and what caused him to be so displeased with the Nazi government that he stood fearless that day. A German website dedicated to the death camp at Auschwitz, called fasena.de, offers much more information about Landmesser, his family, and just why he grimaced and risked his life by failing to salute at the shipyard.
The Likely Source of Landmesser's Disapproval
The source of Landmesser’s protest, like many great tragedies, may start with a love story. Born in 1910, Landmesser was described as a country lad by those who knew him well. In August of 1935, the year before the photo, he sought to marry the love of his life, a Jewish woman named Irma Eckler. According to Fasena.de, with information drawn from a book published by his daughter Irene Eckler, the Landmesser family was immediately doomed by a rising anti-Semitic, totalitarian Nazi Germany. Although Germany’s new Nuremburg “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour” would not become indoctrinated until the September of that year, Landmesser and Eckler were denied the right to marry. Although in modern times, the relatives of Landmesser have affirmed that they too possessed Jewish ancestry, the record office of Hamburg in the late 1930’s considered Landmesser a full blooded Aryan. “Foreign blood is not apparent,” they wrote and with his blue eyes and blonde hair, they recorded that he had an “Aryan appearance.” Under the law, marrying a Jewish woman would taint German blood and he was denied the right.
Despite the government’s refusal to let the marriage take place, Landmesser remained in a relationship with Eckler. At the time of their attempt at marriage, Irma was pregnant and bore their first daughter, Ingrid in October of the same year. Since Irma was not married, the child was considered illegitimate. Interestingly, Landmesser was serving as a member of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Worker’s Party) in 1935 and had been since 1931. However, likely due to the fact he could not marry, he left the party that same year. It was in August 1937, the year after the photo was taken that Irma expected their second , Irene. In another twist of fate, that same year, a secret edict concerning the "rassenschande" was released. The term, meaning “racial defilement” punished sexual relations between Aryans and Jews. In the case that the Aryan was a man and Jew a woman, he was to be imprisoned and the woman put under protective custody. However protective custody, at that time, was often synonymous with imprisonment. Perhaps sensing rising tensions in a state growing more and more intolerant, Landmesser tried to escape to Denmark and he would send for his family later. He was unsuccessful.
The Arrests for Racial Defilement
By September 1937, a month after the birth of Irene, August was arrested for “rassenschande” and imprisoned. To the court, he declared that he had no idea that Irma was a full-blooded Jew and that she had at least one relative that was Aryan. Due to insufficient evidence against him, he was released. Despite the danger of being seen in public with Irma and her advice that they should remain apart, he returned to her and his children. During that time, he took a family photo, which is the only surviving photo of the entire family. Nearly a year later, in July 1938, Landmesser was arrested under the same charges of racial defilement. A local German newspaper reported the trial and noted that the court was especially displeased over his lack of repentance for resuming the relationship with Irma and a jail sentence was imposed. He was remanded to two and a half years hard labor at Börgermoor Prison Camp I in Emsland.
On this occasion, Irma was also arrested for Rassenschande by the Gestapo. It would be the last time the children would ever see their mother. Immediately after Irma’s arrest, both children were sent to the AverhoffstraBe Orphanage. Irma’s Jewish mother attempted to claim the children from the orphanage but was unsuccessful due to her ethnicity. However, her husband, an Aryan man, was able to get custody of Ingrid. Irene’s birth, however, coincided with the criminalization of rassensschande and she was held at the orphanage. (Note: Later, Jewish children were most likely to be arrested and/or remanded to concentration camps or death camps rather than orphanages, but the protocols were not in place at this time.) Although both girls would live long lives, one would suffer great abuse as a Jewish child in a German orphanage. Click here to read more about what happened to the Landmesser children, Ingrid and Irene.
The Fate of August and Irma
Although there are limited records regarding her imprisonment, researchers have affirmed that Irma Eckler was moved to a number of locations including the Oranienburg Concentration Camp and finally ended up in a newly erected concentration camp called FKL Ravensbrück with about 800 other women. (To read the letters Irma sent home, click here.) She was given the number KZ-number: 928/574. Researchers suggest that to some extent, she blamed Landmesser for her predicament since he did not stay away after his first release from jail. Irma remained at Ravensbrück until 1942. A that time, a new socio-political mandate came into place. The Nazi’s developed a plan they believed would deplete the Jewish population once and for all. The world would eventually come to know it as The Final Solution. With the genocidal plans fully operative, Irma was sent to the Bernburg Death Camp Gas Chamber and was murdered via Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
Upon his release in 1941, Landmesser was able to visit Irene who, by that time lived with foster parents and his daughter Ingrid, who was still with Irma’s mother. By 1944, he was drafted into the Nazi’s "Bewährunsbataillon 999,” a volatile and risky battalion populated with ex-prisoners and undesirable soldiers. Landmesser died that same year in battle and his body was never recovered. In addition, little information is known about where he was serving and how he may have encountered combat.
In conclusion, I would like to think of August Landmesser's story as that of a simple man. He did not have the military skill of Patton, a vast network of resistance like Stauffenburg, or the wealth and influence of Schindler, but with arms folded he took a stand serving as a single voice of protest when there was no other that day. Although others let fear guide their actions, his actions were instead lead by what he thought most important, the people that he loved.