“November Criminals”

Stab-in-the-back legend, armed paramilitary forces. Erzberger murdered.

[Germany, August 1921] At the end of August, a black cloth rosette hung in the window of the “Stübchen””, next to it a black-red-golden one. A few days ago, on August 26, 1921, Matthias Erzberger had been shot dead in the Black Forest while he was out for a walk.

Erzberger murdered

The hard Peace Treaty of Versailles, perceived as humiliating by many people, had made the radical Right strong. They openly showed their despise for the Weimar Republic, and blamed all the suffering, the great need and the peace terms on the new democratic state and its leaders. The Kaiser’s generals intentionally spread the rumor that the German army had been “undefeated in field” but “stabbed in the back” by strikes in the armament industry and revolutionaries. The “stab in the back” legend soon was picked up by the radical Right. Armed paramilitary forces banded together, and secret organizations were formed that felt entitled to take revenge.

More than anyone else, they loathed Matthias Erzberger. In July 1917, he had put to vote a “Peace Resolution” which the Reichstag had passed. In November 1918, he had reluctantly armistice with the Allies in the Forest of Compiègne and later served as Chairman of the Armistice Commission, trying to improve the conditions against overwhelming hostility. Yet, Erzberger and the leaders of the Social Democrats were branded as “November criminals” by the radical right. They were advocating militaristic and expansionist policies by which Germany could redeem its defeat in the war, gain vengeance upon its enemies, and become the preeminent power in Europe.

In a bold speech to the National Assembly in June 1919, he had called the Kaiser’s generals for withholding the truth and rejecting a negotiated peace while there still was a chance. Then Erzberger became finance minister and vice chancellor in chancellor Bauer’s cabinet. In just nine months, he created a fundamentally new tax system that helped Germany get back on its feet. Deeply believing in Christian Solidarity, Erzberger struggled for a socially just tax system. It had caused outrage among the wealthy classes.

A dirty campaign

The war-time Secretary of State for the Treasury, Karl Helfferich (DNVP), launched a campaign against him “Fort with Erzberger”, (“Get rid of Erzberger!”), accusing him of corrupt business practices. It was sheer slander, and Erzberger sought justice. But Helfferich could count on biased judges, on March 12, 1920, the court found his accusations were partly justified, he got away with a minor fine. Erzberger resigned his ministerial office and gave up his seat in the National Assembly in March 1920.
He had survived two attempts to murder him, on the night of June 28, 1919, and during the trial.


Kathi too mourned Erzberger’s death. He had been Jacob’s hero, so she had heard about him since she was a little girl. With his optimism and sense of responsibility, Erzberger had never shied away from even the most difficult tasks. “He had the courage to publicly denounce unpleasant truths, to make unpopular decisions, to take responsibility and to pay for crimes committed by others in the name of the republic,” she said.

But rational argumentation had a hard time against the negative emotions that the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles triggered in the defeated Germany, shaken by an economic crisis. Max also mourned. “Like Haase, like Eisner, like Liebknecht and Luxemburg,” he said concerned, “I’m afraid he will not be the last.”

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