home | 1901-WW2 Index


previous | next

Coup Attempts and Violence, 1920-21

President Ebert

Ebert, on the right, Germany's first president, elevated from chancellor on 11 February 1919. Here Ebert is in 1922 with Wilhelm Cuno on the formal occasion of Cuno becoming chancellor, Ebert, a Social Democrat, looking bourgeois despite his labor background.

Not understanding the army's role in the matter, many Germans blamed President Ebert for having signed the peace treaty in 1919. No blame was put on General Ludendorff for his reckless pursuit of the war in 1918. Ludendorff had been virtually running the country in 1918. And no blame was put on the man who had been Ludendorff's nominal superior, Field Marshall Hindenburg, who had told Ebert that returning to defensive warfare was hopeless and that the German Army was not up to it.

In 1920 came the Kapp putsch – led by a fifty-two year old repatriated German from New York, Wolfgang Kapp. Kapp was a dissatisfied government official, a hawkish bureaucrat in the East Prussian Ministry of Agriculture. His partner in the conspiracy to overthrow Ebert's government was an army general, Walther von Lüttwitz, who had led the Free Corps forces that defeated the Spartacists in Berlin. Lüttwitz was upset because of plans by the Ebert government to disband the forces under him. He was worried that Germany did not have enough men in arms to defend Germany against the Communists, and he believed that Russian Bolsheviks would soon overrun Poland and be on Germany's border, from which they could better support Germany's Communists.

Some in the Free Corps who had been fighting Communism in Germany's northeastern borderlands joined the plot. They felt that the Ebert government was reneging on promised pay, and they feared that their units would soon be dissolved. Also joining the revolt was Ludendorff, who had returned from exile in Sweden and urged the conspirators to "clean out the parliamentary stables."

The Ebert government learned of the conspiracy, dismissed Lüttwitz and ordered Kapp's arrest. The conspirators rushed ahead with their plans. They asked British agents what Britain's reaction would be to a conservative revolt carried out to suppress a Leftist revolution. The British said they would not intervene directly or indirectly against their coup provided the coup planned to establish a constitutional government.

Joining the coup in spirit were various army officers, university professors and members of the judiciary – the majority of whom were opposed to parliamentary squabbling and saw parliamentary government as alien to Germany. Many of them believed that monarchy was a superior form of government, seeing benefit in what they saw as monarchical impartiality. Some of them associated the monarchy with the Lutheran Church, with rule by divine right.

Hindenburg was among the monarchists who despised republicanism, but as the head of Germany's army he had sworn to support Ebert's government, and as a matter of honor he refused to announce his support for the revolt. But he sent his best wishes to its leadership.

On March 13, 1920, a well-armed army of Free Corpsmen marched through the Brandenberg Gate in central Berlin, singing "Deutschland, Deutchland Über Alles" and carrying flags of the old imperial colors. Painted on their helmets was the swastika, popular with high school students and others after the war. No firing of their weapons was necessary. Ebert's government had fled to the city of Dresden.

The active leader in Germany's postwar army was General von Seeckt. Like Hindenburg he had taken an oath of allegiance to the government. Moreover, he had a distaste for illegal military coups, which he associated with Latin America. He refused to join his army with the Kapp putsch. But, opposed to German soldiers fighting German soldiers, he did not want his army to move against the putsch. He wished the military to remain neutral, and to escape being caught in the middle he decided to go on leave.

A few army commanders outside Berlin declared their support for the government, while most, like Seeckt, chose to remain on the sidelines. Joining them on the sidelines were Rightists in the state of Bavaria who were unenthusiastic about any government in Berlin. An exception in Bavaria was the young veteran Adolf Hitler, who with a few others could not contain their excitement and flew in a private plane to Berlin.

To defend itself the Ebert government called workers across Germany to a general strike. Work stopped across Germany. Nothing moved, including into or out of Berlin. And in Berlin, people supporting the government filled the streets. Those who led the coup sat in government offices in Berlin that could not function. Coup leaders were unable to withdraw government money from any bank. The Free Corps leader, Ehrhardt, was ordered to get money from the banks by any means, but he refused, saying an officer could not appear to be a safecracker. Kapp was proving himself to be a poor organizer. He was without plans for a New Order, and he was having trouble finding his chief aide, Schnitzler – a bogus doctor and freelance journalist. Kapp is reported to have roamed the halls of government shouting, "Where is Schnitzler? Where is Schnitzler? I cannot govern without Schnitzler."

It became obvious to the coup leaders that they lacked sufficient support to govern. Ludendorff told Kapp to hold out. But two important supporters, the commander of Berlin's security police and the commandant of a Berlin army unit, told Kapp that he had to quit. One hundred hours after having taken power, Kapp gave up. Five coup leaders with disguised identities, Schnitzler and Ludendorff among them, fled to Munich. The Free Corps marched out of town, past the citizens who lined the streets, hostility in the glances between them. A small boy laughed at the Free Corps, and a soldier broke ranks and clubbed the boy. The crowd responded, and the Free Corps fired into the crowd killing a few. Then they resumed marching out of town.

Another Failed Coup by the Communists

The Kapp putsch had reinvigorated the Communists. They had joined in the general strike, and they were inspired by the continued difficulty of working people to feed their families. In places they had received arms as the government had opened arsenals to those willing to defend the government. During the strike, Communist leaders had given fighting speeches and had become influential with other striking workers. Red Army brigades had been formed, many of them World War I veterans. The brigades in Germany's Ruhr region were 50,000 strong. With all the excitement, sober judgment was in short supply, and Communist leaders again believed that it was possible to overthrow the government. Any friendly objections to their plans could be dismissed by traditional Marxist opposition to "fatalism." Doctrinaire Marxists were inclined to dismiss conclusions based on probability. They too believed in will.

Ebert called off his general strike on March 16, and facing another assault from the Communists he called for help from General von Seeckt. Just after the failure of the Kapp Putsch, von Seeckt returned to active duty, and he began reconstructing the army with the number of men that the peace treaty with the Allies allowed: 100,000 men. He wished to consider the Free Corps as having outlived its usefulness, but the Free Corps was being rescued by the Communists. Although the Free Corps was despised, many believed that they were still needed to protect Germany from the Communists. Ebert's government offered the Red Armies amnesty if they gave up their weapons, but in Saxony the Central Committee of the German Communist Party called for an insurrection, and with the Communists threatening Germany with armed revolution again, Free Corps units were called up again.

The Communist call for another big strike was opposed by the mass of the German workers. It fizzled out and was suppressed. So too was the Communist rising in the Ruhr, where the fighting was bitter, the government troops taking no prisoners and killing the enemy wounded. The fiascoes resulted in recriminations within Germany's Communist Party and a mass decline in its membership.

Von Seeckt against the Free Corps

In victory, von Seeckt would now move against some Free Corps units. Von Seeckt still wanted a highly disciplined and well-trained force, a force unencumbered by the strife of party politics. He took into the army several of the larger, better disciplined Free Corps units and he had some of the wilder Free Corps units disbanded.


Matthias Erzberger, an outspoken member of the Reichstag. His name had become synonymous with "peace," and he was sent to represent Germany in signing the armistice.

The disbanded felt betrayed. They were passionate, common men who disliked von Seeckt's cold, formal, aristocratic bearing. Some leaders of outlawed units changed the name of their unit and disguised the unit's purpose. Some units went to Munich where they were viewed with more favor than elsewhere in Germany, and there they were able to maintain a clandestine existence while protected by Bavaria's dispute with federal authority. And some disgruntled Free Corpsmen made a failed attempt on the life of von Seeckt.

The Assassination of Erzberger

Some men in the Free Corps blamed the defeat of Germany on Matthias Erzberger, who had led the delegation that signed the armistice in 1918. Erzberger was a devout Catholic with influential connections in the Vatican. He had been a supporter of the war and for annexations, but before the war's end he had become an opponent of submarine warfare. Toward the end of the war, seeing Erzberger as a leading proponent of peace and reconciliation, Germany's hawks accused him of being in the pay of the French. Then, after the war, Erzberger became Ebert's Minister of Finance, and he remained the target of hatred by Germany's hawks and Rightists.

A few in the Free Corps believed that if they killed enough leaders in Ebert's government, Germany's Communists might come to power, giving the Free Corps reason to take up arms again and take power. A few in the Free Corps stalked Erzberger in August 1921 while he was strolling in the Black Forest on a holiday, and they killed him with twelve shots into his head. They called it an "act of liberation" and returned to Munich, where they were given false passports by the Bavarian Police. The Communist coup that the murderers of Erzberger had hoped for had not materialized, and they fled to Hungary.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.