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 terrorism was the dominant system today in Germany from 1919 to 1923 – although according to research by the Amadeo Antonio Foundation, there have been at least 218 deaths from far-right violence in the Federal Republic since 1990 alone. The numbers up to the transition period are also high, but can only be adequately determined due to a lack of statistics.
Right-wing terrorism is a constant in Germany. However, the assassination of Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau on June 22, 1922 remains to this day – 100 years later – the only murder of an active Federal or Reich minister in Germany.
Political scientist Michael Dreyer of Jena explains that 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 after hyperinflation in the post-war years in 1924. This also had a great relationship with Brattenau: after The murder of a German-Jewish politician, writer, and industrialist by right-wing extremists in his open car, a wave of Republican defenses swept the country. For a brief moment, the Communists and Social Democrats showed solidarity – virtually linked to intimate animosity.
Millions of Germans took to the streets to demonstrate against this insidious act. says Dreyer, who heads the new Gerda Henkel research project on developing a democratic monopoly on the use of force in the First German Republic.
Far-right associations and newspapers have now been banned in many cases. In 1924 the Social Democrats, the Democratic Party of Germany, and Zentrum launched the “Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold”, a republican military association designed as a preventive organization against free radical right-wing groups and communists.
“In 1932, it still had twice the Stahlhelm members of the DNVP, the SA NSDAP and the KPD’s Red Front Fighters’ Association combined,” says Dreyer. The Weimar formula circulated as merely a formal democracy without a democratic population is wrong. Until the beginning of the presidential governments initiated by the Hindenburg, there was a democratic monopoly on the use of force in Germany.
Elite was right
However, the elites in particular, from professors to the judiciary, were largely anti-democratic. According to Berlin historian and expert Rathenau Martin Sabrow, the judiciary, which was a socialite in the German Empire, increasingly used the Protection of the Republic Act, which was created in response to the terror of the Right and watered down in parliamentary deliberations, as a weapon against the Left. Soon, right-wing criminals received only light sentences or no sentences at all – and communist perpetrators were severely punished.
Dreyer says legal practice thwarted the original will of the legislature. Immediately after the murder of Rathenau, Chancellor Josef Wirth, who belongs to the left wing of the Center Party, signaled to the right-wing supporters in the Reichstag and shouted: “This enemy is on the right.”
Right-wing enemies of the republic and the murderers of Rathenau were recruited from among the ranks of the nationalist anti-Semitic organization Consul, which, according to research by Martin Sabro, could count at least 5,000 “activists” and a support network to 100,000 men. Command of military operations emerged from Earhart’s Marine Brigade, whose commanders had already led the Republic to the brink of civil war in 1920 with the failed Cape Butch.
arsonist fire extinguisher as fire extinguishers
With a series of killings of political decision-makers, opponents of the revolution now wanted to foment a communist uprising and then gloriously defeat it. “The saboteur wanted to act as a fire extinguisher and to wipe out the republic in the process,” Sabro says. Before DDP member Rathenau, central politician Matthias Erzberger had already been killed and Social Democrat Philip Scheidemann wounded. Right-wing forces viewed many pro-Republican politicians as bailiffs compliant with the “politics of compliance” with regard to the strict demands of the Treaty of Versailles.
In April 1922, Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau negotiated the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviets, giving Germany more space in foreign policy. In addition, towards the end of World War I, the former opponent of the war called for its temporary continuation because he wanted to put Germany in a better negotiating position vis-à-vis the Allies.
The legend of a stab in the back
However, Rathenau, who was trying to achieve reconciliation with the West, has been vilified in the anti-Semitic backstabbing myth as an “external candidate” and “recipient of orders” from the “Elders of Zion,” says Sabro, who wrote The Rathenau Murder and the German Counter-Revolution: “He was a colorful and contradictory figure.” Professional politicians and writers, opponents and supporters of the war, a liberal industrialist with quasi-socialist economic visions – and last but not least German and Jew, despised and deeply integrated, excluded and successful. The right-wing camp considered Rathenau an example of the hated republic.
Even if the right-wing rhetoric of traitors to the people shows strong continuity from the Weimar period to the present day, the environment from which violent right-wing criminals come is usually different today than it was then, says Dreyer. “The killers were not left behind, but the sons of well-to-do bourgeoisie.” Right-wing terror was not only planned by the bourgeois elites, but also carried out.
Similarities with today
Right-wing terrorists have always been able to throw their “noble patriotic sentiments” into the balance before equal right-wing judges. They also had a social tailwind that today’s right-wing extremists can only dream of. However, there are similarities today with the past, for example in the murder case of Walter Lübcke, says Sabro. The “baseball bat decade” of the ’90s has also gone unnoticed. And as the NSU trial showed, German authorities are sometimes right-eye-blind.
The space for social resonance of nationalist attempts to overthrow was different in the Weimar era than it is today, and the camaraderie between the perpetrators and the authorities was no secret. Yet even 100 years after the assassination of Walter Rathenau, violent right-wing extremism remains the greatest threat to democracy.