Review – Waite, “Vanguard of Nazism”

Robert Waite, “Vanguard of Nazism: the Free Corps Movement in Germany 1918-1923” (1969) – This one is an early stab at the history of the Freikorps, the right-wing paramilitary formations that arose in Germany after its defeat in World War One. As the title indicates, the Nazis recognized the Freikorps as crucial forebears (didn’t stop them from killing numerous Freikorps big shots in the Night of the Long Knives, but that’s fascism for you) in important regards, both practical and inspirational. The whole gist of Nazism — basically, mass violence to instantiate imagined past glories that the previous, duly constituted protectors of the values of bygone days were supposedly too ineffectual to regain — was indeed prefigured by the Freikorps.

In the book’s best chapters, Waite — a WWII veteran, longtime beloved teacher at Williams College, and guy who eventually tried to psychoanalyze Hitler decades after Hitler’s death — traces how the Freikorps ethos came directly from elite formations in the WWI-era German army. Units of “stormtroopers” deployed to stealthily and violently overtake enemy trenches developed their own culture, separate from the German army traditions of obedience to duly appointed authority, rational planning, strict hierarchy, etc. It’d be wrong to say the stormtroopers, and the Freikorps after them, exactly subverted these ideas- they just reapplied, and in some circumstances super-charged them, to fit the extreme circumstances of the trenches (or, later, collapsed post-defeat Germany). So they were still quite obedient and hierarchical, just to the baddest dudes in their little group, not to graybeards on the general staff, eager to fight but for “the German spirit” and increasingly for the sake of the violence and not (just) because they were told, etc. The similarities between the culture of these elite troops and those of certain other elite military formations (who also failed to win their war despite their big reputations) suggest themselves readily.

So far, so cultural, and it’s worth noting that other factors, like the pan-Germanist movement, helped prepare German right-wingers for the idea that while hierarchy is always a great good, extant hierarchy might not be the most legitimate. When Waite gets into the Freikorps’ practical effects, stuff gets interesting in a different way. Put bluntly (and I finished this a while ago and am trying to clear a backlog so blunt it shall be), Waite is a Cold War liberal and a guy who believes in totalitarianism School notions, so tries to thread the needle between “the Freikorps are obviously bad” and “well, SOMEONE had to restore order in Berlin!” You can tell he has a certain affection for Gustav Noske, the Social Democrat who first called on the Freikorps, in many respects created them along with the Army generals (though I’d bet something like them would come about anyway) and sicced them on the SPD’s rivals to their left. Waite seems to see Noske, a former army sergeant himself with, errr, a substantial respect for order, as a tragic figure. If only he’d have had the foresight to reign them in somehow! Isn’t it sad how they clubbed Rosa Luxemburg to death! But, you know, there was looting, and you just can’t have that, and they did a general strike after the Freikorps tried to overthrow the SDP’s asses, that was cool, right? He cites the memoirs of Freikorps leaders sometimes as sole sources when talking about revolutionary conduct, like revolutionary sailors supposedly taking random women and children hostage when faced with the army in Berlin. It gets pretty bad in some places.

I’m used to the way a certain kind of liberal — Peter Gay did this too — lionized the Weimar Republic, the “good Germany,” the experimental Germany, trapped between Nazis and Communists, etc. The KPD made plenty of mistakes (that tends to happen when you systematically murder the best leaders in a group) but the equivalency is just wrong and I don’t think I need to belabor that point here. At least those old liberals felt the need to show their work more than contemporary ones do, and maybe meant their hemming and hawing more, meant their disgust with the right, than a lot of liberals do now when they tut tut before handing arms to the Right Sector or shaking hands with whichever ghoulish politician. So you get chapter and verse, as best as you were going to get with the available sources not so long after it happened (about the distance the late seventies is to us now), about the many, many extralegal murders the Freikorps did. When they stormed cities held by workers and soldiers councils, they just massacred people, hundreds of people per city. In cities without ongoing uprisings, they routinely murdered union organizers, politicians, and poor random people who “knew too much” throughout the years Waite covers. Nobody did anything. Almost none of them went to jail, and fewer still for serious time. The SDP, who had militia of its own, never really took the fight to the right, and by the time the KPD got big enough, the Freikorps had metastasized into the Nazi Party, a mass movement with support from elites. It’s grim.

“The Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers, they’re no Freikorps!” I can hear some of you say. Well, take what comfort in that you can. They clearly want to be- they dream what the Freikorps did. If you told a German of 1913 vintage that clubs of demobilized soldiers and their college student groupies were going to kill thousands of civilians in Germany proper in a few years, they wouldn’t believe it, either. All it took was the right crisis. I intend to keep our local fascists in a place where they can’t take best advantage of the crises we know are coming down the pike. Let’s keep them wannabes. ****

Review – Waite, “Vanguard of Nazism”

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