German Village Outraged: Mystery Memorial Honors Far-Right Assassins

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Unknown sympathizers have placed a memorial stone on the graves of the two men who in 1922 assassinated Walther Rathenau, Germany's Jewish foreign minister during the Weimar Republic. People in the village of Saaleck suspect right-wing extremists were behind the stunt.

Photo Gallery: In Memory of Far-Right Killers Photos
Mitteldeutsche Zeitung/ Torsten Biel

Murdering Walter Rathenau was easy. On the morning of June 24, 1922, a Saturday, the German foreign minister, who was Jewish, left his villa in the Berlin suburb of Grunewald and was being chauffeured to his office in an open-top car. Suddenly a car with three men inside passed his. One man opened fire with a submachine gun, another threw a handgrenade. Rathenau died immediately, the driver survived.

The killers were law student Erwin Kern, 23 and mechanical engineer Hermann Fischer, 26, both of them former army officers and members of the right-wing terrorist group Consul. Ernst Werner Techow was at the wheel. At the time, German nationalists had been fond of chanting: "Shoot dead Walther Rathenau, the goddam Jew pig!"

The trio fled to Saaleck castle some 200 kilometers south of the German capital. But they made the mistake of leaving a light on, and local residents, aware that the tenant, a far-right sympathizer, was away, alerted the police. Kern was shot dead during the arrest and Fischer shot himself. Techow was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in jail. The state prosecutor cited "blind hatred of Jews" as the motive.

Hitler Had Memorial Stone Placed

The bodies of Kern and Fischer were buried between two young oak trees at the edge of the Saaleck village cemetery. In July 1933, Adolf Hitler ordered them to be reburied and had a large memorial stone placed in the cemetery with an inscription hailing them as "advance fighters" for his cause.

After the war, the communist East German authorities removed the inscription and the boulder was forgotten. But after unification, the place became a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis who waved flags, sang the national anthem and toasted the assassins in the nearby restaurant Burgblick.

The village, population 300, eventually responded by getting rid of the stone altogether in January 2000. The church council decided that the spot would no longer be used as a grave site. The neo-Nazis left, but every year, on the anniversary of the assassins' death, a large wreath appeared at the grave.

But now the stone is back -- or rather, a replacement. Police noticed it on July 17, the 90th anniversary of the pair's death. Every year on that day since unification, police have patrolled the village to check for neo-Nazis. "We're always there, and the people in question know that we're there," says police spokeswoman Ulrike Diener.

Flowers For the Killers

The rock has the names of Fischer and Kern chiselled into it along with the date of their death, in the runic script so popular among the far right. On the evening of July 17, a "handful" of people arrived at the cemetery to lay flowers -- orange gladiolas and red begonias now adorn the stone of remembrance. It's an idyllic spot at the foot of the castle ruins of Saaleck and Rudelsburg.

"The stone isn't illegal," said a spokesman for the state prosecutor's office in the neighboring town of Naumburg. After all, the cemetery is freely accessible.

But the Protestant church community that owns the tiny cemetery has set a deadline for its removal.

Naumburg district official Johannes Borchert said: "This illegal burial site will be cleared by the city of Naumburg." He said there was "no justification and no permit whatsoever" for the stone and that the lease on the grave had long since expired.

Local people suspect that the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), described by authorities as racist, revisionist, hostile to the constitution and sympathetic to National Socialism, is involved. But they can't prove it, and the local NPD representative isn't talking.

Asked whether he had the stone placed at the site, local chimney sweep Lutz Battke, a district councillor for the NPD, laughed and said: "Well I don't know if I can confirm that, have a good day!" Then he put down the phone.

The villagers of Saaleck have learned to live with the far right. Mayor Gerd Förster says there are at most 20 of them in the area, of whom five live in Saaleck. At the moment, only one thing is important: "The stone has got to go."

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