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Thread: The Origins of the Freikorps: A Reevaluation

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    The Origins of the Freikorps: A Reevaluation

    An article I originally read several years ago concerning the origins of the Freikorps.

    The Origins of the Freikorps: A Reevaluation
    Ben Scott

    The evils of National Socialism have cast a great shadow across German history. Half a century on from the horrors of the Final Solution, the historian’s task of establishing a consensus explanation for the inexplicable has foundered in controversy. Though it has not been for lack of trying. In the frantic search for answers, virtually no German from Martin Luther to Helmut Kohl has evaded inspection for traces of Nazi roots or lingering legacies. The pursuit of truth and justice rightly produces such sensitivity. Yet, until recently, the emotional need for a single, devastating truth has masked the full scope of history between the Kaiserreich and the Dritte Reich. New inquiries have revealed not only the potential-laden seeds of fascism, but concurrent liberal ideologies, and non-ideological elements of German society. Viewed as both apologist and ground-breaking, these works seek a new understanding of the interwar period without detracting from the primacy of the Holocaust. This approach distinguishes between parallel and causal narratives, resists "hindsight history", and counters the tendency to cover weak analysis with castigation. Perhaps more importantly, it is a neutralizing strategy which invites the re-reading of existing histories with the purpose of critically "de-selecting" interpretations of the German past which presuppose a fascist taint.

    This study will review in this way the history of the Freikorps, the mass of volunteer soldiers who served as the repressive military force in the Weimar Republic from January 1919, to April 1920. In the eyes of popular history, they are the direct predecessors to the Nazi paramilitary groups. Historiographically, this label is not difficult to trace. The first histories of the Freikorps were written in the 1930s by Nazi myth-makers intent on glorifying the ideological precursor to the SA.1 Postwar historians have been far more even handed, but nonetheless reinforce a deterministic narrative of proto-Nazism. Even the best of these texts which adopt thoroughgoing methodologies tend to corrupt their neutrality by de-emphasizing characteristics which are apparently unconnected to Hitler’s Germany. If analysis presupposes that nationalist paramilitary groups in interwar Germany are necessarily fascist in character, seeking critically only this conclusion, the possibility of dissociating the early Freikorps from the SS is nullified by prior implication. Witness the success and popularity with which Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies (1987) has located "fascism as inner experience" in a psychoanalysis of Freikorps soldiers, and it is difficult to ignore the potential problems of guilt by association.2

    Rather than read history backward in search of a lineage of ideological militants, this study will give significant weight to a discussion of the stormtroops in the Great War, the physical and spiritual predecessors to the Friekorps. It will finish with the dissolution of the last volunteer units in April 1920. The volunteers movement will be approached as an extension of WWI and the subsequent revolution rather than a prelude to fascism. Though the ex-Freikorps soldiers did devolve into the reactionary Right and thus serve in the cause of Nazism, they did not begin so, nor were they characterized by political conviction during their sixteen months in action. The true identity of the Freikorps lies not in a nascent genocidal impulse, but in the trench experience and the conditions of a revolutionary society. The lineage of the Freikorps lies more appropriately as a descendent of the elite stormtroopers (Sturmtruppen) of the Western Front, and the myths surrounding them. It was not politics, but war which interested these men. It was not ideology, but activism which characterized their movement. They were less patriots than mercenaries; less zealous reactionaries than opportunistic war lovers. Their history is one of chaotic circumstance, traumatic identity, and vacillating purpose. They did not so much drive the proto-Nazi movement as they were harnessed to it through chance and contingency. For all the myths of a foreword-looking legacy to another war, there is the simple truth that the attention of these men, while they were Freikorpskämpfer, was firmly fixed backwards, towards the war they had just left or just missed.

    Legend and Legacy

    The German stormtroops were born of necessity.3 In early 1916, the Imperial German Army was locked into a two front war of attrition which with time could only mean defeat. Outnumbered and outgunned in the West, but buoyed by successes in the East, the High Command gambled on a massive assault at Verdun. In a similar spirit of hopeful risk, Captain Willy Rohr revamped a special project which had false-started in 1914, stormtroops, elite units of carefully selected, specially trained men. Physically fit weapons specialists with tactical mobility, these units were designed to literally storm the enemy lines with concentrated fire power, creating a breach which could then be exploited by massed assault waves. Trial combat engagements in May of 1916, though too limited to bring victory, were promising. Training schools for new strategies and special weaponry sprung up behind the lines. During the Battle of the Somme, stormtroops served as an "elastic defense" against attackers.4 Self-contained, highly independent companies launched explosive counter-attacks to relieve pressure on sensitive portions of the line. Heavily armed, but isolated between massive armies, stormtroops’ viability hinged on officers’ initiative both for a successful sortie, and a suitable line of retreat. Laden with mobile machine guns, flamethrowers, light artillery, hand grenades, semi-automatic carbines and pistols, stormtroopers maneuvered recklessly, blasting deep into the opposing trench system, and back out again. This atypical style of mobile combat was both highly effective and costly, building up a mystique of hardened, mechanized warriors around the survivors of these units.

    Offensively, most notably in the counter-attack at Cambrai in November 1917, and in the March Offensive of 1918, stormtroops used "infiltration tactics."5Squads of men from 10 to 100 strong spearheaded German assault waves, probing enemy lines and skirting strong points. Sectors with weaker defenses were stormed with grenade attacks, and held only briefly before moving off to the next line of trenches. Units were not to await reinforcement, orders to attack, or artillery support, but were to advance until exhaustion or the complete penetration of enemy artillery emplacements. Disrupting enemy communications, opening the flanks on strongly held redoubts, and destabilizing lines of support, stormtroopers are often credited with the German successes in 1918.

    As success mythified their reputation, the stormtroopers grew in distinctiveness. Always unmarried, under 25, and physically fit, these soldiers fought, appeared, and thought of themselves as superior. Many units shed the traditional Reichswehr accouterments for a kit specially adapted for mobility and firepower. These alterations, including the donning of a "death’s head" collar insignia, set them apart physically and psychologically from the mass of soldiers, contributing to the ethos of elitism earned in battle. Additionally, officer/men ratios dipped as low as 1-to-4, and soldiers were issued officers’ pistols. Discipline was relaxed and cohesive relations encouraged within units. Men conversed with officers using the familiar "du" form, unheard of in the history of the Prussian army. Stormtroops received better rations, longer periods in rest billets, and extended leave. In action, companies were trucked to the front lines for a mission and returned upon completion, never obliged to simply hold a position. Permanently on the offensive in action, and pampered in reserve, stormtroop morale remained high despite appalling casualty rates. Frequently this aggressive group confidence was invested in a company commander whose name, rather than regiment number, was used to refer to his troops. These officers, super-human in reputation, enjoyed a blind allegiance from their men.

    Though the tactical, mechanized prowess of these elite, cohesive units will be of interest when mirrored in the Freikorps, the legacy of the powerful identity and world view forged through combat experiences is of primary importance. The meaning that stormtroopers derived from the war set them apart from any group of men, then or since. For many, notably represented by Ernst Jünger (himself a decorated officer), the Fronterlebnis had generated a new kind of man with new insights into the workings of the world. The "new man" (der neue Mensch) was intimately bound to the euphoric destruction in the combat experience. It had smelted a steel being with a primitive virtue, both fused with and triumphant over the mechanical slaughter that surrounded him. Though concepts like Fronterlebnis, Frontgemeinschaft, der neue Mensch, and the Mannesideal have since become strongly connoted with ideological racism, it is crucial for an understanding of both the stormtroops and the Freikorps to formulate the original, non-political meaning of this soldier’s legend....

    Read the rest here

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    I'll be putting this away for future reference and contemplation, thank you very much for bringing this to our attention.

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