The Kapp Putsch — also known as the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch, after its leaders Wolfgang Kapp and Walther von Lüttwitz — was a coup attempt in March 1920 aimed at undoing the results of the German Revolution of 1918–1919, overthrowing the Weimar Republic and establishing a right-wing autocratic government. It was supported by parts of the Reichswehr (military) and other conservative, nationalistic and monarchistic forces.
The coup took place in the capital, Berlin, and the legitimate German government was forced to flee the city. However, the coup failed after a few days when large sections of the German population followed a call by the legitimate government to join a general strike and most civil servants refused to cooperate with the illegitimate government of Kapp. Despite its failure, the putsch had significant consequences for the future of the Weimar Republic. It was the cause of the left-wing Ruhr Uprising, which the government later militarily suppressed, whilst dealing leniently with those behind the putsch. These events polarized the electorate, resulting in a shift in the majority after the June elections to the Reichstag.
After Germany had lost World War I (1914–1918), the German Revolution of 1918–1919 ended the monarchy and the German Empire was abolished. A democratic system, the Weimar Republic, was established in 1919 by the Weimar National Assembly. Right-wing nationalist and militarist circles opposed the new republic and promoted the stab-in-the-back myth, claiming that the war had been lost only because the brave efforts of the undefeated German military had been undermined by civilians at home.
In 1919–1920, Germany's government was formed by the Weimar Coalition consisting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Democratic Party (DDP, left-of-centre liberals) and Zentrum (conservative Catholics). President Friedrich Ebert, Chancellor Gustav Bauer and Defence Minister Gustav Noske were all members of the SPD. According to the constitution, the president was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, represented in peace time by the Minister of Defence. The most senior officer of the land forces was called Chef der Heeresleitung, a post held in early 1920 by General Walther Reinhardt.
Gustav Bauer was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, even though he disagreed with it. The treaty had been dictated by the victorious Allies of World War I; it forced Germany to assume sole responsibility for the war, reduced the area of Germany and imposed severe reparation payments and military restrictions on the nation.
In early 1919, the strength of the Reichswehr, the regular German army, was estimated at 350,000. In addition there were more than 250,000 men enlisted in the various Freikorps (free corps), volunteer paramilitary units largely consisting of returning soldiers from the war. The German government had repeatedly used Freikorp troops to put down Communist uprisings after the war. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which came into effect on 10 January 1920, Germany was required to reduce its land forces to a maximum of 100,000 men. The initial deadline was set for 31 March 1920 (later extended to the end of the year). :25 Freikorps units were therefore expected to be disbanded. Since the reason for their creation—defending against internal enemies—had become obsolete with the crushing of the leftist uprisings, they were increasingly becoming themselves a threat to the government.:216 In fact, senior military commanders had started discussing the possibility of a coup as early as July 1919.
Run-up to the coup
Although the putsch has been named after Wolfgang Kapp, a 62-year-old nationalist East Prussian civil servant, who had been planning a coup against the republic for a while, it was actually initiated by the military: Kapp just had a supporting role.:50:217 On 29 February 1920, Defence Minister Noske ordered the disbandment of two of the most powerful Freikorps, the Marinebrigade Loewenfeld and the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt. The latter numbered about 5,000-6,000 men and was stationed at the Truppenübungsplatz Döberitz, near Berlin, since January 1920.:217 A military elite force, it had originally been created from former Imperial Navy officers and NCOs, boosted later by Baltikumer (those who had fought the Bolsheviks in Latvia in 1919). During the civil war in 1919, the brigade had seen action in Munich and Berlin. It was extremely opposed to the democratic government of Friedrich Ebert.:217
Its commander, Korvettenkapitän Hermann Ehrhardt, declared that the unit would refuse its dissolution.:51 On 30 February, it staged a parade without inviting Noske.:218 General Walther von Lüttwitz, in command of all the regular troops in and around Berlin (Gruppenkommando I), the highest ranking general in the army at the time and in overall command of many Freikorps said at the parade that he would "not accept" the loss of such an important unit. Several of Lüttwitz' officers were horrified at this open rejection of the government's authority and tried to mediate by setting up a meeting between von Lüttwitz and the leaders of the two major right-wing parties. Lüttwitz listened to and remembered their ideas but was not dissuaded from his course of action.:218 Noske then removed the Marinebrigade from Lüttwitz' command and assigned it to the leadership of the Navy, hoping that they would go through with the dissolution. Lüttwitz ignored the order but agreed to a meeting with Chancellor Ebert, suggested by his staff.
In the evening of 10 March, Lüttwitz came with his staff to Ebert's office. Ebert had also asked Noske to attend. Lüttwitz, drawing on demands by the right-wing parties and adding his own, now demanded the immediate dissolution of the National Assembly, new elections for the Reichstag, the appointment of technocrats (Fachminister) as Secretaries for Foreign Affairs, Economics and Finance, the dismissal of General Reinhardt, appointment of himself as supreme commander of the regular military and the revocation of the orders of dissolution for the Marinebrigaden. Ebert and Noske rejected these demands. Noske told Lüttwitz that he expected his resignation the next day.:219
Instead of resigning, Lüttwitz went to Döberitz on 11 March and asked Ehrhardt whether he would be able to occupy Berlin this very evening. Ehrhardt said he needed another day, but in the morning of 13 March he could be in the centre of Berlin with his men. Lüttwitz gave the order and Ehrhardt began with the preparations. It was only at this point that Lüttwitz brought the group known as Nationale Vereinigung into the plot. These included DNVP member Wolfgang Kapp, retired general Erich Ludendorff as well as Waldemar Pabst, who had been behind the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919 and Traugott von Jagow (de), the last Berlin head of police in the old Reich.:219:50–51:25 Their goal was to establish an authoritarian regime (though not a monarchy) with a return to the federal structure of the Empire. Lüttwitz asked them to be ready to take over the government on 13 March. Since the group's own planning was not yet complete, they were not ready. However, they agreed to the schedule set by Lüttwitz. One factor making them support quick action was that sympathetic members of the Sicherheitspolizei of Berlin informed them that warrants for their arrest had been issued that very day.:219–220
Lüttwitz was not dismissed but only suspended from his post on 11 March.:51 To defend the government, Noske ordered two regiments of Sicherheitspolizei and one regular regiment to take position in the government quarter. He still did not really believe a putsch was imminent.:220 However, the regiments' commanders decided not to follow orders to shoot, a decision that received the approval of Chef des Truppenamts General Hans von Seeckt.:220
Occupation of Berlin
The reluctance to shed blood was one-sided, however. On the evening of 12 March, Ehrhardt ordered his brigade to march into Berlin, to "ruthlessly break any resistance" (jeden Widerstand rücksichtslos zu brechen) and to occupy the centre of the city with the government buildings. The Brigade started off towards Berlin at around 10 pm. An hour later the Gruppenkommando knew about it and informed Noske. Two general officers met Ehrhardt and convinced him to give the government a chance to surrender before being taken into custody, assuming that all of Lüttwitz' demands were accepted by 7 am. This was reported to Noske who met with Ebert. Ebert then called a cabinet meeting for 4 am. At 1 am Noske asked the senior commanders to his office in the Bendlerblock.:221–222
Noske asked the commanders to defend the government buildings but was turned down. All but two of the officers (one of them was Reinhardt, Chef der Heeresleitung) refused to follow an order to shoot at the revolting troops. Some suggested negotiations, others claimed that the troops would not understand an order to fire, some argued that the regular units would not be able to defeat the elite Marinebrigade. Seeckt spoke about comradeship.:222 His exact words were not recorded, but have been reported as: "troops do not fire on troops. So, you perhaps intend, Herr Minister, that a battle be fought before the Brandenburger Tor between troops that have fought side by side against a common enemy? When Reichswehr fires on Reichswehr all comradeship within the officers' corps will have vanished". Others have quoted Seeckt's words as the even more succinct: "Reichswehr does not fire on Reichswehr!":26
Noske, depressed enough by the disloyalty of the military to speak about suicide to an aide, reported to the cabinet at 4 am.:222 At a confused meeting at the Reichskanzlei, the undefended cabinet took two decisions: to flee the city and to issue a call for a general strike. These were not unanimous. In particular, Vice-Chancellor Eugen Schiffer and some of the other non-SPD ministers refused to leave the city, to preserve the opportunity to negotiate with the putschists. Only Ebert and the SDP ministers signed the call for a general strike. At 6:15 am they had to interrupt the meeting and flee. Within ten minutes of their departure, the Marinebrigade reached the Brandenburger Tor, where it was met by Lüttwitz, Ludendorff, Kapp and their followers. Shortly thereafter, Kapp's men moved into the Reichskanzlei.:222 Supported by a battalion of regular Reichswehr they occupied the government quarter.:26
Kapp declared himself Chancellor (Reichskanzler) and formed a provisional government.:26 Lüttwitz served as commander of the armed forces and Minister of Defence. Several well-known conservatives and former secretaries of state were invited to assume government positions, but declined. International con-man Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln became Kapp's press censor.
Initially, the putsch seemed successful. There was no military resistance. The regular troops in Berlin, the Sicherheitspolizei, the navy, the Army Commands of East-Prussia, Pomerania, Brandenburg and Silesia all formally accepted the new minister of defence and Reichskanzler.:224 Admiral Adolf von Trotha, the navy's commander came out in support of the coup as soon as he learned of it. In Bavaria, the Reichswehr toppled the Social Democratic state government and replaced it with the right-wing regime of Gustav Ritter von Kahr. In the rest of the Reich, the commanders of the Wehrkreise did not declare for or against Kapp. However, they were not truly neutral and most sympathised more or less openly with the putschists.:224 Similarly, the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, still dominated by those who had risen to their positions under the Empire, were mostly sympathetic to the coup, whilst remaining outwardly neutral and biding their time. In the eastern provinces, the bureaucracy fell in line behind Kapp and Lüttwitz.:224–225
The government, forced to abandon Berlin, moved to Dresden, where they hoped to get support from Generalmajor Maercker. However, Maercker had been ordered by Berlin to take them into "protective custody". That same day they thus moved on to Stuttgart.:225–226
The cabinet's proclamation on 13 March, calling on Germany's workers to defeat the putsch by means of a general strike met with enormous success. The strike received massive support among the working class. The majority unions, sympathetic to the government dominated by social democrats, joined the call for a strike on the same day, as did the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) and the Democratic Party; the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) followed one day later. In Berlin, the strike started on 14 March and by the next day it had spread all over the Reich. It was the most powerful strike ever in Germany, involving up to 12 million workers, the country ground to a halt. In Berlin the gas, water and power supply all collapsed.:226
Adolf Hitler, who had been in contact with the members of the Nationale Vereinigung and was eager to help the coup along, flew into Berlin from Munich. He was met by striking workers at the airport and had to disguise himself.
With the country paralysed, Kapp and Lüttwitz were unable to govern. Even within Berlin, communication between military units was by courier only. The rank and file of the bureaucracy were on strike, there were no newspapers. Proclamations asking the workers to return to their jobs, promises of new elections and even the threat of capital punishment for strikers remained without results. The putsch thus collapsed on 17 March, only four days after it had begun.:226
Kapp had put Vice-Chancellor Schiffer and the members of the Prussian state government into protective custody on 13 March. However, they were released the next day and on 15 March negotiations had started. Representatives of the democratic right, Oskar Hergt and Gustav Stresemann also participated. The four major centre-right parties (Democratic Party, Zentrum, German People's Party and German National People's Party) agreed that the main threat was now "bolshevism" and that they had to "win back" the officer corps. It was considered undesirable that Kapp and Lüttwitz should be toppled, they must be seen to resign voluntarily. The four parties, supported by some Social Democrats who had remained in Berlin, offered fresh elections, a cabinet reshuffle and an amnesty for all participants in the putsch, if Kapp and Lüttwitz were to resign voluntarily. Initially the putschists offered only the resignation of Kapp, Lüttwitz tried to hold on for another day as head of a military dictatorship. But his commanders now deserted him. They suggested to Schiffer, in the absence of Ebert in charge of the government's affairs, that he appoint Seeckt as head of the Reichswehr, which Schiffer did in the name of Ebert. When Lüttwitz offered his resignation on 18 March, Schiffer accepted—again in Ebert's name—while granting him full pension rights. Schiffer also suggested Pabst and Lüttwitz should leave the country until the National Assembly had decided on the question of an amnesty and even offered them false passports and money.:229–230
On 18 March, Seeckt praised the discipline of the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt and the next day provided Ehrhardt with a written promise that he would not be arrested as long as he was in command of the brigade. Only then did the brigade leave Berlin. When they were heckled by an unfriendly crowd of bystanders, they opened fire with machine guns, leaving twelve civilians dead and thirty severely wounded.:231
Kapp remained in the country and only fled to Sweden in April. Lüttwitz first went to Saxony and only later left for Hungary.:26 Both used passports provided by supporters in the police.:231 Ehrhardt went into hiding in Bavaria.:26
According to one historian, "At first sight the collapse of the Kapp Putsch could be viewed as a major success for the Weimar Republic. In the six days of crisis, it had retained the backing of the people of Berlin and had effectively withstood a major threat from the extreme right." However, on closer inspection, a more mixed picture emerges. Among the grievances which Kapp and his followers had voiced against the government were (a) that the national assembly, which had been elected to serve temporarily, was beginning to act as a permanent Reichstag; (b) that it seemed this assembly might revise the constitution with respect to the election of the President of the Republic so that the Reichstag, rather than the electorate of the country, was responsible for the President's election. There was something in these complaints. As a consequence of the promise made to the putschists, the National Assembly was dissolved in April and the date of the general election for the first republican Reichstag was brought forward to 6 June. All attempts to change the method of election for the presidency of the Republic were abandoned. In the Reichstag elections of 6 June, the number of votes cast for the SPD and the Democratic Party fell by more than half compared to the January 1919 elections, while the national-liberal German People's Party (DVP) and the left-wing USPD gained substantially. The Weimar Coalition lost its majority in parliament and would never regain it.
The immediate effects of the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch throughout Germany were more lasting than in Berlin itself. In some parts of the country, the strike had turned into an armed revolt. The direct cause were local military commanders who supported the new government and arrested pickets. The workers resisted and fighting erupted. In Thuringia and Saxony the military defeated the workers after bloody fights. In the Ruhr, though, the workers won the upper hand and did not stop after the putsch in Berlin had collapsed. In what became known as the Ruhr Uprising, a Red Ruhr Army was on the offensive. On 17 March it took Dortmund, on 18 March Hamm and Bochum and on 19 March Essen, causing the local Wehrkreiskommando at Münster to order a withdrawal. By 22 March, the whole Ruhr area was under the control of the revolutionary workers.:228–229
The legitimate government returned to Berlin on 20 March and asked for the general strike to be ended. To achieve this it offered some concessions to the unions, some of them made in bad faith.:232 The unions (ADGB, Afa-Bund and DBB) demanded the creation of a new government made up of SPD and USPD, led by Carl Legien. However, only a new government based on the Weimar Coalition found a majority in the National Assembly. Hermann Müller (SPD) replaced Bauer as Chancellor.:26 The government then tried to negotiate with the armed workers who refused to lay down their arms after the unions called off the strike on 22 March. When the negotiations failed, the revolt in the Ruhr was suppressed by Reichswehr and Freikorps troops with considerable severity in early April 1920. Hundreds of people were killed, many in summary executions. The units employed included some that had just weeks earlier been involved in the putsch. Among them was even the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt. Once again, like in 1918/1919, those on the left had cause to accuse the SPD and the Ebert government of siding with the enemies of the workers and of the republic.:229,233
As another result, the putsch left a rump of military conspirators such as Pabst and Ehrhardt, who found refuge in Bavaria under the right-wing government of Gustav von Kahr (itself an indirect product of the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch) and there attempted to organize plots against the republican constitution and government of Germany. The crisis in the relations of Bavaria with the Reich (August–September 1921) which ended in Kahr's resignation was a further phase of the same trouble.
After the putsch Noske named Kapp, Pabst and Ehrhardt as being responsible, despite the support from much higher up in the army. Most of the participants were granted an amnesty. On 2 August 1920, the Reichstag passed a law that said of the crimes committed during the putsch and the subsequent Ruhr Uprising only those should be punished that were due to "cruelty" or "self-interest".:27 Out of a total of 705 cases brought against civilians, only the prosecution of von Jagow ended with a guilty verdict.:54 Freikorps and Reichswehr members were subject to military law. Out of 775 court martials, 486 cases were closed. 48 officers were removed from their posts, six resigned, the others were subject to mild disciplinary actions. The Marinebrigade Ehrhardt was dissolved in May 1920, but most of its members were allowed to join the Reichswehr where they had successful careers. The courts were much tougher on the members of the Red Ruhr Army, many of whom were sentenced to lengthy spells in prison.:27
Kapp was arrested in Sweden on 16 April but not deported to Germany. He voluntarily returned to Germany in April 1922 and died the same year in prison while awaiting trial. Lüttwitz returned to Germany as part of an amnesty in 1924.
Gustav Noske was forced to resign on 22 March, as he was extremely unpopular with the unions and they made his resignation a condition for ending the general strike. Also, some in the SPD thought that he had not been tough enough facing up to the putschists. Otto Gessler succeeded Noske as Defence Minister. General Reinhardt also resigned out of protest at Noske's dismissal. General Seeckt became his successor as Chef der Heeresleitung.:54
Monument to the March Dead
Between 1920 and 1922 a monument in honour of the workers who lost their lives in the wake of the Kapp Putsch was erected in the Weimar central cemetery. The memorial was commissioned by the Weimar Gewerkschaftskartell (Union Cartel) and built according to plans submitted to a competition by the architectural office of Walter Gropius. Although Gropius maintained that the Bauhaus should remain politically neutral, he ultimately agreed to participate in the competition staged among Weimar artists at the end of 1920. The monument was arranged around an inner space, in which visitors could stand. The repeatedly fractured and highly angular memorial rose up on three sides as if thrust up from or rammed into the earth.
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