A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump made statements that he thought NFL owners should fire any football players who kneel during the national anthem. When people debated about the right to protest and respecting the military, I thought of an image I saw a few years ago. It was an old photo from 1936. In the photo, a crowd of Germans were giving the Nazi salute to Adolph Hitler. Conspicuously, one German had folded his arms and refused to give the Nazi salute to Hitler.
German citizens were required to give the Nazi salute to Hitler during his reign. But in 1936, one man refused to salute during a rally because he fell in love with Irma Eckler, a Jewish woman.
August Landmesser had joined the Nazi Party in 1931 so he could get a job during the economic depression of Germany at the time. In 1934, Landmesser fell in love with Irma Eckler, and their engagement a year later got him expelled from the Nazi Party. Their marriage application was denied under the racial Nuremberg Laws.
August and Irma had a baby girl, Ingrid, in 1935.
During a Nazi rally to dedicate the naval training vessel Horst Wessel on June 13, 1936, August Landmesser refused to perform the Nazi salute to Hitler at the launch of the naval training vessel Horst Wessel. This was especially courageous, considering he was surrounded by a crowd of Nazi well-wishers.
A year later, the family attempted to flee to Denmark, but were apprehended at the border. August was arrested for “dishonoring the race” under Nazi’s racial laws and was told to break up with Irma. August, however, continued his relationship with Irma and a month later was arrested again and was sentenced to hard labor for two years in a concentration camp. He would never see his wife again. Irma Eckler was arrested by the Gestapo and was imprisoned, where she gave birth to their second daughter.
Due to a shortage of soldiers, Landmesser was drafted into a penal infantry and died in Croatia.
When President Trump made his statements that the NFL owners should fire any football players who kneel during the national anthem, I thought of the story of August Landmesser. Trump has equated standing for the national anthem with honoring our military. I love this country and I honor the sacrifices of the men and women who have served in our military. But I think it is wrong to make it mandatory for all Americans to have to stand for the national anthem. I think it is equally wrong for an American to lose his or her job for exercising their right of free expression.
Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and other dictators forced their citizens to have to observe their national anthems or they would be beaten, jailed or even killed. Our country should not be emulating the examples of Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. I think standing for the national anthem should be voluntary.
If you want to honor our country and our military, defend the freedoms enshrined in our Bill of Rights, respect differences of opinion, stand up for the freedom of speech and expression of all our citizens (even those we disagree with), help make sure our country lives up to its highest values of freedom and equality. Help military families and veterans, advocate for homeless veterans and those struggling with PTSD. Keep informed on foreign policy issues so that we can make informed decisions about whether we should put our soldiers in harms way or whether a diplomatic solution is a better path.