The story of August Landmesser and a 1936 photo that made him famous

Principles versus fashions: the lesson offered by a man who folded his arms

August Landmesser was one of many ordinary Germans who lived through the rise of Nazism during the turbulent 1930s.

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He was born in Moorrege, a town in northern Germany, already close to Denmark, on May 24, 1910. Out of sheer interest, and thinking that this would help him in his job search, in 1931 he joined the Nazi Party. He eventually went to work at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg. The best proof that August was not a Nazi is that he was in love with a Jewish girl, Irma Eckler, to whom he became engaged in 1935.

Having a relationship with a Jewish woman led the young worker to be expelled from the Nazi Party. August and Irma wanted to get married in Hamburg, but the recently approved Nuremberg Laws forbade it, since they prohibited marriages and even extramarital relations between Jews and Aryans. Risking arrest for their relationship, August continued seeing Irma and they eventually had a girl, named Ingrid, who was born on October 29, 1935.

On June 13, 1936, August went to work at the shipyard. That day the sailing ship "Horst Wessel" was scheduled to be launched, a training ship for the German Navy. During the launching ceremony, and surely to the tune of a hymn, hundreds of shipyard employees gave the Nazi salute, but one remained with his arms crossed: August. It was his symbolic way of showing his disagreement with that racist regime.

In 1937, August and his family tried to flee to Denmark, but they failed and he was arrested. After being released the following year for lack of evidence, August continued his relationship with Irma, for which he was arrested again. August spent two and a half years in a concentration camp. In turn, Irma was taken to a prison , where she gave birth to her second daughter, Irene. In 1942 Irma was sent to a euthanasia center in Bernburg. It is assumed that she was murdered. August was released in 1941 and in 1944 he was forcibly enlisted in the army. He was declared killed in action in Croatia in 1944. Both he and Irma were officially declared dead in 1949.

In 1951, the marriage of August and Irma was posthumously legalized, giving their daughters the legal right to bear their father's surname. The photo of August with his arms crossed became famous in 1991, when it was published by the German newspaper Die Zeit. Today that photo is a symbol of the silent resistance to nazism.

For as long as humanity can remember, gregariousness has made things much easier for our ancestors, since grouping together in communities and following the example of others prevented them from having to constantly learn to do things from scratch. But gregariousness is not always a good idea. Many times, the masses make serious mistakes or allow themselves to be manipulated by charlatans. Nazism and communism are good examples of this. One must have enough judgment to know when something is wrong and reject it, even if many approve. That is what makes us truly free.

A free society needs people who are critical and who don't just accept any idea just because it's fashionable. Principles cannot be subordinated to fashions. A crime, an injustice and an abuse will never stop being so even if many approve of them. Although sometimes that implies taking risks, what sets us free is assessing whether something is right or wrong, regardless of what the majority says. The defense of the good, of truth, of freedom, of human dignity and of justice must not be supplanted by any fashion.

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