E.t was no ordinary crime that was committed on August 26, 1921 near Bad Griesbach in the Black Forest – the circumstances alone make this clear: seven bullets hit the victim, two of them in the head at close range. With them a symbolic figure of the Weimar Republic was murdered: Matthias Erzberger.
Born in a small village on the Swabian Alb, Erzberger stepped out of the shadows of history when he signed the armistice for the German Reich on November 11, 1918, which ended the First World War. In the following months, as the leading head of the center, he helped the Versailles Treaty to a majority in the Weimar National Assembly. Erzberger’s outstanding historical achievement was to have, together with others, preserved the nation-state unity of the Germans at the end of the First World War with the adoption of the Versailles Treaty. The rejection of the treaty demanded by the supposed “patriots” on the right, on the other hand, would have given France the pretext it had hoped for to implement what had failed: the division of the empire into small states and the reorganization of Central Europe through a second Peace of Westphalia.
Erzberger was aware that his actions would make him the most hated man in Germany. Still, he did not shrink back. He is characterized by the fearless courage to do the right thing for his country with great determination – that still demands the greatest respect to this day. The 100th anniversary of his assassination is of course an occasion to reflect on the challenges that our democracy has to fight off in the twenties of our century. I would like to name three.
First: Erzberger was the victim of a right-wing extremist terrorist organization. Our state is also confronted with terrorist threats of very different origins, which in their simultaneity are historically unique for our country. To this day there is still no entirely appropriate answer. So in the next legislative period it will be important to finally take a comprehensive stand against the fact that the powers and possibilities of our security authorities are devalued by advancing digitization.
Second: For years we have seen political discourse becoming brutalized, some of which no longer meet the standards of civilized behavior. Because words easily become deeds, we must all pay attention to our language. We politicians are also given the task of conducting disputes in an appropriate style – dealing with each other with respect for all differences of opinion that are inherent in the democratic decision-making process. Wherever this discourse on social media crosses the boundaries of what is criminally relevant, we have to counter it more decisively.
Steps against the brutalization of the debates
Steps have already been taken towards this, but we still encounter obstacles in tracking hate speech on the Internet that make it impossible for us to determine who is communicating under a pseudonym or an e-mail address. That too has to change, for example by obliging certain providers to collect and verify identification features and, in the event of judicial approval, to make them available.
Thirdly, our democracy is confronted with a growing number of diffuse groups such as the citizens of the Reich, lateral thinkers and other conspiracy theorists, for whom politics begins not with looking at reality but with their imagination, which leads to a radical shift in discourse. If a decision can be criticized as inopportune or wrong within the democratic dispute, it is now considered untrue, illegitimate and even tyrannical, from which these groups derive a right of resistance that creates a climate of aggression and justifies acts of violence.
It is all the more important that we strengthen and maintain classic institutions of the democratic constitutional state: independence from the judiciary and the media, as well as freedom of expression and minority rights. Above all, this requires a consensus among the political center. In Weimar this was lost and with it democracy.
The author is chairman of the CDU Baden-Württemberg and deputy prime minister and interior minister of the state.