♦ The Reichswehr 1919-34 ♦

The German Army in World War II


The Reichswehr on parade, 1932 (Bundesarchiv)

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After the end of the Great War the defeated German Army was rapidly demobilized. On 11 November 1918 it numbered well over 4 million men; a year later it was down to 300,000. Under the terms of the Armistice vast quantities of munitions, weapons and aircraft had to be handed over to the victorious Allies, and it soon became obvious that they intended for Germany to be substantially disarmed.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles formalized this intention. The Treaty stipulated that the German Army of the Weimar Republic should consist of no more than 100,000 men: 4,000 officers and 86,000 other ranks. All were to be long-service professional soldiers; conscription and short service were banned so as to prevent the buildup of a trained military reserve. The Großgeneralstab (Great General Staff) and the Kriegsakademie (War Academy), the traditional intellectual centers of the German Army, were abolished. As for weapons, the Peace Treaty permitted Germany to keep no more than 105 armored cars, 204 77mm field guns, 84 105mm light field howitzers, 252 mortars, some 2,000 machine guns and about 100,000 rifles and carbines—barely enough to arm the Army’s seven infantry and three cavalry divisions. Heavy artillery, tanks, frontier fortifications and military aircraft were all prohibited. In this form the new German Army, called the Reichswehr, was organized in 1920 and officially established in January 1921.

Command Flag of Reichwehr-Gruppenkommando 1 (Berlin)

But from the day of its founding the Reichswehr—it must be said with the connivance of the German government—employed every possible subterfuge to evade the disarmament provisions of the Peace Treaty. The actual military budget was always higher than officially admitted: twice as high between 1924 and 1928. This enabled the Reichswehr to acquire and stockpile three times as many rifles and six times as many machine guns as were permitted to it by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, along with substantial additional quantities of mortars, field guns and field howitzers. The German Transport Ministry subsidized clandestine military aircraft development and aircrew training, while German industrial firms like Krupp carried out covert research and development work on tanks and heavy artillery

The Treaty's manpower restrictions were also circumvented in various ways. Many officers and soldiers who could not be employed on military duties went into the Grenzshutzpolizei (Border Police) and the police forces of the German federal states, which were organized along paramilitary lines. There was also the so-called Black Reichswehr: frankly illegal military formations maintained under a variety of cover designations, e.g. the “labor battalions” comprising some 18,000 men that were set up in Prussia under Reichswehr auspices. Many of their men came from the Freikorps, the unofficial volunteer military units that had sprung up in 1918-19 to defend Germany’s eastern borders against Polish encroachment. The Freikorps consisted mostly of Great War veterans and came to play a major role in radical right-wing politics. The Reichswehr looked upon them as a de facto military reserve and supported them with arms and training. By these means a modest increase in the size of the Reichswehr could be accomplished in the event of an emergency.

Men of the Prussian State Police in Berlin, 1929. (Bundesarchiv)

Diplomacy also played an important role in clandestine rearmament. In April 1922 Germany and the USSR concluded the Treaty of Rapallo, and subsequently the Reichswehr set up a number of secret testing and training facilities in the Soviet Union. These included a tank training establishment at Kazan and an air force training base at Lipetsk. German industrial firms also set up shop in the Soviet Union, where military R&D work could be conducted far from prying eyes. In return for providing these facilities, the USSR gained access to German military technology. Farther afield, Gustav Stresemann, who served as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor and between 1923 and 1929, worked assiduously to establish contacts in countries including Sweden and the Netherlands, where work on banned weapons could be carried out.

The effective commander of the Reichwehr was the Chef der Heeresleitung (Chief of the Army Command). The first man to hold this title was General Hans von Seeckt, a Prussian aristocrat and General Staff officer who’d made his name on the Eastern Front during the Great War. After the November 1918 armistice he was appointed to the committee charged with the organization of the Weimar Republic’s peacetime army, and it was he who gave the Reichswehr its final form.

General Hans von Seeckt and Defense Minister Otto Gessler in conversation during the 1925 maneuvers (Bundesarchiv)

From the beginning Seeckt regarded the Reichswehr as a basis for a major military buildup when the time came, as almost all Germans hoped it would, for the shackles of the Treaty of Versailles to be struck off. To that end he ensured that only the best officers and men were selected for the 100,000-man army. And though the Great General Staff was no more, its spirit lived on in the Truppenamt (Troops Office), which performed the staff functions essential to any military force. Seeckt was also determined to keep the Army clear of politics. Like many officers his outlook was authoritarian and he merely tolerated the Weimar Republic. He laid down that the Army was the guardian of the German nation in the most general sense, not the servant of any particular regime or constitution.

Seeckt believed that the restoration of German power depended on the establishment and maintenance of good relations with Russia. Unlike most other German conservatives, he had no fear of Bolshevism. Predictions of the Red Army's arrival on the Elbe or even the Rhine he dismissed as "fairy tales to frighten little children." His 1922 memorandum to Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, a former foreign minister who had just been appointed Ambassador to the Soviet Union, was remarkably prescient:

With Poland we come now to the core of the Eastern problem. The existence of Poland is intolerable and incompatible with Germany's vital interests. She must disappear and will do so through her own inner weakness and through Russia — with our help. Poland is more intolerable for Russia than for ourselves; Russia can never tolerate Poland. With Poland's collapse one of the strongest pillars of the Peace of Versailles, France's advance post of power, is lost. The attainment of this objective must be one of the firmest guiding principles of German policy, as it is capable of achievement—but only through Russia or with her help.

Poland can never offer Germany any advantage, either economically, because she is incapable of development, or politically, because she is a vassal state of France. The restoration of the frontier between Russia and Germany is a necessary condition before both sides can become strong. The 1914 frontier between Russia and Germany should be the basis of any understanding between the two countries...

Here is prefigured the policy that Hitler was to follow from 1939 to 1941—which in the short term did indeed produce the situation that Seeckt envisioned.

Ironically, a minor political misstep compelled Seeckt to retire in 1926, but by then his stamp had deeply impressed itself on the Reichswehr. His practical work provided a basis for rapid expansion when Hitler embarked upon his rearmament program—and the aloofness from politics that he had nurtured among the officer corps was to have parlous consequences for both the Army and the nation it served.

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Organizational Diagram 

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