Learn more about the tragic story of August Landmesser, the man who refused to salute Hitler.
The photo above has floated around the internet for a few years now, popular for one of its subjects’ subtle yet profound acts of nonconformity. There is no telling how many men in that crowd were acting out of fear, fully aware that failing to salute the Fuhrer was akin to signing his own death certificate.
Knowing that it was, in fact, Hitler standing before the crowd makes the disobedience all the more admirable, but what may seem like an act of justified transgression was at its core a gesture of love. August Landmesser, the man with his arms crossed, was married to a Jewish woman.
The story of August Landmesser’s anti-gesture begins, ironically enough, with the Nazi Party. In 1930, Germany’s economy was in shambles, and the unstable nature of the Reichstag eventually led to its demise and ultimately the rise of the opportunistic leadership of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Believing that having the right connections would help land him a job in the pulseless economy, Landmesser became a card-carrying Nazi. Little did he know that his heart would soon ruin any progress that his superficial political affiliation might have made.
In 1934, Landmesser met Irma Eckler, a Jewish woman, and the two fell deeply in love. Their engagement a year later got him expelled from the party, and their marriage application was denied under the newly enacted Nuremberg Laws.
They had a baby girl, Ingrid, in October of the same year, and two years later in 1937, the family made a failed attempt to flee to Denmark where they were apprehended at the border. August was arrested and charged for “dishonoring the race,” and briefly imprisoned.
In court, the two claimed to be unaware of Eckler’s Jewish status as she had been baptized in a Protestant church after her mother remarried. In May 1938, August was acquitted for lack of evidence, but with a severe warning that punishment would follow if Landmesser dared repeat the offense.
Officials made “good” on their word, as only a month later August would be arrested again and sentenced to hard labor for thirty months in a concentration camp. He would never see his beloved wife again.
Meanwhile, a law was quietly passed that required the arrest of Jewish wives in the case of a man “dishonoring the race,” and Irma was snatched up by the Gestapo and sent to various prisons and concentration camps, where she would eventually give birth to Irene, Landmesser and Eckler’s second child.
Both children were initially sent to an orphanage, though Ingrid, spared a worse fate for her status as “half cast,” was sent to live with her Aryan grandparents. Irene, however, would eventually be plucked from the orphanage and sent to the camps, were a family acquaintance not to have grabbed her and whisked her away to Austria for safekeeping.
Upon Irene’s return to Germany, she would be hidden again–this time in a hospital ward where her Jewish identification card would be “lost,” allowing her to live under the noses of her oppressors until their defeat.
Their mother’s tale is much more tragic. As her daughters were being bounced from orphanages to foster homes to hiding places, Irma ultimately met her maker in 1942 in the gas chambers at Bernburg.
August would be released in 1941 and began work as a foreman. Two years later, as the German army became increasingly mired by its desperate circumstances, Landmesser would be drafted into a penal infantry along with thousands of other men. He would go missing in Croatia where it is presumed he died, six months before Germany would officially surrender.
The now-famous photograph was probably taken on June 13th, 1936, when August Landmesser was working at the Blohm + Voss shipyard and still had a family to return to at the day’s end. During the unveiling of the new Horst Vessel, workers were stunned to see the Fuhrer himself in front of the ship.
August Landmesser likely found himself incapable of saluting the very man who publicly dehumanized his wife and daughter, and scores of others just like them, only to go home and embrace them several hours later. Landmesser might have been casually aware of propaganda photographers in the shipyard, but in that moment, his only thought was of his family.
August and Irma were officially declared dead in 1949. In 1951, the Senate of Hamburg recognized the marriage of August Landmesser and Irma Eckler. Their daughters split their parent’s names, Ingrid taking their father’s and Irene keeping their mother’s.