Feature Articles - Munich

Colonel Franz Ritter von Epp (click to enlarge)

Over The Border

The Freikorps - numbering around 30,000 men - were quick to get into position on the Bavarian border.

Most of the men hailed from outside of the state, although there was a large Bavarian contingent led by Colonel Franz Ritter von Epp.  There was also an aviation unit and an armoured train.  The plan was for a two-pronged attack to swing towards Munich from the north and west.  Once the environs of Munich were reached, a vice-like grip on its outskirts would be established - this would then be followed by an overwhelming assault.

On 27 April the Freikorps crossed the state line.  The formations easily smashed the Red Army units facing them.  On 29 April, and setting the tone to the campaign, the Freikorps captured and shot 21 Red medical orderlies.  At the end of the same day a ring of forces surrounded the Bavarian capital at a distance of about ten miles.  At this point it was decided to hold back from beginning the assault proper until after 1 May - May Day - for fear of making the Communists appear martyrs to their cause.

Inside the city the first creeping waves of panic among the communists had started to spread once news of the nearing Freikorps armies became common knowledge.  Toller now had second thoughts about the whole enterprise and criticised the Communists for taking Bavaria to war.  "We had no right to call the workers to battle when the only prospect was certain defeat; no right to call the workers to shed their blood for no purpose at all."

Those men who had joined the Red Army simply for the food and cash slipped away, leaving Egelhofer less troops to organise his defence lines.  The afternoon of April 30 witnessed the last meeting of the Communist leadership.  Toller informed them that he had contacted Hoffman to open negotiations terms only to be rebutted - the Freikorps, Toller was told, would decide the terms, which of course meant there would be no quarter at all.  On the streets a strange calm had descended as most people sensibly stayed indoors.

That evening, and already nervous from Toller's announcement, the Communists were thrown into further confusion when at a meeting in the Ministry of War a messenger burst into the office to announce that the enemy had taken the railway station.

The information was faulty, but it did not stop a flight from the Ministry - only Toller, Egelhofer and one of his bodyguards were left.  Levien made it out of the city and fled abroad, while Leviné and Axelrod raced off to find a suitable hiding place.  The "Russians" had deserted their own revolution.

The Massacre Begins

Ernst Toller (click to enlarge)Emboldened by the mass desertion the Red Army was experiencing, and the rumours that the Communist leadership was in disarray, many Conservative and far right factions rose up in armed resistance.  The Wittelsbach palace was taken along with a number of other central buildings.  Red banners were torn down and replaced with the traditional blue and white flags of Bavaria.  Cathedral bells rang out in celebration of the Reds forthcoming collapse.

On the outskirts of the city the Freikorps' armoured train fired off a few salvoes to emphasise their proximity and the destructive powers they had at their disposal.  Meanwhile, their aircraft took to the sky to drop leaflets giving warnings to those who would resist.  In the outskirts some streets were already in the hands of the Freikorps' forward units.

It was at this point that Egelhofer lost his head.  During the last remaining days of power, the communists had rounded up members of the bourgeois and those suspected of belonging to the Thule Society.  These hostages were held in the Luitpold Gymnasium's school buildings.

Egelhofer on the night of the 30th ordered the wardens to begin executing these prisoners.  Taken away in pairs they were either shot or bludgeoned to death with rifle butts.  To his credit, Toller raced to the scene as soon as he caught wind of Egelhofer's order, but by the time he had halted the massacre twenty prominent members of Munich society were dead - some were so badly mutilated that it was difficult to identify the bodies.

White Revenge

Freikorps soldier (click to enlarge)News of the hostage murders - Geiselmord - quickly filtered back to the Freikorps.  Jettisoning their plans for launching a strike on 2 May, it was decided to make an immediate attack on the morning of the 1st.  In the meantime the Red Army was shrinking as desertion from the ranks became epidemic.

As they had done in Berlin, the Freikorps ripped into the city.  Opposition, when it was encountered, was swiftly crushed - altogether only 70 Freikorps men lost their lives as opposed to the die-hard few hundred Red Army men.  The last stand of Munich's Red Army was at the city's central railway station.

Opposition here was destroyed on 2 May.  Egelhofer was caught when his car was flagged down trying to leave the city.  The man responsible for much of Munich's recent suffering was dragged out of the vehicle and shot.

Landauer - the coffee house radical and the man who had delivered Eisner's funeral eulogy - was taken to Stadelheim Prison, where he was beaten to a pulp and eventually shot.  His body was left to rot in the courtyard for two days before its removal.

Many others suffered a similar fate - Leviné was sentenced to face the firing squad.  Just before he died, Leviné shouted: "Long live the world revolution!" Toller was more fortunate: put on trial for his life, a number of prominent Munich citizens sent in testimonials in his defence.  He was sentenced to five years with no parole.

Axelrod was saved by claiming diplomatic status and by Lenin's insistence that if he were harmed then German diplomats in Russia would be shot out of revenge.

The Freikorps were welcomed with praise and thanks when they arrived.  By the time they left, even their supporters were glad to see the back of them.  As early as 4 May it was clear as to the objective the Freikorps had in mind.

In a 'pep' talk to his colleagues Major Schulz of the Lützow corps announced: "Anyone who doesn't understand that there is a lot of hard work here, or whose conscience bothers him had better get out.  It's better to kill a few innocent people than to let one guilty person escape."

According to David Clay Large 142 POWs were shot and were quickly followed by 186 executed after "lightning-fast court-martial proceedings".

On 5 May 12 workmen denounced by a priest were shot.  On the next day, Catholic workers of a religious club met to discuss Education and the Theatre in a tavern on the Augustusstrasse.  Bursting in on them, a patrol of Freikorps collared thirty men and then had twenty of them butchered for being 'Communist terrorists'.  Over 1,000 people, it is estimated, lost their lives within the space of six days.

Gustav Noske (click to enlarge)On 7 May von Oven reported to Noske that the city was 'cleansed', and yet it was only on 13 May control was handed back to Hoffman.  And with that a very uneasy peace returned to Munich, although the scars of conflict ran deep.

Richard Watt in 'The Kings Depart' wrote: "It was inevitable that in the course of these successive regimes practically every Bavarian class and faction would be left with some grievous suffering to brood over - and to avenge."

Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler, Iron Cross First Class, had been assigned as an Army political agent.  Apart from giving his own fiery talks to the rank and file, Hitler's job was to keep his ear to the ground and report on the political currents in the city.  In September his Commanding Officer gave him a new assignment.  He was to investigate a tawdry group of right wingers who were called - preposterously for such a parochial clique - the German Workers' Party.

A Conclusion Of Sorts

If asked to pick one city to highlight the pain and suffering of normal people on the German home front, then Munich would be a good choice.  For the sizeable middle and upper classes life in Munich before 1914 was one of enlightenment and culture, with increasing standards of living.  For the workers - the majority of the population - life was a grim pageant of backbreaking work, unemployment, unscrupulous landlords, disenfranchisement and hunger.

The Great War and all of its horrors and hardships slowly sucked the middle and upper classes into this world.  As the larders became empty and the lists of those who had died at the Front grew, it amplified the suffering to breaking point.

Revolution, when it came, was a disorganised affair leaving right and left embittered and those in the middle apathetic.  Anarchist rule, Red Terror and finally a brutal counter-revolutionary clampdown at the hands of the Freikorps heaped hardship onto hardship.  Except perhaps for Berlin, no other city in Germany had experienced so much hatred, bitterness and disappointment in the months following the defeat.

In defence of the Freikorps - if defence is the word one can use - they did halt Civil War and they did return social order.  The Spartacists and others, like Egelhofer, were just as brutal and bloodthirsty in their methodology - except they were less organised in their violence and thus caused less destruction.

That said the Freikorps behaviour towards innocent civilians was inexcusable, even by post-First World War standards.  Noske, Ebert and the SPD were playing with fire - a fire from the trenches that never died out when peace arrived.

But it should be stressed Munich's experience in the First World War and the confused months in its aftermath was not unique - in terms of damage Berlin suffered far worse.  The eccentricity, if not the madness, of Munich's various rulers were unusual, but in the grand scheme of things revolutions always throw up 'odd' characters.

So where can one place what is seen by many as something of a 'blip' in the history of Germany?  Were it not for Hitler would historians from outside the country place any major importance on the events of 1918-19 in Bavaria?


Hofbrauhaus in Munich (click to enlarge, copyright Simon Rees)But of course there was Hitler and because of this events of the time take on a deeper significance.  The actions of men like Eisner, Toller and Egelhofer, for example, all had a seismic impact of the response of the far Right.

The Thule Society and other völkish movements became overtly militarised.  The thoughts and opinions of local right wing thinkers - ever more extremist as the Left became more powerful - had a vast impact on the beerhall crowds and barrack room audiences.  And the message became ever more blunt as events became more bloodthirsty.

Hitler - and his political party - the German Workers Party (soon to became the more well-known National Socialist Workers Party, or Nazis) were the natural inheritors of this rightwing rage.  But the party was also a populist one, and happily played on lower middle and middle class fears of anarchy.

Hitler portrayed himself as a strong man - a man whose politics were 'fought' with the spirit of the trenches and, indeed, the spirit that the Freikorps used to defeat their ideological opponents.  In times of trouble this dual projection of security and force was a powerful selling point and one that Germans, when faced with hard times, found disarmingly attractive.

There are some who have gone to great lengths to suggest the Hitler was a historical acronym - his distorted reasoning and many of his key beliefs, they have stressed, had very little to do with the bloody days of the Munich Soviet.  Yet they forget that Hitler, returning from front already bitter in defeat, was enraged by the days of class war.  Indeed, if World War One made the man then Munich 1919 made the politician.

When Hitler talked of communists, Jewish plots and enemies of the state he was recalling those who he blamed for making his beloved Munich a battleground.  It was in Munich 1919 that he learned the lesson that power must be used to crush political opposition.

However, it was only until Munich 1923, after the failed beerhall putsch, that Hitler realised that to win power one had to play the democratic 'game'.  Once power was secured, however, what better model of control and terror could the Nazis emulate and improve on than the one founded by the Freikorps.

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"Boche" was a disparaging term used to describe anything German.

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