“The Reichswehr will march with you if you go the German way.” These were the words of General Hans von Seeckt to Gustav Stresemann, chancellor of the Weimar Republic, in September 1923–two months before Adolf Hitler’s coup attempt. Were they a threat or a promise? Seeckt had established a reputation during World War I as one of the German army’s most brilliant staff officers and leaders. In 1914 and 1915, as chief of staff of the III Corps in France, he organized successful local offensives based on quick, intensive artillery preparation followed by a surprise infantry attack. Transferred to the Russian front, Seeckt applied the same techniques on a larger scale. The result was the break through at Gorlice-Tarnow in May 1915, eventually costing Russia extensive territorial losses and over 1.5 million casualties. In the fall of 1915, Seeckt orchestrated the over running of Serbia. In 1916 he served as a senior staff officer to the Austro-Hungarian and later the Turkish armies, and he was in the Ottoman Empire when the war ended.
Untarred by the brush of disaster associated with the German collapse on the Western Front, Seeckt was a logical choice to succeed national hero Paul von Hindenburg as chief of the General Staff in the summer of 1919. A year later he became head of the new republic’s army high command. This body was subordinate to a civilian minister of defense. In fact, the first two occupants of the post, Social Democrat Gustav Noske and Democrat Otto Gessler, deferred to Seeckt regularly, both on technical and military problems and on the wider questions of the role that a reconstituted army should play in the newly created Weimar Republic.
Seeckt, like most of his military contemporaries, was a monarchist at heart. How ever, he perceived both the impossibility of a restoration and the risk of Germany collapsing into permanent civil war. His solution was to establish the Reichswehr as a force representing the German state, as opposed to any particular government. Internally he continued prewar patterns of excluding officers and men who had anything remotely resembling left-wing sympathies. At the same time he rigorously suppressed manifestations of the “trench radicalism” of World War I: the belief of returning veterans, ranging from intellectuals like Ernst Jilnger to thugs like Julius Streicher, that the “front experience,” with its emphasis on egalitarian comradeship and heroic vitality, should shape the German army and the German state.
Seeckt refused to test the army’s loyalty by openly engaging it against either the right-wing Kapp Putsch of 1920 or the abortive Nazi up rising of 1923. He was far more vigorous suppressing left-wing uprisings, leading to the charge that the army’s neutrality was suspiciously one-sided. Seeckt vigorously denied the allegations. It was not necessary, he believed, to admire every aspect of a democratic system in order to serve it loyally. Yet he entertained ambitions of becoming Germany’s president and establishing a conservative, when not authoritarian, regime. His critics bided their time until Seeckt’s prewar ties caught up with him in 1926. For allowing former kaiser Wilhelm’s grandson to participate in the annual maneuvers, he was dismissed. Part of Seeckt’s legacy was the army’s lack of reaction to his ouster. The other, less obvious part was a growing willingness within the Reichswehr to accept Hitler’s movement as the army’s civilian counterpart: a national body above and outside the every day give-and-take of politics, and correspondingly representative of Germany’s general will.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1994 issue (Vol. 7, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Hans von Seeckt: The Political Heritage of an “Unpolitical” Soldier
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