“The Reichswehr will march with you if you go the Ger­man way.” These were the words of General Hans von Seeckt to Gustav Stresemann, chancellor of the Weimar Re­public, in September 1923–two months before Adolf Hitler’s coup attempt. Were they a threat or a promise? Seeckt had established a rep­utation during World War I as one of the German army’s most brilliant staff officers and leaders. In 1914 and 1915, as chief of staff of the III Corps in France, he organized successful local offensives based on quick, intensive ar­tillery preparation followed by a surprise infantry attack. Transferred to the Russian front, Seeckt applied the same techniques on a larger scale. The result was the break­ through at Gorlice-Tarnow in May 1915, eventually costing Russia extensive territorial losses and over 1.5 million ca­sualties. In the fall of 1915, Seeckt orchestrated the over­ running of Serbia. In 1916 he served as a senior staff officer to the Austro-Hungarian and later the Turkish armies, and he was in the Ottoman Em­pire when the war ended.

Untarred by the brush of disaster associated with the German collapse on the West­ern Front, Seeckt was a logi­cal choice to succeed national hero Paul von Hindenburg as chief of the General Staff in the summer of 1919. A year later he became head of the new republic’s army high command. This body was sub­ordinate to a civilian minister of defense. In fact, the first two occupants of the post, So­cial Democrat Gustav Noske and Democrat Otto Gessler, deferred to Seeckt regularly, both on technical and mili­tary problems and on the wider questions of the role that a reconstituted army should play in the newly cre­ated Weimar Republic.

Seeckt, like most of his military contemporaries, was a monarchist at heart. How­ ever, he perceived both the impossibility of a restoration and the risk of Germany col­lapsing into permanent civil war. His solution was to es­tablish the Reichswehr as a force representing the Ger­man state, as opposed to any particular government. Inter­nally he continued prewar patterns of excluding officers and men who had anything remotely resembling left-wing sympathies. At the same time he rigorously suppressed manifestations of the “trench radicalism” of World War I: the belief of returning veter­ans, ranging from intellectu­als like Ernst Jilnger to thugs like Julius Streicher, that the “front experience,” with its emphasis on egalitarian com­radeship and heroic vitality, should shape the German army and the German state.

Seeckt refused to test the army’s loyalty by openly en­gaging it against either the right-wing Kapp Putsch of 1920 or the abortive Nazi up­ rising of 1923. He was far more vigorous suppressing left-wing uprisings, leading to the charge that the army’s neutrality was suspiciously one-sided. Seeckt vigorously denied the allegations. It was not necessary, he believed, to admire every aspect of a dem­ocratic system in order to serve it loyally. Yet he enter­tained ambitions of becoming Germany’s president and establishing a conservative, when not authoritarian, regime. His critics bided their time until Seeckt’s prewar ties caught up with him in 1926. For allowing former kaiser Wilhelm’s grandson to participate in the annual ma­neuvers, he was dismissed. Part of Seeckt’s legacy was the army’s lack of reaction to his ouster. The other, less obvi­ous part was a growing will­ingness within the Reichs­wehr to accept Hitler’s move­ment as the army’s civilian counterpart: a national body above and outside the every­ day give-and-take of politics, and correspondingly rep­resentative of Germany’s gen­eral will.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1994 issue (Vol. 7, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Hans von Seeckt: The Political Heritage of an “Unpolitical” Soldier

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