The Kapp Putsch

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 flee 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.

Hermann Ehrhardt
Hermann Ehrhardt entering Berlin on 12th March 1920.

Richard M. Watt, the author of The Kings Depart: The Tragedy of Germany - Versailles and the German Revolution (1973), has argued: "The Kapp putsch was brought to an end by a combination of the Chancellor Kapp's total incompetence and the astonishing effectiveness of a general strike which the socialists called." Chris Harman interprets these events slightly differently. In The Lost Revolution (1982) he comments: "The putsch was, in fact, confronted by something far more threatening. In place after place workers turned the strike into an armed assault on the power behind the putsch - the structure of armed power built up so laboriously by Noske and the High Command in the previous 14 months... In three parts of Germany - the industrial heartland of the Ruhr, the mining and industrial areas of central Germany, and the northern region between Lubeck and Wismar - the armed working class effectively took power into its own hands."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution (1982)

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.

(2) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962)

In the disturbed and unstable condition of Germany between 1918 and 1923, the power of the central government in Berlin was weakened, and the Bavarian State Government was able to exploit a situation in which the orders of the Reich Government were only respected if they were backed by the support of the authorities in Munich.

This anomalous position became more marked after March 1920, when an attempt to overthrow the Reich Government in Berlin by force failed (the Kapp Putsch), but a simultaneous coup d'etat succeeded in Bavaria. On the night of 13-14 March 1920, the District Commander of the Reichswehr (the German Regular Army), General Arnold von Mohl, presented the Social Democratic Premier of Bavaria, Johannes Hoffman, with an ultimatum which led to the establishment of a right-wing government under Gustav von Kahr, from which the parties of the Left were excluded.

Bavaria was thenceforward ruled by a State government which had strong particularist leanings and a Right-wing bias quite out of sympathy with the policies pursued by the central government in Berlin. Bavaria thus became a natural centre for all those who were eager to get rid of the republican regime in Germany, and the Bavarian Government turned a blind eye to the treason and conspiracy against the legal government of the Reich which were being planned on its doorstep in Munich. It was in Bavaria that the irreconcilable elements of the Freikorps gathered, armed bands of volunteers formed under the patronage of the Reichswehr at the end of the war to maintain order and protect the eastern frontiers of Germany against the Poles and the Bolsheviks, but now just as willing to turn their guns against the Republic. Driven from Berlin by the failure of the Kapp Putsch, the notorious Captain Ehrhardt and his Ehrhardt Brigade found shelter in Bavaria, and here were arranged the murders of Erzberger, the man who had signed the Armistice of 1918, and Walther Rathenau, Germany's Jewish Foreign Minister, who had initiated the policy of fulfilling the provisions of the Peace Treaty. The Freikorps were the training schools for the political murder and terrorism which disfigured German life up to 1924, and again after 1929.

(3) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964)

Armed free-corps bands sprang up all over Germany and were Secretly equipped by the Reichswehr. At first they were mainly used to fight the Poles and the Balts on the disputed eastern frontiers, but soon they were backing plots for the overthrow of the republican regime. In March 1920, one of them, the notorious Ehrhardt Brigade, led by a freebooter, Captain Ehrhardt, occupied Berlin and enabled Dr Wolfgang Kapp, a mediocre politician of the extreme Right, to proclaim himself Chancellor. The Regular Army, under General von Seeckt, had stood by while the President of the Republic and the government fled in disarray to western Germany. Only a general strike by the trade unions restored the republican government.

In Munich at the same time a different kind of military coup d'etat was more successful. On March 14, 1920, the Reichswehr overthrew the Hoffmann Socialist government and installed a right-wing regime under Gustav von Kahr. And now the Bavarian capital became a magnet for all those forces in Germany which were determined to overthrow the Republic, set up an authoritarian regime and repudiate the Diktat of Versailles. Here the condotlieri of the free corps, including the members of the Ehrhardt Brigade, found a refuge and a welcome. Here General Ludendorff settled, along with a host of other disgruntled, discharged Army officers. Here were plotted the political murders, among them that of Matthias Erzberger, the moderate Catholic politician who had had the courage to sign the armistice when.the generals backed out; and of Walther Rathenau, the brilliant, cultured Foreign Minister, whom the extremists hated for being a Jew and for carrying out the national government's policy of trying to fulfil at least some of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty.