Political violence in Weimar Germany

The suppression of the Kapp putsch failed to kill off radicalism, whispers rumours about coups or political violence in Weimar Germany. On the contrary, the economic despair and political unrest of the early 1920s caused extremist groups to pop up like seedlings in fertile soil. Many of them began as splinter groups, started by individuals who were expelled or forced out of larger mainstream political parties. Germany’s largest right-wing party, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National People’s Party, or DNVP) was particularly susceptible to radical elements and factions. As these groups appeared, the tone of political discourse became more venomous and provocative. They also fuelled a rise on political murders and violence.

The first significant victim of political violence in Weimar Germany was Matthias Erzberger. A liberal member of the Catholic Centre Party, and a Reichstag deputy since 1903, Erzberger was assassinated, chiefly in retaliation for his opposition to the war effort. In mid-1917 he delivered an anti-war speech to the Reichstag and called on the German government to seek a “negotiated peace”. Erzberger’s name was forever linked with the peace movement and the 1918 armistice, to which he was a signatory. His association with the surrender meant Erzberger was despised by the Reichswehr, the Freikorps and radical nationalist groups; their newspapers regularly attacked Erzberger, blaming him for most of the problems assailing Germany. In March 1921 the NSDAP paper called Erzberger a “disgusting traitor to the fatherland”, an article that inspired two young soldiers to plot his murder. They cornered Erzberger in southern Germany in August 1921 and bludgeoned him to death.

Another architect of political vitriol and violence was Wilhelm Henning, a former Reichwehr major and DNVP deputy in the Reichstag. In June 1922 Henning published a particularly inflammatory article about Walther Rathenau, the Weimar foreign minister. Henning claimed that Rathenau “an international Jew”, was aligned with the Soviet Union and occupied a central role in a Jewish conspiracy to destroy “German honour”. On June 24th, as the ink was still drying on Henning’s anti-Semitic article, Rathenau was attacked on the streets of Berlin. His car was run off the road, machine-gunned then blasted with a grenade. The culprits were two Freikorps officers, who later committed suicide as they were being pursued by police.

Rathenau’s murder sent shockwaves through German politics. The DNVP was condemned for not taking a tougher stand against the extremists and racists in its own ranks. The party leadership responded by expelling Henning and several like-minded members. In 1922, Henning responded by forming the Deutschvolkische Freiheitspartei (German People’s Freedom Party, or DVFP). The DVFP’s ideology and political platform was nationalist and anti-Semitic, not unlike that of the NSDAP. Unlike the Nazis, however, the DVFP sought parliamentary seats rather than revolution in the early 1920s. Its membership was drawn more from the Mittelstand (middle class) and it lacked a large paramilitary wing. The DVFP would eventually form something of an alliance with the NSDAP.