Berlin 1918/19

The Historical Eye

WW1

'[We] are determined to hold to the plan of liquidation of the Naval Division, and we shall see to it that it is carried out.'

 

 

The bloodhounds of Berlin

 

Berlin, 1919: a group of soldiers and officers are milling around the back entrance to the Eden Hotel on a chilly January night. A prisoner by the name of Karl Liebknecht is hustled out of the doorway. His receding, curly-black hair is matted with blood from an earlier beating. One of the soldiers, Otto Runge, dashes forward and smashes the butt of his rifle across the prisoner’s head. Semi-conscious and sprawled on the floor, Liebknecht is dragged into a waiting car that speeds off towards Tiergarten Park. Eventually coming to a halt, Liebknecht is ordered out. Dazed and staggering forward, he is oblivious to the pistols raised behind his back…

 

Twenty minutes after Liebknecht’s departure, a second detainee, Rosa Luxemburg, stumbled out of the Eden Hotel. She had also been roughed up and was Runge’s next target. Again he used his weapon as a club and the diminutive Luxemburg collapsed from the blow, either dead or dying. She was dumped into the back of another car, which drove less than 100 metres before coming to a sudden halt. The crack of a pistol shot was then heard from within its interior.

 

New Republic

In September 1918 Germany’s Supreme Command realised that the nation was unable to continue prosecuting the war; it no longer had the manpower or materiel to stem the Allied advance on the Western Front. Germany decided to sue for peace and a constitutional monarchy was quickly established in the hope of it being viewed more favourably by the victorious Allies. General Ludendorff was replaced with General Wilhelm Groener, while Prince Max von Baden became the Imperial Chancellor. But as Supreme Command worried itself over armistice terms, the German people seethed with indignation, angered by defeat and embittered by grief. The hostility was further heightened by stringent rationing that was leading to malnutrition among the young and vulnerable.

 

The German socialists saw an opportunity to advance their cause and obtain a level of power thought impossible under the old regime. The SPD, the majority socialists, were the largest party with the greatest support in Germany and they initially attempted to work with Prince Max von Baden’s government in the hope of bringing about calm and methodical social change. They were fronted by Fredrich Ebert, a podgy man with a gruff expression. However, his appearance belied superb organisational abilities and a willingness to take decisive action. Gustav Noske would become his right-hand man. Tall and thickly built, he was a good orator and often persuaded his opponents to bend to his will through words alone. However, he was also ruthless enough to sanction violence to obtain his goals.

 

Elsewhere, talk of mutiny and rebellion was spreading like wildfire through German ranks. Sailors of the High Seas fleet in Kiel eventually revolted in early November, although they were soon calmed by Noske. But instead of returning to their duties and waiting for demobilisation, a large number deserted and decided instead to head to Germany’s other main ports or to Berlin. Of the latter contingent, around 3,000 sailors took over the Imperial Palace, the Schloss, and its adjoining Imperial stables, the Marstall. They named themselves the People’s Naval Division. Other destabilising elements were already rife in the capital, including army deserters, militant communists, anarchists and criminal gangs.

 

Concurrently, von Baden’s attempts to secure the Kaiser’s abdication were painstakingly slow and, by the time the Emperor’s abdication was finally confirmed, it seemed almost too late – strikes and protests had erupted across the nation and it seemed Germany was sliding into anarchy. Fearful of losing popular support, the SPD withdrew from von Baden’s government, leaving him no choice but to hand them political authority and the Chancellorship on 9 November. That evening, one of Ebert’s colleagues, Philip Scheidemann, announced the foundation of the German Republic to ecstatic protesters gathered below a set of French windows at the Reichstag. Ebert was livid on hearing the news; how could he be an Imperial Chancellor of a Republic? Fortunately, constitutional complexities were far from the minds of most Germans. The new Chancellor’s immediate tasks were to preside over the armistice, maintain order and then secure a democratic mandate through elections.

 

Ebert faced many opponents, most notably those from the left, including many in the Independent Socialist Party, the USPD. This group had split from the SPD after the latter had refused to withdraw its support for the war sometime earlier. But now that the war was lost most in the USPD felt able to work with Ebert’s administration, albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. However, others wanted the old order entirely swept away and were more inclined towards radicalism. For example, the USPD’s Emil Eichhorn arbitrarily took over as Berlin’s head of the police without sanction. He did this by shoving his way through a large demonstration at the police headquarters on Alexanderplatz and, upon entering the building, brazenly announcing: ‘I am the new police president.’ With a crowd outside baying for their blood, the officers inside were keen to get out alive and the new ‘police president’ offered them the chance. Eichhorn was duly appointed and the protestors dispersed on hearing the news.

 

Further to the left of the USPD, although often associated with the party, were members of the Spartakusbund, the Sparticist League. Their core support was small and based in the working-class districts. Their unusual name was an invention of their leader, the fiery Karl Liebknecht, who had issued flyers during the war that derided the Kaiser. He signed them with the nom de plume ‘Spartacus’ in order to avoid arrest. Liebknecht was a brilliant orator, although he was also impulsive and somewhat disorganised. Supporting him was Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish-born Jew who was also a good speaker and a widely-lauded communist intellectual.

 

However, Luxemburg frowned on Liebknecht’s calls for immediate action as pre-emptive, arguing that their militant supporters lacked a proper command structure and the wider support of the German working classes. In late December she reiterated her views: ‘We must build from below upward, until the workers and soldiers councils gather so much strength that the overthrow of the Ebert-Scheidemann or any similar government will be merely the final act in the drama. For us the conquest of power will not be achieved by one blow – it will be a progressive act, for we shall progressively occupy all the positions of the capitalist state, defending tooth and nail each one that we seize.’

 

Battle begins

With the armistice coming into effect on 11 November, Germany prepared itself to welcome home the millions of men who had served at the front. However, many had already walked away from their units or drifted home before being officially demobilised. Still, enough units remained to act as cadres on which to form the Provisional National Army in March 1919. But until then, most of these men remained at their barracks, half-heartily carrying on with peace-time duties and becoming increasingly angered at the state of the country.

 

In early December, a right-wing putsch was launched in Berlin using some of the soldiers still available in and around the capital. However, it was not a normal putsch in the sense that it sought control for those leading it. Instead, the goal was to rid the government of Independents and was probably organised in connivance with the SPD. Several hundred troops surrounded the Chancellery, while other soldiers busied themselves by rounding up prominent USPD members. The putsch organisers then proclaimed Ebert ‘president’, although the Chancellor displayed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for their efforts and refused to voice any support.

 

Having failed to secure Ebert’s blessing, the putschists hastily retreated. Quite possibly this would have been the end of the matter had it not been for a tragedy that unfolded on central Chausseestrasse. Here an army machine gun opened fire on a Spartacist demonstration against the putsch, killing 16 and injuring 12. The Spartacists claimed Ebert had organised the entire affair and then, having seen the lack of troops and absence of public support, backed off disclaiming all knowledge of events. That the investigation into the massacre was suddenly and suspiciously halted points towards foul play by the SPD somewhere along the line.

 

Ebert now waited for nine first-rate Imperial Army divisions to reach Berlin from the front. With their support, he believed it would be possible to decisively move against his enemies and bolster his administration’s position. The divisions arrived in the capital on 11 December and the familiar pattern of mass demobilisation and soldiers simply walking away soon asserted itself, with only a fraction returning to their barracks for further duties. On seeing how quickly these army units dissolved, the People’s Naval Division started to flex its muscles; it demanded additional money and supplies from the government.*

*The government had kept the sailors on the payroll, hoping they would refrain from biting the hand that fed.

 

Exasperated by this blackmail, Ebert responded by withholding their pay, starting with the Christmas ‘bonus’ of 80,000 marks they had demanded.* The People’s Naval Division was informed the money would only be forthcoming once it had evacuated the Schloss and surrendered the palace keys to Otto Wels, the military governor of Berlin. Its leaders would also have to show arrangements were also being made to vacate the Marstall. After this, Ebert hoped they could be pressured into disbanding for good.

*80,000 marks was a sizable sum for the time. The hyperinflation of Weimar Germany was still some way off.

 

Wanting to maintain their status, the sailors decided to begin by negotiating with their natural allies, the USPD. Accordingly, a delegation was sent to the Chancellery on 23 December under orders to seek out Independent representatives. But each party member they met suggested the matter was best discussed with someone higher up. Eventually, the sailors were told to negotiate directly with Ebert, although they were thwarted when told that the Chancellor was out to lunch. In the meantime, another group of sailors had arrived at Wels’ office demanding their pay. Wels made some phone calls but could receive no details as to the whereabouts of the keys, one of the prerequisites for releasing the cash. He put the phone down and effectively told the sailors it was ‘nothing doing’ until the keys were confirmed to be in government hands. Enraged, the sailors tore up Wels’ office and beat up its occupant for good measure. They then took Wels and two of his subordinates hostage.

 

The kidnapper’s demands were simple: the hostages would be released once the sailors received the 80,000 marks. To help speed the government’s decision a large contingent of sailors left the Marstall and marched to the Chancellery, refusing to let anyone either enter or leave the building. Ebert’s ‘lunch’ came to a hasty conclusion and the chancellor rushed out, telling the angry sailors to remain calm and adding that the government would be willing to negotiate. Ebert then returned to his offices and contacted High Command via a secret telephone. He was told to stop worrying and that soldiers would now march on Berlin to ‘set you free’.

 

Around 800 men of the Imperial Horse Guards were ordered to head into central Berlin as the sailors returned to the Schloss and Marstall to celebrate what they thought was a government capitulation. On hearing of army’s approach, the People’s Naval Division insisted the soldiers retire and threatened to move against the government with force unless their demands were met. Ebert started to fret, worrying about the damage street fighting might cause. He decided to call High Command and withdraw his earlier request for help. Groener refused to accept this, saying: ‘[We] are determined to hold to the plan of liquidation of the Naval Division and we shall see to it that it is carried out.’

 

It was not long before the two sides stood eyeballing each other, with Ebert arriving on the scene in the early hours of 24 December, asking the army to let him through their cordon in order to negotiate with the sailors. His request was turned down, while the sailors made it clear they had nothing to discuss. At 5 am the SPD managed to secure the release of Wels and his subordinates and it was hoped this would diffuse the tension. This proved to be wishful thinking; the sailors in the Schloss were informed by the army at 7.30 am that they had ten minutes in which to surrender. There was no response. An assault immediately started once the time had elapsed, army guns blasting away at the palace’s façade as soldiers dashed into the building … only to find it virtually empty, the sailors having already fled to the Marstall via an underground passage. This building was now the primary target and, after a sharp bombardment, the occupants soon raised a white flag.

 

The sailors asked for a 20-minute truce in order to arrange their final surrender as many of them had been wounded and over 30 had been killed. The army now made a critical mistake; it agreed to the truce instead of demanding an immediate and unconditional surrender. Within minutes of the ceasefire, street agitators had gathered thousands of protesters who then pushed their way into the army’s positions, demanding a halt to any further action. Surrounded by civilians, the bemused and unnerved troops were at a loss on how to proceed. The sailors responded by promptly hauling down their white flag. Defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory and the red-faced army commanders ordered a retreat.

 

Calm before the storm

News of the fiasco was received with horror by both High Command and the SPD. Liebknecht and many of his Spartacist supporters responded by arguing that the government’s true face had finally been revealed. He and his closest allies argued that they should prompt a revolution through a series of strikes, preferably called before the January elections gave Ebert a democratic mandate through which he could neutralise SDP opponents. Rosa Luxemburg again urged caution but was ignored, while Liebknecht’s bloc severed ties with the USPD and renamed itself the German Communist Party, the KPD.

 

Ebert phoned Groener again and asked what was to be done. The general replied that Noske should be recalled to Berlin and made the defence minister. Meanwhile, High Command was preparing to play a hidden ace and that the government needed to remain resolute in the face of opposition. The Chancellor took the advice. Liebknecht also helped Ebert by busying himself with a special edition of the left-wing newspaper Rote Fahne. The thunderous broadsides against Ebert’s administration made for a stirring read but little was being done by way of organising a concrete plan on how to seize and then maintain power.

 

Also of assistance to Ebert was the USPD’s decision to withdraw from the government just as the SDP had done with von Baden’s short-live administration. However, the USPD had neither the popular support nor had the high-calibre politicians* required for co-opting and coalescing left-wing opposition within its ranks. Their withdrawal also gave Ebert and the SPD greater control over state apparatus, including the security and armed services. Finally, it failed to staunch the flow of grassroots support from the USPD to the Spartacists, the latter increasingly seen as more authentic by those on the left. As for the sailors, they were content to rest on their laurels, waiting to see which way the wind blew.

*Excepting, perhaps, Emil Barth. But like many heavy-weight politicians in smaller parties, Barth always assumed he had a level of importance far greater to the one actually occupied.

 

Noske arrived in Berlin bristling with confidence a few days later. He was ready to face a tough, dirty and dangerous task. ‘Someone must become the bloodhound,’ he said. Noske and Ebert then initiated a high-stakes strategy of moving against their opponents in public, hoping to pick them off one by one. They started with police chief Eichhorn, demanding he step down. But Eichhorn refused, believing the government lacked the means to oust him. He had also been in talks with Liebknecht and his colleague Wilhelm Pieck,* gaining the Spartacists’ support and, with them, the more militant trade unionists. Liebknecht decided to use the impasse as a cassus belli and he called for a general, city-wide strike to start on 5 January in response, He hoped that this would herald the final showdown between the government and the proletariat.

*The future president of Communist East Germany.

 

Liebknecht might have been more circumspect had he known the nature of the new enemy the Sparticists were about to face. The army’s hidden ace were paramilitary units called Freikorps, organised with the express purpose of crushing leftist opposition. Importantly, the men involved were volunteers and most were battle-hardened veterans, including elite Stormtroopers, some of the finest shock troops in the Imperial Army. Securing arms, munitions and equipment had proven relatively simple as Germany was still awash with unused weaponry and munitions.

 

The first battle-ready Freikorps unit was created by General Ludwig von Maercker, his men being well paid and highly motivated. Maercker had also chosen some excellent staff to help develop new tactics in urban warfare. Other Freikorps had also been formed. For example, several units had been created in rebellious Kiel, including the 1,600-men ‘Iron Brigade’ set up under Noske’s auspices after he had helped quash the naval mutiny. By January 1919, the numbers involved were still comparatively small, although the ranks of Freikorps were growing on an almost daily basis. Unit size often depended on the popularity of the commanders, the Fuhrers,* and could range from a few hundred to a few thousand.

*The Nazis borrowed much of the Freikorps’ nomenclature and iconography, including the swastika.

 

On 4 January, as the Spartacists plotted, Noske invited Ebert to a military encampment 35 miles southwest of Berlin to inspect the results of Maercker’s work. Standing in the icy cold, the pair were presented with 4,000 men marching ram-rod straight across the parade ground in perfectly ordered ranks. The two men could hardly contain their glee as the soldiers stomped past, the defence minister giving the Chancellor a hearty slap on the back, saying: ‘Now you can rest easy; everything is going to be all right from now on.’

 

Sunday 5 January saw a gigantic protest march in Berlin, just as the Spartacists had hoped. As the crowds gathered, revolutionary groups seized the capital’s main railway stations and communications centres. Leaflets were printed that evening calling for more massed demonstrations on the following day. The sailors in the Marstall were invited to join the Spartacist cause but remained non-committal, still unwilling to risk the position they had only just managed to maintain. The crowds gathered again on 6 January, with almost everyone expecting a full-scale revolution to be declared by the day’s end. Instead, the ‘Revolutionary Committee’, a 53-man group headed by Liebknecht, debated, hummed, hawed and came up with no decisive measures. The dallying gave the SPD their lifeline.

 

Blood on the rise

By 7 January the lead elements of the Freikorps had gathered in West Berlin’s leafy suburbs under the guidance of Noske. Another 900 other men were stationed in the north Berlin barracks of Moabit under the command of Colonel Wilhelm Reinhard. Another Freikorps unit, the ‘Potsdam Regiment’, had also mobilised and numbered around 1,200 men. They were under the immediate command of Major von Stephani and, on the night of 9-10 January, were ordered to advance into central Berlin and prepare for operations.

 

On receiving these orders, Stephani decided to head out in advance and make his own reconnaissance. He raced over to the offices of the SPD newspaper Vorwärts, which been taken over by the Spartacists and, disguised as a revolutionary, made a detailed investigation of the building. Stephani returned to his unit confident of success and issued a demand for the Spartacists to surrender. They refused. On 11 January, at 8.15 am, the Freikorps’ machine guns, howitzers and trench mortars blasted the Vorwärts building. The Spartacists tried to reply with their own machine guns but, once registered, were promptly obliterated by the Freikorps’ overwhelming firepower.

 

Having faced several minutes of this ferocious bombardment, seven Spartacists left the building waving white handkerchiefs in the hope of obtaining a possible truce. The Freikorps demanded unconditional surrender instead. One of the Spartacists was sent back to tell his comrades the news, while the other six were taken away and shot. Then, not bothering to wait for a reply – for there was to be no repeat of the Marstall fiasco here – Stephani’s shock-troops ran forward and stormed the building, capturing around 300 prisoners. Many of the Spartacists were beaten senseless and, again, some were shot out of hand.

 

In the meantime, Noske and his forces in West Berlin had moved out in force, with the defence minister walking at the head of a large column that comprised the bulk of Maercker’s Volunteer Rifles and his own Iron Brigade, which had been rushed to Berlin to join the operations. This force marched to the Moabit barracks and linked up with Reinhard’s men. That night a strong detachment of Reinhard’s troops was ordered to seize the Alexanderplatz police headquarters. They were supported by artillery, the shells screaming into the building and smashing out vast chunks of masonry. The Freikorps then stormed ahead giving no quarter, although some of the luckier Spartacists were quick enough to escape via the rooftops.

 

Noske decided to consolidate his position on 12 January, and then, after a 24 hours pause, unleashed his entire force. Freikorps troops working in small teams closed off blocks of Berlin at a time, placing civilians under strict curfew. Protests were broken up with force and searchlights were set up. Anyone caught in their glare after the curfew was deemed a legitimate target. Faced with this lethal onslaught, and with the Spartacists unable to respond, the general strike was called off. The ‘revolution’ had collapsed by late evening 15 January.

 

Fearful of reprisal, the uprising’s leadership went into hiding, with Liebknecht escaping to a safe house in a working-class district. He reached a cousin’s house in middle-class Wilmersdorf by 14 January and was joined soon afterwards by Wilhelm Pieck and Rosa Luxemburg. Rather foolishly the three top Sparticists were now under one roof in the belief no one would search for them in a bourgeois neighbourhood. On 15 January, Liebknecht and Luxemburg wrote their last articles for the Rote Fahne, Liebknecht’s parting shot proclaiming: ‘Our programme will live on: it will dominate the world of liberated humanity.’

 

Tipped off by a local resident as to the Sparticist leadership’s whereabouts, a patrol from a Freikorps unit stationed nearby broke into the apartment at 9 pm and seized all three. They were taken to the Eden Hotel for questioning that involved physical abuse, although Wilhelm Pieck appears to have cut a deal as he was eventually released.* As for Liebknecht and Luxemburg, the Freikorps had other plans for them ... Liebknecht’s body was dumped at the morgue near the zoo, while Luxemburg’s was thrown into the Landwehr canal. It would be found five months later, barely recognisable. The Freikorps celebrated and were so sure of their position, and so contemptuous of their opponents, that they only bothered to construct half-hearted alibis, including the claim that Liebknecht had been shot ‘for attempting to escape’.

*This affair leads to an interesting aside. Pieck always asserted that he had escaped Eden Hotel, which seems highly unlikely as the Freikorps had all three under watch and interrogated them almost immediately on arrival. It and gives rise to the theory that he agreed to become a turncoat and was protected accordingly. This status was lost when the Nazis took power in 1933, with Pieck fleeing first to France and then to Moscow, where he became Stalin’s creature.

 

According to some accounts, Ebert was shocked to hear of the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, claiming not to have been informed of the arrests that night.* In response, he ordered an investigation, although underestimated the mood of the judiciary and the determination of the Freikorps to protect their own. In the risible trial that followed only Otto Runge and Lieutenant Vogel were sentenced, with Runge receiving two years and Vogel – probably the one who shot Rosa Luxemburg – just a few months. But even then, Vogel avoided serving a full term after being helped to escape to the Netherlands by Naval Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris.+

*Although one really wonders at this. Even if we give Ebert the benefit of the doubt, someone, somewhere at the top of the SPD must have known of the arrest given the importance of those taken into custody. We have also seen that Pieck might have cut a deal, which would have certainly required clearance from the highest levels.

+Later to command the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, under Hitler.

 

Showdown

Having survived the uprising, the government called the promised elections. They were held on 19 January and the SPD came first with 40% of the vote. The task ahead would be immense: millions were unemployed, the economy was in pieces and malnutrition had become starvation in some quarters. The Sparticists remained a threat, while something had to be salvaged from the peace process underway in Paris. The SPD was put to the test not long afterwards as communist-backed uprisings flared up across the country. However, the KPD still had no supreme command to co-ordinate these efforts, which allowed the government to crush each localised insurgency one at a time.

 

Focussing their efforts back on the capital, the far left proclaimed another general strike on the morning of March 3. In response, Noske declared a state of emergency and ordered the Freikorps to enter Berlin on 4 March. Crowds gathered outside the Alexanderplatz police headquarters that afternoon and, having roughly handled a Freikorps detachment, promptly found themselves on the receiving end of an armoured car’s machine guns. The public was shocked and dumbfounded by this, few realising that most in the Freikorps no longer considered themselves bound by the restraints of the old standing army. Indeed, many believed that Berlin’s working-class civilians were synonymous with the Sparticists anyway and deserving of little sympathy.

 

On 5 March, the People’s Naval Division received news that they had been ‘disbanded’ after the government issued an official announcement of the fact. Disgruntled, a group of sailors approached Alexanderplatz to voice their protest. Jumpy from the previous day, one of the Freikorps soldiers shot and mortally wounded a sailor. This enraged the People’s Naval Division, which finally threw in its lot with the revolutionaries. That night angry mobs, including many sailors, surrounded the police station and were only kept at bay by sustained rifle fire.

 

The climax to the fighting at Alexanderplatz occurred the next day when Colonel Reinhard’s Freikorps arrived, bringing with them a captured British tank in support. The infantry split into small groups and started slashing a path through the revolutionaries, rapidly taking over their key strong points. The Freikorps had also come under fire by sailors shooting from the Marstall during the day. Furious, they turned their heaviest guns on the building before attacking the former Imperial stables that were seized within 30 minutes. The army’s Christmas humiliation fully avenged.

 

However, the defenders in a neighbouring building named the ‘People’s Marine House’ offered stiffer resistance. An air strike was even called in to help crush these revolutionaries but the sailors continued fight on. Reinhard now ordered an outright assault, although it took three attacking waves before victory was finally secured. The sailors had been smashed, while the Spartacists and their allies were beaten back to the working-class tenements of East Berlin. Here they threw up barricades and turned the entire suburb of Lichtenberg into an armed fortress. An estimated 10,000 revolutionaries prepared for the final showdown.

 

Endgame

On 9 March, a rumour circulated that the Lichtenberg police station had been stormed by revolutionaries and that 70 police officers had been executed in cold blood. Like many other publications, Vorwärts reported the story the next day, stating that the men had been ‘shot like animals’. The story was an exaggeration: five policemen had been killed, although the exact causes remained unknown. But regardless of the facts, Noske issued a notorious order declaring: ‘Any individual bearing arms against government troops will be summarily shot.’

 

The Freikorps now had carte blanche in East Berlin and numerous executions occurred over the next four days, including 30 sailors from the People’s Naval Division who were gunned down in a courtyard after having had the temerity to arrive at a government office and demand back pay. In another case, a father and a son were dragged into the street and shot after being caught in possession of a stick grenade’s handle. By 12 March, the Freikorps burst into the building housing the Workers’ Council of Berlin, the Spartacist nerve centre. The Council was forcibly dissolved and peace slowly returned to Berlin’s streets.

 

Noske and the Freikorps had destroyed the Spartacists and had seen the sailors crushed, although the price had been high: between 1,200 and 1,500 dead were reported while roughly 12,000 had been wounded. The Freikorps recorded negligible losses. Many of those involved in crushing the Berlin uprisings sincerely believed they were saving lives in the long run by stopping Germany’s capital from being taken over and descending into a Red Terror as experienced in Lenin’s Russia. Their fears were well grounded, for Liebknecht made no bones about calling for the blood of his enemies, while the Spartacists and the People’s Naval Division were not averse to using fighting methods that could be equally brutal as the ones favoured by the Freikorps.

 

Still, regardless of the threat Germany faced, it is difficult to excuse much of the suffering the Freikorps inflicted on Berliners, particularly in March 1919. Meanwhile, the freehand given to them by the government and their quasi-official status as a paramilitary army would critically weaken Germany’s nascent democracy, creating the impression that Ebert’s administration was unable to defend itself – a fact not lost on the most ardent nationalists and reactionary Freikorps members. Indeed, this fed directly into the decision to stage the potentially dangerous but ultimately futile Kapp-Lüttwitz Putch in Berlin in March 1920. The SPD managed to defeat this new enemy with the effective use of its own strikes and, more importantly, by retaining the loyalty of the civil service. Unfortunately, the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putch unleashed a counter wave of leftist disorder, particularly in the Ruhr region where the fighting sunk to new lows of brutality. Here the opposition was crushed using Freikorps units and men from the new standing army, the Reichswehr.

 

The Freikorps were wound down across 1920-21 in compliance with the Versailles Treaty, although the threat of units turning rogue, as had happened during the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch, was perhaps the greater catalyst for their dissolution. Some units were co-opted into the Reichswehr, while others became loose associations, often revolving around rifle or veteran clubs. These men would form the backbone of a shadow reserve to circumvent the Versailles Treaty’s 100,000-man limitation on Germany’s standing army. Versailles had also imposed a staggering level of reparations on the country, embedding the causes of hyperinflation that would start to be felt later in 1921.

 

Germany managed to weather this and many other storms until the global economic crisis of 1929 and the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Millions were left unemployed as stagflation and monumental government debt strangled traditional efforts to kick-start the economy. For the KPD it looked as though Marx’s prediction concerning the inevitable collapse of the capitalist/imperialist system was fast approaching and the far left started to mobilise accordingly. But this time they had learned from the warnings of Luxemburg and the mistakes of Liebknecht: they sought to obtain power by both using and manipulating the mechanisms of democracy. They could achieve this, so it was thought, by mustering a growing support base across Germany’s proletarian districts, with Belin serving as the epicentre. The working classes there had never forgiven nor forgotten the events of 1918/1919 or the actions of the Freikorps and their SPD sponsors. But this time they faced a far more deadly and cunning enemy: the Nazis.

 

Select Bibliography

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