Modern history



In November 1918 most Germans expected that, since the war was being brought to an end before the Allies had set foot on German soil, the terms on which the peace would be based would be relatively equitable. During the previous four years, debate had raged over the extent of territory Germany should seek to annex after the achievement of victory. Even the official war aims of the government had included the assignment to the Reich of a substantial amount of territory in Western and Eastern Europe, and the establishment of complete German hegemony over the Continent. Pressure-groups on the right went much further.117 Given the extent of what Germans had expected to gain in the event of victory, it might have been expected that they would have realized what they stood to lose in the event of defeat. But no one was prepared for the peace terms to which Germany was forced to agree in the Armistice of 11 November 1918. All German troops were forced to withdraw east of the Rhine, the German fleet was to be surrendered to the Allies, vast amounts of military equipment had to be handed over, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had to be repudiated and the German High Seas Fleet had to be surrendered to the Allies along with all the German submarines. In the meantime, to ensure compliance, the Allies maintained their economic blockade of Germany, worsening an already dire food-supply situation. They did not abandon it until July the following year.118

These provisions were almost universally felt in Germany as an unjustified national humiliation. Resentment was hugely increased by the actions taken, above all by the French, to enforce them. The harshness of the Armistice terms was thrown into sharp relief by the fact that many Germans refused to believe that their armed forces had actually been defeated. Very quickly, aided and abetted by senior army officers themselves, a fateful myth gained currency among large sections of public opinion in the centre and on the right of the political spectrum. Picking up their cue from Richard Wagner’s music-drama The Twilight of the Gods, many people began to believe that the army had only been defeated because, like Wagner’s fearless hero Siegfried, it had been stabbed in the back by its enemies at home. Germany’s military leaders Hindenburg and Ludendorff claimed shortly after the war that the army had been the victim of a ‘secret, planned, demagogic campaign’ which had doomed all its heroic efforts to failure in the end. ‘An English general said correctly: the German army was stabbed in the back.‘119 Kaiser Wilhelm II repeated the phrase in his memoirs, written in the 1920s: ’For thirty years the army was my pride. For it I lived, upon it I laboured, and now, after four and a half brilliant years of war with unprecedented victories, it was forced to collapse by the stab-in-the-back from the dagger of the revolutionist, at the very moment when peace was within reach!‘120 Even the Social Democrats contributed to this comforting legend. As the returning troops streamed into Berlin on 10 December 1918, the party leader Friedrich Ebert told them: ‘No enemy has overcome you!’121

Defeat in war brought about an immediate collapse of the political system created by Bismarck nearly half a century before. After the Russian Revolution of February 1917 had hastened Tsarist despotism to its end, Woodrow Wilson and the Western Allies had begun to proclaim that the war’s principal aim was to make the world safe for democracy. Once Ludendorff and the Reich leadership concluded that the war was irremediably lost, they therefore advocated a democratization of the Imperial German political system in order to improve the likelihood of reasonable, even favourable peace terms being agreed by the Allies. As a far from incidental by-product, Ludendorff also reckoned that if the terms were not so acceptable to the German people, the burden of agreeing to them would thereby be placed on Germany’s democratic politicians rather than on the Kaiser or the army leadership. A new government was formed under the liberal Prince Max of Baden, but it proved unable to control the navy, whose officers attempted to put to sea in a bid to salvage their honour by going down fighting in a last hopeless battle against the British fleet. Not surprisingly, the sailors mutinied; within a few days the uprisings had spread to the civilian population, and the Kaiser and all the princes, from the King of Bavaria to the grand Duke of Baden, were forced to abdicate. The army simply melted away as the Armistice of 11 November was concluded, and the democratic parties were left, as Ludendorff had intended, to negotiate, if negotiate was the word, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.122

As a result of the Treaty, Germany lost a tenth of its population and 13 per cent of its territory, including Alsace-Lorraine, ceded back to France after nearly half a century under German rule, along with the border territories of Eupen, Malmédy and Moresnet. The Saarland was lopped off from Germany under a mandate with the promise that its people would eventually be able to decide whether they wanted to become part of France; it was clearly expected that in the end they would, at least if the French had anything to do with it. In order to ensure that German armed forces did not enter the Rhineland, British, French and, more briefly, American troops were stationed there in considerable numbers for much of the 1920s. Northern Schleswig went to Denmark, and, in 1920, Memel to Lithuania. The creation of a new Polish state, reversing the partitions of the eighteenth century in which Poland had been gobbled up by Austria, Prussia and Russia, meant the loss to Germany of Posen, much of West Prussia, and Upper Silesia. Danzig became a ‘Free City’ under the nominal control of the newly founded League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations organization established after the Second World War. In order to give the new Poland access to the sea, the peace settlement carved out a ‘corridor’ of land separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Germany’s overseas colonies were seized and redistributed under mandates from the League of Nations.123

Just as significant, and just as much of a shock, was the refusal of the victorious powers to allow the union of Germany and German-speaking Austria, which would have meant the fulfilment of the radical dreams of 1848. As the constituent nations of the Habsburg Empire broke away at the very end of the war to form the nation-states of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, or to join new or old neighbouring nation-states such as Poland and Romania, the six million or so German-speakers left in Austria proper, sandwiched along and beside the Alps between Germany and Italy, overwhelmingly considered that the best course of action was to join the German Reich. Almost nobody considered rump Austria to be either politically or economically viable. For decades the vast majority of its population had thought of themselves as the leading ethnic group in the multi-national Habsburg monarchy, and those who, like Schönerer, had advocated the solution of 1848 - splitting away from the rest and joining the German Reich - had been confined to the lunatic fringe. Now, however, Austria was suddenly cut off from the hinterlands, above all in Hungary, on which it had formerly been so dependent economically. It was saddled with a capital city, Vienna, whose population, swollen by suddenly redundant Habsburg bureaucrats and military administrators, constituted over a third of the total living in the new state. What had previously been political eccentricity now seemed to make political sense. Even the Austrian socialists thought that joining the more advanced German Reich would bring socialism nearer to fulfilment than trying to go it alone.124

Moreover, the American President Woodrow Wilson had declared, in his celebrated ‘Fourteen Points’ which he wished the Allied powers to be working for, that every nation should be able to determine its own future, free from interference by others.125 If this applied to the Poles, the Czechs and the Yugoslavs, then surely it should apply to the Germans as well? But it did not. What, the Allies asked themselves, had they been fighting for, if the German Reich ended the war bigger by six million people and a considerable amount of additional territory, including one of Europe’s greatest cities? So the union was vetoed. Of all the territorial provisions of the Treaty, this seemed the most unjust. Proponents and critics of the Allied position could argue over the merits of the other provisions and dispute the fairness or otherwise of the plebiscites that decided the territorial issue in places like Upper Silesia; but on the Austrian issue there was no room for argument at all. The Austrians wanted union; the Germans were prepared to accept union; the principle of national self-determination demanded union. The fact that the Allies forbade union remained a constant source of bitterness in Germany and condemned the new ‘Republic of German-Austria’, as it was known, to two decades of conflict-ridden, crisis-racked existence in which few of its citizens ever came to believe in its legitimacy.126


Map 3. The Treaty of Versailles

Many Germans realized that the Allies justified their ban on a German-Austrian union, as so much else in the Treaty of Versailles, by Article 231, which obliged Germany to accept the ‘sole guilt’ for the outbreak of the war in 1914. Other articles, equally offensive to Germans, ordained the trial of the Kaiser and many others for war crimes. Significant atrocities had indeed been committed by German troops during the invasions of Belgium and northern France in 1914. But the few trials that did take place, in Leipzig, before a German court, almost uniformly failed because the German judiciary did not accept the legitimacy of most of the charges. Out of 900 alleged war criminals initially singled out for trial, only seven were eventually found guilty, while ten were acquitted and the rest never underwent a full trial. The idea took root in Germany that the whole concept of war crimes, indeed the whole notion of laws of war, was a polemical invention of the victorious Allies based on mendacious propaganda about imaginary atrocities. This left a fateful legacy for the attitudes and conduct of German armed forces during the Second World War.127

The real purpose of Article 231, however, was to legitimize the imposition by the Allies of punitive financial reparations on Germany in order to compensate the French and the Belgians, in particular, for the damage caused by four and a quarter years of German occupation They seized over two million tons of merchant ships, five thousand railway engines and 136,000 coaches, 24 million tons of coal and much more. Financial reparations were to be paid in gold over a number of years stretching far into the future.128just in case this did not prevent Germany from financing a reconstruction of its armed might, the Treaty also obliged the army to be restricted to a maximum strength of 100,000, and banned the use of tanks, heavy artillery and conscription. Six million German rifles, over 15,000 aeroplanes, more than 130,000 machine guns and a great deal of other military equipment had to be destroyed. The German navy was effectively dismantled and barred from building any large new ships, and Germany was not allowed to have an air force at all. Such were the terms with which the Germans were presented as the condition of peace by the Western Allies in 1918-19.129


All of this was greeted with incredulous horror by the majority of Germans.130 The sense of outrage and disbelief that swept through the German upper and middle classes like a shock wave was almost universal, and had a massive impact on many working-class supporters of the moderate Social Democrats as well. Germany’s international strength and prestige had been on an upward course since unification in 1871, so most Germans felt, and now, suddenly, Germany had been brutally expelled from the ranks of the Great Powers and covered in what they considered to be undeserved shame. Versailles was condemned as a dictated peace, unilaterally imposed without the possibility of negotiation. The enthusiasm which so many middle-class Germans had demonstrated for war in 1914 flipped over into burning resentment at the terms of peace four years later.

In fact, the peace settlement created new opportunities for German foreign policy in East-Central Europe, where the once-mighty Habsburg and Romanov empires had been replaced by a squabbling congeries of small and unstable states such as Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia. The Treaty’s territorial provisions were mild compared with what Germany would have imposed on the rest of Europe in the event of victory, as the programme drawn up by the German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in September 1914 had clearly indicated in principle, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded with the defeated Russians in the spring of 1918, had graphically demonstrated in practice. A German victory would have led to a huge reparations bill being served on the defeated Allies, too, no doubt many times larger than that which Bismarck had sent to the French after the war of 1870-71. The reparations bills that Germany actually did have to pay from 1919 onwards were not beyond the country’s resources to meet and. not unreasonable given the wanton destruction visited upon Belgium and France by the occupying German armies. In many ways, the peace settlement of 1918-19 was a brave attempt at marrying principle and pragmatism in a dramatically altered world. In other circumstances it might have stood a chance of success. But not in the circumstances of 1919, when almost any peace terms would have been condemned by German nationalists who felt they had been unjustly cheated of victory.131 The lengthy Allied military occupation of parts of western Germany, along the Rhine valley, from the end of the war until almost the end of the 1920s, also aroused widespread resentment and intensified German nationalism in the areas affected. One Social Democrat, born in 1888, and previously a pacifist, reported later: ‘I came to feel the rifle butt of the French and became patriotic again.’132 Although the British and the Americans stationed troops in a large area of the Rhineland, it was the French, both there and in the Saar, who aroused the most resentment. Particular outrage was caused by their banning of German patriotic songs and festivals, their encouragement of separatist movements in the area, and their outlawing of radical nationalist groups. A miner in the Saarland alleged that the state mines’ new French owners expressed their Germanophobia in their harsh treatment of the workers.133 Passive resistance, particularly amongst patriotic minor state officials such as railway clerks, who refused to work for the new French authorities, encouraged a hatred of the politicians in Berlin who had accepted this state of affairs, and a rejection of German democracy for failing to do anything about it.134

But if the peace settlement outraged the majority of ordinary Germans, that was nothing to the effect it had on the apostles of extreme nationalism, notably the Pan-Germans. The Pan-Germans had greeted the outbreak of war in 1914 with unbounded enthusiasm, verging on ecstasy. For men like Heinrich Class, it was the fulfilment of a lifetime’s dream. Things seemed at last to be going their way. The hugely ambitious plans for territorial annexation and European hegemony drawn up by the Pan-German League before the war now seemed to have a chance of becoming reality, as the government, led by Bethmann Hollweg, drew up a set of war aims that came very close to them in their sweep and scope. Pressure-groups such as the industrialists, and parties such as the Conservatives, all clamoured for extensive new territories to be added to the German Reich after victory.135 But victory did not come and opposition to annexationism grew. In these circumstances, Class and the Pan-Germans began to realize that they needed to make another serious attempt to broaden the basis of their support in order to put pressure on the government again. But as they tried out various schemes of alliance with other groups to this end, they were suddenly outflanked by a new movement, launched by Wolfgang Kapp, a former civil servant, estate owner and associate of the business magnate and founder-member of the Pan-Germans, Alfred Hugenberg. For Kapp, no nationalist movement would succeed without a mass base; and in September 1917, he launched the German Fatherland Party, whose programme centred on annexationist war aims, authoritarian constitutional changes, and other planks of the Pan-German platform. Backed by Class, by industrialists, by the former Naval Secretary Alfred von Tirpitz, and indeed by all the annexationist groups including the Conservative Party, the new organization presented itself as being above the party-political fray, committed only to the German nation, not to any abstract ideology. Teachers, Protestant pastors, army officers and many others jumped on the bandwagon. Within a year, the Fatherland Party was claiming a membership of no less than one and a quarter million.136

But all was not quite as it seemed. For a start, the membership figures were inflated by a lot of double-counting of people who were enrolled both as individuals and as members of constituent organizations, so that the true number of people. who belonged was no more than 445,000, according to an internal memorandum of September 1918. And then, Class and the Pan-Germans were quickly pushed aside because the leadership thought their association would deter potential supporters from less extreme parts of the political spectrum. The Fatherland Party ran into a great deal of opposition from liberals, and encountered massive suspicion from the government, who banned officers and troops from joining and told civil servants they were not to help it in any way. The party’s ambition to recruit the working class was frustrated both by the Social Democrats, who levelled withering criticism at its divisive ideology, and from the war wounded, whose attendance (by invitation) at a Fatherland Party meeting in Berlin in January 1918 led to angry exchanges with the speakers and resulted in the super-patriots in the audience throwing them out of the meeting and the police being called in to break up the fighting. All of this pointed to the fact that the Fatherland Party was in effect another version of previous ultra-nationalist movements, even more dominated than they were by middle-class notables. It did nothing new to win working-class support, it did not have any working-class speakers, and for all its demagogy, it entirely lacked the common touch. It stayed firmly within the boundaries of respectable politics, eschewed violence, and revealed, more than anything else, the bankruptcy of conventional Pan-German political ambitions; a bankruptcy confirmed when the Pan-German League proved unable to cope with the new political world of postwar Germany and fell into sectarian obscurity after 1918.137


What transformed the extreme nationalist scene was not the war itself, but the experience of defeat, revolution and armed conflict at the war’s end. A powerful role was played here by the myth of the ‘front generation’ of 1914-18, soldiers bound together in a spirit of comradeship and self-sacrifice in a heroic cause which overcame all political, regional, social and religious differences. Writers such as Ernst Jünger, whose book Storm of Steel became a best-seller, celebrated the experience of the fighting man and cultivated the rapid growth of nostalgia for the unity of the wartime years.138 This myth exercised a powerful appeal in particular over the middle classes, for whom hardships shared, both in reality and in spirit, with workers and peasants in the trenches during the war, provided material for nostalgic literary celebration in the postwar years.139 Many soldiers bitterly resented the outbreak of revolution in 1918. Units returning from the front sometimes disarmed and arrested workers’ and soldiers’ councils in the localities through which they passed.140 Some combatants were converted to radical nationalism as revolutionaries offered them insults rather than plaudits on their return, forcing them to tear off their epaulettes and abandon their allegiance to the black-white-red Imperial flag. As one such veteran later recalled:

On 15 November 1918 I was on the way from the hospital at Bad Nauheim to my garrison at Brandenburg. As I was limping along with the aid of my cane at the Potsdam station in Berlin, a band of uniformed men, sporting red armbands, stopped me, and demanded that I surrender my epaulettes and insignia. I raised my stick in reply; but my rebellion was soon overcome. I was thrown (down?), and only the intervention of a railroad official saved me from my humiliating position. Hate flamed in me against the November criminals from that moment. As soon as my health improved somewhat, I joined forces with the groups devoted to the overthrow of the rebellion.141

Other soldiers experienced an ‘ignominious’ and ‘humiliating’ home-coming in a Germany that had overthrown the institutions for which they had been fighting. ‘Was it for this’, one of them later asked, ‘that the fresh youth of Germany was mowed down in hundreds of battles?’142 Another veteran, who had lost his leg in combat and was in a military hospital on 9 November 1918, reported:

I shall never forget the scene when a comrade without an arm came into the room and threw himself on his bed crying. The red rabble, which had never heard a bullet whistle, had assaulted him and torn off all his insignia and medals. We screamed with rage. For this kind of Germany we had sacrificed our blood and our health, and braved all the torments of hell and a world of enemies for years.143

‘Who had betrayed us?’, another asked, and the answer was not long in coming: ‘bandits who wanted to reduce Germany to a shambles ... fiendish aliens.’144

Such feelings were not universal among the troops, and the experience of defeat did not turn all the veterans into political cannon-fodder for the extreme right. Large numbers of troops had deserted at the end of the war, faced with the overwhelming force of their Allied opponents, and showed no desire to continue fighting.145 Millions of working-class soldiers went back to their previous political milieu, among the Social Democrats, or gravitated towards the Communists.146 Some of the veterans’ pressure-groups were adamant that they never wanted themselves or anyone else to go through again the kind of experiences to which they had been subjected in 1914-18. Yet, in the end, ex-soldiers and their resentments did play a crucial part in fostering a climate of violence and discontent after the war was over, and the shock of adjusting to peacetime conditions pushed many towards the far right. Those who were already politically socialized into conservative and nationalist traditions found their views radicalized in the new political context of the 1920s. On the left, too, a new willingness to use violence was conditioned by the experience, real or vicarious, of the war.147 As distance grew from the war, so the myth of the ‘front generation’ generated a widespread feeling that the veterans who had sacrificed so much for the nation during the war deserved far better treatment than they actually got, a feeling naturally shared by many veterans themselves.148

The most important of the veterans’ associations fully shared these resentments and campaigned vigorously for a return to the old Imperial system under which they had fought. Known as the ‘Steel Helmets: League of Front-Soldiers’, it was founded on 13 November 1918 by Franz Seldte, the owner of a small soda-water factory in Magdeburg. Born in 1882, Seldte had been an active member of a student duelling corps before he fought on the Western Front, where he was decorated for bravery. At an early public meeting, when members of the audience doubted his commitment to the nationalist cause, Seldte demonstratively waved at them the stump of his left arm, which he had lost at the Battle of the Somme. Instinctively cautious and conservative, he preferred to emphasize the Steel Helmets’ primary function as a source of financial support for old soldiers fallen on hard times. He easily fell under the influence of stronger characters, particularly those whose principles were firmer than his own. One such figure was his fellow-leader of the Steel Helmets, Theodor Duesterberg, another ex-army officer who had fought on the Western Front before taking on a series of staff jobs, particularly liaising with allied powers such as Turkey and Hungary. Duesterberg, born in 1875, had been educated in an army cadet school and was a Prussian officer in the classic mould, obsessed with discipline and order, inflexible and unbending in his political views and, like Seldte, completely incapable of adjusting to a world without the Kaiser. Both men therefore believed that the Steel Helmets should be ‘above politics’. But this meant in practice that they wanted to overcome party divisions and restore the patriotic spirit of 1914. The organization’s 1927 Berlin manifesto declared: ‘The Steel Helmets proclaim the battle against all softness and cowardice, which seek to weaken and destroy the consciousness of honour of the German people through renunciation of the right of defence and will to defence.’ It denounced the Treaty of Versailles and demanded its abrogation, it wanted the restoration of the black-white-red national flag of the Bismarckian Reich, and it ascribed the economic problems of Germany to ‘the deficiency in living-space and the territory in which to work’. In order to implement this programme, strong leadership was necessary. The spirit of comradeship born in the war had to provide the basis for a national unity that would overcome present party differences. By the mid- 1920s the Steel Helmets boasted some 300,000 members. They were a formidable and decidedly militaristic presence on the streets when they held their marches and rallies; in 1927, indeed, no fewer than 132,000 members in military uniforms took part in a march-past in Berlin as a demonstration of their loyalty to the old order.149

For most Germans, as for the Steel Helmets, the trauma of the First World War, and above all the shock of the unexpected defeat, refused to be healed. When Germans referred to ‘peacetime’ after 1918, it was not to the era in which they were actually living, but to the period before the Great War had begun. Germany failed to make the transition from wartime back to peacetime after 1918. Instead, it remained on a continued war footing; at war with itself, and at war with the rest of the world, as the shock of the Treaty of Versailles united virtually every part of the political spectrum in a grim determination to overthrow its central provisions, restore the lost territories, end the payment of reparations and re-establish Germany as the dominant power in Central Europe once more.150Military models of conduct had been widespread in German society and culture before 1914; but after the war they became all-pervasive; the language of politics was permeated by metaphors of warfare, the other party was an enemy to be smashed, and struggle, terror and violence became widely accepted as legitimate weapons in the political struggle. Uniforms were everywhere. Politics, to reverse a famous dictum of the early nineteenth-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, became war pursued by other means.151

The First World War legitimized violence to a degree that not even Bismarck’s wars of unification in 1864-70 had been able to do. Before the war, Germans even of widely differing and bitterly opposed political beliefs had been able to discuss their differences without resorting to violence.152 After 1918, however, things were entirely different. The changed climate could already be observed in parliamentary proceedings. These had remained relatively decorous under the Empire, but after 1918 they degenerated all too often into unseemly shouting matches, with each side showing open contempt for the other, and the chair unable to keep order. Far worse, however, was the situation on the streets, where all sides organized armed squads of thugs, fights and brawls became commonplace, and beatings-up and assassinations were widely used. Those who carried out these acts of violence were not only former soldiers, but also included men in their late teens and twenties who had been too young to fight in the war themselves and for whom civil violence became a way of legitimizing themselves in the face of the powerful myth of the older generation of front-soldiers.153 Not untypical was the experience of the young Raimund Pretzel, child of a well-to-do senior civil servant, who remembered later that he and his schoolfriends played war games all the time from 1914 to 1918, followed battle reports with avid interest, and with his entire generation ‘experienced war as a great, thrilling, enthralling game between nations, which provided far more excitement and emotional satisfaction than anything peace could offer; and that’, he added in the 1930s,‘has now become the underlying vision of Nazism.’154 War, armed conflict, violence and death were often for them abstract concepts, killing something they had read about and had processed in their adolescent minds under the influence of a propaganda that presented it as a heroic, necessary, patriotic act.155

Before long, political parties associated themselves with armed and uniformed squads, paramilitary troops whose task it was to provide guards at meetings, impress the public by marching in military order through the streets, and to intimidate, beat up and on occasion kill members of the paramilitary units associated with other political parties. The relationship between the politicians and the paramilitaries was often fraught with tension, and paramilitary organizations always maintained a greater or lesser degree of autonomy; still, their political colouring was usually clear enough. The Steel Helmets, ostensibly just a veterans’ association, left no doubt about their paramilitary functions when they paraded through the streets or engaged in brawls with rival groups. Their affinities with the hard right became closer from the middle of the 1920s, when they took a more radical stance, banning Jews from membership despite the fact that the organization was intended to provide for all ex-front-soldiers, and there were plenty of Jewish veterans who needed its support as much as anyone else did. The Nationalists also founded their own ‘Fighting Leagues’ which they had a better chance of bending to their purpose than they did with the confused and divided Steel Helmets. In 1924 the Social Democrats took a leading part in founding the Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold, signifying their allegiance to the Republic by incorporating the colours of its flag into their title, though in alliance with the far more ambivalent concept of the Reich; and the Communists set up the Red Front-Fighters’ League, where the term ‘Red Front’ itself was a telling incorporation of a military metaphor into the political struggle.156 On the far right there were other, smaller ‘Combat Leagues’, shading off into illegal, conspiratorial groups such as the ‘Organization Escherich’, closely associated with the Steel Helmets, and the ‘Organization Consul’, which belonged to a murky world of political assassination and revenge killings. Bands of uniformed men marching through the streets and clashing with each other in brutally physical encounters became a commonplace sight in the Weimar Republic, adding to the general atmosphere of violence and aggression in political life.157

The German Revolution of 1918-19 did not resolve the conflicts that had been boiling up in the country in the final phase of the war. Few were entirely satisfied with the Revolution’s results. On the extreme left, revolutionaries led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg saw in the events of November 1918 the opportunity to create a socialist state run by the workers’ and soldiers’ councils that had sprung up all over the country as the old Imperial system disintegrated. With the model of Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution in Russia before their eyes, they pressed on with plans for a second revolution to complete their work. For their part, the mainstream Social Democrats feared that the revolutionaries might institute the kind of ‘red terror’ that was now taking place in Russia. Afraid for their lives, and conscious of the need to prevent the country from falling into complete anarchy, they sanctioned the recruitment of heavily armed paramilitary bands consisting of a mixture of war veterans and younger men, and known as the Free Corps, to put down any further revolutionary uprisings.

In the early months of 1919, when the extreme left staged a poorly organized uprising in Berlin, the Free Corps, egged on by the mainstream Social Democrats, reacted with unprecedented violence and brutality. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered, and revolutionaries were mown down or summarily executed in a number of German cities where they had taken control or appeared to be a threat. These events left a permanent legacy of bitterness and hatred on the political left, made worse by another major outbreak of political violence in the spring of 1920. A Red Army of workers, initially formed by left-wing Social Democrats and Communists to defend civil liberties in the industrial region of the Ruhr in the face of an attempted right-wing coup in Berlin, began to advance more radical political demands. Once the attempted coup had been defeated by a general strike, the Red Army was put down by Free Corps units, backed by the mainstream Social Democrats and supported by the regular army, in what amounted in effect to a regional civil war. Well over a thousand members of the Red Army were slaughtered, most of them prisoners ‘shot while trying to escape’.158

These events doomed any kind of co-operation between Social Democrats and Communists to failure from the outset. Mutual fear, mutual recriminations and mutual hatred between the two parties far outweighed any potential purpose they might have had in common. The legacy of the 1918 Revolution was scarcely less ominous on the right. Extreme violence against the left had been legitimized, if not encouraged, by the moderate Social Democrats; but this in no way exempted them from being a target themselves, as the Free Corps now turned on their masters. Many of the Free Corps leaders were former army officers whose belief in the ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth was unshakeable. The depth of the Free Corps’ hatred of the Revolution and its supporters was almost without limit. The language of their propaganda, their memoirs, their fictional representations of the military actions they took part in, breathed a rabid spirit of aggression and revenge, often bordering on the pathological. The ‘reds‘, they believed, were an inhuman mass, like a pack of rats, a poisonous flood pouring over Germany, requiring measures of extreme violence if it was to be held in check.159

Their feelings were shared to a greater or lesser extent by large numbers of regular officers, and by the vast majority of right-wing politicians. Scores of young students and others who had missed the war now flocked to their banner. For these people, socialists and democrats of any hue were no better than traitors—the ‘November criminals’ or ‘November traitors’ as they were soon dubbed, the men who had first stabbed the army in the back, then in November 1918 committed the double crime of overthrowing the Kaiser and signing the Armistice. For some democratic politicians, indeed, signing the Treaty of Versailles was tantamount to signing their own death warrant, as Free Corps members formed secret assassination squads to root out and kill those they regarded as traitors to the nation, including the democratic politician Walther Rathenau, the leading socialist Hugo Haase, and the prominent Centre Party deputy Matthias Erzberger.160 Political violence reached fresh heights in 1923, a year marked not only by the bloody suppression of an abortive Communist uprising in Hamburg but also by gun battles between rival political groups in Munich and armed clashes involving French-backed separatists in the Rhineland. In the early 1920S, extreme leftists such as Karl Plättner and Max Hölz carried out campaigns of armed robbery and ‘expropriation’ that ended only when they were arrested and sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment.161

It was in this atmosphere of national trauma, political extremism, violent conflict and revolutionary upheaval that Nazism was born. Most of the elements that went into its eclectic ideology were already current in Germany before 1914 and had become even more familiar to the public during the war. The dramatic collapse of Germany into political chaos towards the end of 1918, a chaos that endured for several years after the war, provided the spur to translate extreme ideas into violent action. The heady mixture of hatred, fear and ambition that had intoxicated a small number of Pan-German extremists suddenly gained a crucial extra element: the willingness, determination even, to use physical force. National humiliation, the collapse of the Bismarckian Empire, the triumph of Social Democracy, the threat of Communism, all this seemed to some to justify the use of violence and murder to implement the measures which Pan-Germans, antisemites, eugenicists and ultra-nationalists had been advocating since before the turn of the century, if the German nation was ever to recover.

Yet such ideas still remained those of a minority even after 1918, and the use of physical force to put them into effect was still confined to a tiny, extremist fringe. German society and politics were polarized into extremes by the collapse of 1918-19, not converted to a general enthusiasm for extreme nationalism. And, crucially, the centre ground of politics was still occupied by people and parties committed to the creation of a stable, functioning parliamentary democracy, to social reform, to cultural freedom and to economic opportunity for all. The collapse of the Wilhelmine Reich was their chance too, and they seized it willingly. Before ultra-nationalism could break out into the political mainstream, it had to smash the barriers created by Germany’s first democracy, the Weimar Republic.

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