Monthly Fragebogen: The Rathenau Murder

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

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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. 

I said:

“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

Monthly Fragebogen: The National Movement Swallowed Whole

Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s account of the Third Reich’s absorption of the National Movement, from his 1951 memoir Der Fragebogen

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This is the first entry in a new ARPLAN series: The Monthly Fragebogen. Over the next year I intend to post, once a month, an excerpt from Ernst von Salomon’s famous novel Der Fragebogen (in English ‘The Questionnaire’ or ‘The Answers’). Der Fragebogen was first published in 1951 by the Rowohlt Verlag publishing house and instantly became a huge success. Using the US Military Government’s de-nazification questionnaire for its structure, the autobiographical novel was the first major best-seller in West Germany and sold in large numbers both inside Germany and out, helping to cement Ernst von Salomon’s place in German literature. von Salomon, a Freikorps veteran and a member of the Weimar-era Conservative Revolutionary literary milieu, had been a successful novelist before the War, but it was Der Fragebogen which really made his name. It is an excellent book, one of my personal favorites, and as well as being a stirringly-written novel it provides an unparalleled introduction into the chaotic tumult that was German life and politics from the early 1900s until the collapse of the Reich in 1945. von Salomon rubbed shoulders with countless people of historical importance at one point or another, many of them members of the National Movement – Adolf Hitler, Ernst Röhm, Hans Zehrer, Ernst Jünger, Claus Heim, Bodo Uhse, Othmar Spann, Hans Grimm, Martha Dodd, Otto Meissner, Konrad Henlein, Hans Fallada, Hanns Ludin… He lived quite a life, and Der Fragebogen is quite a book. 

The excerpt below is taken from Section E. of Der Fragebogen, ‘Membership in Organisations’. This long passage provides an on-the-ground view of the complicated relationship which the new National Socialist government had with other members of the National Movement during the regime’s early years. Although they were all ostensibly on the same side, the National Socialists and nationalist paramilitaries like the Stahlhelm, Wehrwolf, Kampfring, etc. had competed and occasionally fought against one another during the ‘time of struggle’, and the peace between them after 1933 was uneasy. In this excerpt von Salomon describes how the paramilitary he was associated with – the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, headed by the eponymous, infamous nationalist revolutionary Captain Hermann Ehrhardt (“the Kapitän”) – was swallowed whole by the National Socialists like the Stahlhelm and all the others. The Ehrhardt Brigade had taken part in the Kapp Putsch; it had provided training to the SA when it was first being established; its members (as the ‘Organization Consul’) had been responsible for the assassination of government ministers Erzberger and Rathenau; under the name Bund Wiking it had dabbled in plotting revolution; and yet now it could no longer independently exist in the Third Reich it had longed to bring to power. On 17th July, 1933, as von Salomon describes below, the Brigade took part in a ceremony at Saaleck to both honor its fallen martyrs and to finally publicly commit its loyalty to Hitler’s government. A month later the Marinebrigade was incorporated as an independent unit of the SS. Less than a year after that, in February 1934, its independence was annulled, it was dissolved, and its members expelled or absorbed. Four months on and Kapitän Ehrhardt was forced to flee his fatherland lest he meet the same fate as Röhm or Schleicher. von Salomon’s description of these events is bitter; a man who fought and yearned for a nationalist Germany, yet was appalled at the betrayals this resulted in. 

The nationalist militant organisations had ‘profited’ by the National-Socialists’ seizure of power. As the result of a compromise within the ‘national government,’ which had included such non-National-Socialist ministers as Hugenberg, Seldte and Papen, they had been placed on an equal footing with the Party’s organisations – which meant that they might do part of the latters’ dirty work. The SA and they received a sort of authority to act as police.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” I remarked to the Kapitän. “Just what we always wanted!”

The Kapitän said angrily:

“God knows, I don’t wish to see you in a spot where you’ll be glad I kept the Brigade together.”

The Kapitän had appointed Walther Muthmann commandant of the Berlin division of the Brigade, a force of some fifty unemployed seamen whom the Kapitän had set up in a home and who wore the old, grey uniform of the navy with the imperial crown on their buttons and the Viking ship on their sleeve. They did nothing but sit about in the home and cost the Kapitän a considerable amount of money. But there they were, and Muthmann, also dressed in uniform and wearing the long loose officer’s cape, the spanier of the old navy, appeared everywhere as though behind him reverberated the tramp of a hundred thousand marching feet.

“Have you got guns?” I asked him.

“Not many,” he said. “A couple of pistols – but,” he added emphatically, “we clean them every day.”

At that time we were all living on the cheap fame of time passed, the Kapitän at our head. There was a splinter-group called, officially, the German National Youth League, and popularly the ‘green boys’ because they walked about in green shirts. This group had long been a thorn in the eye of the SA, and one day the SA fell upon them, and among the men arrested and lugged off to the SA headquarters in the Pape Straße was a member of the Brigade. Muthmann, in all the glory of his cloak, went there at once to demand the man’s release. But the SA just locked up Muthmann too. He was put in the cellar with the other arrested men and, like them, he was beaten up. But in contrast to the others this was no novelty for Muthmann, and he managed to fight his way through the SA men until he got to Group Leader Ernst. Bloody and bruised, he shouted in Ernst’s face:

“And you pretend to be soldiers!” Continue reading