The lyrics to "Horst-Wessel-Lied" were written in 1929 by Sturmführer Horst Wessel, the commander of the Nazi paramilitary "Brownshirts" (Sturmabteilung or "SA") in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin. Wessel wrote songs for the SA in conscious imitation of the Communist paramilitary, the Red Front Fighters' League, to provoke them into attacking his troops, and to keep up the spirits of his men.
Horst Wessel, credited as writing the lyrics of the "Horst Wessel Song"
Wessel was the son of a pastor with a university education, but he was employed as a construction worker. He became well known among the Communists when he led a number of SA incursions into the Fischerkiez, an extremely poor Berlin district where Communists mingled with underworld figures. (He did this on orders from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Gauleiter (regional party leader) of Berlin.) Several of these agitations were only minor altercations, but one took place outside the tavern which the local German Communist Party (KPD) used as its headquarters. As a result of that melee, five Communists were injured, four of them seriously. The Communist newspaper accused the police of letting the Nazis get away while arresting the injured Communists, while the Nazi newspaper claimed that Wessel had been trying to give a speech when communists emerged and began the fight. Wessel was marked for death, with his face and address featured on Communist street posters and the slogan of the KPD and the Red Front Fighters' League became "strike the fascists wherever you find them."
Wessel took up with his partner Erna Jänicke in a room on Große Frankfurter Straße in the house of the widowed Frau Salm, whose husband had been a Communist. After a few months, there was a dispute between Salm and Wessel over unpaid rent; Salm wanted Jänicke to leave, but she refused to, and Salm appealed to Communist friends of her late husband for help. Shortly thereafter on 14 January 1930, Wessel was shot and seriously wounded by two Communist Party members, one of whom was Albrecht "Ali" Höhler. Wessel died in the hospital on 23 February from blood poisoning, which he contracted during his hospitalisation. Höhler was tried in court and sentenced to six years' imprisonment for the shooting. He was taken out of prison under false pretenses by the SA and executed three years later, after the Nazi accession to national power in 1933.
Nazi Party anthem
Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Gauleiter and owner and editor of the newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack), had made several attempts to create Nazi martyrs for propaganda purposes, the first being an SA man named Hans-Georg Kütemeyer, whose body was pulled out of a canal the morning after he attended a speech by Hitler at the Sportpalast. Goebbels attempted to spin this into an assassination by Communists, but the overwhelming evidence showed it to have been suicide, and he had to drop the matter. Thus, Goebbels put considerable effort into mythologizing Wessel's story, even as the man lay dying. He met with Wessel's mother, who told him her son's life story, his hope for a "better world", and his attempt to rescue a prostitute he had met on the street. Goebbels saw Wessel as an "idealistic dreamer".
Wessel himself had undergone an operation at St. Joseph's Hospital which stopped his internal bleeding, but the surgeons had been unable to remove the bullet in his cerebellum. Wessel was brought to his mother's home to die. In his diary, Goebbels described Wessel's entire face as being shot up and his features distorted, and claimed that Wessel told him "One has to keep going! I'm happy!" After a period where his condition stabilized, Wessel died on 23 February.
Goebbels consulted with Hermann Göring and others in the party on how to respond to Wessel's death. They declared a period of mourning until 12 March, during which party and SA members would avoid amusements and Wessel's name would be invoked at all party meetings. Wessel's unit was renamed the Horst Wessel Storm Unit 5.
From a mashup of fact and fiction, Goebbels' propaganda created what became one of the Nazi Party's central martyr-figures of their movement. He officially declared Wessel's march, renamed as the "Horst-Wessel-Lied" ("Horst Wessel Song"), to be the Nazi Party anthem. Wessel was buried on 1 March 1930. Contrary to Nazi claims, there were no attacks on the funeral procession. His funeral was filmed and turned into a major propaganda event by the NSDAP. The "Horst Wessel Song" was sung by the SA at the funeral, and was thereafter extensively used at party functions, as well as sung by the SA during street parades.