Reactionary Violence, the Freikorps, and the Legacy of War and Revolution for the Royal Prussian Cadet-Corps

Presented at an international conference entitled ‘Make Revolution Great Again: The Context and Legacy of the 1918-19 German Revolution’, All Souls College, Oxford, 10 November 2018.

The fall of the German monarchy and the rise of a socialist government in 1918-19 made a mockery of everything that pupils of the Royal Prussian Cadet-Corps had been trained for. Brought up from the age of ten in regimented military boarding-schools, the cadets had been taught to abhor above all the evils of Social Democracy, and that they must live and die only for ‘King, Kaiser and Fatherland’. The ignominy of German defeat swiftly radicalised reactionary sentiment among the cadets, so that many ran away to join the Freikorps whilst still in their teens, desperate to solve the nation’s problems by violence, ‘smoking out the red swine’ once and for all.

Such tendencies were only exacerbated when, in 1920, the Ebert government insisted upon the dissolution of the cadet-schools and their transformation into non-military state boarding-schools, the Staatliche Bildungsanstalten. This move was bitterly resented by current and former pupils alike, and many former Freikorps cadets who were forced back into the schools to complete their education engaged in a prolonged hate-campaign against the new school authorities at the former Central Cadet-School (Hauptkadettenanstalt) in Berlin-Lichterfelde, aimed especially at the new Jewish Director, Friedrich Karsen.

Matters came to a head in 1921 with the so-called ‘Cadet-Revolts’ (Kadettenrevolte), in which one of the newly-imposed house-matrons was subjected to extreme verbal abuse by her charges because she had denounced one of her more monarchist colleagues for encouraging the cadets’ patriotism. The matter was raked over in the press and repeatedly discussed in parliament, and Education Minister Otto Boelitz himself was called upon to decide the culprits’ punishment. The cadets were branded ‘Hurrabengel’ (jingoistic whippersnappers) and ‘Arbeitertöter’ (worker-murderers), and the schools deemed ‘hotbeds of militarism’, of supreme danger to the survival of the fragile Weimar Republic.

That these accusations were not altogether unfounded is suggested by the eagerness with which many members of the cadet-school old boys’ network embraced National Socialism, even before the Nazis had seized power. Indeed, many former cadets went on to gain exalted positions in the Wehrmacht, such as Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian. Yet this can be also seen as a reflection of ex-cadets’ deeply-ingrained desire for a return to strong government and an autocratic style of leadership, fuelled by the promise of a reversal of German defeat and the shearing of the shackles of Versailles. The Nazi regime even seemed to promise a resurrection of the cadet-corps in the guise of the Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten (Napolas), military-style boarding-schools which took over many former cadet-school buildings, and followed a similar regime. Using previously unexplored archival material, as well as a selection of memoirs and contemporary works, this paper aims to explore the manifold ways – political, social, and criminal – in which former Prussian Cadets responded to the divisive legacy of German defeat.