Thursday, July 03, 2008

History of the German Freikorps * * *

History of the German Freikorps
A Brief History of the Birth of the Nazis (at Amazon)
The book begins at the end of WWI as civil unrest is spreading within Germany
due to widespread dissatisfaction with the war among the civilians and the soldiers. During this time, there was a strong communist/revolutionary movement within the naval soldiers and within the working class. As with the Russian communist revolution, the German communist revolution-that-wasn't started with mutinies aboard naval ships. Towards the end of WWI, losing the war seemed inevitable and naval soldiers began to balk at dying for a lost cause. The first large mutiny occurred at Kiel on October 29, 1918 when the navy ordered a last, and at that point suicidal, battle against the British blockade. The 'Red' soldiers took over the ships and the port. This revolt was put down by the Kaiser but unrest continued to spread -- until the Kaiser was forced into exile on November 9, 1919 and the monarchy was replaced by a fragile republic, the Wiemar Republic.
Out of this chaos, the Friekorps were born.

Spartacist in BerlinThe young republic was facing multiple uprising from various revolutionary groups: the communists, the Spartacists, the Red naval soldiers and the Workers' parties. These groups were engaging in mass revolts in Berlin and were taking over government offices. The regular army was ineffective and riddled with 'Red' sympathizers. Instead ex-military officers formed their own scratch militia, called Freikorps or Free Corps. These were made up of young, hard men who had been tempered in the trenches of WWI. These newly minted Freikorps were sent to quell the civil unrest -- with a heavy hand. The Freikorps became famous for their violence and independence -- and their virulent disdain for the Wiemar Republic government. At their height in 1920, there were about half a million Freikorps soldiers in militia of various sizes up to battalion strength. Some of these only lasted a few months, while others lasted to the Versailles Treaty after which they were eventually absorbed into the regular Army.

"A Brief History of the Birth of the Nazis: How the Freikorps Blazed a Trail for Hitler" tell sthe history of the Friekorps from their inception in 1919 to their official dissolution in 1920 by the Versailles Treaty through their change to illegal political terrorist militia in the 1920s and then to their final end in the summer of 1934 when the Nazis carried out a purge known as the Night of Long Knives. The first half of the book is mostly about their various military actions up to 1920: from their military action in Poland to mercilessly putting down the Ruhr Red revolts in the spring of 1920. The second half of the book concerns the post-Versailles Treaty period. The Versailles Treaty strictly limited the number of soldiers that Germany was allowed to maintain, and the Wiemar government was certainly not inclined to turn a blind eye to the Freikorps. The Friekorps were a threat to the government, and had been involved in multiple putz attempts to overthrown the republican government and replace it with a fascist government.

By the early 1920s, the majority of the Freikorps had been disbanded or integrated into the Wehrmacht. However, many Freikorps evolved into illegal anti-republican groups and some of these were terrorist right-wing groups that that assassinated republican officials. These illegal Friekorps groups were important to the nascent National Socialist Party (Nazis). Specifically, the Bavarian Freikorps were critical in the Munich Beerhaus putz in 1923 when Adolf Hitler attempted to seize power by force. After this failed, and Hitler sent to prison, Hitler decided to seek power within the political system and distanced himself from the more unruly elements of the Freikorps. Nonetheless many Freikorps officers went on to become leaders in the Nazi party and of the SS.

This book was a real eye-opener for me. I was not aware of the extent of civil unrest in Germany at the end of WWI or of the communist revolts that occurred in 1919 and the early 1920s. The history of these revolts gave me a very different image of pre-WWII Germans than I had before. In Berlin Diary, the memoir of a US journalist, we see only the stereotypical view of German citizens fawning over Hitler in mass assemblies and there is certainly no evidence of widespread resistance. The history of the Freikorps shows a completely different German citizenry. For example, in March 1920 in what is known as the Kapp Putz, a Freikorps militia tried to overthrow the republican government by force and succeeded in taking over the government headquarters in Berlin and sending the leadership running. However, they were faced with massive passive resistance by government employees who stalled in carrying out their orders. Then a Berlin-wide strike was called and the city was shut down. After a few days of civilian resistance, the putz leaders were forced to leave. On the other hand, the image we see of the Freikorps is striking similar to that seen later in the Nazi party and SS. Lieutenant Mann, an officer of the Freikorps leading the failed Kapp Putz, said afterwards "If we had only shot more people [meaning civilians], everything would have been alright." It was a lesson they put to use in quelling the Ruhr revolt a few weeks later and one that the Nazis took to heart also.