Paramilitary Politics in Weimar Germany Analysis

James M. Diehl

Paramilitary Politics in Weimar Germany

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

During the late 1960’s the streets of the United States were alive with demonstration and protest. Most were peaceful, and they were responsibly handled by civil authorities. But some were violent, and the response of the forces of “law and order,” on occasion, were equally brutal. The chanting of demonstrators, the smashing of window glass, the smell of tear gas, the clatter of helicopter blades, and even the crack of small arms fire, were heard on campuses from coast to coast and even in the Midwestern heartland.

During those years there were Americans who, recalling the violent polarization of Weimar Germany, wondered if something similar were happening here. If so, might that chaotic situation be followed by some American form of Fascist dictatorship? Academic conferences were held, editorials were written, and many a scholar was challenged to defend the “relevance” of his or her research.

Such were the days at Berkeley when James M. Diehl went to work on his doctoral dissertation. Under the direction of Gerald D. Feldman, he studied the violent politics of the Weimar era. He read widely in the general literature and exhausted the specialized works to absorb the latest insights and to assemble the best data. He searched old police files and other archival materials in Munich, Coblence, and elsewhere, for new information. The result was a 1972 dissertation, Paramilitary Organizations and the Weimar Republic: The Militarization of German Politics, 1918-1930. In a revised form, that dissertation is the work under review here.

The book is a masterpiece, using the term in its original, historic sense, and it proves that a journeyman has mastered the craft and deserves entry into the guild. The work is scholarly and restrained. Its apparatus is extensive: some one hundred pages of backnotes for three hundred pages of text. (It is unfortunate that the publisher did not print them as footnotes, since they are often as informative and intriguing as the text itself and should be conveniently available to the reader’s eye.) Diehl has fixed his focus carefully upon the topics regarding which his research has turned up scholarly contributions. He has carefully pruned away the parts of the story which have been the subjects of books and articles by other scholars. The Kapp Putsch of 1920 and the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, for example, have been written up before and are not recapitulated here; instead, Diehl dutifully instructs the reader to refer to the books by Robert G. L. Waite, Harold J. Gordon, or the latest German-language monograph if he feels insufficiently informed on such well-known events.

The strength of Diehl’s book lies in its institutional history and political analysis. Biographical details, descriptions of people or places, and narratives of events—however intrinsically interesting—have been suppressed with great discipline. There are no pictures, maps, charts, or facsimiles of paramilitary propaganda. Using Diehl’s excellent set of notes, a good scholar with plenty of time and a fine library can reconstruct the complete story; but the uninitiated may sometimes find themselves frustrated. Diehl’s purpose is to provide new bits of information and overall political analysis; his information is significant and his analysis enlightening.

The German defeat in World War I and the revolution which established the Weimar Republic came so swiftly and unexpectedly that many members of the German middle classes never realized that defeat and revolution had actually occurred. Even the moderate socialists of the Social Democratic Party (the SPD) were taken by surprise. The army virtually dissolved and police forces were seriously weakened. German Communists pressed for a radical revolution along Bolshevik lines. On Germany’s eastern boundaries, formerly subject nationalities fought to free themselves from German dominance and to enlarge their newly founded states at German expense.

The government—moderately socialist, democratic, patriotic, and inexperienced—called for volunteers to save the new Republic from enemies within and without. Thus the Free Corps units were born. The men of these units were hardly convinced democrats. They were fighters, men like Ernst Röhm, Artur Mahraun, and Hermann Ehrhardt, young officers frustrated with defeat and revolution. They were nationalistic and anti-Marxist; they sought an opportunity to organize and to fight. In the long run they were looking for a chance to destroy the Republic they presumably served in order to establish some new type of state based on nostalgia for the imperial past or on the ideal of some new racist-Germanic community.

More prosaic than the Free Corps, but more numerous, were the Civil Guards established at the same time. While the Free Corps men were professional soldiers of fortune, the Civil Guards were home-town volunteers. They shared the fears and frustrations of the Free Corps and were pleased to act as auxiliaries when needed. In theory, they were nonpolitical and broadly representative of every social class. In practice, they were recruited from a broadly defined group called the Mittelstand, that petty bourgeois and middle-class group which includes artisans and peasants along with shopkeepers, white collar workers, professionals, public officials, and businessmen. Anyone with socialist leanings, however moderate, was informally excluded.

The Weimar coalition of moderate...

(The entire section is 2236 words.)

Paramilitary Politics in Weimar Germany Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, June, 1978, p. 598.

History: Reviews of New Books. VI, September, 1978, p. 194.

Times Literary Supplement. October 20, 1978, p. 1221.