Freikorps

After the First World War former senior officers in the German Army began raising private armies called Freikorps. These were used to defend the German borders against the possibility of invasion from the Red Army. Captain Kurt von Schleicher, of the political department at the army, secretly equipped and paid for the Freikorps. As Louis L. Snyder has pointed out: "Composed of former officers, demobilized soldiers, military adventurers, fanatical nationalists, and unemployed youths, was organized by Captain Kurt von Schleicher. Rightist in political philosophy, blaming Social Democrats and Jews for Germany's plight, the Freikorps called for the elimination of traitors to the Fatherland."

On 7th November, 1918, Kurt Eisner made a speech where he declared Bavaria a Socialist Republic. Eisner made it clear that this revolution was different from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and announced that all private property would be protected by the new government. Eisner explained that his program would be based on democracy, pacifism and anti-militarism. The King of Bavaria, Ludwig III, decided to abdicate and Bavaria was declared a republic.

Eisner had the support of the 6,000 workers of the munitions factory in Munich that was owned by Gustav Krupp. Many of them had come from northern Germany and were much more radical than those of Bavaria. The city was also a staging post for troops withdrawing from the Western Front. It is estimated that the majority of the 50,000 soldiers also supported Eisner's revolution. The anarcho-communist poet, Erich Mühsam, and the left-wing playwright, Ernst Toller, were other important figures in the rebellion.

On 9th November, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the Chancellor, Max von Baden, handed power over to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the German Social Democrat Party. At a public meeting, one of Ebert's most loyal supporters, Philipp Scheidemann, finished his speech with the words: "Long live the German Republic!" He was immediately attacked by Ebert, who was still a strong believer in the monarchy and was keen for one of the his grandsons to replace Wilhelm.

At the beginning of January, 1919, Friedrich Ebert, Germany's new chancellor, ordered the removal of Emil Eichhorn, the head of the Police Department in Berlin. As Rosa Levine pointed out: "A member of the Independent Socialist Party and a close friend of the late August Bebel, he enjoyed great popularity among revolutionary workers of all shades for his personal integrity and genuine devotion to the working class. His position was regarded as a bulwark against counter-revolutionary conspiracy and was a thorn in the flesh of the reactionary forces."

Chris Harman, the author of The Lost Revolution (1982), has argued: "The Berlin workers greeted the news that Eichhorn had been dismissed with a huge wave of anger. They felt he was being dismissed for siding with them against the attacks of right wing officers and employers. Eichhorn responded by refusing to vacate police headquarters. He insisted that he had been appointed by the Berlin working class and could only be removed by them. He would accept a decision of the Berlin Executive of the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, but no other."

Members of the Independent Socialist Party and the German Communist Party jointly called for a protest demonstration. They were joined by members of the Social Democratic Party who were outraged by the decision of their government to remove a trusted socialist. Eichhorn remained at his post under the protection of armed workers who took up quarters in the building. A leaflet was distributed which spelt out what was at stake: "The Ebert-Scheidemann government intends, not only to get rid of the last representative of the revolutionary Berlin workers, but to establish a regime of coercion against the revolutionary workers. The blow which is aimed at the Berlin police chief will affect the whole German proletariat and the revolution."

Friedrich Ebert called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. By 13th January, 1919 the rebellion had been crushed and most of its leaders were arrested. This included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck on 16th January. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered while in police custody. The journalist, Morgan Philips Price, claimed that they were murdered by the Freikorps.

Paul Frölich, the author of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) has explained what happened: "A short while after Liebknecht had been taken away, Rosa Luxemburg was led out of the hotel by a First Lieutenant Vogel. Awaiting her before the door was Runge, who had received an order from First Lieutenants Vogel and Pflugk-Hartung to strike her to the ground. With two blows of his rifle-butt he smashed her skull. Her almost lifeless body was flung into a waiting car, and several officers jumped in. One of them struck Rosa on the head with a revolver-butt, and First Lieutenant Vogel finished her off with a shot in the head. The corpse was then driven to the Tiergarten and, on Vogel's orders, thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal, where it was not washed up until 31 May 1919."

Friedrich Ebert, the president of Germany, decided to crush the Bavarian Socialist Republic in March, 1919. He sent 30,000 Freikorps, under the command of General Burghard von Oven, to take Munich. At Starnberg, some 30 km south-west of the city, they murdered 20 unarmed medical orderlies. The Bavarian Soviet Republic issued the following statement: "The White Guards have not yet conquered and are already heaping atrocity upon atrocity. They torture and execute prisoners. They kill the wounded. Don't make the hangmen's task easy. Sell your lives dearly."

The Freikorps entered Munich on 1st May, 1919. Over the next two days the Freikorps easily defeated the Red Guards. Gustav Landauer was one of the leaders who was captured during the first day of fighting. Rudolf Rocker explained what happened next: "Close friends had urged him to escape a few days earlier. Then it would have still been a fairly easy thing to do. But Landauer decided to stay. Together with other prisoners he was loaded on a truck and taken to the jail in Starnberg. From there he and some others were driven to Stadelheim a day later. On the way he was horribly mistreated by dehumanized military pawns on the orders of their superiors. One of them, Freiherr von Gagern, hit Landauer over the head with a whip handle. This was the signal to kill the defenseless victim.... He was literally kicked to death. When he still showed signs of life, one of the callous torturers shot a bullet in his head. This was the gruesome end of Gustav Landauer - one of Germany's greatest spirits and finest men." It is estimated that General Franz Epp and his men killed over 600 communists and socialists over the next few weeks.

In March 1920, according to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans were obliged to dismiss between 50,000 and 60,000 men from the armed forces. Among the units to be disbanded was a naval brigade commanded by Captain Herman Ehrhardt, a leader of a unit of Freikorps. The brigade had played a role in crushing the Bavarian Socialist Republic in May, 1919.

On the evening of 12th March, 1920, the Ehrhardt brigade went into action. He marched 5,000 of his men twelve miles from their military barracks to Berlin. The Minister of Defence, Gustav Noske, had only 2,000 men to oppose the rebels. However, the leaders of the German Army refused to put down the rebellion. General Hans von Seeckt informed him "Reichswehr does not fire on Reichswehr." Noske contacted the police and security officers but they had joined the coup themselves. He commented: "Everyone has deserted me. Nothing remains but suicide." However, Noske did not kill himself and instead fled to Dresden with Friedrich Ebert. However, the local military commander, General George Maercker refused to protect them and they were forced to travel to Stuttgart.

Captain Herman Ehrhardt met no resistance as they took over the ministries and proclaimed a new government headed by Wolfgang Kapp, a right-wing politician. Berlin had been seized from the German Social Democrat government. However, the trade union leaders refused to accept the Kapp Putsch and Carl Legien called for a general strike to take place. As Chris Harman, the author of The Lost Revolution (1982), has pointed out: "The appeal had an immediate impact. It went out at 11am on the day of the coup, Saturday 13 March. By midday the strike had already started. Its effects could be felt everywhere in the capital within 24 hours, despite it being a Sunday. There were no trains running, no electricity and no gas. Kapp issued a decree threatening to shoot strikers. It had no effect. By the Monday the strike was spreading throughout the country - the Ruhr, Saxony, Hamburg, Bremen, Bavaria, the industrial villages of Thuringia, even to the landed estates of rural Prussia."

Louis L. Snyder has argued: "The strike was effective because without water, gas, electricity, and transportation, Berlin was paralyzed." A member of the German Communist Party (KPD) argued: "The middle-ranking railway, post, prison and judicial employees are not Communist and they will not quickly become so. But for the first time they fought on the side of the working class." Five days after the putsch began, Wolfgang Kapp announced his resignation and fled to Sweden.

The Freikorps were dissolved in 1921 and later many of them joined Sturm Abteilung (Storm Section), the private army of Adolf Hitler.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969)

After I was established in Berlin as Daily Herald correspondent, I began to look into and send dispatches to London about the state of affairs in Germany. I found that considerable irregular military forces had been formed since the Spartakus revolt in January, 1919. I found there were four main forces commanded by former officers of the Kaiser's army, under the general heading of Freikorps. There was the Landesjagerkorps commanded by General Marker, who had taken part in the suppression of the Spartakus rising in Berlin and had then transferred his activities to Middle Germany. Then there was the Marine Brigade Erhardt which had broken up the People's Marine Division in Berlin and had murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Then there was the Garde Kavalerie Schiitzen Division. During the summer of 1919, the Orgesh was formed under the command of Colonel Escherish. None of these were large military units as yet but they kept growing and towards the end of the year a force called the Stahlhelm was created to begin serious military training and become an effective establishment.

(2) Agnes Smedley, letter to Florence Lennon (11th August 1923)

Here in Bavaria, I am in the stronghold of reaction. At night I am often awakened by the military commands and the march of men (Monarchists) who are training at night in the forests and in the mountains. It is a gruesome feeling - this secret training of men to kill other men. And these men being trained are peasants and working-men - not the class we usually think of. In Saxony the same thing occurs; there at night the men who are under training are also workingmen, but the leaders are Communists. And they are preparing to kill their kind also. Sometimes I see no difference between the two. What is this business everywhere - men preparing to murder their own kind for the sake of an idea? Not their own idea either, but that of men who use them as tools to set themselves in power. We only wait for the day when the two groups will start massacring each other. Both groups are bitterly opposed to passive resistance as a method; it isn't bloody or sadistic enough.

(3) Agnes Smedley, The Nation (28th November 1923)

The week has witnessed looting of many shops in various parts of the city, unrest in most cities throughout the country, and actual street fighting in many. Looting and rioting are regarded as so much grist to the mills of the Communists and the reactionaries alike. The Communists take advantage of it and preach their dogma; the monarchists do the same. They smile cynically when they read of the frightful increase in the cost of living and say, "It has not yet gone far enough. It must be worse still before the masses realize the mistake they have made in establishing a republic! We shall wait a bit longer." But most of the townspeople are so weary, so destroyed by uncertainty and long years of nervous strain, that they do not care what happens. They are tired of it all.