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June 13, 2020

The Story of August Landmesser, the Lone German Who Refused to Give a Nazi Salute on June 13, 1936

On June 13, 1936, the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany held a ceremony to launch its latest sailing vessel, the 295-foot barque Horst Wessel, named for a Nazi activist who was killed by communists in 1930 and treated as a martyr as part of party propaganda.

The event was headlined by a speech from Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess with Adolf Hitler at his side. Wessel’s mother christened the ship with a bottle of champagne, and the assembled crowd of workers and onlookers gave an enthusiastic Nazi salute.

Except for one.

August Landmesser was 26 years old when he stood in the crowd with his arms defiantly and conspicuously crossed over his chest.

August Landmesser refused to do the “Sieg Heil” salute during a Nazi rally at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg on June 13, 1936.

In 1931, hoping it would help him get a job, Landmesser joined the Nazi Party. In 1935, when he became engaged to Irma Eckler (a Jewish woman), he was expelled from the party. They registered to be married in Hamburg, but the Nuremberg Laws enacted a month later prevented it. Their first daughter, Ingrid, was born on October 29, 1935.

In 1937, Landmesser and Eckler tried to flee to Denmark but were apprehended. She was again pregnant, and he was charged and found guilty in July 1937 of “dishonoring the race” under Nazi racial laws. He argued that neither he nor Eckler knew that she was fully Jewish, and was acquitted on May 27, 1938 for lack of evidence, with the warning that a repeat offense would result in a multi-year prison sentence. The couple publicly continued their relationship, and on July 15, 1938 he was arrested again and sentenced to two and a half years in the Börgermoor concentration camp.

The first and only photo of the family, June 1938. Although it was forbidden for them to meet, they appeared together in public and put themselves at exceptional risk.

Eckler was detained by the Gestapo and held at the prison Fuhlsbüttel, where she gave birth to a second daughter, Irene. From there she was sent to the Oranienburg concentration camp, the Lichtenburg concentration camp for women, and then the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück. A few letters came from Irma Eckler until January 1942. It is believed that she was taken to the Bernburg Euthanasia Centre in February 1942, where she was among the 14,000 killed; in the course of post-war documentation, in 1949 she was pronounced legally dead, with a date of April 28, 1942.

Portrait of Irma Eckler.

Meanwhile, Landmesser was discharged from prison on January 19, 1941. He worked as a foreman for the haulage company Püst. The company had a branch at the Heinkel-Werke (factory) in Warnemünde. In February 1944 he was drafted into a penal battalion, the 999th Fort Infantry Battalion. He was declared killed in action, after fighting in Croatia on October 17, 1944. Like Eckler, he was legally declared dead in 1949.

August Landmesser in 1935.

Their children were initially taken to the city orphanage. Ingrid was later allowed to live with her maternal grandmother while Irene went to the home of foster parents in 1941. Ingrid was also placed with foster parents after her grandmother’s death in 1953.

The marriage of August Landmesser and Irma Eckler was recognized retroactively by the Senate of Hamburg in the summer of 1951, and in the autumn of that year Ingrid assumed the surname Landmesser. Irene continued to use the surname Eckler.

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