What role did the Freikorps play in the Weimar Republic?

Essay, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 62%


Wo nur gleichberechtigte Thesen sind, aber nicht Wahrheit

– Rechte, aber nicht das Recht, wird die Gewalt gebieten."

Reinhold Schneider

In this essay I shall examine the role of the Freikorps in the Weimar Republic and show how they changed from loyal government troops in 1918 – 1920, to reactionary forces by 1923. To some historians, the Freikorps have no place in political history, but rather in military history. They seem to ignore the fact that civil wars were sometimes more important than conventional wars. The politically motivated soldiers of the 20th century conflicts were decisive from the Red Guards of the October Revolution in Russia to the Vietminh of the 1950s and 1960s, and up to the Mujjahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Freikorps fought and defeated the large threat from Communism, minimised territorial losses on the borders and prevented national secession. The movement started with honest aims, but once routine crept in and disappointment rose very high, the soldiers became disillusioned by the government which they felt had “betrayed” them.

When we look at the Freikorps, we have to distinguish between the time up to their official disbanding and the time afterwards, when they were just underground fighters with the ultimate aim of crushing the Republic. The Freikorps can be split into three groups. The first group had generals or wartime officers as their superiors; these were conservatives who had no enthusiasm for the democratic republic, but in most cases they had moderate political views and disbanded their units when the main dangers to the state had been warded of. Usually these units ended up in the Reichswehr. The second group, which were the majority of the Freikorps, were local defence groups, or units, which were formed and disbanded within weeks or months. But in these units, there were many officers whose political views changed over the years. This will be the third group. It is here that the most radical leaders can be found. They and their soldiers could not accept that Germany had been defeated on the front line – they detested the left wing parties for the “stab in back”[1] and hated the government who signed the Armistice. For the conservative right, this legend, supplemented by the “denial of Germany’s war guilt”[2], became a mainstay of their ideology of self-justification and aggression.

Now I will focus on the four campaigns: counter revolution, the Kapp-Luettwitz Putsch, border warfare, and the Beerhall Putsch in 1923. But first let us go back to the war and examine the reasons why and where the Freikorps originated. When the Great War began in the summer of 1914, enthusiasm broke out in all major European cities. During four years of frontline fighting, the men lived in a kind of hell – but on the home front, the population also suffered a lot, as shortages grew, leading to starvation in some of the most advanced nations on earth. Once the German public learned that the government was seeking for armistice with the Allies– although German Armies were still in Belgium, in France, a big part of Tsarist Empire and the colonial troops under von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa were still on the advance - revolutionary unrest spread all over the Reich. When this revolution broke out, many senior officers chose to stay neutral and into this power vacuum stepped young officers with soldiers loyal only to them. These were the troops with the classic Freikorps spirit. On November 11th, the Armistice was signed and the German troops began a disciplined retreat to the national frontiers, although many soldiers did not have the feeling of having been defeated. As Ebert was aware of the Communists, he made an agreement[3] with Groener, the heir of Ludendorff in the Oberste Heeresleitung (High Command): the Reichswehr would support the government against left wing insurrection and in return, the command of the Reichswehr would still remain with the Offizierscorps[4]. It was clear, when those units reached their hometown, they would dissolve, as everybody just wanted “to go home”. On November 27th the Oberste Heeresleitung ordered its subordinate commands to raise new units, formed only from volunteers of unquestionable loyalty. Since the beginning of the revolution, armed groups had been founded which consisted of former soldiers, having replaced the Imperial insignias with the red star or wearing red armbands; they called themselves ‘Republikanische Soldatenwehren’[5] (republican defend guards). Soon, the Spartakists undermined those groups and took control of many of them. The SPD formed a new militia, the ‘Republikanische Schutztruppe’ (republican protection guards), which was only loyal to the provisional government[6], to integrate all unsanctioned troops. Defeat and revolutionary spirit was to be seen in every unit and the Czechs and Poles tried to enlarge their borders with Germany, at her expense. Every aspect, especially the threat of a communist dictatorship provoked a sudden reaction within many soldiers, who were still inspired with nationalist and patriotic attitudes, and the Freikorps were born. The first Freikorps was raised in Kiel, under direct orders from Gustav Noske[7], a good friend of Friedrich Ebert, and General Märker was appointed Commander in Chief. This was an all-voluntary unit and camaraderie was very high. In the old Prussian Army, there had been a wide gap between the officers and soldiers, as the first came often from aristocratic families and did not want to have anything to do with those from common backgrounds. But in this Corps, even the distinction between Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery did not exist.

As these were all volunteers, we should now examine their motivations to fight. The war had had a major effect on them, but their morals stayed the same: patriotism, military honour, duty, and unshakable loyalty to their superiors. Moreover, all these soldiers had never lived under a functioning democracy and yearned for the “good old days” when Germany had a “place under the sun”[8].

Let me now explain the exact situation in Berlin in December 1918: it was very revolutionary and the Spartakists and the Volksmarinedivision (people’s navy division) had seized of the Kommandatur and threatened to storm the Reichskanzlei (Reich chancellery). The Government appealed to the Army for help, but they could only raise a small unit, thus freeing the members of government but not dislodging the Volksmarinedivision from the Imperial Palace[9] – the soldiers were unwilling to fire on civilians. This shows the difficulties for the government when dealing with the revolutionaries and the need for a strong force. After the USPD left the government, the “Spartakusbund”[10] changed its name to Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD). To maintain its authority and the Öffentliche Ordnung (public order) the SPD would now rely on the help of the Freikorps. On 5 January, the USPD and KPD took control of the centre of Berlin, especially “the Reichstag building”[11]. The next day, the government legalised the status of the Freikorps, to maintain Öffentliche Ordnung, defending the law and the borders. On 10 January, the Freikorps stormed the centre of Berlin. Many members of the former German elite “Sturmtruppen”[12] (storm troops[13]) were part of the corps, and although outnumbered by the communists they were able to expel the communists from all public buildings[14]. In these circumstances, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested by Freikorps members and murdered “while escaping”[15]. Their corpses were then thrown into the Landwehr Canal, where they were not discovered until 31 May. In the words of Paul Froelich, “the White Terror had begun“. The officers responsible for the murders, apart from two short sentences, got away virtually free. The struggle on the streets of Berlin “led to a split between the (…) MSPD and (…) USPD”[16]. The government, aware of the brutality of the Freikorps ordered them to leave Berlin. But the dependence on the Freikorps as “state in the state” was now clearly to be seen. The German people voted for a new National Assembly, to be formed in Weimar under the protection of the Freikorps. The soldiers were in Weimar, “protecting rustling constructions of the paragraphs, and the border burned”[17]. Weimar was not chosen because of the associations with Schiller and Goethe, but purely for military reasons. The town was so small, that it could be defended very easily. This is quite astonishing as the Freikorps had never been committed to democracy and now they were supposed to guarantee and defend it. Up to this time, the administration felt safe and the Freikorps were generally seen as a “good thing”[18]. Democracy had to wait on the militarists – who embodied the old authorities and their nationalist and imperialistic aims – and thus recognise its structures. But in the Freikorps movement there existed a group of extremists who were very active and none of them prayed for either the restoration of the old regime or the existence of the Weimar republic. These were the radicals who worked towards a nationalist dictatorship. In spring 1919, several hundred new Freikorps were formed all over Germany, of every size, from company level up to divisional strength. They got their uniforms and weapons from the barracks[19] and the recruiting places were often just cafes or private houses. But why was this movement so popular? When the soldiers returned home they found a different Germany. There were no parades, no old glory, not even their flag[20] survived. Additionally the Red Army were on the advance on the Baltic States, threatening East Prussia, Communists had taken over in Hungary[21] and the borders between Germany, Poland and the Czechs were still under dispute. Although the Versailles Conference started on 19 January, the naval blockade was still in operation, thus leading to agony, correspondingly offering fertile ground to revolutionary propaganda of the Communists. Many Germans therefore considered continuing to bear arms in defence of the unpopular Weimar Republic. This defence was not only legitimate but a patriotic duty. For many Freikorps members, the external threats were the main reasons to fight on. The SPD triumphed in the first elections and its first duties were to restore peace throughout the republic. It ordered the Freikorps to crush the rebellious troops in Bremen, Cuxhaven, Wilhelmshaven and Hamburg. The Freikorps fulfilled their task but as they were still fighting in the North, the KPD and USPD called for a general strike in the Rheinland. To prevent the demolition of the Ruhr-mines by leftist strikers, there was a negotiation with the SPD, the Freikorps and the “Red Army of the Ruhr”. Rebellions broke out in different cities but the Freikorps were able to cope with them one by one. Although the Reds were superior in numbers, they were often disorganised, and had no clear chain of command. The workers, however, did not give up their gains without a fierce struggle in which thousands were killed during prolonged street battles. The battles degenerated into house-to-house fighting. In Brunswick and Saxony the provincial governments threatened to break with the Reich and ally themselves with the Soviet Union. These governments had seized power in the chaotic days of the rebellion and had no legitimate democratic foundation. Therefore the national government ordered the Freikorps to get rid of them. The government use of force to get rid of provincial government was by no means democratic. When democratic authorities were in power, “Einwohnerwehren”[22] (civil guards) were formed. Even though the government did not like the idea of paramilitary units, they had to make concessions to the Freikorps. After that, the Freikorps were called to Berlin in March, as the KPD and USPD had called for a general strike. The regime had declared martial law. Heavy weapons were used and finally the Volksmarinedivision was defeated. It was no problem to make hideouts for small arms, like a rifle or a machine gun, but to hide heavy equipment, e.g. tanks, armoured troop carriers, etc was nearly impossible. So here cooperation between the Reichswehr and the Freikorps can be clearly seen, with the Reichswehr supplying that weaponry to the para-militarists. This episode cost the lives of 1,500 men, with 12,000 wounded on both sides. As this could have evolved to a national civil war, which would have been much bloodier, the numbers were “relatively” low. The uprising that was crushed by the traditional workers party with the help of the “Imperial” Reichswehr stayed in the minds of the workers as “treason” towards the workers. The Freikorps were furthermore called to stop the secession of Bavaria[23], which they achieved in only a few days. The Munich victory was the high point of the prestige of the Freikorps. The communists were defeated, the ports had been brought under the control of the republic, western and central Germany were pacified and above all it were the Freikorps, which had assured the meeting of the Nationalversammlung (national assembly) in Weimar. But there was still one menace left: the external threats to the borders of Germany. Many of the Freikorps soldiers obeyed the government’s instruction to integrate themselves into the Reichswehr. It was the first true German army, as up to 1918 the Imperial Army had consisted of the armies of Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Württemberg; each of them having their own Ministry of War. In May 1919, the German Army consisted of 400 000 men, and 150 000 of them were Freikorps soldiers. But there were still thousands of unemployed soldiers going around in Germany wearing their uniforms and carrying their weapons. According to the Versailles Treaty, Germany was forced to have a standing army of around just 100 000 men, no tanks, no aircraft and a small navy[24]. There was uproar in the German public to reject this dictate and several coup d´etats were imminent. The SPD finally signed the Versailles Treaty, but the Freikorps never forgot this “shameful surrender” of the SPD government. To speak in the words of the communist Wladimir Iljitsch Lenin: "The seed of a new war is planted in the unjustifiable peace treaty of the recent ended war”. Up to this point, the Freikorps did not like the Republic but they knew this was the best they had. Now, the attitudes of many Freikorpskaempfer (free corps soldiers) started to change: they wanted to get rid of the “fulfilment politicians”[25] and the reviled republic. Among the humiliating clauses of the Versailles Treaty were the losses of lands. But not only Germany was affected by the Versailles Treaty, so was Austria. And her borders were in danger, too. The Heimwehr (home guard), patriotic groups of armed men, guarded the Austrian borders. These were the Austrian equivalents of the German Freikorps; both fought a common enemy: communists and Slav nationalists. When the newly born Polish provisional government tried to annex the Wartheland, they were challenged by “Grenzschutz Ost” (border guard east) Freikorps units but in the end the German attempt was useless as this land was to be given to Poland according to the Versailles Treaty. Here once more, the soldiers of the Freikorps were disappointed with the government.


[1] Field Marshall v. Hindenburg, when asked why Germany lost the war, brought up this legend.

[2] Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic, transl. from the German by P. S. Falla (London : Routledge, 1992), 35.

[3] A good description is in Delmer, Weimar Germany. Democracy on Trial, 5 - 7.

[4] Erich Otto Volkmann, Revolution über Deutschland, Oldenburg 1930, 68.

[5] Robert G. L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: the Free Corps Movement in Post War Germany, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1952). 3.

[6] Sefton Delmer, Weimar Germany. Democracy on Trial, (London: Macdonald and Co, 1972), 35 – 36.

[7] Gustav Noske, Seine letzten Tage, in Friedrich Ebert Kämpfe und Ziele, Mit einem Anhang: Erinnerungen von seinen Freunden (Dresden, n.d.), 376.

[8] Reich chancellor v. Buelow claimed this on 6 December 1987

[9] Robert G. L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: the Free Corps Movement in Post War Germany, 11 – 13.

[10] It was called the gladiator who led a serious revolt in ancient Rome.

[11] Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic, 35.

[12] Robert G. L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: the Free Corps Movement in Post War Germany, 26 – 27.

[13] These storm troops were German light armed elite troops.

[14] Robert G. L. Waite, Vanguard of Nazism: the Free Corps Movement in Post War Germany, 61 – 62.

[15] Sefton Delmer, Weimar Germany. Democracy on Trial, 18.

[16] Paul Bookbinder, Weimar Germany. The Republic of the reasonable, 34.

[17] Salomon, von, Ernst, Die Geächteten, (Gütersloh: unknown publisher, 1929), 25.

[18] Ernst von Salomon fought in the Baltic campaign and was eyewitness.

[19] Many barracks had just a petite garrison and often these soldiers turned a blind eye on the Freikorps member.

[20] Since 22 November 1918, the official flag was black, red and gold the old colours of the 1848 parliament.

[21] This happened in March 1919.

[22] These were kind of reserve units for the Freikorps.

[23] This secession was the worst danger to the young Republic, since the Bavarian separatist movement went back to the 1870s

[24] U-boats were completely forbidden.

[25] This was the view of many conservative Germans of those politicians who signed the Versailles Treaty.

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What role did the Freikorps play in the Weimar Republic?
University of Wales, Aberystwyth  (Department of History)
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Michael Gärtner (Author), 2003, What role did the Freikorps play in the Weimar Republic?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/13985


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