You are using an outdated browser. For a faster, safer browsing experience, upgrade for free today.


Arming the Counter-Revolution

Freikorps is a term for paramilitary units made up of former German soldiers and officers, citizen-volunteers and right-wing students. Some can only be recruited with the promise of high wages while others don’t want to give up soldiering and do not want to return to their civilian professions. They share the experience of defeat in World War I, they reject the peace agreements, sharing anti-bolshevist, anti-feminist, misogynist and homophobic views and dream of an authoritarian state redraft. Not only do the majority of Freikorps soldiers reject the new democratic government, they also propagate the antisemitic myth of the "betrayal on the home front", the forerunner of the "stab-in-the-back legend". This is a conspiracy theory that blames Social Democracy, hated by authoritarian forces, for Germany's defeat in World War I and has become one of the central motives of right-wing sentiment in the interwar period. At the very latest, during the Kapp-Lüttwitz-Coup in 1920, the swastika appears in Leipzig as a symbol and identification mark for opponents of the revolution.

A fateful pact with the enemies of the Republic

By the second day of the revolution, a precarious pact is made between the German Social Democrats under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert who later becomes the first Imperial President. Despite all the ideological incompatibility, their common goal is the disempowerment of the self-organized Workers' and Soldiers' Councils. These councils have their origins in the Russian Revolution of 1905 and they once again played an important role in the Revolution of 1917. These "Russian roots" polarize the perception of the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils in the German population and politics. Conservative forces believe they are the harbingers of "Bolshevism". Especially for Independent Social Democrats and Spartacists, they represent a grassroots democratic alternative to parliamentary democracy. Ebert's aversion to the councils can – beside his strife for staying in power – be understood in the light of the rampant, irrational fear of a revolution based on the Bolshevik model, which must be thwarted in Germany at all costs, and if necessary, with the help of counterrevolutionary and authoritarian forces.

Freikorps Maercker against the last bastion of the revolution in Leipzig

In the early summer of 1919, Leipzig becomes one of the last strongholds of the revolution after several Workers' and Soldiers' Councils in other locations had been dissolved by military force. By order of Gustav Noske, the Imperial Minister of the Armed Forces, the self-proclaimed "bloodhound" among the ruling Social Democrats, General Georg Maercker is conscripted to overthrow the Leipzig council administration. Between 1904 and 1907, Maercker took part in the genocide of the Herero and Nama tribes in the former colony German-Southwest Africa (Namibia). It is no wonder that he is known as "der Städtebezwinger" (the City Conqueror) - with a massive military presence and sometimes brutal use of force. He has already disarmed and "pacified" several other council-administered cities, including Gotha, Eisenach, Erfurt, Halle and Magdeburg. At the beginning of May, the approximately 15,000-strong Landesjägerkorps (Federal Military Police Corps) march into Leipzig with heavy artillery, grenade launchers, cavalry and an assault tank under the leadership of General Maercker. As it is clear to the revolutionaries that Maercker and his troops will show no mercy and that resistance to such superior forces would only lead to senseless bloodshed, major protest strikes do not take place. Unlike the revolutionary security forces in other cities, the Leipziger Volkswehr (People’s Army), is disarmed with little resistance. As a result, Maercker has the Workers' and Soldiers' Council dissolved and its leading members arrested. As elsewhere, all communist newspapers are banned at Noske's behest and the editorial office of the Leipziger Volkszeitung (Leipzig People’s Newspaper) is temporarily closed. With the military occupation of Leipzig, the power of the councils throughout Saxony is broken and the last bastion of the revolution left in Germany falls.

The Kapp-Lüttwitz Coup in 1920

As a reaction to the reduction of the German army as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles and the dissolution of all Freikorps as ordered by the federal government, the nationalist right wing attempts a nationwide coup. Among the key figures are General Walther von Lüttwitz, highest ranking officer in the Imperial Army, and Wolfgang Kapp, the East Prussian administrative official,co-founder of the nationalist Fatherland Party. Together with trade unions, majority party social democrats and independent social democrats, the government calls for a nationwide general strike, that had spontaneously started in many places as a reaction to the news of the coup. The German Communist Party also joins the strike call and the largest general strike in German history takes place. After only four and a half days, 12 million working people throughout Germany successfully end the right-wing coup attemptbut cannot prevent the Imperial government from now deploying the military against the striking and rebelling workers, especially in the Ruhr and in the Vogtland region of Saxony. In Leipzig alone, after numerous decentralized rallies, tens of thousands are on their way to an assembly on Augustusplatz. Without warning, revolting military personnel and members of a quickly assembled "Volunteer Regiment" which includes many University of Leipzig students, shoot at one of the demonstration marches and cause a bloodbath that leaves more than 40 dead and 100 injured. The People’s Army and workers' guards respond to the brutal action of the coup rebels with barricades and roadblocks in almost all parts of the city. The nationwide resistance to the right-wing coup quickly forces a ceasefire which does not last long in Leipzig. While many people are attending the funeral at the Südfriedhof (Leipzig South Cemetery) for the victims of the counterrevolution, the Volkshaus is set on fire and stormed by Army putschists. For the moment, this is the final insidious revolt against the young republic and the defenders of a democratically-elected but not universally popular government.