The present is a review of an episode in "The Orientalist"
by Tom Reiss
, a thoroughly and uniquely researched work that accounts hitherto less known historical and personal facts. Set during the interbellum, it chronicles a fascinating and remarkable story, encompassing four empires, three continents, three religions, two revolutions and two world wars. Earlier posts were "History Class: of agit-prop, revolution and terror!"
On Monday, 11th November 1918, delegates from the new Social Democratic government of Germany officially signed the armistice
, ending Germany's part in the Great War 1914-1918. The Kaiser moved to comfortable exile in The Netherlands.
But mob rule reigned Germany. Leftist leader Emil Eichhorn, self-appointed chief of the People's Revolutionary Berlin Police Department - personally freed 650 prisoners from police headquarters at the head of a mob. Others seized newspaper offices, government buildings, stores, and telegraph offices.
The demobilising army agreed not to oppose the government, in exchange for a free hand in quelling the revolutionary unrest. The government took the responsibility and the blame for the humiliating surrender, while simultaneously delegating political power - the state's monopoly of force - to Rightist officers.
As the army demobilised in Berlin, all moral constraint melted away. Here's an account of artist George Grosz: "The city was dark, cold and full of rumours. The streets were wild ravines haunted by murderers and cocaine peddlers ... People denied all knowledge but whispered about secret manoeuvres by the Black Reichswehr or a newly formed Red Army."
Bursts of machine-gun fire and hand-grenade explosions were common. Grosz: "Inhabitants (...) went up on the roof to shoot pigeons and people. Their sense of proportion (...) got misplaced."
Three hundred people perished each day from influenza alone. Demobilised soldiers started selling their weapons on the streets. Those who held on to their arms followed their unit commanders into Mafia-style, loosely connected militias, known as the Freikorps (Free Corps), a proto type of the later Waffen SS, but originally consisting of volunteers in the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon in 1813-1815.
It was more than just the Red menace which motivated the Freikorps, their originators being the ancestors of all guerilla fighters and revolutionary insurgents of the next century. An even earlier connection identified them with the Teutonic Knights. They were anxious to proof themselves worthy of the medieval battles in the East against Poles and Tartars.
The Western powers restricted the German military, but motivated by fear of the Soviet revolutionary threat, refrained from disarming and restraining the Freikorps. In 1919 the Freikorps spontaneously and without orders moved against Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - the same countries the Nazis re-invaded in 1941.
Despite their symbolism and ancestry the Freikorps did not succeed in turning the tide of the Whites against the Reds and descended on a city in chaos, armed to the teeth, wreaking havoc on the new republic.
The revolutionary neighbourhoods were attacked without restraint. The front was brought to civilian society. This maintained the fantasy that the war had not really ended. Unarmed civilians had become the enemy. It "was a lesson in local brutality and cold-bloodedness that prepared many of them for work as storm troopers or concentration-camp guards in the years to come."
A footnote provides an important psycho-pathological context: "Many returning soldiers, no matter their political disposition, would display signs of sociopathy. Homicides and rapes became commonplace in postwar Berlin, brutal acts committed by men with no previous criminal record (...)"
"The panic evoked in Germany by the fate of Russia drove so deep into the psyche of ordinary Germans that they could not see that the forces of the new Right were equally hostile to bourgeois values like law, order and moral restraint. The Freikorps ethic, every bit as revolutionary as that of the Bolsheviks, masqueraded behind a false aura of conservatism and pacification.
Real conservatives believed in the value of traditions, but the Freikorps believed exactly the opposite - for them, the Great War had proved that the morality and social structure of peacetime were corrupt and meaningless. The politics behind the war had been a fraud, but the fighting had been real, and in this reality, the 'New Man' of the Right-wing revolution was born."
Author of 'Storm of Steel' and 'Battle As Inner Experience' Ernst Jünger hailed the 'storm soldier': "the coming of a whole new race, smart, strong and filled with will, to save Europe from its liberal delusions".
"For this New Man, as for the Red revolutionaries, the legal and moral foundations of society were mere bourgeois squeamishness. At the front, only the fundamental values of bravery, ruthlessness, and camaraderie mattered - and the fundamental precept of Freikorps ideology: all society is the front."
The more the Freikorps suppressed the revolution, the faster it spread. Bolshevik cells and councils (Soviets) sprang up in towns and cities across Germany. The Munich Soviet was led by a former mental patient who wrote threatening letters to the Pope and declared war on Switzerland for failing to provide a shipment of locomotives.
In April 1919 the Bolshevik triumvirate led by Lenin associates made an attempt to launch Red Terror. Bourgeois and local aristocrats (every locale was supposed to have one, in the absence of which the village headmaster was supposed to volunteer) were jailed, property was confiscated, opposition presses smashed and schools shut down - "though this was not a real Red Terror but more of Red Terror manqué. But in the event of insufficient ruthlessness on the part of the German Left, the German Right was only too happy to fill the void."
The Freikorps attacked Munich as if it were a foreign city. The Reds held the town for three days, at the end of which more than a thousand were shot, including seminary students.
The next year saw a coup by Dr Kapp and General Ludendorf. According to an anecdote Corporal Hitler came too late to join it. The ousted Social Democratic government being unable to turn out the Freikorps against the Freikorps, called for a general strike. This succeeded, sending the putschists fleeing to Sweden, upon which the Spartacists raised a 80,000 strong 'Red Army of the Ruhr' in order to seize the mining and heavy industry in that area. The reinstated Social Democratic government retaliated by setting the Freikorps loose on Berlin. The Reds in the Ruhr were crushed.
"Finally, the major disturbances ended, though street battles and small uprisings continued to break out in towns across the fatherland. In the spring of 1921" as the protagonist of "The Orientalist"
crossed the border into Germany, the country had fallen into uneasy quiet ...
- More excerpts from Tom Reiss' "The Orientalist"
on the history of the two Socialist movements in next posts.
- Up next: Both Sir Winston S. Churchill in "Memoirs of the Second World War"
and Tom Reiss' in "The Orientalist"
touch on one of the most colourful people of the interbellum, Hitler's Master of Ceremonies.