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The Origins of Nazi Violence

German Schutztruppe in combat with the Herero in a painting by Richard Knötel – Public Domain

In recent years, right-wing terrorism has been on the increase in Germany. The worst case of right-wing terrorism was perpetrated by the National-Socialist Underground or NSU. The NSU murdered ten people, including a police officer, while also committing forty-three attempted murders, three bombings and several robberies between 2000 and 2007. Today Germany’s radical right has created a follow-up organisation called NSU 2.0. Despite a court case against the NSU, right-wing terrorism continues unabated. In 2019, a Neo-Nazi tried to kill fifty Jewish worshipers in a synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle. Though this extremist failed to kill Jews but he still managed to murder two other people.

In 2020, another German Neo-Nazi killed nine people, as well as his mother and himself in the western German city of Hanau. One of the more infamous political assassination by Germany’s right-wing extremists was of Regierungspräsident (region district president) Walter Lübcke in 2019. The worst excess of right-wing terrorism, however, occurred more than forty years ago in Munch in 1980. It became known as the “Octoberfest bombing” when Neo-Nazi Gundolf Köhler murdered thirteen people.

Right-wing terrorism in Germany has a one-hundred year old history. Dating back to the end of the Great War (World War I), argues Florian Huber in his book Revenge of the Losers. The beginnings of right-wing terrorism in Germany date to the tumultuous years of what one of Germany’s most astute observers, Sebastian Haffner, once called “a failed revolution” in his seminal book, Failure of a Revolution. This was an era of private militias, militant gangs of trade unionists and communists, and various nationalist groups fighting during the anarchy that followed the end of the First Reich’s monarchy.

While many historians see German Nazism as the height of right-wing terror – which it undoubtedly was – one might like to maintain that right-wing extremism and terrorism existed before national-socialism. During the Weimar years (1919-1933), nationalists organised two of the most notorious right-wing militant groups, the Free Corps Brigade Ehrhardt and the organisation known as Consul.

The leader of the Ehrhardt Brigade who eventually was to play a leading role in later right-wing terrorism, Hermann Ehrhardt, grew up in a deeply Protestant household, with both his father and a grandfather being ministers. Despite this, young Ehrhardt managed to be expelled from the local high-school and joined the Kaiser’s Navy to fight for Germany’s imperialist ambitions or Weltgeltung. He quickly learned to show strength and contempt for death. Ehrhardt’s first military crime was what is known as the Herero Genocide in German South-West Africa in 1904. The massacre infected Ehrhardt with the virus of brutality.

Participation in this mass killing of Africans turbo-charged Ehrhardt’s subsequent naval career. He was quickly promoted to captain. By the closing days of the 1914-1918 war, he still believed the in final victory of Germany and not the capitulation to the British, French and Americans. Ehrhardt, like most patriotic Germans, did not expect military defeat nor did he anticipate the mutiny of German sailors refusing to carry out a hopeless suicide mission issued by their commanding officers. These sailors were ready to fight the overwhelming force of the British navy during the dying days of the Great War. With defeat, a mutiny and a looming revolution, Ehrhardt’s beloved monarchy and its strict class hierarchy disintegrated.

Ehrhardt came to believe in the myth of an undefeated German military – army that was betrayed from achieving final victory. The stab in the back mythology blamed from Socialists, Jews, intellectuals and pacifists. By January 1919, Ehrhardt (aged thirty-seven) exchanged an external enemy for an internal foe. The new enemy became mutineers and revolutionaries who had betrayed his fatherland. Demilitarisation at end of World War One meant that Ehrhardt sought ideological refuge in ex-soldier organizations and men’s clubs – the Männerbünde.

Like the radicals Friedrich Heinz and Ernst von Salomon, Ehrhardt belonged to the generation of men born between 1900 and 1910. All three went through Prussia’s harsh and dehumanising military training. By the end of the Great War these right-wing men thought they had been made obsolete’ by the new democratic Weimar state – and thus their pride injured. Full of frustration and bitterness, they started to organise and arm themselves by collecting guns, while developing secret plans to re-establish order. At first, they fought against the “red” revolution of Rosa Luxemburg. After that, they organized against democracy.

Crucial to the rise of right-wing terrorism is what happened at the end of the failed revolution of 1918/19. A class compromise between the old regime and revolutionary councils moved the Social-Democratic party into the centre. Social-Democracy offered three things: firstly, it offered capitalist stability, secondly, it offered the old guard survival in the administrative body of Germany; and finally, the people got a democratic parliamentarian system.

In exchange for preventing a revolution, big capital and the right-wing establishment tolerated the Social-Democrat rise to power. In exchange, the mighty Social-Democrats promised to keep the revolutionaries at bay. To fight huge numbers of revolutionary workers fed-up with a senseless war, the Kaiser and capitalism, Germany’s Social-Democratic state needed a capable fighting force – more efficient than the German police. It re-hired ex-soldiers now and organised them into a free corps.

Between early 1919 and until the early 1920s this was the time when ex-soldiers became members of the right-wing free corps. For men like the Ehrhardt Brigade and militarists like Friedrich Heinz and Ernst von Salomon, these free corps were highly useful. They themselves were able to return to the life of a soldier. With the German economy in bad shape, the pay was still bad but with a range of salary add-ons it was a lucrative enterprise.

The key to understanding the German free corps is this: these ex-officio militia groups fought “for” a democratic government against a Bolshevik revolution but it did “not” fight for democracy and the rule of law. Tasked to destroy the revolution by killing, torturing and bashing countless workers along the way, Germany’s free corps became the playground for right-wing terrorism now armed and organised as Brigade Ehrhardt, Freikorps Wesel, Traditionsverbänden, Garde Kavallerie Schützenkorps, Eiserne Division [division iron], Schwarze Jäger [black hunter], etc.

One of the leading engineers of the rise to dominance of the free corps was Weimar-President Friedrich Ebert’s right-hand man and fellow social-democrat, Gustav Noske. Noske catapulted himself into eternity through his ruthless principle, “Someone must become the bloodhound – Einer muß der Bluthund werden”. The free corps not only bludgeoned Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg before shooting them both and then dumping their bodies in Berlin’s Landwehrkanal, but Noske’s 35,000 strong free corps marched on Munich in April 1919 literally to kill the democratic council republic.

On 7 May 1919, Germany formally surrendered, signing a treaty at Versailles that further enraged German’s free corps into featuring an extremist esprit de corps of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist, antisemitism, along with untamed manhood and chauvinism, and as free corps Führer Ernst von Salomom proclaimed, according to the highest level of brutality. As a symbol of their counterrevolution, these men painted a white swastika on their steel helmets. Joining them was Erich Ludendorff, Walther von Lüttwitz and Wolfgang Kapp. Kapp was set to became the leader of a military coup d’état against the democratic Weimar Republic.

All of the men of Germany’s right-wing terrorism believed in the stab in the back ideology – the myth that a civilian government and a secret cabal of Jews had prevented Germany’s army from winning the war. Their ideology found expression in the right-wing rhetoric that included une idée fixe of fighting against “the system” meaning the political system of democracy. The idea of “the system” as a synonym for democracy had set up a radical right rhetoric that is still around today. The ideology of right-wing terrorism also includes the doctrine that the introduction of democracy weakened Germany when faced with the Allies and forced the old Kaiser and his cabinet to accept the terms of an unconditional and shameful surrender.

Armed with such right-wing fantasies, Kapp and the free crops marched on Berlin in 1920. But their putsch against the democratic Weimar Republic failed when twelve million workers went on strike, halting traffic in the capital. Kapp and his right-wing extremists who had occupied Germany’s Reichhauptstadt were without water, heating and electricity. The coup d’état imploded.

Yet, for the first time Germans saw a new symbol: the swastika. There are three possible explanations for the use of the Hackenkreuz. Firstly, some free corps solders thought of it as the monogram of Heinrich Ehrhardt; a second group believed it to be some kind of Balitic insignia; while a third group sensed the Nazism behind it. We know that it is derived from the Hindu “” symbolising surya, the sun implying prosperity and good luck. No matter its origins, Today it is the sign of ultimate evil.

The “” might have been taken up by these racist free corps as a symbol of an Aryan identity and of nationalist pride. Their obsession with an Aryan descent of the German people is likely to be the main reasons why Hitler’s National Socialist Party used the swastika or Hakenkreuz. With their swastika painted onto their uniforms, the retreating free corps left twelve dead victims behind at the end of Kapp’s failed coup.

Beyond the aforementioned free corps, e.g., the Ehrhardt Brigade, there were many more such as, for example, the Wehrverband Stahlhelm and the deeply antisemitic Deutschvölkische Schutz- und Trutzbund with its hundred thousand members. They hated Jews, the left and democrats. Together with brigade Ehrhardt, their fight was directed against parliamentary democracy, social-democracy and the Jews. In this fight, one of their foremost methods used became the medieval “Feme-killing” – a kind of vigilante revenge killing designed to keep members of a secret organisation from talking to outsiders.

By the summer of 1922, the free corps, death squads and right-wing terrorists started to compile death lists of those to be murdered. Most lists included representatives of the democratic republican elite. Overall, however, and up until the post-WWI years all of this was new to Germany. Before WWI, Germany had not been a country of political assassinations. It had about one political killing every century. By contrast, more than a hundred people died in the first six months after the founding of the Weimar Republic. By the summer of 1922, more than 370 people had fallen victim to politically motivated attacks.

Even more astonishing are the facts collected by Berlin crime expert Berhard Weiß, a police officer at Department I A: Political Police. Writing in 1920, Weiß noted a striking circumstance in post-1918 Germany. The peculiar fact that the majority of the politically murdered did not belong to the circle of the old rulers, as was the case with all previous revolutions. The murdered were for the most part supporters of the new state power. Not a single representative of the monarchy, which had led the country in war and defeat, was among the killed.

In every other revolution from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, etc., it is the representatives of the old regime that suffer the most. However, in Germany it was vastly different. Germany’s failed revolution of 1918/19 was truly a failed nationalist uprising. It was exclusively the counter-revolution that resorted to terrorism and killing – a fact even the police noticed. Worse, the Weimar statistician Emil Gumbel noted that the victims of right-wing terrorism were, crushed, beaten to death, shot from behind, stoned, thrown into the water and killed by shooting. There were 314 killings in 1919 and 1920. In contrast to this, there are 14 killings done by communists over the course of the same two years.

On average, the statistician Gumbel pointed out, for the years 1919 and 1920, almost every other day a political murder was committed by the right. In short, in just two years after the so-called revolution and under the guidance of Germany’s new democratic state, three-hundred right-wing killings took place. The stark asymmetry between the so-called evil revolutionaries and right-wing terrorism is more than telling. For their successful removal of the authoritarian regime of the Kaiser and for introducing democracy to Germany, many paid a bitter price.

One of the more prominent victims of right-wing terrorism was Reichsministerpräsidenten (Chancellor) Philipp Scheidemann. On 4 June 1922, two right-wing assassins threw acid into Scheidemann’s face. This assassination attempt and the subsequent investigation set yet another precedent that carries on until to today – the myth of the “individual perpetrator”. Only recently this myth was dished out again during the NSU court proceedings.

Yet, the most prominent terrorist attack wasn’t that of Scheidemann. It was the assassination of a German-Jewish industrialist, writer and liberal politician in 1922. For years, Germany’s right-wing extremists had been mobilising against Walther Rathenau, abusing him with antisemitic lyrics like these, Schlagt tot den Walther Rathenau – die gottverdammte Judensau!

In German language the endings “nau” and “sau” creates the targeted effect when saying bash him to death, the Walter Rathenau – the God-dammed Jewish sow. In June 1922, a small team of right-wing extremists shot Rathenau with a machinegun and exploded a grenade in his car. Rathenau was 54 years old. Yet, the assassins plan was to create an overwhelming reaction against the state coming from the radical left to which, then, the radical right would then respond by “saving” Germany through a dictatorship. The expectation failed to materialise. Rathenau’s assassination was carried out with logistic, material and ideological support by a substantial right-wing “network”. Yet, the radical right’s grand vision ultimately failed. In the wake of the Rathenau murder and supported by trade unions, hundreds of thousands of people marched against the radical right in Berlin and throughout Germany. The state funeral was one of the largest seen since the death of Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.

In the 1930s, Sebastian Haffner noted, We called them reactionaries but in truth they were already Nazis. Instead of provoking a Bolshevik revolution, during which time the radical right thought they could use an excuse to install their own dictatorship, Rathenau’s assassination roused the German state police to start rounding up his murderers. It arrested many of those responsible for the actual killing. Although the military mastermind of the “Organisation Consul”, Manfred von Killinger, was set free, despite his organisation having a special platoon called “Bomb and Killing Commando”. The wave of arrests continued and weakened the Organisation Consul. With no more support from the right-wing network, one of remaining killers of Rathenau was shot by police, while the second committed suicide, positioning himself next to the corpse of his right-wing comrade.

That left the two ideological and logistical masterminds of the Rathenau killing – Manfred von Killinger and Hermann Ehrhardt – untouched. Nevertheless, the state had still shown that its modern police force was able to arrest right-wing terrorists. The judiciary in the Weimar Republic quickly acquired the reputation of treating political offenders from the left with harshness, while those from the right received benevolence, if not open support. The murderers of communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919 never faced court. A court martial acquitted the Freikorps officers involved.

When Oltwig von Hirschfeld was tried in 1920 for his attempted murder of Reich Finance Minister Erzberger, the judges approved mitigating circumstances for him in view of his honourable motives for the good of Germany. Of the more than thirty members of the secretive “Organization Consul” who had been arrested in the course of the investigation into the Erzberger murder in 1921, only their military leader Manfred von Killinger had to face court and only for aiding and abetting. The fact that he was acquitted in view of a mountain of evidence in June 1922, a few days before the Rathenau murder, went through the German public as a judicial scandal. These were the most prominent examples of a long series of politically motivated crimes. The legal process followed the pattern of prosecuting left-wing perpetrators while letting the radical right run free.

Finally, the murder of Walter Rathenau established a pattern of intimidation and attacks by right-wing terrorists. While the state prosecuted individual revolutionaries and opposition leaders on the left harshly, they let their right-wing opponents off virtually scot-free. Yet it became also clear that Walter Rathenau’s assassins – consisting of young thirteen terrorists – weren’t disconnected “individuals”! Unlike une idée fixe of apologists for right-wing terrorists that such assassinations were always committed by individual madmen, the reality it was an organized conspiracy. To deny this belittles their crimes.

The same pattern emerged just one year later when an unknown figure – Adolf Hitler – failed in his own mini putsch in Munich in 1923. After he was found guilty, Hitler was sent to a comfortable prison. The ideological mastermind for this attempted coup d’état, Ludendorff, was let off the hook. Like the mastermind in the Rathenau murder case, Hermann Ehrhardt, Ludendorff never faced court.

In the end, there is a link between the right-wing villains of today and the terrorists in the post-World War One period. The most striking similarities between 1920s and the NSU trial ninety years later may be listed as follows:

+ in both cases right-wing ideology was instrumental;

+ in the Rathenau and in the NSU case, right-wing terrorists committed suicide;

+ in both cases, very few right-wing terrorists received prison sentences;

+ in both cases, their right-wing terror network remained largely intact;

+ in the Rathenau case and in the NSU case (NSU’s Ralf Wohlleben), the masterminds left the court room smiling;

+ in both cases, terrorists that were set free were cheered on by the attending radical right (Rathenau) and attending Neo-Nazis (NSU).

In 2018, one of Germany’s foremosta weekly newspapers – Die Zeit – noted on the ideological and logistics mastermind of the NSU who oversaw a Neo-Nazi network that had just killed ten people, NSU supporter Ralf Wohlleben, after his release from custody, Ralf Wohlleben has a new home: the village of Bornitz in Saxony-Anhalt where the far right scene flourishes and locals worship the terrorist supporter as their hero.

Unwillingly or unwittingly, Germany’s institutions to fight right-wing terrorism set up during the 1920s has established a dangerous precedent. By prosecuting only individual right-wing terrorists, while leaving their organizational network of supporters largely untouched, as Florian Huber shows, will at best serve individual justice, but fails utterly when seeking to end right-wing terrorism. As a consequence, right-wing terrorism in Germany and elsewhere will continue.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).

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