The Weimar Republic - Germany’s first democracy

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The Military

The military wielded considerable power in the Weimar Republic. This was a logical consequence of the militarism inherited from the era of Kaiser Wilhelm and the influence of World War I, during which Germany was governed by the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL; Army High Command). The OHL’s power was fully consolidated no later than 1916, from which time it ruled as a full-fledged military dictatorship. The dictatorship, in a clever move, transferred the responsibility for peace negotiations to politicians, enabling it to spread the lie of the stab-in-the-back myth later on. The young republic was not able to raise its own army during the November Revolution because the workers’ movement was divided. The led to a situation in which the Majority Socialists fell back on the OHL and anti-communist volunteer formations called Freikorps for support - a fatal mistake. Furthermore, the Treaty of Versailles imposed conditions that contributed to the military’s radicalization. The Reichswehr (Imperial Army) remained a right-wing “state within the state” and was politically lethal for the republican system. This was demonstrated by the Kapp Putsch in 1920 and at the end of the Weimar Republic.

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Wilhelm Groener

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 102-01049)

1867-1939

  • Became Generalquartiermeister (Quartermaster general) of the OHL in 1918
  • Joined forces with Friedrich Ebert
  • Served as minister in several governments up to 1932

During World War I, Groener organized the transportation of the German army’s troops. After Erich Ludendorff was dismissed in October 1918, he became Quartermaster general, which made him the head of the OHL for all intents and purposes. In this role, he organized the withdrawal of the millions of German troops in the field. At the same time, he tried to promote the military’s interests by influencing political developments. On 10 November 1918, he offered Friedrich Ebert his support. He subsequently managed to defend the officer corps’ standing. In contrast to other military officers, he promoted the view that the Reichswehr’s (Imperial Army’s) proper role was to protect the republic. After resigning from the army, he was appointed cabinet member several times. When he took strong measures against the Nazi Party in 1932, Kurt von Schleicher dismissed him.

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Hans von Seeckt

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-085-36)

1866-1936

  • Head of the Army Command from 1920 to 1926
  • Held executive power in 1923
  • Member of the Reichstag from 1930 to 1933

During World War I, Hans von Seeckt first served on the Western Front, then as a military advisor for Austria-Hungary and the de facto Chief of Staff of the Ottoman Army. In 1920, he became the head of the Truppenamt (general staff) of the Reichswehr (Imperial Army). In this function, he refused to send in the Reichswehr to combat the troops of the Kapp Putsch (“Troops do not shoot at other troops”). He stayed in office despite this and in the midst of the crises of 1923, Friedrich Ebert granted him executive power over the Reich. Seeckt developed the concept of an apolitical Reichswehr as a “state within a state”. In 1930, he became a DVP member of the Reichstag. Later on, he worked as a military advisor in China.

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Georg Maercker

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R39659)

1865-1924

  • General

Georg Maercker joined the army in 1885. He fought the Herero people in a brutal war in German South West Africa. During World War I, he fought on multiple fronts and was injured several times. Shortly after November Revolution, he decided that Freikorps units should be founded. The OHL supported him in this endeavor. He put his Landesjägerkorps (Volunteer Rifles) unit under the command of Friedrich Ebert’s government. It was then used to put down the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin and to provide security for the National Assembly in Weimar. From March to summer 1919, Maercker’s Freikorps units attacked the councils in Thuringia, Halle, Magdeburg, and Braunschweig, putting down their uprisings in bloody clashes. During the Kapp Putsch, Maercker first stood back to wait and see. He then decided to not help the putsch leaders.

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Erich Ludendorff

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2008-0277 )

1865-1937

  • Became Generalquartiermeister (Quartermaster general) of the OHL in 1916
  • Championed the stab-in-the-back myth
  • Participated in Hitler’s putsch in 1923

Erich Ludendorff was already climbing the career ladder quickly as a military officer before World War I; during the war, his career truly took off. In 1916, he managed to oust Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, taking control of the OHL together with Paul von Hindenburg. This put him basically at the top of the military dictatorship, with the Kaiser’s and the Reichskanzler’s (Chancellor’s) power paling in comparison. With his Hindenburg Program, he mobilized Germany’s last reserves for the war. Despite this, he had to admit in September 1918 that the war was lost. Yet he shifted the blame for the defeat to politicians. After resigning, he became active in nationalist, völkisch circles, spreading the stab-in-the-back myth. In November 1923, he participated in the Beer Hall Putsch. Afterwards, Ludendorff’s close ties with Hitler broke off and he turned to crude conspiracy theories and left public affairs to tend to his private life.

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Paul von Hindenburg

1847-1934

  • Headed the OHL in World War I
  • Elected Reichspräsident (President of the Reich) in 1925
  • Helped Hitler rise to power in 1933

Paul von Hindenburg was already retired when World War I broke out. He was called back to active duty because the Russian army was advancing on the Eastern Front. With the victory of Tannenberg, he saved the Eastern Front and the Hindenburg myth was born. In 1916, he was appointed head of the OHL, with practically dictatorial power. In line with this, he fiercely opposed the revolution and the new republic. Knowing it was not true, he claimed that the German army had not been defeated by the enemy; instead, its ability to fight on had been destroyed by the unrest within Germany (“stab-in-the-back myth”). In the presidential elections’ second round of voting, he was nominated by the right-wing parties - and won by a slim majority. This led to a paradox: an open opponent of the republic becoming its head of state. At first, Hindenburg respected the legal framework and laws of the republic. Yet with the crises starting at the end of the 1920s, he weakening the democracy more and more via emergency decrees and dictatorial presidential cabinets. Finally, at the beginning of 1933, he appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor, plunging Germany into a dark dictatorship.

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Kurt von Schleicher

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 136-B0228)

1882-1934

  • German officer, last rank: General of the Infantry
  • Chancellor from 1932 to 1933

Schleicher was born into an aristocratic Prussian family in Brandenburg in 1882. His father Hermann von Schleicher was an officer in the Prussian army. Like his father, he pursued a career in the Prussian military. Following his mentor Wilhelm Groener, he was appointed to the Kriegsamt (German War Office). In 1917, he was sent to the Galician Front. Thanks to his close ties with Groener and Groener’s pact with Friedrich Ebert, Schleicher successfully adapted to the new order after the November Revolution. In 1919, Schleicher was transferred to the Reich’s Ministry of Defense, where he became one of Hans von Seeckt’s closest staff members. When his department was transformed into a ministerial office, Schleicher became a civil servant with the rank of state secretary - a promotion. In 1932, he used his connections in the president’s office to have first Papen then himself appointed chancellor. Yet his attempts to convince the Nazis to join the government coalition failed. After secret talks between Hindenburg, Papen, and Hitler to have Hitler appointed chancellor, Schleicher stepped down at the end of January 1933, recommending Hitler as the new chancellor.

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Alfred von Tirpitz

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 134-B2595)

1949-1930

  • Naval officer, last rank: Großadmiral (grand admiral)
  • Co-founder of the DNVP (German National People’s Party)
  • Member of the Reichstag

Tirpitz was and is known in Germany first and foremost for his role in building up the German navy’s fleet under Kaiser Wilhelm II. Together with the Kaiser, he pushed through the armament of the fleet from the turn of the century, alienating the United Kingdom more and more. In the end, he resigned in 1916 because he, the Kaiser, and the Chancellor could not find common ground regarding unrestricted submarine warfare. Together with Wolfgang Kapp, he founded the nationalist and völkisch German Fatherland Party in 1917, reacting to the Reichstag’s peace resolution. After the war, he founded the DNVP with other conservatives. From 1924 to 1928, he was a DNVP member of the Reichstag.

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Walther von Lüttwitz

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-0718-501)

1849-1942

  • German soldier, last rank: General of the Infantry
  • Major figure of the Kapp Putsch of 1920

In 1859, Walther von Lüttwitz was born into an aristocratic family in Bodland, Silesia. He joined the military, reaching the rank of lieutenant general by the time World War I started. In March 1918, he served as the commanding general of the 3rd Army Corps during the German army’s Spring Offensive, which failed in the end. After the war, the Council of People’s Representatives appointed him commander of the troops in Berlin and vicinity in December 1918. In this function, he was in charge of maintaining order in the Reich’s capital and ending unrest. In January 1919, he headed the suppression of the Spartacist Uprising, during which Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered. After the Treaty of Versailles took effect, he spoke out against the plans to disband the Freikorps and reduce the army to 100,000 men. The government rejected Lüttwitz’s requests and withdrew his authority as commander of the troops in Berlin. At that, he joined forces with Wolfgang Kapp and his fellow conspirators. Together, they attempted a putsch in March 1920, with Lüttwitz’s troops occupying Berlin and Kapp becoming the new chancellor. The attempt failed after just a few days and Lüttwitz flew to Hungary. In 1924, he returned to Germany, having been granted amnesty.

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Walther Reinhardt

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 102-04825)

1872-1930

  • German officer, last rank: General of the Infantry
  • Prussian Minister of War
  • Head of the Army Command of the Reichswehr

Reinhardt’s father was an officer of the Army of Württemberg. Like his father, Reinhardt started his military career there. Reinhardt reached high-level ranks during the war, serving in a number of its theaters. Just before the end of the war, at the beginning of November 1918, he was transferred to the Prussian Ministry of War to serve as a department head. After the revolution started, Reinhardt served as Prussia’s last minister of war, from January to September 1919. With the army’s reorganization and Gustav Noske appointed the Reich’s Minister of Defense, the Ministry of War was dissolved. However, Reinhardt still managed to consolidate his standing, taking the helm of the new Reichswehr (Imperial Army). He worked to bolster the Reichswehr’s respect for the republic, whereas his competitor Hans von Seeckt, the head of the Truppenamt (general staff), was hostile towards the democratic state. Accordingly, in contrast to Seeckt, Reinhardt promoted the use of the Reichswehr to put down the Kapp Putsch. Due to the events surrounding the Kapp Putsch, Noske and Reinhardt resigned. Reinhardt’s successor was - of all people - the republic’s enemy Hans von Seeckt.

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Glossar

Abkürzungs- und Siglenverzeichnis der verwendeten Literatur:

ADGBFederation of German General Trade Unions
AEGGeneral Electricity Company
AfA-BundGeneral Free Federation of Employees
AGCorporation
AVUSAutomobile Traffic and Training Road
BMWBavarian Motor Works
BRTgross register tons
BVPBavarian People’s Party
CenterCenter Party
DAPGerman Workers’ Party
DDPGerman Democratic Party
DNTGerman National Theater
DNVPGerman National People’s Party
DVPGerman People’s Party
GmbHLimited (form of company)
KominternCommunist International
KPDCommunist Party of Germany
KVPConservative People’s Party
LKWtrucks
MSPDMajority Social Democratic Party of Germany; the Majority Socialists
NSnational socialism (Nazi)
NSDAPNational Socialist German Workers’ Party; Nazi party
NVNational Assembly
O.C.Organization Consul
OHLArmy High Command
RMReichsmark
SASturmabteilung; Brownshirts
SPDSocial Democratic Party of Germany
SSSchutzstaffel
StGBPenal Code
UfAUniversum Film Aktiengesellschaft
USPDIndependent Social Democratic Party of Germany
VKPDUnited Communist Party of Germany
ZentrumCenter Party
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(zusammengestellt von Dr. Jens Riederer und Christine Rost, bearbeitet von Stephan Zänker)