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Germany’s Secret Army, 1918-20

By Nicholas Efstathiou
7/24/2017 • HistoryNet

Post-World War I “Freikorps” paramilitary units won control of Germany’s streets amid revolutionary chaos.

Following the November 11, 1918, armistice that ended World War I’s four years of brutal fighting, German army troops returning to the beaten fatherland found the country in social and political turmoil. Germany’s new democratic Reich government, established to fill the political void created by the November 9, 1918, forced abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was losing political ground to revolutionary German Communist Party soviets.

Soldiers, sailors and laborers – disgruntled over their role in World War I and enraged at the alarming disparity between Germany’s rich and poor – were forming soviet councils to enforce the Communists’ will of wresting political control from the Reich’s weak central government. In many instances the soviets succeeded, and Germany found itself in the midst of revolutionary combat from small villages to large cities such as Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.

In accordance with the armistice (and later the Treaty of Versailles), the Reich could only employ a small, poorly supplied and weakly motivated Reichswehr (the new German army) against German soviet forces. The Reichswehr made little progress against soviet-held positions, and at the urging of Defense Minister Gustav Noske, the Reich unofficially promoted creation of a clandestine army formed of paramilitary units known as Freikorps (German for “volunteer corps”) to combat the soviet revolutionaries.

Freikorps units were created by – and generally took their name from – a central figure, typically a veteran officer or noncommissioned officer. These leaders recruited heavily from their former wartime units, enlisting men who were disciplined combat veterans, knew how to function effectively as a combat unit, and shared nationalist ideals concerning Germany. Via Reich backing and personal connections, these commanders were able to ensure their troops enjoyed a better standard of living than that of the average Reichswehr soldier. Freikorps units ranged from company to division strength, and they outfitted themselves by outright theft or through the aid of sympathetic Reichswehr quartermasters who turned a blind eye to their unauthorized “appropriation” of weapons and equipment.

Freikorps von Epp, formed in February 1919 by Oberst Franz Ritter Xavier von Epp, at the request of Defense Minister Noske, was a leading example of an effective divisional-strength unit formed around a powerful personality. Munich’s soviet government had refused to acknowledge the Reich government’s supremacy, and Epp, as a decorated Bavarian officer, was considered the optimum choice to lead a force to take back Bavaria’s wayward city.

Epp enlisted as an officer candidate in the Bavarian army in 1887 and by the 1914 beginning of World War I had served in a variety of capacities. His services included active duty as commandant of the Bavarian War Academy and combat action as a member of the German relief force sent to China during the Boxer Rebellion and in Germany’s South West Africa colony. In mid-August 1914, Epp took command of the Bavarian army’s elite Royal Bavarian Infantry Life Guard Regiment and retained it until the war’s end, displaying tremendous personal bravery. The Imperial German Army recognized his battlefield performance, awarding him the Iron Cross 1st Class, Iron Cross 2d Class, the noble title “von,” the Knight’s Cross and the Pour le Merite.

At the time Noske made his request, Epp was living in neighboring Württemberg following an assassination attempt at his Munich apartment. Epp agreed to create a Freikorps and began recruiting troops.Word spread swiftly, and soon former members of the Royal Bavarian Infantry Life Guard were enlisting. Veterans of the Bavarian Alpine Corps, to which Epp’s Life Guard had been attached 1914-16, were soon enlisting as well. By April 1919, Epp had a force of nearly 15,000 nationalist Bavarians who had seen World War I combat in elite units.

Among Freikorps von Epp’s troops was an immense pool of various military specialties from which to form specialized units. Epp created a broad range of units, including storm trooper assault troops, pioneers and regular infantry. Artillery support was provided by armored trains, heavy artillery, mortars and light artillery maneuvered via trucks. Armored cars, cavalry and an air wing added to the Freikorps’ combat power. On April 30, 1919, Freikorps von Epp, another smaller Freikorps, and Reichswehr units were staged outside Munich, prepared to assault the city May 2.

German soviet forces within Munich panicked with the arrival of the Reich troops, executing an estimated 20 political prisoners at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Word of the executions quickly reached Epp, who had operational control over all Freikorps and Reich units, and he launched an immediate attack upon the city. The combined force entered Munich in two columns, the first from the east and the second from the west. The use of columns was a tactic devised by General Ludwig von Märcker in Berlin as a psychological weapon to pacify through intimidation created by converging ranks of uniformed, disciplined troops. Both of Epp’s columns pushed deep into Munich. The air wing carried out multiple tasks in advance of each column: reconnaissance to identify blockades and machinegun nests; propaganda by dropping pamphlets encouraging surrender; and airstrikes attacking soviet rooftop snipers.

The intelligence gathered by the air wing was rapidly relayed to Epp’s columns, allowing them to bypass trouble spots as they sought out the largest concentrations of German soviet forces. Many of the estimated 40,000-50,000 soviet troops in Munich simply melted away at the approach of Epp’s columns. Only several hundred stalwart Communists stayed at their posts, fortifying Hacker Bridge and Munich’s central train station.

At both of these defensive positions, Epp employed a unique blend of tactics that became the hallmark of Freikorps units until Germany was secured for the Reich in 1921. These tactics re-created highly effective World War I operations, emphasizing the importance of combined arms combat. For instance, Epp isolated the soviet defenders at Hacker Bridge and the train station with heavy artillery fire, cutting them off from both their reserves and their retreat routes while shocking them with a tremendous amount of fire.Armored vehicles patrolled side streets to prevent enfilading fire from small soviet units. Freikorps trucks brought up storm troopers and light artillery, and the smaller field pieces lowered a curtain of fire behind the target once the heavy artillery barrage lifted. Light machine guns laid down suppressing fire for the assault troops, and then the storm troopers attacked the stunned defenders using grenades, pistols, K-98 carbines, flamethrowers, trench knives and trench clubs. Employing these rapid, vicious assault troop tactics and working as a combined arms team, Freikorps von Epp took control of Munich May 2, 1919.

By swiftly seizing Munich, Freikorps von Epp showed Germans that the Reich would not permit the nation to dissolve in the post-World War I social and political upheaval. The Reichswehr, in turn, revealed it was incapable of dealing with the country’s revolutionary chaos by itself and that it could not compete with the Freikorps in battlefield performance. Indeed, its inability to enforce the government’s political will had led to the creation of the Freikorps. Freikorps troops – motivated, nationalist-minded, World War I veterans – were better paid, better fed, better equipped, and better led than the revolutionary soviet forces, leaving the soviets unable to stand against them.

Epp showed the Reich how disciplined troops using combined arms tactics and exercising ruthless efficiency could reassert control in a politically destabilized situation. The success of Freikorps von Epp and other Freikorps units created physical power behind the Reich’s political will. While the Reichswehr served a limited function, the true military of the Reich bringing order to the chaos of Germany’s revolution were the Freikorps – Germany’s secret army.


 Nicholas Efstathiou holds a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University, and he lives in New England with his wife, their three children, and one or two books on the subject of military history.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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