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In the wake of The First World War, thousands of ex-German soldiers returned home from the eastern and western fronts. Many of these veterans firmly believed that Germany had not lost the war and vehemently disagreed with the oppressive terms of the Treaty of Versailles. One of the most vocal groups – the Freikorps – sought to reverse the terms of Versailles through violence and coercion.

Treaty of Versailles

A post-First World War peace treaty signed in June 1919 that crippled Germany economically, politically, militarily, and territorially.

Freikorps Definition

The Freikorps was an armed, right-wing group of former German soldiers who held nationalistic, anti-communist, and anti-Treaty of Versailles views. Initially utilised by the Weimar Government to quash the German Revolution and the Bavarian Soviet Republic, the Freikorps were forcibly disbanded in 1920. This led to the Freikorps launching a coup against the German government known as the Kapp Putsch. After their unsuccessful attempt to gain power, many members of the Freikorps became members of the Nazi Party.

Freikorps Germany

Let's look at a brief timeline to outline the key events surrounding the Freikorps in Germany.

1762Frederick II of Prussia deployed the Freikorps during the Seven Years' War.
1812The Freikorps were utilised during the Napoleonic Wars.
1916In August 1916, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded the "International Group".
1918In November 1918, the "International Group" evolved into the "Spartacus League".
On 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, and the Weimar Republic, led by Friedrich Ebert, was proclaimed in Berlin.
On 11 November 1918, Germany lost the First World War.
In December 1918, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg called for Germany to become a Soviet Republic.
1919In January, approximately 100,000 German workers went on strike and launched a demonstration in Berlin.
On 15 January 1919, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were executed by the Freikorps.
On 12 April 1919, the Communist Party of Germany, led by Eugen Levine, seized power in Bavaria.
In late April, the Freikorps were deployed to fight in Bavaria. They displayed extreme violence and brutality.
In March 1920, the government attempted to disband the Freikorps.
On 12 March 1920, the Freikorps took over Berlin and established a new government led by Wolfgang Kapp. This uprising only lasted for four days.
Early 1920sThe rise of the Nazi Party saw the resurrection of the Freikorps.
1934 On 30 June, the Night of the Long Knives saw many leaders of the Freikorps executed.

Origins of the Freikorps

The origins of the Freikorps began in 1762 when Frederick II of Prussia deployed them during the Seven Years' War. Mainly volunteers from Berlin, the Freikorps were considered unreliable and used primarily for minor duties such as sentry work.

The Freikorps Free Corps in 1798 StudySmarterFig. 1 - Freikorps in 1798

The Freikorps were also utilised in the Napoleonic Wars against France. Such groups of Freikorps were generally students or young nobles who lacked sufficient military experience.

Early 19th-century German romanticism elevated the Freikorps' reputation. They were idealistically portrayed as patriots, fighting tooth and nail to ward off foreign invaders. In many instances, the Freikorps were regarded in a better light than the professional soldier.

The Freikorps Freikorps in Berlin StudySmarterFig. 2 - Armed Freikorps paramilitaries in Berlin in 1919

Weimar Freikorps

In January 1919, 100,000 workers went on strike in Berlin, hoping to establish a communist state in Germany. The Freikorp were called into action and brutally crushed the uprising. Let's look at this historic event, the Spartacist Revolt.


With a humiliating defeat in the First World War, severe food shortages, and an influenza epidemic, Germany was in a dire situation by 1918. Such discontent boiled over on 28 October 1918. The German navy was to be dispatched to the English Channel, where they would fight the British navy. However, sailors at Wilhelmshaven refused to board their ships.

The following day, this rebellion extended to Kiel, where workers and sailors refused to observe orders. The mutiny in Kiel quickly turned into an open rebellion against the German monarchy. By 8 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated, and the Weimar Republic, led by Friedrich Ebert, was proclaimed in Berlin.

Such unrest and turmoil were to the liking of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg – the two figureheads of German Marxism. Both Liebknecht and Luxemburg believed that the revolution in Russia would spread to Germany.

The Spartacist's

In November 1918, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded the Spartacus League from their previously established "International Group". The new group, named after the Roman enslaved person Spartacus, aimed to overthrow the German government and establish a soviet republic in Germany.

The Spartacist Revolt Begins

In December 1918, Liebknecht and Luxemburg called for Germany to be made into a soviet republic; this request was rejected by the Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils.

In January 1919, approximately 100,000 German workers went on strike, launching a demonstration in Berlin. The Spartacists seized this opportunity, taking over newspaper buildings and communication outlets.

The Freikorps Spartacist Uprising StudySmarterFig. 3 - Spartacist Uprising

The German government employed the Freikorps to put down the uprising. The Freikorps killed some 100 workers and arrested and brutally executed Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

The Bavarian Soviet Republic

On 12 April 1919, the Communist Party of Germany, led by Eugen Levine, seized power in Bavaria and established the Bavarian Soviet Republic.

Bavarian Soviet Republic

The unrecognised socialist state of Bavaria between 12 April and 3 May 1919.

Some 30,000 Freikorps were sent to Bavaria in late April 1919. Despite the Communists putting up little resistance, the Freikorps acted with unwarranted brutality and violence. On 5 May, the Freikorps travelled to Perlach, a town on the outskirts of Munich. They chose a dozen workers they claimed were communists and executed them on the spot. The following day, the Freikorps interrupted a meeting of the St Joseph Society – a local Catholic organisation. They shot and beat some 30 members of the group to death.

Eastern Europe

The Freikorps also exercised excessive violence and brutality in Eastern Europe, fighting against the communists in Poland, Latvia, and East Prussia. The Freikorp positioned themselves as the protectors of Germany, fighting to control Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – territories they had gained due to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918).

The Freikorp expeditions in Eastern Europe were particularly brutal; they massacred 500 Latvian citizens who they claimed were housing Bolsheviks and slaughtered 3,000 citizens during the capture of Riga.

Freikorps Uprising

Throughout their expedition in Eastern Europe, the Freikorps ignored orders from the German Army and government, severely diminishing their reputation. Furthermore, with the communist revolts dealt with, there was little need for the Freikorps; for German President Ebert, the Freikorps had served their purpose. Consequently, in March 1920, the government attempted to disband the Freikorps. This action led to the Kapp Putsch.

Kapp Putsch Freikorps

After the government attempted to disband them in March 1920, the Freikorps turned against the government. Approximately 5,000 Freikorps troops marched on Berlin. Despite orders from Ebert, the German Army refused to act against former soldiers and stop the Freikorps uprising.

On 12 March 1920, the Freikorps took over Berlin, establishing a new government led by Freikorps leader Wolfgang Kapp. Kapp invited the former Kaiser Wilhelm II to return from the Netherlands and resume his position as Emperor.

The Freikorps Wolfgang Kapp StudySmarterFig. 4 - Wolfgang Kapp

After fleeing to Dresden, the Weimar government encouraged the workers of Berlin to strike. This brought Berlin to a halt, making it impossible for the new government to govern. Consequently, the Weimar Government's power was restored after just four days.

After the Kapp Putsch, members of the Freikorps were removed from the German Army, and the government stopped funding the group. Only in 1923, with the rise of the Nazi Party, would the Freikorps be resurrected.

The Freikorps and the Nazi Party

The rise of the Nazi Party during the 1920s led to a resurgence in the Freikorps. Many former Freikorp members joined the SA (Sturmabteilung) and SS (Schutzstaffel). By this time, however, the Freikorps had lost their military value. They were utilised by the Nazis merely as thugs to intimate political opponents. During this time, the Freikorps enjoyed a period of heightened prestige; the group became a symbol of nationalism, masculinity, and anti-communism.

The Freikorps and the Nazi Leadership

While the impact of the Freikorps is often perceived as limited to the Weimar Republic, the organisation had a significant impact on the establishment of the Third Reich. Several future Nazi leaders were part of the Freikorps.

These included:

  • Ernst Röhm, co-founder of the SA Chief
  • Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Holocaust
  • Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS
  • Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz

The Freikorps Recruitment poster StudySmarterFig. 5 - Freikorps Recruitment Poster

As the years passed, however, Hitler began to view the Freikorps as a potential threat to his leadership. During the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, several high-ranking Freikorps members were executed. Following the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler declared the Freikorps 'moral degenerates…aimed at the destruction of all existing institutions'. He stated they were 'pathological enemies of the state…(and) enemies of all authority'.1

Night of the Long Knives

On 30 June 1934, the Night of the Long Knives was a purge of Hitler's political opponents.

The Night of the Long Knives removed the prestige, legitimacy, and power of the Freikorps. While the de-establishment of the Freikorps was nothing new – it had been officially disbanded in 1920 and managed to survive – the situation in 1934 was much different. Hitler had successfully recast the once romanticised group of patriots as enemies of the Nazi state, thus ensuring their demise was permanent.

The Freikorps – Key takeaways

  • The Freikorps (Free Corps) was an armed, right-wing group of former German soldiers who disagreed with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
  • The Weimar Republic deployed the Freikorps to quash the Spartacist Uprising, the Bavarian Soviet Republic, and parts of Eastern Europe.
  • After the Weimar Government tried to de-establish the Freikorps in 1920, the Freikorps launched the Kapp-Putsch and temporarily established a government in Berlin.
  • After a period of inactivity, the Freikorps was resurrected by Hitler, who used them to intimidate political opponents.
  • Deciding they were a threat to his leadership, Hitler purged the Freikorps during the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934.


  1. Nigel Jones, A brief history of the birth of the Nazis (2004), p. 270.

Frequently Asked Questions about Freikorps

The Freikorps were a group of First World War veterans who sought to overturn the Treaty of Versailles through violence and coercion. 

The Freikorps were a right-wing nationalist organisation who opposed communism.

Originally aiming to overturn the Treaty of Versailles, the Freikorps were predominantly used to put down revolts in Germany and fight against communism.

The Freikorps grew to represent anti-communism, patriotism, and nationalism.

The threat that the Freikorps posed to the Weimar Republic was exemplified during the Kapp Putsch – which saw the Freikorps overthrow the Weimar Republic and temporarily establish a government in Berlin.

Final Freikorps Quiz

Freikorps Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What year were the Freikorps deployed in the Seven Years' War?

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Show question


What date was the Spartacist Revolt?

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January 1919

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Who founded the Spartacist League?

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 Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

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What was the aim of the Spartacist's?

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To establish a Soviet Republic in Germany.

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What date was the Kapp Putsch?

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March 1920

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Which Nazi organisations did the Freikorp join?

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SA (Sturmabteilung) and SS (Schutzstaffel)

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Give one event where the Freikorps were utilised

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Any of the following:

- Spartacist Uprising

- Bavarian Soviet Republic

- Eastern Europe

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What event saw the execution of Freikorps members?

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The Night of the Long Knives

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Who led the Communist Party of Germany in 1919?

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Eugen Levine

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What year did Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicate?

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11 November 1918

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