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, stumbles out of the Eden Hotel. She had also been roughed up and is Runge’s next target. Again he uses his weapon as a club and the diminutive Luxemburg collapses from the blow, either dead or dying. She is dumped into the back of another car, which drives less than 100 metres before coming to a sudden halt. The crack of a pistol shot is then heard from within its interior.
In September 1918 Germany’s high command (Oberste Heeresleitung, OHL) realised 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 the underpinnings of what might become a constitutional monarchy were established in the hope of gaining favour with the victorious Allies. General Erich Ludendorff was replaced with General Wilhelm Groener, while Prince Max von Baden became the Imperial Chancellor. But as high command worried itself over possible 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 main socialist party in Germany, had the groundswell of support among most Germans; 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, Noske 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 the German ranks. Sailors of the High Seas fleet in the northern ports eventually revolted in early November, although Noske helped calm those stationed in Kiel. But instead of returning to their duties and waiting for demobilisation, large numbers deserted and decided to head to home or to Berlin. Of the latter contingent, around 3,000 sailors would eventually take 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 rife in the capital at that time, including army deserters.
In the meantime, von Baden had been seeking the Kaiser’s abdication. The country was teetering on the brink by the time he secured it on 9 November, with strikes and protests erupting across the nation. 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 the same day. 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 angered by this; 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 far left, including many in the Independent Socialist Party, the USPD. This group had split from the SPD after the latter continued to voice support for the war. With the conflict almost lost, most in the USPD felt able to work with Ebert’s administration, albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. But others wanted the old order entirely swept away and were more inclined towards radicalism. For example, the USPD’s Emil Eichhorn arbitrarily became 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 announced: ‘I am the new police president.’ With a crowd outside baying for their blood, the officers inside were keen to get out alive and this new ‘police president’ offered them their chance. Eichhorn was duly appointed and the protestors dispersed on hearing the news.
Further to the left of the USPD, although sometimes associated with the party, were members of the Spartakusbund, the Sparticist League. Their core support was initially small and based in the working-class districts. Spartacus was the nom de plume of the fiery Karl Liebknecht, who had issued flyers and searing articles against the Kaiser during the war. He was also a brilliant orator, but impulsive and somewhat disorganised when it came to plotting his next moves. Supporting him was Polish-born Rosa Luxemburg, who was also a confident speaker and a widely-respected intellectual. Both had been incarcerated during the war for sedition and both had Jewish backgrounds, something their enemies often highlighted.
Luxemburg frowned on Liebknecht’s calls for militant action as pre-emptive, arguing their supporters lacked the proper command structure and wider support of the German working classes. She also supported the creation of rule via councils of workers, peasants, soldiers etc., keen to make these organisations the vehicle for executive authority. She reiterated her views in late December: ‘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.’
With the armistice coming into effect on 11 November, Germany prepared itself to welcome home the millions of men who had served on the frontlines. However, many had already walked away from their units or drifted back before official demobilisation. Still, enough units remained to act as cadres on which to form the new Provisional National Army in March 1919. Until then, most of the available men remained at their barracks, half-heartily carrying on with peace-time duties.
In early December, a right-wing putsch was launched in Berlin by using some of the soldiers 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 objective was to rid the government of USPD influence and it was probably organised in connivance with members of the SPD. Several hundred troops surrounded the Chancellery, while other soldiers busied themselves by rounding up prominent USPD members. The putsch's 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 away by disclaiming all knowledge of events. That an investigation into the massacre was suddenly halted certainly points towards foul play within SPD ranks somewhere along the line.
Ebert now waited for nine first-rate army divisions to reach Berlin from the front. With their support, he believed the SPD could decisively move against its enemies and bolster his administration’s position at the same time. 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. The People’s Naval Division started to flex its muscles on seeing how quickly these army units dissolved, demanding additional money and supplies from the government.*
*The government had kept the sailors on its 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 their 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 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 negotiate with 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. The sailors were eventually told to negotiate directly with Ebert, although they were thwarted in this after being told the chancellor was at 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 palace keys, one of the prerequisites for releasing the cash. He replaced the phone's receiver and told the sailors nothing could be done until the keys were in government hands. Enraged, the sailors tore up Wels’ office and, for good measure, beat up its unfortunate occupant. Then they took Wels and two of his subordinates hostage.
The kidnappers’ demands were simple: the hostages would be released once the sailors received the 80,000 marks. To help speed up 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 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 march on Berlin to ‘set you free’.
Around 800 men of the Imperial Horse Guards were ordered to head into central Berlin, just 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, 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 during 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. The SPD managed to secure the release of Wels and his subordinates at 5am and it was hoped this result would diffuse the tension. That was wishful thinking. At 7.30 am, the army told the sailors they had ten minutes in which to surrender. There was no response. An assault immediately started once the time had elapsed, with army guns blasting away at the palace’s façade as soldiers dashed into the building, only to find it virtually empty. The sailors had fled to the Marstall via an underground passage. This building was now the primary target and, after a sharp bombardment, the occupants raised a white flag.
The sailors asked for a 20-minute truce in order to arrange their final surrender, adding that many of them had been wounded and more than 30 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 pushed their way into the army’s positions and demanded 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 hauling down their white flag. Defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory and 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 noting the government’s true face had finally been revealed. He and his closest allies argued they should seek revolution through a series of strikes, preferably called before the January elections gave Ebert a democratic mandate to neutralise the SPD's opponents. Rosa Luxemburg again urged caution, but was ignored. Meanwhile, Liebknecht’s bloc severed ties with the USPD and started formulating plans to become the German Communist Party, the KPD.
Ebert phoned Groener again and asked what could be done next. The general suggested Noske be recalled to Berlin and made the defence minister. He added that high command was preparing to play an important hidden ace and the government should remain resolute until then. The chancellor took the advice. Liebknecht then inadvertently 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 to seize and then hold power.
The USPD’s decision to withdraw from the interim government also assisted Ebert as the party USPD had neither the popular support nor the high-calibre politicians* required for coalescing left-wing opposition under its auspices. Their decision 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.
*Except, perhaps, Emil Barth. But like many heavy-weight politicians in smaller parties, Barth presumed 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 declared. Noske and Ebert then initiated a high-stakes strategy of moving against their opponents in public, hoping to pick them off one by one and they started with police chief Eichhorn, demanding he step down. Eichhorn refused, believing the government lacked the means to oust him, while he had also been in talks with Liebknecht and his colleague Wilhelm Pieck,* obtaining the Spartacists’ support and, with them onside, the backing of more militant trade unionists. Liebknecht decided to use this impasse as a cassus belli and he called for a general, city-wide strike to start on 5 January. He hoped it would herald the final showdown between the government and the German proletariat.
*The future president of East Germany.
Liebknecht might have been more circumspect had he known more about the enemy the Sparticists and their allies would soon face. The army had started sponsoring the creation of paramilitary units called Freikorps, all organised with the express purpose of crushing civic and separatist opposition. Importantly, the men involved were volunteers and most were battle-hardened veterans, including elite sturmtruppen, stormtroopers, some of the finest shock troops in the Imperial Army. Securing them 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, who ensured his men were well paid and highly motivated. Maercker had also chosen experienced staff to help develop new tactics in urban warfare. Other Freikorps units were declared operational soon afterwards. For example, several units had been created in rebellious Kiel, including the 1,600-men ‘Iron Brigade’ established by Noske after he helped quash the naval mutiny. The numbers involved were still comparatively small in January 1919, 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.
On 4 January, Noske had 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.’
A gigantic protest march occurred in Berlin on 5 January, just as the Spartacists had hoped. Armed revolutionary units then seized the capital’s main railway stations and communications centres, while leaflets were printed that evening calling for more massed demonstrations on the following day. The sailors in the Marstall were also invited to join the Spartacist cause, but remained non-committal and unwilling to risk their position. 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 and came up with no decisive measures, although it did lend some extra political weight to the newly-formed German Communist Party (KPD).
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. 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 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 – there was to be no repeat of the Marstall fiasco – Stephani’s shock-troops ran forward and stormed the building, capturing around 300 prisoners. Many of these men were beaten senseless and, again, some were immediately shot.
Meanwhile, Noske and his forces in West Berlin had moved out in force, with the defence minister walking at the head of a large column comprising 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, after a 24-hour 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 also set up; anyone caught in their glare was deemed a legitimate target once the curfew had started. 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 reprisals, the uprising’s leadership went into hiding, with Liebknecht escaping to a safe house in a working-class district. He then 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 top three Sparticists were now under one roof, believing nobody would search for them in a bourgeois neighbourhood. On 15 January, Liebknecht and Luxemburg unknowingly wrote their last articles for the Rote Fahne, with 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 their murders and were so sure of themselves 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 claimed he had escaped Eden Hotel, which seems highly unlikely as the Freikorps had all three under constant watch and interrogated them almost immediately on arrival. He probably agreed to become a turncoat and was protected accordingly, although this status was lost when the Nazis took power in 1933. Pieck fled France and then onto Moscow, where he became Stalin’s creature.
According to some accounts, Ebert was shocked on hearing about the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, claiming not to have been informed of the arrests that night.* In response, he ordered an investigation, although the SPD 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. Even then, Vogel avoided serving a full term after being helped to escape into the Netherlands by Naval Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris.+
*Even if we give Ebert the benefit of the doubt, someone, somewhere near the head of government must have known about the arrests given the importance of those detained. In addition, Pieck's deal would have almost certainly needed clearance at the highest levels.
+Later to command the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, under Hitler.
Having survived the uprising, the government called the promised national election. It was held on 19 January and the SPD came first with almost 40% of the vote. It was able to form a coalition with a broad mandate, although the task ahead would be immense: millions were unemployed, the economy was in pieces and malnutrition had become starvation in many quarters. The KPD/Sparticists remained a threat, while something had to be salvaged from the peace process underway in Paris. The government was put to the test not long afterwards as communist-backed uprisings flared up across the country. However, the KPD had no supreme command structure to properly co-ordinate these efforts, allowing the government to crush each localised insurgency one by one.
Focussing their efforts back on the capital, the KPD proclaimed another general strike on the morning of 3 March. 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, with 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.
On 5 March, the People’s Naval Division received news it 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 and then attacked, seizing the former Imperial stables within 30 minutes. The army’s Christmas humiliation was fully avenged.
However, the defenders in a neighbouring building named the ‘People’s Marine House’ offered stiffer resistance. An air strike was even made to help crush these revolutionaries, although the sailors continued to fight on. Reinhard now ordered an outright assault, with three attacking waves needed 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.
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, noting the men had been ‘shot like animals’. The story was an exaggeration: five policemen had been killed, although the reason why remained unknown. Regardless of these uncertain 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 supposed 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 handle. The Freikorps burst into the building housing the Workers’ Council of Berlin, the Spartacist nerve centre, and forcibly dissolved the Council. Peace then slowly returned to Berlin’s streets.
Noske and the Freikorps had destroyed the Spartacists in Berlin and had seen the sailors crushed, although the price had been high: between 1,200 and 1,500 dead were reported, including many innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, 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 methods that were 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. The free hand given to them by the government and their quasi-official status as a paramilitary wing of the 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 dangerous but 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 by using loyal 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 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 efforts to kick-start the economy. For many it looked as though Marx’s prediction concerning the inevitable collapse of the capitalist/imperialist system was fast approaching and the left started to mobilise accordingly. But this time they had learned from Luxemburg's warnings Liebknecht's mistakes, seeking to obtain power by both using and manipulating the levers of democracy. They could achieve this, so it was thought, by mustering a growing support base across Germany’s proletarian districts, with Berlin 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. However, they now faced a far more deadly and cunning enemy: the Nazis.
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