BERLIN IN MARCH 1920: HOW GENERALSTREIK ENDED THE COUP

In 2020, a year ago from now, our everyday lives were turned upside down by the worldwide COVID pandemic – a pandemic which still has us in its grip. Nothing is as it used to be: the virus threatens lives in both direct and indirect ways.

Many of us are, quite understandably, so preoccupied with the new reality we have no time or energy to busy ourselves with the past. But perhaps now is exactly the moment when we should look over our collective shoulder and carefully consider what we think that we know. Maybe this is the time to do what Mr Keating, the unforgettable college teacher in “Dead Poets Society”, tried to convey to his pupils: whatever you think you know looks different when instead of sitting at your desk, you stand on it and see things from a new perspective.

Exactly a hundred years before the COVID-pandemic broke out, in March 1920, the city of Berlin found itself in the state of chaos. Reactionary militant groups marched in and threatened to upturn the new German republic using direct and indirect violence – 2020 marked the centennial of what came to be known as Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch.

Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch, also known as Kapp-Putsch, after the names of its two official leaders, Wolfgang Kapp and General von Lüttwitz, was an attempted armed coup organised by a group of German reactionaries. Their plan was to overthrow the post-First-World-War republican government of Friedrich Ebert and replace it with the “good old” Prussian order – which did not mean that they wanted the Kaiser to return. In fact, Kapp is said to have held the former German emperor for a Weichei (coward).

Kapp-Putsch participants at Potsdamer Platz (image by Otto Haeckel, through Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-051-65)

The main cause for the attempted coup might have been less political than many were willing to admit: the putsch broke out because many high-rank German military were about to lose their jobs. The men whose whole lives turned around their army careers, who had been brought up to “serve their country” by waging or participating in military conflicts and wars; men who from very young age had been encouraged and supported in these pursuits by the state (like tin soldiers playing with their own tin soldiers), were about to be made redundant. Such was the decision made in Versailles and eventually accepted by the German government.

The disgruntlement of German troops and their leaders, still unable to accept their defeat with dignity, still kicking and screaming abuse at anyone who dared to disagree, still throwing tantrums and waving their flame-thrower hoses over the nation’s heads, almost led to another great catastrophe. In the end they failed – thanks to what should be hailed as one of the greatest moments in German history, one of the greatest examples of this nation – admittedly not exactly famous for such commendable examples of Aktionseinheit (unity of action) – closing its ranks to prevent an earthquake that could have swallowed them all. The Generalstreik (National Strike), called for right after the start of the putsch, brought the whole of Berlin as well as a great part of the country to a complete halt. And made the military and political machine behind the coup drive right against the wall.

But History is written by repeating stories over and over again and not by mentioning names or events.

Kapp-Putsch (perhaps also because of the catchy name?) had an easy job stealing public imagination – it had it all: Prussian military, political conflict between the old order and the new, class-conflict, Capitalism vs. Socialism and Communism, the von’s and the swastikas on German helmets.

Or maybe it is even less complicated than that? Perhaps it is this irresistible series of images – like an early form of Instagram not on computer servers but in people’s heads – that turned a failed assault carried out by disgruntled and/or traumatised men against a legal and official government of their state into a “classic”? Everybody loves a uniform. The shiny Prussian boots. The determined, stern look on moustachioed faces; the way they stand holding their weapons, the war machines they pull behind them or push before them like giant metal toys.

A postcard quickly issued in March 1920 showing Kapp troops posing on the roof of one of the later destroyed buildings at Hallesches Tor (image via GermanPostalHistory.com)

Sometimes, there is an element of disturbing fascination – it feels like fearful respect or quiet longing to have been part of it themselves – you often sense among those who keep re-telling Kapp-Putsch story with glee. But what do the story-tellers really think about their actions? Are those just filtered Instagram images, the ever-turning carousel of paroles, that they see and hear or do they really have a considered opinion? It is just a thought and by no means one limited to Kapp-Putsch only. But one aimed at making sure that the perpetrators should never get more (or better!) press than those they abused. Or even worse: that the abuse is turned around and consequently presented as virtue.

That is why when talking about the events in Berlin in March 1920 it is important to put the other side of this tale in the limelight.

The putsch, carried out by German Freikorps, voluntary paramilitary troops of strongly anti-republican hue, could have overthrown Ebert’s government: the army under General von Seeckt (even though some members of the Reichswehr supported the Ebert government) refused to follow president’s orders in order not to be forced to shoot at fellow soldiers (famous “Troops do not shoot at troops!”). This was most probably not the only reason for the army’s withdrawal – many powerful men would have welcomed Friedrich Ebert’s and the Weimar Republic’s demise.

Acting from so obviously lost a position, Ebert did the only thing he still could do: the cabinet left Berlin and got evacuated to Stuttgart. At the same time, he and the political parties supporting his cabinet called upon the People, mostly working-class citizens but by far not only (many entrepreneurs, company-owners and civic servants joined in), to go on strike. The masses responded and a general strike put everything to a halt: factories, railway stations, city transportation system, communications provided no goods or services. Berlin had no running water supply, no gas, no electricity, the public transport system froze. It should not be forgotten what that must have meant for regular people: their lives, already so horribly damaged by the sacrifices they were forced to bear for the First World War, were turned upside own again. Tens, hundreds of thousands of women and children who had nothing (bodies of their men strewn all over the war front lines); tens of thousands of war cripples with physical and/or mental wounds, old people with no-one to take care of them – they all waited in lines at the street pumps to carry some water into their dark, unheated rooms. Ironically, perhaps that is why they did not complain? Because this was nothing new – this was their life since the Kaiser, the kings and the generals decided to sacrifice the whole generation in order not to lose their face?

Berliners queueing for water during the Generalstreik in March 1920 in front of the street pump (Plumpe) in Berlin-Kreuzberg on the corner of Fichtestraße/Hasenheide/Graefestraße in front of “Konditorei Cafe Gerber”). Image: Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R11931, via Bundesarchiv, CC.

The Generalstreik was an incredible collective effort that deserves to be lauded – not pushed to the back of the national drawer in the hope that no-one notices before we are gone.  Facing the shooting Freikorps troops (they proudly displayed and even used their machine guns on most main junctions in Berlin’s centre), flame-throwers and the armed vehicles sent against the city, people did an incredible thing: they played dead. The big machine, one whose control is necessary if you are planning violently to grab power over a country, refused to work.

Although official numbers quote 12 million participants, that number was most probably nearer 20 million. The twelve million were only the registered trade-union members – they were, by far, not the only ones who answered the call.

In fact, it went so far that high-rank members of the Reichsbank management refused to grant the putschists access to the funds (another indispensable element of any successful coup). And Albert Brecht, a man in charge of the state seals (needed to prove the legitimacy of the new “government” by being able to stamp the documents issued by them), packed them into his coat-pocket and left the building without any intention to help the authors of the coup.

Poster calling for people to join the March 1920 strike. (Image via LEMO site of Deutsches Historiches Museum, Berlin)

Only 100 hours after the putsch began, Lüttwitz fled the country: first to Saxony and then Hungary. Kapp chose a different destination: he got himself flown out to Sweden. Both left Berlin on March 17, 1920 – 101 year ago today. Ehrhardt, commander of two Freikorps units involved in the occupation of Berlin, went into hiding in Bavaria.

With the putsch over, Friedrich Ebert’s government accepted the oath of loyalty sworn to them by those who only hours earlier tried to help set the world on fire and called for the ending of the national strike (“national” even though places like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg refused to join in). However, by then the events took a life of their own and Berlin was about to face another bloody but mostly forgotten chapter in its history: the 1920 March Revolution.

Now, if you were to stand on your desk to look at the events of March 17, 1920 from yet a different perspective, you would probably also see a small military aeroplane flying to German capital from Bavaria. Before the putsch came to its dismal end, the German capital was visited by a relatively unknown but aspiring politician. He arrived to show his support to Kapp and Lüttwitz as well as be there when the hated republic collapses.

Adolf Hitler’s pilot that night was Robert Ritter von Greim, whom Hitler would appoint as the last head of the Luftwaffe after Göring’s betrayal in April 1945. Greim would also become the man wounded by Red Army missiles while piloting a tiny Fieseler-Storch machine over the Tiergarten in the last days of the Third Reich: the machine was landed on Charlottenburger Chaussee (today’s Straße des 17. Juni) by his passenger and colleague, a Nazi pilot, Hanna Reitsch.

But back in 1920, after landing on a wrong airfield outside Berlin, Hitler allegedly disguised himself as a bearded accountant to make it past the checkpoints controlled by the workers.

The putsch, however, was of course over by then. This event – next to many others that followed – might have heavily contributed to Hitler’s future dislike of the city (despite his initial enthusiasm expressed in a letter to a friend sent during his first visit on a furlough from the front). In March 1920 he said about Berlin: “The Berlin of Frederick the Great has been turned into a pigsty by Jews.” Thirteen years later he would turn it into a Nazi hell. What was missing to stop him and his people was, among others, the Aktionseinheit.

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