Like the National Socialist Party itself, the SS owed its existence to the wave of revolution that swept through Germany in the autumn of 1918, when it finally became clear that the First World War was lost. Many German civilians, as well as members of the armed forces, had been blithely convinced that they were on the brink of victory, despite the miserable conditions and endemic shortages that had increasingly blighted their lives as the war dragged on. However, despite defeating Russia the previous year, the German High Command had recognised their precarious situation at the beginning of 1918 and had gambled everything on a last great offensive in the West against the British and French, before too many US troops arrived.

The offensive began in March 1918 and achieved startling initial success: within a week, the Germans were within 120 kilometres of Paris, and subsequent operations pushed the British back towards the Channel ports. But without tanks and motorised artillery they were unable to consolidate their gains, and an Allied counter-offensive launched in July soon pushed the German armies back to their spring start-lines. Then, under the supreme command of the French Marshal Foch, but spearheaded by Haig’s British Expeditionary Force and Pershing’s newly arrived American divisions, the Allies started to force the Germans out of France and Belgium. By the beginning of September, the German armies were on the Hindenburg Line, where they had begun the war in 1914. On the 26th, the Allies started their attack on the Line. Before long, General Erich Ludendorff, Germany’s commander-in-chief on the Western Front, recommended seeking an immediate armistice. The alternative, he said, was complete annihilation. Secret exploratory peace contacts were made to the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, who responded with a series of demands, including the “democratisation” of the German government, the withdrawal of German armies from all occupied lands and the cessation of the U-boat war. The German leadership agreed, and on 3 October Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed his cousin, Prince Max of Baden, as Chancellor and gave up his own supreme command of the armed forces. The next day, Germany formally requested an armistice.

Defeat brought political turmoil to Germany as a power struggle between left and right developed, with armed, mutinous and disaffected servicemen joining one side or the other. Across Germany, liberals and moderate leftists sought to preserve some aspects of the old order as the state started to collapse into total chaos. On 7 November, Kurt Eisner, a leading member of the Independent Socialists, declared Bavaria a “free state,” effectively overthrowing the Wittelsbach dynasty, who had been the hereditary rulers of the southern German kingdom for seven hundred years. The last of the line, Ludwig III, fled to Austria the following day, probably thinking he would soon return and resume his rule. However, he was persuaded to sign the “Anif Declaration,” which absolved officers, soldiers and officials of the Kingdom of Bavaria of their oath of loyalty to him, and this was treated by Eisner as a statement of abdication.

Meanwhile, the Kaiser’s abdication had become a sticking point in armistice negotiations with the Allies. He hoped that he could at least remain King of Prussia, if not Kaiser, but Prince Max finally put an end to the matter by announcing Wilhelm’s abdication from both roles on 9 November. Wilhelm looked to the army for support, but none was forthcoming: Ludendorff had already resigned and fled to Sweden at the end of October; and, in any case, the High Command had little control over its own forces.* The German soldiers were prepared to return home in relatively good order, but Germany could count on no more than that. The Kaiser confirmed his abdication and left for exile in the Netherlands on 10 November. Prince Max had brought some moderate members of the German Socialist Party (SPD)—the largest single party in the Reichstag—into his government as soon as he was appointed. Now, they were anxious to try to establish some order, so that Germany should not follow Russia into Bolshevism. With the Kaiser gone, though, Prince Max had no authority or mandate to remain as Chancellor, so he resigned in favour of the SPD leader, Friedrich Ebert, the same day.

That was the catalyst for a power struggle between several leftist groups. In addition to the SPD, there were the USPD, independent socialists who had opposed the war, and the Spartakusbund (Spartacus League), a communist group led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. The USPD were prepared to work with the SPD; the Spartacists were not. Throughout November and December, Germany effectively had two parallel governments: the “constitutional” provisional government under Ebert; and the radical “workers’ and soldiers’ councils,” of which there soon were more than ten thousand across the country. Crucially, the armed forces, under Ludendorff’s successor, General Groener, pledged support to Ebert’s government. On 16 December 1918, the councils held a congress in Berlin and agreed to the formation of a constituent assembly that would be tasked with drawing up a new constitution. By this time, it was clear that the SPD and its allies were in the majority in most of the councils. The Spartacists, acknowledging that they would not be able to take power by democratic means, decided to follow the Russian model and seize power through armed rebellion, using various republican militias.

This political turmoil, together with external threats from the newly independent Poland and Czechoslovakia, led to a spontaneous upsurge of nationalist and patriotic sentiment among many recently returned German officers, NCOs and soldiers. In part, this was fostered by the High Command’s creation of semi-official militias staffed by loyal volunteers, in the hope that they would preserve order among the rest of the soldiery. But the end result was the birth of the Freikorps (Free Corps) movement—bands of freebooting ex-soldiers who would haunt German politics and threaten the nascent German democracy for years to come.

On 23 December 1918, the Spartacists, together with renegade sailors of the Volksmarine Division, attempted to seize power in Berlin. Units of the regular army were summoned to help but refused to fire on civilian defenders supporting the revolutionaries, and the best that could be managed was the rescue of the provisional government. So the Spartacists remained in occupation of the seat of government. On 30 December, they formally renamed themselves the German Communist Party (KPD), and on 5 January 1919 they summoned seven hundred thousand demonstrators onto the streets of Berlin, effectively seizing control of the capital.

The provisional government’s response was to turn to the Free Corps. The previous month, General Maercker, a divisional commander in the army, had created a volunteer corps from several thousand of his men, and his example had been followed by a number of commanders in the area around Berlin. The forces they led were not necessarily very large or well equipped, but they were well disciplined and had a sense that they were fulfilling their patriotic duty. On 10 January, they began to move towards Berlin, where they proved more than a match for the larger but poorly organised and badly led revolutionary forces of the KPD. Just two days later, the Free Corps were in control of much of the city. On 15 January, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested by members of theGarde-Kavellerie-Schützen-Division (Guards Cavalry Soldiers’ Division). Luxemburg was beaten with rifle butts, then shot. Her body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal, which runs through the centre of the city. Liebknecht was shot and dumped in the Tiergarten, next to the government quarter of the city. Hundreds of their supporters were also killed, both in the fighting and after their surrender.

While the Free Corps were mopping up in the capital, elections for the National Assembly were held. The SPD emerged victorious, and it was decided to move the seat of government from Berlin to Weimar in Thuringia, where the Constituent Assembly could begin its work. Over the next eight months, the so-called Weimar Constitution was drafted, amended and finally passed into law, establishing the German Reich as a federal parliamentary republic.

It was under this constitution that the SS was established and the National Socialist Party found a route to power. In 1919, though, it was widely regarded as a model of liberalism. It contained a number of devices that many people assumed would guarantee the long-term flourishing of a flawless and equitable democracy. With the benefit of hindsight, much has been made of its “weaknesses,” and how they allowed Hitler to come to power, but the reality at the time was not so clear cut. It may not have been a perfect document, but it was fit for its purpose and contained no more flaws than other parliamentary democracies’ constitutions. In effect, it was a modified version of the constitution created by Bismarck for the newly unified Germany in 1871,1 with the Kaiser replaced by an elected Reich President, and a federal parliament—the Reichstag—elected by universal adult (over twenty years of age) suffrage in an electoral system of direct proportionality. The problems that beset Germany in the inter-war period and ultimately led to the collapse of democracy were not so much due to this constitution as to the perceived lack of legitimacy of the state it defined. For most of the lifetime of the Weimar Republic, fewer than half of the deputies sitting in the Reichstag represented parties that supported the democratic republican system. Even the Social Democrats—who were widely perceived as the party that had created the republic—were ambivalent, with many of them clinging to their Marxist heritage. The institutions of state—the civil service and the military—were equally ambivalent, when not actively hostile. For many, the republic was an undesirable and temporary system that had been forced upon Germany because of its defeat in the war.

The chaos of the immediate post-war period was the backdrop for the political awakening of a Bavarian infantryman of Austrian birth named Adolf Hitler, who had spent the previous four years serving at the front as a messenger in the headquarters of the List Regiment. He was awarded the Iron Cross (second and first class), and finished the war as an Obergefreiter (lance corporal). The final military defeat of the German Army was inexplicable to Hitler. He was caught in a British gas attack at the beginning of October that left him temporarily blind, so he did not see the final collapse of his comrades, literally or metaphorically. But while in hospital, he later claimed, he had vowed to reverse the personal and national humiliation of defeat.2 On his discharge, after the armistice, he made his way through a country he no longer recognised. The old order was being violently swept away: the Kaiser had abdicated; the Social Democrats were in power; communist and socialist revolutionaries were establishing their councils. In Munich, Hitler found the barracks of his regiment under the authority of a committee of junior soldiers. Unwilling to serve in such a system, he volunteered instead as a guard at a POW camp, where he stayed until February 1919.3

Under Eisner, Bavaria had been pursuing a policy of confrontation with the central provisional government. But that February, Eisner was murdered by a right-wing extremist, Count Arco-Valley. This provoked a violent backlash from the left. On 7 April, a group of extreme leftists seized power and proclaimed a Räterepublik (councils’—or soviet—republic) in Bavaria. SPD militias attempted to overthrow this, but they were defeated. In response, the KPD founded a “Red Army” for the republic, and initiated a reign of terror against their political opponents. Communists rampaged through the streets of Munich, looting and plundering, while schools, businesses and newspapers were shut down.

The provisional government’s response was to mobilise about thirty thousand members of the Free Corps, with whom they surrounded Munich at the end of April. While this was happening, the KPD struck at nationalists within the city, arresting seven members of the extreme right-wing Thule Society—an occultist, anti-Semitic group that was organising nationalist agitation against the communist regime. Among the seven were Countess Heila von Westarp and Prince Gustav von Thurn und Taxis, who were both shot dead in the cellars of the Luitpold Gymnasium on 30 April. The next day, the Free Corps attacked, and gained control of the city forty-eight hours later. A rightist reign of terror then replaced the leftist one: some 650 people were shot by the Free Corps, more than half of them “civilians.” But the net effect was the restoration of central government control over Bavaria.

For all his later hostility to communism, the “November criminals”* and the Bavarian Soviet Republic, Hitler’s role in all of this was curiously ambiguous. He acted as a company and battalion representative on one of the soldiers’ councils,4 and as far as he made any public comment on the situation at the time, he was generally supportive of the SPD-led provisional government. Certainly, he played no part in the Free Corps’ attack on the leftists.

It was at this point that Hitler’s fortunes changed. Although he was scheduled to be demobilised from the army, he had come to the attention of Captain Karl Mayr, an officer who had been assigned to organise courses of political instruction to guide the soldiery away from radical, revolutionary views. Mayr seems to have met Hitler in the aftermath of the suppression of the communists in Munich and recognised some hitherto unseen talent in him. He booked Hitler onto a short political indoctrination course at Munich University—in which the students were both indoctrinated themselves and taught how to indoctrinate others—and then assigned him to a camp for returning soldiers as part of an “enlightenment squad.” The idea was that the soldiers would be given the “correct” perspective on recent events in Germany. Having impressed his superiors in this task, in the late summer Hitler assumed the role of liaison officer between the army and the bewildering number of intensely right-wing parties and factions that had sprung up across Bavaria. It was a fateful appointment. On 12 September, he was commissioned to visit and write a report on a group calling itself the German Workers’ Party, which had formed around a former locksmith, Anton Drexler, and a sports journalist, Karl Harrer. During the course of discussions among the group’s members, someone suggested that Bavaria should secede from Germany and seek union with Austria. Unable to contain himself, Hitler jumped in, angrily denounced the idea and railed against the proposer of the motion. Impressed by his eloquence, the leaders of the group invited him to come to their next meeting. Two days after his second visit, Hitler accepted the party’s invitation to join as the member responsible for propaganda and recruitment.

He threw himself into the role with enthusiasm, and within a month had organised a public meeting attended by over a hundred people. Spurred on by this success, in February 1920 he persuaded nearly two thousand people to pack into the Hofbräuhaus in Munich. There he faced down some noisy opposition from a rowdy audience, changed the name of the organisation to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party,* and presented a twenty-five-point plan to solve Germany’s ills. Hitler remembered this meeting as the moment when he realised where his destiny lay: as a politician and orator. A few months later, he was discharged from the army and set off down the path that would lead, less than thirteen years later, to the chancellorship of Germany and the subsequent horrors of the Third Reich.

Hitler rapidly struck a chord in post–First World War Bavaria, appealing not only to the ex-servicemen and street-corner toughs who comprised the early membership of the NSDAP, but to a much wider audience. Many of his fellow ex-soldiers firmly agreed that they had not been defeated in the war, but “stabbed in the back” by socialists, Bolsheviks, Jews, capitalists and speculators, who had then tried to take over the country while the heroes of the armed forces were stuck at the front. (Of course, this ignored the reality that many of the revolutionaries were themselves soldiers.) The population of Germany endured great deprivation during the war but was continuously misled by its leaders into thinking that the military and strategic situation was much better than it actually was. That partly explains why the final defeat of the German Army came as such a shock to soldiers and civilians alike, most of whom were convinced that victory was near at hand.

From the late nineteenth century onwards, a division had started to widen in the German middle class. At the upper end, professionals, successful businessmen and high-ranking civil servants had become almost indistinguishable, both financially and socially, from the aristocracy and traditional “ruling” class. After all, their activities had given the emerging Reich the industrial and intellectual muscle to take its place on the world stage. Meanwhile, the lower middle class of small farmers and businessmen, shopkeepers and, above all, the great army of white-collar clerks, low-level officials, teachers, civil servants and junior managers had come under the twin pressures of large-scale corporate capitalism from above and organised labour from below. This had produced a move towards right-wing radicalism with undertones of nationalism and anti-Semitism even before the outbreak of the First World War. But Germany’s defeat, and the subsequent upheavals as the old order collapsed, greatly exacerbated the lower middle class’s dislocation: small businesses failed and hard-earned savings were wiped out by rampant inflation. The National Socialist message was that this was the work of the Jews and the communists—as far as Hitler was concerned, the two were virtually synonymous—not the inevitable result of German expansionist nationalism. This perspective resonated as much with the struggling lower middle class as it did with the bewildered ex-soldiers.

Hitler was the outstanding personality within the party, and he assumed leadership as early as 1921. Under his guidance, over the next couple of years the NSDAP steadily built its strength as a local party. The atmosphere in Bavaria—as in much of the rest of the country—remained violent and edgy, but it was also tinged with a strong separatist element: the largely Catholic population saw itself as different from the Protestant north, and many Bavarians resented rule from Berlin. Anger between left and right remained fierce, too, with the communists’ short-lived republic widely remembered as a “reign of horror.”5 The factions that had faced off against each other back then now disrupted each other’s political meetings, with violence often the end result.

Many of the Free Corps had entered into border skirmishes with Germany’s eastern neighbours, initially with the tacit approval of the central government. But pressure from the victorious Allies eventually forced the government to disband and attempt to disarm the Free Corps and other militias in the summer of 1921. Some weapons were surrendered or seized as a result of this campaign, but many remained in circulation, in the hands of both left- and right-wing groups. The German government and High Command were prepared to tolerate this volatile situation for one very good reason. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Germany’s standing army had been limited to just one hundred thousand men, which obviously left the country vulnerable to attack. However, the militias could potentially provide tens of thousands more well-armed, well-trained men to defend Germany at a moment’s notice, so it was hardly surprising that the country’s leaders were far from enthusiastic about disarming them.

Around this time, Hitler formed an alliance with a serving army officer—Hauptmann (Captain) Ernst Röhm—a Bavarian career soldier who had fought as a company commander during the war. A staunch monarchist, Röhm had participated in the suppression of the revolutionary government in Bavaria. In its aftermath, he had organised an anti-communist Einwohnerwehr (Citizens’ Militia), and armed it with a vast quantity of weapons collected from various sources. This militia was subsequently banned when the central government clamped down on the Free Corps, but Röhm retained control of its large arsenal. He also maintained connections with various right-wing groups which had provided the militia’s manpower.

Röhm’s political ambitions were fairly straightforward: he wished to see Germany return to a position of military strength with a reformed army; and he viewed Adolf Hitler as the man to achieve this. He joined the NSDAP and soon set about training the strong-arm men who were employed by the party to keep order at their meetings and protect their speakers. This was done in the party’s euphemistically titled “Gymnastic and Sport Section,”6 with the thugs taught by a group of ex–army officers—many with experience in the Free Corps—whom Röhm recruited specifically for the purpose. In August 1921, the unit was officially named the Sturmabteilung Hitler (SA—Assault Detachment Hitler), which was coined to bring to mind the elite “storm troops” that had fought in the trenches.

However, Hitler and Röhm had different ideas about the unit’s role. The party leader saw its members as political soldiers: “a force to stick up election posters, use its knuckle-dusters in meeting-hall fights and impress the discipline-loving Germans by propaganda marches.”7 By contrast, Röhm and his subordinates viewed themselves as a genuine military force. They knew that they had been included in the army’s secret mobilisation plans and had received military training from the Munich garrison. Hitler’s response to this was to bring in his own man as leader of the SA in early 1923, leaving Röhm to organise yet another militia outside of the party (although he remained a close associate of Hitler). Captain Hermann Goering had won the “Blue Max”* as commander of the Richthofen fighter squadron during the war and he possessed an air of glamour, as well as considerable military ability. Goering organised a headquarters to coordinate the activities of the various groupings that made up the SA,† but Hitler remained suspicious of its members’ motives. Consequently, he placed his and his close associates’ personal protection in the hands of a new group that was christened the Stabswache (Headquarters Guard). The members of this small group were all close associates of Hitler: working-class ex-soldiers and toughs like Emil Maurice (a former watchmaker and a gunner during the war, born in 1897), Ulrich Graf (who had organised the first Saalschutz (Hall Protection) squad—a small, informal band of toughs who had acted as an escort for National Socialist speakers) and Christian Weber. All of these men were fiercely devoted to Hitler both as a person and as their political leader.8

The Headquarters Guard lasted just a few months before it was superseded in May 1923 by a slightly larger and more organised body, named the Stosstrupp (Raiding Squad) Adolf Hitler. This was run by another SA member and companion of Hitler, Julius Schreck, and a former army officer turned stationery salesman, Joseph Berchtold. However, Weber, Maurice, Graf and other “old fighters” from the Headquarters Guard still comprised the inner cadre.9 Other members included the future diplomat Walther Hewel, who eventually became the German Foreign Office’s liaison with Hitler’s headquarters during the war.10

The first major test for the SA and the Raiding Squad came in November 1923. The conspiratorial Röhm had allied the SA with several other right-wing paramilitary groups to form the Kampfbund (Combat League), which could call on the services of approximately fifteen thousand well-armed men. Meanwhile, General Ludendorff, who had returned from exile in 1920, had begun to involve himself in the politics of the extreme right, seeing groups like the NSDAP as the means to begin national renewal. All of these parties were furious about the French occupation of the Ruhr, which had taken place in response to German non-payment of war reparations in January 1923. The Ruhr was the heart of German heavy industry, so the occupation had a paralysing effect on an already struggling economy. Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno’s government encouraged a policy of passive resistance—through strikes, minor sabotage and non-cooperation—but this led to economic collapse and consequent civil disturbance and unrest. Hyperinflation, caused by Germany’s massive war indebtedness and reparations obligations, only added to this. The NSDAP, among many other groups, advocated radical opposition to the French occupation, and Hitler sought to turn the situation to his advantage by launching the NSDAP on the national stage. In his analysis, if he could mobilise the masses, the state would be unable—and the army unwilling—to oppose them.

With the German economy in ruins, the passive resistance campaign was called off on 26 September. Then, to forestall any trouble with the radical right, which was now operating under the broad patronage of Ludendorff, a state of emergency was declared in Bavaria and power put in the hands of a triumvirate: Gustav Ritter von Kahr as State Commissar; Colonel Hans Ritter von Seisser as Chief of Police; and General Otto von Lossow as head of the Bavarian army. These triumvirs had a similar agenda to Hitler’s—the installation of a military-backed government in Berlin by coup—but they did not share his view that he should play a leading part in it. Throughout October, the Combat League negotiated with the triumvirate to little avail, basically because neither side trusted the other. Frustrated by the impasse, at the beginning of November Hitler and the Combat League decided to act.

On the evening of 8 November, a force of NSDAP supporters with Hitler at their head surrounded the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, where von Kahr was addressing a meeting commemorating the fifth anniversary of the November revolution. Von Seisser and von Lossow were also in attendance. Berchtold’s Raiding Squad aimed a machine gun at the front door and Hitler entered the hall, waving a pistol and shouting noisily. Then he jumped onto a chair and fired his weapon into the ceiling to gain attention. With all eyes focused on him, he declared that a national revolution had started and that the hall was surrounded by six hundred armed men. Then, ushering the triumvirs into a nearby room, he left it to Goering to quieten the mob.

The intention of this Putsch was to inspire something akin to Mussolini’s “March on Rome,” with the radical, patriotic right following the Bavarians’ lead throughout the country and eventually deposing the democratic regime. However, the plan soon started to unravel. The triumvirs reneged on promises they had made at pistol point as soon as they had extricated themselves from National Socialist custody. Then, as Hitler and his followers floundered through the streets, attempting to grab control of the levers of state power in Bavaria, the government, police and army organised their defences. By the next morning, the initiative was firmly back in the hands of the authorities, but in a last, desperate effort, Hitler organised a march through Munich in the hope of attracting popular support. As the rebels reached the central Odeonsplatz via the Residenzstrasse, they were confronted by a police cordon and gunfire broke out, leaving sixteen of the marchers dead and many more wounded. As the blood ran across the cobblestones and into the gutters, Hitler fled, his dream of a national revolution exposed, for now at least, as a puny farce.11

* The author’s grandfather was an infantry officer in the British Army between 1915 and 1918. He realised the retreating Germans were finally beaten when he saw their weapons and equipment abandoned by the roadside—the first time they had exhibited such lack of resolve on the Western Front.

* The SPD politicians who supposedly “stabbed the German Army in the back” in November 1918.

* The name was probably chosen to appeal across the spectrum of political views, from right-wing nationalists to left-wing socialists.

* The official name of the award was Pour le Mérite. It was the highest Prussian distinction for bravery and leadership in the First World War.

† The SA did not, at this stage, have a formal, coherent organisational structure. Rather, it consisted of a number of units and sub-units, loyal primarily to their own commanders rather than the party.

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