by Karl-Christian Gerbaulet

The Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten (Steel Helmet, League of Front Soldiers) was founded by Captain Franz Seldte (a Western front veteran who had lost an arm in the Battle of the Somme), his brothers Eugen and Georg, and a dozen comrades of I.R. 66 on 25th of December, 1918. The event took place in a laboratory room of Seldte’s mineral water factory in Magdeburg/Saxony-Anhalt.

The protocol of that first meeting names the organization’s original two major objectives: promoting
1) the spirit of comradeship and supporting the economic demands of the returning soldiers in neglect of social differences and party loyalties
[„die Kameraden der Front auch in der Heimat zusammenzuschließen und die im Felde geübte treue Kameradschaft weiterzupflegen“ ]
[„die gegenseitige Unterstützung ohne Rücksicht auf Standes-, Klassen- und Parteiunterschiede“]
2) law and order (in the days of revolution).
[„trotz der durch den 9. November geschaffenen Lage für Ruhe und Ordnung im Lande zu sorgen“]

Though the Stahlhelm was opposed to the revolution, it wasn’t (at least initially) an anti-republican or racist organization; membership was open to Social Democrats and Jews, the only membership requirement being six months of front line service.  Stahlhelm spokesman ret. Sgt.Maj. [Feldwebel a.D] Dipl. Ing. Stahl declared on January 6th 1919, the organization would “stand on the basis of the republic.”[“steht auf dem Boden der Republik”].  In fact, the Stahlhelm did not have a political programme yet.

Rise of paramilitary forces in Germany

The founding of the Stahlhelm wasn’t an isolated or unique action, but resembled the patterns of a time marked by internal conflict, and civil war.  Former officers (and sometimes ranks) founded Freikorps, volunteer forces, and civil guards in various cities across Germany to compensate for the absence of state power (Oberland, Wiking, Jungdeutscher Orden, Reichsflagge, Olympia, Wehrwolf, and Eschenbach to name a few).  These organizations revealed a set of common characteristics: Initially they focused on securing law and order, quelling local or regional uprisings of left-extremists, and protecting Germany’s eastern frontiers – tasks the small German army and police force could not handle alone.  The appearance of these organizations was similar, as well.  Paramilitary habits, military drilling, and the military principles of leadership and subordination combined with an extensive use of: uniforms, flags, and marching bands,

When these internal and external threats became less imminent in the early 1920s, many of these organizations transformed into Kampfbünde (Combat Leagues), the majority of them pursuing a far-right and anti-republican agenda.

The Stahlhelm, however, differed in two ways: the comparatively moderate political alignment, and the impressive number of members it was able to recruit.

From 15 to 500.000 members

While the original Stahlhelm group in Magdeburg had grown considerably, a second Stahlhelm group was founded in the city of Halle/Saale in August 1919..  Soon others followed in Northern Germany.  In September 1919 – the Stahlhelm numbered 2,000 members that time – a national umbrella organization was established, Seldte becoming it’s leader.  The early 1920s saw an extremely quick growth of the Stahlhelm.  In March 1920 there were 30 local groups.  By June 1921 this had risen to 63 and in December to 300.  In June 1922, the Stahlhelm claimed 500 groups organized in 16 Gaue (districts) in Northern Germany.

The same month a severe setback stroke the Stahlhelm.  The German minister of foreign affairs, Walther Rathenau, had been assassinated by former officers of the radical Organisation Consul.  The murder worried political Germany from the left to the moderate right greatly, several hundred thousands people gathered for (occasionally) violent protests.  In the Reichstag (national parliament), Chancellor Wirth (Centre Party) declared: “the enemy is standing to the right.”  [“Der Feind steht rechts”] The Stahlhelm leadership hurried to issue a condemnation of Rathenau’s murder, but to no avail.  Along with several other organizations, the Stahlhelm was prohibited on order of the Prussian minister of the interior, Severing (SPD) in early August.  The ban on the Stahlhelm, lifted after some eight months, could not stop the latter’s expansion.  In spring 1923 the Stahlhelm numbered 1,200 local groups already and continued to grow.

Nonetheless the Stahlhelm faced two major obstacles to the recruitment of new members:  the first was the lack of a youths organization.  After unsuccessful attempts to cooperate with independent youths organizations, Jungstahlhelm units were founded since October 1923.  This paved the way for the process of transformation of the former front line soldier’s organization to a political Combat League, which was completed by loosening membership requirements in 1926.  The number of Stahlhelm members grew to almost 500.000 that year.  But still: The Stahlhelm’s leadership consisted of older, more established men (most of them former high ranking officers), the League therefore displaying a quite bourgeois-conservative character.  The political formulations were ambitious, but quite low in ideological content and consistency.  It was filled with compromises due to the large number of members, and rather of a restorative than revolutionary character.  This tendency somewhat limited the Stahlhelm’s attractiveness to youths.

The second problem was a conflict with the Catholic Church.  The Stahlhelm, having it’s strongholds in Northern- and North-Eastern Germany, was dominated by Protestants and had some members of Protestant splinter groups in its ranks who preached a new “Combat of Cultures” (Kulturkampf) against the Catholic Church, which they accused of “internationalism”, “ultramontanism”, and “Jesuitism”.  Ideological differences and the competition in the field of youth organizations added to that trouble spot, resulting in a general verdict by the German bishops (synods of Fulda 1924 and 1925) against national combat leagues which seriously hampered Stahlhelm expansion to the Rhineland and the Catholic regions of Southern Germany.

These problems and the competition of other nationalist and right-wing organizations, and parties prevented the Stahlhelm membership figure to rise beyond half a million.

The Stahlhelm moves to the right

The process of radicalization of the Stahlhelm began in 1919 already.  Certainly, this was partially due to the general state of the German society that time: the lost war, embarrassment about the Treaty of Versailles, civil war, and a disastrous economical situation created an atmosphere in which extremists prospered.  Moreover, much of the Stahlhelm’s early growth had been made possible by the absorption of prohibited right-extreme Combat Leagues (such as the Orgesch) and Freikorps.  Also, the self-understanding of the Stahlhelm, which now began to promote a third major aim, the demand that veterans should be given a leading role in the state, seemed increasingly incompatible with the Weimar order.  Many veterans considered themselves the nation’s elite, whose (past) efforts and sacrifices for society gave them a special legitimation to assume the leading role they demanded.  Democracy, however, is based on equal rights.  The paramilitary mentality contradicted to a civilian republic, as well.

The Halle/Saale Stahlhelm group, headed by Theodor Duesterberg, proved to be the nucleus of radical-völkisch tendencies within the organization.  Duesterberg, promoting anti-Semitic ideas at least since 1921, soon became the most prominent figure of the Stahlhelm’s radical elements.  Seldte, rather moderate but always opportunistic (“in politics one must even choke down a toilet brush” – “in der Politik muss man manchmal selbst eine Klobürste hinunterwürgen”) tried to preserve a certain political neutrality.  In 1924 Duesterberg challenged Seldte for control of the Stahlhelm, but Seldte and the old Magdeburg leadership won the internal struggle for power.  For now, the Stahlhelm’s official line remained national-conservative, but not anti-republican.

Exercising political influence

In the mid 1920s, the Stahlhelm became a (moderately) powerful political force.  It numbered almost half a million members, and published its own newspaper (Der Stahlhelm) and a magazine (Die Standarte), which opened it’s pages to prominent ideologues of war experience such as F.W. Heinz and the Jünger bros.  Following the slogan “Into the state!” more than 100 of it’s members sat as deputies in the Prussian Landtag (Prussian state parliament), and the Reichstag (national parliament), most of the as members of the DNVP (German-National People’s party), and DVP (German People’s Party).

In fact the Stahlhelm sustained good connections to these two parties.  The DVP, a national-liberal party, surely represented a cornerstone of the Weimar democracy under Gustav Stresemann’s leadership.  The DNVP, though monarchist-authoritarian, had adjusted herself to democracy at that point of time and cooperated within in the system.  During election campaigns, however, the Stahlhelm did not support certain parties but the candidates from its ranks equally in neglect of their party memberships.  Thereby the Stahlhelm could preserve it’s self-understanding as an all-party (überparteiliche) organization.

The process of radicalization continues

A sharp assessment of the mid-1920s true political self of the Stahlhelm seems complex and difficult.  The organization’s official statements remained moderate, but internally the situation was quite different.  A good deal of local leaders and “ordinary” members surely stood no longer on the basis of the republic.  The Weimar Republic experienced the most stable phase in it’s short-lived existence, but an apparently growing part of Stahlhelm members rejected democracy as a whole.  Two Stahlhelm press quotes, deliberately chosen but somewhat representative, may shed some light on the true extent the radicalization within the Stahlhelm had already reached:

Ernst Jünger wrote in the Stahlhelm magazine die Standarte: “The day the parliamentarian state will collapse under our clutches, and we will proclaim a national dictatorship, will be our most sacred holiday.” (Standarte, Jg. 1925, H. 8) [„Der Tag, an dem der parlamentarische Staat unter unserem Zugriff zusammenstürzt und wir die nationale Diktatur ausrufen, wird unser höchster Festtag sein.“]  And an article published in Der Stahlhelm reads: “We tell our aims with an equally honest and brutal frankness, and these aims are highly dangerous for the jewish-democratic-marxist rabble, indeed.  We want nothing less than they already possess, that is to say the power in the state.” (DS, No. 21, 5/23/26)

[„Wir sagen unsere Ziele mit ebenso ehrlicher wie brutaler Offenheit, und diese Ziele sind in der Tat für das jüdische-demokratische-marxistische Gesöls höchst gefährlich.  Wir wollen nichts weniger als das, was jene jetzt besitzen, nämlich die Macht im Staate.“]

This radical rhetoric culminated in a public speech held by the regional leader of Brandenburg (Landesverbandsführer), Erhard von Morozowicz, in Fürstenwalde on September 1, 1928 – exactly eleven years before Germany invaded Poland – better known as the Fürstenwalde Hate Declaration (Fürstenwalder Haßerklärung):“We hate this concept of the state because it denies us the prospect of liberating our enslaved fatherland, and the German people of the made-up war guilt, winning new Lebensraum in the east, and to make the German people free again (…)”

[“Wir hassen diesen Staatsaufbau, weil er uns die Aussicht verstellt, unser geknechtetes Vaterland zu befreien und das deutsche Volk von der erlogenen Kriegsschuld zu befreien, den notwendigen Lebensraum im Osten zu gewinnen, das deutsche Volke wieder frei zu machen...”]

Stresemann, chairman of the DVP, minister of foreign affairs, and Nobel peace price laureate, realized that future cooperation with the Stahlhelm was futile and impossible.  A month later, the DVP’s Reichstag delegation declared that membership within the Stahlhelm would be no longer compatible with membership in the delegation.  Quickly, the DVP loosened ties to the Stahlhelm.  This development proved crucial for the Stahlhelm, which now became increasingly dependent on the DNVP.

The Stahlhelm in the “national opposition”

Meanwhile, the press magnate Alfred Hugenberg had been elected chairman of the DNVP.  His aim was to transform the DNVP from a socially heterogeneous reservoir of (Protestant) Christian, national-conservative attitudes into a strong bloc of fundamental “national opposition”.  The first step taken to this goal was the creation of the National Committee for the German Referendum against the Young Plan [Reichsausschuß für das deutsche Volksbegehren gegen den Young-Plan], which should include all major parties and organizations of the far right.  Seldte, though willing to rally against the Young-Plan, preferred an independent campaign, but Hugenberg outmaneuvered him, and the Stahlhelm eventually became a firm member of “National Opposition”, closely attached to the DNVP.  Seldte had difficulties controlling his organization, and increasingly lost much of his political independence.  As the DNVP cooperated with the (still small) NSDAP against the Young Plan, so did the Stahlhelm.

The referendum, however, failed, and Hugenberg was far from reaching his goal.  Hugenberg’s new project was the creation of the Harzburger Front, an alliance of DNVP, NSDAP, and Stahlhelm.  On October 11, 1931 they held a mass rally in Bad Harzburg which should mark the starting shot of a major offensive to oust the Brüning government from power.  However, ways parted again when the DNVP refused to support Hitler in running for the presidency in 1932.

The Third Reich and the Stahlhelm’s end

It was not until January 1933 when finally Franz von Papen forged a DNVP/NSDAP coalition that took over power on January 30, being installed as the Cabinet Hitler.  The Stahlhelm was integrated into this coalition, Seldte being named Labour Minister.

Though the Stahlhelm’s leader now held a most influential position, it quickly turned out that the organization was in fact facing the most miserable situation ever.  As Hitler overpowered his conservative would-be masters and initiated the process of the Gleichschaltung, soon the SA’s right wing paramilitary rivals were targeted, too. The Wehrwolf was absorbed into the SA, it’s leader Fritz Kloppe being made SA-Standartenführer. The Jungdeutscher Orden, which continued to criticize the Nazis, was prohibited and dissolved. The situation of the Stahlhelm seemed much better because of its size and its leaders position as a member in Hitler’s cabinet.  Once the other Combat Leagues had been eliminated, increasing pressure was put on Seldte, who joined the NSDAP in late April.  His situation did not improve, and Seldte subsequently offered to resign, but Hitler rejected the offer.  Seldte was made SA-Obergruppenführer in August. Three months later the Stahlhelm was subordinated to the SA, and – after two years of a miserable shadow existence – formally dissolved in 1935.