Warfare on the Public Square: The Danger of Armed Militias

By Alec Medine 

History Repeating? 

As the news buzzes with anxious coverage on the certification of the 2020 Election taking place on January 6th, the President issued a clarion call via Twitter for his supporters to converge on the nation’s capital. Many observers worry that violence could ensue. These protesters, many of whom belong to the political far-right, are coming not only to show support for their chosen candidate, but to act as a political force of their own; they want to compel the national leadership to decide the election in their favor, and many of them want to make that point with the barrel of a gun. The Metropolitan Police have made several gun arrests ahead of the march, with DC Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen stating that he and MPD “are aware there may be efforts to bring illegal guns into the District.” It is clear that the far-right is preparing for an armed confrontation amidst their protests against the certification of the election. 

The United States has a tradition of publicly bearing arms harkening back to the American Revolution, when American minutemen halted the British advance at the Battle of Concord. Yet, this new phenomenon, the Militia Movement, is not patriotic; it is rebellious and treasonous. Furthermore, it threatens public safety, and, even worse, it presents a grave danger to our democracy and the civil discourse on which it is built. By injecting the force of arms into the political arena, these radical groups are inviting authoritarianism into the United States.

The Armed Danger

In many ways, the rise of  paramilitary groups, which act independent of the government, are both a cause and symptom of a state undergoing democratic deterioration, catalyzing a downward cycle that often results in widespread civil strife, and ultimately, dictatorship. They come about when a significant section of the public doubts the legitimacy and efficacy of the elected government. In this sense, the deligitimized or incapacitated government is perceived as being either unwilling or unable to enforce what the famous political scientist Max Weber termed “the state monopoly on violence.” In a healthy functioning modern state, the government retains the exclusive legal responsibility and prerogative to enforce the law and protect national borders through the use of legally sanctioned violence, typically expressed through the police and military. Paramilitary groups like militias challenge this monopoly on violence by assuming these powers themselves without the assent of either the government or the governed. Paramilitaries seek to fill what they see as a gap in the government, either because they feel that the law is not being rightfully enforced and that some group must do something to keep peace if the government will not, or because they envision themselves as an outright replacement to the current regime. 

The behavior of America’s far-right groups, such as the Proud Boys, Three-Percenters, and Oath Keepers, bears strong resemblance to that of the paramilitary organizations that emerged in Germany between the two World Wars. What happened in Weimar Germany serves as a cautionary tale demonstrating why paramilitary groups are so dangerous, and what can happen when they are given too much power in national politics. 

The Lessons of Weimar Germany

As I touched upon in a previous Democracy Examined article, Germany was a devastated nation in the wake of World War I. The monarchy had abdicated, leaving the country in a power vacuum. 

The Social-Democrats in the national parliament were formally in control, declaring a democratic parliamentary republic following Kaiser Wilhelm’s flight to the Netherlands in 1919. However, not all Germans recognized this new government, led by the Social-Democrat Friedrich Ebert. 

There were numerous insurgency efforts. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht launched the Spartacist Revolution in Berlin and other German industrial cities promising to make Germany into a communist state. On a smaller scale, a group of communist revolutionaries in Bavaria overthrew the local Wittelsbach monarchy and sought to split from the rest of Germany to form the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Meanwhile, German military officers and soldiers were returning home from the front, resentful of the new Weimar government and their humiliating concessions to the Entente powers in the Treaty of Versailles; these men were grizzled by four years of dehumanizing trench warfare and came back to Germany well-trained, well-armed, and deeply affected by the horrors of the war they just fought. 

The young Weimar government had few resources to crush the communist uprisings across the country; the local police forces were inadequately staffed and armed for combatting movements on such a large scale, and the Entente powers restricted the German army’s size to a mere 100,000 men. Backed into a corner, Ebert was thus forced to make a faustian bargain, requesting the help of German army veterans to crush the communist revolts. As the government did not officially employ these soldiers, these groups began referring to themselves as the “Freikorps,” or “Free-Corps,” a reference to the all-volunteer military forces that served Prussia in the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars. At its height, 1.5 million men were enlisted in the Freikorps. 

The relationship between the Weimar government and the Freikorps was naturally problematic. The Weimar government’s use of what were essentially mercenary forces to maintain order highlighted not only their weakness, but also the immense power of militarized groups who were able to impose their will through force. Other political movements (most notably the Nazis) took note, establishing militant wings in order to push their agendas on the public square and in the political arena. 

The situation also meant that the Freikorps was in a politically privileged position as its own interest group, and was thus able to strongarm the elected government to behave as the Freikorps desired. The interests of the Freikorps, unlike those of the legitimate moderate parties of the German parliament, were not democratically-oriented. Many of their beliefs were deeply conservative, militaristic, and nationalistic, and some branches of the Freikorps desired a return to the monarchy or a government led by army generals. In any case, the Freikorps dominated German politics as a force of terror, attacking and killing anyone who opposed them, whether they were civilians or political leaders.   

The prominence of the Freikorps and other paramilitary groups, as well as the government’s inability to control these groups, created a culture of political violence in many cities across Germany during the interwar period. This violence erupted frequently into street battles between opposing political factions. At its worst, this political strife both motivated and justified a violent overthrow of the government, called a “Putsch.” One prominent example occurred in  1920, when a group of Freikorps led by Wolfgang Kapp and General Walther von Lüttwitz launched a coup to topple the Weimar government to bring about an autocratic regime in the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch. Their efforts were bolstered by  the support of some elements of the German army (the Reichswehr) as well as that of monarchist political factions. Fortunately for German democracy, the putsch ultimately collapsed when communist and socialist workers initiated a general strike that paralyzed the nation and made the military junta unable to successfully govern the German capital. The moderate and left-wing parties of the German parliament then successfully persuaded Kapp and Lüttwitz to quit the coup and resign from the political offices which they had seized after taking Berlin.

Perhaps the most notorious putsch was one that took place in Munich in 1923: the Beer Hall Putsch. In November of that year, Adolf Hitler and other prominent members of his small, far-right fringe party, the National Socialists (or, Nazis) stormed a beer hall in the Bavarian capital and declared a revolution to topple the Weimar government. A street battle soon broke out between the Nazi paramilitaries and the local police. The Nazis were ultimately defeated in the battle and the party’s leaders, including Hitler, were arrested. Despite the putsch’s abject initial failure, it became a defining moment for the Nazi Party. The Nazis who died in the fighting became martyrs for the Nazis’ cause; furthermore, Hitler used his time in prison to formulate his party’s political platform through his book, Mein Kampf, which later came to define the policies of Hitler’s regime.  

The Beer Hall Putsch also provided a strong lesson to Hitler and the rest of the party leadership that entering politics through the democratic process was a more promising strategy than outright revolution.  Nonetheless, the Nazis never lost their violent streak, and the paramilitary wing of their party, the Sturmabteilung (SA, or “Assault Battalion,” more commonly known as the Brownshirts) only grew as the party gained more supporters, and now, voters. 

The Nazis had learned from the Freikorps the power of a strong paramilitary force, and many former Freikorps troopers joined the ranks of the Brownshirts as they sympathized with the Nazis’ nationalistic goals. The Nazis’ Brownshirts would prove influential  following the 1932 elections, when the Nazis eked out a plurality over their political opponents. Nonetheless, President Paul von Hindenburg, a former general in World War I, was reluctant to nominate Hitler to the position of Chancellor, or Prime-Minister, of Germany, which would have given the Nazis broad political power as the governing party. Dissatisfied with Hindenburg’s reticence, the Nazis threatened to rise up again if Hitler was not named chancellor; to back up the promise, the Nazis mobilized their Brownshirts, who began roving the streets of German cities and instigating bloody confrontations with the Centrist and Social-Democratic paramilitary bands. The German government was unable to do anything: the Sturmabteilung was four times as large as the entire German army. President Hindenburg thus had little choice, and named Hitler as his chancellor. 

Soon after, Hitler solidified his power through force and ensured that he would no longer have to depend on the Brownshirts. In 1933, Hitler  took advantage of an arson attack on the Reichstag (the German parliament building), using  his emergency powers  to turn Germany into a one-party dictatorship. In the following year, Hitler turned on the Brownshirts in an action that historians have dubbed “the Night of the Long Knives.” He killed prominent SA leaders and members of the political opposition while throwing the rank-and-file Brownshirts and members of the non-Nazi political parties into concentration camps like Dachau. This, however, did not temper the Nazis’ thirst for violence: it merely refined it. Only months later, the Nazis’ violence spilled over into neighboring Austria when a group of native Austrian Nazis assassinated the nation’s leader Engelbert Dollfuss in the hopes of overthrowing his government, with the eventual goal of merging Austria into Nazi Germany. Austria itself had been recovering from its own tragic civil war waged by the army and their paramilitary allies, the Heimwehr, against the Social-Democratic worker-militias of the Schutzbund.

The Nazis served as the culmination of Weimar Germany’s political culture of paramilitarism and violence. The Nazis lived by the sword and died by the sword; unrestrained violence defined their regime to the very end. This violence was fostered in the street battles of 1920s Weimar Germany, and was then honed and ultimately unleashed on all of Europe. The Nazis’ blatant disregard for law and propriety emboldened them to kill more than 11 million Jews, Roma, and other ethnic and religious groups in the Holocaust. They slaughtered yet millions more on the battlefield and in the rapacious looting that took place wherever the German army marched. 

This hideous chaos all started with the emergence of paramilitary groups in the early days of the Weimar Republic when few Germans had faith in their country’s young democracy to govern effectively and maintain peace. Paramilitary groups like the Freikorps and the Brownshirts came about as an alternative to democracy; they existed as a projection of authoritarianism. The paramilitaries claimed to exist in order to restore law and order, but they only served to further sow chaos and social division within their society. 

Weimar USA? 

Now, far-right paramilitary groups are coming to the forefront of American politics, and they are growing bolder and more violent. Their destructive actions have already begun damaging the political fabric of our democracy. Last April, well-armed right-wing protesters stormed the Michigan Statehouse in order to compel the Michigan legislature to overturn lockdown restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mere months later, a Michigan militia group plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, also in response to the lockdown. Violence is also increasingly injecting itself into street protests: over the summer, demonstrations in California, Oregon, and Washington broke out into gunfire as the far-right and far-left clashed, in scenes that could remind historians of the Brownshirts battling it out against communist militias in the streets of Berlin. 

Today, with paramilitary groups marching on Washington in the hopes of enforcing their chosen political alternative for America and to impose their political will on the American people, we have to remind ourselves of the damage these groups can do to our society — and the world. They are not here to protect democracy, because democracy is conducted by dialogue and consensus, not by coercion at gunpoint. 

Therefore, we must affirm the legitimacy of our government and the validity of our most recent election. We must foster a respect for our institutions and a faith that they will act justly for the people whom officials swore by oath to protect. In doing so, we reject the far-right and their militias’ dystopian dream for America; they only want a country where might makes right, and a land dominated by thuggish authoritarian strongmen. They are not here to protect America or its democracy; they intend to destroy it. Instead, we as Americans should disavow their ideology and recommit to bipartisan compromise within our political system to build a fairer and more democratic United States, empowering those who listen and reason over those who intimidate and coerce.

Title Image: “Halt! Whoever goes further will be shot!” Freikorps troops in Berlin during the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch of 1920. Photo Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv