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Reich Defence
Flag of Weimar Republic (war).svg
War Ensign of the Reichswehr
Active 1919–1935
Country  Weimar Republic (1919–1933)
23x15px Nazi Germany (1933–1935)
Allegiance Weimar Republic
Role Armed forces of the Weimar Republic
Size 115,000 (1921)
Garrison/HQ Zossen, near Berlin
Colors Black-Red-Gold
Ceremonial chief Friedrich Ebert
Paul von Hindenburg
Hans von Seeckt
Werner von Fritsch
Iron Cross
General Hans von Seeckt, Chief of the Reichswehr together with infantry men at a Reichswehr maneuver in Thuringia, 1926
Reichswehr army structure 1920-21 to 1934

The Reichswehr (English: Reich Defence) formed the military organization of Germany from 1919 until 1935, when it was united with the newly founded Wehrmacht ("Defence Force").

At the end of World War I, the forces of the German Empire had mostly split up, the men making their way home individually or in small groups. Many of them joined the Freikorps ("Free Corps"), a collection of volunteer paramilitary units that were involved in revolution and border clashes between 1918 and 1923.

It was conceded that the newly formed Weimar Republic did need a military, so on 6 March 1919 a decree established the Vorläufige Reichswehr ("Provisional National Defence"), consisting of a Vorläufige Reichsheer ("Provisional National Army") and a Vorläufige Reichsmarine ("Provisional National Navy"). The Vorläufige Reichswehr was made up of 43 brigades.[1]

On 30 September 1919, the army was reorganized as the Übergangsheer ("Transitional Army"), and the force size was reduced to 20 brigades.[1] About 400,000 men served in the armed forces.[2] In May 1920 it was downsized to 200,000 men and restructured again, forming three Cavalry Divisions and seven Infantry Divisions. On 1 October 1920 the brigades were replaced by regiments and the manpower was now only 100,000 men as stipulated by the Treaty of Versailles.[1] This lasted until 1 January 1921, when the Reichswehr was officially established according to the limitations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (Articles 159 to 213).

The Reichswehr was a unified organization composed of the following (as was allowed by the Versailles Treaty):

General Command 1 at Berlin supervised 1st Division (Konigsberg), 2nd Division (Stettin), 3rd Division (Berlin), and 4th Division (Dresden) as well as 1st and 2nd Cavalry Divisions (Frankfurt and Breslau). General Command 2 at Kassel supervised 5, 6, 7, and 3rd Cavalry Divisions (Stuttgart, Munster, Munich, and Weimar).

  • The Reichsmarine, a navy with a limited number of certain types of ships and boats. No submarines were allowed.[4]

The Reichswehr was limited to a standing army of 100,000 men,[5] and a navy of 15,000. The establishment of a general staff was prohibited. Heavy weapons such as artillery above the calibre of 105 mm (for naval guns, above 205 mm), armoured vehicles, submarines and capital ships were forbidden, as were aircraft of any kind. Compliance with these restrictions was monitored until 1927 by the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control.

Despite the limitations on its size, their analysis of the loss of World War I, research and development, secret testing abroad (in cooperation with the Red Army) and planning for "better times" went on. In addition, although forbidden to have a general staff, the army continued to conduct the typical functions of a general staff under the disguised name of Truppenamt ("Troop Office"). During this time, many of the future leaders of the Wehrmacht — such as Heinz Guderian — first formulated the ideas that they were to use so effectively a few years later.

Reichswehr soldiers in a military exercise, September 1930

The military refused to accept the democratic Weimar republic as legitimate and instead the Reichswehr under the leadership of Hans von Seeckt became a “state within the state” that operated largely outside of the control of the politicians.[6] Reflecting this position as a “state within the state”, the Reichswehr created the Ministeramt or Office of the Ministerial Affairs in 1928 under Kurt von Schleicher to lobby the politicians.[7] The German historian Eberhard Kolb wrote that:

“…from the mid-1920s onwards the Army leaders had developed and propagated new social conceptions of a militarist kind, tending towards a fusion of the military and civilian sectors and ultimately a totalitarian military state (Wehrstaat)”.[8]

The biggest influence on the development of the Reichswehr was Hans von Seeckt (1866–1936), who served from 1920 to 1926 as Chef der Heeresleitung (literally "Chief of the Army Command"). His predecessor was Walther Reinhardt. After the Kapp Putsch Hans von Seeckt took over this post. After Seeckt was forced to resign in 1926, Wilhelm Heye took the post. Heye was in 1930 succeeded by Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, who submitted his resignation on December 27, 1933.

The reduction of the peacetime strength of the German army from 780,000 (1913) to 100,000 actually enhanced the quality of the Reichsheer (only the best would be permitted to join the army). However the changing face of warfare meant that the smaller army was largely helpless without mechanised and aerial support, no matter how much effort was put into modernising infantry tactics.

In 1933 and 1934 after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the Reichswehr began a secret program of expansion. In December 1933, the army staff decided to increase the active strength to 300,000 men in 21 divisions. On 1 April 1934, between 50,000 and 60,000 new recruits entered and were assigned to special training battalions. The original seven Infantry Divisions of the Reichswehr were expanded to 21 infantry divisions, with Wehrkreis headquarters increased to the size of a corps HQ on 1 October 1934.[9] These divisions used at first used cover names to hide their divisional size but in October 1935 these were dropped. Also in October 1934, the officers who had been forced to retire in 1919 were recalled; those who were no longer fit for combat were assigned to administrative positions, releasing others for front-line duties.[10]

After the Nazi takeover of power, in which the Sturmabteilung ("Storm Battalion"; SA), the Nazi Party militia, played a prominent part, Ernst Röhm and his SA colleagues thought of their force (now over three million strong) as the future army of Germany, replacing the Reichswehr and its professional officers, whom they viewed as "old fogies" who lacked "revolutionary spirit". Röhm wanted to be made Minister of Defense. In February 1934, he demanded that the much smaller Reichswehr be merged into the SA to form a true "people's army". This alarmed both political and military leaders. To forestall the possibility of a coup, Hitler sided with conservative leaders and the military. Röhm and the entire leadership of the SA were killed (along with many other political adversaries of the Nazis) during the Night of the Long Knives.

The secret programme of expansion by the military finally became public in 1935. On March 1, 1935 the Luftwaffe was established, on March 16, conscription was introduced in Germany again. Both measures violated the Treaty of Versailles. In the same Act, the Reichswehr was renamed the Wehrmacht. On June 1, 1935, the Reichsheer was renamed the Heer (army) and the Reichsmarine the Kriegsmarine.[11]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Axis History Factbook, Introduction to the Reichswehr, accessed July 2015.
  2. Haskew, Michael, The Wehrmacht, Amber Books Ltd. 2011, p. 13
  3. Haskew, The Wehrmacht, p. 13
  4. Porter, David, The Kriegsmarine, Amber Books Ltd. 2010, p. 11
  5. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  6. Kolb, Eberhard The Weimar Republic London: Routledge, 2005, p. 172
  7. Wheeler-Bennett, John The Nemesis of Power, London: Macmillan, 1967, p. 198
  8. Kolb, Eberhard The Weimar Republic London: Routledge, 2005, p. 173
  9. Robert B. Kane, Disobeidance and Conspiracy in the German Army 1918-1945, 102. See also Robert J. O'Neill, The German Army and the Nazi Party 1933-39, London, 1968, 91-92.
  10. Stone, David J. (2006) Fighting for the Fatherland: The Story of the German Soldier from 1648 to the Present Day, p. 450.
  11. Stone says 21 May; "Fighting for the Fatherland," p.316.
  • Wheeler-Bennett, Sir John The Nemesis of Power: German Army in Politics, 1918–1945 New York: Palgrave Macmillan Publishing Company, 2005.

External links