If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth a million. It’s 1936 and the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg is hosting Adolf Hitler, who has come to witness the unveiling of a new ship for his Nazi war machine. The German newspaper Die Zeit is there to capture the moment, and the adoring audience of laborers facing their Fuhrer—manufactured propaganda. But then courage breaks through.
In the sea of “Heil Hitler” salutes, a lone figure stands in defiance, arms crossed in silent protest. No big deal? In 1936 Nazi Germany, this man could have been put to death for such an act. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Five years earlier, at the height of Germany’s post war depression, August Landmesser decided to join the new Nazi party, which promised reform for the stagnant economy and jobs for all—while conveniently leaving out the part about world domination and a “final solution” for the Jews.
But in 1935 when August became engaged to the Jewish Irma Eckler, and applied for a marriage license he was expelled from the Nazi party. Later that year Irma gave birth to their first daughter. So when the now iconic photograph was shot, August was already in trouble deep with the Nazis.
A year later, recognizing that their future together was in serious jeopardy, the young family tried to flee to Denmark, but was stopped at the border. August was charged with “dishonoring the race” under Nazi racial laws because he had not abandoned his wife, who was now pregnant with their second child. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence, as Eckler’s step-father had been Christian and she’d actually been baptized. Even so, August was given strict orders to not repeat the offense—code for “leave your woman.” But he chose love.
And later that year, when the “Rassenschande” policy was passed, which gave soldiers permission to detain all non-Aryan women married to German men, Irma was captured by the Gestapo. She was allowed to give birth to their second child, but was then sent to Ravensbruck where she was gassed in 1942. August was sentenced to two years of hard labor in the Concentration camp at Borgermoor. When he was released, he was immediately drafted into a penal battalion and killed in action in Croatia. Their two daughters, Ingrid and Irene, were placed in foster care but would survive.
And it was Ingrid, August and Irma’s first born, who in 1991 identified her father in that remarkable photograph, taken in that Nazi shipyard in 1936—one man, arms crossed, refusing to salute evil and making a radical statement about love.
Non-conformity has seldom said so much, or looked so beautiful.
August Landmesser is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.