Hermann Ehrhardt fought for his country in World War I, fought to save it from communists in the interwar years, fought to save it from Nazis, then left it for keeps after World War II.
Once upon a time in Germany a disgruntled World War I veteran organized his own private army, waged a successful war against homegrown communists and Russian-born Bolsheviks, and then was arrested and imprisoned after he staged a putsch against his own government. No, not Adolf Hitler. The man’s name was Hermann Ehrhardt, and after saving the Weimar Republic from communist revolutionaries, he backed or led several attempts to wrest Germany from Hitler, all of which included attempted assassinations.
The most implausible aspect of Ehrhardt’s career was neither his lifelong fondness for gun-play nor his impartial hatred for second-rate demagogues but his near indestructibility. After escaping a Nazi purge in 1934 and withstanding a year’s imprisonment following the July 20, 1944, Hitler bomb plot, Ehrhardt made it safely home to second wife Princess Margarethe of Hohenlohe-Oehringen. And perhaps for that reason, at least in the English-speaking world Ehrhardt remains the unknown soldier of the German right.
Georg Hermann Ehrhardt was born on Nov. 29, 1881, in Diersburg, Baden, the son of a sixth-generation Lutheran clergyman. “Father and Mother couldn’t foresee that I would not stand in the pulpit, but the dear Lord God gave me the sensibilities of a Lausbub,” Ehrhardt wrote in 1924 in his precocious autobiography, Adventure and Fate. “I bought my first worthless pistol with my school lunch money.”
The whole point of being a Lausbub, or “rascal,” is to annoy people and then evade capture. Soon after Pastor Ehrhardt sent his son to study French in a school in Switzerland, young Hermann, to vex one of his loathed teachers, snuck up behind the old grouch and fired his pistol into the air. The bullet ricocheted off a stone building and struck a passing young girl in the ribs. Horrified, Ehrhardt rushed over to examine the girl and found that her steel corset stay had stopped the bullet without bloodshed. To cheer up “the poor creature,” he took her photograph and invited her into his portable darkroom “to see what developed.” The girl soon tattled, however, and young Hermann was asked to leave school. He never learned his lesson though; back in school in Baden a teacher announced before Ehrhardt’s classmates a muffed Latin translation he’d made, and in retaliation Hermann boxed the teacher’s ears and broke his spectacles. Ehrhardt ultimately left school without an Abitur—a recommendation for university or professional school—and his father realized his only son was not cut out for the pastorate.
In 1899 the Imperial German Navy began accepting new cadets, and Ehrhardt saw an opportunity. As the son of a clergyman he was exempt from all class distinctions and qualified easily for the navy. In 1904, as a naval lieutenant, he volunteered to fight the Herero wars in German South-West Africa (present-day Namibia). During one memorable clash he engaged in a sniper duel with a warrior concealed in a treetop. Ehrhardt noted with approval that the rifle fell from the tree first, then the man, and he claimed the Herero’s decorated Mauser as a trophy. He was appalled when the proud and brave Herero warriors later fled into the Kalahari Desert with their wives and children. Many of the tribesmen were infected with typhus, and Ehrhardt caught the disease himself. But with the help of his Russian orderly and an African porter he recovered and was sent home on convalescent leave.
Ehrhardt impressed Wilhelm II, who awarded him command of his first torpedo boat—a light destroyer much like the ones Japan had used to sink several Russian warships during the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War. The young captain looked almost Eurasian, with slanted dark blue eyes, a big head and chest and rather short legs, a stocky physique he usually concealed beneath a single-breasted greatcoat. He kept his beard and mustache neatly trimmed to accentuate his intimidating Hunnic impression.
While patrolling the North Sea during World War I, Ehrhardt sank three British destroyers, a submarine and an empty troopship, with the loss of one of his own light destroyers. He penetrated farther up Britain’s Thames River than any hostile mariner since the Anglo-Dutch wars of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He also lured a Russian cruiser into a U-boat ambush in the Baltic Sea.
Ehrhardt was devastated when in November 1918 a mutiny among German battleship crews in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven prompted a broader revolt that led to Wilhelm’s abdication and the Armistice. By then a Korvettenkapitän—equivalent in rank to an Allied naval lieutenant commander or army major—Ehrhardt was ordered to surrender his flotilla at the British naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. The commander of the captured German fleet later ordered the ships scuttled. While sailing home with other German officers and sailors on a chartered South American freighter, Ehrhardt sank into deep depression, locking himself in his cabin. En route the lubberly crew of communist sailors in charge of the freighter refused to take orders and steered into the outer reaches of a minefield, choosing that exact moment to go on strike and demand extra pay. Ehrhardt, in all his fury, soon charged up on deck, piped his own crew and seized command of the vessel. Ignoring both the striking sailors and their apathetic senior officers, he slipped past the minefield and returned the ship safely to Wilhelmshaven. Hundreds of junior officers who still had some fight left in them soon pledged their allegiance to a new hero—Ehrhardt.
Back in Wilhelmshaven the take-charge captain was relieved to learn that his wife, the respectable heiress and widow of a nobleman from the venerable Gilsa family of officers at Waterloo and of the American Civil War, had taken her daughter and their two young sons to her mother’s home in Hamburg for safety. He was incensed, however, to find that the Reds had looted his wine cellar. The next war began almost immediately.
“Every sparrow on the roof knew that on January 27, the Kaiser’s birthday, the communists were planning to seize power and set up a ‘Soviet of Wilhelmshaven,’” Ehrhardt wrote. “Now the Social Democrats came to us to see what we could do. The clueless question came to me. I told them that it would be better to smash [the communists] first.… One bigmouthed deck officer asked, ‘Who’s going to be responsible if blood flows?’”
“I will, if I’m placed in command,” Ehrhardt told him. With 300 of his own naval troops and another 300 professional soldiers from the army Ehrhardt surrounded the “Thousand-Man Barracks”—headquarters of the communist revolutionary committee. The Reds fired first before naval gunfire from loyalists in the fleet rained down on and around the barracks.
“The whole night was a joke,” Ehrhardt wrote. “Rifles and machine guns cracked from all sides, and the communists lost seven dead, and we lost three, I think from our own gunfire.…Next morning the communists gave themselves up.” The vengeful army troops beat some of the communists half to death, while Ehrhardt himself rescued their leader out of a sense of duty and discipline. He calmly proposed the rightists form a unit under his leadership.
“Thank you, sir, but we have the matter in hand, and we can handle it on our own,” one of the civic leaders replied.
“Then you can kiss my ass goodbye,” Ehrhardt shot back.
Three days later Gustav Noske, the new German defense minister, called Ehrhardt by phone and authorized him to form his own Freikorps paramilitary unit. When World War I ended, the civilian professionals, young men and married men had returned home, leaving behind an undependable regular army. The Social Democrats were thus compelled to fall back on right-wing monarchists who despised them but were eager to fight communists. Ehrhardt’s first challenge was to convince some of his officers to lend any support to the Social Democrats. His second task was to weed out the shirkers who joined up for a new greatcoat and a few meals and then vanished. The assault company formed by Ehrhardt’s deputy commander, Leutnant Eberhard Kautter, comprised 80 men, but “in the first year 320 men went through the company, an indication that 75 percent of the human material we signed up was no good.”
Forming the backbone of Ehrhardt’s 2nd Marine Brigade were 300 junior officers or petty officers who had witnessed or heard about his rescue of the rust-bucket freighter and his subsequent exploits in Wilhelmshaven. Among the recruits from the army was Rudolf Mann, who left an account of his service. Early in the revolt Mann had seen a fellow officer cashiered for refusing to cut up an imperial flag to make communist armbands. Planning to resign in protest, Mann checked into the marine brigade. An officer—he later learned it was Ehrhardt himself—greeted him and asked him to write out the oath of allegiance to the Social Democrats in longhand, possibly to check his facial expression as well as his penmanship.
“Combat experience?” Ehrhardt asked.
“Two years on the Western Front.”
“Good, we can use you.” Mann became the brigade quartermaster and a strong admirer of Ehrhardt.
The 2nd Marine Brigade marched through the cities of northern Germany, crushing the slapdash communist governments in turn. When the unit arrived outside Braunschweig in April 1919, the two senior communist leaders abandoned their men, the Red troops surrendered, and the middle-class residents of Braunschweig showered Ehrhardt’s men with chocolates and invited them to dances.
On April 30 the brigade was on its way to Munich to confront the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Weeks earlier Russian Bolsheviks had seized control of the city after homegrown communists lost their nerve following the assassination of their premier, Kurt Eisner, a Prussian Jewish immigrant from Berlin, by Anton Arco-Valley, an Austrian war veteran who was a quarter Jewish. As the train carrying the brigade approached Munich, the locomotive suddenly screeched to a halt before a barrier of railroad ties. A Bavarian voice came out of the night.
“Why are you Saupreussen [“Prussian sows”] coming to Bavaria?” The barricades cost the brigade time but failed to stop it.
Ehrhardt and his men were part of an army of some 40,000 Freikorps and Reichswehr (regular army) soldiers that descended on Munich just after Bolsheviks at the Luitpold secondary school had murdered a group of hostages—seven members of the Aryan occultist and anti-communist Thule Society (including Countess Hella von Westarp and Prince Gustav of Thurn and Taxis), two nationalist hussars suspected of spying and a popular Jewish professor who had spontaneously ripped down a Bolshevik poster he found distasteful. In the battle that followed, the Freikorps routed the Reds. Ehrhardt’s brigade lost four dead and six wounded but captured two howitzers, 43 heavy machine guns, 80 light machine guns, 4,000 rifles and 12,000 hand grenades. They also captured the communist playwright and front-line veteran Ernst Toller—whom Ehrhardt’s men found in hiding wearing a nightshirt and a red wig—and Eugen Leviné, a Russian Jewish immigrant and noncombat veteran of the Kaiser’s army. Leviné had earlier removed Toller as military commander for refusing to execute prisoners. Toller was sentenced to eight years in prison, while Leviné got the firing squad.
Munich was the 2nd Marine Brigade’s high point. Its downfall came with the March 1920 Kapp Putsch, in which Ehrhardt, under orders, led his men into Berlin to demand that—despite the Treaty of Versailles—the German armed forces not be reduced to 100,000, which would call for disbandment of the Freikorps. Within a week a general strike and political blunders prompted Ehrhardt’s withdrawal. As the 2nd Marine Brigade marched out of Berlin, leftist street types heckled the enlisted men, who fired into the crowd and killed a dozen protesters before Ehrhardt brusquely ordered them to cease firing.
In the wake of the June 1922 murder of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, a Jewish industrialist and German nationalist who supported the postwar treaty terms, Ehrhardt was arrested on suspicion and spent eight months in a Leipzig prison. Three young officers broke him out in a bizarre July 1923 plot after seeking help from a medium and obtaining skeleton keys from a grizzled Hungarian safe-cracker the psychic saw in a dream. They broke into the prison during Ehrhardt’s weekly bath, and he escaped wearing a towel. Decades later, in the 1960s, surviving members of the Rathenau assassination squad reported that Ehrhardt had had nothing to do with the foreign minister’s murder, though the Freikorps leader had supported a number of other political murders against communists or informers.
Back in Munich, Hermann Ehrhardt met Adolf Hitler —and immediately disliked him, referring to him as “that idiot” and, obliquely, a psychopath. Ehrhardt and his deputy, Eberhard Kautter, bluntly refused to back Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923 and rallied their own forces in Nuremberg to finish off Hitler if the power grab succeeded. The putsch flopped in a burst of gunfire, and Hitler went to prison. But the fledgling Führer’s comeback surprised Ehrhardt, by then divorced from his terrified first wife and married to Princess Margarethe.
Ehrhardt had joined the Nazis’ newly organized Schutzstaffel (SS) as a precaution, and the paramilitary force welcomed him for publicity purposes, but his true purpose was to infiltrate the nascent organization. Ehrhardt loyalists soon had 160 gunmen in the SS, but the Gestapo learned of their intentions, and on June 30, 1934—at the outset of a purge since dubbed the Night of the Long Knives—the real SS knocked on Ehrhardt’s front door. Grabbing two shotguns, he melted into the woods behind the house. Ehrhardt hid out in Switzerland and France until Hitler invited him home. Incredibly, he did return, only to become a conspirator in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate the Führer. When it failed, Ehrhardt was again arrested and transferred among various prisons until the Nazi defeat.
On his release Ehrhardt quietly managed his wife’s estates in Austria, steadfastly refusing all interview requests. He died on Sept. 27, 1971, two months shy of his 90th birthday and, as a Christian in belief if not always in practice, was buried in the shadow of a tall stone cross.
“Loyalty is the mark of honor,” Ehrhardt wrote in 1924. “Loyalty is the last sense of morality. Once it disappears, it is no longer possible to renew a people or to establish a new government.”
People who recall him may argue whether Hermann Ehrhardt was loyal to his religion, to the Hohenzollern monarchy or to his own best interests. One thing is certain —he was never loyal to Hitler.
John Koster is the author of Operation Snow (2012) and Custer Survivor (2010). For further reading he suggests Ehrhardt’s 1924 autobiography, Captain Ehrhardt: Adventure and Fate, and Rudolf Mann’s With Ehrhardt Through Germany.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.