The Freikorps

Following the dissolution of the German army after the armistice in November 1918, some hundred and twenty Freikorps (free corps) came into being, numbering altogether about two hundred and fifty thousand men. They varied in their status, size, function and political orientation. Some were more or less legal, that is, recognized both by the Allies and the German government of the day, others were semilegal, being recognized only by the German government, while yet others were altogether illegal. Some went on fighting, with short interruptions, for several years, others existed for a few days only. Some had the strength of several divisions, whereas the Freikorps Gross Thüringen consisted of one lieutenant and thirty-two soldiers. The strength of the average free corps was that of a battalion or a brigade, and they were frequently called after their commander (Ehrhardt, Rossbach, von Loewenfeld). A very few were republican in orientation, but the great majority were right wing, or even semi-Fascist; the Baltikum Freikorps was the first to display the swastika on its helmets. The Social Democratic government tolerated some of the Freikorps because it needed military units both against external enemies who had penetrated German territory — the Poles in the east — and against the Spartacists who tried to overthrow the Social Democratic government. The government would have preferred a fighting force of reliable republicans, but there had been few, if any, republican officers in the imperial army, and if the Bolsheviks had a few months to forge a new one, the German Social Democrats had only a few days.

Some Freikorps joined forces with the White armies against the Bolsheviks, others provided cover for the retreating German armies from the east, others again served as border police, or fought against Communist paramilitary units inside Germany. Many free corps had official recruitment offices in the major towns, this leading to frequent abuses, such as new recruits enlisting in several units at one and the same time. The general atmosphere reminded observers of Wallenstein and the age of the Thirty Years’ War. The activities described so far would have been those normal to regular army units, the police or border guards. But in addition, there were operations of traditional guerrilla character — in Upper Silesia against Polish units, in Carinthia against the Yugoslavs, in the Ruhr in 1923 against the French occupiers, and in the Rhineland against the local separatists.

The fighting in Upper Silesia was the heaviest and in many ways the most confused because it was carried out by partisan units on both sides; on the German side the Bavarian “Oberland” Freikorps was prominently involved, while the Poles were led by Adalbert Wojciech Korfanty, a former member of the German Beichstag, a gifted and very ambitious politician and propagandist, who later became deputy prime minister in Poland. The Allied statesmen had left the fate of Upper Silesia wide open and Korfanty, with the discreet help of the Polish government, tried to maneuver as many faits accomplis as possible before a plebiscite took place. He had earlier successfully engineered an insurrection in Poznan, but he found the going in Silesia much rougher. The Poles were a minority except in some mining and rural districts; besides, not all Polish-speaking Silesians supported the Polish cause. The German irregulars, while badly equipped, were more numerous, and to make matters still worse for him, coordination between Korfanty and his officers was deficient. Both sides committed acts of senseless terror. The Germans assassinated a senior French officer, the Poles killed some forty Italian soldiers who were to supervise the plebiscite. But whereas the French supported the Poles anyway, the Italians and the British, who had been neutral in the dispute, were incensed by the Polish attacks. Since the Polish government very much depended on Allied goodwill, it had to dissociate itself eventually from Korfanty. Meanwhile, in May 1921, a major battle took place at Annaberg in which the Poles were routed. Some Polish officers wanted to fight on, but Korfanty accepted an armistice and later a political decision which gave Poland the more important part of the Upper Silesian coal mines. Altogether, some sixty thousand Poles and thirty thousand Germans were involved in the fighting in Upper Silesia. It was to a large extent war by proxy; Germany still had a regular army but it could not be used for fear of French intervention, For different reasons, Poland could not employ its new armed forces. Thus, military operations in Upper Silesia on both sides turned into partisan warfare, with the local population the principal victim.

In Carinthia, operations were on a more restricted scale. German-speaking peasants organized themselves into small units but the conflict was no less bitter, because it was waged between neighbors, dividing little villages and even hamlets into two armed camps. The struggle against the French occupation of the Ruhr had the support of all German political parties. It took for the most part the form of passive resistance, which still did not inhibit the occasional terrorist act, such as the mining of the railway line between Duisburg and Düsseldorf, This sabotage was organized by Albert Leo Schlageter, an early member of the Nazi party who had fought with the Freikorps in Upper Silesia. Apprehended by the French, he was executed in May 1923, thus becoming the earliest martyr of Hitler’s Third Reich, a “fighter for national liberation who had paid the supreme penalty for his patriotic idealism.”

The free corps consisted chiefly of former officers and soldiers of the Imperial army (some Freikorps consisted entirely of young officers), but students who had been too young to fight in the Great War also volunteered. The veterans were quite familiar with the tactics of fighting in the open country, but they were not accustomed to street battles and they learned only by trial and error the technique of crowd control. The great majority of the soldiers of the Freikorps were right-wing activists, many of them becoming even more radical in their opposition to the Weimar Republic as the fighting continued. But traditional labels are of only limited help in explaining the Freikorps phenomenon. Bitterly opposed though they were to Communism, they hated the Poles and the French even more; not a few of them were enthusiastic advocates of a German-Soviet military alliance against Poland and the West. The spirit of Tauroggen, the anti-Napoleonic convention of 1813, was again conjured up. There are many illustrations of the antibourgeois and anticapitalist spirit prevailing in these units. They despised the “fat, cowardly bourgeois’ and all he stood for; and they made it known, time and time again, that they had not the slightest wish to fight for the preservation of this social order. They had far more respect for their enemies, the Communists, and the Communists tried hard to attract members of the free corps to their ranks. Karl Radek devoted a friendly essay to the memory of Schlageter. Schlageter and his comrades were, so he wrote, men of goodwill, confused or misguided nationalists, who could be swayed either way. They were uprooted men, radicals who shared with the Communists the militancy, the desire to overthrow the political system. “I cannot go home and start the old life,” one of them wrote later, “my Germany is where the Verey lights illuminate the sky, where the time of day is estimated according to the strength of the artillery barrage. It ends where the train for Cologne departs.”

The radicalism of the Freikorps also found expression in their way of life. Former colonels served under the command of lieutenants, and there was equal pay for all, from general to the youngest recruit. There was little marauding in these campaigns in comparison with other guerrilla wars. Individual banditry was not in the Prussian tradition, it was detrimental to discipline; the state, the collective, was entitled to maraud on a grand scale, but not the individual. Many members of the free corps joined the Reichswehr in later years. Many became supporters of the Nazi party, but only a few rose to its top leadership. There was a tendency in the Third Reich to play down, not so much the historical role of the Freikorps in general, but that of those who had taken a leading part in them. Some former Freikorps men were killed in the Nazi purge of June 1934, others deviated from the Nazi cause in time and were imprisoned or executed. The volunteers of the Freikorps fared a little better under Hitler than the Old Bolsheviks under Stalin, but not by very much.