What is or was the Reichswehr

lemoLiving Museum Online
  • Bavarian Reichswehr Calendar 1920

After the First World War, the victorious Entente states agreed to militarily neutralize the German Reich as a possible starting point for future international conflicts. With Article 160 of the Treaty of Versailles passed in June 1919, they severely curtailed German military power - formerly the pride of the fallen empire. The land army could not exceed 100,000 and the navy 15,000 professional soldiers. The maintenance of air forces, tanks, heavy artillery, submarines and capital ships as well as the production and possession of poison gas were prohibited. The general staff, military academies and military schools had to be dissolved.

In March 1921, a German defense law established the official name of the Reichswehr for the armed forces designated as the "Provisional Reichswehr" from 1919 onwards. The service period for soldiers and NCOs was 12 years, for officers 25 years. They were sworn in on the Weimar Constitution. The Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr was the Reich President, under whom the Reichswehr Minister exercised the authority. The chief of the army command and the chief of the naval command represented him as the highest soldiers in the exercise of the military command. The Reichsheer was divided into two group commands in Berlin and Kassel with a total of seven infantry and three cavalry divisions. In the coastal areas, two naval station commands were created for the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.

Of the 34,000 officers who served in the Imperial Army at the end of the First World War, only 4,000 were allowed to join the new Reichswehr. The share of the nobility in the generals was particularly noticeable at 50 percent. Arrested in a conservative view of the world, they for the most part still represented monarchical ideas. Most of them were distant or even hostile to the democratic order of the Weimar Republic. Conflicts of loyalty towards the republic became evident during the Lüttwitz-Kapp putsch in March 1920. The Reichswehr generality refused to support the Reich government against the putschists under the command of the highest Reichswehr general Walther Freiherr von Lüttwitz. "Troops do not shoot troops", with these words the head of the troop office, General Hans von Seeckt, outlined the attitude of the Reichswehr generality, who mostly sympathized with the putschists. On the other hand, the generals showed no reservations about uncompromisingly suppressing the left-wing March uprising in Saxony and the Ruhr area that began during the Lüttwitz-Kapp Putsch.

The change at the head of the Reichswehr Ministry from Gustav Noske from the SPD to Otto Geßler from the DDP, which took place as a result of the Lüttwitz-Kapp putsch, meant the withdrawal of social democracy from military policy. According to the political guidelines given by General Hans von Seeckt - now Chief of the Army Command - the Reichswehr behaved loyally to the state after 1920. Under Geßler and Seeckt a "depoliticization" of the Reichswehr took place, which did not want to be drawn into the internal political disputes of the Weimar Republic. Together with the exclusion of members of the Reichswehr from the right to vote, this led to a distancing and detachment of the army from the political system of the Weimar Republic. The Reichswehr thus developed into an autonomous and barely controllable "state within a state". Above all, many social democratic politicians therefore harbored a deep distrust of the army, whose anti-progressive officer corps also had numerous links to right-wing organizations and military associations such as the Stahlhelm.

In accordance with the Reich government, which was also supported by the SPD, there had been a secret collaboration between the Reichswehr and the Soviet Red Army since the beginning of 1921. Arms industry cooperation and the training of German soldiers in the arms of the air and armored forces prohibited by the Versailles Treaty were intended to guarantee the Reichswehr technical expertise. The aim of military policy was the secret expansion of the Reichswehr into a modern, powerful army. When the former Social Democratic head of government Philipp Scheidemann relentlessly revealed the scope of the secret German-Soviet armaments cooperation in a Reichstag speech in December 1926, this led to the overthrow of the cabinet under Chancellor Wilhelm Marx from the center. In 1928, the grand coalition under the Social Democrat Hermann Müller had to fight off severe military storms in the dispute over the construction of the armored cruiser.

The Reichswehr experienced an enormous backing with the beginning of the presidential cabinet in the fall of 1930. With the help of emergency ordinance law, the concentration of power was now in the hands of Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, head of the Supreme Army Command (OHL) during World War II. One of his closest advisers was General Kurt von Schleicher, who had been a "strong man" in the army since Seeckt was overthrown in 1927. In contrast to Seeckt, Schleicher was keenly interested in domestic political events and sought to bring about the formation of governments in the military's self-interest. In addition to the elimination of left-wing political forces, this was particularly true with regard to a revision of the Versailles Treaty and the overcoming of its disarmament regulations. Schleicher's political commitment and his office as Chancellor ended in January 1933 with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as his successor.

The attitude of the Reichswehr leadership towards Hitler and the NSDAP was ambivalent. Full of expectation, they hoped for a new dynamic in German foreign policy with a view to the revision of the Versailles Treaty. More than suspicious, however, was the relationship with the Sturmabteilung (SA), the party army of the NSDAP that had swelled to four million members. The chief of staff of the SA Ernst Röhm saw in her the core of a new "people's militia" to be founded, into which he also wanted to incorporate the tradition-conscious Reichswehr. Hitler, who wanted to develop the Reichswehr with its experienced officers into a war-capable army as quickly as possible, ended the SA's claim to military power and competition by assassinating its leadership during the so-called Röhm Putsch in June 1934. In order to secure Hitler's favor in the future Reich Minister of War Werner von Blomberg ordered the swearing-in of the Reichswehr on the person of the "Führer and Reich Chancellor" on the day of Hindenburg's death on August 2, 1934. The Reichswehr had thus finally become an instrument of power for the Nazi regime. With the law on the reintroduction of general conscription of March 16, 1935, the Reichswehr was renamed the Wehrmacht.