German-Polish Proxy War In Silesia - Freikorps In The Neutral Zone June 1920

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It’s July 1920, and in East Prussia a vote is held on whether the southern parts of the region will join Poland or Germany – but this is not the only flashpoint on Germany’s borders in summer 1920: in both east and west, there is chaos at the borders of the Reich.


Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to The Great War, where we are filming in our pandemic lockdown studio in my living room. By the spring of 1920, the Treaty of Versailles was in force, and Germany had been rocked by political instability and paramilitary violence. The military led Kapp Putsch had been stopped by a general strike, but it had also provoked a left-wing uprising in the western province of Westphalia. There was also trouble in the East, where votes were to take place on whether the ethnically mixed regions of Upper Silesia and southern East Prussia would stay with Germany, or join the new Polish Republic. At the same time as it faced internal chaos, Germany also had to hash out the details of war reparations with the victorious Allies – and it all happened 100 years ago. In this episode, we’ll cover the events in Germany around the critical summer of 1920.


Although the Kapp Putsch had failed in mid-March, it had also caused various leftist groups, from the Independent Social Democrats to the Communist Party and others, to rise in rebellion in the Ruhr region of western Germany, centred on the province of Westphalia. The self-proclaimed Ruhr Red Army defeated local right-wing Freikorps units in bloody skirmishes in the second half of March, and enjoyed some protection from any eventual attacks from the German army because much of the areas it controlled were in the neutral zone. This zone was a 50-km wide strip of land next to the occupied Rhineland which the Treaty of Versailles forbade German forces from entering.

But the uprising was not united, and the more moderate leaders knew it couldn’t last long. Negotiations began with the German government, which was in the hands of the more moderate Majority Social Democrats (the two had split during the war). Eventually, a compromise was reached in the form of the Bielefeld Agreement. The Ruhr Red Army would give up its 20,000 rifles, 300 machine guns and dozen artillery pieces, and the government would make policy concessions to the workers. The problem was, the uprising suffered from a lack of coordination and didn’t really have any de facto central command and control, and some groups wanted to fight on - though it has been alleged that one of the diehard leaders, Gottfried Karrusseit, was an agent provocateur working for the army. This resulted in bitter discussion amongst the leftists, and the refusal of a small group of them to disarm. At first, the Communist newspaper The Spartacist was outraged at the negotiations and created its own stab in the back accusation:

“[The Bielefeld delegates] in complete abandonment of their proletarian duty plunged a dagger into the back of the fighting masses of the proletariat.” (Popp 93)

By the beginning of April however, both the ISPD and the Communists both agreed to lay down their arms, but vowed to continue the revolution by other means.

Meanwhile, the army was pressuring the government to allow it to attack, and on April 1 the Freikorps Epp did, capturing the town of Pelkum and killing up to 100, mostly after they had surrendered. On April 3, following an ultimatum, the German authorities decided that the various leftist groups were not fully complying with the Bielefeld agreement or were doing so too slowly – they would attack.

The planned advance of the German Army would be a violation of the terms of the Versailles Treaty, so the Germans asked the Allies if they could send in their troops anyway. This did not bother the Americans or the British very much, and the two nations were not willing to take action. The French and Belgians on the other hand, were concerned. France had suffered terrible human and economic losses during the war, and was finding its British ally was less steadfast once the armistice had been signed. The French lobbied the Belgians to join them in any action so as not to appear isolated, and the Belgians agreed – partly to strengthen their position in the coming decisions about Luxembourg. The French began to mobilize more troops and informed the Germans that if the Reichswehr advanced, the French army would move into the neutral zone and occupy Frankfurt, Darmstadt, and several smaller towns – with or without the British.

The German government and army high command decided that no matter what the cost, the priority was to crush what they portrayed/considered an organized Bolshevik uprising. Some also feared a conspiracy between the French and the Ruhr Red Army, although no such cooperation existed. The government in Berlin ordered its forces to stop there, but General Oskar von Watter viewed this as civilian interference in military affairs, and argued that the advance should continue – a sign that the German military had still not adjusted to post-war civilian control. When the Social Democrats held firm, he resigned on April 27. Instead, the Sicherheitspolizei, a special paramilitary police force, crossed the river and oversaw the collection of weapons, house searches and mass arrests. Members of Freikorps Epp also went around painting swastikas on Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues and gravestones. 2-3000 fled into the British zone, and 15,000 fled deeper into the neutral zone, out of reach of the Germany army. In all, several thousand leftists were arrested and 1200 of them were kept at a former prisoner of war camp.

The crisis in the Ruhr had serious consequences for Germany. 1500 German citizens had been killed in the Ruhr uprising, mostly on the side of the leftists. Politically, the Majority Social Democrats had sided once again with the army, and the Freikorps, as they had during previous crises since the armistice, and this seriously weakened their support amongst their traditional working class base. In the election of June 1920, the Majority Social Democrats lost a third of their seats, and the chancellorship. The more radical Independent Social Democrats, and later the Communists, were strengthened.


But while the Germany army was crushing the Ruhr Uprising by entering the neutral zone, the French had decided to take action and make good on their previous warnings. On April 6, French troops under General Jean-Marie Degoutte marched into Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Hanau, Homburg and Dieburg, against British wishes. French Prime Minister Alexandre Millerand justified the move this way :

“The French government was forced to act the day it found itself faced with a violation of the treaty that affects all allies, which is particularly sensitive for [France] because of its geographical situation. France is also faced with the fact that the German government broke its word, which had been personally given during negotiations.” (Le Figaro, La note francaise, April 8, 1920).

German civilians in the now-occupied cities were not particularly pleased at the arrival of French troops, but the French were resolved to send a message, as Chief of Staff General Edmond Buat confirmed in his diary: (Buat 872)

In Frankfurt, a crowd gathered at the arrival of French colonial troops from Morocco, and the situation got out of control. The French troops fired into the crowd, killing 9 and wounding 26. French newspapers of the day blamed the German government for provoking otherwise peaceful civilians against them:

“All of a sudden, once an order arrived from Berlin, a certain excitement took hold of the population. This excitement degenerated into aggression, and our soldiers had to use their weapons in self-defence.”

For the German press and government, this was a massacre of innocents carried out by soldiers of an inferior, bloodthirsty race, which the French should not have sent into Germany out of principle – a thought that echoed wartime propaganda. Historian Nicolas Beaupré explained the French rationale for sending in the North Africans:

“For French politicians and the military, the occupation was legitimated by their victory, and the peace treaty, so they were free to choose the means to implement it. […] Sending colonial troops to Germany allowed metropolitan French units to be demobilized more quickly […] It was also possible to show the Germans, who had just had their own colonies taken away, that France was not limited to being the neighbouring country, and its strength was spread around the world.” (Beaupre 4) 

The incident in Frankfurt gave rise to a high-profile campaign on the part of the government and the press to vilify French colonial troops, a topic that had already been used for propaganda in purposes during the war and the occupation of the Rhineland in 1919. As of spring 1920, the idea of the Schwarze Schmach, or Black Shame, regularly made headlines in Germany and in the parliament in Berlin. All sorts of accusations were made alleging violence and rape on the part of “black” French troops, meaning Arab, Berber, and black Africans. They were portrayed as bloodthirsty savages.  The accusations have not been substantiated by historians or French army investigations of the time. But the damage was done. Even some British newspapers picked up on the story and within days, France was forced to withdraw its colonial troops – but this only added fuel to the fire as it seemed to acknowledge the claims of the Germans. The scandal damaged French efforts to win over the population in the occupied Rhineland, and its policy of “peaceful penetration” through promotion of a positive image of France was weakened. After the Reichswehr withdrew beyond the neutral zone, on May 17 French troops did the same.


The turmoil in Germany and the temporary French occupation of Frankfurt also led to other tensions between Germany and the Allied powers over fulfilling the terms of the Versailles Treaty. The Kapp Putsch and Ruhr Uprising had disrupted German production and shipment of coal, which was an important part of reparations that were to be sent to Belgium and France. The details of how exactly the financial reparations and disarmament called for in the treaty would be implemented was also an open question. These issues were discussed in July at the Spa Conference, the first time the Allied and German governments had sat at the same table since before the war. The resulting agreement resolved some, but not all, of the issues: the German army reduction and disarmament would be completed by 1921; coal deliveries were defined and scheduled (including Allied payments for the workers’ food in exchange for specifying the exact type and quality of coal); and the proportion of reparations to the Allies divided: 52% to France, 22% to Britain, 10% to Italy and 8% to Belgium.

So the Ruhr Uprising and extended French occupation had barely ended by the time the Spa Conference’s tough negotiations began. And even while the German government sat at the table with Allies, there was tension growing on its eastern border, where there had already been a serious uprising in Greater Poland in 1919. In July 1920 a treaty-mandated plebiscite was held in The vote was over 90% in favour of staying with Germany – which meant that in this case, many Polish speakers had cast their vote for Germany. The other region slated for a plebiscite on the Polish-German border was Upper Silesia – but here, the situation turned violent.


The Treaty of Versailles called for a plebiscite in Upper Silesia, which was partly claimed by Poland and entirely claimed by Germany. Complicating the issue was that Upper Silesia had long had its own regional identity, based on Catholicism, troubled relations with Prussia, and the local mixing of German and Polish languages. For many residents, being Upper Silesian was more important than a national identity, which put them in a very difficult position, according to author Horst Bienek:

“It is the tragedy of the Upper Silesian that he is neither a German nor a Pole, but simply an Upper Silesian, and that injustice will be done to him in either case whether claimed by Germany or by Poland.” (Boehler 96)

Gradually, as nationalist politics on both sides grew in influence, tensions between Polish and German speakers grew – but the Germans had the state behind them. Even before the war broke out, journalist Wojciech Korfanty had become an influential voice in favour of Polish national feeling - and the war dramatically increased tensions. During the Great War, Polish-speaking residents had been conscripted into the German army, and had served even though they faced some discrimination. Upper Silesia, like many other parts of Germany, was rocked by strikes of Polish workers:

“The Great War had turned a huge part of Polish-speaking Upper Silesians from patriots to protesters.” (Boehler 106).

Once the armistice was signed and a Polish state was created, it could now lend its support to the Polish nationalist movement in Upper Silesia. But the real prize for both countries was territory and resources: the mines and factories were the most important factor, even though the argument was often framed in national terms. Both Poles and Germans organized paramilitary groups that seemed to be local, but were actually operating with the support of their respective intelligence services in what became an proxy war. Both countries’ governments officially distanced themselves from the paramilitaries, but covertly funded, equipped, and encouraged them.

The 1st Uprising, or civil war as the Germans referred to it, began in August 1919, when striking Polish workers were fired on by German Grenzschutz militia, who killed ten strikers. Thousands of German troops were moved in, and within a week the uprising had been put down. It should be noted that some Polish-speaking units of the German army served on the German side, which suggests there were still divided loyalties rooted in local identity and economic interests.

In February 1920, as part of the preparation for the plebiscite, an Allied force under French General Jules Gratier and consisting of 5000 Italian and 15,000 French troops arrived. But the sporadic violence continued. In particular, the German Sicherheitspolizei was active in preventing the Poles from politically organizing themselves. On August 17, 1920, the 2nd Uprising began. A demonstration was held on that day by Germans who wanted to stop a French train from crossing into Poland to bring supplies to the Polish army, which was hard-pressed fighting the Bolshevik Red Army just outside Warsaw. There was a Polish counter-demonstration and violence broke out as several Polish-speaking demonstrators were killed. French troops then fired on the Germans, killing some of them.

Korfanty now called on the Polish paramilitaries to rise up for a second time and demanded the dissolution of the German paramilitary police and fighting broke out again between the two groups. The Italians tried to restore order, but the French troops largely stood by. This made sense in the context of France’s policy of supporting a strong Poland, and weakening Germany. Eventually, the Poles agreed to a ceasefire as long as their paramilitary force was not disbanded. A Plebiscite Police force consisting of locals from both groups was established, but it could not halt the cycle of intimidation, violence and murder.

The conflict continued as an underground war into 1921, which was characterized by German participant Oskar Hauenstein:

“We called this state a war in the dark.” (Boehler 110)

Both sides used these tactics to influence the coming plebiscite, and continued to call on resources from both Poland and Germany. The Germans, for example, created the Upper Silesia Self Defence force, backed by the army. The plebiscite was finally held in March, 1921, and the result returned 60% in favour of Germany – even though about 60% of the population spoke Polish.


So as the summer of 1920 drew to a close, Germany remained in crisis. There were ongoing tensions with the Allies surrounding the implementation of the Treaty of Versailles. The Social Democrats were still the largest single party, but they had lost part of their base as a result of having cooperated with the Army and Freikorps to crush the more radical leftists, who now enjoyed more support than ever before in spite of their military defeats. The paramilitary Freikorps remained a destabilizing force throughout the country. And in the east, the situation in Upper Silesia was far from clear, even after the vote of March 1921, and the province would soon find itself rocked by yet another round of civil war.

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  • Buat, Edmond. 8 (Perrin, 2015)
  • Beaupré, Nicolas. Occuper l'Allemagne après 1918 (Revue historique des armées, 2009)
  • Böhler, Jochen.  Civil War in Central Europe, 1918-1921 (Oxford University Press, 2019)
  • Gietinger, Klaus. Kapp-Putsch (Stuttgart: Schmetterling, 2020)
  • le Naour, Jean Yves. La Honte Noire (Hachette, 2004)
  • Le Figaro, numéro du 8 avril 1920 (via Gallica)
  • Stengers, Jean. L'accord militaire franco-belge de 1920 et le Luxembourg (Revue belge de de Philologie et d'Histoire, 2004)
  • Pöppinghege, Rainer: Republik im Bürgerkrieg. Kapp-Putsch und Gegenbewegung an Ruhr und Lippe 1919/1920 (2019)
  • van Galen Last, Dick. Des soldats noirs dans une guerre de blancs (1914-1922) : une histoire mondiale (Editions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 2015)
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