The majority of Americans believe the worst civil unrest America will endure is far behind us. Sure, there are protests in the streets and cities are being burnt and looted, but things really are not that bad. What many do not see are the destabilizing forces actively at work behind the curtain. Do not be swayed by arguments that no modern western nation has ever succumbed to a violent revolution in recent history. There is a clear example of such a situation becoming acute and creating dire consequences not only for it, but also the world. Look no further than the Weimar Republic. This ghost can reveal much about our country’s present situation.
Many people would have to do an internet search on the Weimar Republic as it was at best only a footnote in history classes. Usually it was only used as a prelude to more significant historical events. The brief synopsis is it was the German republic which existed from 1919 till 1933. Its short unhappy life was filled with political, social, and economic turmoil. The Weimar was a parliamentary republic that began at the end of World War I as the financial and social state of Imperial Germany was collapsing. Once the terms of the Versailles Treaty were set a new constitution and government were finalized. The new government faced immediate internal and external pressures which led to a very tumultuous period until 1923. Weimar Germany then had only a temporary respite from societal disruptions until October of 1929, before being replaced in 1933.
Upon this dissolution, German society completely jumped off the ledge of reason and set a course for destruction on an unparalleled level. The purpose of this article will be to provide an in-depth look at both the causes and divisive groups that lead to the Weimar Republic’s capitulation. Then make some comparisons to certain active groups here in the United States. All in the hope that our society can inoculate itself from the influence these groups have, and prevent history repeating itself.
The actual nation called Germany was created in 1871. Previously, it was a collection of much smaller independent states that became dominated by Prussian rule. It quickly solidified to become a dominant world power. Germany, like most of Europe, had been undergoing strong societal changes since the Napoleonic era. Compound this with the industrial revolution creating even more opportunities for gaining wealth, new political philosophies, like Marxism took hold of the disenfranchised. The power and influence of these new socialists and communists was held in check by the long-established power dynamic in Europe. World War I brought this all to an end.
Germany was racked with incredible hardships compounded by the high level of human casualties. The winter of 1916-17 was called the Turnip Winter as rationing to feed the military and the British blockade of German ports led to massive food shortages. The poor dietary state of many German civilians would be a major reason why the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 would claim more than 750,000 lives. It’s also important to understand that 20% of the German population served in the war. Also, of those who served, one in five became casualties. Similar conditions of societal erosion allowed for a successful revolution in Russia in 1917, and it soon spread to Germany.
By 1918, the situation was reaching critical levels. After the failed spring offensives on the Western Front, the German government essentially ceased to exist. The Kaiser abdicated and an unofficial government was formed. This power vacuum caused multitudes of people to flock to the Independent Social Party of Germany, the German Social Democratic Party (USPD and SPD) and Communist Party of Germany (KPD). There was even another far left-wing group calling themselves the Spartakus League.
This in turn led many Germans to look to other organizations to counter this growing Communist threat. The majority of those in opposition came together unofficially as the Freikorps, consisting mostly of former German soldiers. The Freikorps was unified by the idea of protecting the German state. This group acted as sort of a civil defense against unrest. All of these organizations would have very large memberships. The Freikorps was estimated to be nearly two-million strong at its zenith. Then there was a third faction, the right-wing identitarian groups but they would remain fractured and insignificant for several more years.
Now the history of the Freikorps goes all the way back to 1759 when the first unit was formed by order of Frederick the Great. Prussia at the time had a professional army and the easiest way to think of these units as being militia, becoming semiprofessional after a time. These units would become quite popular amongst the various German and German speaking states across Europe all the way through the Napoleonic era. So, it had been a long ingrained cultural identity for common German citizens to use these as a meaning to defend their country. No Freikorps was ever formed in collaboration with a specific political party.
These groups all had paramilitary forces within their organizations to provide protection at rallies and parades. They were also used to intimidate opposition groups and disrupt their assembled activities. The Weimar Republic had very strict firearms laws in place to keep them out of the general populace’s hands. Arms control had been going on all the way back to the Middle Ages in Europe. Yet, when the German Army was forced to demilitarize after the war many of its small arms were spirited away by its former members. Many of these illegally possessed firearms were openly displayed at marches and used in shows of force until things escalated. The communists and socialists had their Red Guards while the Freikorps used formational names similar to the military like the Garde-Kavalllerie-Schutzen-Division. All of these organizations acted in their own interests and many were far from acceptable. The Red Guards of the Spartacus League acted more like death squads during the 1919 uprising in Berlin.
There were many violent clashes between all of these groups in the winter of 1918-19 peaking in January when the new government was at its weakest. This was essentially an armed open rebellion. Most of these revolts centered around Germany’s largest cities. The Communist KPD had been emboldened by the success of the creation of the new Soviet Union and was seeking a similar result. The socialists did their part to destabilize the country for their own gains, with the USPD being the more radical group.
Berlin was the site of the most recognized of these confrontations which threatened to engulf the entire country. The communists called for a strike around the Christmas holiday. When the police acted to break the strike, a call was made by Emil Eichorn of the USPD for all Marxists to unite. By January 5th, thousands of people took to the streets in response. The Spartacus League, led by Karl Leibnicht and Rosa Luxemburg, took a leading role in attempting to turn the strike into a full revolution. They targeted those they had grievances with and who represented the oppressive bourgeoisie.
By the 9th, it was estimated that 500,000 people were clashing in the streets in the occupied part of the city. The police were fractured as many belonged to the various groups and the army had gone through a massive demilitarization which left it virtually powerless. The Freikorps stepped in to bolster the meager government forces. The fighting went on for several days with the Freikorps and the government on the winning side. The fighting was block by block with both sides using whatever they could as cover in the open streets. It’s estimated around 200 people were killed. Every time the Communists pushed for a revolution in places like Saxony, Bremen, and Bavaria, the Freikorps moved in to stop them as this process was repeated over and over.
Bavaria in particular was the area where the Communists had the most success; albeit temporary. For three weeks of April-May 1919, they managed to have an unofficial government called the Bavarian Soviet Republic. This came about because Bavaria actually had a powerful state level government that still had a king as the head of the state. When King Ludwig followed the Kaiser in abdicating his throne in late 1918 the government had to reform. The USDP used the crisis to try to create another separate Bavarian state. This in turn allowed the communists to advance their cause.
The struggle between the USPD and KPD lasted until Kurt Eisner, the USPD leader in Bavaria, was assassinated. Again, the German government had to call on the Freikorps to remove the new Communist government and assist in reestablishing a loyal state. They were literally a citizen army acting in defense of their country. The Freikorps was given significant arms like flamethrowers and even artillery to depose this Soviet state. Germany was fighting its own civil war.
The barricaded city of Munich became the last stand for any attempt to turn part of Germany into a safe haven for communism. Like all of the other events during this time it’s hard to find accurate figures to the number of casualties, which were not insignificant. In the aftermath, over 1,000 were executed with some receiving a public trial, while most were summarily executed. Most Germans felt that they were in a life or death struggle, but these were pyrrhic victories.
The violence and open revolts in the streets may have subsided after 1919 but the nation’s condition didn’t improve. As people were out of work and couldn’t afford basic necessities one could easily fall into despair and become radicalized. There was another attempted coup in 1920 in Berlin by General Luttwitz and a politician named Wolfgang Kapp along with the support of the small extremist group, the Ehrhardt Brigade. It failed to gain support from the army. The Marxists learned that without the army’s support any direct action would fail. In 1921 the communists tried calling for a national general strike that ultimately failed too, as the economic situation was still stable enough to keep workers in the factories.
Also, prior to 1923 there were several Fememorde, or Feme murders that took place. These were essentially political assassinations of people who were deemed traitors or threats to Germany. Researchers have linked 376 deaths to this practice. The most notable victims were Emil Eichorn, Rosa Luxemburg, and Karl Leibnicht during the Berlin Uprising. The severe brutality of many of these murders was as much of a message as they were a solution. Although carried out mostly by the Freikorps, it also includes retaliatory murders by those who they opposed. Most of these murders were never solved. The term Feme or Femegerichte refers to a form of vigilantism practiced in the Middle Ages. Like all of the other previously mentioned events these had a profound effect on the psyche of German society. After the death of Walter Rathenau, Minister of Reconstruction, in 1922 the government sought to end the practice.
While the Weimar government did its best to observe and contain these groups, they were fighting a losing battle. Previously meetings, rallies and small printing operations were the only means of spreading such ideas through a population. Now fast presses could quickly make pamphlets for mass dissemination along with new methods like radio and motion pictures. These new forms of communication could allow any group, no matter the size, to get its message out. The framework for fighting a war over control of information had really begun. The government created internal intelligence organizations to spy on these groups. Adolf Hitler was even one such operative before quitting and joining the group he was meant to spy on. Others became persuaded to embrace the cause and maintain their government positions. Such was the case of Rudolf Diels, a Prussian police intelligence officer who joined the Nazis. Later he helped organize the early Gestapo from out of his organization.
A turning point where some stability was restored came during 1923 when a political maverick, Gustav Streseman, was elected with a more centrist government. Stresemen instituted a number of significant changes like a new currency and establishing a solid financial relationship with the United States to repair the economy. Shortly after his arrival came the event known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The Putsch had its roots in resentment to some of Streseman’s early political moves with foreign powers to stabilize international relations.
The uprising was poorly conceived and executed by the relatively small National Socialist German Workers Party (NAZI). After it was suppressed, the government used the event as a reason to take action against all perceived threats in a unilateral crackdown. The KPD’s print shops were closed, and Hitler was banned from public speaking after his release until 1927. Other actions included banning certain paramilitary groups backing the various political factions. Most notably was the communist Red Front Fighters’ League which was essentially reformed under the banner of the Combat League Against Fascism!
Germany received a break from this unstable condition for the next six years. Unfortunately, by the end of 1929 Germany was for the most part back to where it was in 1919 due to Stresemen’s untimely death and the Stock Market Crash of 1929. During this time the SPD dominated the political landscape as they had avoided most of the open turmoil associated with its rivals. Although since late 1919 the subversive groups had spent this time interweaving into positions of power in both the government and private sectors. The USPD had basically dissolved after the 1923 government crackdown. Along with it many of the smaller, more centrist groups whose members thought the storm had passed. The Freikorps, which hadn’t been seen as necessary since 1920 also faded away. The remaining political factions were ill equipped to deal with the resurgent power of the Communist Party of Germany/KPD and now the growing NAZI party, two left-wing parties which would bring destruction, death, and misery to Germany. It would take only four years before disaster became unavoidable.
There are some similarities here in the United States. A culture war has been brewing the past several years which has divided us into Red verses Blue. It is concentrated around violent pro-Communist groups like the Anti-Fascists (Antifa) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) on one side while the other consists of various groups including a small minority of identitarians called the Alt-Right. There have been numerous attacks by the Leftist groups and violent clashes between these oppositional groups across this country from Portland to Charlottesville. This has led to many injuries and some deaths.
Elements on the Left have called for the murder of police officers in defiance of the existing authority. In recent days we have seen that play out around the country. There is no way to really fully connect how many peace officers have died from this type of activity. There was also the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting which was an attempted assassination of Republican Congressmen by a Leftist gunman Some of these groups openly calling for violence are Antifa, BLM, Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) in California.
You can easily see these same patterns with the previously mentioned Weimar groups. There are even Red Guard factions for Antifa like the Red Guards Austin or Red Guards Kansas City. These new groups have adapted to use the internet and social media as their means of gathering information, disseminating propaganda and maintaining exposure to the public. These groups can also spy on individuals today almost as easily as any government agency. In recent days we have seen widespread violence on the streets, police stations burned, politicians, police officers and even the military kneeling before the protestors. Entire areas of certain cities have burned with millions of dollars in damage. So far though, firearms have yet to see more than token use. However, the Leftist/Communist organizations continue to grow bolder and are actively acquiring firearms and training. It is only a matter of time before they escalate their use of force.
The Freikorps of Weimar Germany were very effective at countering the Communists. It consisted of citizens defending the streets of their country against the very real threat of Communism. Many were veterans who had seen heavy combat in the trenches. They were not easily intimidated by a mere show of force. These were hard men who understood what needed to be done and were willing to go hands on with the Communists. When push came to shove they were more than willing to break out Gewehr 98 rifles, MG 08 machine guns and engage in street fighting. They actively participated in what needed to be done rather than engaging in useless idle talk.
The citizens of the United States must remain vigilant to the events going on in our local communities as well as across the country. The best way to keep the situation from getting any worse is to get, and remain, engaged in public discourse. As Frederick Douglas said, “A man’s rights rest in three boxes. The ballot-box, jury-box and the cartridge-box”, I would rather spend more time on the first two boxes as they are less daunting and less intense than preparing for the last option. A tipping point though is rapidly being reached and each one of us must determine where our line in the sand is.