The man who would not salute Hitler
August Landmesser's brave example
by Herman Labuschagne


In 1996 I was at a big banquet where a toast was raised to a famous public figure whom I had no respect for. The moment the toast was raised I knew that I would not be raising my glass to a supporter of violence, terrorism and Marxist ideology. My parents were there too, and I anxiously wondered how they would react. They had never been politically active and I have never known them to make a public scene at any time. When everybody rose, only four people remained seated. Two of them were my parents who seemed as unruffled as the Queen on that day when she was shot at. The third was myself. And the fourth was a well-known author who was also seated at our table. I had always been proud of my parents – but this was one of the proudest moments ever. I just found it extremely puzzling that there were only four.


That was a long time ago, but I never could get that moment out of my mind. I can still not get over how only four in that entire gathering refused to toast. I know there were others present who felt the same – but they stood up and raised their glasses all the same. I believe they followed the herd because it was easier to go with the flow than to risk standing out. In a way I am sympathetic. It is not easy to stand by one’s convictions and to resist indicating support for those who act contrary to one’s values and beliefs. It is much more simple to just follow the crowd’s motions, rather than risk looking like a troublemaker.


In a crowd of people who were saluting Hitler in 1936, only one man refused to follow their example. His name deserves to be remembered – he was August Landmesser. He was a brave man.


Unfortunately his brave defiance later cost him his life. Nevertheless, there were always men like August Landmesser. When herds of sheeple grow from a trickle into multiple thousands – when entire crowds become swept away by mass hysteria and popular delusion – a small handful always seem to resist the flow by remaining true to their convictions. A tiny few still manage to think for themselves.


I once heard a definition of character that I liked. It is said that character is what you do when you are assured that you can get away with it. During the years that followed this event, it became possible to get away with murder and atrocities of the most incredible kind. And yet, a modest minority always resisted. There were many brave men in the world’s great armies – supremely courageous individuals on both sides of all conflicts. The greatest heroes of all, however, are the ones who still managed to distinguish right from wrong – and chose to do right against overwhelming pressure.


This picture became engraved on my mind. Many times, when I feel the pressure to follow the sheeple, I think of August Landmesser – and that circle drawn around him. And then I think – if this was 1936 and I was there – would my face have been found inside that circle? I will never know for sure. But I hope that the answer would be yes.


The truth is that this particular scene repeats itself daily around the world. On a miniature scale it repeats itself in families, in offices, in politics – and particularly in courts of law and in houses of parliament. Often when I sense the pressure of being swept along into a wrong direction by popular pressure, I try to think of this image – and try to place myself there. If ever a figurative picture of a crowd supporting something wrong should be published, in sincerely hope that neither I nor the ones I love will ever be among the ones that are saluting.