State of Emergency in Barmen
Michael Okroy M.A. / General Literary Studies
Photo: UniService Transfer

State of Emergency in Barmen

The literary and social scientist Michael Okroy on the temporary occupation of Barmen by a French army unit.

The political-military conflict over the fulfillment of Allied reparation demands after World War I led to the so-called Ruhr occupation in 1923. How did this come about?

Okroy: Following the loss of World War I, Germany had been imposed by the victorious Allied powers with the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919/20) to pay harsh reparations that were perceived as unjust. For the democratic Weimar Republic, which had emerged from a revolution, this meant a heavy burden from the outset. The numerous enemies and opponents of the republic, especially völkisch-national forces, took advantage of this to launch hate-filled attacks on the parliamentary system and its political representatives. When a small backlog of reparations to France was discovered in early 1923, this provided the occasion for the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian military units. The French government under Prime Minister Poincaré, however, insisted on complete fulfillment of the reparations for economic and security reasons. The extent of the reparations was enormous. In 1922, for example, Germany had to deliver 45,000 tons of coal and coke to France as compensation - per day.

How did the Allies proceed?

Okroy: On January 11, 1923, five French and Belgian divisions with about 60,000 men moved into the Ruhr area between Duisburg and Dortmund and - in a north-south direction - Dorsten and Hattingen. The military administration declared an immediate state of emergency and disbanded the Prussian protective police. Among other things, they occupied town halls and school buildings and probably also expected - as in Essen-Bredeney, for example - to be received officially and publicly at the town hall portal as "guests" - and not just coolly and distantly in the office of the head of the town. A central operational goal of the occupiers was cooperation with the German Reichsbahn. It was to transport impounded coal to France. When the latter refused through passive resistance, the French military administration took over the railroad operations on its own. Chaotic traffic conditions, accidents, staff shortages and repression against striking Reichsbahn employees and their families were the result.

Incidentally, the occupying forces also included numerous soldiers from the African colonies of the victorious powers, France and Belgium. These men were not infrequently subjected to open racism on the part of the German population and dire suspicions: a breeding ground for the campaign against the "Black Disgrace" organized at that time in the course of the Allied "occupation of the Rhineland"...

There is a view in historical research that the French Premier Poincaré was not only concerned at that time with the payment of reparations, but also with a special position of, among other things, the Ruhr region under French influence. Can you prove that?

Okroy: Raymond Poincaré, who also headed the Allied Reparations Commission for a time, was considered a hardliner. His policy of "productive pawns" from the Ruhr, i.e. coal, coke, steel and wood, was intended to force the enforcement of reparations in favor of France, especially since the economic infrastructure destroyed by the war, e.g. in Lorraine, was in urgent need of coking coal from the coalfield. However, it is also undisputed that the prime minister wanted to change the Treaty of Versailles in favor of France, i.e. to shift Germany's western border to the east and thus weaken the overpowering and aggressive neighbor in the long term. The view according to which Poincaré sought a special position for the Ruhr region goes back to a publication from the 1960s and, as far as I can tell, no longer seems to play a role today.

England and the United States condemned the occupation. Why?

Okroy: The Allies' plans for the future of defeated Germany were very different. Both rejected the occupation. Great Britain sought a reorganization of the European continent within a global framework. Germany, which was populous, economically strong and culturally stimulating, should be able to find a place in this. The U.S. had not ratified the Treaty of Versailles, but had concluded a separate peace with Germany in 1921, the "Treaty of Berlin. In it, among other things, reparations were not unilaterally set against Germany as in Versailles in 1919, but were handed over to a bilateral arbitration court.

How did the people in the occupied territories resist?

Okroy: The invasion of the Ruhr region by French and Belgian units armed to the teeth triggered a storm of indignation across party lines throughout Germany - and at the same time a wave of national and nationalistic declarations of solidarity against the "arch-enemy" France. The Reich government under Chancellor Cuno responded to the occupation by calling on the population to "resist passively." This was followed with great unity, also out of conviction, especially by the civil servants, employees and workers of the state and local authorities, but also by the organized socialist industrial workforce. The mayor of Essen, Schäfer, for example, refused to allow cars to be confiscated by the occupying forces. For this he was arrested and sentenced to several months in prison. Reichsbahn employees transferred more than 1,000 locomotives and 30,000 freight cars to the unoccupied territory, thus taking them away from the occupying forces. Merchants from the Ruhr decided to stop delivering goods to French military and civilian personnel, and craftsmen refused to provide them with the services they demanded. The occupying forces responded with harsh reprisals, including the expulsion and deportation of some 140,000 men, women and children to the unoccupied territories and the establishment of customs checkpoints and people controls. One such checkpoint between occupied and unoccupied territory was Vohwinkel train station.

What role did Wuppertal, which was unoccupied, play in this?

Okroy: Elberfeld, which was close to the border with the occupied territory, played a central role - and not a praiseworthy one! From the very beginning, the boundaries between passive and active resistance, between justified anger and nationalist resentment were fluid. Ruhr industrialists such as Stinnes and Krupp, as well as the Reichsbahn, for example, initially promoted the sustained disruption of railroad lines in the Ruhr region through targeted sabotage. Elberfeld, which immediately after World War I had developed into an important base for the still insignificant but emerging National Socialist movement, became the starting point for numerous violent sabotage and spying operations directed against the transportation infrastructure and French personnel. They were carried out by a commando made up of right-wing extremist former Freikorp fighters. These declared opponents of the Republic and enemies of democracy included Erich Koch, Karl Kaufmann and Victor Lutze. All three had roots in Wuppertal and formed the core of the Nazi movement there. Only ten years later, these right-wing terrorists were sitting in decisive positions of power in the Nazi state of injustice: as NSDAP Gauleiter in East Prussia, as "Reichsstatthalter" in Hamburg and as Supreme Leader of the SA. The creeping destruction of democracy in Germany began very early in Wuppertal.

The most 'prominent' saboteur and activist was Albert Leo Schlageter. He, too, received his instructions from Elberfeld, where a so-called "Abwehrausschuss" (defense committee) against the Ruhr occupation had been established in the vicinity of the Reichsbahndirektion (Reich Railroad Headquarters) at the Döppersberg. Because of several explosive attacks on bridges and railroad tracks, the right-wing terrorist was arrested by the French, sentenced to death and executed in Düsseldorf. His militant actions met with great approval across party lines at the time. At times, even the KPD tried to take the right-wing saboteur into service for its own purposes. The funeral service for Schlageter, who had been glorified by the right-wingers as a "national martyr," took place in June 1923 in the town hall on the Johannisberg with great participation by the population, politicians and churches. His coffin was covered by the former black-white-red imperial war flag, which was particularly popular in völkisch-nationalist circles and used as a political statement.

On July 12, 1923, Barmen was also temporarily occupied by a French army unit. Elberfeld remained unmolested. Why?

Okroy: Barmen and Elberfeld, at that time still independent municipalities, were located on unoccupied territory. According to a chronicle from the 1950s (to be read with all source-critical skepticism), on the early morning of July 12, 1923, a Thursday, long blue columns moved through the streets of Barmen with "shrill signals of French trumpets [...] and armored cars rattled over the pavement. The town hall was occupied, as were administrative and bank buildings. The post office was closed, the train stations in Barmen were blocked and the police were disarmed. The reason was apparently a violent confrontation at the Ronsdorf border between French military personnel and German customs officials. In the course of the manhunt and the arrest of these officials, the French temporarily - and irregularly - entered unoccupied territory. Elberfeld was not the focus of the manhunt.

How long was the French army unit in the valley, and what is known about the time of the Barmer occupation?

Okroy: According to the source mentioned, the French soldiers seem to have left Barmen again around noon on July 12 in the direction of Hasslinghausen. Presumably under duress, members of the Schutzpolizei and the director of the Barmer Reichsbank were apparently taken away with them. After a few days, however, these officers returned to Barmen.

In July 1925, the last Belgian and French soldiers left the Ruhr. On June 30, 1930, the last areas of the Rhineland were vacated by the Allies. On July 1, 1930, the "Day of the Liberation of the Rhineland" was celebrated throughout Germany. On the same day, the Barmer Verschönerungsverein planted the "Liberation Oak" opposite the war memorial for the fallen of 1864 and 1866, but it was destroyed during World War II. A small white plaque at the base of the tree at the time declared:

"Planted I was on that day,
Where the Rhine was free and to end the shame.
Now I want to grow, blossom and flourish here,
to be a memorial sign for the fellow world and posterity."

Where can citizens actually find information about the history of the occupation of Barmen?

Okroy: With the exception of an essay published in 1992 by Dr. Uwe Eckardt, the former director of the Wuppertal city archives, which is very rich in material, the historically significant year of 1923 has remained rather underexposed from a local and regional perspective to this day. However, an exhibition is currently being prepared on the subject, which can be visited in Barmen from November 2023 and which I am already very curious about. To all those who are specifically interested in the occupation of Barmen on July 12, 1923, and want to learn more about it, I recommend a visit to the Wuppertal City Archives and reading the daily newspapers published at the time. The events can be reconstructed extremely vividly with these sources - from a contemporary perspective and on an event-historical level.

Uwe Blass

Michael Okroy studied literature and social sciences at the University of Wuppertal. He works in administration at the Chair of General Literary Studies and Modern German Literary History, as a freelance research assistant at the Begegnungsstätte Alte Synagoge Wuppertal, and is a member of the advisory board of the Wuppertal section of the Bergischer Geschichtsverein.


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