The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch nearly ending the Weimar Republic (March, 1920)

After the German Empire lost the First World War and the Kaiser abdicated, the newly established Weimar Republic lingered in an incredibly unstable and chaotic situation. Both the far left and far right rejected parliamentary democracy. It’s a very fascinating time period with many different parties, interests and developments rapidly following each other up. As a matter of fact, I wrote my thesis in university about the democratisation process of the Free State of Prussia, and it was very intriguing to delve into the political machinations developing within that young Weimar Republic. One of the most infamous events must have been the Kapp Putsch. During the night of March 12 1920, an elite paramilitary unit entered Berlin. It aimed to overthrow the democratically elected government and install an autocratic military regime. Surprisingly enough, these paramilitary troops enjoyed support from the actual army and a considerable number of civil servants. For a moment, it looked like the young Weimar Republic already came to an end, before it really had begun. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H25109 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

Prelude to the Coup

President of the new Weimar Republic was the Social-Democrat Friedrich Ebert. As interim chancellor following Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication in November 1918, he immediately was confronted with many obstacles and hurdles to establish anything that resembled a stable democracy in the former German Empire. These early events and political developments are essential to understand how the Kapp Putsch eventually came to be. 

The Social-Democratic movement, although the largest party in parliament, itself wasn’t uniform. In December 1918, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschland was established. It was a small splinter party without any mass support, since most German workers didn’t feel much for a communist revolution. Yet there was increasing radicalisation among the left-wing, such as the Independent SPD, a split-off left-wing version of the traditional social democrats. This led to more moderate social democrats such as Ebert, to drift towards the German Reich’s traditional powerhouses such as the army, known as the Reichswehr, judiciary, bureaucracy and the centre- and centre-right parties. 

Now, the Spartakists were a radical split-off group from the left-wing branch of the social democratic party. Their goal was to unleash a communist revolution and establish a government system similar to that of Soviet Russia, through violent means. Ebert was a man of the centre who had an aversion to radical communism just as much as far-right extremism. So considering the fragmentation of the political left, when the communist Spartakist uprising erupted in early January 1919, Ebert resorted to requesting the help of the Reichswehr and Freikorps. Freikorps were paramilitary units consisting of soldiers and veterans that served in the First World War. These paramilitary bands often were far-right reactionary timebombs. They helped to bloodily suppress the communist Spartakist uprising, however. 

Another problem that contributed to the instability of the Weimar Republic was the Treaty of Versailles. One of the Treaty’s demands was that the Reichswehr should be reduced to 100.000 men by 1920. Considering 1919 estimations of soldiers enlisted in the Reichswehr were between 350.000 and 400.000, this would lead to monumental lay-offs from the Reichswehr. And the Allies also demanded that before April 1920 all Freikorps, paramilitary units, should be disbanded. Considering it is estimated at that time Freikorps housed approximately 250.000 veterans and soldiers alike, this could lead to some real problems. The job prospects in the new, unstable republic weren’t exactly promising. As time progressed, the democratic government realised the danger, Freikorpses posed. Although they were useful in suppressing far-left revolts, many politicians started to feel the reactionary sympathies of the Freikorpses were a grave danger to the Weimar Republic as well. As such, something had to be done about them.

The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch

When in February 1920 the Weimar Republic’s Minister of Defence, Gustav Noske, demanded the disbandment of one of the most powerful Freikorps, Marinebrigade Erhardt, trouble broke out. The elite Marinebrigade was named after its commander, Captain Hermann Erhardt. Around 6000-men strong, most of its soldiers had seen combat during the First World War, in the Baltics soon after, and many of them were officers from the former Kaiserliche Marine. Erhardt’s response to Noske’s demand for the dissolution of his Freikorps was that he would under no circumstances even consider it. 

In protest, he staged a military parade through Berlin’s streets without notifying the democratic government on March 1st. The commander of the Reichswehr in Berlin, Walther von Lüttwitz, sided with Erhardt. He outright refused to disband the brigade, claiming it was imperative to combat far-left agitators. During the next week, he demanded the democratic government step down, organise new elections and have himself appointed as commander of the entire Reichswehr. Openly rejecting the democratic government’s authority could lead to nothing else but the resignation of Lüttwitz, which is precisely what president Ebert and Noske demanded. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J0305-0600-003 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

Following a meeting between Lüttwitz, Noske and Ebert, the former was dismissed from active service. Still, the democratic government didn’t realise a coup was on its way. Because Lüttwitz, in fact, had already ordered Erhardt to prepare his troops to take over Berlin. He now lobbied for support among nationalist and monarchist parties and persons, such as war hero Erich Ludendorff and the ultra-conservative activist and high-ranking civil servant Wolfgang Kapp and the nationalist DNVP party. Although the DNVP officially did not conspire to overthrow the government, they neglected to inform them about Lüttwitz’s plans. These groups now conspired to overthrow the Weimar Republic’s democratic government and install an authoritarian military regime.

During the whole coup, Kapp’s task was to make sure that to the public it seemed most civil servants supported the coup attempt. He was designated as the Chancellor of the new, illegitimate government. It’s where the events that were about to transpire got its name.

Wolfgang Kapp

On the evening of March 12 1920, Marinebrigade Erhardt marched into Berlin and made their way to occupy government buildings. When Noske requested the Reichswehr put down the coup attempt in the republic’s capital, General Hans von Seeckt refused. He argued that “Reichswehr doesn’t shoot at Reichswehr.” As such, Berlin was relatively easily overtaken by Lüttwitz’s combined troops. And this course of events says a lot about the dubious loyalties of many parties during those early years of the Weimar Republic.

Kapp formed a provisional government, declared himself Reich chancellor, minister-president of Prussia and appointed Lüttwitz as supreme commander-in-chief and Minister of the Army. Meanwhile, in Berlin, democratic politicians fled the city, afraid of being arrested and unable to trust the Reichswehr that was supposed to protect them. In colonnes they drove to Stuttgart, all the while communicating with commanders of the Reichswehr and trade union leaders in desperate attempts to find a way to quash the coup.

From then on negotiations between Lüttwitz, the military, and the legitimate Weimar government ensued. In addition, the legitimate government coalition supported several trade unions that opposed the coup. Soon after the government left Berlin, they issued an official proclamation calling on the German people for a general strike. As a sign of how little popular support the coup enjoyed, massive strikes broke out among not just the working class, but also among civil servants throughout the country. In total 12 million people went on strike during these days. In Berlin daily life ran to a standstill. Gas, light and electricity all cut off. Besides some slight annoyances, this resulted in the coup’s orchestrators resolving to communicate via couriers’ letters instead of telegrams. It was the single largest strike in German history. 

Pamphlet by the legitimate government

It’s rather challenging to understand who did and who did not support the coup. Several Reichswehr and Navy commanders immediately jumped at the opportunity to proclaim their support for the usurpers. There certainly was no military resistance against the Marinebrigade parading through the streets. According to historians Dietrich Orlow and Christopher Clark, large parts of the army, police and civil servants recognised the new government and supported the coup. In East Prussia, for example, the entire bureaucracy recognised the new government. Yet in the west of the country, most commanders and high-ranking civil servants assumed a neutral position, waiting for events to unfold before they chose a side.

Whether the attempt enjoyed support among these groups or not didn’t matter eventually anyway. Because the strikes among the working class and a considerable number of civil servants led to the entire country to be paralyzed. The strikes spread throughout Germany and four days after Erhardt and his troops entered Berlin, the coup was brought to an end by the same people that initiated it. They simply were unable to govern the country. Brokering their resignation, the democratic governing parties promised new elections following the resignation of Kapp and Lüttwitz. 

Both Kapp and Lüttwitz received passports to flee the country from sympathisers in the police force.  Kapp fled to Sweden where he remained for two years. He returned to Germany due to his ill health and was charged with high treason. Yet before his case was brought to court, he passed away in June 1922. Lüttwitz fled to Hungary, and Erhardt went into hiding in Bavaria. Other participants of the coup fled the country. 

Strike against the coup

Ironically, the Kapp Putsch nearly achieved the exact opposite of what it aimed for. Following its failure, left-wing riots broke out, orchestrated by far-left parties that tried to unleash the communist revolution in Germany. These became known as the March-uprisings. The Ruhr Uprising is the best known of these, where nearly 50.000 workers rose up against the Reichswehr and several Freikorps. It resulted in nearly 3000 deaths, a significantly higher number than that during the Kapp Putsch.

In the subsequent June 1920 German federal elections, the Social-Democratic party lost over a third of its seats. The nationalist DNVP and extreme left-wing USPD were the winners of the election. The centre coalition of the Weimar government lost its majority. Two factions emerged: an anti-democratic and pro-republican faction, neither supported by a majority in parliament.

Having his arm twisted in negotiating with the army and giving a lot of concessions, Ebert’s moderate coalition remained heavily dependent on the Reichswehr, which often had anti-democratic sympathies. Under General Hans von Seeckt, later to be appointed as commander-in-chief, the Reichswehr became a ‘state within a state.’ And, well, the Weimar Republic remained an unstable democracy. Although the democratic government received an incredible amount of support from the working classes, which resulted in a popular strike, it cannot be seen as anything but a hopeful development for German democracy. 

Boterman, F. (2011). Moderne geschiedenis van Duitsland: 1800-heden. Singel Uitgeverijen.
Wielenga, F. (1992). Duitsland en de democratie 1871-1990. Boom Koninklijke Uitgevers.

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