Walter Rathenau was an industrialist and founder of the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) (electrical engineering company). He was murdered in June 1922, a prominent victim of the Organisation Consul one of the many right-wing paramilitary groups.
At the outbreak of the Great War Rathenau approached the War Ministry and suggested that a Kriegsrohstoffabteilung (KRA) Raw Materials Department be established. The Ministry agreed and Rathenau was appointed to establish the KRA. After the Great War Rathenau entered politics helping to found the German Democratic Party (DDP). Despite being more liberal than many in government he retained a high degree of influence due in part to the work he had undertaken and contact he had made during the war.
In 1921, he was appointed Minister of Reconstruction, and, in 1922 became Foreign Minister. Rathenau was convinced that Germany had to fulfil its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. At the same time he worked tirelessly for a revision of the terms. Fulfilling the obligations, in Rathenau’s opinion, strengthened their bargaining position for a lessening of the terms. Most German nationalists disagreed fundamentally with this position feeling that any fulfilment of the treaty implied acceptance of the war guilt clause.
Attempting to balance the intricate and interlinked domestic and foreign policies of the Weimar Republic Rathenau further angered the nationalists when, in 1922, he negotiated the Treaty of Rapello. This treaty saw Germany and the Soviet Union renounced all territorial and financial claims against the other following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It also ‘recognised’ the secret German-Soviet collaboration, begun in 1921, which provided for the rearmament of Germany, including German aircraft manufacturing in Russian territory. This rearmament work was of great importance to German industry and appeased many in the German military who were still angered by the end of the war.
However, despite the obvious benefits many nationalists saw the treaty as part of the “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” which threatened Germany; Rathenau was Jewish. Combined with Rathenau’s acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles this ‘proved’ to the nationalists that Rathenau was a traitor to the fatherland. The nationalist paramilitary group the Organisation Consul determined to assassinate him.
On the 24th June 1922, despite having been told of threats against him and rumours of an intended attack, Walter Rathenau’s chauffeur drove him from his home in Grunewald to the Foreign Office in Wilhelmstraße by his normal route. As he was driven along a Mercedes-Touring car passed him. The car was driven by Ernst Werner Techow and also contained Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer. Kern opened fire at Rathenau with a MP 18-submachine gun at close range,, while Fischer threw a hand grenade into the car before Techow drove off.
The leader of the Organisation Consul was Hermann Ehrhardt who had devised the plot to kill Rathenau. Ehrhardt believed that Rathenau’s death would cause the government to fall and provoke the left into violence thus precipitating civil war. The right would then ‘defend’ Germany and emerge victorious to institute a right wing authoritarian regime.
The structure of the Organisational Consul was such that small cells such as that containing Techow, Kern and Fischerthree had minimal contact with the hierarchy of the group. Thus Ehrhardt and other senior members were protected from the negative consequences of any actions. However, Techow, Kern and Fischerthree had not acted alone and one of their fellow conspirators was Willi Günther who, ecstatic about their success, had been less than discrete in who he told abut the affair.
When the news about Rathenau’s death became known right-wing demonstrators gathered on the Berlin streets chanting ’Auch Rathenaur, Der Walther/ Erreicht kein hones Alter!/ Knallt ab den Walther Rathenau/ Die gottverdammte Judensau’ (Now Walter, too, will never see old age! Down goes Rathenau the Goddammned Jewish swine.) However, an equally large number of liberals and socialsit gathered on the streets to demonstrate about the murder.
The following day President Ebert announced an emergency decree for ‘the defense of the Republic’. Local officials were given powers to ban threats of violence towards the Republic or members of the government. This was despite the fact the those powers were already available to the police under the laws around threats to public safety. This minor point was glossed over as the Berlin police sprang into action.
Willi Günther was arrested and confessed all and several arrests warrants were issued for the other members of the Organisational Consul. Rathenau’s funeral on the 27th saw thousands on the streets of Berlin and workers staged a citywide strike to show ’proletariate support for the Republic’.
Techow was quickly arrested but Fischer and Kern remained at large for some two weeks. Eventually they were tracked down to on the castle of Saaleck in Thuringia and were confronted by the police. Kern was shot dead and Fischer committed suicide.
In October 1922 Ernst Werner Techow was charged with murder. Twelve other defendants appeared charged with various offences concerning aiding and abetting an assassination.
The prosecution case focused on the antisemitism of the accused. The defendants, the prosecution argued, believed Rathenau to have intimate relations with Bolshevik Russia and was one of the three hundred ‘Elders of Zion’ from the antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The defendants, in turn, denied that they had killed Rathenau because he was Jewish and stressed their loyalty to Germany. They stated that they had undertaken to eliminate Rathenau as he was a danger to the fatherland. However, they also stated that they ad acted alone. The prosecution was unable to prove the actual involvement of the Organisation Consul.
Two of the defendants, Tillessen and Plaas were convicted of non-notification of a crime and sentenced to three and two years in prison, respectively. Another, Salomon received five years imprisonment for accessory to murder.
Techow was fund guilty of accessory to murder. He stated he had been coerced into the act by threat of death by Kern and received to fifteen years in prison for accessory to murder. Techow’s sentence was reduced by an amnesty in 1928 and he was released from prison on the 7th January 1930.