august-landmesser-no-saluteThis is one of the most iconic image to be captured on camera. At first glance, it looks like any other black and white image of its period, the 1930s. An aerial shot capture a crowd of people, facing one direction and all of them performing the Nazi salute by extending their right arm in the air with a straightened hand. The place? Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. The occasion? the launch of the naval training vessel Horst Wessel. The date? 13 June 1936. Nothing is peculiar about that except for a lone man, standing in the midst of the crowd with his hands folded on his chest and a look of defiance on his face. His name? August Landmesser.
Mr. August was married to a Jewish woman Irma Eckler and this had caused him to run afoul with the Nazi party for ‘dishonouring the race’. On the day the photo was taken, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist was visiting the shipyard to launch the training vessel hence the ‘hail Hitler’ salute. Needless to say that August Landmesser paid for his bold stance with imprisonment. He was later forcefully drafted into military service and was killed in action. His story and the picture would never have come to the notice of the world but for a book published by the daughter Irene Eckler in 1996.
The photo and story of August not only inspires but teaches me that it is possible to resist what is undoubtedly wrong. Contrary to popular culture, there are alternatives to conforming to evil even when it is pervasive and everyone around seem to subscribe to it. The Bible says ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ Romans 12:21.
August image and story teaches me to rise above the crowd, beyond what is popular and widely acceptable malevolence and defy any power that has lost moral legitimacy. It is easy to fit in, go with the flow, do what everyone else is doing, follow the pattern, read from the same script and become a carbon copy of everyone else. Sometimes I feel that the objectives of our standardized education system (basic to university), the 9pm news hour, entertainment, the political discourse e.t.c is to uniform all of us. Daniel 1:8 – 15 tell the story of four Hebrew boys; Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah who refuse to blend-in with the crowd. They choose a different path which was not only perilous but not as gastronomically thrilling. They said ‘NO’ to what they knew was wrong just like August did.
The image teaches me to stand for, embrace tightly and become what I profess to believe and love. I cannot be hypocritical in a world that endorses and rewards (at least compensate) duality of character. I wonder how many people in the photograph saluted even though they did not agree with or subscribe to Nazi’s dark beliefs. They did it to stay safe, save their skins and continue to live in the shadows of diabolical authority. Daniel would not cower to an evil decree including the one  issued by his boss, the powerful King Darius. He stood up (or more aptly knelt down) for what he believed and held as truth irrespective of the consequences (Daniel 6).
August Landmesser stood out by refusing to fit in. He was distinct. It caused him a lot of trouble. He lost everything, including the wife he loved. He lost his life eventually. We may be tempted to ask, what then is the point? I don’t claim to know his motivation or state of mind but I would imagine that he was not going to base his life on a lie for breath’s sake. It is not the length of life that matter but the quality (values and ideals). The fact is that we are all dying. It is the one common destiny of all mankind. The question is, what are we dying for? We have no idea who the rest of the people in the crowd were. We don’t know their names, families or stories. If they survived the massive allied bombardment of Hamburg, they probably went on to live long lives, raised children, dotted on grand children, kept a dog(s) (or cat depending on one’s preferences), worked good white collar jobs, belonged to a club, played golf on their off days and lived happily ever after in the safe leafy suburbs with a picket fence. We do not know them. We can only speculate. But 80 years down the line, we know August, because there is a photograph from past that commands our attention and a story to go with it. History records him with the evidence of the photograph as having lived and defied the evil of his time. He stands-out from the past.  He stands out in life.
As I write this, it occurs to me that there are many images of us out there (facebook and instagram mostly). There are selfies we took with our smartphones, paparazzi moments from weddings and funerals, portraits we posed for, and random shots that captured us in the midst of a public interest happening. What do they say about us? What our story? How long will it survive in the minds and hearts of earthlings?
Have a distinct week.

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