Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Birth of the Nazis: the Freikorps

Nigel Jones' splendid A Brief History of the Birth of the Nazis: How the Freikorps Blazed a Trail for Hitler is an excellent rendering of the turbulent period in German history from the abdication of the Kaiser on 9 November 1918 to failure of the Beer Hall Putsch of 8/9 November 1923. So a period of precisely five years, but a very exciting five years.

The collapse of the Kaiserreich in defeat and hunger left a gap in legitimacy and authority that the proclamation of a German Republic did not solve. No part of the borders of the Reich had been breached when Germany sued for peace, so it was easy to deny that Germany had "really" been defeated--leading to the "stab in the back" myth, a phrase first coined by a puzzled British general in conversation with Ludendorff (p.171). Ludendorff comes across as a wholly odious character--physically brave but an appalling moral coward who avoided any responsibility for the military outcomes he was more responsible for than any other German officer. He was an entirely pernicious influence in the new post-Imperial Germany.

Large parts of the judiciary, civil service, Reichswehr, academe, police and other "pillars" of order where hostile, or otherwise unreconciled, to the new Republic. Something that showed up dramatically in the derisory sentences (or even acquittals) handed out to right wing political killers and violent plotters and contrasted with the severity that left-wing equivalents were treated to.

With well-entrenched enemies on the right, the shaky German Republic had also to contend with territorial ambitions of new neighbours in Poland and the Baltic States, revolutionary outbreaks inspired by the success of Lenin's Bolsheviks in Russia and vengeful Western Allies who imposed a dictated peace treaty on the new Republic.

Though the Treaty of Versailles was not as vicious as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that the Ludendorff and the Second Reich had imposed on its defeated Russian and Romanian enemies. Indeed, both Treaties were failures. Brest-Litovsk meant that significant German forces (particularly its cavalry) were busy trying to secure what turned out to be empty gains in the East and so were not available to exploit Germany's initial gains in the Ludendorff offensive, an offensive launched without any arm of exploitation. (As one historian has noted, Ludendorff the politician defeated Ludendorff the general.) While the Versailles Treaty, as an imposed diktat, was one no Germans felt in anyway committed to; except as an unfortunate burden to be shed as soon as practicable. The aristocrats and gentry of the Congress of Vienna a century earlier did much better than the democrats at Versailles. (But then, as a hereditary elite, they and their children had to live with, and manage, the consequences.)

In order to defend against revolutionary outbreaks and aspirations at home and territorial intrusions on the borders, the new Republican government turned to the Freikorps, paramilitary formations formed of refugees from the demobilised Reichswehr officers and troops and right-wing students. Violent and contemptuous of the new Republic and its politicians, the Freikorps were dangerous and unreliable instruments. Gustav Noske, the new SDP Defense Minister, was ruthlessly determined to put down any signs of revolution so that the new Ebert Government did not suffer the fate of Kerensky's in Russia.

In this he succeeded, at considerable cost in blood and by feeding the ambitions of the Freikorps, which culminated in the Kapp Putsch. This was defeated by the passive resistance of most of the civil service and a general strike. The latter manifestation of successful worker power then led to another round of revolutionary alarms, forcing the Republic to once again call upon the Freikorps.

Eventually, the Republic stabilised, particularly with the widespread revulsion against the murder of the Republic's Foreign Minister, the urbane and cultured wealthy cosmopolitian Walther Rathenau. But large parts of the working class were alienated from the Republic, giving the KPD a solid voting base and creating a Reichstag bloc in permanent opposition which, as it grew, made forming a majority government increasingly difficult.

The Freikorps also faded away, but left a legacy of violent paramlitarism that was to feed into the new Nazi Party. Its Beer Hall Putsch was both the final surge in Freikorps activity and expressed much of the trends of the period (including Ludendorff's consistently awful political judgement: the Putschists having successfully captured the key figures in the Bavarian Government, Ludendorff released them on their word--as soon as they were free, they promptly organised the violent suppression of the Putsch). The Putsch itself was a deliberate emulation of Mussolini's March on Rome, but aimed at a regional capital (Munich) and was too little too late, since the greatest fears of revolutionary collapse had subsided, as all such attempts have been successfully (and brutally) repressed.

Its failure both gave the new Nazi Party a myth of martyrs and blood sacrifice while convincing Hitler that power was going to have to come via the ballot box. After his release from fortress confinement, he concentrated on organising an effective movement which was already consolidating its dominance of the violent right of German politics when the 1930s Depression gave them the crisis opportunity they needed.

Nigel Jones' prose is clear and vivid. This is history which is both exciting and perceptive. It is an excellent rendition of the violent, and deeply flawed, birth of the Weimar Republic, and the prehistory of the Nazis.