Thursday, May 24, 2012

Monarchist Profile: Wolfgang Kapp

Not many people will be familiar with the name of Wolfgang Kapp. Those who recognize it at all most likely know it only as the name associated with a putsch in Germany in 1920 aimed at toppling the dysfunctional Weimar Republic, most accounts of which hardly mention Wolfgang Kapp at all other than as a someone put at the head of this effort but having seemingly little to do with it. It is usually described as the work of nationalists or militarists with the monarchy almost never mentioned at all in most accounts. Obviously, a more complete picture of the man in, at least, nominal command of this historic event should be better understood. Wolfgang Kapp was actually not a native of Germany at all, though he was certainly as German himself as they come. He was born in New York City, USA on July 24, 1858. His family had fled Europe in the wake of the Revolutions of 1848 as his father, Friedrich Kapp, had been a democratic-republican activist. He married in New York and Wolfgang was born there before the family returned to Germany in 1870. He had a relatively normal and unremarkable childhood, went to school in Berlin, graduated and in 1884 got married, starting a family of his own and having three children over the years.

He studied to become a lawyer, finished school in 1886 and entered government service in the Ministry of Finance. Partly through the influence of his wife he became much more conservative in his political views than his father had been. After working in government for a time he moved his family to East Prussia and opened the Agricultural Credit Institute to promote the development of the area in assistance to the local landed aristocracy. In the following years he became known as an advocate for the Prussian nobility and particularly those with large estates and the part they played in the local economy. He became more stridently patriotic which, if you are on the political “right” and friendly with aristocrats, is usually rendered as “nationalistic”. He first made waves on the national scene by speaking out against the policies of Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg in 1916, during the First World War. This earned him the animosity of the Chancellor but also attracted other friends in high places who agreed with his arguments. The following year, along with Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, he founded the “Fatherland Party” to support the war effort which, in less than a year, attracted over a million members and of which Kapp served as chairman.

The platform of the “Fatherland Party” and other advocacy groups Kapp was associated with was pretty simple and straightforward. The basic message was that the German Empire was in a struggle for survival, that the military leaders should be supported, the people devoted to the war effort and the conflict pursued until victory or peace on German terms was achieved. Part of this, of course, was to also encourage loyalty to the Kaiser, national pride and a sense of patriotic duty and the willingness to sacrifice for Germany. Naturally, when the war ended in defeat for Germany, Kapp was shocked and outraged, even more so when the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on the defeated Germans. In searching for an outlet for this frustration, it must be said, that Kapp fully embraced the popular idea that the German military had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by disloyal elements at home. Inflamed by the Versailles Treaty and the ruin of post-war Germany, Kapp entered the politically fray personally for the first time and was elected to the Reichstag in 1919 as a monarchist.

It did not, however, take long for Kapp to become frustrated by the world of politics and to conclude that more drastic measures would be required to save the Germany he so admired from being lost forever to the realm of history. Events came to a head when the Weimar government ordered the disbandment of the marine brigade “Ehrhardt” during a series of cuts to the German military. The officers of the brigade appealed to the Berlin area commander General Walther von Lü ttwitz who in turn called on President Ebert to halt the reductions. When he received a negative response, von Lüttwitz ordered his troops to occupy Berlin on March 13, 1920. Although he had nothing to do with launching the putsch, a respected politician and civil servant was needed as civilian leader of the effort and Dr. Wolfgang Kapp was chosen to be the, at least nominal, leader of the putsch that was given his name.

The dissidents objected to the supposedly “temporary” government behaving as though it were permanent and to the plans for the Reichstag to revise the constitution to choose the president themselves rather than by a popular vote of the people. This was because the radical left was grossly over-represented in the temporary government and right-wing elements feared the establishment of a dictatorial administration totally at odds with their values. There was, on the other hand, still sufficient support for traditional and conservative candidates for the putsch leaders to at least be more inclined to have the choice for president left to the public rather than the politicians. Although some of these points were later, quietly, be addressed, the liberal elements quickly closed ranks to see the putsch stopped in its tracks. Both sides faced challenges. Prominent conservatives refused to accept positions in the new government Kapp tried to form, preferring to wait and see if the putsch would be successful. On the other side, the Weimar Defense Minister called upon the army to march on Berlin and suppress the putsch. However, the army flatly refused to do so with the aristocratic General Hans von Seeckt famously responding that, “Reichswehr does not fire on Reichswehr”. So, while Kapp continued to try to form a provisional government, saying in conservative fashion, “We will not govern according to any theory”, the Weimar Republic called for a general strike to bring all of Germany to a grinding halt. The strike worked and after only two days the putsch collapsed from lack of support.

In most accounts today the “Kapp Putsch” is usually mentioned only as a nationalist or militarist coup attempt. However, the monarchist aspect cannot be ignored. It is true that, in the short time it existed, the Kapp regime never announced any formal desire to restore the monarchy nor did they do so while in power. However, General Walther von Lüttwitz was an ardent monarchist, as was Dr. Kapp and monarchists made up the bulk of the supporters of the Kapp Putsch. The Free Corps troops who carried out the putsch flew the old Imperial German ensign and old imperial titles were dusted off and used for office-holders. Observers also reported a great deal of activity at the time at the home in exile of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Had the regime survived more than a couple of days, most assume that the restoration of the monarchy would have been declared. Such a thing may have even been suggested to the Kaiser but he would likely have been unwilling to commit until the Kapp regime was better established and could prove itself able to survive. This, as we know, was not to be the case.

When the putsch collapsed, Kapp fled to Sweden where he lived in exile for the next two years before returning to Germany in April 1922 to ‘face the music’ and defend his actions in court. He was arrested and still in custody when he died of cancer on June 12, 1922 in Leipzig. Today, Wolfgang Kapp is seldom remembered at all, his name recognizable to some only because the title of the “Kapp Putsch” caught on. It was, as things turned out, a relatively minor disturbance in the very troubled history of the Weimar Republic. However, what is grossly unfair is the way that the name of Wolfgang Kapp and the Kapp Putsch have been portrayed by some as being precursors of the eventual rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist party. This is clearly simply an obvious effort by biased historians to taint with the Nazi poison anyone on the “right” in the German political arena. There were some unsavory elements in the would-be Kapp government to be sure, but it should be remembered that when the Nazis tried to force their way to power, the army opposed them (as it did not oppose the Kapp Putsch) and finally came to power by making use of republican institutions. Far from being a predecessor of the Nazi regime, there should be no doubt that if the Kapp Putsch had succeeded the radical party of Hitler could never have come to power at all.

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