The Kapp Putsch of March 1920 involved an abortive attempt by disgruntled rightist politicians and military officers to overthrow the young Weimar Republic in Germany and replace it with a military dictatorship. The front man for the rebellion was a former Prussian civil servant named Wolfgang Kapp, but the real leader was General Walther von Lüttwitz, the commandant of Berlin. Muscle for the putsch came primarily from the Ehrhardt Marine Brigade, one of the right-wing Free Corps that cropped up in the immediate post–World War I period to fight against Polish encroachments in the Baltic region and communist insurgencies around Germany.
The immediate impetus for the Kapp Putsch was an order by the government of President Friedrich Ebert to disband the Free Corps, including the Ehrhardt Brigade. This decision was forced on the Ebert government by the Allied Powers, which saw the Free Corps as a violation of the military terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Convinced that the Ehrhardt Brigade was vital to the defense of Berlin, Lüttwitz ordered Captain Hermann Ehrhardt to march on the capital and take it over. On 13 March 1920, Ehrhardt's men, wearing helmets emblazoned with swastikas, set out from their base west of Berlin for the capital. They met no resistance from the regular army because Chief of Staff Hans von Seeckt, waiting to see how the rebels fared, refused an order from the Ebert government to repel the coup. Fearing capture by the rebels, the government fled to Dresden and then on to Stuttgart. Upon their arrival in the capital, Ehrhardt's men were met by Kapp and former General Erich Ludendorff, who was still a hero to the Right despite his central role in Germany's military defeat in World War I, which he and fellow rightists blamed on a "stab in the back" from leftists and Jews.
For the next few days Kapp and his men struggled to assert their control over Berlin and its environs, but their efforts were hampered by a general strike that shut down economic activity in parts of the city. The putschists were not equipped to deal with the strike, and their problems were compounded by their own ineptitude. It took them three days to find someone to type their manifesto announcing their seizure of power. Other paperwork was delayed because Ebert's government, in a brilliant act of preventative sabotage, had removed the rubber stamps necessary to the functioning of any German administration. Lacking money to pay the rebel troops, Kapp ordered Ehrhardt to take the necessary funds from the state treasury, but the latter refused on the grounds that he was an officer, not a bank robber. After just four days the putschists threw in the towel: Kapp flew to Sweden; Ludendorff decamped for Bavaria; and Lüttwitz resigned his command and fled to Hungary. On their way back to their base, however, Ehrhardt's infuriated men took out their frustration on the Berliners. When a young boy mocked them, they clubbed him to death and then fired point-blank into a crowd of angry bystanders, killing twelve.
A persistent mythology credits Berlin's workers with single-handedly saving the republic, but opposition to the putsch from other elements was just as crucial. Many conservative bureaucrats refused to cooperate with the adventurers around Kapp, and the republic's central military officials, while not actively opposing the putsch, also refused to assist the operation.
Significantly, just as the coup was collapsing, Adolf Hitler flew up to Berlin from Munich to monitor the situation and possibly be of assistance to the rebels. Unable to be of any use in Berlin, he soon returned to Munich, where, some three and a half years later, he staged his own abortive grab for power, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch.
The comic-opera qualities of the Kapp-Lüttwitz fiasco should not mask the fact that this episode was a serious threat to the fledgling Weimar order. Although there is some disagreement among historians about whether, with better organization, the coup might have succeeded, virtually all scholars recognize that the behavior of the regular army at this moment revealed a grave weakness in the republican system. Scholars agree too that the putsch illustrated a deep loathing for democratic principles on the part of significant elements of the population, especially among the old elites. Moreover, it should be noted that while the putsch failed in Berlin, counterrevolutionaries in Munich used it as a pretext to stage a nonviolent coup in Bavaria that did succeed, thus creating a political environment in which Hitler's Nazi movement could take root and blossom.
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Gordon, Harold J. The Reichswehr and the German Republic, 1919–1926. Princeton, N.J., 1957.
Large, David Clay. Berlin. New York, 2000.
Waite, Robert G. L. Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany, 1918–1923. Cambridge, Mass., 1952.
David Clay Large