For the first time in a long time the Members episodes head back to land to discuss the evolution of the Reichswehr during the 1920s. In this episode we focus on the different viewpoints present in the Reichswehr during this time that would directly influence its evolution during the 1920s and early 1930s.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Premium Episode number 8 - Reichswehr Part 1 - A New Army. Every military in the world would have to react to what happened in Europe form 1914 to 1918. The story of those militaries during the 1920s is all about how they reacted to those years and the lessons from the war, none more than the German Army. After the war the Reichswehr would be created, and it would be the official army of Germany until the creation of the Wehrmacht in 1935. The 1920s were a particularly interesting time for the Reichswehr because it would spend the decade trying to reconcile many of the divergent thoughts and theories that came out of the war with the restrictions placed upon Germany by the Versailles treaty while also dealing with the geopolitical realities of Germany’s defensive requirements. We will discuss many different military thinkers and leaders that would be a part of this time period for the Reichswehr. Few would be more important than Hans van Seeckt who would lead the Reichswehr for much of the 1920s. He would say ‘we must never forget that we lost the war’ and that loss would cause many within the German army to question many of the fundamentals of how the German military planned to execute and achieve victory in future conflicts. However, Seeckt and others would be in many ways effected by the overriding themes of German military development, and even those who were trying to make drastic changes to how the German Army planned to fight and win a war could not escape that legacy.
There were many restrictions placed upon the German Army by the Versailles treaty, the most famous was of course the 100,000 limit on the total number of personnel within the army. There were also limitations that would be equally as impactful on the course of the Reichswehr. The General Staff would be dissolved in November 1919, with only the Operations Section preserved while the other sections were either dissolved outright or were transferred to various government departments. There were also limits on the numbers of officers that could be retained, with the number being just 4,000. This forced the Germans to structure their forces with far fewer officers in units, which was especially impactful for staff officers. To try and compensate for this there were no limits on the number of non-commissioned officers, and so there would be more NCOs in the Reichswehr than there were privates for many of the Weimar years. The banning of any German Air force, armor units, or heavy artillery also caused more German planning to be theoretical and hypothetical, with little ability to work with and interact with the real items. What forces were available would be spread throughout Germany, mostly in small garrisons on various parts of the country. This had many benefits in the immediate postwar years, which was a period of political upheaval and constant concern about the possibility of a leftist revolution. These fears would eventually dissipate and the Reichswehr would be able to put a greater focus on what their goals were during these early interwar years. There were two major objectives for the Reichswehr during this period, the first was to find some way to turn the small number of forces that were available into something that could protect Germany from attack and the second was to prepare for the future expansion of the army. Both of these goals would see disagreement within the remaining German officer corps with arguments about the best way to pursue them. When it came to national defense there was one major consideration around which all of the discussion were based: Would Germany have to defend itself during the period where its armed forces were so hopelessly anemic? Obviously defense was always a concern but various officers answered the question of how much of a concern it was quite differently, and it would cause each of them to alter how they believed that the Reichswehr should be structured at the current time and how much it should instead prepare for the future. When it came to long germ planning for that future, where the Reichswehr would once again be able to expand, many of the conversations that would occur in Germany were similar to what was happening in every military all over the world. How should motorization and mechanization occur? Should armor forces be concentrated or distributed? What was the role of air power? These and many other questions would have been familiar to many military officers regardless of nation of origin at this time. The one benefit that the Reichswehr had in this regard was that they had been on the losing side of the war, which helped it to break away from some previous theories and thoughts, providing it the opportunity to do a harder reset in terms of the equipment and tactics that would be used. This provided the Reichswehr with the opportunity to more decisively break from the past, if it chose to do so. This did have the effect of making the Reichswehr’s planning seem a bit detached from reality, at least if it was applied to the situation at that moment. So much planning went into what to do with air forces, armor, mechanized units, and how to win grand sweeping conflicts when the Reichswehr did not have a plane, tank, or the ability to launch any operation beyond its borders.
Because of its small size, and the fact that for the 1920s the Reichswehr was almost entirely focused on theoretical discussions, it is generally easier to discuss the evolution of the Reichswehr at this time in terms of the theories prescribed to by its leaders. We will start with General Wilhelm Groener, who had taken over for Ludendorff as First Quartermaster General in October 1918 and had brought the German Army through the armistice period and through the signing of the treaty of Versailles. Groener was above all a traditionalist when it came to military through, like many German officers he had been indoctrinated into the Schlieffen operational doctrine and its emphasis on bold decisive gambles that sought to win the war. He also held traditional views on the relationship between the German armed forces and the German political leaders. He believed that the Reichswehr stood above politics and that it could avoid them entirely by servicing an abstract vision of the state divorced from current political leaders. He also believed that Germany’s diplomatic standing should be constructed to serve the demands of the military. However, it was impossible for any German officer to not be effected by the course of the First World War. For Groener one of his views that was altered by the conflict was the economic aspect of modern war, and this is something that he would intensely focus on during his time both as the leader of the army and then in later years. It caused Groener to believe that it future conflicts Germany had to look beyond small border disputes and into areas that would allow Germany to regain and assure its economy viability and supremacy. Groener did not however believe that the importance of economic factors meant that Germany could not win in a conflict with a clearly economically superior Western coalition, instead that it would simply be considered far more heavily in future conflicts. Groener would go on to take up the position of Defense Minister in 1928, and would be in that position until 1932. By this time Groener was clearly favoring a platform of peace and reconciliation with other nations, even if only temporarily. He would also begin to advocate for greater subordination of the military to the political requirements of the nation, although this idea would not really take hold in Germany during this period. Also by this point Groener’s influence on the actual planning of the military was greatly diminished, and had instead transitioned to a new generation of German officers.
One of the leaders of the Reichswehr and of Germany military thinking in the early and mid 1920s was General Hans von Seekct, who would be the Army Chief of Staff from 1919 to 1920 and then Chief of the Reichswehr from 1921 to 1926. As with every other German officer at this point in history Seekct had seen service during the war, and was the Chief of Staff for General Mackensen’s army during the Gorlice Tarnow offensive in 1915 and then in during the invasion of Romania. As you might expect most of his experience was on the Eastern Front during the war, which gave him a different perspective on the conflict when compared with those who had spent most of their time in the West. One of these differences was his belief that a small professional military force was far more important than the mass armies that some officers favored. He believed that the advantage of smaller more highly trained forces would be exacerbated by the newfound mobility that was present in armies at this point in history as motorization and mechanization became more prevalent. This would, in his opinion, result in future wars being far more of a war of movement than what had occurred during the First World War, and so the German army had to be prepared. Seeckt also saw motorization as the future of the whole army, but he wanted to give priority to the cavalry, with the goal of motorizing its supporting arms which would transition the cavalry divisions into all arms light formations. In general Seeckt did not believe that the First World War had proven that the cavalry were obsolete, and he instead believed that the specific circumstances of the fighting had limited the effectiveness of the traditional cavalry, but that those specific circumstances were unlikely to occur in the future, making the cavalry once again an important tool. He generally still held to what had become the accepted operational orthodoxy of the German military from before the Frist World War, which was primarily based on the concepts of Moltke the Elder and Schlieffen. However, there were many differences in his beliefs and those earlier Generals, which was really just expected after having so much experience during the war. Specific differences are not really important, but it is worth noting that Seeckt was not a totally derivative thinker, and during the 1920s he would try to adapt traditional German military values into a new era. However, there was a foundation that was firmly within the German military tradition. For example Seeckt believed that the army had the first and last word when it came to how and why to prosecute a war. This meant that even though he accepted the legitimacy of the Weimar government, he did not believe that any civilian government had any right to control the actions of the military. Seeckt would say “War Aims…those things [territorial acquisitions and other benefits] would have been the consequences, not the aims, of war. They are political, not military problems…the soldier knows only one aim of war: the destruction of the enemy forces.” This desire to never subordinate war aims and war planning to the political realities of the current time would be one of the driving features of Seeckt’s planning, and really the planning of the German military during the entirety of the Weimar period. Seeckt also believed in the idea of the one massive decisive battel that would win a conflict. This fixation on the battle of annihilation, or the campaign of annihilation as it would often be planned as, would continue for his entire time as the Reichswehr leader.
Most of the rest of this episode will focus on how the Reichswehr developed under Seeckt’s leadership, but before we discuss that I do want to point out that Seeckt gets a lot of criticism from some historians. There are two main avenues for this criticism, the first are that his views on the relationship between the military and political leaders is very problematic, and his refusal to subordinate the German military aims to political requirements would cause many problems. This is a typical criticism of the German military tradition during this period of history, which would not really change during the interwar years. Another, and I think more interesting and unique point of criticism of Seeckt is firmly based in the period in which he was leading the Reichswehr. The entire Reichswehr period is a moment of transition for the German Army, the Reichswehr was very small when compared with the military forces of its neighbors and so there is always the idea that at some point in the future the restrictions from the Versailles treaty will be removed and the German army will once again expand. This puts the Reichswehr in the position of preparing for both the present and the future at the same time, while also understanding that those two time periods will require a drastically different type of army and a drastically different plan for how to use it. The result was that Seeckt would put in place strategic thinking, and operational planning, that were completely outside of the realistic ability of the Reichswehr to actually execute. The often required resources and equipment that the Reichswehr simply did not have. This has resulted in many people praising him for modern and even futuristic use of combined arms and mobile units, but also steeps his planning in this kind of unrealistic and unfeasible dream world. On some level this was critical for the Reichswehr at this time, they were going to get larger in the future, the restrictions from Versailles on planes and armor and heavy artillery would be removed, and good military planning does involve looking to the future and determining how to utilize technology that may not yet exist. But in this case Seeckt’s unrealistic planning tradition would become firmly rooted in the Reichswehr, and then that would bleed into its successor the Wehrmacht. At some point the planning that is detached from the reality of the now much reattach itself to the strategic, military, and political realities of a nation that plans to win a conflict. After Seekct had detached German military planning from a grounding in realism, for understandable and justifiable reasons, his successors would be unable or unwilling to do the opposite. One of Seeckt’s greatest legacies would be the powerful self-deception among the German officer corps which prevented them from connecting their strategic and operational planning to concrete and realistic goal which had a basis in economic and political realities.
While Seeckt had his specific view of what war would look like in the future and what the Reichswehr had to prepare for, one that involved a small well trained and highly mobile offensively orientated force, it was not the only view present within the Reichswehr at this time. There were three main schools of thought about what the core German military doctrine should be and they were all based around what different individuals and groups believed the key aspect should be for the German military. The first was the defensive school, which was obviously shaped by the experiences in the First World War. One of the most vocal adherents to this idea was General Reinhardt, who had spent most of his time on the Western Front. In some ways this line of thinking was similar to what was happening France at this time, a focus on fixed defensive works which were designed to exhaust an enemy attack and allow the best possible usage of the German Army. They also believed that due to the value of defensive fortifications, a less trained and experienced military was acceptable due to the advantages provided by defensive works. The second school of thought revolved around the psychological impacts of modern war. This was generally developed by and advocated for by younger officers, those who did not even have pre-war experiences to draw from and had only participated in the First World War. Much like the defensive school these experiences greatly altered how many viewed warfare, and those who pushed for a greater focus on the psychological aspects of the war deeply criticized the Germany army during the war and its inability and unwillingness to properly consider the psychological aspects of the long struggle. Those who believed that theses were the crucial aspects of future combat put strong focus on the common soldier and the experience of those soldiers, and they also openly criticized officers, which of course limited the ability of this group to enact real change in the Reichswehr, since any of those changes would require the support of those officers. The final school of thought was a direct repudiation of Seeckt’s emphasis on a small well trained and experienced army, and instead advocated for a levee en masse as the primary method of national defense. This school of thought was led by Joachim von Stulpnagel, during his time as the Chief of the Operations Department until early 1926.
Stulpnagel’s views are, I think, interesting enough to take a deeper dive into. One thing that is important to discuss up front is that Stulpnagel and Seeckt generally had different focuses. Most of Seeckt’s views were based on the idea that in the future things would be very different for the Reichswehr, and that specifically they would have far more resources. Stulpnagel on the other hand was focused on what the Reichswehr could do in the 1920s, specifically the early 1920s, to defend Germany from a foreign invasion. To execute this defense there really was not much to work with, which was something that became especially clear after the Ruhr Crisis when it was made clear to everyone involved that the Reichswehr had very little real power to do much of anything. The key difference between Stulpnagel’s view, those that agreed with him, and everybody else revolved around how they planned to address these issues. Many German officers, for what I think are obvious reasons, believed that the pre-war and wartime German Army regulations, organizations, and planning was acceptable and that those items should be evolved but not drastically rethought. Stulpnagel instead believed that they should be thrown out and completely rethought. He would say “In this context we must keep in mind that the war of the future will be directed against the entire people. Not merely the field army, but also the sources of [economic] strength and nerve centers of a given country will be the objectives of warfare. [Although] victory over the enemy will always remain the goal, the roads to that goal will vary in accordance with the available forces.” He would also say that “Only if the German general staff succeeds in thinking through the problem of the war of the future - which we shall have to fight in a few years - and in generating new theory, will we be able to win it.” Stulpnagel’s view involved a two phased plan of national defense designed to counter both a French attack and a two front attack from both France and Poland. Instead of relying on a small professional army, Stulpnagel placed his faith in unprofessional lightly armed civilian militias that would have the task of slowing an enemy attack and enacting as much attrition as possible on enemy units. Stulpnagel again here “The war of the future demands from the very first moment the commitment of the entire strength of the Volk…Dictatorial laws, the most strenuous discipline, the most extreme demands upon leaders at all levels are a matter of course. Sacrifices must be demand of every Volkgenosse [comrade].” They would also execute a scorched earth campaign, which would destroy operational assets, transportation infrastructure, and everything else that might be able to help an enemy advance deeper into Germany. It was only after this first phase was complete and the enemy attack exhausted that the second phase would be activated whereby the great battle of annihilation would be fought. Obviously Stulpnagel’s views were radical, perhaps extremist, and required essentially the destruction of Germany. At the same time they were not completely unknown to the German military, and while they were an amplification of many views held by the German army before and during the war they were not completely foreign. For example in late 1918 there had been planning for an invasion of Germany by the Western powers that would have resulted in scorched earth tactics being used in the defense of Western Germany. There was also a long running acceptance of the complete destruction of German society in times of war, if it was required. Stulpnagel just sort of took these existing thoughts and theories to another level, and also gave it structure and created reasons that they were not just an acceptable outcome but also a path to victory.
While Stulpnagel had these more radical ideas, there was also a core that still called back to the grand tradition of the German military, and that battle of annihilation that simply would not go away. The second phase of his defensive plan, after the People’s War phase that involved the citizen militias, revolved around the use of the existing German army to make that battle a reality. There were obviously limits to what Stulpnagel believed this battle could achieve, he did not believe that it would go beyond German borders, but he believed that it could cause a pause in the fighting. This would then hopefully provide time for international pressure to build on the aggressive powers, France and its allies most likely, which would allow for a negotiated peace. It is interesting that even at this point, and within probably the most radical departure from previous German military thought, Stulpnagel cannot reject the idea that at the end of the day it would all come down to two mostly traditional military forces fighting a traditional battle. Stulpnagel was even known to use Schlieffen quotes in his justification for his decisions. So in some ways his views were radical, total scorched earth of the homeland and the use of citizen militias, but it was all still in service of the most traditional of German doctrinal beliefs. He also recognized that the scorched earth tactics would have a disastrous effect on Germany, even well after whatever war that was being fought was over, but he believed that it did not matter. In some ways Stulpnagel’s evaluation of the realities of the German situation was a accurate as it could possibly be and his solutions, while a bit different, were trying to reconcile the defense requirements with the available resources. However, it also reveals the key issue in all German military theories and planning during this period, which much like the battle of annihilation was rooted in German military tradition. The German military, and especially the officers involved in leading the Reichswehr and planning for its future were incapable of conceiving and accepting a solution to strategic problems that did not involve a military force and that military force somehow beating the enemy force. Or as Gil-li Vardi would say in The Enigma of German Operational Theory: The Evolution of Military Thought in Germany, 1919-1936 “German military leadership literally could not envisage other solutions to power-political challenges than purely military ones. That was the rationale and motivation behind operational planning and rearmament policies that seem so unprecedentedly extreme and counter-productive for Germany’s security.”