Michael Nagler | The Kapp Putsch and Modern Memory

 Nonviolence is the way out.  But nonviolence cannot simply mean you wait for the putsch to happen, then rush out into the street and non-cooperate.   


By Michael N. Nagler  Reprinted with permission from PeaceVoice by Pace e Bene November 4, 2016   

On March 13, 1920, right-wing elements of German society along with some military units, particularly the Freikorps, or volunteer corps, smarting from the humiliating conditions imposed by the victorious allies at Versailles, and alarmed by the mildly democratic policies of the year-old Weimar government, staged a Putsch (coup) in Berlin, led by Wolfgang Kapp and Walther von Lüttwitz. The Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch was a resounding failure – in one respect.  Kapp quickly declared himself Reichskanzler (sound familiar), but the Weimar leadership, already partly in exile, called on all Germans to strike.  The resulting general strike was so effective that the putschists simply could not rule the country.  In three days they themselves were in exile, or prison.  The successful resistance has long held an important place in the canon of successful nonviolent actions catalogued by Gene Sharp in his pioneering works on nonviolence.  Though it was marred by some fighting (and had a violent aftermath, as communists and labor unions tried to take over) it was in fact a classic example of the power of civil resistance to protect a democratic order from takeovers or invasions.

But that was not the end of the story.  One putschist who had been flown into Berlin to participate keenly watched the chaotic events unfold.  His name was Adolph Hitler.  He admired the energy and ruthlessness of the Freikorps, with their swastika-marked helmets, and noted the putsch leaders’ mistakes (including timing).  Before long he set about appealing to the same anger Kapp and the others had manipulated, only more effectively, and played heavily on the ruthlessness.  By 1935 he could triumphantly declare, Ich habe in fünfzehn Jahre die Deutsche Nation gerettet, durch meinen fanatischen Wille: ‘I have rescued the German nation in fifteen years through my fanatical will.’

There are two lessons from these chaotic events that we, too, can learn; in fact, we ignore them at our peril.

One.  It definitely can happen here.  While our democratic institutions are far more robust than those of the fledgling Weimar republic, which itself had been installed by a recent revolution, they are weakening under attacks now from all sides.  If Donald Trump fails to win the presidency next week, by the grace of God, he has nonetheless gained shocking support, and done so by appealing to precisely the same unspecific  indignation, xenophobia, scapegoat logic and inflated egos as Kapp and his “conservative” backers – not excluding the same dark hints of violence.  If our democratic institutions are stronger than those of the fledgling German republic, our general culture is if anything more violent, thanks to the development (and abuse) of modern mass media – and the flood of weapons.  Trump is failing at least in part, maybe entirely, because he is not the fanatical, ruthless, inhumane personality Hitler was – but who’s to say such a maniac could not appear next?  We have had the shot across the bow of our democracy.

Two.  Nonviolence is the way out.  But nonviolence cannot simply mean you wait for the putsch to happen, then rush out into the street and non-cooperate.  That is a stopgap if it works.  It has to mean a complete overhaul of the cultural factors that have led to our putting more fellow citizens in prison per unit population than any comparable democracy, having more guns than people and a higher rate of murder or suicide by orders of magnitude, a larger military budget than most of the world’s countries put together, and a foreign policy apparently incapable of any response but endless war.  Throw in an addiction to media violence that indoctrinates the minds of children from the earliest ages, and the picture is not reassuring.

What is reassuring is that nonviolent alternatives to all these factors are already present, across the board.   Economically and socially alternative communities are springing up all over, along with a sprinkling of “public benefit” corporations that work to a far more humane and inclusive bottom line and often are democratically owned, or at least managed, like Berrett-Koehler publishers, like Kickstarter, to mention two examples.  Nonviolence is slowly being recognized as a subject for research and education (189 U.S. schools at various levels have peace studies programs, at last count, and thousands have at least one peace/nonviolence course).  Civil resistance is being more often and sometimes more accurately practiced, as we’ve seen here from Occupy to Standing Rock, with many episodes in between that are not cited by the media.  As nonviolence scholar Erica Chenoweth told me recently, “nonviolence is the technique du jour for uprisings now.”  And not just uprisings.  A worldwide institution called Unarmed Civilian Peacemaking (or Civilian Protection, in any case UCP), descended from Gandhi’s concept of a Shanti Sena or ‘peace army,’ is operating in some of the most dangerous pockets of global violence – yes, including Syria – and to very good effect.  UCP has been seriously discussed at the UN and received substantial support from some European governments (not American).  And for the long term, perhaps this may be the most important of all: freethinking media, like what you’re reading right now.  We should be learning about and supporting all these inspiring developments.  What they’re up to, and why it’s working, has to be far better known and far more systematically developed; otherwise we might be heading for a particularly nasty case of history repeating itself.

Professor Michael N. Nagler is the President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future.

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  1. Colin Smith · ·

    I am staggered by the assumptions, I.e.HILARYis good and TRUMP is bad. As a European l am delighted the very real and palpable threat of a nuclear war triggered by HILARY on behalf of her neo-con chums has receded. I don’t much care what the silly American electorate do to themselves by electing TRUMP, but we in Europe do not deserve to die for US HEGEMONY. I think you are a nation of hysterics. Hilary was much more of a danger than TRUMP. Perhaps from the thousands of miles away the election of a fascist, racist, bigot (not exactly new in US politics) might seem more frightening than electing a warmonger, but as far as the human race is concerned he’s a better bet. You should acknowledge it and rejoice that we all dodged a bullet.


  2. Colin Smith · ·

    It is reported that Hilary is blaming ‘every man and his dog’ for her being robbed of the only thing that really mattered to her, the title of “First Woman President of the United States”. Assange was right. She was sick with ambition. Having achieved her dream would she have just folded and gone through the motions of her presidency? I’d heard that the Clintons never take responsibility for their actions, blaming everyone else around them.This symptom of psychopathŷ was shown by Adolf Hitler in his bunker as the “German people failed him”. It is common amongst dictators, and also Tony Blair and Richard Nixon. I believe there should be an examination for psychopathy before anyone is allowed to run for high office. Of course that would probably leave no one willing to fill the job. Long ago l learned to apply the Platonic Principle when selecting for promotion. This advises to always appoint the most reluctant candidate, as they are probably most aware of the pitfalls.


  3. There are many Americans who agree with you and certainly do not like Killery. And are very aware and have been from the beginning that she is a warmonger. The threat of nuclear war under her is plausible. But can we trust Trump? We don’t think so. And his racism, bigotry, and hate and support of violence play out large in our condemnation of him. Those of us who might be called dissenters know there is a crackdown, and it particularly affects people of color. Where I live we are looking at the sentencing this week of several Somali boys who were entrapped by the FBI. The Islamophobia raging in this country is palpable. And because we have a large Somali population where I live, we are in the heart of it. Already we are hearing stories locally and nationally about the increase of harassment of people of color and gays because Trump’s election seems to have given the violent of his supporters free reign in their minds. As an antiwar activist for many years, I follow the nuclear threat, and work for peace, so I am very aware of what you say. I follow the work of CND. We have a corrupt election system controlled by two parties that are equally evil. A country run by the corporate monied elite and their lackeys in government. Our democracy is failing fast. Our fear is great. For many of us, the election of Trump is a call to action in a way the election of Hillary would not have been. In either case, we would have been and are in the streets. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s quote: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Our fight will be nonviolent and so many of us as peace activists hope it remains so, but we shall take nonviolent action in all ways possible to defend our country, because that is what it has come down to.

    Note: This is a reply to Colin Smith who commented on the article about the KAPP putsch. His comments and perspective are welcome, and as you can see, created further dialog.


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