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The Horst-Wessel-Lied ("Horst Wessel Song"), also known as Die Fahne hoch ("The flag on high", from its opening line), was the anthem of the National Socialist German Workers Party from 1930 to 1945. From 1933 to 1945 it was also part of Germany's national anthem.
The lyrics of the song were composed in 1929 by Horst Wessel, a Nazi activist and local commander of the Nazi militia, the SA, in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain. Wessel was assassinated by a Communist activist in January 1930, and the propaganda apparatus of the Berlin Gauleiter, Dr Joseph Goebbels, made him the leading martyr of the Nazi Movement. The song became the official Song of Consecration (Weihelied) for the Nazi Party, and was extensively used at party functions as well as being sung by the SA during street parades.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933 The Horst-Wessel-Lied was recognised as a national symbol by a law issued on May 19, 1933. Nazi Germany thus had a double anthem, consisting of the first verse of the Deutschlandlied followed by the Horst Wessel-Lied. A regulation attached to a printed version of the Horst Wessel-Lied in 1934 required the right arm to be raised in a "Hitler salute" when the first and fourth verses were sung.
With the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945, the Horst-Wessel-Lied was banned, and both the lyrics and the tune remain illegal in Germany to this day except for educational and scholarly uses (under sections 86 and 86a of the Strafgesetzbuch).
The lyrics of the Horst-Wessel-Lied were published in the Berlin Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff, in September 1929, attributed to "Der Unbekannte SA-Mann" (the Unknown SA-Man), as follows:
|German original||English translation|
The "Rotfront" ("Red Front") was a reference to the Rotfrontkämpferbund, a paramilitary organization associated with the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). It was common for Nazis' Sturmabteilung and Communists' Redfront to attack each other in violent street confrontations, which eventually grew into full-scale battles after 1930. "Reaction" was a reference to the conservative parties and the liberal democratic German state of the Weimar Republic period, which made several unsuccessful attempts to suppress the SA. "Servitude" is a reference to what the Nazis saw as Germany's "servitude" to the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which imposed huge reparations on Germany and deprived her of her colonies and territory along her eastern border.
Some changes were made to the lyrics after Wessel's death:
|Stanza 1, line 2||SA marschiert mit mutig-festem Schritt|
|SA marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt||SA marches with silent, firm pace|
|Stanza 3, line 1||Zum letzten Mal wird nun Appell geblasen!|
|Zum letzten Mal wird Sturmalarm geblasen!||For the last time the storm-call has sounded|
|Stanza 3, line 3||Bald flattern Hitlerfahnen über Barrikaden|
|Bald flattern Hitler-Fahnen über allen Straßen||Soon Hitler-flags will fly over all streets|
The dropping of the reference to "barricades" reflected the Nazi Party's desire in the period 1930-33 to be seen as a constitutional political party aiming at taking power by legal means rather than as a revolutionary party.
After Wessel's death, new stanzas were composed in his honour. These were frequently sung by the SA but did not become part of the official lyrics used on party or state occasions.
After Wessel's death, he was officially credited with having composed the melody as well as having written the lyrics for the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Between 1930 and 1933, however, German critics disputed this claim, pointing out that the melody had a long prior history. Such criticism became impossible after 1933.
The most likely immediate source for the melody was a song popular in the German Navy during World War I, which Wessel would no doubt have heard being sung by Navy veterans in the Berlin of the 1920s. The song was known either by its opening line as Vorbei, vorbei, sind all die schönen Stunden, or as the Königsberg-Lied, after the German light cruiser Königsberg, which is mentioned in one version of the song's lyrics. The opening stanza of the song is:
In 1936 a German music critic, Alfred Weidemann, published an article in which he identified the melody of a song composed in 1865 by the Weimar composer Peter Cornelius as the "Urmelodie" (source-melody). According to Weidemann, Cornelius described the tune as a "Viennese folk tune." This appeared to him to be the ultimate origin of the melody of the Horst-Wessel-Lied .
During the 1930s and '40s the Horst-Wessel-Lied was adapted for use by fascist groups in other European countries. The anthem of the British Union of Fascists was set to the same tune, and its lyrics were to some extent modelled on the Horst-Wessel-Lied, but appealing to British nationalism rather than German nationalism. Its opening stanza was:
- Comrades, the voices of the dead battalions,
- Of those who fell that Britain might be great,
- Join in our song, for they still march in spirit with us,
- And urge us on, to gain the fascist state!
- Por el honor, la Patria y la justicia,
- luchamos hoy en este amanecer.
- Y si la muerte llega y nos acaricia
- Y Arriba España! diremos al caer.
- Nous châtierons les juifs et les marxistes,
- Nous vengerons nos frères tués par eux,
- Afin que l'idéal national-socialiste
- Puisse être un jour fier et victorieux
It is interesting that the French version is explicitly anti-Semitic. There is no reference to Jews in the German Horst-Wessel-Lied.
Between 1930 and 1933 the German Communists and Social Democrats sang various parodies of the Horst-Wessel-Lied during their street battles with the SA. Some simply changed the political character of the song, such as:
The Stahlhelm was a veterans' organisation closely aligned with the Nazis.
Others substituted completely new lyrics:
These versions were of course banned once the Nazis came to power and the Communist and Social Democratic parties repressed. But during the years of the Third Reich the song was parodied in various underground versions, most of them poking fun at the corruption of the Nazi elite. One version ran:
In the first year of the Nazi regime radical elements of the SA sang their own parody of the song, reflecting their disappointment that the "socialist" element of National Socialism had not been realised:
Kurt Schmitt was Economics Minister 1933-35.
This article is largely based on George Boderick, "The Horst-Wessel-Lied: A Reappraisal," International Folklore Review Vol. 10 (1995): 100-127, available online here
- Alfred Weidemann: Ein Vorläufer des Horst-Wessel-Liedes? In: Die Musik 28, 1936, S. 911f. Zitiert nach Wulf 1989, S. 270.
- Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (Allen Lane 2006), 71