Conquering Berlin — Chapter 23: Debate

Shortly before the party conference in 1929 Horst Wessel had a memorable conversation with Doctor of Philosophy Hans Gerkenrath, Germanist and expert on medieval art. This conversation took place at the corner of Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden and lasted one and a half hours.

Dr. Gerkenrath did not mince his words and was not at all embarrassed to express his opinion. “You are most skilled,” he said ironically, “at screwing up your future. Although I would have thought you were a little more imaginative in this respect. Jokes aside” — and Gerkenrath became serious — “what’s the point of sitting around in stupid pubs and fighting with Marxists and altogether living like a stupid foot soldier? Man — think about it, can that be a life goal? After all, you are a corps student, an excellent lawyer, and could have a great career, if you only want to.

“And what do you do? You roam around Wedding, get yourself beaten bloody and beat others bloody in return. Man, Horst, if you want to see blood, just have a Mensur[1] and stab around according to customs, as it befits a person of your education. When I look at you, a cold rage overcomes me. You are also a very good writer and generally a talented guy. How you, as an intellectual person–”

Horst Wessel stops in his tracks and suddenly has a sharp wrinkle on his clean and clear forehead. “Hold it,” he says, “just a moment. Now you have finally given me the cue. I’m aware that you won’t understand a hint of what I’m about to tell you, so I might as well speak Chinese to you. But I want to speak Chinese with you for once. Here’s the thing: I come from a pastor’s house, I am well educated, have received my higher school certificate, belong to the Kösener SC., Normannia, Alemannia, two excellent corps. I study law with pleasure and love. I write poems and novellas on the side. I love literature and I love music and so I am, as you so aptly said, an intellectual person. I also have quite good manners, don’t I? I’ve never gobbled up fish with a knife, and I can kiss a lady’s hand without that hand getting wet from my nose–”

Horst Wessel interrupted himself and smiled, because Gerkenrath had twisted his mouth painfully.

“Excuse me, Hans, I was just about to fall into my rough SA tone. For your sake I will try to continue speaking in a refined voice. Well, I am an intellectual person, we have established that. I have immersed myself in Goethe and I love romanticism, Schlegel, Tieck, Novalis. I idolize Hölderlin and know my Nietzsche and my Kant, and so I am an intellectual person. And I can tell and explain to you what the dolus eventualis is all about and what the law of the ancient Romans looked like in the time of one much honored Mr. Caesar.

“So I cannot repeat often enough that I am an intellectual man. And now listen carefully. I have put aside these spiritual possessions of mine for now. I live in dreadful shacks that smell of cabbage soup and barley coffee, as I mostly eat cabbage soup and drink barley coffee. And I fight in the streets as often as it has to be — and it has to be very often — with riled up German workers, with criminals and pimps. I have a brown shirt and I march with my comrades, and these comrades of mine are ‘simple workers,’ as you would condescendingly call these German people, who may well be the best of us. I sit around in my Storm pubs. I serve twenty-four hours a day in the SA, and I don’t earn a penny.”

“Well, yes,” Gerkenrath offered most reluctantly, but Wessel didn’t let him speak.

“I am far from finished. So, I have put aside for now everything that is my spiritual possession. And now listen carefully. For the time being, nothing means anything to me: security of existence, prospect of a career, the treasures of culture, of spirituality, of education. Even law studies mean nothing to me for now, and I want to tell you that even my entire life means nothing to me for the time being — while this people lives in such terrible outer and inner misery. As long as this folk has no culture, no intellectuality, and no secure existence, I too will possess none of all these goods. Hopefully you understand what I mean, Gerkenrath.”

The friend shrugs his shoulders. “Of course I understand! I just mean, Wessel, you will realize that one does not bring culture to these people, and to people in general, by brawling around for life and death and–”

Almost cheering, Horst Wessel shouts, “Yes, you do! Exactly like that! Why, now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Don’t you think that I know exactly how many intellectuals feel repelled by our rough manners and our rough language and our entire rough presentation? Hans, this must be, simply has to be! The house must first be built before it can be furnished. Roads have to be built before you can drive cars on them. First the political existence of this fatherland must be secured under all circumstances, before we may once again think of Goethe, Hölderlin, Johann Sebastian Bach and of all the things which gladden the soul. Gerkenrath! There is no German culture without a German state and there is no German state without a German people.

“You know I never bother with phrases. And I have just told you a fundamental premise of my world view. And now I’m going to tell you the application of that world view.

“It sounds a bit rough, but we got rough in battle. The practical application of this world view is as follows: he who is an intellectual German man–”

Horst Wessel interrupts himself and begins again, very slowly and very forcefully, as if wanting to ram this realization into his friend’s head with hammer blows: “He who is an intellectual German man, who knows the cultural giants of this German nation and loves them all his life, who wants to guard and cultivate them, who wants to contribute his small or large part to their continued flowering and growth, who feels that they are the most precious possessions — it is precisely he, Hans, who must push them aside right now, in this present time. Because the house must first be cleaned for this culture, get it? Perhaps the house must first be rebuilt from the ground up.

“And when the house is there, proper and dignified, cleaned and clear through and through, then we’re ready. Anyone who is convinced that today’s German house is not worthy to house the true German intellectual goods must first get out of the theatres, out of the salons, out of the study rooms, out of the parental homes, out of literature, out of the concert halls — and do you know where he has to go? He must go out into the streets, he must go into the midst of the people, must speak and shout and, if need be, lash out, so that the old, ramshackle German house is torn down and a new one can be built.”

Horst Wessel beams at Gerkenrath from two bright, hot eyes.

“You see,” he says quietly, “that’s how things stand. And as paradoxical as it may sound to you, Hans: in these proletarian quarters where I stay, in these wretched castles of despair, misery, crime, woe, and incitement, in these districts where you have certainly never been before, but which have become my home, even if you turn up your intellectual nose a hundred times — here German culture is being defended by us, by the SA, that culture, my dear one, which you only want to possess, but for which you do nothing to preserve it.

“I tell you: every little brawl with a communist on some street corner, every little march of the SA in a savaged area, every hall fight is a step forward on the road of German culture, and every head of an SA-Man beaten in by the Commune has been held out for the folk, for the Reich, for the house of German culture.

“You see, I can explain to you exactly what it is all about, precisely because I am an intellectual person. And I do my SA service day after day, night after night, as long as necessary. I want to be nothing other than a foot soldier of Adolf Hitler. I want to brawl with communists as much as I can. And I tell you, I want to fight them hard, without holding back!

“I know that there are university professors and writers and painters and musicians who are said to be the guardians and bearers of this country’s cultural goods. Right now that is not true. At the moment, the guardians are the nameless men who put up posters and distribute leaflets, who protect the halls of our assemblies, who become unemployed, who starve and thirst and freeze and beg, who risk their health and their lives each hour.

“Dear Hans, in times when fates have to be decided on a large scale, sometimes one has to do very primitive things. Just as man must eat to be able to work, so we must fight, fight primitively and archaic, to secure the nation.

“Because the SA is marching for Goethe, for Schiller, for Kant, for Bach, for the Cologne Cathedral and the Bamberg Horseman, for Novalis and Hans Thoma, for German culture, believe it or not.

“They want Germany to become completely German again, that is, to become National Socialist. Either that succeeds or it does not. But it must succeed. And it will succeed with this SA, which you look down upon because it is fighting in the streets. You know Hyperion, don’t you! They don’t know it. And because I know him, I want to help to ensure that Hölderlin will walk over German soil many more times, but first he must find German soil, and I will help him prepare it, and that is why, my dear fellow student, that is why I am marching through Friedrichshain with a hundred wild and robust lads, and punching every Communist in his trap. Period. Finished.”

Dr. Gerkenrath sighs a little impatiently. “Dearest Wessel,” he says, “it may well be so. But I just can’t imagine that, even in a roundabout way, these wild fellows from Wedding have anything to do with German culture, that you pay homage to Goethe with your bloody hall fights, and that you are bearers of culture with your loud, provocative screaming and your uncouth, terrible manners. And that you in particular throw away everything that–”

“Oh Gerkenrath!” Wessel answers calmly, “there is a widely cited phrase that you yourself like to use. It goes: ‘Throw away so that you do not lose.’ So we are in the process of throwing away ourselves, the SA, so that we do not lose, but regain, and you stand by and watch and find that highly ungentlemanly, highly uncouth — yes, my goodness, fighting is not a very refined affair, but one can no longer defend German culture with fountain pens and typewriters, much less reconquer it. Now, my dear fellow student, we have to work for Goethe with beer mugs and chair legs. And once we have won, well, then we will again spread out our arms, press our cultural goods to our hearts and enjoy them.”

Wessel remains silent and looks at his friend calmly, and then he must smile, as he sees him standing there, elegant, with well-groomed hands that now light a cigarette, with fine silk linen and a magnificent bow tie.

“Gerkenrath!” he suddenly says, “when the Third Reich is here, you will have always said it will come, and you will walk around with the swastika and shout ‘Heil Hitler’ — but you still won’t have understood what I just told you. Perhaps then I will no longer be able to explain the whole thing to you again. Because you must not forget that we not only brawl for this German culture, but that we also die for it if we have to. And that is what puts us one step ahead of you. Heil Hitler!”

And with that Horst Wessel continued. Behind him, Dr. Gerkenrath took off his hat, slowly and somewhat annoyed. Slowly because he is very busy with the thoughts that his fellow student Wessel has just expressed, and annoyed because he finds many of these thoughts, whether he likes them or not, brilliant.

[1] The traditional German academic-fraternity duel fought with sharp swords.

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