Saaleck and the memory of Walther Rathenau's murderers
Walther Rathenau was murdered 100 years ago. His murderers died during his arrest at Saaleck Castle. After 1990, the castle in Saxony-Anhalt became a place of pilgrimage for right-wing groups. Their commemoration of the assassins shows that the right-wing terrorism of the Weimar Republic also plays a role model for the extreme right's construction of tradition. At the same time, this reveals ideological lines of connection to right-wing terrorism of the present day, as reflected in the murder of the Kassel district president Walter Lübcke.
Assassination of Walther Rathenau
On June 24, 1922, a group of right-wing terrorists assassinated Walther Rathenau, then foreign minister of the Weimar Republic. He was deliberately killed in Berlin in his open car with shots from a machine gun as well as two hand grenades. A year earlier, right-wing extremists had murdered the former finance minister and centrist MP Matthias Erzberger. Both were exposed representatives of the young republic and the most prominent victims of pre-fascist right-wing terrorism in Germany. Their murder is part of a long series of right-wing terrorist acts of violence after the end of the First World War.
This terror was carried out by nationalist and anti-Semitic groups that had been socialized into political violence against the backdrop of their experiences of violence in World War I in right-wing military associations, Freikorps and in the structures of the "Black Reichswehr. What they had in common was their hatred of the Weimar Republic, which was denounced as a state of "November criminals" - an expression of their opposition to the revolution of November 1918 and its results.
As foreign minister of the Reich, Rathenau focused on understanding and reconciliation in Europe after the First World War. As a Jew and intellectual, he had already become the bogeyman of anti-Semitic propaganda during the Empire. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the anti-republican right and its press denounced him as a "fulfillment politician" of the Allied victorious states who was acting against Germany's interests.
The core element of anti-republican propaganda was anti-Semitism, which followed the tradition of the völkisch-nationalist right. This quickly culminated in open murder fantasies. A widespread rewriting of the well-known St. Nicholas song, for example, stated:
Let's be happy and cheerful, smash Wirth's skull / Merry, merry trallerallala, / soon Wilhelm will be back! // When once the emperor will come, / we'll beat to a cripple Dr. Wirth [Chancellor of the Reich and member of the Center Party], / we'll bang our rifles tack, tack, tack / on the black and the red rabble. / [...] Even Rathenau, the Walter, / won't reach old age. / Bang Walther Rathenau, / the goddamned Jew!
The political climate was thus already openly hostile to Rathenau and other exposed representatives of the Republic in the run-up to the assassination attempt.
Walther Rathenau's murderers, the young World War II officers Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer, as well as their supporters were recruited from the environment of extreme right-wing Freikorps as well as from the secretly operating "Organisation Consul (O.C.)", a continuation of the Freikorps "Marine-Brigade Ehrhardt" led by Hermann Ehrhardt and the most important right-wing terrorist network of the Weimar Republic. As pre-fascist and anti-republican military units, these paramilitary Freikorps carried out violence against trade unionists and political opponents. Shortly thereafter, parts of the SA and SS were also recruited from this right-wing terrorist environment.
Death of the murderers in Saaleck
After committing their crime, Fischer and Kern fled via detours to Saaleck, a district of Bad Kösen near Naumburg, where they tried to evade prosecution. Their escape was supported by Hermann Ehrhardt and Ernst von Salomon, a Freikorp fighter who later became known as a nationalist writer. The latter had previously scouted out Rathenau's immediate living environment and villa in Berlin-Grunewald with a comrade of his own. Another helper was Hans-Wilhelm Stein, then tenant of Saaleck Castle. While hiding the fugitives at his place, he procured for them, with the support of the "O.C." money, false passports and weapons.
On July 17, 1922, however, Fischer and Kern were discovered at Saaleck Castle after an intensive manhunt. While trying to arrest them, a police officer fatally shot Erwin Kern in the head. Hermann Fischer then shot himself. Both were buried in the cemetery below the castle. In 1933, the Nazis erected a memorial stone in their honor and made them the object of Nazi hero worship. To this day, they are part of the historical-political memory of the extreme right of various spectrums.
Memorial for neo-Nazis
After 1945, the inscription on the memorial stone and the insignia of National Socialism were erased. The stone itself, however, was left in the cemetery. Since the 1990s, commemorative activities organized by neo-Nazis in honor of Rathenau's murderers have taken place in Saaleck in mid-July. Members of the scene from the surrounding area as well as from Saxony and Thuringia meet at the cemetery to commemorate the murderers with wreaths and mourning bands.
In order to deprive the site of its pilgrimage character for the right-wing scene, the Saaleck parish had the memorial stone removed in 2000. Since then, neo-Nazis have tried several times to establish a new memorial: In 2012, they erected a replacement memorial stone for the right-wing terrorists on the former gravesite. In 2018, they erected an inscribed wooden cross. After several years of being able to prevent commemorative events from taking place at the cemetery with the help of domestic law and the police, neo-Nazis recently succeeded again in holding their tribute to the Rathenau murderers directly at the former grave.
Since at least 2012, the neo-Nazi scene has also been holding memorial events in honor of Fischer and Kern at the "Burgblick" restaurant near the cemetery. The restaurant is also regularly used for other neo-Nazi scene meetings and events. The NPD is the leader of these gatherings, but also non-party neo-Nazis and, more recently, supporters of the right-wing extremist micro-party "Der III. Weg" from the region are among the participants. Even independently of the anniversary of the Rathenau murderers' deaths, Saaleck and Rudelsburg Castle are popular destinations for the extreme right.
Saaleck is part of the political and cultural tradition not only for dedicated neo-Nazis. In 2000, the neo-Right weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit attempted to scandalize the removal of the Nazi stone. In an article, it called the act criminal, but praised the "patriotic motives" of the murderers as honorable. In 2012, the neo-Rightist publisher Götz Kubitschek from Schnellroda in the Saale district published on the website of his magazine "Sezession" an undated and unattributed guest article by the then tenant of Saaleck Castle, escape helper Hans-Wilhelm Stein. In the article, Stein promoted Ernst von Salomon, who was involved in the assassination plot against Walther Rathenau, and his work. The article was illustrated with a photo of the memorial stone in Saaleck, which local neo-Nazis had erected that year to replace the grave that had been removed in 2000.
With the memorial gatherings in Saaleck, today's right-wing extremists consciously place themselves in the tradition of the anti-republican right of the Weimar Republic. In doing so, they practice a positive reference to the political terror of the Weimar Republic, in whose tradition the practice of rule by National Socialism also fits. The gatherings to commemorate Fischer and Kern serve to reinforce the anti-democratic sentiments of the participants and reflect their positive relationship to political violence.
Today, society in the Federal Republic is still confronted with right-wing terror. However, the terrorist threat of the present does not emanate from larger paramilitary associations or secret organizations, but rather from a multitude of actors. Possible terrorist cells such as the "NSU," "lone-wolf assassins" like the murderers of Halle and Hanau, militant preppers or neo-Nazi structures with combat training have long been in fundamental opposition to the Federal Republic's democracy. They are supported by a broad right-wing and anti-democratic milieu that openly calls for violence against politicians and marks enemies. For the extreme right, commemorating the murderers of Walther Rathenau is more than a search for tradition and historical romanticism. In times of fundamental political discontent and increasing radicalization, the 100th anniversary of the death of the right-wing terrorists offers a moment of identification. The perpetrators of that time are still an ominous role model for uncompromising political action today.
The memory of Walter Rathenau must be included in the historical-cultural memory of the democratic and anti-fascist public on the subject of right-wing terror. The example of Rathenau and the anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and völkisch motives of his assassination show that right-wing terror and political murder are fed by the same ideological sources then as now.
- Klaus Gietinger and Norbert Kozicki: Freikorps und Faschismus. Lexikon der Wegbereiter und Exponenten des Vernichtungskrieges, Stuttgart 2020.
- Markus J. Klein: Ernst von Salomon. Revolutionary without Utopia, Aschau 2002.
- Erwin Könnemann: Einwohnerwehren und Zeitfreiwillige, Berlin (East) 1971.
- Martin Sabrow: Die verdrängte Verschwörung. Der Rathenau-Mord und die deutsche Gegenrevolution, Frankfurt a. M. 1999.
- Ernst von Salomon: Die Geächteten, Gütersloh 1930.