As the “Flaming Youth” of America slept around and drank bathtub gin during the heady days of Prohibition, their European counterparts in Paris and Berlin were busy engaging in even more debauched pleasures. Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic shows that although Weimar Berlin produced some of the greatest artistic creations in modern history (the films for Fritz Lang and the Expressionist horror classics Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the city was also known as the infamous “city of whores,” which featured an entire red light metropolis where Germans heavy with military medals sold their wives and children into sexual slavery in order to buy bread. Berlin became so synonymous with prostitutes that even “better” women copied the fashions of streetwalkers:
The problem, unfortunately, became acute in the Weimar period when prostitute fashion was widely intimated by Berlin’s more virtuous females. For instance, one historical badge of shame for Strich-violators, short-cropped hair, became the common emblem of the Tauentziegirl (a variety of Berlin streetwalker)—at least for a year or two. Then in 1923, the short pageboy coif, or Bubikopf, achieved universal popularity as the stylish cut for trendy Berlinerinnen.
One must remember that Berlin’s decadent nightlife also embraced child prostitutes, commonly referred to as “Medicine,” “Telephone-Girls,” and “Doll-Boys.” Pregnant women, known as “Munzis,” were also available for those native-born and foreign men without natural scruples.
Co-existent with this social degradation was a far more metapolitical revolution. The men of the trenches, who had adapted to a life of sacrifice and violence, wanted to keep the war going out of their hatred for the tedium of the bourgeois lifestyle. Many of these men gravitated towards right-wing politics, but very few became reactionaries. Most sought direct action revolution for that promised the most action.
In Germany, the situation was especially grim. The relative weakness of the Social Democrats, a mainstream party in Weimar that had to rely on right-wing death squads for their very survival between 1919 and 1923, along with the thoroughly reactionary character of the German conservatives and monarchist parties, allowed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) to chart a middle course that appealed to both conservative nationalists and radical socialists.
Equally, the Left and Right in Germany saw something worth despising in the revanchist and revolutionary brown shirts. The extreme Left, represented by the German Communist Party (KPD), which was the largest communist party outside of the Soviet Union, sought to “physically remove” fascists (hence the birth of antifa in the early 1930s). German conservatives on the other hand sought to water down Hitler’s more revolutionary economic promises. The true tragedy of German conservatism between the world wars was the belief that Hitler and his movement could be contained and co-opted at all.
When the Social Democrat Philipp Schediemann declared the birth of the German Republic on November 9, 1918, it kick started a revolution from above that immediately fell into fighting with a revolution from below. In Kiel, mutinous sailors created a Soviet-style force of angry proletarian warriors. By January 1919, the Sparticist Revolution saw communist paramilitary forces seize Berlin and the industrial cities of Germany’s center and Rhineland regions. The chief of police in Berlin was allied with the communists, and so many radicals earned early release from detention, thus making the chaos infinitely worse. In Bavaria, the Bavarian People’s Republic of Kurt Eisner was replaced by the Bavarian Soviet Republic, a communist state led by Jews who had spent most of their lives outside of Germany.
SPD government functionaries was frantic. In looking around for some kind of force to save them, they appealed to the German Army, an entity that they had once denounced as a hotbed of monarchist opinion. The new commander, Hans von Seeckt, was hoping to turn the small Reichswehr into a professional, elite force. As such, he was less than enthusiastic about deploying his men as basic street fighters.
In the absence of the regular Germany Army came the “Freebooters,” otherwise known as the Freikorps. These private military units were mostly staffed by World War I veterans who swore oaths of loyalty to their junior officers, many of whom sported the name Führer. Their numbers swelled in 1919 thanks to an injection of nationalist students and some working class individuals. The Freebooters proved capable of dispatching the communist rebels with brute force, thus guaranteeing the survival of the liberal republic. However, it became obvious that the Freebooters themselves sought to overthrow the hated republic, and these units proved extremely hard to suppress.
First and foremost, the Freebooters were deeply connected to certain officials within the official army, the Republican Reichswehr. Old monarchists from the Hohenzollern army also joined in with the Freebooters, while wealthy industrialists and Prussian and Bavarian nobles contributed money and manpower to the fight against Bolshevism.
The case study of General Franz Ritter von Epp highlights the connections between the old money of Junker Germany and the newer money of industrial Germany. Von Epp was an experienced soldier, with time spent in German South-West Africa (today’s Namibia) and on the Western, Eastern, and Italian fronts of World War I. After the war, von Epp created his own Freebooter army, the Freikorps Epp. His most famous soldiers were future SS leader Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Rohm, a veteran of the 10th Bavarian Infantry Division and the first Stabschef of the SA. In between his days as a Freebooter and a Nazi paramilitary leader, Rohm was a politician in the National Socialist Freedom Movement and an officer in the Bolivian Army.
Back in 1919, when communists seized control of Bavaria, von Epp’s men, which had been recruited as far back as late 1918, retook Munich along with other Freebooter units. Von Epp managed to pay his soldiers thanks from contributions from not only wealthy friends, but also from secret army funds that had been established for political propaganda purposes during World War I.
Other Freebooter units either pilfered cash from dead communists or were paid by the Weimar Republic itself. In 1919, Social Democrats Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske, the first President and Defense Minister of Republican Germany, authorized the creation of a 30,000-man Freebooter army under the overall command of General Burghard von Oven. Therefore, the communists were right to critique the Freebooters as the well-paid arm of the “turncoat” Social Democrats.
The Social Democrats found out that besides radical ideologies, the great unifier of the Freebooters was their hatred of discipline. These paramilitary groups relied on personal loyalty and the promise of violence and booty. Lieutenant Gerhard Rossbach, himself a paramilitary commander, described his men as an ill-disciplined rabble who took pride in “brawling and drinking, roaring and smashing windows—destroying and shattering what needs to be destroyed.” This rowdy reputation (along with promises of decent pay) helped Freebooter militias to swell to over 400,000 men by 1920.
Between 1919 and 1923, various Freebooter units tried to bring down the Weimar government (the Kapp Putsch of 1920), conqueror the Baltic for Germany, and conducted around 350 political murders (Feme), few of which were ever punished. In the meantime, thousands of Freebooter veterans joined von Seeckt’s army (the Black Reichswehr), while others joined up with the emerging paramilitary groups of the interwar period. The best known of these paramilitary groups was the Nazi Sturmabteilung, or SA, but there also existed the Stahlhelm (“Steel Helmet, League of Front Soldiers”), an organization of World War I veterans attached to the German National People’s Party (DNVP), the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, which was pro-SPD, and the Communist Roter Frontkämpferbund.
While the Stahlhelm mostly appealed to more reactionary, pro-monarchist forces in Germany, the SA and the RFB appealed to Weimar’s disenchanted and radicalized youth. Although it is verboten to say so in today’s modern political discourse, the early Nazis and the communists often traded personnel between themselves and even cosponsored labor strikes together. As historian Robert G.L. Waite notes in his book Vanguard of Nazism, communism and national socialism appealed to the nihilistic, thuggish mentality of the Freebooters and the generation that followed them:
If nihilism, activism, and sheer opportunism are the essentials of National Socialist political thinking, then the Free Corps made a real contribution. This writer does not feel that Hermann Rauschning’s “revolution of nihilism” offers either an adequate explanation of the rise of Hilterism or a sufficient analysis of its functioning. It is, however, an apt characterization of the political thinking of both the Free Corps Movement and the Freebooter element which formed so a large a part of the New Order.
This “Freebooter element” was synonymous with bearded men plundering villages in Latvia while drunkenly singing old pirate songs from Germany’s northern coast. Many Free Corps soldiers also disdained parliamentary politics, and some wound up fighting for the communists because Bolshevism promised even more action than revolutionary conservatism. In 1933, many Free Corps veterans of the far-Left were welcomed into the waiting arms of the Nazi Party by Hitler, who recognized that good communists could make excellent national socialists.
If Hitler had never come to power, then the story of the Freebooters would have ended in 1923, when the German government began to emerge from the chaos of the immediate postwar period and the economy stabilized. However, the revolutionary Right in Germany was still a force to be reckoned with. This is what the populist press mogul Alfred Hugenberg believed, and when the Stahlhelm merged with the SA in 1933, Hugenberg hoped that the “socialism” in national Sscialism could be watered down or otherwise diluted by the spirit of the Hohenzollerns. This did not happen, and not too long after the merger, SA men forced Stahlhelm members to disarm for supposedly making an alliance with the Republican paramilitary force.
Many observers are right to say that Adolf Hitler’s movement was not a purely conservative (by Anglo-American standards) venture. That being said, Nazism worked in Germany because its radicalism managed to appeal to the middle class, thanks in no small part to the filth and degeneracy of Berlin and the street violence of the communists. Hitler also proved fluid enough to cast off some of the party’s radicalism when it suited him. By 1930, when the Great Depression began to enmesh Germany in yet another economic hell, many conservatives, including members of the powerful Centre Party, a Catholic voting bloc, saw in Hitler a chance to regain right-wing strength against the increasingly powerful KPD. In backroom meetings with Germany’s conservative establishment, Hitler promised that the socialistic “Twenty-Five-Point Program” of the NSDAP was negotiable. Hitler proved his commitment by suppressing the Strasser Brothers and the more anti-capitalist strains of national socialism. Troy Southgate claims that “…nobody can ignore the plain and simple fact that Hitler totally refused to condemn German Capitalists and the Right-wing Establishment.”
The men most guilty of helping Hitler to rise to power were Kurt von Schleicher and Franz von Papen. During the 1920s and early 1930s, von Papen was the face of the hard right-wing of the Centre Party. During Weimar, Centre politicians were active in government and often had their own men as Chancellor. The most consequential Centre politician prior to von Papen was Chancellor Heinrich Bruning. Beginning in 1930, as the Great Depression hit Germany hard, Bruning became increasingly authoritarian and decided to use the emergency powers of the Weimar Constitution (most of which had been penned by Max Weber) to his advantage. Hitler would do much the same thing after a Dutch communist burned down the Reichstag.
During Bruning’s government, von Papen and his rival von Schleicher, a representative of the old military establishment, convinced President Paul von Hindenburg to get rid of Bruning, which he did in 1932. That same year, von Papen was named as the new Chancellor of Germany. His reign did not see the end of 1932 because the Centre Party quickly lost ground to the Nazis. In the election of 1932, Hitler gained 13.4 million votes, thus making the Nazis the most popular party in Germany. Another election in November provided even more embarrassing results.
Before being sent home, von Papen backed down in the face of the increasingly radical Nazis over the murder of Konrad Pietrzuch, an unemployed former Polish partisan living in the Upper Silesian village of Potema. Pietrzuch was beaten to death by several members of the SA in 1932, who were almost immediately captured and put on trial. Von Papen invoked a new emergency law (which practically amounted to martial law) against political violence and demanded the death penalty for the thugs.
The Nazi press in Munich and Berlin went into overdrive, with SA Gauleiter Joseph Goebbels writing that the entire thing was orchestrated by the Jews. Goebbels also claimed that the Weimar Republic would not be around long enough to enforce death sentences on the men. The SA threatened to revolt if the death sentences came down, and Hitler privately worried that he would lose his control over the rowdy group. After all, Hitler’s always sought to legally enter the “bourgeoise” republic. He got his wish when von Papen’s government went for life imprisonment instead of death. By 1934, the convicted murderers walked away from jail as free men. The Nazis won and Hitler got to maintain the pretense of legality.
During all of this time, both von Papen and von Schleicher maintained backroom dealings with the rising national socialists. Ian Kershaw’s book Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris details how von Schleicher sought and gained Nazi support for the soft coup against Bruning. For Schleicher, the ultimate goal was to put himself in power. For Hitler, it was about gaining the acceptance of the conservative establishment.
Both von Papen and von Schleicher would see short terms as chancellor. However, both continued Bruning’s policy of ruling by emergency decree. When von Schleicher learned that President von Hindenburg intended to replace him with von Papen, Schleicher convinced the old general to name Hitler as the new chancellor.
Like a lot of men of their class and generation, von Papen and von Schleicher believed that Hitler, a failed artist and corporal, could be turned away from revolutionary conservatism in favor of more reactionary politics. Although von Papen played a role in legitimizing Hitler in the eyes of von Hindenburg, he was also one of the first German conservatives to recognize the awful Devil’s bargain that had been made. Speaking before the University of Marburg in 1934, von Papen said:
If the liberal revolution of 1789 was the revolution of rationalism against religion, against attachment, so the counter-revolution taking place in the twentieth century can only be conservative, in the sense that it does not have a rationalizing and disintegrating effect, but once again places all of life under the natural law of Creation. That is presumably the reason why the cultural leader of the NSDAP, Alfred Rosenberg, spoke of a conservative revolution. From this there emerge in the field of politics the following clear conclusions: The time of emancipation of the lowest social orders against the higher orders is past. This is not a matter of holding down a social class – that would be reactionary – but of preventing a class from arising, gaining the power of the state, and asserting a claim to totality. Every natural and divine order must thereby be lost; it threatens a permanent revolution … The goal of the German Revolution, if it is to be a valid model for Europe, must therefore be the foundation of a natural social order that puts an end to the never-ending struggle for dominance. True dominance cannot be derived from one social order or class. The principle of popular sovereignty has, however, always culminated in class rule. Therefore, an anti-democratic revolution can only be consummated by breaking with the principle of popular sovereignty and returning to natural and divine rule.
Von Papen’s support for natural hierarchies and divine order earned him the hatred of the Nazi Party. While von Papen was spared the fate of his friend Gustav von Kahr, the virtual dictator of Munich who put down the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, he nevertheless became a small-time functionary in the monstrous Nazi state. From 1934 until 1944, von Papen’s main job was being Berlin’s expert on Turkey. He provided Hitler with updates about Allied plans to bring Ankara into the war. After the war, British prosecutor Sir Maxwell David Fye made it his mission to get von Papen charged with war crimes at Nuremberg. Von Papen ultimately got out of prison in 1949, way short of his eight-year sentence.
Speechwriter Edgar Julius Jung was murdered by the SS during 1934’s “Night of the Long Knives.” Von Schleicher and Rohm also died during that purge. The Night of the Long Knives can best be seen as Hitler’s destruction of both his left-wing (Strasser, Rohm) and right-wing opposition. Both the list of those killed during the Night of the Long Knives and the list of co-conspirators of the 20 July Plot (the famous attempt at killing Hitler in 1944) show a preponderance of aristocratic names, monarchists, and reactionary conservatives.
The story of German conservatives of the interwar period offers up at least one lesson. Coalitions can be dangerous things, especially when they are born out of emergency situations. The threat of communism made a marriage with Nazism understandable, but in linking hands with the brown shirts, German reactionaries not only killed their own cause, but provided a propaganda victory for the forces of the Left still being exploited to this day.
If nothing else, this story teaches today’s reactionaries that there may be some Rubicons that cannot be crossed. Republicanism without support for natural aristocracy is one, and so too is any outwardly atheistic or occultist organization that seeks to dismantle Christian civilization. In moving forward, the American Right must be wary of collaborations with entities whose goals are destruction of this tradition.
One final warning: the Nazis and the communists both appealed to populism as a way to promise the middle and lower classes the chance to rule themselves without intermediaries in the form of liberal functionaries. This is a dangerous game, for the masses are not and will never be fit to rule. Therefore, the emerging “Devil’s bargain” of the 21st century will likely involve populism, especially American-style populism, which is rooted in an older form of liberalism, and its appeal to those members of reaction who want to immediately seize power.