Fear is powerful. The 1920s were a tough time to be a German. The empire they conquered from the Bolsheviks in the east was taken away by the victorious Western allies France, Britain and the U.S. The German economy was in shambles. And there were the gangs. Marxists and other radicals battled it out on the streets of the best-educated country in Europe. The people wanted to feel safe again; they needed an explanation for how things had gone so wrong so fast. They believed it when their war leadership told them “they were stabbed in the back.”
Without effective local and state police to stem the tide of leftist violence, the militaristic freikorps (free corps) emerged to fight fire with fire. The veteran soldiers returned from defeat to find enemies in the streets of Germany. They fought back. They showed a strong hand and resisted. The freikorps were gangs themselves, but they presented an orderly front. The people appreciated action.
Disorder is a boon to statists. When the government is not seen and does not use its power, disorder can emerge as criminal elements take advantage of the neglect. The when the poor suffer, state appears weak and ineffective. In all but the most extreme circumstances, the rich can hire bodyguards or bribe the gangs to stay away. But to the poor and the middle-income earners, the government is the absentee guardian that fails to arrest and prosecute criminals. Whoever takes care of the problem is a hero. Normal people just want to be safe. The freikorps were a sort of militia, and they successfully put down many communist insurrections. Whether one agreed with their politics was largely irrelevant to average Germans who wanted the violence to end. The freikorps got the job done.
By 1924 Germany had stabilized somewhat. The economy was returning to normal and a new, stabilized currency was introduced. For a time, there was peace. The dark days appeared to be over. Then the world markets began to crash in 1929 when the bubble market created by the U.S. Federal Reserve burst. The Germans were hit like the rest of the world, but for them it was the second time. They said, “Something must be done.”
The often-referenced Reichstag fire should be seen in context of the German experience with the consequences of disorder. They wanted the government to end the problem once and for all. By 1933, the Great Depression had provided the context for the National Socialist German Workers Party, or NSDAP, to campaign on platform for restoring order and fixing the economy. There were street battles again in the 1930s. There were some fights between the freikorps and the communists again, but this time the NSDAP, or Nazi Party, was there to capitalize on the problem. After the Reichstag fire was blamed on the Communists, the Nazis used the fear of Red Revolution to seize emergency powers. Once the National Socialists had delegitimized the Communists, they sought the public approval of the old freikorps. In late 1933, the freikorps pledged their loyalty to the new regime. In the summer of 1934, during the Night of the Long Knives, several leaders of the various freikorps were assassinated by the regime. A dictatorship must have a monopoly of firepower; independent minded militias are incompatible with totalitarian control.
Later in 1938, the regime began to tighten control over gun ownership. While permitting Germans to own weapons, it regulated and licensed the manufacture of weapons and forced citizens to provide a reason gun ownership. The regime also enacted the “Regulations Against Jews’ Possession of Weapons,” disarming the Jewish population, and banning Jews from participating in the manufacture and distribution of firearms and ammunition. An armed Jewry could have defended itself from what was coming. By then, however, the regime was in full control. On the surface, Germany was at peace. The only organized crime was conducted by the state itself.
The chaos of the 1920s and the Depression created an atmosphere where the people wanted to feel safe. When the state and local governments would not act, the people turned to the central government in Berlin. The NSDAP promised domestic peace and peace abroad. The Germans trusted their activist government that had provided security.
But then why should the Germans have been suspicious, the government was on their side, wasn’t it?