The German Non-Saluter Myth October 26, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Contemporary , trackback
This picture has appeared periodically over the last few years. Its popularity is easy to understand. A crowd is slavishly announcing the thousand year reich but one man, can you spot him, refuses to lift his hand. The picture has become associated with August Landmesser, a member of the Nazi party who made the error (according to his regime) of marrying a Jewish woman and then saw his family broken up, his wife murdered, and who was ultimately drafted and lost (MIA) on the Croatian front as the iron dream turned rusty. And yet… And yet…
Well, we’ll get to the myth in a minute but first, the basic facts about the photograph. The image was taken 13 June 1936 at the launch of the Horst Wessel at the Blohm und Voss shipyard in Hamburg, a German training vessel: bizarrists may be interested to know that this ship is now called the Eagle and is part of the U.S. Coast Guard. The photos seems not to have been published in 1936 (though Beach waits to be contradicted): not least because of the fly in the ointment of a barrel-chested man refusing to salute Hitler; we’ll refer to him henceforth as non-saluter. However, it was published in Die Zeit 22 March 1991 where it was part of a book review (Lockung und Zwang. Warum große Teile der Arbeiterschaft sich mit dem NS-Regime arrangierten) and in this review it was said, wrongly, to be a photograph from the launching of the Bismarck in 1939. Then 15 Nov 1995 the Hamburger Abendblatt published an appeal asking who the man was: they corrected though the date to 1936 and the ship to the Horst Wessel. This confusion of dates will become important so try and hold onto them.
Second, let’s consider why the photograph is so appealing: Beach’s six year old daughter lapped it up, for example, this morning. Non-saluter is powerful and determined. His body language and his face are absolutely alligned: he is saying NO. There is no danger that this is an accident of the camera: so many ‘great’ photographs depend on an out of place expression frozen in time (an example of this in recent photography history are the shallow Americans watching 9/11 where the entire composition is falsified on a chance micro-second smile). Non saluter has also been accidentally caught according to the law of thirds. He is in the right part of the photograph for the eye, which drifts easily to his defiance.
Third, let’s get onto non-saluter’s identity. As journalists know humans want easy, attractive stories: we are pathetic, almost contemptible in this respect. The problem is that historians can rarely give simple stories: facts and above all sources get in the way. August Landmesser had been identified as the man in the picture in 1991, when August Landmesser’s daughter, Irene Eckler, saw the photograph. AL had been, in 1938, put into a prison camp and he may have been made to do war work subsequently in 1939. However, as we have seen, the picture actually dates from 1936 when AL had not yet been to prison and when there was, in any case, no proof that he was working in the shipyard (quite the opposite). A rival and far more convincing candidate has emerged in recent years, Wegert Gustav, who did work at the shipyard and who objected to Nazism on grounds of his Christian faith and who died in 1959, when Germany’s totalitarian nightmare was over. Beach has borrowed these two comparison photographs from the Gustav family’s site. The resemblance is striking. Remember that in the right photogaph WG is twelve years older. It is him, isn’t it?
Compare now with August Landmesser.
What is interesting is that the internet does not share this faith in WG. Let’s try the following on Google in English: ‘Wegert Gustav Salute’ vs ‘August Landmesser Salute’. The score comes out at 671 vs 14,100. In German the score is not much better. ‘Wegert Gustav Hitlergruß’ vs ‘August Landmesser Hitlergruß’: 142 vs 1320.
Why does historical truth get so beaten upon by historical legend? Probably two reasons here. First, the earliest claim was for AL and, of course, the early bird… Second, and far more importantly, AL has a better backstory. He was imprisoned. He got caught up in the clockwork guillotine of the race laws. His wife was ‘euthanised’. His children were taken away from him. He died after being drafted, probably butchered by Tito’s men in Yugoslavia. Wegert Gustav, meanwhile, was a Christian objector who prayed against Hitler. There is no competition in narrative terms and this is why organisations that should know better like the Huffington Post and the Washington Post and Mentalfloss and Buzzfeed (ok scratch the last) have played the August card. (English Wikipedia gets half marks for expressing doubts but then contradicting itself.) There is also the enjoyable irony that the many anarchist and leftist sites that have appropriated this image have decided to laud unknowingly a pious Protestant, rather than, say, a bomb-throwing radical. One of the uncomfortable facts about Nazi Germany is that it was the older institutions (the Church, the Protestant hierarchy, the aristocracy…) that offered the best resistance to Hitler. The extreme left were either (understandably) fleeing to Paris or (contemptibly) helping the Reich butcher the Polish.
Of course, in the end it might not matter (save to the family) who the non-saluter is. If we want a brief consolation for what is about to go wrong in Germany we look in this man’s eyes and remember that there are always (thank God) those who say no. If we want a lesson, though, ignore the non-saluter and look at everyone round about him. They are the ones who matter. Hegel saw Zeitgeist on a horse when Napoleon went by, Beach sees it in the expressions of these Hamburg workers. Stalingrad anyone? Blow blizzard blow…
More on non-saluter? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com