One Man Fought for Germany in 4 Wars on 3 Continents and Helped Create the Nazi Party
One Man Fought for Germany in 4 Wars on 3 Continents and Helped Create the Nazi Party

One Man Fought for Germany in 4 Wars on 3 Continents and Helped Create the Nazi Party

Kurt Christopher - July 26, 2017

During the first half of the twentieth century, three generations of Germans fought to expand the German Empire in the colonial wars in Africa and in the subsequent First and Second World Wars. One man spanned all three of these generations, earning him the unfortunate and unique distinction of having helped to write the three darkest chapters of German history. He was Franz Ritter von Epp, the child of German colonialism who became the stepfather of the Nazi movement.

Franz Ritter von Epp was born in Munich in 1868 during the wars of German unification and would remain Bavarian through and through for the remainder of his life. When he came of age he entered a military academy in Munich, taking a commission as a lieutenant in the Ninth Bavarian Infantry Regiment after graduation. His regiment would first see combat in 1901 as part of an eight-nation coalition created to crush the anti-colonial Boxer Rebellion in China.

Epp took part in a battle near the Great Wall in which German forces tried and failed to encircle Chinese rebels. The rebels escaped, but Epp’s regiment managed to kill two hundred of them. While in China he would also lead a company charged with locating two missing German soldiers. When they found the soldiers’ weapons in the well of a nearby village Epp had the village burned to the ground. Epp would return to Germany hardened by his experience but unshaken in his commitment to the advancement of the German position in the world.

In 1904 Epp saw action on another distant continent, this time in German southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia). There he served as a line officer under another veteran of the Boxer Rebellion, Lothar von Trotha. Trotha had been charged by legendary German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen with suppressing an uprising by the Herero people again German rule. At the Battle of Waterberg Epp assisted Trotha in executing a reenactment of the encirclement maneuver they had attempted in China. Once again it failed, and the Herero broke free, but the only route of escape available to the Herero was into the barren Sandveld desert.

One Man Fought for Germany in 4 Wars on 3 Continents and Helped Create the Nazi Party
Survivors of the Herero Genocide (africareview.com)

After the inconclusive Battle of Waterberg, the German colonial forces would change tactics. Rather than attempting to confront the Herero in a decisive battle, they focused upon denying the Herero an opportunity to break out of the desert so that they would eventually succumb to starvation or dehydration. Initially, when patrols encountered a band of Herero they would shoot the men and drive the women and children into the Sandveld. Later the Germans would establish a concentration camp at Shark Island where captured Herero were worked to death. The result of these genocidal policies was the death of three-quarters of the Herero people.

 

One Man Fought for Germany in 4 Wars on 3 Continents and Helped Create the Nazi Party
Freikorp Epp entering Munich. irishbrigade.eu

Having completed his colonial career, Epp left the bloody sands of German southwest Africa in 1906, taking a position leading a company of the Royal Bavarian King’s Bodyguard Regiment. In the coming years, he rose within the regiment, becoming its commander in 1914 as Europe plunged into war. During the First World War Epp proved to be a capable commander, leading his men with distinction on the Western Front and in the Balkans. For his service, he would receive the Pour le Merite, Germany’s highest award for valor at the time, as well as a knighthood which conferred upon him the title “Ritter von.”

Epp returned from the First World War to find his homeland gripped by revolution. In Bavaria a coalition of socialist parties under the leadership of Kurt Eisner had declared independence from Berlin and maintained a tenuous hold on the government, but the assassination of Eisner in February 1919 threw the situation into chaos. The newly established German Communist Party then attempted to exploit the situation, calling a general strike and seizing key positions in Munich. Having secured the country, on April 14, 1919, they declared the establishment of the Bavarian Soviet Republic.

In order to suppress the communist revolution in Bavaria the German President Friedrich Ebert turned to the Freikorps, paramilitary organizations made up of disaffected German veterans. Because Epp’s exemplary service in the First World War had earned him something of a following he was able to raise a Freikorps of his own to answer Ebert’s call. Amongst the new recruits of Freikorps Epp were Ernst Röhm, the future leader of the SA, and Rudolf Hess, who would later act as Hitler’s deputy.

Freikorps Epp burst into Munich on May 1, 1919, and in the course of two days of fighting they defeated the Bavarian Red Guard. Having eliminated active resistance, Epp proceeded to apply practices that he had developed in the colonies. Men found carrying weapons were shot out of hand, and some six hundred people affiliated with the short-lived communist regime were arrested and executed. Having crushed the Bavarian Soviet Republic, Epp personally assumed the position of military dictator over the country. It was in this capacity that he would make the acquaintance of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler was in Munich as a member of the 2nd Infantry Regiment in the spring of 1919 and witnessed the revolution there firsthand. His unit had participated in the Munich Soldiers’ Soviet, and Hitler himself had garnered the second-highest number of votes in an election for Battalion Representative to the Soviet. Hitler’s supporters in this election, however, were primarily other soldiers who opposed the creation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic and saw him as a counterrevolutionary. As a consequence of this position, once Epp had taken control of Bavaria he hired Hitler as an informer, charged with rooting out communists in the military.

It was in his role as an investigator that Hitler would come into contact with the German Workers’ Party, an organization that he would one day lead after it changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or Nazi Party. Epp, too, would join the German Workers’ Party while it was still in its infancy and in time would become a committed follower of Hitler and a prominent face of the Party. In 1928 the Nazis won twelve seats in the five-hundred seat Reichstag, and Epp would take one of them.

One Man Fought for Germany in 4 Wars on 3 Continents and Helped Create the Nazi Party
The Nazi elite in 1930. Epp stands to Hitler’s left. Tumblr

In the coming years, the Nazi share of the vote in Germany expanded steadily, positioning Hitler to be appointed Chancellor and leading to his seizure of power. Once in power, Hitler rewarded Epp for his contribution to the development of the Party by naming him Governor of Bavaria. In his capacity as Governor, he oversaw the creation of the Dachau concentration camp. He also had the power to select the heads of the Munich police as well as the Munich political police. He chose Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich respectively for these jobs.

Owing to his high profile and his service in the colonies, Epp took on additional responsibility in 1936 as the leader of the Reich Colonial League. Though the Reich Colonial League’s initial mission was to encourage the reacquisition of German colonies in Africa, it would be repurposed once the Second World War began. Hitler’s vision for the East bore the imprint of Germany’s colonial past. The conception of Lebensraum, or living space, that he had laid out in Mein Kampf imagined that the East might be colonized by clearing of its peoples and filling up with German settlers.

Shortly before Germany invaded the Soviet Union the German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels contacted Epp, instructing him to alter the mission of the Reich Colonial League. Instead of pushing for the return of German colonies in Africa, the League was to focus its efforts on the East. He was also to comb through the League’s membership in search of volunteers who were willing to make the trek east to establish new German settlements in former Soviet territory. After the invasion recruits from the League would follow on the heels of the German Wehrmacht to make their claims.

The turning point in the East came with the Battle of Stalingrad. Following the German defeat there the Nazi regime abandoned its project for creating a “New Order” in the conquered territories. Settlement activity stopped, Goebbels instructed his Propaganda Ministry to cease its discussion of colonization, and the Reich Colonial League was disbanded. Epp fell out of favor and, while he remained Governor of Bavaria, he had little remaining influence. In the final month of the war, Epp was arrested for suspected affiliation with an anti-Nazi Bavarian separatist movement.

Epp’s lose association with a resistance movement may well have cost him his life had the war not come to an end shortly after his arrest. As a consequence of the stress of the German collapse and his incarceration, Epp began experiencing heart problems and was hospitalized after the Allies arrived. He was identified in the hospital, and shortly thereafter was taken into American custody in Munich. Epp was scheduled to stand trial at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity, but he died in his cell before facing justice.

 

Sources For Further Reading:

South African History Online – Beginning of the Waterberg Battle in the Herero Revolt

Encyclopedia – General Lothar Von Trotha Extermination Order Against The Herero

The Economist – What Germany owes Namibia

South African History Online – German Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha lands in Swakopmund, Southwest Africa

Spiegel International – General’s Descendants Apologize for ‘Germany’s First Genocide’

Times Of Israeli – In Germany’s Extermination Program For Black Africans, A Template For The Holocaust

BBC News Africa – African Viewpoint: Remembering German Crimes In Namibia

National Public Radio – Why The Herero Of Namibia Are Suing Germany For Reparations

BBC News – Germany Returns Skulls Of Namibian Genocide Victims

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