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For the past four years, many have wondered when Donald Trump would finally have his “Have-you-no-sense-of-decency?” moment. That was, of course, the memorable rebuke uttered by attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, just after Joseph McCarthy’s insinuation that one of Welch’s colleagues had ties to a Communist organization. The tense exchange took place during the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings and resulted, almost overnight, in the Wisconsin senator’s abrupt fall from grace.
Trump’s behavior as candidate and later as president might have prompted, on any number of instances, a similar rebuke from his supporters—from his cruel mocking of a disabled reporter to his recent onslaught against the integrity of the last election. It is true that many fellow party members and conservatives castigated candidate Trump for behavior they found offensive and outrageous. A large number of them nevertheless became his most ardent supporters after his electoral victory in 2016. Critics roundly accused these men and women of making a deal with the devil, and they waited in vain for some transgression on Trump’s part that would finally serve as a deal-breaker. But none came—until January 6, 2021, when irate protestors, incited by the president, stormed the United States Capitol, hoping to use force and intimidation to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden as president-elect. Since then, many of Trump’s closest political allies have started to jump his sinking ship. Even Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell indicated in the aftermath of January 6 that he was open to impeachment.
Pundits and historians have predictably sought historical parallels for the events of January 6. The usual suspects come from the pantheon of infamous dates associated with the Third Reich, no surprise given the popularity of pointed comparisons between Trump and Hitler and dire warnings about impending fascism. November 9, 1923, for instance: the day of the failed Beer Hall putsch, Hitler’s inauspicious debut on Germany’s national political stage. Or February 27, 1933, the day the German parliament went up in flames—and with it, German civil liberties and the rule of law.
But there is an earlier date in modern German history that may provide a more appropriate analogy, as well as a guide to future developments here in the US: June 24, 1922, the day that Walther Rathenau, the foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, was assassinated in a posh section of the German capital.
That Saturday morning, a group of assassins gunned down the prominent German politician and industrialist, who had just left home on the way to the office. Though Rathenau died almost immediately, his brutal death resulted in an unexpected twist: a second chance for the Weimar Republic itself. The assassination was one of several hundred carried out by the extreme right over the preceding year, beginning with the murder of Matthias Erzberger, a prominent Catholic politician who had signed the armistice ending World War I. The wrath of the extremists focused primarily on Jews and other “November Criminals” like Erzberger, whom they wrongly blamed for the country’s recent defeat. The country’s wartime military leaders, who had a fast and loose relationship with the truth, encouraged such misconceptions in order to deflect attention from their own grave failings.
Rathenau’s murder came as a shock to most Germans. After all, the foreign minister and former head of AEG (Allgemeine Electricitäts-Gesellschaft), the country’s most successful electric company, had overseen important aspects of the wartime economy. To most, this was a genuine German patriot. True, he had recently come under fire from conservatives for reaching a diplomatic deal with the Soviet Union. But, in the eyes of those who murdered him, Rathenau’s main flaw was his religion. He was a Jew, and that made him a traitor.
Millions of distraught and angry Germans took to the streets to protest this violent political act. But as horrible as it was, the murder had a positive if unintended consequence: It also alienated many of Weimar’s most inveterate foes, especially those in the middle class. The shock of Rathenau’s violent assassination was more than just an affront to bourgeois sensibilities, however. It turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Fearing further descent into chaos and violence, many who had previously rejected Weimar and all it stood for now rallied behind it—or at least tolerated its right to exist.
Among them was the prominent conservative politician Gustav Stresemann, up to that point a die-hard critic of the first democracy on German soil. The avowed monarchist energetically threw in his lot with Weimar following Rathenau’s murder, serving first as chancellor and later as foreign minister. His domestic policies and diplomatic overtures saved the republic from the disastrous hyperinflation of 1923, resulted in important revisions to the hated Versailles Treaty, and brought an end to Germany’s international isolation. Stresemann’s determined efforts to repair relations with France and other erstwhile enemies even earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926.
The negative light in which Rathenau’s assassination and the storming of the Capitol are rightly seen may turn out, in both cases, to be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Just as Rathenau’s murder prompted Stresemann and other enemies of Weimar to rethink their political positions, the shocking events of recent days—including the latest revelation that political assassinations may have also been on the agenda—seem to have made many of Donald Trump’s more prominent allies and enablers reassess their support for the forty-fifth president. Many will rightly argue that it should not have come to this—to the storming of one of America’s most important symbols of democracy. But if the recent violence finally marks the decline of Trump’s political fortunes, if it serves as a stark reminder of what the country risks losing by playing with fire—and thus rekindles a firm commitment to the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution—then it may very well have been a price worth paying.
That said, the response to Rathenau’s assassination only offered a short reprieve, in the end. A month later, authorities adopted a federal law banning extremist organizations deemed a threat to republican principles and the constitution. That did not prevent Hitler’s ill-fated putsch attempt in late 1923, of course, but there were no more major political murders during Weimar. Instead, the republic settled into several years of seeming stability under Stresemann. The economy recovered and Germany’s international position improved dramatically. For that very reason, the conservative politician’s premature death, in early October 1929, has given rise to one of the great “what-if’s” of modern German history: Had he not died of a sudden stroke at age fifty-one, just on the eve of the Great Depression, would his continuing presence in German politics have forestalled the fall of Weimar and the eventual rise of Hitler?
We will never know. What we do know is that things soon fell apart. In the early 1930s, Germany descended once again into spiraling political radicalization and violent chaos, marked by fighting and terror in the streets and culminating in the Nazi “seizure of power.” The political shift that came in the wake of Rathenau’s murder proved transient then—and that, too, is an important lesson for us today. It demonstrates the fragility of democratic institutions, and it reminds us of the need to remain vigilant against extremist forces that prey on unresolved political conflicts, underlying cultural strains, and intractable socioeconomic tensions that slowly tear away at the fabric of any society.
Andrew I. Port teaches history at Wayne State University and is the former editor of the journal Central European History. He is the author of Conflict and Stability in the German Democratic Republic, and is currently finishing a book on German reactions to post-Holocaust genocide.