In what ways did the Freikorps influence interwar Germany (1918-1933)?

Mutinous German sailors in 1918

The period after the end of WWI in Germany has fascinated historians for decades. This turbulent era saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party. After the near anarchy that engulfed Germany after 1918, the country was deeply divided between left and right. The Freikorps played a key part in the drama that unfolded in post-war Germany.

These paramilitaries were only active for a brief period, but they changed the history of Germany. The Freikorps were instrumental in defeating the radical left and the Communist revolutions in Germany. Then they became the greatest threat to the Weimar Republic, especially during the Kapp Putsch. The Freikorps also paved the way for the rise of Hitler's National Socialist Party.

Background

Freikorps in Bavaria (1919)

As the Allies were advancing on the Western Front, morale on the German Homefront collapsed. Sailors refused orders at Kiel, to launch a suicidal attack and mutinied. This initiated a series of events that led to the German Revolution (1918). The Revolution forced the Kaiser to abdicate and go into exile. The left-wing Social Democrats, under the leadership of Ebert came to power and they, with the support of other democratic parties established what came to be known as the Weimar Republic.[1]

In the aftermath of the armistice that ended World War One, Germany endured a series crises. The economy collapsed, the allies continued to blockade the country even after the official end of hostilities and German citizens faced serious food shortages.[2] The Weimar Republic was faced with an array of challenges and to add to their difficulties they had to manage the complex peace negotiations at Versailles. Emboldened by the example of the Russian Revolution (1917), German Communists believed that they could seize power and create a Socialist Republic. The communist uprising represented the greatest threat to the infant Weimar government faced.

As the German communists began clamoring for a socialist, large groups of battle-hardened veterans of the trenches returned from the Western Front.[3] Many of these men were frustrated by the nature of the German defeat and blamed it on the Social Democrats. Many of these men believed that they had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the Social Democrats.[4] This myth erroneously claimed that the Weimar politicians were responsible for the defeat and that Germany could have continued the war.

Many of these veterans had few job prospects and were rootless. They began to band together into paramilitary groups and became known as the Freikorps. The groups were composed mainly of ex-soldiers along with unemployed men and even some criminals.[5] The Freikorps were led by former officers and soon established links with hardline Conservative groups. They began to spread all over Germany during the hard and hungry winter of 1918. By the spring of 1919, there were dozens of these bands who were well-armed and disciplined. There was no centralized command directing the Freikorps, but the various bands coordinated their activities. They all shared an ideology that was anti-communist, anti-democratic and believed in the efficacy of political violence.

Freikorps 1918-1923

Freikorps in the Saar (1919)

By 1919 the socio-economic situation was so dire, that the communists and other extreme leftists believed that the time had arrived for revolution. All over Germany - workers, councils and revolutionary committees seized control of cities in the period from late 1918 to mid-1919. From Bremen to Munich there were mini Communist Revolutions.[6]

The Spartacist Revolt led by Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht sought to seize Berlin in January 1919. It was the most serious left-wing revolt of the Weimar era. The revolutionaries occupied public buildings all over the city. The Social Democratic government did not have sufficient forces to put down the revolt turned to the Freikorps in the city and in the surrounding districts. The veterans easily quelled the revolt and murdered its leaders in cold blood. Soon after the Freikorps put down the revolt they took part in wave of terror in the city and beyond. The Freikorps targets and killed many left-wingers in and around Berlin.

Instead of quelling the leftist revolt, it provoked other left-wing rebellions across Germany. For approximately six months there were Socialist Republics established in Bremen, Saxony, Hamburg, the Rhineland and the Ruhr region. These were all suppressed ultimately by the army, police and especially by the Freikorps. The Freikorps earned a reputation for violence and looting during these revolts. The Bavarian Soviet Republic was the last attempt to start a Revolution in Germany in 1919, but they were crushed by the local Freikorps in May of that year. The Freikorps remained active for the rest of 1919.[7]

New units of paramilitaries were formed to fight the Poles in Silesia and communists in the Baltic States. Here, they helped local Estonian and Latvian units defeat communist forces. However, the Freikorps attempted to seize control of these Baltic states for Germany but were eventually expelled by local forces with the help of the British. By late 1919, the communist threat had ended and the Freikorps were no longer needed by the Weimar government.[8] The Weimar Defense Minister Noske set a deadline for the Freikorps to disband. They refused to do so, and the Berlin Freikorps joined in the so-called Kapp Putsch.

Kapp Putsch was a right-wing coup that sought to end the Weimar Republic in March 1920. The revolt was initially successful. The rebels and Freikorps seized control of much of Berlin and sought to impose a right-wing dictatorship on the country. However, the population of Berlin rejected the attempt to reverse the German Revolution and launched a general strike. The strike led to the collapse of the coup. The Freikorps in the German capital disbanded and others quickly followed suit. The Putsch had also provoked a communist revolt in the Ruhr that was suppressed by local Freikorps detachments.

The various units officially disbanded, but the individual Freikorps members went underground and formed a clandestine terrorist network. They attempted to undermine the Weimar Republic, by assassinating leading supporters of the democracy. Among their victims was Walther Ratheneau, a prominent German-Jewish industrialist, and statesman. However, these terrorist outrages did not seriously destabilize the Weimar Republic. By 1925 as the Weimar entered its most stable period and the Freikorps largely ceased their violence.

The Freikorps and the Communist Revolt

Fighting during the Spartacist Revolt (1919)

In 1919, the German government was hobbled. The army was in disarray and under the terms of the armistice the number of troops was severely restricted. The Social Democrats who controlled the government knew that the police and the army were not sympathetic to them and ultimately unreliable. The Weimar government wanted to safeguard the gains of the German Revolution. Initially, they saw the main threat coming from the left in the form of the ‘Bolsheviks’. The Defence Minister, Gustave Noske was in a dilemma he had little resources available to him to defeat the Communists and he feared that they would seize power in Berlin. He decided to use the Freikorps even though he knew that they were not loyal to the government.

Noske realized that the Freikorps hated the communists even more than the Social Democrats and decided that they could be used to prevent to suppress the Revolutionaries. The paramilitaries played a critical role in the suppression of the Red revolts (1919-1920). They played the major role in the defeat of the Spartacist Revolt. This was perhaps the most dangerous point for the Weimar Republic if the Freikorps had not intervened then the Spartacists could have seized Berlin and all of Germany. The radical left was actually very popular among the working class and even among the German navy. The armed intervention by the right-wing paramilitaries ensured that the revolt led by Luxembourg and Liebknecht would collapse. The Freikorps would play a similar role in eight other revolutions that erupted across Germany in the period 1919-1920. The Freikorps played a decisive role in the defeat of the various uprisings by communists and others’ radicals in the immediate post-war period.

The Freikorps and the radical right

By the end of 1919 the Freikorps had become a threat to the Weimar government. The paramilitaries were openly contemptuous of the democratic system and they brazenly defied the authorities. This alienated many of their conservative supporters including the German war hero General Paul Von Hindenburg. The government aware that the Freikorps had lost public support was encouraged to order that they disband. The paramilitaries lend their support to Kapp, a right-wing fanatic who was, in reality, a puppet of the German military.

The Kapp Putsch received the full backing of the Freikorps and their strength was decisive in the early stages of the insurrection. The army did not stop the paramilitaries, indeed they secretly supported the coup. But for the courage of the local Berliners, the Kapp Putsch could have overthrown the Weimar Republic. The Freikorps had played a major role in the defeat of the ‘Red’ revolts that broke out in the aftermath of the German Revolution. After they had achieved this, they became the most serious threat to the Weimar Republic and almost helped to destroy it in 1920.

The Freikorps and the rise of the National Socialist Party

Many historians have claimed that the Freikorps were the heralds of the National Socialist Party and that they inspired Hitler in his tactics and ideology. Historians have argued that Hitler somehow modeled his movement on the paramilitaries. The National Socialists were influenced to a degree by the Freikorps and this is most evident in the Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary wing of the National Socialist party, popularly known as the Brown Shirts. The SA played a crucial role in the National Socialists Party seizure of power and acted as Hitler’s private army.[9] They intimidated those who challenged Hitler and fought violent street battles with Communists. The Freikorps are often regarded as the model for the SA.

Many members of the Freikorps after the collapse of the Kapp Putsch in 1920 gravitated towards the Hitler's party. These included Ernst Rohm who was instrumental in the founding of the SA. He was not alone and among the other former Freikorps members who became leading National Socialists were Himmler and the future Commandant of Auschwitz Hoss.[10] The disbandment of the Freikorps helped to swell the ranks of the Hitler's movement in the early years. In many ways the paramilitaries were unlike the National Socialists, they were not overtly racist or antisemitic.[11] Furthermore, Hitler was suspicious of the paramilitaries especially after they failed to join him in his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. He believed that they were too conservative and too close to the old elite, whom he did not trust. On balance, the Freikorps did influence the National Socialists, but this should not be overstated, something which too many historians have done, in the past.

Conclusion

The Freikorps were a paramilitary force that was born out of the defeat of the German army in WWI. These mainly ex-soldiers played a critical role in the early years of the Weimar Republic. The paramilitaries ideology was conservative and nationalistic. The weak Weimar Republic was faced with a series of Communist-inspired revolts and they had to rely on these paramilitaries to control them. The Social Democrats were forced to rely on the paramilitaries, even though they hated the Weimar Republic to defeat its left-wing enemies.

These ex-soldiers and extreme nationalists suppressed the Communist-inspired revolts and helped to save the young democracy. However, the unlikely defenders of the Weimar Republic became its greatest foe. They almost helped in the overthrow of the German Revolution in 1920. In the past, historians regarded the Freikorps as the decisive influence on the National Socialist Party and their forerunners. The relationship between the paramilitaries and the National Socialist Party was complex. Hitler was not influenced by the beliefs or the tactics of the paramilitaries. However, the former Freikorps helped to swell the ranks of the National Socialist Party and inspired the development of the SA.

References

  1. Richard M. Watt, The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany – Versailles and the German Revolution (New York, Simon and Schuster 1968), p 56
  2. Watt, p, 34
  3. Watt, p.18
  4. Watts, p. 21
  5. Jones, Mark Founding Weimar. Violence and the German Revolution of 1918-19 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2016), p. 78
  6. Waite, Robert Vanguard of N.azism: The Free Corps Movement in Post-War Germany, 1918–1923 (New York, Norton & Company, 1997), p. 14
  7. Waite, p. 89
  8. Waite, p. 111
  9. Payne, Stanley G., The History of Fascism, 1914–1945 (Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), p. 125
  10. Payne, p. 134
  11. Payne, p. 127