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.” Continue reading