Shot in front of their children. Attacked with acid. Murdered while walking away. Germany’s Weimar Republic was a dangerous place for politicians and government officials—and for hundreds of them, it was deadly.
Between 1918 and the mid 1920s, Germany was rocked by murder after murder. The victims all had a connection: they were killed for political reasons. And their deaths were made possible by right-wing extremist groups that played on racism, nationalism, and economic anxiety to stoke fear and hatred. By 1922, at least 354 government members and politicians had been murdered, setting the stage for the Nazi Party, World War II and the Holocaust.
The wave of politically motivated murders by paramilitary terrorist groups had its roots in Germany’s defeat in World War I. Over 2 million Germans—including 13 percent of the country’s men—had died during the war. The war effort had sucked Germany’s economy dry. And with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany took on not just the responsibility for the war, but a new governmental structure, new borders, a harsh disarmament plan, and massive reparations.
The country’s leaders signed on to the treaty, but everyday Germans were appalled by its severity. As Germany limped toward a new political reality, adopting a new constitution and forming new political bodies, the country’s economy became even more precarious. Prices began to rise and inflation set in. Food shortages swept through the country; returning soldiers, traumatized and disillusioned by the war, had trouble reintegrating into society.
Against this background, Germany had to create a new government and try to reinstitute law and order. But the ministers and politicians of the newly established Weimar Republic had formidable enemies: their own people. The new republic saw pitched battles between increasingly polarized left and right-wing groups. The early government was seized by left-wing revolutionaries, and communist uprisings roiled the streets.
In response, private armies called Freikorps fought back. These groups were funded by former officers of the German army, which was now under severe restrictions in terms of both size and scope because of the Treaty of Versailles. The paramilitary groups came and went as political crises erupted. They were staffed by a vast group of discontented men, from former soldiers who were indignant at Germany’s surrender to young men who were angry at being unemployed. Eventually, as many as 1.5 million German men would join a Freikorps group. They represented a growing tide of nationalism and right-wing extremism that would erupt into political chaos and eventually lead to the rise of the Nazi Party.
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The new government lacked authority, so it leaned on the Freikorps to fight its battles. The country was plagued with wave after wave of violence, both from workers’ groups on the left and increasingly combative right-wing groups who resented what they saw as Germany’s complete abdication to the international community’s demands after the war. And the Freikorps and other paramilitary groups were in the middle of the often bloody fray—legitimized and bolstered by a government so weak it gave them free rein to terrorize whom they pleased.
Meanwhile, right-wing splinter groups, backed by their own militias, did everything they could to encourage nationalism and extremism. In newspapers of the day, they propagated conspiracy theories and pointed fingers at Jews and communists for Germany’s precarious economy and an epidemic of unemployment. Anti-Semitism became a driving force after the war, fueled by the mistaken belief that the left wing had “stabbed Germany in the back” by stoking revolution as the country was losing World War I. Even though less than 1 percent of Germans were Jewish, anti-Semitism and hostility toward Jews began to grow, as angry right-wing adherents blamed them for every economic and social problem. Suddenly, Jewish politicians, and those in government with whom extreme right-wing parties disagreed, were in the crosshairs.
As the government stabilized, the Freikorps began to fade. But a hardened core group within the Freikorps kept up the fight under the auspices of Organization Consul, a right-wing paramilitary organization that brazenly murdered its political enemies. Formed in 1920, it had members across Germany who made a pledge to uphold nationalism, combat the influence of Jews and left-wing political causes, fight the new constitution, and make it impossible for the country to disarm.
The group’s activities were largely overlooked by the justice system, which made little attempt to stop the killings. The group was financed by money that had been set aside by the government to fund the Freikorps before it dissolved in the early 1920s, and in Bavaria, in particular, it was openly supported by the state’s anti-Weimar president. And judges who gave strong sentences to left-wing agitators accused of violence turned a blind eye to the right-wing paramilitary groups, even when they killed members of the government.
Organization Consul swiftly made a mark as one of the era’s most powerful—and dangerous—groups. Its first target was Matthias Erzberger, Germany’s minister of finance. The right wing was furious that he had signed the Treaty of Versailles, and angry about the strict tax reforms he ushered in after the war in an attempt to stabilize the country’s faltering economy. He was taking a walk at a German spa in 1921 when he was gunned down by two members of Organization Consul.
The group struck again in 1922. This time, their target was Walther Rathenau, Germany’s foreign minister. An economic genius, he was put in charge not just of handling Germany’s dicey foreign relations after the war, but of helping the country’s economy recover. But the far right resisted his economic policies and vilified his work, which included orchestrating reparations payments to the war’s victors. Rathenau was also Jewish—and well aware that his religion made him a target. In June 1922, he was gunned down at close range by a right-wing Organization Consul assassin carrying a machine gun.
The murder was met with open celebration within the right, which celebrated with anti-Semitic slurs and chants. But the rest of the country was shocked that a government official had been killed for being a Jew.
The Weimar republic banned the organization, but it was too late. Between 1918 and 1922, Organization Consul and other right-wing paramilitary groups had committed at least 354 political murders. After the ban, Organization Consul, and others like it, simply renamed itself and kept on stoking terror. And increasingly, right-wing paramilitary organizations aligned themselves with the National Socialist party—the group that would eventually become the Nazis. Now the stage was set for even worse terror to come—driven by hatred, anti-Semitism, and a government and populace willing to look the other way.