Prophet in a Tuxedo

Richard J. Evans

  • Walther Rathenau: Weimar’s Fallen Statesman by Shulamit Volkov
    Yale, 240 pp, £18.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 14431 4

On the morning of 24 June 1922, Walther Rathenau, the German foreign minister, set off for work from his villa in the Berlin suburb of Grunewald. The weather was fine, so he instructed his chauffeur to use the open-top limousine. The minister sat alone in the back. He took no security precautions, used the same route every day, and had dismissed the police protection he had been offered. As the car slowed down to negotiate a bend just before joining the main road, another car, an open-top tourer, came out of a side street and started to overtake it. Two men were sitting in the back, clad somewhat oddly in long leather coats and leather driving helmets.

Drawing level, the second car slowed down, pushing the limousine across the road. As the minister looked up, alarmed, one of its passengers leaned forward, picked up a long-barrelled machine-pistol and opened fire. A rapid series of shots rang out. Bringing his car to a halt, Rathenau’s chauffeur shouted for help. At the same moment there was a loud explosion as the other assassin lobbed a hand grenade into the back of the limousine, causing it to spring into the air. A passing nurse cradled the dying foreign minister as the chauffeur drove to the nearest police station; but she could do nothing.

The assassins, Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer, drove into a side street, took off their leather gear, disposed of the machine-pistol and calmly walked away as police cars sped past them on their way to the scene of the crime. The police mounted the largest manhunt Germany had ever seen: ‘Wanted’ posters appeared all over the country, and police forces were issued with descriptions of the men. The two assassins made their way to Saaleck Castle in Bavaria, whose custodian was a sympathiser, but the police tracked them down. Kern was killed in a shoot-out and Fischer committed suicide; both were in their mid-twenties. The driver, Ernst Techow, was only 21. His parents turned him in; in court, he claimed he had acted under duress, and he was given a relatively mild prison sentence. Rathenau’s mother wrote an emotional letter of forgiveness to Techow’s mother, prompting strong feelings of guilt in the young man. On his release in 1927 he joined the French Foreign Legion, and during the Second World War is said to have expiated his crime by saving Jews in Marseille from deportation to Auschwitz.

Police inquiries soon established that the three young men were part of a much wider conspiracy involving others as young as 16. All of them were from good families. They included the sons of a general, a senior police officer and a member of Berlin’s town council. All of them belonged to extreme right-wing nationalist organisations, and several had served in the notorious Freikorps brigade, led by a former naval captain called Hermann Ehrhardt, that took part in the bloody suppression of the Munich Soviet in 1919 and the Kapp putsch that occupied Berlin briefly in a botched attempt to overthrow the republic a year later.

Following the brigade’s enforced dissolution, a number of its members went underground, forming a secret resistance group called Organisation Consul which carried out a number of murders, including that of Matthias Erzberger, a prominent signatory of the Treaty of Versailles for the German government. One of the men who provided logistical support for the assassination, a 19-year-old bank clerk called Ernst von Salomon, wrote a bestselling novel glorifying the Freikorps and Organisation Consul after his release from prison in 1930: entitled Die Geächteten (‘the ostracised’, published in English translation shortly afterwards as The Outlaws), it was an unapologetic glorification of the violent and extreme nationalism from which these young men drew inspiration.

The killing sent a shockwave through the fledgling Weimar Republic. In the subsequent Reichstag debate, the chancellor, Joseph Wirth, caused uproar by accusing the right-wing press of inciting the murder. Pointing to the nationalist benches, he declared: ‘There stands the enemy who drips his poison into the wounds of a people. There stands the enemy, and there is no doubt about it: this enemy stands on the right!’ Flags were flown at half-mast on official buildings, trade unions staged demonstrations protesting against the murder, and the president, Friedrich Ebert, immediately issued a decree for the protection of the republic, confirmed by a law steered through the Reichstag on 21 July. It was a key moment in the history of the Weimar Republic. It brought to an end a long series of assassination attempts, including an acid attack on the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, whose proclamation from the balcony of the Reichstag had established the republic in 1918 (the acid had been diluted, and most of it hit his beard), and an assault with an iron bar on the popular muck-raking journalist Maximilian Harden, a friend of Rathenau’s (Harden survived, but only just). It also brought the Organisation Consul to an end.

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