Most of us have perhaps come across this iconic photograph once in our lives: a large gathering of Nazi workers at the Blohm+Voss shipyard in Hamburg in 1936 for the celebration of launching the navy training ship, Horst Wessel. Everyone was doing the “Sieg heil” (hail victory) stiff-arm Nazi salute mandatory to all German citizens to show their loyalty to the Fuhrer, his party, and the nation. Except when you look closer, all but one was doing it; a man toward the back of the crowd, standing with his arms crossed over his chest and his face showing a grim expression, and for reasons. Here is the story of August Landmesser.
The Man In The Photo
The man was identified to be August Landmesser, a German born in Moorrege in 1910, an only child of August Franz Landmesser and Wilhelmine Magdalene. Wanting to get employment, he joined the Nazi Party(The Nationalist Socialists had absorbed the labor unions) in 1931 and rose his way up the ranks of the only legal, political affiliation in Germany. All this time, Landmesser was a loyal Hitler follower until he met Irma Eckler two years later. In what sounded like a movie plot, their love was forbidden, as Eckler was Jewish. Regardless, he proposed marriage to her in 1935. The party discovered their engagement soon enough, and he was expelled from the party. But at that time, love was stronger than his belief in the Nazis, as they still attempted to seal their love when they filed a marriage application in Hamburg. However, the union was denied due to the newly enacted Nuremberg Laws. Unmarried, they still had their first daughter in October 1935 and named her Ingrid.
The Nuremberg Laws
Nürnberger Gesetze (Nuremberg Laws) were racist and antisemitic laws established in Nazi Germany on Sept. 15, 1935, the same year Landmesser and Eckler attempted to get married. These laws forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans to protect the racial purity of the German face. Thus it was called the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour. The Reich Citizenship Law was also one of the Nuremberg Laws. It stated that the only eligible Reich citizens were Germans and anyone of related blood. Those who were not were classified as state subjects were not eligible for any citizenship rights. Soon, the Romani gypsies, Blacks and other minorities were also added to the list of “enemies of the race-based state.”
It was the Nuremberg Laws that made the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews official, although the “legal” attack started two years prior when the Nazis took power in Germany and activities involving the persecution of the Jewish and other minority populations became state policy. The Jews were not allowed to hold public office or civil service positions, and immigrants were denaturalized. They were also denied employment and excluded from farming. Later on, they were also not permitted to participate in stock exchanges and brokerage.
Those who violated the marriage laws were imprisoned only to be rearrested upon completing their sentence and then sent to concentration camps. Leaving the country was also not much of an option for many middle-class business owners and professionals as they were required to give up 90% of their wealth as a tax if they wanted to leave the country. The mass exterminations of the Jews in Europe started in mid-1941.
Acts of Defiance
And so, on June 13, 1936, the iconic photo of Landmesser with his arms crossed, defiant stance while Hitler was christening the new German navy vessel was taken. He obviously had had enough. So in 1937, Landmesser’s small family tried to flee to Denmark. But just like the others, they were caught at the border. He was detained and charged with “dishonoring the race” or “racial infamy,” still under the Nuremberg Laws. He was acquitted a year after due to lack of evidence. Upon releasing him, he was instructed not to have a relationship with his beloved Eckler. Expectedly, he did not adhere and ignored the Nazi’s wishes. Because of that, he was again arrested in 1938, the last time that he would ever see his family. He was sentenced to almost three years in a concentration camp this time.
On the other hand, Eckler was also arrested by the Secret State Police or Gestapo. At that time, she was several months pregnant with their second daughter. She gave birth in the camp and named the baby Irene. After her delivery, Eckler was sent to an all-women’s concentration camp before she was believed to be transferred to a “euthanasia center” in 1942. Along with some 14,000 other Jews, she was killed in that center.
As for Landmesser, he worked a few jobs after his prison sentence before he was drafted into a penal battalion in 1944. A few months later, he was declared missing in action in Croatia. Their two daughters miraculously survived the war and were taken to the city orphanage.
In 1991, the photograph of Landmesser’s gesture of defiance was published in the German newspaper Die Zeit.