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Hitler and His Generals


Germany 1918–1939:

Role of the Reichswehr

(German Army)

in undermining the experiment in democracy
in Germany between the wars

David B. Cornelius
Coffs Harbour

Hitler and His Generals
Photograph courtesy of the Treu family.



Key features and issues

From this tutorial students will learn about:

The Weimar Republic


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In any democracy the function of the army is to protect and support the government and the community of that nation-state, not to interfere in its political processes. From the very beginning the experiment with democracy in the Germany of the post-Kaiser years seemed to have been prevented from succeeding because, like the heroes of Shakespearian tragedies, the new republic was infected with a fatal flaw. That flaw, many historians claim, was the Reichswehr, the German army, and several of the officer corps, who, from the first, worked to undermine the elected governments and to consolidate and maintain its power.

Such a view is suggested by such noted historians as Louis L Snyder, who writes,

"The Republic was naturally incapable of incorporating the Reichswehr... It was unable either to control it or to win its unqualified allegiance." [1]

The German army during the period of the Weimar experiment has even been described as a state within a state. However, despite the activities of the army to protect its own interests and class, there can be little doubt that its efforts were either positively encouraged or ignored by the leaders of the successive democratic administrations. Another view is that possibly because of inexperience in governing, or because of an inherent conservatism and respect for the old ruling class, the successive governments of Weimar Germany did little to curtail the power of the army leaders or the right wing groups that supported these leaders. Craig suggests that the Republican politicians were so dependent on the army for support against a take over from the extreme left that their ability to impose restraints on it were negligible.[2] Another reason could be that both the leaders of the Weimar governments and the army were intent on the same goal of subverting the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

A further study could also be made into the role of Britain and France who should have been aware of what was occurring in Germany; their espionage networks must have been particularly poor if they failed to detect these activities. In fact, there seems to have been a certain amount of criminal recklessness on the parts of the respective Allied governments in their failure to take early steps to prevent the rebuilding of the German army. Where the army stands condemned is in its leaders' subversion of the Weimar constitution during the crises of 1929–33 in order to create a virtual military coup which eventually allowed Hitler to succeed to power.

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Background (Pre 1919) - the effect of World War I on the German army

The history of the creation of the German state was closely bound to the deeds of the Prussian army. From this and from its close connection with the Prusso-German royal family the officer corps wielded great power. Robert Massie, reviewing events that led to the First World War, has shown the importance of the officer class that, with the Kaiser, ran the foreign policy of Imperial Germany.[3] While both the army and the navy were jointly responsible for exacerbating the tensions that led to war, the army as the senior service bears most of the blame. Gordon A Craig notes that the General Staff of the army challenged Bismarck's responsibility in matters of foreign affairs during the wars of 1866 and 1870, and that in the years after Bismarck's fall "the tendency of the army to usurp the authority of the Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Corps became more pronounced."[4]

The German army had encouraged the Kaiser to create the necessary conditions for war and then plunged the world into World War One. The army then sought to deflect the shame and humiliation of defeat from itself. It sought to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the nation by subverting the various Weimar governments, colluding with the Nazi Party and even attempting to subvert the government. At the same time, the Republican leaders seemed to have lacked the strength of character that was necessary to cope with a resurgent army.

The initial efforts of the army to protect its future can be seen in the latter part of 1918. After four exhausting years of fighting a war of attrition, the German army was near defeat. The leaders then sought a scapegoat. First Quartermaster General of the German army, General Erich von Ludendorff, writing on events of 8 August 1918, after the last battle of the Somme, shows the problem for the army, "...our losses in prisoners had been so heavy... The balance of numbers had moved against us; it was bound to become increasingly unfavourable as more American troops came in..."[5] On 4 October 1918, more than a month before the Armistice, Major von dem Bussche, representing Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, reported on the state of the war to political parties in the Reichstag:

"...there exists no further prospect of forcing peace on the enemy... We can...inflict heavy losses on the enemy, leave behind a devastated countryside, but we can no longer win. Realising this, and in view of the general course of events, the Field Marshall [Hindenburg] and General Ludendorff have resolved to propose to His Majesty the Emperor that an attempt be made to break off the struggle... The German army is still strong enough to keep the enemy at bay for months, to achieve local successes and to inflict further losses on the Entente. But each fresh day brings the enemy nearer his goal and will make him less inclined to conclude a peace which will be tolerable for us." [6]

Kaiser abdicates
Part of the army's plan of gaining a tolerable peace was to convince the Kaiser to abdicate and to set, in his place, a democratic government. The announcement of the Kaiser's abdication was made in Berlin on 9 November, three days before the Armistice, although he was at Spa and did not formally abdicate until 29 November. The last Chancellor of the German Empire, Prince Max of Baden, handed over the Chancellorship to Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Majority Socialists, on 9 November.

Again the scheming hand of the army can be documented. There was a desire to lay the blame for defeat at the feet of the Social Democrats and the left wing parties. As Ludendorff later wrote,

"I have asked His Majesty to bring those people into the government who are largely responsible for things having turned out as they have. We shall therefore see these gentlemen enter the ministries, and they must make the peace which has to be made. They must eat the soup which they have served us!"

Tampke indicates that, "This was the beginning of the 'stab in the back' legend...that was to bedevil the political life of the Weimar Republic." [7] So it seems that there was a deliberate plan by the army to engineer the November Revolution and to use it to undermine the new German government in the long term.

The deteriorating political conditions in German cities together with the military collapse created problems for Ebert's government. In the face of these threats the new German administration had to organise an effective armed force to protect itself. Its immediate task was to establish its ascendancy throughout Germany and to evacuate German troops from areas west of the Rhineland. The delicate problems of dealing with Workers' and Soldiers' Councils had to be met, as did the problem of the demobilisation of thousands of men who blamed the revolution for their humiliation.

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Political, social and economic problems 1918–1923

In this critical situation Ebert and the Social Democrats who had troubled the Kaiser's government now found themselves to be the party that was needed to restore order. Their lack of experience and confidence in government played into the hands of the army. As Nicholls suggests, "For Ebert the problem of maintaining order and discipline in the army seemed more serious than any need to build up new contingents loyal to socialism or the Republic." [8]

Kurtz adds, "For fourteen years the politics of the German army, though a political in the sense that no soldier was allowed to join a political party, formed the only consistent bedrock element on, and above all behind, the German political scene. The leaders of the German Republic left the fundamental facts of political life as they found them and so permitted the balance of internal power to continue undisturbed." [9]

The Ebert-Groener pact
The connivance of the German governments then began with a secret pact which was made between Ebert and the head of the War Office, General Groener. The secret agreement saw the government and the High Command mutually pledge themselves to:

Each needed the other for their survival.

The first result of this pact was Ebert's formal authorisation of Erzberger to sign the terms of the Armistice. The second was the sending of ten divisions under General von Lequis virtually to occupy Berlin and Potsdam. The army was securing an important place for itself in the new government. Groener was able to stop attempts to reform the officer corps and create a republican militia.[10]

From 6 to 19 January, about two months after the Armistice, Germany experienced the bloodshed of Spartacist Week as the Majority Social Democrats turned on the extreme left, the Spartacists who were demanding revolutionary changes. The Minister for War, Gustav Noske, turned, not to the divisions of Lequis, which were thought to be uncertain of their loyalty, but to the Freikorps, "the flotsam and jetsam of the demobilising army, which still retained their weapons and something of their corporate spirit." [11]

The background section covers the pre-1919 position of the German army and is not directly examinable. Summarise the background information of that time period into 6-8 points and write a concise 6-10 line paragraph which would be relevant for an essay evaluation of the role of the German military 1919-1939.

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The Kapp Putsch

The Kapp Putsch of March 1920 is an illustration of the army's direct and indirect attempts to undermine the Weimar government. While under the leadership of Wolfgang Kapp, a rightwing Prussian official, this conservative counterpart to Spartacist Week had the military backing of General von Luttwitz, commander of the Berlin district, and the indirect support of Ludendorff. The main force was Erhardt's Free Corps, remnants of the German occupation forces in the Baltic, which had refused to disband. While the Reichswehr failed to support the coup for fear of Allied intervention, the commander General von Seeckt would not oppose the putsch, declaring, "Reichswehr does not shoot Reichswehr!" It was not expected that soldiers of the Reichswehr would be called on to fight their comrades in the Free Corps. Nicholls says that von Seeckt "put the interests of the army before his duty to defend the government."[12]

Questions to Consider

  1. Why did the Kapp Putsch fail?
  2. Briefly explain what the Kapp Putsch tells you about the problems of Germany in 1920.
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General von Seeckt

A letter from Joachim von Stuelpnagel, Chief of the Operations Section, to General von Seeckt on June 1919 outlined his and, one would argue, the army's hopes for the future:

"In my opinion it is absolutely essential that an officer corps with monarchical convictions and the old stamp should be preserved for the miserable creature of the new army. Counter moves are naturally on the way. I have been informed that Herr General [Seeckt] has handed in his resignation. After the decree of the war minister no other step was feasible... I am hoping that within the foreseeable future the resurrection of the monarchy, a struggle with Poland and perhaps with France too will be possible, and therefore consider it my duty to ask Herr General to remain in the army for these tasks and these aims." [13]

Thus, from the first the army had its own agenda. If the army undermined the Weimar Republic, then much of this, as well as the strengthening of the power of the army, can be attributed to General von Seeckt. Von Seeckt, the "sphinx with a monocle", who had been one of the ablest technicians and best organisers of the General Staff, began the task of building up a modern army often converting the restrictions of Versailles into opportunities. The new Reichswehr was to be a non-political army, one untainted by current revolutionary ideas. Its officers, non-commissioned officers and men were carefully recruited for their leadership potential. The new Reichswehr was to be an army of leaders, a highly trained cadre for instant expansion. Its General Staff, prohibited by the Versailles treaty, was kept surreptitiously in the Troops Office (Truppenamt) attached to the Reichswehr Ministry.[14] Through its Special Group R (Sondergruppe-R) it maintained secret links and trained its senior officers with the Red army in Russia under the terms of the Treaty of Rapallo. In this Special Group R, General von Schleicher, later to become a Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, helped to develop tank and aviation schools in the Soviet Union.[15]

Chambers states that by 1933, when Hitler came to power, "the Reichswehr was qualitatively the finest army in the world."[16]

Question to consider
What part did General von Seeckt play in weakening the Weimar republic?

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The Free Corps

Another means used by the army of circumventing the terms of Versailles was the setting up from 1920 onwards of the Arbeits-Kommandos, supposedly a civilian labour corps. This group of Free Corps:

In the VII District Command of the army stationed in Bavaria, Major General Ritter and his assistant Captain Ernst Röhm gave support and protection to the Free Corps, which Bullock calls the "training schools for the political murder and terrorism which disfigured German life up to 1924, and again after 1929." [17]

The Munich Putsch

Taking advantage of the internal problems caused by the Treaty of Versailles, Adolf Hitler attempted another putsch in Munich. Once again, General Ludendorff was involved. Despite much support, the putsch ended in failure and the leaders were arrested. While Hitler received a light sentence, Ludendorff was set free.

Questions to consider

  1. Why did the Munich Putsch fail?
  2. What does the Munich Putsch tell you about Hitler in the Nazi Party in November 1923?
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The Stresemann years

While Hitler was stopped in 1923, the Reichswehr continued to pursue policies of its own. A memorandum dated 6 March 1926 clearly shows the army's aims during Stresemann's period of cooperation and fulfilment. The memorandum, approved by von Seeckt and sent by Stuelpnagel to the German Foreign Office, stated:

"The immediate aim of German policy must be the regaining of full sovereignty over the area retained by Germany, the firm acquisition of those areas at present separated from her, and the re-acquisition of those areas essential to the German economy.

That is to say:

  1. The liberation of the Rhineland and the Saar area.
  2. The abolition of the Corridor and the regaining of Polish Upper Silesia.
  3. The Anschluss of German Austria.
  4. The abolition of the Demilitarised Zone.
  5. These immediate aims will produce conflict primarily with France and Belgium and with Poland which is dependent on them, then with Czechoslovakia and finally with Italy…

The above exposition of Germany's political aims...clearly shows that the problem for Germany in the next stages of her political development can only be the reestablishment of her position in Europe, and that the regaining of her world position will be a task for the distant future. Reestablishing a European position is for Germany a question in which land forces will almost exclusively be decisive, for the opponent of this resurrection of Germany will eventually be France. It is certainly to be assumed that a reborn Germany will eventually come into conflict with the American-English powers in the struggle for raw materials and markets, and that she will need adequate maritime forces. But this conflict will be fought out on the basis of a firm European position, after a new solution to the Franco-German problem has been achieved through either peace or war." [18]

It is difficult to believe that such a note to the German Foreign Office would not have been seen by the Foreign Minister, Stresemann. Yet this army analysis of the future is almost a blueprint of Hitler's foreign policy.

It must be recognised that many of the army's activities must have been connived by some members of the government. Much of the compliance of the government would have come through Otto Gessler, who served as Reichswehr Minister until 1928 under six governments, and through Stresemann himself.

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The role of Hindenburg as President

The death of President Ebert on 28 February 1925 left Germany with no obvious successor to the presidency. After an indecisive ballot of the presidential elections, a group of Nationalists, led by Admiral von Tirpitz, persuaded the former wartime hero, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, to stand in the second ballot. The election of Hindenburg saw German politics move towards the right wing. It also began an important period of growing influence of the German army and its political allies, the Nationalist Party, on the ageing President.

In discussing the relationship between the army and the President, Bullock quotes Professor Meinecke, stating that there existed:

"relations of mutual dependence. The Reichswehr obeyed him, but he listened to it. He absorbed into his mind and spirit everything to which it was sensitive. He was flesh and blood, an off-shoot of that Prusso-German militarism which had produced so many first-rate technical and so few politically far-sighted heads."[19] Until 1926 the compliant Gessler was easily dominated by von Seeckt, who even attended cabinet meetings. This gave him direct access to the President. The influence of General Groener, who replaced Gessler as Defence Minister, or the intrigues of General von Schleicher of the Wehrmacht cannot be discounted.

Hindenburg came under the influence of Major General Kurt von Schleicher, an able soldier working in the Ministeramt, a department of the Defence Ministry run since 1928 by General Groener.

Of Schleicher, Bullock writes,

"In dealing with politicians he had the indefinable advantage in German politics of being a general, not a civilian, and of being able to claim that he represented the views of the army in a country where the army took precedence over every other institution as the supreme embodiment of the national tradition."[20]

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Effects of the Depression

The democratic governments struggled to cope with the economic problems of Germany during the Depression which began in 1929. The army, the Nationalists and the Nazis manoeuvred for power. The increase in unemployment to nearly six million prompted the resignation of Chancellor Brüning. The appointment and subsequent dismissal of Chancellor Brüning can be directly traced to the intrigues of Schleicher.

Kolb states,

"The political aims of the Reichswehr chiefs, and their consequent manoeuvres in 1929–32, which were in no way forced by events, were factors of the first rank in the disruption of the Weimar Republic and must not be lost to view."[21]

Under Schleicher's prompting Hindenburg chose Colonel von Papen as the new Chancellor. Von Papen's cabinet was mainly made up of nationalists and conservatives. This new government, however, failed to win support of the Reichstag. Though the Nazis had the largest numbers in the Reichstag, Hitler refused the chancellorship because he was not granted dictatorial powers. Von Schleicher then took over as Chancellor. However, when Schleicher also failed to gain the support of the Reichstag, Hitler was offered, and accepted, the chancellorship on 30 January 1933.

The armed forces still had a part to play in the last days of the republic. On 3 February 1933 Hitler met with army and navy commanders to whom he outlined his future policy. Among other points he stated that, "Building up the armed forces is the most important prerequisite for attaining the goal of regaining political power." Hitler went on to promise that "no amalgamation of the army and the SA is intended."[22]

With this assurance, the army seems to have moved closer to supporting Hitler. However, one more obstacle remained. The army perceived the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi Party's army of private thugs, and the ambitions of its leader, Ernst Röhm, to be a threat. Röhm's main demand that the Reichswehr be handed over to the Sturmabteilung would have made the latter the army of the new state. However, in the following two days Hitler, supported by the Schutzstaffel (SS) leaders, Göring and Himmler, the Reichswehr leaders, War Minister von Blomberg and Chief of the Wehrmacht Office Reichenau, eliminated virtually all his potential rivals including Röhm and General von Schleicher.[23]

The successive Weimar governments had either misjudged the right wing or been too trusting of their former masters. They had allowed the old ruling class of Imperial Germany to retain many positions of power and influence in the new Germany. The army leaders had been allowed to keep their independent position. Yet, at the time of the Republic's crisis, they threw in their lot with the Nazis.

As Bullock says:

"What the German Right wanted was to regain its old position in Germany as the ruling class; to destroy the hated Republic and restore the monarchy; to put the working classes in their places; to rebuild the military power of Germany; to reverse the decision of 1918 and to restore a dominant position in Europe. Blinded by interest and prejudice, the Right...made the gross mistake of supposing that in Hitler they had found a man who would enable them to achieve their ends." [24]

Whatever the reason, history records that the German army overplayed its hand and lost control of its destiny to Hitler and the Nazis. On the other hand, the moderate parties in the Reichstag, while being bitterly opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, must also accept a significant part of the blame for not moderating the influence of the army during the Weimar period.

Essay Task
Evaluate the significance of the army and paramilitary groups in Germany in the period 1919-1933.

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1 Snyder, L L 1966, The Weimar Republic, Van Nostrand, p. 170.

2 Craig, G A 1982,The Germans. Penguin, p. 240.

3 Massie, R K1991, Dreadnought. Pimlico.

4 Craig, op. cit., p. 239.

5 Ludendorff, p. 683, cited in Cranfield,G A Dalton, B J & Stanbrook, F G 1966, Select Documents: A Modern History Sourcebook. McGraw-Hill, pp. 97-8.

6 ibid., p. 99.

7 Tampke,J1989, Twentieth Century Germany: Quest for Power, Nelson, p. 36.

8 Nicholls,A J1970, Weimar and the Rise of Hitler, St Martin's Press, p. 19.

9 Kurtz,H1968, History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 3. Purnell, p. 1112.

10 McCallum,A 1992, Germany 1918–1945: Democracy to Dictatorship, Heinemann Education, p. 37.

11 Chambers, F P 1962, This Age of Conflict, Harcourt, Brace and World, p. 131.

12 Nicholls, op. cit., p. 69.

13 Carsten,F L 1966, The Reichswehr and Politics 1918–33, Oxford University Press, p. 30.

14 Chambers, op. cit., p. 149.

15 E.J. Passant 1966, A Short History of Germany 1815–1945. Cambridge University Press, p. 166.

16 Chambers, op. cit., p. 149.

17 Bullock, A Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Penguin, 1962, p. 63.

18 Gottingen,I1966, Akten zur Deutschen Auswartigen Politik 1918–1945, Serie B: 1925–33, Vol 1., pp. 343-5.

19 Bullock, op. cit., p. 181.

20 ibid., p. 182.

21 Kolb,E1988, The Weimar Republic. Unwin Hyman, p. 156.

22 Cranfield et al., op. cit., p. 132.

23 Mau, H & Krausnick,H1978, German History 1933–45, Oswald Wolff, pp. 49-50.

24 Bullock, op. cit., p. 255.

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Barnett, C (Ed.) 1989, Hitler's Generals. Weidenfield and Nicholson.

Benns, F L 1954, Europe Since 1914, Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Bracher, K D 1968, 'The Nazi take over', History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 3., Ch. 48, Purnell, pp. 1319-24.

Bullock, A 1962, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Penguin.

Carsten, F L 1966, The Reichswehr and Politics 1918–33, Oxford University Press.

Chambers, F P 1962, This Age of Conflict, Harcourt, Brace and World.

Condon, C 1987, The Making of the Modern World, Macmillan.

Craig, G A 1982, The Germans, Penguin.

Cranfield, G A Dalton, B J & Stanbrook, F G 1966, Select Documents: A Modern History Sourcebook, McGraw-Hill.

Elliott, B J 1991, Hitler and Germany, Longman.

Gottingen, I 1966, Akten zur Deutschen Auswartigen Politik 1918–1945, Series B: 1925–33, Vol 1.

Kolb, E 1988, The Weimar Republic, Unwin Hyman.

Kurtz, H 1968, 'The Climate of Weimar', History of the Twentieth Century. Vol. 3., Ch. 40, Purnell, pp. 1111-18.

Langsam, W C 1954, The World Since 1919, Macmillan.

McCallum, A 1992, Germany 1918–1945: Democracy to Dictatorship, Heinemann Education.

Massie, R K 1991, Dreadnought, Pimlico.

Mau, H & Krausnick, H 1978, German History 1933–45, Oswald Wolff.

Nicholls, A J 1970, Weimar and the Rise of Hitler, St Martin's Press.

Passant, E J 1966, A Short History of Germany 1815–1945, Cambridge University Press.

Snyder, L L 1966, The Weimar Republic, Van Nostrand.

Spenceley, G 1988, The Search for Security: A Modern World History, Oxford University Press.

Tampke, J 1989, Twentieth Century Germany: Quest for Power, Nelson.

Vogt, H 1964, The Burden of Guilt, Oxford University Press.

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