- Klansmen in the Fatherland:A Transnational Episode in the History of Weimar Germany's Right-Wing Political Culture
This article explores a little-known episode that occurred during the middle-years of Germany's Weimar Republic.1 It involves the discovery in 1925 of a small, right-wing secret society that differed in some rather significant and startling ways from the many other such groups that came and went during the short, tumultuous life of Germany's first experiment in democracy. Dedicated to defending Germandom and fighting Jewry, this group was led by three Americans and modeled itself after the American Ku Klux Klan—and called itself the Order of the Knights of the Fiery Cross. While it turns out this group was not the terrifying murder-organization feared by the Left when its existence was first made known, neither was it simply a group of harmless, carnivalesque buffoons as portrayed by the Right.
What, then, is one to make of such an odd episode in the history of Weimar Germany? Does it have anything to teach us, any broader significance despite its rather brief existence? How might it help us better understand the world of Germany's radical Right and the course that ultimately led to Hitler and the Third Reich? Considering the role played by the American Ku Klux Klan, what might it teach us about the culture of the radical Right from a transnational and comparative perspective? This article will show that the existence of the Knights provides further [End Page 61] evidence of the fragile and fractured state of the German Right during Weimar's so-called "years of stability," while at the same time demonstrating its still-dangerous potential for destruction that had not gone away with the end of the civil war period in 1923. The story of the Knights, therefore, sheds valuable light on a number of important issues relating to German right-wing political culture and nationalism. Moreover, thanks to the American dimension, it does so from a broader, transnational, and comparative perspective. As a result, we will see striking similarities between the German and the American world of the radical Right—similarities that, on first glance would often be dismissed, but upon closer examination reveal a great deal about the commonly assumed exceptionalism of both countries.
During the summer of 1925, as a result of two separate and unrelated investigations, the police in Berlin stumbled upon a new right-wing secret society. In early August, an official in the police department reported his son—20-year-old Fritz Siebert—missing since 30 July. Originally reported to the missing-persons division, the case was transferred to the political police when the father expressed concerns that the disappearance might have been politically motivated. Fritz Siebert belonged to the right-wing paramilitary organization, Frontbann [a front group for the Sturmabteilung (SA) and other paramilitaries led by Ernst Röhm]. That was not, however, the only group of which he may have been a member. Siebert's father revealed that a few weeks previously, a letter had arrived at his home containing information on a gathering in a restaurant in Charlottenburg. The organization holding the gathering called itself "R.z.f.S."2
About a month later, while investigating a political murder involving the Black Reichswehr—the secret army established by the Weimar government to circumvent the troop limits set down in the Treaty of Versailles—the police arrested 20-year-old Wilhelm Weckerle. At the time, he had in his possession a letter with the heading "R. F. K." dated 15 August 1925 and a membership card with the same initials. When asked about this organization, he said he could not discuss it because he had taken an oath upon becoming a member of what he called "The Knights of the Fiery Cross." Weckerle remained true to his oath for about the length of time it took the police to explain to him that if he did not tell them truthfully what they wanted to know, he would be subject to [End Page 62] punishment for membership in a secret organization. He immediately agreed to tell them everything he knew. He...