In the turbulent early years of the Weimar Republic, there were 354 political murders committed by right-wing extremists, compared to just 22 by left-wing actors. Right-wing terror was the order of the day in Germany from 1919 to 1923 – although according to research by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation there have been at least 218 fatalities from right-wing extremist acts of violence in the Federal Republic since 1990 alone. The numbers up to the turnaround are also high, but can only be determined insufficiently due to the lack of statistics.
Right-wing terrorism is a constant in Germany. However, the assassination of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau on June 22, 1922 remains to this day – 100 years later – the only murder of an active Reich or Federal Minister committed in Germany.
The fact that the climate of violence eased significantly between 1923 and 1929 was not only due to the fact that the republic recovered economically following the hyperinflation of the post-war years in 1924, explains political scientist Michael Dreyer from Jena. It also had a lot to do with Rathenau: After the German-Jewish politician, writer and industrialist was shot dead by right-wing extremists in his open car, a wave of republican defensiveness swept through the country. For a brief moment, communists and social democrats even showed solidarity – actually connected in intimate enmity.
Millions of Germans took to the streets to demonstrate against the insidious act. “Within a very short time, the law for the protection of the republic was passed, which marked the birth of defensive democracy in Germany,” says Dreyer, who heads a new Gerda Henkel research project on the development of the democratic monopoly on the use of force in the first German republic.
Right-wing extremist associations and newspapers have now been banned in many cases. In 1924 the SPD, DDP and Zentrum initiated the “Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold”, a republican military association that was designed as a protective organization against right-wing extremist free corps and communists.
“In 1932 it still had twice as many members as the DNVP’s Stahlhelm, the NSDAP’s SA and the KPD’s Red Front Fighters’ Association combined,” says Dreyer. The often circulated formula of Weimar as a merely formal democracy without a democratic population is wrong. Until the beginning of the presidential cabinets initiated by Hindenburg, there was a democratic monopoly on the use of force in Germany.
However, the elite in particular, from the professors to the judiciary, was largely anti-democratic. According to the Berlin historian and Rathenau expert Martin Sabrow, the judiciary, which was socialized in the German Empire, increasingly used the Republic Protection Act, which was created in response to right-wing terror and watered down in parliamentary deliberations, as a weapon against the left. Right-wing criminals soon received only mild sentences or no sentences at all – communist perpetrators, on the other hand, were punished draconically.
Legal practice thwarted the original will of the legislature, says Dreyer. Immediately after the Rathenau murder, Chancellor Joseph Wirth, who belonged to the left wing of the Center Party, pointed to the right-wing partisans in the Reichstag and shouted: “This enemy is on the right”.
The right-wing enemies of the republic and Rathenau murderers were recruited from the ranks of the nationalist-anti-Semitic organization Consul, which, according to research by Martin Sabrow, could count on at least 5,000 “activists” and a support network of up to 100,000 men. The OC emerged from the Ehrhardt Marine Brigade, whose leaders had already maneuvered the republic to the brink of civil war in 1920 with the failed Kapp Putsch.
With a series of murders of political decision-makers, the counter-revolutionaries now wanted to provoke a communist uprising and then gloriously defeat it. “The arsonist wanted to act as a fire extinguisher and clear the republic in the process,” says Sabrow. Before the DDP member Rathenau, the center politician Matthias Erzberger had already been murdered and the social democrat Philipp Scheidemann had been injured. Many politicians loyal to the republic were seen by the right-wing powers as compliant bailiffs of the “policy of compliance” with regard to the tough demands of the Versailles Treaty.
In April 1922, Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau had negotiated the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviets, which gave Germany greater leeway in foreign policy. In addition, towards the end of the First World War, the former opponent of the war had advocated its temporary continuation because he wanted to get Germany into a better negotiating position vis-à-vis the Allies.
Nevertheless, Rathenau, who was trying to achieve reconciliation with the West, was defamed in the anti-Semitic stab-in-the-back legend as a “candidate from abroad” and “recipient of orders from the “Wise Men of Zion”. “He was a colorful and contradictory personality,” says Sabrow, who wrote the book The Rathenau Murder and the German Counter-Revolution. Professional politicians and writers, war opponents and supporters, a liberal industrialist with quasi-socialist economic visions – and last but not least a German and a Jew, deeply despised and assimilated, excluded and successful. Rathenau was seen by the right-wing camp as the epitome of the hated republic.
Even if the right-wing rhetoric about traitors from the Weimar period to the present shows strong continuity – the milieu from which right-wing violent criminals come is usually different today than it was then, says Dreyer. “The murderers were not left behind, but well-to-do bourgeois sons”. Right-wing terrorism was not only planned by bourgeois elites, but also carried out by them.
The right-wing terrorists were always able to throw their “noble national sentiment” into the balance before the equally hard-right judges. They also had a social tailwind that today’s right-wing extremists can only dream of. Nevertheless, there are parallels to the past today, for example in the Walther Lübcke murder case, says Sabrow. The “baseball bat decade” of the 1990s also went far too little for a long time. And as the NSU trial has shown, the German authorities are sometimes blind in the right eye.
The social resonance space for nationalist attempts at coup was different in the Weimar era than it is today, and the camaraderie between the perpetrators and the authorities was no secret. And yet, even 100 years after the assassination of Walther Rathenau, violent right-wing extremism remains the greatest threat to democracy.