On a drive to Silesia, nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon and comrade Hartmut Plaas reminisce over their participation in the assassination of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau
The murder of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau in 1922 was one of the defining events of the early Weimar Republic, today typically presented as a prime act of anti-semitism: Rathenau’s liberalism, his wealth and links with industry, his role in Germany’s defeat in the Great War, his prominence in the development of the new democratic Republic, all were in his murderers’ eyes apparently a by-product of his Jewishness. Yet the reality is a little more complex. Rathenau was a liberal, but one who dreamed of a powerful, organic “New State” which would transcend “petit-bourgeois parliamentarism” through a “living structure” of “corporations” representing all “multifarious elements of local and professional life.” Rathenau was a Jewish capitalist, but one who saw the war economy as the model for the future: a private economy subordinated to the interests of the nation through state planning and the corporatist reorganization of industry. There is a reason that his ultranationalist murderers described him as looking “a decent sort” while at the same time worrying that he might be one of the Learned Elders of Zion. These assassins were young (and immature) men, members of the clandestine Organisation Consul (OC), a terrorist group which had grown out of the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt freikorps. They were undoubtedly anti-semitic, undeniably sought to achieve National Revolution through murder and terror, yet they also admired Rathenau’s vision as they simultaneously feared how it might strengthen the Republic they despised: “He is our hope, for he is dangerous… I couldn’t bear it if once again something were to arise out of the chaotic, the insane, age in which we live.” Ernst von Salomon, former OC-member and author of the post-WWII bestseller Der Fragebogen, was jailed for his role as a lookout in the Rathenau murder, as well as for his involvement in other subsequent acts of Fehme violence. In this month’s excerpt from the Fragebogen, von Salomon recounts a drive to Silesia in 1939 in which he and friend Hartmut Plaas (and their wives Ille and Sonya) reminisced over their role in Rathenau’s death and their impressions of the subsequent trial. A cynical reader might take the at times mournful, regretful tone adopted here to be a confection designed to polish over von Salomon’s spotty reputation in a US-occupied, post-WWII democratic Germany. Yet one should also keep in mind that Hartmut Plaas was executed in 1944 for the vital role he played in Admiral Canaris’s anti-Hitler resistance efforts – and that von Salomon’s Ille was herself half-Jewish, a friend whom Ernst had pretended to marry specifically to protect. Both men, like Rathenau himself, were in reality complex figures.
“When Kern sent me to Hamburg, back in 1922, to find a chauffeur – because the naval officers could all drive torpedo boats but not cars – I went to Warncke. He couldn’t drive either, but he took me to a bar where his people were in the habit of going. There were a lot of young men there, almost all ex-sailors, and while Warncke was finding a chauffeur I had a good look at them. I recognised one who’d been at Cadet School with me, a chap called Winzer. We used to call him UXB, because we never knew when he was going to blow up. I couldn’t help going up behind him, slapping him on the shoulder and saying: ‘Well, UXB?’ He spun round and bellowed: ‘Good Lord! Salomon!’ This shook me, because of course I was travelling under a false name. ‘Quiet!’ I said: ‘I’m called Schievelbein these days.’ He understood at once and we sat down together and had a talk. [Note: By a ‘chauffeur’ von Salomon means a getaway driver; the assassins drove up besides Rathenau as he was being driven to the Foreign Office, shooting and throwing a grenade at him, before speeding away. – Bogumil]
“Later, when the police had traced my movements as far as Hamburg, they interrogated all the young men who’d been in the bar, including Winzer. They got nothing out of any of them. Their questions kept revolving around a young man who’d come from Berlin. One of the ex-sailors, who wanted to have a bit of fun with the police, and who in fact knew nothing, laughed when they questioned him. ‘The young man from Berlin? He certainly had nothing to do with the Rathenau murder. He was a Jew!’ The police followed this up at once: how did they know the young man was a Jew? Winzer had called him Salomon. Winzer was then asked what the name was of the young man who’d come from Berlin. Winzer was absolutely unable to remember his name; he was somebody he’d known very slightly, years before, at Cadet School, and there’d been so many cadets. The police found out very easily that Winzer had been at Karlsruhe Cadet School. They made enquiries whether there had ever been a cadet there called Salomon. And that was that. They had me.”
“Ille, don’t drive so fast! On the first day of the ‘Fehme’ trial, in 1927, in Giessen, when I was summoned from my cell to appear in court I hadn’t finished my breakfast. I was about to leave my piece of bread when it occurred to me that I’d have to sit through the whole, interminable business; so I took the bread with me. When I walked into the courtroom in my brown convict’s suit I was nonchalantly chewing my crust. I suddenly realised that by so doing I had made what actors call a good entrance.
“The courtroom was packed; this was the first of the series of so-called post-war ‘Fehme’ trials and as such was pretty sensational. But that wasn’t all. As I say, it took place at Giessen, which is no great distance from Frankfurt-am-Main, where my father had been well known in his time. I was the first person to be examined and therefore had to stand with my back to the public. During the whole of my examination I could hear noises behind me, people coming and going, and the president threatened more than once to clear the court if these disturbances did not stop. All this din worried me considerably, and I had a hard time concentrating. As soon as I’d entered the room I’d noticed that most of the spectators were women – as is always the case at sensational trials – and this didn’t improve my temper either. At noon my examination was not yet over, but the president ordered it adjourned for the midday break. He said that I was not to be taken back to prison. I was to rest in one of the temporary cells of the law-courts building where I would be given my luncheon. These cells were simply rooms with wire mesh over the windows: the mesh was removed when the rooms were not being used as cells. The police sergeant who accompanied me led me through the middle of the gaping crowd and threw open the door of the first cell.
“I walked in and was amazed. Now I realised why there had been so much coming and going in the court during my examination. My crust of dry bread had worked a miracle. The table in the cell was piled high: cakes, fruit, pies, chocolate, sandwiches, flowers, there was scarcely room for anything more on the table. ‘This is a splendid prison,’ I thought, and I went over to the table. Then I saw that on each plate there lay a visiting card. I read the names: Frau Dr. Frankfurter, Frau Lilly Oppenheim, Fray Ruth Beyfuss. The only explanation I could think of was that the whole of Frankfurt’s Jewish society had reached the same conclusion: ‘Perhaps he’s one of our people after all… perhaps, who knows?’ I was very moved and experienced a strong inclination to admire them: ‘What loyalty! What a people!'” [Note: This is another reference to the author’s last name, ‘von Salomon’, which was frequently taken as being Jewish due to its similarity with the name ‘Solomon’. von Salomon does discuss the provenance of his name in the Fragebogen – according to his brother’s research into the family history the name originated from Venetian ancestors, who added an Old Testament name to their own as a way of signifying that they had fought in the Crusades. – Bogumil]
“I’m like you. When I try to remember events of long ago it’s always the comic incidents that come to mind first.”
“Yes,” said I, “that seems to be a fundamental human characteristic. You know when the Stahlhelm was first founded, in the old days when it was simply called ‘The League of Front-line Soldiers,’ it was intended to be a sort of club for discussing ‘war experiences’, neither more nor less. We went once. There was tremendous enthusiasm, and we all marched around the hall till the walls threatened to burst and we drank gallons of beer. One man would slap another on the shoulder and say: ‘You remember Chemin des Dames? Boy, what a shit-house of a place that was!’ And that was ‘war experiences.’ No, don’t interrupt me, I know what you’re going to say – that I’m being unfair. True enough, but what in fact did it produce? A couple of publications – not the official one – which made an effort. I mean Arminius and the Standarte, in which Ernst Jünger and Franz Schauwecker wrote, and one or two others; and Hans Zehrer’s Tat, in which he tried to account for sociological changes by war experiences. And for the rest – marching and flags and brass bands and of course firework displays. War experience! It was a good-fellowship movement and as such more important in its proceedings than in its results, so far as these were supposed to be a sublimation. Ernst Jünger thought that with his books he could pull the teeth of war out of the heads of the bourgeoisie. Well, the teeth held fast, the sublimation remained so much paper, the proceedings a private matter, and the results are with us today. The comic incidents of those days – that’s our war experience.”
Plaas looked at me attentively.
“Ille, will you please stop driving like a lunatic!”
“I’ll drive the way I like,” shouted Ille.
I leaned forward and said softly:
Ille slowed down. After a while she said:
“Is that true?”
Plaas looked at me. He said to Ille: “It’s partially true, like everything else.” And then to me:
“Now,” I said, “now the comic incidents are the truth.”
“Pretty,” said Ille, “very, very pretty. And Rathenau had to die.”
After a while Plaas said laboriously:
“You shouldn’t see things that way, Ille.”
Ille said softly:
“I know. Forgive me.”
“I think there are two things which it’s important not to confuse. First of all there was the plan, the concept that inspired the deed – and then there were the personal motives that induced the individuals to take part in it. The plan itself, how did that arise? Actually there was only one political common denominator that held the whole ‘national movement’ together at that time, and it was a negative one: it amounted to this: ‘We must make an end to Erfüllungspolitik, to the policy of accepting the Versailles Treaty and co-operating with the West.’ That was the one point on which all the groups and sub-groups were agreed, though they might and did argue about everything else. We had no wish to become a political party with mass support and all that that implies. We did not wish to use the devil to drive out Beelzebub. But we did, from the very beginning, desire basic change, a ‘national revolution’ that would free us from the material and ideological supremacy of the West as the French revolution had freed France from its monarchy. So our means had to be different from those of the political parties. I think it was Kern himself – it agreed with his logical temperament – who finally said, during a heated argument, that in that case the only course open was to ‘eliminate’ every Erfüllungs politician. To eliminate in that context is, of course, to kill. What other means were there at our disposal? None of those who were repelled by Kern’s conclusions could think of any. And once a group was in existence, a very small group, which was so far in agreement, the rest followed more or less automatically, as it were. The atmosphere in which we proposed to carry out a series of assassinations was not unlike that in which the Russian Revolutionary Socialists planned theirs – except for the great difference that their deeds were based on belief in a well thought out political and economic doctrine whereas ours were the product of an emotion. Well, the theories of the Revolutionary Socialists have been only very partially fulfilled. There, as here, subsequent developments were almost automatic. There, as here, ‘lists’ were drawn up. And on one of our lists, among many others, was Rathenau’s name.”
“That list!” I said. “It was, in fact, a single dirty sheet of paper with names scribbled all over it in pencil, some crossed out, some written in again. Many of the names meant absolutely nothing to me, and I had to take quite a lot of trouble to find out who the people were. Incidentally, Theodor Wolff was on the list. I remember thinking that there were a lot of Jewish names. One name, Wassermann, I crossed out myself because I thought it meant Jacob Wassermann, the writer: in fact it was Oskar Wassermann, the banker, a man of whom I knew nothing. The whole thing was drawn up in a fantastically casual way. I didn’t set eyes on it until very much later on, in Berlin, when we were in the midst of our preparations for assassinating Rathenau. Kern had left it lying on the table in the boarding-house on the Schiff bauerdamm, which was where we were staying at the time. It was pure chance that I took part in the murder of Rathenau; it happened quite ‘automatically’, because I had become so attached to Kern. Later, when I had written my book about it all, The Outlaws, and was correcting the proofs, I noticed that the whole book contained not one single word of anti-semitism. In fact Rathenau was the only Jew whom we murdered.”
“But we were anti-semitic,” said Plaas.
“Indeed we were. The whole nationalist movement was anti-semitic to a greater or lesser degree. I was very impressed by Rathenau’s attitude towards the Jewish question. He wrote about it himself. He spoke of hordes of Asiatic nomads on the soil of Brandenburg. He defined his attitude thus: the Jews, for him, were a German race like the other German races. I think he said that he felt less close to them than to Brandenburgers or Schleswig-Holsteiners, but closer to them than to Saxons or Bavarians. Well, it sounded to me like an intelligent and enlightened attitude, but then my feelings for or against people have never been based on biology. When my book appeared I was very eager to see what Ernst Jünger would have to say about it. He said nothing. I was shameless enough to ask him. He replied, in his drawling, Lower Saxon accent: ‘Why didn’t you have enough courage just to say that Rathenau was killed because he was a Jew?’ I received letters, some even from Palestine, containing the same question. In each case I answered: ‘Because it was not so.'”
“After it was done I drove to Munich to organise help for Kern and Fischer, who were on the run. Of course I went to see the Kapitän. He was in the most appalling rage. He wanted to know who had had the idea of carrying out this assassination. When I told him about the list he wished, above all, to have ‘that crazy list.’ He said: ‘You’ve wrecked my entire policy.'”
We fell silent.
“But looking back it all seems quite uncanny. A group of youths, children, almost… I was nineteen at the time… How old were you, Plaas?”
“Yes. And Kern was twenty-four. All young people from good families – the term ‘good families’ still meant something in those days – and there they sat and discussed murder in cold blood, not just one murder, a whole series of murders. It’s sinister and uncanny.”
Plaas laughed silently.
“Erwin Kern! He was the only one of us all who was quite clear about it, who really knew what he was doing. That’s what gave him such complete leadership and authority over the rest of us. Do you remember how we fell on Rathenau’s writings? Do you remember how we argued about his theory of ‘Men of Courage and Men of Fear’? The more we discussed it, the more taken we were with it. Finally Kern said: ‘Forget it, it only weakens us.'”
“Rathenau was a fascist.”
“Yes, really. Read his books again. I’m not referring to his proposal for a Levée en masse at the end of the war, nor even to his economic and political ideas. I mean precisely his theory about courage and fear. Starting from psychology he goes on to produce what is exactly the new contemporary morality. He distinguishes, it’s true, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – but the next step is completely modern. The next step is the new American theory of ‘men who develop’ as opposed to ‘men who adapt’; from the standpoint of people who believe in progress the first is regarded as good, the second as bad. On the other hand, from the standpoint of those concerned with order based upon the state, the next step is the phrase: ‘Right is that which is of use to the people.’ That is a straight line drawn through the attempt to establish a new morality; and it’s a fascist morality, if not a bolshevist one.”
“The fact is that Rathenau was regarded with considerable scepticism within his own camp – if you can speak of a ‘camp’ in his connection. When I was set free, in 1928, I went to Kiel after I saw you in Berlin, Plaas. Professor Walter Schücking at that time taught international law at Kiel University; for this reason he had been attached to the delegation that went to Versailles. Somehow or other he had heard that I was in Kiel and he found out my address. He wrote me a note, an invitation to come and see him. I went. He received me in his magnificent library. He was standing in front of his books, a colossus with a gigantic head on a powerful, heavy body. He had splendid eyes. He greeted me in a most friendly fashion. I was distrustful to start with because I couldn’t see what he wanted from me. He said he had heard of my case and he regarded it as his duty to do all he could to help me; he said he would do the same for any man who found himself in a situation such as mine. I felt it only decent to tell him at once what my attitude towards Rathenau was. There were only two ways open for me to free myself from my involvement with that man and with his fate, one humanitarian, the other cynical. I had decided on the latter since nobody would accept the other as coming from me. He surprised me, then, by saying that he had never been a friend of Rathenau’s. He was a convinced pacifist and Rathenau exactly the opposite. He went on to tell me, without any shade of bitterness I may say, what had caused the breach between Rathenau and himself: first, of course, his appeal for a Levée en masse: but also his behaviour as creator of the Raw Materials Department at the War Ministry: above all his standpoint on the question of drafting Belgians to work in the German armaments industry during the war: further, his ambiguous attitude, after the war, towards all problems connected with a sensible social policy: and finally, his refusal to contribute a single penny to the work of the pacifist organisations.
“A grotesque state of affairs arose in which I found myself compelled to defend Rathenau against Schücking. We spoke of Rapallo, and Schücking was horrified by the possibilities of Bolshevism to which Rathenau wished to open the door during the Genoa conference and by means of the Rapallo Treaty. I told him that at the time it was precisely the good faith of his Russian policy that we doubted; we thought, on the contrary, that the agreement was intended to shock the Western Allies into a frame of mind that would make them accept Rathenau’s proposals for political collaboration – and I still think that that was really the case. I wondered whether or not I should tell Professor Schücking that he too had been on our list, but after a certain amount of shilly-shallying had been struck off it again. I was crude enough at that time to do so, too. Then he said something which startled me. He said: ‘In that case it would have been better if I had been shot instead of Rathenau.’ Our conversation ended with an offer on his part of a job as a librarian. He had heard that I had not yet decided what career to adopt and I had expressed my admiration for his priceless collection of books. My immediate impulse was to accept, but after a moment’s thought I refused. After being in gaol for so many years I wanted to return to ‘life’, not books. I have often wondered whether I would not have done better to accept his offer.”
“We were a collection of idiots. We went into the court like small boys, swallowing nervously. Then, when we realised the incredibly factual objectivity of all the legal business and when we were allowed to talk ourselves we became loud-mouthed and arrogant. The trial was inhuman in so far as only facts, things done, were touched on. But then there came the moment when the nurse took the stand, the nurse who had jumped into the car where Rathenau lay as soon as the shots were fired. That nurse, a small pale woman, no longer young, had just happened to be nearby at the time. She had not so much as glanced at the car with the murderers, and she was therefore quite useless to the prosecution. She had simply realised that here was a man in need of help. She spoke in a soft, emotionless voice. And all she said was: ‘The dying man was no longer capable of speech – he only looked at me once.'”
After a while I went on:
“And then there was the letter from Rathenau’s mother. Techow’s uncle, his mother’s brother, was the architect, Peter Behrens, the man who built the A.E.G. halls, I think, and the administration building at the Lehrter Station. Behrens, of course, knew Rathenau well and his sister too. During the course of the trial the president, Hagens, read out a letter that Rathenau’s mother had written to Techow’s mother. It started: ‘Most unfortunate of mothers…’ and went on to the effect ‘…if your son had known my son he would rather have aimed his gun at himself than at the noblest of sons…’ and proceeded to console her with the words: ‘May your son confess to his earthly judge and repent before the Divine One…’ Which was why Hagens read it out. This humane and noble letter from Rathenau’s mother was our crowning shame.”
“Yes,” said Plaas, “Techow was sitting in front of me. I leaned forward a little and asked: ‘Techow, what’s all this letter business?’ He turned his head slightly and said: ‘It’s quite right – only it happens to have been published in the Vossische Zeitung before my mother received it.’ When the court adjourned for lunch and we were taken up to the cell under the roof of the Law Courts building I urged Techow to say that in court. But he thought the police had probably intercepted the letter and given it to the Press. Evidently the letter had been misused politically; and I told Techow that if so it was another trump that he could play in his defence. But Techow just laughed and said: ‘Really! We wander around murdering people. Are we to pretend to be shocked by a couple of irregularities on the part of the police in their fight against us?’ Of course he was quite right.”
“And then there was Landgerichtsdirektor Cramer, the president of the court at the ‘Fehme’ trial in Giessen.”
“The Giessen trial!” said Plaas. “What a lot of trials there were, each one breeding the next. It really was like the curse of evil, the promise that evil must produce more evil. The original evil was the Baralong case. Because the first English Q-ship, the Baralong, had sunk a German U-boat, Captain Patzig of U-27 was convinced that the English hospital ship Llandovery Castle was another Q-ship and torpedoed it. As a result the English put him on their list of war criminals, but as he was later missing presumed killed in action it was his two officers of the watch, Boldt and Ditmar, who were tried by a German court and found guilty. We rescued them by force from prison. The driver of our car, Wagner, then attempted to blackmail us, and since he was threatening to wreck all our plans of assassination it was decided that he’d have to die.”
“It was a nasty blow for me when it all came out, five years later. There were many unexplained stories hanging over my head during my time in gaol, but that was the one which had worried me most. I assumed that Wagner was still alive – at least I knew that he’d been alive when I last saw him – and I couldn’t understand why nothing had happened. My prison governor at Striegau, fat, old Dronsch, had arranged off his own bat for me to get remission of sentence. If the prisoner behaved well during his term of imprisonment he could be released after serving only three-quarters of his time. Now I had certainly not behaved well. Dronsch once told me I was the most stubborn and unco-operative convict he’d come across in twenty-five years of prison duty. But since I refused to apply for a remission of sentence he did it on my behalf. So there I sat, at the beginning of 1927, expecting to be let out any day. And then this blew up! The next thing I knew I had to face trial for the attempted murder of Wagner.” . . .
. . . Ille said:
“Plaas, what’s happened to the others? I mean the men who were your comrades in those days.”
“The older Techow, who was freed shortly after Ernst, wouldn’t accept any help from us. During the so-called Stennes putsch, the mutiny of the Berlin Storm Troopers against Goebbels, Techow was in the building in the Hedemannstrasse where it all took place. Meeting Goebbels there, he gave him a terrific clout on the side of the head and informed him: ‘It wasn’t for swine like you that we shot at Rathenau.’ Then he disappeared. He avoids everybody. They say he lives a very simple life somewhere in Berlin. He’s supposed to be a photographer on a small scale, with a little shop. The younger Techow went back to school after serving his four-year sentence. He passed his examination, studied for the law and is now a solicitor. Warncke went abroad. He’s said to have a job with a railway company in Mexico. Oelschlägel, the man who assassinated Scheidemann, emigrated too. During the Gran Chaco war he commanded a Bolivian company and was blown up by a mortar shell. The other Scheidemann assassin, Hustert, I last saw on January 30th, 1933. He was sitting in a bar near the Zoo, listening to a broadcast of the great torchlit procession. I asked him, nodding towards the radio: ‘Well, how do you feel now?’ He said: ‘Rather like a man whose wife has just given birth to triplets.” I don’t know what’s happened to him since then. Günter Brand is a doctor in Kiel. The older Tillessen…”
“I know about him,” I said. “He married a distant relation of mine, a girl called Pfeffer, and has a job in the cement industry, somewhere in Westphalia. How about the younger one, the Erzberger assassin?”
“They hunted him across half Europe, through Hungary and Spain, and finally he got to North Africa. There Hünefeldt, the long-distance flyer, found him and persuaded him to come home. His case fell under the general amnesty. He’s now living a very retired life somewhere in South Germany and is trying, I hear, to effect a compromise between his former actions and the doctrine of the Catholic Church. But that’s one institution that doesn’t fit too easily into a compromise solution. So Tillessen must repent and repent… Actually,” Plaas went on, “of all our former comrades there are only two who are still in contact with one another.”
“Yes, said I, “and we drive along Adolf Hitler’s autobahnen.”
EXCERPTED FROM ERNST VON SALOMON’S THE ANSWERS OF ERNST VON SALOMON, TRANSLATED BY CONSTANTINE FITZGIBBON (1954), PUTNAM