Soldier, politician, near-German Presidential candidate in 1934 and earlier liberator of Munich, Dortmund and Essen from the Communists after World War I, Franz Xaver Ritter von Epp was a colorful, larger-than-life figure, but—oddly—is rather unknown today.
Author Edward N. Peterson presents this excellent passage on von Epp in his 1969 work The Limits of Hitler’s Power: “A nationalist who hated Red ‘disorder,’ Epp was a Nazi because he wanted to restore order and because he so strongly supported the Catholic Church. In Nazi circles, his nickname was ‘The Mother-of-God General.’ Active in the Bavarian People’s Party until it refused him a leading position, he shifted” (to the Nazis)" in 1928, to be elected to the Reichstag as a Nazi representing Upper Bavaria-Swabia,” and held that post until 1945.
Like Hermann Goring before him, “Epp’s contribution to the Party was his name. He does not seem to have spoken or written anything significant. He was a military man, accustomed to giving orders, not organizing popular support or rabble-rousing like the usual Party leader.”
As such, von Epp was in his favorite element as a commander working with a diligent, trusted, hand-picked staff that submitted problems and options to him in writing for his final decision. He was, in effect, an ultimate chief executive officer.
The most prominent and able of these men was Col. Hans Georg Hofmann , like his boss a soldier and Nazi “Old Fighter” from the Munich street battle days who joined the SA Brownshirts in 1931. Both he and von Epp believed in law and restraint.
Asserts Peterson of the relations between the two men, “Unlike Epp, Hofmann was a hard worker. A story about his death in 1943 suggests the comparison between the two…Hofmann entered Epp’s office carrying a large stack of papers he had worked through, which he was to explain to Epp prior to a decision…Hofmann suddenly sank to the floor and died.
“Epp had him carried to a couch, regarded him for several moments, then returned to the pile of papers that had fallen to the floor, picked them up and said bitterly, ‘Now I’ll have to do all of this damned dirty work myself!’”
According to Corvette Capt. Sander-Nagashima of the Military History Records Office at Potsdam, Franz von Epp was born at Munich on Oct. 16, 1868, the son of a painter. After attending both military school and the Military Academy in Munich, Cadet von Epp formally entered the German Army on Aug. 16, 1887.
On Oct. 30, 1889, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant of the 9th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, and served during 1901-02 with the German Expeditionary Corps sent by Kaiser Wilhelm II to China, with the 4th East Asia Infantry. He returned home to the Wilhelmine Reich on Aug. 17, 1901, and the following Sept. 1st transferred to the 19th Bavarian Infantry Regiment.
Notes translator Hildburg Sherry Baker of Towson, MD, on Feb. 2, 1904, von Epp transferred again, to German West Africa as Chief of the 1st Field Regiment. Promoted first lieutenant on Oct. 13, 1896, he was raised again, to captain, on July 11, 1907, following his second and final return from Colonial Africa on Nov. 30, 1906.
Back in the pre-war Reich, von Epp’s military commands included the following postings: Dec. 14, 1906, Chief of the Bavarian Lifeguard Infantry Regiment of King Ludwig III (1845-1921); Oct. 16, 1908, adjutant of the 3rd Bavarian Infantry Division; June 22, 1912, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the Bavarian Infantry Lifeguard Regiment.
On Aug. 29, 1914, as World War I erupted in Europe, his monarch asked von Epp to lead the Lifeguard Regiment into battle, and the following Dec. 26th he was named its commander on the embattled Western Front. While serving in the 5th Army of German Crown Prince Wilhelm, von Epp was awarded the title of Ritter (Knight) and the Max Josef Award for heroism in front of the enemy on June 23, 1916 from the King of Bavaria personally. On May 29, 1918—like Goring and Erwin Rommel—von Epp received the much-coveted Pour le Merite (For Your Merit) or “Blue Max” decoration from the Kaiser.
According to his personnel file at Potsdam, von Epp was named commander of the Bavarian Mounted Rifle Brigade, and during the final month of the war—from Oct. 15th-Nov. 18, 1918—was also commander of the Infantry Lifeguard Regiment.
Then came the effects of the collapse of the German Army on the Western Front, the overthrow of all the various German ruling Houses, including the Wittelsbach family of Bavaria, and the declaration of a German Republic. This was soon followed by a full-scale Red revolution to establish Soviet-style Communist regimes, both in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, and Berlin, the Prussian and Reich capital.
According to author David Clay Large in his 1997 work Where Ghosts Walked: Munich’s Road to the Third Reich, “The revolution there progressed through successive stages of escalating radicalism…(and) produced excesses of irresponsibility and popular passion that shocked the world…Since the Bavarian soviet was to be a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ the new regime openly encouraged class warfare. It put up posters in the poorer districts saying, ‘Come out of your slums! Flats are available! Help yourselves!’…Food shortages had become more acute than ever.”
Centrist politician Johannes Hoffmann called for the ouster of the Communists and their regime: “Bavarians! Countrymen! In Munich there rages a Russian terror, directed by alien elements. This insult to Bavaria cannot be allowed to last another day…You men of the Bavarian mountains, Bavarian plains, Bavarian forests, rise up as one, gather in your villages with weapons and equipment, select your leaders. Munich calls for your aid. Step forward! Now! The Munich disgrace must be wiped out. This is the honorable duty of all Bavarians!”
One who responded avidly to this call to arms was Maj. von Epp, who formed the Free Corps von Epp composed of Army veterans of the Great War. Large writes that “The most important of the Bavarian Free Corps was led by…von Epp…who despised the new Weimar Republic and dreamed of bringing back the monarchy. Epp’s right-hand man was Ernst Rohm, a swashbuckling Army captain…Like many of the other Free Corps units, Epp’s group had ties to the” (anti-Semitic) “Thule Society, which smuggled money and men out of beleaguered Munich to the forces massing in the hinterlands.”
Asserted Charles Hamilton in his 1984 book Leaders and Personalities of the Third Reich, the “liberation” of Munich during the resultant “White Terror” was “accomplished with much bloodshed,” a view shared by the Military Records Office at Potsdam: “Epp’s Free Corps was anything but timid. They were responsible for the murder of the revolutionary Gustav Landauer and also for the massacre of the Kolping apprentices in Giesing, which was a working class quarter in Munich.”
Noted eminent British military writer Sir John W. Wheeler-Bennett in his 1964 study The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918-45, “’You see,’ said one of the Free Corps officers to Commandant Graff of the French Military Mission, ‘most of these fellows are young men who, during the five years of the war have had no paternal discipline, and, as it is too late to train them, the best thing is to wipe them out.’”
On Apr. 5, 1920, a soldier in von Epp’s Corps wrote home to his family that “We shoot even the wounded. The enthusiasm is great, almost unbelievable.”
Continuing, Wheeler-Bennett adds, “The regime…was finally overthrown by the military operations of a composite force, directed by (Gustav) Noske in Berlin and commanded by Gens. von Epp and von Oven, consisting of two regular Guards divisions and Free Corps formations from Prussia, Bavaria, and Wurttemburg. Munich was forced into surrendering on May 1, 1919, and the Hoffmann government was reestablished under the protection of the Reichswehr (Army) and the Free Corps.
“This period had been marked by all the severities of civil war: the taking and shooting of hostages by the revolutionaries and the inevitable revenge exacted by the liberating forces of counterrevolution. When order had been restored, the Bavarians were left with a bitter hatred of all Leftist movements and a firm determination that nothing resembling a Bolshevik revolution should ever again take place within their borders.”
An equal feeling of revulsion was felt toward the national capital at Berlin and all things Prussian. The hero of the hour—the man who represented this deep-rooted wellspring of popular feeling—was the city’s hero, Franz Xaver Ritter von Epp.
Asserts writer Robert Wistrich in his 1982 work Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, “For a brief period, von Epp was military dictator of Bavaria, which became a center of oppositional and Nazi activity against the government in Berlin and the Communists” there.
Adds author Robert G.L. Waite in his 1952 study Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany, 1918-23, “In 1919, Epp and his men entered the
Republican Army, but continued to call themselves the von Epp Free Corps…Prominent Nazis belonging to his Free Corps included…Adolf Huhnlein, the Supreme Leader of the Nazi Motor Corps, (Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf) Hess, and Wilhelm Bruckner, Hitler’s personal adjutant…Nazi propaganda later maintained that Hitler himself had belonged, but I am unable to find substantiation for this claim…”
On Oct. 1, 1919, von Epp was named commander of Reichswehr Brigade 21 in the Regular Army, and exactly a year later he was posted as Infantry Leader 7. The anti-Red campaign continued into 1920, when Dortmund was “liberated” by von Epp’s men on Apr. 6th and Essen fell on the 7th, with the entire industrial area of the Ruhr “pacified” by the 8th.
Testifies Waite, “In the Ruhr, hundreds of Free Corps prisoners were rounded up and shot ‘while attempting to escape,’ and once again, as in Munich and the Baltic, dozens of citizens were sentenced to death by illegal Freebooter ‘courts-martial.’”
Once his Corps became part of the Reichswehr, Waite adds, von Epp and Rohm used official Army funds to hire spies like Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler and later to set up a new Nazi Party newspaper, The People’s Obervor—its first—for 60,000 marks. Despite his initial support for Hitler’s Nazis, von Epp soon discovered that he had a tiger by the tail during a meeting held on June 14, 1922, which now civilian Hitler attended to discuss future rightist strategy with him, Gen. Erich Ludendorff, Gustav von Kahr and others opposed to the Berlin government. They wanted to compromise with Berlin, but radical Hitler proposed a cynical deal with the Communists, much as he executed in 1932 during a transit strike in Berlin and again with dictator Josef Stalin in 1939 over Poland. They expelled him instead.
Hitler stormed out, shouting, “You will live to regret the treachery which you are committing against the German race today! You will recognize too late what power I have behind me.” A decade later, Hitler and von Epp would find themselves almost at greater odds again.
On Oct. 31, 1923, von Epp retired from the Army after 36 years of active service on three continents. The following Nov. 8th-9th, Hitler launched his “Beer Hall Putsch” to march on Berlin, but it ended in a hail of Bavarian State Police bullets. Von Epp played no role in this affair. Hitler had moved out of fear that monarchists like him, however, would strike first to bring about either a return of the Bavarian monarchy, or else a complete break with the Prussian-led Reich in favor of a new union with Catholic Austria.
After Hitler left prison, reorganized the Party, and promised publicly to seek power legally through the elective process, Lt. Gen. von Epp joined the Nazis and was elected to the Reichstag as one of their deputies in May 1928, and proved to be the Party’s most successful candidate at the polls.
Notes Waite, “He felt entitled to the voters’ support because he assured them that he had none of the attributes of a statesman…’I do not have those qualities! I will never have them, for nothing depends on those qualities!’” As a Reichstag member, Deputy
von Epp wrote in his diary, “An attempt of the slime to govern. Church slime, middle class slime, military slime.”
Hitler was named German Chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933, and on March 8th, von Epp was posted by the Fuhrer as his Reich Commissioner and Secretary of State for Bavaria. From Apr. 10, 1933 through Apr. 30, 1945, he was Governor of Bavaria as well. In addition, he was appointed Head of the Colonial Bureau of the Party on May 5, 1934 and held that post until its dissolution on Feb. 17, 1943. In 1932, Gen. von Epp had also been named as Leader of the Party Defense League.
The real power in Munich, however, was Gauleiter (District Leader) Adolf Wagner. On July 7, 1935, Hitler promoted von Epp to the rank of General of Infantry, and Chief of Infantry Regiment 61 on Oct. 16, 1938. He also served under Goring as Reich Master of the Hunt for Bavaria.
Von Epp often found himself on the opposite side of Nazi pet causes: he opposed the SS camp at Dachau, blocked race-baiter Julius Sreicher from becoming Mayor of Nuremberg, told Hitler that Germany could not win another war against the Allies and also asserted that a cruel fate would befall the defeated Third Reich over the fate of the Jews. Finally, like his slain aide, Capt. Rohm, von Epp wanted the SA to supplant the Regular Army. In all these battles, “The Mother-of-God General” would be bested.
One that he almost won, however, was that of the succession to the dying Reich President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934. The Army—upon whose whim at that time
Hitler’s future depended—was openly considering three choices for the new President of Germany: von Epp, the former Crown Prince Wilhelm, and Hitler himself. When it was found out that Hitler promised secretly to purge Rohm and his SA cadre before von Hindenburg’s death, the Army decided to back the Fuhrer as his successor.
During World War II, von Epp held no military commands, as Hitler may well have considered him too dangerous and outspoken a man to whom to entrust armed troops. For his part, von Epp held himself aloof from the many plots to either remove or kill the Fuhrer.
In the spring of 1945, he may have had a hand in the negotiations to surrender Munich to the US Army, whose prisoner-of-war he became. Gen. von Epp was not tried as a war criminal by the Allies, but died instead as an American POW of natural causes. Two dates for his death are given: Dec. 31, 1946 and Jan. 31, 1947.
© 2017 International Historic Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.