Overthrowing the government

The Kapp Putsch was a failed attempt to overthrow the government of the Weimar Republic in Germany in 1920. The putsch was led by Wolfgang Kapp, a right-wing journalist and politician, and

General Walther von Lüttwitz (it is sometimes known as the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch.) It was supported by various conservative and nationalist groups. The Kapp Putsch occurred during a time of political and economic instability in Germany, following World War I.

The legitimate German government had to depart the city, but the coup was over after a few days when a huge portion of the populace joined a nationwide strike that the government had called. The majority of government employees rebuffed Kapp and his followers. 

Wolfgang Kapp

Public Domain

Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson

In the Kapp Putsch, Wolfgang Kapp's brigade and the defenders of the Weimar Republic face each other in Berlin. 


The Putsch had lasting effects on the Weimar Republic's future despite its failure.

Additionally, it was one of the primary causes of the Ruhr uprising a few weeks later, which the government violently put down after treating the Putsch leaders leniently.

Following the June 1920 Reichstag elections, a change in the majority was the outcome of the polarisation of the German voters caused by these events.

A coalition government

The Weimar Coalition, made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), German Democratic Party (DDP, liberals on the left), and Zentrum, established the German government in 1919–20. (conservative Catholics).

Gustav Bauer, the chancellor, and Gustav Noske, the minister of defence, were all SPD members.

The commander-in-chief of the armed forces, as defined by the constitution, was the president, who in peacetime was represented by the minister of defence.

General Walther Reinhardt occupied the position of Chef der Heeresleitung, the ground forces' highest ranking officer, in the beginning of 1920.

Military restrictions

Even though he didn't agree with the Treaty of Versailles, Chancellor Bauer was forced to sign it in 1919.

The pact, which was enforced by the World War I Allies who had prevailed, required Germany to take responsibility for the conflict, reduced the size of Germany, and imposed significant military and reparations obligations on the country.

Early in 1919, the Reichswehr, or regular German army, was estimated to have a 350,000-man strength, with more than 250,000 of those troops serving in one of the several voluntary paramilitary Freikorps ("free corps"), which were mostly made up of war veterans.

Recruitment poster for the Reichswehr, 1919.

Poster Reichswehr, C1919 Painting by Granger - Fine Art America

After the war, the German government frequently utilised Freikorps soldiers to quell Communist uprisings. Germany was compelled to restrict its land troops to a maximum of 100,000 men as per the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles, which went into effect on 10th January 1920. These men had to be solely professional soldiers, not conscripts. 

The final deadline was 31st March 1920. (later extended to the end of the year) and  the Freikorps were expected to be dissolved. With the suppression of the communist uprisings, their original purpose—internal repression—had been rendered obsolete, and they were now posing a threat to the administration. This worry was certainly justified: As early as July 1919, certain top military leaders had already begun to explore the prospect of a coup.

A column of Friekorps, 1919.

Freikorps Epp (irishbrigade.eu)

Wolfgang Kapp, a 62-year-old Prussian civil servant with nationalist leanings – actually only had a supporting role in the coup, despite it being named after him. In actual fact, it was the military who organised it.

The Marinebrigade Loewenfeld and Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, two of the most potent Freikorps, were disbanded on 29th February 1920, by order of Defence Minister Noske. The latter had been based at the Truppenübungsplatz Döberitz, close to Berlin since January 1920 and numbered between 5,000 and 6,000 soldiers.

It was an elite unit made up of former Imperial Navy officers and NCOs that had seen action in Munich and Berlin during the civil war in 1919. Notably, it was extremely opposed to Eberts government and its commander, Hermann Ehrhardt, refused to carry out its disbandment.

 The Marinebrigade Erhardt in Berlin during the Kapp Putsch.

Bundesarchiv Bild 119-1983-0007

General Walther von Lüttwitz

Additionally, the most senior general in the German Army, General Walther von Lüttwitz, declared he would not accept the loss of this unit. Then on the evening of 10th March, Lüttwitz visited Ebert's office with the following demands:

  • The immediate dissolution of the National Assembly
  • New elections for the Reichstag.
  • The appointment of technocrats (Fachminister) as Secretaries for Foreign Affairs, Economic Affairs, and Finance,
  • The removal of General Reinhardt,
  • The installation of himself as the top commander of the regular army,
  • The revocation of the Marinebrigaden's orders of dissolution.

He also drew on demands made by the right-wing parties and added his own.

In response, Defence minister Gustav Noske and Ebert rejected these demands and informed Lüttwitz that they expected his resignation the following day.

General Walther von Lüttwitz

Universal History Archive/Getty Images; picture alliance / akg-images

General Walther von Lüttwitz walks the front of his guard in Berlin in front of the Reich Chancellery during the Putsch.

Gircke/ ullstein bild

Nationale Vereinigung

Unperturbed, the following day Lüttwitz instead visited Döberitz and inquired with Herman Ehrhardt about his ability to capture Berlin that evening, who responded that he could achieve this by the 13th. Lüttwitz then brought a group known as the Nationale Vereinigung into the scheme. They included:

  • The aforementioned Wolfgang Kapp, a member of the German National People's Party (DNVP).
  • Erich Ludendorff, a retired general.
  • Waldemar Pabst, the man responsible for the murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919.
  • Traugott von Jagow, the final Berlin police chief of the old Reich.

Their objective was to restore the federal organisation of the Empire while establishing an authoritarian government (but not a monarchy). On 13th March, Lüttwitz instructed them to be prepared to take over the administration. 

Despite their lack of preparation, the group complied with Lüttwitz's schedule. The fact that friendly members of the Sicherheitspolizei in Berlin notified them that arrest warrants had been issued that day contributed to their support for swift action.

Berlin is occupied

Ehrhardt gave his brigade orders to march into Berlin on the evening of March 12 in order to "ruthlessly break any resistance" and seize control of the city's government structures. Around 10:00 p.m., the Brigade departed in the direction of Berlin while flying swastikas over its helmets and trucks. 

After an hour had passed, the Gruppenkommando told Noske. In the event that all of Lüttwitz's requests were granted by 7:00 am, two general officers met Ehrhardt and persuaded him to provide the government a chance to surrender before being taken into custody. Noske was informed of this and they met with Ebert. A cabinet meeting was subsequently scheduled for 4:00 am by Ebert. Noske invited the senior commanders to his office in the Bendlerblock about one in the morning.

Noske requested that General Hans von Seeckt – Chief of the Troop Office – order his soldiers to protect the federal buildings, but they refused to fire upon the rebel soldiers. Negotiations were recommended, the troops wouldn't understand a firing order, and the normal battalions couldn't overcome the elite Marinebrigade, according to some.

Seeckt is alleged to have said:

The government flees

With no way to defend themselves, the undefended cabinet made the decision to leave the city and to call for a general strike. However, Vice-Chancellor Eugen Schiffer and a few other non-SPD ministers insisted on remaining in the city so that they could continue their negotiations with the putschists.

The rest fled that morning with the Marinebrigade arriving at the Brandenburger Tor ten minutes later, where it was met by Lüttwitz, Ludendorff, Kapp, and their supporters. Kapp's soldiers quickly entered the Reichskanzlei and took control of the government quarter with the aid of a battalion of regular Reichswehr.

Captain Hermann Ehrhardt (marked with a cross in the photograph) enters Berlin in a car with marine troops, Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch, 13 March 1920.

Public Domain

Kapp established a temporary administration and proclaimed himself Reichskanzler (Chancellor). Both the military's supreme commander and the minister of defence positions were filled by Lüttwitz. Many prominent conservatives and former secretary of state were asked to join the government but turned down the offers.

Bizarrely, Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, an international con artist, was appointed press censor by Kapp.

The Harburg Incident

Since 1st January, Rudolf Berthold's Iron Troop Freikorps had been fighting in Lithuania and were now on their way back to Zossen, Germany to disband. By 13th March they had reached Stade where they learned that the uprising was in full flow. 

After a group of striking rail workers prevented them from boarding a train, Berthold’s men were forced to shelter the night in a nearby girl’s high school.

The Iron Troop commandeered a train the next day and cautiously made its way towards Harburg, Hamburg. The local Reichswehr battalion's commanding officer had been secretly detained by Independent Socialist city authorities prior to the Iron Troop's arrival, leaving the men without a leader. The authorities told the Freikorps to seek cover at the neighbourhood middle school when the train arrived.

The next day, on 15th March 1920, a citizen militia started to form around the school.

A Freikorps machine gunner fired a burst over the assembling crowd around midday to scatter them but which instead resulted in a gunfight that resulted in 13 civilian deaths, 3 Friekorp deaths and a further Eight Iron Troop troops being captured and summarily executed.

Realising they were trapped with dwindling ammunition and no help coming, Berthold, agreed to surrender on condition that the militia wouldn't harm them and would let his unarmed men leave the school at six o'clock in the evening.

However, an angry mob of onlookers attacked the Iron Troop during this surrender, and Berthold was murdered. The rest of the Iron Troop were transferred to a nearby military base after being disarmed.

Rudolph Berthold

Private Collection – Wartenberg Trust

Reactions to the Putsch

  • The regular troops in Berlin, the Sicherheitspolizei, the navy, and the army commands of East-Prussia, Pomerania, Brandenburg, and Silesia officially acknowledged the new minister of defence and Reichskanzler; there was no military resistance to the putsch.
  • The navy's commander, Admiral Adolf von Trotha, declared his support for the coup as soon as he was informed of it.
  • The Reichswehr overthrew the social democratic state government in Bavaria and installed Gustav Ritter von Kahr's right-wing administration in its place.

By intimidating the population of Berlin, the putschists tried to consolidate their power.

Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte / Kunstbibliothek/ SMB/ Photothek Willy Römer

Demonstration of power by the putschists and their supporters from right-wing bourgeois circles in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H28541 / Photographer: unbekannt

  • The commanders of the Wehrkreise (military districts) throughout the remaining Reich did not publicly support or oppose Kapp, but they were not neutral either, and the majority had more or less open sympathies with the putschists.
  • The majority of people who had ascended to the top levels of the bureaucracy during the Empire's reign still supported the coup while maintaining an ostensibly neutral demeanour and biding their time.
  • The bureaucracy in the eastern provinces accepted Kapp and Lüttwitz in charge.

Soldiers in the break: Entry of the Marine Brigade Ehrhardt during the Kapp Putsch in Berlin.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 119-1983-0015 / Photographer: unbekannt

The General Strike

The government relocated to Dresden in the hopes of receiving assistance from Generalmajor Maercker, but he had been ordered by the new government to take them into "protective custody", so they moved on to Stuttgart.

The cabinet's announcement on 13th March urging German workers to put down the putsch by going on a general strike was welcomed with great success and garnered a great deal of working-class support.

The Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), the Democratic Party, the majority unions, and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) all joined the call for a strike on the same day, showing their support for the social democrat-dominated government. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) followed one day later. 

Demonstration in Berlin against the putsch. The caption reads: "A quarter million participants".

Public Domain.

The strike began on 14th March in Berlin and had expanded throughout the Reich by the following day. With up to 12 million workers participating, it was the largest strike in Germany's history. The entire nation was paralysed. Berlin's supply of gas, water, and electricity was cut off.

Kapp and Lüttwitz were unable to rule because the nation was paralysed; in Berlin, military forces could only communicate by courier. There were no newspapers because the bureaucracy's lower ranked workers were on strike. The putsch crumbled on 17th March, four days after it started, despite calls for the workers to go back to work, promises of new elections, and even the threat of the death penalty for strikers.


On 13th March, Kapp had placed Vice-Chancellor Schiffer and the Prussian state government officials in protective custody; however, on by 14th March, they were freed, and on the following day negotiations started. 

Oskar Hergt and Gustav Stresemann, representatives of the democratic right, also participated. All agreed that t he biggest threat was now "bolshevism," and the four major center-right parties—the Democratic Party, Zentrum, German People's Party, and German National People's Party—agreed that they needed to "win back" the officer corps.

Oskar Hergt 

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2009-0316-500)

Gustav Stresemann

Katy Edwards

Despite all that had occurred, it was deemed inappropriate to overthrow or arrest Kapp and Lüttwitz; instead, their resignation had to appear to be voluntary.

The four parties proposed:

  • New elections,
  • A cabinet shake-up,
  • An amnesty for all putschists in exchange for the resignation of Kapp and Lüttwitz.

They were backed by several Social Democrats who had remained in Berlin. Lüttwitz attempted to continue leading a military dictatorship for another day despite the putschists' lone offer for Kapp's resignation, but his commanders betrayed him.

They recommended Seeckt be placed as the new head of the Reichswehr, which Vice-chancellor Schiffer did in Ebert's place while Ebert was away handling the affairs of the government.

DNVP election poster

Bundesarchiv Plak 002-029-008

Fate of the plotters

Hermann Ehrhardt, leader of the "Bridgade Ehrhardt" and right-wing extremist revolutionary.

Public domain

On 18th March, Lüttwitz submitted his letter of resignation, and Schiffer accepted it on Ebert's behalf while generously awarding him full pension rights.

Additionally, Schiffer advised Pabst and Lüttwitz to leave the nation until the National Assembly had made a decision about the issue of an amnesty and even provided them with fake passports and cash.

On 18th March, Seeckt commended Ehrhardt's Marinebrigade for its orderly conduct. The following day, Seeckt gave Ehrhardt a written guarantee that he wouldn't be detained so long as the brigade was under his command and had left Berlin.

However, they opened fire with machine guns while being heckled by a hostile group of onlookers, leaving thirty people with serious injuries and twelve civilians dead.

Kapp didn't leave the nation until April, when he departed to Sweden. On 16th April, Kapp was detained in Sweden but was not sent back to Germany. In April 1922, he voluntarily returned to Germany, and that same year, he died in prison while awaiting prosecution.

Lüttwitz first travelled to Saxony before finally departing for Hungary. Lüttwitz returned to Germany as part of an amnesty in 1924.

In Bavaria, Ehrhardt went into hiding.

Despite having support from considerably higher up in the army, Noske named Kapp, Pabst, and Ehrhardt as being accountable for the putsch. A law voted by the Reichstag on 2nd August, 1920, absolved offences committed during the putsch and the succeeding Ruhr Uprising, with the exception of those motivated by "cruelty" or "self-interest," and most of the participants received amnesty. Only von Jagow's prosecution was successful in getting a guilty verdict out of the 705 civil cases that were brought.

Yesterday it was reported from Berlin that protective custody had been imposed on the General Landscape Director Dr. Kapp and the retired captain Pabst. ... Something was going on! But what?

Today, the solution to the riddle is clear: it is nothing less than a complete plan to overthrow the government. 

We shall await further details before commenting on the coup attempt and shall confine ourselves today to reproducing the reports before us. Only one thing can be said, so as not to give rise to false suspicions by the temporary withholding of our judgment:

We have repeatedly emphasized, and continue to stress today, that we reject and condemn the violent overthrow in every form, and from whichever side it may come, in the strongest possible terms."

Editor of DEWEZET

Der Kapp-Putsch 1920. Reporting of the historical DEWEZET 100 years ago. (#hmjournalismusweimar, #kappputsch) – Hamelner Bote

Members of the Freikorps and Reichswehr were governed by military law, and 486 of the 775 court martial cases were successfully concluded. Six officers resigned, 48 were fired from their positions, and the other officers received just minor punishments. In May 1920, the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt was disbanded, but the majority of its members were permitted to enlist in the Reichswehr, where they enjoyed prosperous careers.

In contrast, those workers involved in the Ruhr uprising faced far tougher treatment from the courts, and many of them received lengthy prison sentences.


In contrast to Berlin, the Kapp Putsch had a more widespread and long-lasting impact on Germany. The strike has developed into an armed uprising in several regions of the nation. Local military officers who backed the new government instigated the violence and arrested pickets, which the workers opposed. After fierce battles, the troops in Thuringia and Saxony defeated the workers. 

Although the putsch in Berlin was put down, the workers in the Ruhr continued to fight in what became known as the Ruhr uprising

Members of the Red Ruhr Army. in Dortmund, 1920, during the Ruhr Uprising.

Public Domain

On 20th March, the legal administration travelled back to Berlin and requested an end to the strike. It made some concessions to the unions in order to do this, some of which were made in poor faith. Only a new administration based on the Weimar Coalition was able to gain a majority in the National Assembly, and Hermann Müller (SPD) succeeded Bauer as chancellor. The unions (ADGB, Afa-Bund, and DBB) urged the formation of a new government made up of SPD and USPD, led by Carl Legien.

After the unions called off the strike on 22nd March, the administration subsequently attempted to negotiate with employees who refused to lay down their arms. When the talks fell through, the Ruhr uprising was put down by the Reichswehr and Freikorps in the first few days of April 1920. Numerous troops involved in the Putsch, especially Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of individuals, many by summary execution. Similar to 1918–19, the SPD and the Ebert administration were accused by many on the left of supporting opponents of the workers' and the republic's interests.


The Kapp Putsch had a significant impact on the political climate in Germany, as it contributed to the growing sense of instability and uncertainty in the country.

It also contributed to the rise of extremist movements, such as the Nazi Party, which would eventually come to power in 1933.

Adolf Hitler had attempted to participate in the Kapp Putsch but due to being delayed, was unable to take part.

Adolf Hitler in the 1920s. The future Fuhrer of Nazi Germany had attempted to participate in the Kapp Putsch.