Book Review 381: Hitler’s Heralds

HITLER’S HERALDS: The Story of the Freikorps 1918-1923, by Nigel H. Jones. 284 pages, illustrated. Dorset

Lots of people think Donald Trump is a neonazi, and they are correct; but there is a yuuge difference between Hitler or Mussolini and Trump: Trump does not have a private army of semi-disciplined goons to terrorize his opponents.

(He has the inclination to be sure. During the campaign he hired a private squad of goons and directed them to behave the way the American Nazi goons famously did at their big rally in 1938 at Madison Square Garden.)

Where did Hitler get his army of brownshirts? They were a natural growth from a spontaneous emergence of violent paramilitary bands following the end of the war and the disappearance of the empire. Millions of men went home, but tens of thousands of angry, disappointed men formed terrorist bands.

These were politically from the left and the right, but the rightist bands were more consequential.

They took their name from one of the most unsavory episodes of German history, the Freikorps of the wars of religion. (Not uniquely German, they resembled the “free companies” that ravaged France during the Hundred Year’s War.)

The Freikorps prevailed because they had money. Businesses backed them, and sometimes they received money and weapons from secret funds of the army, or from civilian governments. Even some Socialist local governments, desperate for “order,” sometimes paid the Freikorps.

Except in the Baltic region, Freikorps fighting rarely resembled regular warfare. Usually a gang would roll into town (by train or sometimes in trucks, rarely as cavalry) and cow an unarmed citizenry or brawl in the streets with socialist or worker bands.

The fighting was seldom very bloody. The killing began when a Freikorps gained control and instituted a reign of White Terror.

Like condottiere of the Quattrocentro, Freikorps men enjoyed their work, since it was not very dangerous and allowed them to murder, rape, rob, booze and strut.

Nigel Jones provides a well-backgrounded history, popular rather than scholarly, but because there were so many Freikorps and their actions were local and uncoordinated, the story is choppy, episodic and rather hard to follow.

By 1923 Germany had calmed down enough that private armies were not wanted. The better organized Freikorps were absorbed into the army, the worse organized bands tended to break up and their drifting veterans were happy to find comradeship (often of a homosexual kind) and money in the Nazi Party, although by the time the Freikorps movement started to break up, few Germans outside Bavaria had yet heard from Hitler.