After World War I, European nations reduced the size of their militaries. In addition, the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to limit the size of its military to 100,000 men (see reading, Negotiating Peace in Chapter 3). Some soldiers returned to the lives they had led before 1914, but others were not able to do so because of physical or mental injuries they suffered in the war. Many returning soldiers were not ready to settle down and joined paramilitary groups like the Freikorps (Free Corps). A paramilitary group looks and acts like a military force but is not necessarily responsible to a national government. Immediately following World War I, a number of these groups in Germany were organized by extreme right-wing nationalists.
The culture of the Free Corps was violent, as many of its members had grown accustomed to the brutality of combat and were unable or unwilling to move from military to civilian life. Former army officers recruited veterans with ads that read, “What’s the use of studies, and what’s the good of business or a profession? Enemies within and beyond are burning down our house. Help us, in the spirit of comradeship and loyalty, to restore our power of national defense.” Free Corps units were sometimes enlisted by the government to crush uprisings at home as well as protect the nation’s borders from the Poles and the Bolsheviks. However, members of the Free Corps saw themselves as loyal to the Volk—the German people as a whole—not to the Weimar Republic.
By 1920, the German government tried to disband the Free Corps units, but many of them responded by marching on Berlin and declaring that they had overthrown the government and replaced Chancellor Friedrich Ebert with a man named Wolfgang Kapp, who wanted to restore a monarchy in Germany. This event is known as the Kapp Putsch. (A putsch is a violent attempt to overthrow a government.) The leaders of the Weimar Republic regained control of the country by urging ordinary citizens to go on strike for a return to democracy. The strike paralyzed Berlin and was a stunning success. Within days, Kapp was forced to resign and the republic had been restored. Historian Peter Fritzsche describes a conversation that a British officer had with a captain in the Free Corps about the Kapp Putsch:
When asked by a British officer why his men had marched on Berlin, one “astonished [Free Corps] captain replied, ‘Why, because I told them to! Wasn’t that enough?’” To be sure most volunteers hated the socialists [who led the government], but that enmity hardly added up to a political program. Did they want the exiled kaiser back? “A confused [captain] stammered, ‘N-no, no. Not that, not that . . .’ ‘What was the sense of it all then?’ The question embarrassed the [captain]. He repeated it to himself and decided: ‘The sense? The sense? There is sense only in danger. Marching into uncertainty is sense enough for us, because it answers the demands of our blood.’”
The men who joined the Free Corps did not necessarily long for “the good old days” when the kaiser ruled. “For them,” Fritzsche writes, “war and revolution had fashioned a fantastic, horrible world that blocked any return” to the “good old days.”
By the early 1920s, the Free Corps eventually began to disband and new paramilitary groups were being formed. Although these new groups were equally quick to “defend” the fatherland, they were now attached to particular political parties and were eager to literally go to battle against their party’s enemies.
- What were the aims of paramilitary groups like the Free Corps?
- What motivated German men to join such groups?
- How could the presence of armed groups that are not responsible to the government influence life in a town, city, or country?
- Is it dangerous to allow paramilitary groups to form and operate in a democracy?