Benjamin Ziemann examines the enigma of Karl Mayr, the reclusive army officer who nurtured Adolf Hitler’s early political career.
Karl Mayr has often been described as Hitler’s political midwife and rightly so. As head of the intelligence and propaganda department in the Bavarian Reichswehr group command, Mayr organised political instruction courses in June 1919. One of the participants was a certain lance-corporal Adolf Hitler. Alerted to his rhetorical talent, Mayr recruited him to conduct further propaganda work and to act as an insider and informer. In that capacity in September 1919 Mayr ordered Hitler to attend a meeting of the German Worker’s Party (DAP) and report on one of the many right-wing nationalist groups in post-revolutionary Munich. Throughout the following months Mayr was in almost daily contact with his employee, following and supporting his every move. For his part, Hitler was rapidly finding his political voice and developing an increasing role within the party. When he announced the new manifesto of the renamed NSDAP in February 1920 he was still on the payroll of the Reichswehr as Mayr’s subordinate. Without Mayr’s nurturing Hitler might perhaps never have turned to politics. For Mayr, on the other hand, the systematic support of völkisch, anti-republican groups in 1919 and 1920 proved to be only a short-lived episode in his own political trajectory.
Who was this puppet master Mayr, the reclusive army officer, whose secretive string-pulling attracted suspicion from even his closest political friends? Why did he abandon the nascent Nazi Party and turn instead to social democracy and how sincere was his conversion? Exploring these questions reveals a turbulent life that ended in tragedy. Yet Mayr’s activism, seen in the context of a mass organisation of devoted republicans, helps to challenge a historiographical stereotype that Weimar democracy lacked substantial support.
Karl Mayr was born in 1883 in the town of Mindelheim in Bavarian Swabia and raised in the comfortable and respectable environment of a Catholic middle-class family. After gaining the secondary school diploma in 1901, he joined the Bavarian army as a career officer. Rising through the ranks, Mayr had advanced to lieutenant by 1911. When war broke out in 1914 he was seconded to the nascent Bavarian air force but returned to service in an infantry regiment in 1915 and was promoted to captain the same year. From September 1916 to January 1918 Mayr served as a general staff officer with the Bavarian Alpine Corps. At his own request he returned to front-line duty for the final months of the war, including a brief stint with the army of the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s troubled ally. By the time he took a brief leave of absence in February 1919 Mayr was a highly decorated army officer, having been awarded not only the Iron Cross first and second class, but also distinguished Bavarian, Prussian and Turkish military decorations. There is no evidence of his political opinions up to this point, but in April 1919, when Communists seized power and turned Munich and parts of southern Bavaria into a socialist council republic, Mayr did not hesitate to join the ranks of an improvised defence unit that helped to combat the revolutionaries from within. Even before he rejoined the army in May 1919, as head of the propaganda department in Munich, his anti-Bolshevism was deeply felt and sincere.
In his new role in the intelligence department Mayr was embedded in the flourishing scene of anti-Bolshevist, antisemitic and separatist groups and splinter parties that sprang up in Bavaria, turning it into the self-declared ‘cell of order’ against revolutionary upheaval. One of the key contacts of the anti-republican right in the Reichswehr, Mayr was also involved in preparations for the Kapp Putsch in March 1920, when parts of the military, former Freikorps fighters and radical nationalists tried to overthrow the Reich government. Collective working-class action in a general strike thwarted that attempt. But in Bavaria the coup forced the minority cabinet of social democrat prime minister Johannes Hoffmann to resign. Writing in September 1920 to Wolfgang Kapp, the eponymous leader of the putsch, Mayr boasted about his active role in the events of the previous March and reported on the ‘nationalist worker’s party’ he was supporting to strengthen national renewal. However by this date he had already left the army.
Mayr had withdrawn from the Reichswehr at his own request in July 1920, having attained the rank of major and a full pension entitlement. The most probable reason was his opposition to separatist plans to break Bavaria away from the Reich. These were discussed in circles of the Catholic-conservative Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), which governed the state following the resignation of Hoffmann. The same month Mayr published documents about the separatist leanings in the BVP, a step that offended army colleagues, a number of whom were involved, and made his position in the army increasingly untenable. In the following months, Mayr tried to gain influence in the Nazi Party, which he himself had helped to nurture. As he later confided to comrades in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), he hoped in 1921 that the NSDAP could function as an equivalent to the short-lived Nationalsozialer Verein (1896-1903). In this party the Protestant politician Friedrich Naumann, one of the most prominent social liberals of late imperial Germany, had tried to offer a moderate alternative to socialism, which reconciled national liberalism with attempts to better the condition of the working class. But these hopes were disappointed and Mayr left the NSDAP in March 1921.
For Mayr’s subsequent turn to democratic politics two relationships were of decisive importance. In April 1922 he contacted Professor Hans Delbrück, the liberal-conservative doyen of German military history. Sending him a manuscript on Erich Ludendorff’s role as head of the Army Supreme Command, Mayr flagged up his interest in a fundamental critique of German wartime strategy. Delbrück was sympathetic, as he had his own doubts about the hyperbolic aims of the German military in the Great War. Over the coming years Mayr was a regular guest to his ‘Wednesday evening’ circle in Berlin, in which the liberal-conservative intellectual elite of the capital exchanged ideas. Delbrück supported a plan to find a position for Mayr at the Reichsarchiv in Potsdam, which held the records of the German army, but to no avail. There was no place for the maverick ex-major in an institution that was closely affiliated with the Reichswehr and keen to put a positive spin on the German war effort. Writing to Delbrück in April 1923 Mayr still described himself as a ‘republican of reason’, as someone who accepted the Weimar Republic more out of convenience than out of conviction. At this point his political transformation was not yet fully complete.
Mayr’s other contact was much more decisive in his move to the moderate republican left. In the autumn of 1921 he had approached Erhard Auer, the equally erratic and energetic head of the Bavarian Social Democratic Party. Over the following months Mayr supplied Auer with confidential documents on the separatist activities within the governing BVP and on its high-level contacts to Bavarian aristocrats, the police in Munich and to Reichswehr officers. Auer published some of these documents in the Social Democrat newspaper Münchener Post. The public revelation of Mayr’s intimate knowledge of the radical right brought him closer to the SPD. As he later described it, he had tried to ‘accustom himself to the social democrat movement’ in a gradual process. He joined the party formally in 1924.
However Mayr found his most important political home in another affiliate organisation of the SPD formed the same year, the Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold. He had already joined one of the many local precursors of this, the ‘security section’ of the Munich SPD, founded in November 1921. Also known as the ‘Auer Guard’, this self-defence formation protected social democratic gatherings in the Bavarian capital under the motto ‘No power to despotism, all power to the law, all justice to the people’. When leading SPD politicians in the Prussian city of Magdeburg established the Reichsbanner in February 1924, it provided a nationwide framework for initiatives such as the Auer Guard.
On paper the Reichsbanner was meant to transcend party divisions. It was a joint endeavour of social democrats, members of the left-liberal DDP and of the Catholic Centre Party, thus reflecting the pro-republican consensus of the Weimar coalition that had governed the new state until 1920. But the presence of prominent left-leaning Catholics and Liberals on the non-executive board of the league was a mere smoke screen. At the grassroots level the notion of a cross-party coalition was a façade, even though it was real enough to trigger constant criticism from the radical left within the SPD. In 1924 85 per cent of the Reichsbanner members were social democrats and this proportion increased even further to 90 per cent over the next couple of years. As a police report in May 1932 concluded, the Reichsbanner was an ‘almost purely SPD-organisation’, closely affiliated at the local level with other socialist associations such as the Freethinkers – who preferred cremation instead of a Christian burial – or the Socialist Choral Movement. The founding of the Reichsbanner was one of the eminent though often forgotten organisational success stories of the Weimar period. It quickly attracted just under a million members, outnumbering the most important radical nationalist combat leagues, the Stahlhelm or Steel Helmet, also founded in Magdeburg in late 1918, and the Young Teutonic Order or Jungdo.
The Reichsbanner held two main aims: to defend the Weimar Republic and the colours of its flag and, secondly, as its by-laws stated, to integrate all ‘ex-servicemen of the World War and of men with military training who support the republican constitution without reservation’. As its sub-heading indicated, it was a ‘League of Republican Ex-Servicemen’. With the founding of the Reichsbanner the republican camp was clearly energised, after the disappointment of the preceding attacks against the constitution, from the Kapp Putsch in 1920 to Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. A caricature in the SPD newspaper Vorwärts encapsulated the optimistic mood among social democrats. It shows two Nazi party members about to sabotage a train-line with explosives. In the background, a train with a steam locomotive labelled ‘Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold’ approaches at high speed, forcing the two to contemplate with resignation whether ‘we might blow up ourselves here’.
The majority of the Reichsbanner rank-and-file were working-class men who mainly sought a forum for the exchange of their war remembrances. Karl Mayr was by no means the only former officer of the imperial army to join the organisation. From the start it comprised a number of high-profile officers who had abandoned their military careers in order to support pacifism and republicanism. This group included the former general Paul Freiherr von Schoenaich (1866-1954), also a prominent member of the German Peace Society (DFG), and the former general Berthold von Deimling (1853-1944). Deimling was infamous for his role in the Zabern affair in 1913, which had laid bare the utter disregard of the German military for the civilians in the occupied province of Alsace-Lorraine. Mayr, von Schoenaich, von Deimling and other high-ranking ex-officers brought to the Reichsbanner the symbolic capital of their former military service. When they spoke in public about the disastrous consequences of the German military strategy during the war, or exposed the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend as a right-wing falsification of history, they were lending their undoubtable professional authority to the republican camp. What they gained in the Reichsbanner was not only the company of like-minded ex-servicemen, but also an appropriate forum for their newly acquired views in favour of disarmament and international reconciliation.
During the first years of his engagament in the Reichsbanner, Mayr’s sphere of activities centred in and around Munich, giving speeches to local branches and writing articles for the Münchener Post and Das Reichsbanner, the weekly organ of the group. But his remit broadened as he became closer to Karl Höltermann, the deputy-head of the Reichsbanner, who trusted him personally and was keen to employ his military expertise for the league. For a long time it was mooted that Mayr should be made Höltermann’s deputy as editor-in-chief of Das Reichsbanner, a position he finally took up in late 1928. Mayr rented a flat in Magdeburg to be close to the league headquarters. He soon clashed in his new role with Franz Osterroth, who had previously been acting deputy editor of the journal. Coming from the Jungsozialisten, the leftist youth organisation of the SPD, Osterroth simply could not bear Mayr’s ‘glowing hatred against Soviet Russia’. Anti-Bolshevism was indeed one of the most persistent elements in Mayr’s political worldview since his days as a counter-revolutionary army officer in Munich. The freedom to express these views was certainly an important element in Mayr feeling at ease as a social democrat.
Neither was Mayr a supporter of radical pacifism, which some Reichsbanner members condoned, while the overwhelming majority favoured a more moderate pacifism that acknowledged the role of the military for national self-defence. In a letter to Hans Delbrück Mayr opined that ‘for the pacifist mentality, any fact-based critique of military affairs must already logically appear to be a sin against the spirit; from this mindset only those homicidal maniacs do profit who have devastated the German army and who have lost the war’. Such a ‘fact-based critique’ of the imperial army was one of his most consistent contributions to the cause of the republican veterans’ league.
In Das Reichsbanner Mayr published a constant stream of articles that criticised the lack of any political control of the Wilhelmine military, laid bare some of the most crucial strategic blunders of the army supreme command under Hindenburg and Ludendorff and criticised the ‘stab-in-the-back’ story as a deliberate myth, perpetrated by the former military top brass to distract from its own mistakes. The upshot of all these trenchant criticisms, though, was a crucial political point. Along with all other Reichsbanner members Mayr was convinced that the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic was a corollary of the military collapse of the monarchical system in the autumn of 1918. These events, the ‘most hideous bankruptcy in German and European history’, as Mayr put it in 1929, provided the democratic citizenship of its working-class rank and file with a common cause articulated by the Reichsbanner.
However radical pacifists on the left of the SPD were not convinced of the sincerity of Mayr’s republican commitment. Fritz Küster, for example, who gained influence in the German Peace Society (DFG) from the mid-1920s, tried to dig up dirt against Mayr in repeated libel trials and accused him of being an old-fashioned militarist. War veterans in the former Allied countries, however, held him in much higher regard. Since 1927 the Reichsbanner had observer status at the Conférence Internationale des Associations de Mutilés et Anciens Combattants (CIAMAC), an international umbrella organisation of veterans’ leagues that comprised 24 associations from ten European countries, including the UK. But the Reichsbanner also established direct links to French veterans’ associations, to the left-leaning Union fédérale, founded by René Cassin, and the much smaller, pacifist Fédération nationale, in particular. From the late 1920s, leading representatives of these French leagues, including Cassin and André Liautey, a member of the CIAMAC executive and head of its French committee, regularly appeared at Reichsbanner gatherings. In return functionaries of the German republican league travelled to France. Mayr was the driving force behind these links and their main representative. He was ultimately recognised for these efforts with honorary membership of the Fédération nationale.
In Mayr’s view reconcilitation between France and Germany could serve as the springboard for a broader integration of the European nations and should ultimately lead to a ‘European defence community’. Reconciliation with France and attempts to foster bonds between the former members of the belligerent armies was a constant emphasis in his work.
During the final years of the republic Mayr stepped up the pace of his political activism, constantly speaking, writing and travelling on behalf of the Reichsbanner. He also intensified his agitation against the Nazi Party. Immediately after the Nazi electoral breakthrough in the Reichstag elections on September 14th 1930, Mayr tried to uplift the mood in the republican camp. In a series of well-attended public appearances under the motto ‘Adolf Hitler lying in prone position’, peppered with revealing anecdotes about his former military subordinate, Mayr ridiculed the self-proclaimed Führer. His performance clearly boosted the depressed Reichsbanner members. When the Nazis came to power in January 1933 friends with contacts to the Nazi Party advised Mayr to leave the country immediately. He followed their advice and fled to France where he settled in a suburb of Paris, most probably earning money with language tuition. In the wake of the German invasion of France in May 1940 he was first interned in southern France and brought back to Germany in July. Here he was held in the infamous prison cells in the basement of the SS-Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office) in Berlin, from where he was taken to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.
In the spring of 1943 Mayr was transferred to Buchenwald. Social democrats speculated in postwar testimony whether this transfer might have been the result of a Communist intrigue, orchestrated by the battle-hardened Communist functionary Harry Naujoks, who led the self-administration of the camp inmates in Sachsenhausen and reported directly to the camp commander. That was at least the opinion of Walter Hammer, a pseudonym for Walter Hösterey (1888-1966), a radical pacifist SPD member, author and publisher. In postwar Germany, Hammer gathered an extensive historical archive on members of the German resistance movement against Hitler. Hammer knew Mayr quite well from his service on the non-executive board of the Reichsbanner and was detained with him first in Berlin in September 1940 and a year later in Sachsenhausen. Hammer considered the ‘little white man’ Mayr – who had gone grey at an early stage – his friend. From April 1943 until his death on February 9th, 1945, during an Allied bombing raid, Mayr worked in the Gustloff works in Weimar, a factory run by the SS that exploited the labour of inmates of Buchenwald. When on one occasion a group of Wehrmacht officers and generals visited the factory some of them clicked their heels in front of Mayr, whom they instantly recognised as their former superior in the imperial army.
This was one of the final twists in the dissonant life of Karl Mayr. The former general staff officer had moved a long way from kickstarting the career of a brutal dictator to dying at the hands of the bailiffs of the murderous regime over which that dictator presided. Postwar historians were not always sure how sincere Mayr’s political turn to social democracy actually was. Like contemporary Communists and some radical pacifists, who accused Mayr of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, they were troubled and sometimes irritated by the fact that he kept up close communication links with personal acquaintances in the right-wing camp.
Indeed Mayr even had informants in the ‘Braunes Haus’, the Nazi party headquarter in Munich, and used some of the information he obtained from them for his articles in Das Reichsbanner. Even those Social Democrats who knew Mayr well through long-term collaboration confirmed that he retained the ‘habit of a professional soldier’, more so than that of an ‘intelligence officer’ and that he was ‘very close, very reticent’. That was the opinion of Franz Osterroth. Yet Osterroth, who had worked on a daily basis with Mayr from 1928 to early 1933, also insisted that his activism in the SPD and the Reichsbanner was based on ‘inner conviction’ and that his fight against National Socialism was genuinely ‘passionate’. In postwar exchanges Walter Hammer also testified for Mayr’s personal and political integrity.
Along with all the other former officers who had joined the republican camp and the Reichsbanner, Mayr had to endure the ostracism of his former ‘comrades’, who expelled everyone who dared to criticise the German military and its conduct during the Great War. In 1925 Mayr was formally excluded from the officers’ association of the 1st Bavarian Infantry-Regiment in which he had served. The esprit de corps of the German military did not tolerate critical individuals. Even while he retained some habits of his original profession Mayr had quite deliberately rejected those bonds of mutual obligation that had held the imperial army together. The crucial turning point in his life, however, was his decision to join the Reichsbanner, that citizen’s army of devoted republicans who had vowed to defend the Weimar state against its enemies. Like many other Reichsbanner functionaries, Mayr paid a high price for this form of civic activism and, as for most Reichsbanner members, this activism was based on his conviction that the defeat in 1918 had laid bare the dysfunctional power structures of the late Wilhelmine state.
Benjamin Ziemann is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Contested Commemorations: Republican War Veterans and Weimar Political Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2013).