It was March 1920. It had only been eighteen months since Germany’s defeat in the Great War and the subsequent signing of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles in which the politicians of Weimar Germany had agreed to pay massive reparations and accept Germany’s guilt for the conflict that had engulfed Europe. It was within this chaos that the ill-fated Kapp Putsch took place.
The German Revolution of 1919 had failed, and the communist-led Spartacist Revolt had been suppressed when the Weimar government ordered the Freikorps – demobilized soldiers – to attack the workers and end the unrest.
But it was these very Freikorps (or Free Corps) that staged their own uprising against the Weimar government. General Walther von Lüttwitz, a 61-year-old war veteran, instrumental in the defeat of the Spartacists, teamed up with Wolfgang Kapp (pictured), an American-born German and founder of the recently defunct far-right Fatherland Party. (One member of the Fatherland Party was a Munich locksmith by the name of Anton Drexler, who, in January 1919, founded the German Workers’ Party, DAP, which, in 1920, became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, NSDAP, otherwise known as the Nazi Party).
Appalled by the signing of the Versailles Treaty, especially its stipulation that had greatly reduced in the size the German Army, Lüttwitz and Kapp marched at the head of a 6,000-strong group of Freikorps, with the swastika emblazoned on their helmets, into Berlin, determined to overthrow the government. The date was 13 March 1920. They received the support of Erich Ludendorff who, along with Paul von Hindenburg, had led Germany through much of the First World War.
‘We will not govern according to any theory’
The Weimar president, Friedrich Ebert, called on his army to crush the Kapp Putsch, as it came to be known, but was told “troops don’t fire on troops”. Without military support, Ebert and his government fled to south Germany, to Dresden.
Lüttwitz and Kapp were able to form a new government with Kapp as its chancellor with the intention of forming a provisional government but, according to Kapp, not ‘to any theory’.
In response, Ebert called on workers to strike, a call heeded across Germany, bringing the country to a standstill. The civil service sided with Ebert and refused to take orders from Kapp. Although Germany’s navy supported the strike, the military, despite Ludendorff’s influence, as a whole, did not. Without the support of the workers and the army, the uprising was doomed. Within four days, the Kapp Putsch had failed.
Lüttwitz fled to Hungary, only returning to Germany after an amnesty in 1925. (He died in Germany in 1942, aged 83). Wolfgang Kapp fled to Sweden and also returned to Germany, in April 1922, and died 12 June of cancer while in prison awaiting trial.
See also article on the failed Munich Putsch of 1923.