When Hitler arrived in Munich in late November of 1918, he found a city roiling in political turmoil. Earlier in the month a Socialist revolution led by Kurt Eisner of the USPD, who had spent a year in prison for publicly opposing the war, had brushed aside the ancient Wittelsbach monarchy and proclaimed a Bavarian Socialist Republic. The Socialist government struggled to establish some semblance of order, but with food scarce, unemployment rampant, and thousands of armed veterans roaming the streets, it proved unable to master the deteriorating situation. On February 21, 1919, Eisner was assassinated by a reactionary fanatic, setting off a chain reaction of political violence that reduced Munich to virtual chaos. A cabinet headed by Majority Social Democrat (the MSPD) Johannes Hoffmann assumed power, but on April 7, a group of frustrated radicals, more anarchist and bohemian than Communist (some referred to them derisively as “coffeehouse revolutionaries”) declared the creation of a government based on the Workers, Soldiers, and Peasants Councils. In the mounting disorder that ensued, the Hoffmann cabinet fled to Bamberg in northern Bavaria and refused to recognize this new Councils Republic (Räterepublik).
Led by a twenty-five-year-old poet and playwright, Ernst Toller, the Councils Republic fired off a barrage of reforms, some of them radical, others spectacularly idiosyncratic—capitalism would be abolished and free money issued; all banks and industrial firms were to be nationalized; agriculture was to be collectivized; a red army would be raised, and revolutionary tribunals were created to ferret out counterrevolutionary activities. The new regime also ordered that poems by Hölderlin and Schiller be published on the front pages of all the city’s newspapers, and its Commissar for Foreign Affairs, only recently released from an insane asylum, declared war on Württemberg and Switzerland because “these dogs” had failed to loan him badly needed locomotives. He also cabled Lenin and the pope indignantly complaining that his predecessor had absconded with the key to the ministerial toilet. It hardly came as a surprise when the Räterepublik fell after a mere six days, ousted by militant Communists who declared the creation of a Bavarian Soviet Republic on the Bolshevik model. The Communist takeover was led by two Russian Bolsheviks, Max Levien and Eugen Leviné, who proclaimed that this government, unlike its dilettantish predecessor, would represent “the genuine rule of the proletariat.” They immediately called for a general strike, disarmed the Munich police, and set about creating a Red Army, manned by veterans and radical labor unionists. To pay for this force, they plundered homes in the better sections of town, and commanded all civilians to turn over their cash in return for government-backed credit vouchers. Following directives from Moscow, they ordered the arrest of aristocrats and prominent members of the upper middle class, fifty of whom were held hostage in a local high school. Bavaria, they proudly proclaimed, would constitute the advance outpost of a Communist archipelago that would stretch from Russia, to Hungary, to Austria, and into Western Europe.
In Bamberg, the Hoffmann cabinet appealed to the provisional government in Berlin to recruit a force of some 35,000 Free Corps troops to march against the Communist government in Munich. These Free Corps units were paramilitary associations formed spontaneously all across Germany in 1919 as six million veterans flooded back into the country and were being rapidly mustered out of the army. For the most part they were composed of demobilized soldiers, junior-grade officers, and enlisted men whose formative experience had been war and who found themselves unable or unwilling to demobilize psychologically. They were joined by an admixture of eager university students and young men who had missed out on the war and were impatient for action. They tended to be ultranationalist, anti-Marxist, and often anti-Semitic.
Far from being threatened by these paramilitary organizations, the Reichswehr viewed the Free Corps as useful auxiliaries to the severely reduced army and provided funds for their operations. The provisional government in Berlin engaged Free Corps units to protect Germany’s eastern frontier against the Poles and Bolsheviks, but also deployed them against domestic enemies on the far left. Although their ostensible mission was to restore law and order, their actions amounted to a bloody crusade against the radical left. In the spring of 1919, Free Corps units, acting on government orders, brutally suppressed a Communist-inspired strike movement in the Ruhr and attacked strongholds of the radical left elsewhere in Germany. Germany was teetering on the cusp of civil war. It was a reflection of the near chaotic conditions prevailing in Germany that these quasi-legal armed formations could roam the country like the freebooters of the Thirty Years War, fighting the perceived threats from the left everywhere. Although they acted independently and were never united under a single command, these Free Corps units in 1919–20 numbered between 300,000 and 400,000 men, roughly four times the size of the regular army.
In late April 1919 Free Corps forces encircled “Red Munich,” and then in an orgy of pitiless brutality during the first days of May, Free Corps troops, using heavy weapons and even flamethrowers, crushed the severely overmatched “Red Army.” The leaders of the Red Republic were shot or beaten to death or executed after perfunctory trials; the fortunate ones escaped across the frontier. In all, some 600 people—1,200 by some estimates—died in the fighting and its bloody aftermath, leaving behind an indelible impression of Bolshevik terror and counterrevolutionary suppression.
Stationed in Munich throughout the most violent period of the revolution, Hitler witnessed firsthand the ferocious Marxist demons of his nightmares, the “un-German” revolutionaries who had sabotaged the Reich and delivered Germany to the rapacious Allies. Here he also found confirmation of his association of Jews with the radical left. Many of the Communist leaders were indeed Jewish. Of course, most Jews were not radicals and most radicals were not Jews, but many, and not just on the radical right, came to share this bogus notion during the postwar period of chaos, revolution, and violence. Those seeking a scapegoat for Germany’s downfall had found one.
Contrary to his brief and obfuscating account of those turbulent days in Mein Kampf, Hitler did not take part in resisting, much less defeating, the Reds. As best he could, he kept his head down, serving unobtrusively and opportunistically the successive Socialist governments in the regular Bavarian army. He was relieved to escape Munich for almost two months, staying out of harm’s way in Traunstein as a guard at a POW camp and returning to Munich in early February. Once back, his only duty was to guard the main railway station and later to inform on members of his unit whom he suspected of leftist sympathies, a task he performed with his usual zeal. Munich in the spring of 1919 was essentially under military rule, and the Bavarian Reichswehr was determined to ferret out and extinguish any lingering subversive sentiments among the troops. To this end, it established a military intelligence bureau that initiated a program to indoctrinate the troops in the proper anti-Marxist, nationalist values. A set of “speakers courses” was created to train “suitable personalities from among the troops” who seemed to have the potential to be effective instructors, and in early June Hitler was assigned to this program. The courses, taught largely by faculty at the university, included such offerings as “German History Since the Reformation,” “The Political History of the War,” “Socialism in Theory and Practice,” and “Our Economic Situation and the Peace Conditions.” All the instructors had impeccable nationalist credentials, but one in particular made a strong impression on Hitler. Gottfried Feder, an engineer by training and a self-taught economist, lectured on his concept of “interest slavery,” drawing a distinction between capital derived from productive labor and capital accruing from stock market speculation and interest. Jews, he argued fiercely, were masters of the latter, of international finance that exploited and enslaved honest Germans by their unproductive manipulation of capital. The topic of his first lecture, “Breaking Interest Slavery,” would soon be embedded in the National Socialist program. It was, Hitler believed, “a theoretical truth which would inevitably be of immense importance for the future of the German people.”
One day, during a break between classes, Karl Alexander von Müller, one of Hitler’s instructors, noticed a group of students gathered around one of their number, engaging in a fierce discussion. “The men seemed spellbound by a man in their midst, who railed at them uninterruptedly in a strangely guttural yet passionate voice. I had the unsettling feeling that their excitement was his work and simultaneously the source of his own power. I saw a pale, thin face under an unsoldierly shock of hanging hair, and striking large light blue eyes that glittered fanatically.” Later he remarked to Captain Mayr, head of the program, “Do you know you have a natural orator in your group?” Hitler very quickly emerged as the star of the program. His oddly gripping manner of speech, his fanatical intensity, and his populist language provoked enthusiastic, stormy responses from the soldiers who formed his captive audiences. He had discovered a hidden talent. “For all at once I was offered an opportunity of speaking before a larger audience; and the thing I had always presumed from pure feeling without knowing it was now corroborated: I could ‘speak.’ ”
In July, Mayr chose him as one of a small number of agents to conduct a five-day indoctrination course at a Reichswehr camp near Augsburg, where returning POWs were said to be harboring Communist sentiments. His speeches were thunderous attacks on the Marxists, the “November criminals” who had stabbed the army in the back, and the universally hated Treaty of Versailles, signed in June. “Herr Hitler,” one of the soldiers in his audience remarked, “is the born people’s speaker, and by his fanaticism and his crowd appeal he clearly compels the attention of his listeners, and makes them think his way.” He was particularly fierce when speaking of the Jews. So extreme, so inflammatory were his anti-Jewish harangues that the camp commander actually requested Hitler to tone down his anti-Semitic rhetoric. By the time he returned to Munich Hitler had acquired the reputation as something of an expert on Jewish matters, so much so that when Mayr received a letter from a Herr Adolf Gemlich asking for clarification on the “Jewish question,” he turned to Hitler to write the response.
Was it the case, Gemlich wanted to know, that the Jews were a threat, as some saw them to be, or was their “corruptive influence” being overestimated? Hitler began his letter by affirming that “the danger posed by Jewry for our people” was very real and must be combated. But “anti-Semitism as a political movement,” he insisted, could “not be defined by emotional impulses, but by recognition of the facts,” the first and most important of which was that Jewry was “a race not a religious community.” The Jew “lives amongst us as a non-German alien race,” with the full rights of citizenship, while corrupting German society by its obsession with money. In the Jew’s striving for money and power, he is “unscrupulous in the choice of methods and pitiless in their employment. . . . His power is the power of money, which multiplies in his hands effortlessly and endlessly through interest”—echoes of Feder. “Every higher goal men strive for—religion, democracy, socialism—is to the Jew only a means to an end, the way to satisfy his lust for gold and domination.” In what would be one of his many ominous biological metaphors, the Jew, he asserted, was “a racial tuberculosis of the nations.”
Emotional anti-Semitism might bring temporary satisfaction but would produce only senseless pogroms. But “anti-Semitism based on reason” would lead to a systematic legal campaign against the Jews and the elimination of their privileges. This could not be accomplished by a weak democratic government led by “irresponsible majorities” with “internationalist phrases and slogans.” Needed instead was a powerful state led by “nationally minded leadership personalities.” The rights and privileges of this alien, corrosive race must be curbed or eliminated, but “the ultimate objective,” he concluded, “must be the irrevocable removal of the Jews in general.”
Hitler’s letter, dated September 16, 1919, is his first recorded written pronouncement on the “Jewish question,” indeed, his first recorded political statement, and it offers a foreshadowing of the basic elements of National Socialist ideology—a powerful national state led by a ruthless, determined leadership, rejection of democratic government, a spiritual rebirth of the nation from within, and radical, racial anti-Semitism. It also reveals that by the fall of 1919 the potent brew of prejudices, hatreds, and resentments formed in Vienna and stirred during the war was hardening into a cohesive political vision. Hitler was acquiring a political education; he was poised for an entry into politics.
In addition to investigating and combating Marxist subversion among the troops, Mayr’s unit was also charged with the surveillance of Munich’s raucous political scene. He sent his agents to monitor the numerous political parties and organizations that were springing up all around the city. Some might be dangerous, some useful. On Friday, September 12, 1919, he dispatched Hitler to report on a meeting of an obscure political group that called itself the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or DAP). Held in a cramped backroom in the Sterneckerbräu Beer Hall, the meeting was an unimpressive affair, attended by only a smattering of unimposing men. Founded earlier in the year by Anton Drexler, a railway mechanic, and Karl Harrer, a sportswriter associated with the semisecret right-wing Thule Society, the party had few members and even fewer sources of financial support. It had the air of a sleepy, down-at-the-heels debating club.
The speaker that evening was Gottfried Feder, who spoke on “How and by What Means Can Capitalism Be Eliminated.” It was one of Feder’s favorite themes and one that held Hitler’s attention, but he was most interested in the discussion that followed. Although he was there to monitor the proceedings, he could not resist throwing himself into the fray when a university professor in the tiny crowd asserted that Bavaria should secede from Germany and form a union with Austria. Hitler’s withering demolition of that position so impressed Drexler that he turned to a colleague on the platform and commented: “Man, this one has a mouth on him. We could use him!” When the meeting broke up, Drexler pressed a copy of his pamphlet My Political Awakening into Hitler’s hands and invited him to come to the next meeting. Hitler left underwhelmed.
The pamphlet, however, piqued his interest. In it, Drexler inveighed against the twin evils of Marxism and Jewish finance capital and called for a national revival by bringing the working and middle classes together in a genuine Volksgemeinschaft, a people’s community, united under a strong authoritarian national government. Hitler was surprised a few days later when he received a card informing him that he had been admitted as a member of the DAP and inviting him to the next meeting of the executive committee. He was initially disinclined to accept the unsolicited offer, but on reflection realized that the little party offered some intriguing possibilities. Its small size would allow him to enter on the ground floor, a virtual founder, and its very sleepiness along with its lack of strong personalities meant that he could immediately exert his influence. After securing the army’s permission, he joined the party as member number 550—a rather misleading status since the party rolls began with number 500.
When he attended the next meeting at an even smaller and dingier locale, he discovered that the party had no program, no plans, no advertising, no typewriter, no mimeograph machine, not even a rubber stamp (a vital necessity for any German organization). It was also virtually penniless. The executive committee, chaired by Drexler and Harrer, wanted to expand the membership but had no idea how to go about it. Hitler suggested advertising an upcoming meeting in the local press, not simply plastering posters about town and sending handwritten invitations to likely supporters. The executive committee was skeptical but followed Hitler’s suggestion. The meeting at the Hofbräukeller on October 16 drew a modest crowd of 111, but it was by far the largest the party had ever attracted. A week later an audience of over three hundred filled the Eberlkeller to attend a DAP rally, at which Hitler spoke again. Hitler was still on the Reichswehr payroll (he would be until the summer of 1920), which meant that he had plenty of time to devote to political activities. Mayr’s intelligence unit was pleased to have an agent inside the party (Hitler no doubt inflated its importance in his report) and even provided a modest subsidy for the party. Hitler was tireless, always looking for ways to draw attention to the party, to himself. He assumed direction of the party’s propaganda, such as it was, and began to transform the party from an insignificant men’s club to an active, high-profile political organization. He pressed the leadership to establish a permanent office, a small windowless space in the Sterneckerbräu Beer Hall, and begin acquiring office machinery, printed membership cards, stationery, and a business manager.
As 1919 turned to 1920, Hitler was fast winning a reputation as a firebrand speaker; his appearances were a spectacle. He seemed to be everywhere. He spoke in beer halls, in auditoriums, theaters, on street corners, in parks, in front of crowds large and small. The themes never varied: the November criminals, the bankruptcy of democracy, the Jewish world conspiracy, the menace of Marxism. All delivered at a fever pitch of rage and fury that found ample resonance in the climate of fear and resentment and anger that prevailed in post-revolutionary Munich.
Those feelings of betrayal were stoked by the actions of the victorious Allies, who in the summer of 1919 delivered a body blow to the progressive forces attempting to establish Germany’s first working democracy. In January 1919 when representatives of the new, democratic Germany were summoned to the Bourbon palace at Versailles, they were informed that, contrary to their expectations, they were not there to negotiate but to receive the terms of the victors. The Germans had placed their hopes for fair treatment in the American president, Woodrow Wilson, whose famous “Fourteen Points” had, among other things, called for a peace without annexations and trumpeted the principle of national self-determination of peoples. The Germans had hoped—and believed—that Wilson’s terms would be the basis for the talks. But Wilson proved no match for David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, whose nations, after five years of privation and slaughter, were not inclined to be generous. They were determined to weaken Germany by squeezing it, as the British prime minister so graphically put it, “until the pips squeak.” They proceeded to do just that by detaching territory from the Reich, imposing stiff reparations, and dismantling Germany’s military establishment. In the east, Germany was forced to cede West Prussia and Posen to the new Polish state, creating a Polish Corridor to the Baltic that separated East Prussia from Germany proper. To give the Poles a port on the sea, the German city of Danzig was placed under the administration of the League of Nations, and Memel, a narrow strip of German territory along the Baltic, was ceded to Lithuania.
In the west, Alsace and Lorraine, annexed by Germany in 1871, were returned to France, and the thoroughly German Saar region was placed under League of Nations administration for fifteen years. Other smaller bits of territory were lost to Denmark and Belgium. Germany also forfeited all its overseas colonial territories in Africa and the South Pacific. But most shocking, and to the Germans most unjust, the British and French refused to allow a union of German Austria with the new German state. The Austrians made clear their desire for such a union, but the Allies were not about to see Germany, democratic or not, emerge from the war larger than it had been in 1914. To the Germans this merely proved that the treaty’s much heralded principle of national self-determination was nothing but a fraud, applying only in instances when it hurt German interests and not when it benefited the new democratic state.
Though not as controversial but equally humiliating, the armaments clauses of the treaty essentially stripped Germany of its military establishment, destroying its ability to make war—and, the Germans complained, to defend itself. A large strip of territory in the Rhineland was declared a demilitarized zone, making it possible for French forces to march directly into Germany’s industrial heartland if they so chose. The army was reduced to 100,000 troops; Germany was allowed no air force, no tanks, or heavy artillery; the General Staff was disbanded; no conscription was allowed; and the navy was permitted only six warships and no submarines. The German army, pride of the nation, had virtually ceased to exist, rendering Germany, as its delegates bitterly complained, essentially defenseless.
Finally, the Allies presented Germany with a bill for the financial losses suffered by the victorious powers, but no final sum was set at the conference. Germany was compelled to sign a blank check for reparations owed. Most galling, a war guilt clause, Article 231, forced Germany to accept sole responsibility for the outbreak of the war; it was the ultimate justification for the reparations and the other harsh clauses of the treaty.
The terms of the treaty were made public in May 1919, igniting a firestorm of indignation in Germany. The armistice had been an unexpected jolt of harsh reality; the treaty was a profoundly destabilizing aftershock. Everyone from the far left to the far right was outraged by this “dictated peace,” this Diktat. Conveniently forgotten in their indignation were the draconian terms Germany had imposed on a defeated Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk only a year before, and there was little doubt that Germany was prepared to make equally extensive territorial demands and reparations claims against the Western Allies, had it won the Great War. Also dismissed was the fact that by agreeing to these terms Germany would avoid military occupation.
So outraged was the German delegation that it refused to sign and left for Berlin. But the provisional government faced harsh realities. The British blockade was still in effect and would remain so until Germany agreed to the treaty, and the threat of Allied invasion loomed ominously over the proceedings. The Germans were given only five days to accept the terms or face military occupation. The deadline was extended by forty-eight hours because the current cabinet resigned in protest and a new government had to be formed. Finally, on June 28, 1919, the demoralized German delegation signed the treaty in the ornate Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The Versailles Treaty was a catastrophe for the new Republic and a boon to its enemies. It was to prove one of the treaty’s most profound weaknesses that the Allies, following Wilson’s lead, refused to deal with representatives of the old regime, allowing the Kaiser and his generals to evade responsibility for the catastrophe they had brought on the country—and Europe. Instead, the Allies compelled the democratic parties of the fledgling Republic to accept the humiliating terms. The timing could not have been worse. Since January elected representatives had been laboring in the provincial town of Weimar to write a constitution for the new state. Their deliberations resulted in a constitution for a democratic welfare state, with guarantees of individual rights, the enfranchisement of women, and universal suffrage, as well as a radical system of proportional representation that ensured that almost all views would be heard in the Reichstag.
But these progressive accomplishments were buried under an avalanche of outrage from across the political spectrum when almost simultaneously the Allies presented their final peace terms in Paris. Although the parties that drafted the constitution of the Weimar Republic, as it quickly came to be called, had not been responsible for the disastrous conduct of the war or Germany’s capitulation, the new Republic would be saddled with the corrosive legacy of both. At the very outset of its tenuous existence, the Weimar Republic was identified with Germany’s defeat and the universally unpopular treaty that followed from it. It was a legacy the new democratic state never overcame.
For Hitler, the treaty provided welcome ammunition for his assault on the “November criminals” and the democratic government they were trying to establish. It was, Hitler charged, a “treaty of shame,” a “second betrayal of the people,” its terms “the shackles of Versailles.” And, of course, it was the creation of the Jews. It became a staple of his speeches that by the end of 1919 were drawing increasing public attention to him. Initially, the DAP turned to more established speakers from the racialist (Völkisch) nationalist right to attract an audience, but it gradually became apparent that Hitler, who often spoke second on the program, was the real attraction. At the party’s first mass meeting, held in the spacious festival hall of the Hofbräuhaus on February 20, 1920, the keynote speaker was a well-known figure in right-wing circles. He spoke for two hours, and his address was met with polite applause from the roughly two thousand in attendance. When he finished, Hitler took the podium and began an expansive discussion of the party’s new program—the Twenty-five Points—which he and Drexler had recently formulated. As he spoke, the mood in the crowded hall underwent a dramatic change. It was as if an electrical charge had jolted the crowd, showering sparks of excitement throughout the giant hall. The audience repeatedly interrupted Hitler with thunderous applause; fights broke out between loyalists and hecklers from the left, but Hitler continued on, carrying his audience with him. He had stolen the show.
Hitler’s appearances soon became pieces of political theater, where confrontation was as important as the content of his remarks. Battles with the Communists and Socialists, who often appeared at the DAP’s public meetings, became a regular occurrence, adding an element of danger and excitement to a Hitler event. During one Hitler speech, which would go down in Nazi lore as the “Battle of the Hall,” a wild, chair-throwing melee erupted in the crowded Festival Hall of the Hofbräuhaus, but Hitler, dodging bottles and beer steins, stood his ground at the podium, refusing to yield or flee. On another occasion a group of toughs led by Hitler invaded a talk by a prominent Bavarian separatist, dragged the speaker off the platform, beat him, and took over the proceedings. For that brazen act of public mayhem, Hitler was arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment—a typically light sentence for right-wing offenders—and then he spent only one month in Stadelheim prison. Among his followers, the jail sentence merely added to Hitler’s reputation as a stalwart hero persecuted for his courageous acts of defiance.
Hitler carefully honed his skills as a public speaker, studying his gestures and expressions before a mirror. His photographer Heinrich Hoffmann took shots of Hitler auditioning different poses. His speeches were his own—no ghostwriter, no assistant. He wrote out notes on several large sheets of paper, which he kept to his left on the podium. When he finished with one sheet, he passed it unostentatiously to the right and continued. The notes served as an outline, and the impression he gave was that of a man consumed by passion, speaking extemporaneously from the heart. The effect on his audience was spectacular. Even his critics—and there were many—acknowledged the power he exerted over his listeners. He seemed to possess an instinctive ability to read a crowd, to speak their language, and to project his own disappointments and resentments as theirs, as Germany’s. The journalist Konrad Heiden, a particularly tenacious critic who closely followed Hitler’s career, was struck by the incongruities of his private person and his public being: “Silent in a circle of three and sluggish in conversation, without interest in his own private life, this miserable human nothing could think only in public terms, feel only the feeling of the mass, and when the nothing spoke with the people, it was as though the voice of the people were speaking.”
Hearing Hitler address a large crowd on Munich’s Königsplatz, one observer was overwhelmed by the performance—a reaction that was not uncommon.
Critically I studied this slight, pale man, his dark hair parted on one side and falling again and again over his sweating brow. Threatening and beseeching, with small, pleading hands and flaming, steel-blue eyes, he had the look of a fanatic. . . . I do not know how to describe the emotions that swept over me as I heard this man. His words were like a scourge. When he spoke of the disgrace of Germany, I felt ready to spring on any enemy. His appeal to German manhood was a call to arms, the gospel he preached a sacred truth. He seemed another Luther. I forgot everything but the man; then, glancing round, I saw that his magnetism was holding these thousands as one. . . . The intense will of the man, the passion of his sincerity seemed to flow from him into me. I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion.
With each passing month, the crowds grew larger, and Hitler’s influence within the DAP mushroomed. At his insistence, the party in 1920 changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers Party or NSDAP, conjuring up highly unorthodox—and confusing—associations with both the left and right. It was a mouthful, and its enemies were fond of calling its followers Nazis, a diminutive for Nationalsozialisten, just as the Socialists were often referred to as Sozis. Hitler displayed an uncanny, instinctive feel for propaganda, for marketing. He believed that the party needed a symbol, an emblem that would be instantly recognized and associated with the NSDAP. He selected the swastika, an ancient Sanskrit symbol that was also found among the native tribes of North America. It was occasionally painted on the helmets of the Free Corps and other right-wing groups, but the Nazis would make it their own. The party needed a flag, a banner to be carried in parades and to be draped on podiums at meetings. A black swastika emblazoned in the center of a stark white circle on a background of bright red was the design Hitler hit upon. The red, he reasoned, would appeal to workers, while the combination of black, white, and red, the old imperial colors, would reassure nationalists and others on the right. The party also adopted a handful of short pithy slogans—“the common good before the individual good” (Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz) and “Germany Awaken!” (Deutschland Erwache!) to appear on posters, leaflets, and other official publications of the party. With an easily recognizable symbol, a new and unusual name, a flag, and catchy slogans, Hitler, in modern advertising parlance, was creating a brand.
Working with Drexler, Hitler had rewritten the party’s program, producing the “Twenty-five Points,” which would remain the core of the “unalterable” National Socialist platform throughout the party’s existence. The new program, echoed in hundreds of stump speeches, pamphlets, and later in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, called for the nationalization of trusts and cartels, the establishment of consumer cooperatives, “profit sharing in big business,” the “breaking of interest slavery” (whatever that meant—even Hitler seemed unclear), and the ennoblement of the German worker. Its language borrowed heavily from the left, referring to members as “party comrades,” invoking “German socialism,” and calling for a classless “Volksgemeinschaft,” a people’s community to overcome Germany’s traditional social, regional, and religious cleavages.
The program also courted the middle class, especially small-business interests, calling for “the creation and maintenance of a sound Mittelstand.” It demanded “the immediate communalization of the big department stores and their leasing to small shopkeepers at low rents.” Since the major department store chains were Jewish-owned, the attack on them, the party believed, was a major selling point in its anti-Semitic agenda. In all government contracts and purchases, the party promised “the most favorable consideration to small businessmen . . . whether on the national, state, or local levels.” It also advocated the creation of corporatist “chambers based on occupation and profession” as a counterweight to the powerful labor unions and corporate giants.
Like all rightist organizations and parties, the NSDAP’s program was bellicosely nationalistic and expansionist, calling for “the union of all Germans . . . in a Greater Germany” and “living space” (Lebensraum) in the East “for the nourishment of our people and the settlement of our excess population.” It reviled the odious Treaty of Versailles, with its fraudulent promises of the national self-determination of peoples, and its demilitarization of Germany that left the Reich virtually defenseless. It promised to undo the repellent clauses of the treaty, indeed, to smash this “treaty of shame” and liberate Germany from its shackles. It pledged to make Germany great again.
Its most strident element, however, was its radical anti-Semitism. The party pledged to fight “against all those who create no values, who make high profits without any mental or physical work.” These profiteers and stock market capitalists, the party made clear, “are mostly Jews. They live the good life, reaping where they have not sown. They control and rule us with their money.” Germany should be governed only by Germans, and citizenship in the promised classless people’s community was to be a matter of race. Only people “of German blood” could become people’s comrades (Volksgenossen) and only people’s comrades could become citizens of the Greater German Reich. As Point Four of the program emphatically declared, “No Jew, therefore, can be a Volksgenosse.” Jews and other non-Germans were to be excluded from the rights of citizenship and expelled from all public offices at all levels of government. There was little new or original about such ideas; most were staples of virtually every far-right party and organization in Germany. What was distinctive was the insistent interweaving of left and right in the program and the party’s robust determination to win support from Germany’s working class. Certainly the NSDAP was, as Bavaria’s interior minister put it, “the noisiest and stormiest of the nationalist groups,” but, he added, the party’s most salient feature in 1920 was its virulent, unrelenting anti-Semitism. Although other right-wing parties indulged in anti-Semitic rhetoric, none could compare with the Nazis’ vicious diatribes against the Jews. For Hitler and the NSDAP, anti-Semitism was not ancillary to the party’s message of anti-Marxism and radical nationalism; it was the connective tissue that held the program together, the sinews of the party’s propaganda, the core of its ideology.
As Hitler shrilly proclaimed in speech after speech, the Jews were behind “Bolshevism,” “Free Masonry,” “Pacifism,” “Wall Street capitalism,” “the rapacious Allies.” They were responsible for the loss of the war, for the inflation, for the French occupation of the Rhineland. The British press was “99 percent” Jewish; “the Jewish-democratic press of America” did the bidding of “large Jewish firms.” Who had enslaved the German proletariat? “Jews again!” Who controlled the League of Nations, and dominated “the history of the world over the heads of Kings and Presidents” and managed “brutally to enslave all peoples—Once more the Jews!” These and similar charges, made daily in Hitler’s speeches and in the party press, went far beyond the official program. Although Hitler and others within the party would repeatedly invoke the “immutable” Twenty-five Points, as if they were engraved in tablets of stone, the formal program slipped into the background, serving merely as a point of departure for more expansive, more plastic appeals.
The Nazis always impressed observers with their raw energy and activism, but it was more than their “noisiness” that separated them from their right-wing competitors; it was the very nature of the party itself. Hitler was determined that the NSDAP would not be a conventional political party, but a movement driven by an all-embracing ideological vision that would challenge and ultimately vanquish the “Jewish Marxism” of the left. And it would pursue its vision with ruthless, fanatical zeal. The party would tolerate no compromises, no half measures, no dialogue. “There is no making pacts with Jews,” Hitler later warned in Mein Kampf. “There can only be the hard ‘either—or.’ ”
Hitler’s radicalism, his growing mastery over crowds, and his emphasis on action attracted a wide variety of men and transformed the character and identity of the party. While the DAP of Drexler and Harrer drew followers who were for the most part nonunion workers, craftsmen, and small shopkeepers, Hitler attracted a different element. He began by recruiting men from his old regiment, from the barracks, and other combat veterans. These were men with few ties to a middle-class past and who had contempt for the moral confines of bourgeois life. They were comfortable in uniform, with weapons, military discipline, and violence, men of action who would not be constrained either by bourgeois convention or even law. They believed that they could do anything, accomplish anything through iron will, determination, and, when necessary, by force—men, in other words, cut from the same cloth as Hitler. As Hitler’s reputation grew, such men flooded into the little DAP and quickly swamped the original membership. Although he did not directly challenge the party’s executive committee, Hitler built a cadre of men loyal to him that gradually undermined its authority. Dietrich Eckart, a hard-drinking poet and journalist with good connections in artistic and social circles, acted as something of a mentor to the younger Hitler. Eckart was a ferocious Jew hater and published a scurrilously anti-Semitic sheet called Auf Gut Deutsch (In Plain German). After hearing Hitler speak for the first time, Eckart believed he had discovered the “messiah” who could unite the country and lead Germany out of the leftist, pacifist darkness. He introduced the untutored Hitler not only to important figures in the Völkisch movement but to moneyed members of the Munich social elite as well. It was Eckart and his connections who raised the funds to buy the tiny Münchner Beobachter, which, as the Völkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer), would become the party’s official newspaper.
Also drawn to Hitler by his speeches was Alfred Rosenberg, a Baltic German who was of a philosophical disposition, given to conspiracy theories involving Jews, Freemasons, and Marxists. His prolific writings in the Völkisch press, with titles such as his 1919 books The Tracks of the Jews Through the Ages and Immorality in the Talmud, fairly bristled with crackpot ideas and were couched in exactly the turgid, pseudo-profound language that appealed to the autodidact Hitler. Rosenberg also introduced Hitler to the sensational Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent Russian work that purported to reveal a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. The Protocols was making the rounds in Europe, and although it was obviously a work of pure invention, it stirred anti-Semitic sentiments across the continent. In 1923 Hitler would appoint Rosenberg to the editorship of the Völkischer Beobachter.
Another new party member, Rudolf Hess, had been trained as a combat pilot toward the end of the war, and as a student in postwar Munich had been profoundly influenced by Professor Karl Haushofer’s concept of Lebensraum, living space, as the key to a nation’s power. Haushofer argued that culturally superior but “land-starved” states must expand territorially or slip into inevitable decline. Germany’s only hope for survival as a great power lay in acquiring land in the East, by which he meant Russia. Hess introduced these ideas to Hitler. Several years younger than Hitler, Hess was not terribly bright, but he became slavishly devoted to Hitler and would serve as his loyal personal secretary.
Also among this group of early Hitler converts was twenty-year-old Hermann Esser, a flamboyant character so thoroughly disreputable in his private life that Hitler openly referred to him as a scoundrel—but a useful one. Esser carried on a variety of unsavory sexual affairs and was said to live exclusively on the income of his various mistresses, but in these early days he proved to be, after Hitler, the party’s most popular speaker. When Hitler became official leader of the NSDAP in 1921 he placed Esser in charge of the party’s propaganda.
At thirty-nine a veritable tribal elder by the Nazis’ youthful standards, Julius Streicher was a notoriously crude character. Short and stocky with a barrel chest, a shaven head, and an intimidating, blustering manner, Streicher was perhaps the most violently anti-Semitic of the Nazi leaders, a position for which there was keen competition. In early 1923 he began publishing a weekly newspaper, Der Stürmer (The Striker), a particularly vulgar tabloid that specialized in salacious depictions of grotesquely distorted Jews molesting pure Aryan women, their clothes torn, breasts exposed. Although Streicher’s paper was and would remain an embarrassment to many party leaders, it had Hitler’s full support. Streicher earned Hitler’s enduring gratitude when in 1921 he deserted the German Socialist Party (despite its name, a right-wing party) and joined the NSDAP, bringing his many followers with him, a move that virtually doubled the size of the Nazi party.
These men, more militant and active than the executive committee, transformed the NSDAP into a more radical, revolutionary party. Some in the leadership were uncomfortable with Hitler’s raw ambition and feared that he was moving the party too far, too fast—and that they were losing control. But efforts to rein in Hitler proved unsuccessful, and Harrer resigned from the executive committee. Although Drexler assumed the chairmanship, it was increasingly clear that Hitler had eclipsed the stodgy executive committee and had become the catalyst of the party.
Hitler’s leadership was officially confirmed at a membership meeting in January 1922. The party’s membership was growing, chapters (Ortsgruppen) were opening in other towns, and another set of adherents, energetic, ruthless men drawn less by ideology than by Hitler’s dynamism and call to action, joined the party. Hermann Göring was a celebrated war hero, winner of Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest award for bravery in combat, and the last group commander of the illustrious Richthofen squadron. After the war he had bounced from one job to another—he flew as a stunt pilot in air circuses in Denmark and Sweden, where he married a Swedish baroness; he became a commercial pilot, an aircraft salesman for Fokker; he enrolled at the university in Munich. Too restless to settle down, he found peacetime sorely lacking in the adventure he had enjoyed during the war. In 1921 he walked into the party’s new office in the Corneliusstrasse and offered his services. Hitler was delighted to have a genuine war hero onboard. Göring, who ultimately became Hitler’s extremely powerful deputy and second in command of the Third Reich, projected an image of a dashing man of action, jolly, outgoing, a hail-fellow-well-met. He was also utterly ruthless. Although he shared Hitler’s xenophobia and anti-Semitism, he was less interested in ideology than in action and power. He joined the Nazi party, he later remarked, not because of any ideological nonsense but because it was revolutionary.
Göring was not the portly, almost clownish figure he would later become, but a man of soldierly bearing and physique. It was precisely his distinguished military background and his swaggering persona that prompted Hitler to put him in charge of a new party formation whose ostensible task was to protect the party’s speakers from enemies at public meetings and rallies. These men were the rough and ready of the party, ex-soldiers, Free Corps veterans, and thugs eager to smash heads, to meet the Communists and Social Democrats in battle and lay claim to the streets. Initially called the Gymnastic and Sports Division, an appellation that fooled no one, in late 1921 the organization was renamed the Sturmabteilung (Storm Section) or SA. Although they did not yet wear the yellowish brown uniforms that would become ubiquitous features of the German political landscape, in the summer of 1922 the Storm Troopers appeared in the beer halls and streets of Munich, quickly earning a reputation for violence and thuggery.
Göring was officially in charge of the SA, but Ernst Röhm was its real driving force. Like Eckart, Rosenberg, and Hess, Röhm had joined the DAP in 1919, and he was the most important of the Hitler loyalists. Wounded in the war, his face badly scarred by gunfire, Röhm was above all a soldier, and like Hitler he was unwilling to leave the war behind. “War and unrest,” he wrote in a 1928 memoir, “appeal to me more than the orderly life of your respectable burgher.” He had fought for four years in the trenches, was a recipient of the Iron Cross first class, and was still a captain in the army in the early postwar years.
His duties in the new Reichswehr included liaising with the various right-wing organizations that were sprouting like weeds around Munich. Röhm had contacts with a variety of right-wing paramilitary groups, from which he funneled men into the DAP. He was committed to establishing a fighting force for the party and hoped ultimately to forge a coalition of rightist paramilitary organizations that would combat the Marxists. He convinced the army to train SA men in the military arts, and he was also in charge of a stockpile of weapons from the demobilized army and Free Corps. In what proved to be a crucial ingredient of right-wing terror, he surreptitiously supplied various counterrevolutionary groups, especially the SA, with small arms.
Röhm envisioned the SA as a private army under his command and largely independent of the party leadership. Hitler, who respected Röhm as a fellow front soldier—he was one of the very few who addressed Hitler with the familiar du—was also keen to have such a paramilitary organization, but he took a quite different view of its role. For Hitler, the Storm Troopers were to be subordinate to the party leadership and serve as an important weapon to be wielded by the party for its agitation and propaganda activities. Blurred in these early years of the NSDAP’s existence, those conflicting visions would strain the relationship between the SA and the party down to 1934.
By 1922 Hitler had become a local phenomenon, not only a major figure in Munich’s right-wing demimonde but something of a minor celebrity about town. He was seen at the opera, at concerts, at films—he was a great fan of the movies, especially the Hollywood variety—and met regularly for social evenings at the Café Neumayer, overlooking the Viktualienmarkt, with his cronies and admirers—Göring, Rosenberg, Esser; and Max Amann, his former sergeant and since 1921 business manager of the party; Ulrich Graf, a wrestler and barroom bouncer who served as his bodyguard; Emil Maurice, his driver and general factotum; Heinrich Hoffmann, who became Hitler’s personal photographer. At the end of an evening of Hitler monologues, an armed escort would accompany their leader back to his narrow, one-room flat in the Thierschstrasse.
Hitler’s reputation as an eccentric and political maverick piqued the interest of some in the city’s more refined social set. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, heir to a lucrative international art reproduction firm, was won over to Hitler after hearing him speak to a mass meeting in the Kindlkeller in November 1922. Tall and gangly, Hanfstaengl was a well-heeled, Harvard-educated bon vivant with connections to the business and social worlds of Munich. He was also a man of culture, an accomplished amateur musician whose vigorous piano playing, especially of Wagner, entranced Hitler.
Hanfstaengl took it upon himself to introduce Hitler into polite society, where he was a hit with a number of society ladies who adopted this thrilling—and delightfully dangerous—bohemian with a thick Austrian accent and peculiarly clipped mustache. Helene Bechstein of the Bechstein piano fortune, and Elsa Bruckmann, whose family owned a major publishing firm in Munich, took a particular interest in him, treating him much like a bright son in need of social instruction. They mothered him, gave him money, advised him on matters of etiquette and attire, and held soirees for him at their salons in Munich and Berlin. On such occasions his behavior was decidedly odd: he might chat with courtly Viennese charm or sit through dinner in stony silence. If asked a question on some political or social matter, he might abruptly jump to his feet and deliver a passionate speech, bellowing as if he were addressing a crowd of thousands at the Hofbräuhaus. Then he would just as abruptly bow to his host and depart. He never failed to make an impression.
For Hitler, the pinnacle of these social connections was to come in Bayreuth where Helene Bechstein introduced him to Wagner’s son Siegfried and his wife, Winifred, and to the ancient Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the expatriate Englishman who had married one of Wagner’s daughters and become a fervent German nationalist and racist. The Wagners were surprised and impressed by Hitler’s extensive knowledge of the Master’s operas. Winifred was utterly charmed by Hitler and saw him as the “coming man” in German politics. Siegfried tolerated him, indulging his wife and treating the exotic, sallow-faced Austrian rather like a not quite housebroken mascot.
Hitler was generally indifferent to his appearance; he wore distinctly eccentric attire—not the usual conservative uniform favored by politicians—black suits and shoes, starched shirts, stiff collars, cravats. Aside from the lederhosen, knee stockings, incongruous brown leather vest, and traditional Bavarian jacket he sometimes donned for outdoor events, he could be seen around the city wearing a black slouch hat and a seedy trench coat, which made him look less like an aspiring politician than a Chicago mobster. He also carried a dog whip and pistol, which shocked and titillated his society patrons. He owned a cheap blue suit, which he wore when speaking in the beer halls and when introduced into the salons of the elite. On such occasions, as Hanfstaengl remarked, Hitler looked “like a waiter in a railway station restaurant.” Frau Bechstein insisted on buying her rough-edged protégé formal evening clothes and patent leather shoes, which he was careful not to wear in public. Hitler was very fond of the shoes, which he did wear, but understood that he could hardly project himself as a man of the people if he were seen in a dinner jacket and white tie.
Although Hitler received occasional money from the Bechsteins, Bruckmanns, and lesser society patrons, their contributions to his career were not merely financial. More importantly, they imparted to Hitler the basic tenets of acceptable social behavior when interacting with moneyed interests that might contribute to his cause. By opening their salons to him, these wealthy benefactors gave him credibility in mainstream conservative circles where he was generally viewed as a vulgar, rabble-rousing philistine. By 1922, doors were opening. In the spring of that year he was twice invited to speak at the National Club in Berlin, and in Munich he addressed an informal meeting of the League of Bavarian Industrialists and delivered a well-attended talk to business leaders at the Merchants’ Guild Hall. When addressing these business groups, Hitler emphasized the party’s opposition to Marxism, underscoring his determination to pry workers away from the left and reintegrate them into the national community. Attacks on Versailles, especially the reparations clauses, were de rigueur on such occasions, and the anticapitalist, anti–big business rhetoric that occupied such a central position in the party’s program and in so many of his rousing public speeches was notably absent.
These appearances opened the pocketbooks of some in the business community. Ernst von Borsig, a powerful manufacturer of locomotives and heavy machinery in Berlin, and the Ruhr industrialist Fritz Thyssen were impressed with Hitler and funneled cash to the party. There were other contributors, drawn mostly from Munich business circles, and the party even received funds from anti-Marxist groups abroad. These business contributions were important but sporadic and were supplemented by secret funds from the Bavarian Reichswehr, which saw in the NSDAP a useful weapon in the anti-Marxist cause. As Hitler’s popularity grew, however, the party was increasingly financed by its own rank and file. It scrupulously collected membership dues, charged admission to Hitler events, passed the hat at rallies, and launched collection campaigns asking members to make contributions for special causes or occasions—11 million reichsmarks, for example, were collected in celebration of Hitler’s birthday.
Although still a small splinter party, barely known beyond the borders of Bavaria, the NSDAP was growing rapidly. By fall 1923 the party could claim a membership of 55,000, roughly double what it had been in 1922 and up from 6,000 in 1921. Over half had joined in the first months of 1923 alone. In February 1923, with funds supplied by Hanfstaengl and Röhm, the party acquired two modern rotary presses for the Völkischer Beobachter, which allowed it to print a full-sized paper that would appear on newsstands every day. The party established a theater troupe, which performed its own plays at theaters around the city. The party was now filling larger and larger halls—the Bürgerbräukeller, the Hofbräuhaus, and the gigantic Zirkus Krone, drawing audiences of three to six thousand enthusiastic listeners. Some journalists began calling Hitler “the king of Munich.”
And Munich in the early postwar years provided a particularly fertile breeding ground for Hitler and his party. Since the end of the war and more specifically since the revolution, the city had become a powerful magnet for anti-leftist, anti-Republican nationalist groups. Still reeling from the trauma of the Munich revolution and with the Republican government in Berlin led by Socialists, the traditional Bavarian hostility toward Prussia revived with a vengeance. A strong separatist movement took hold, as some saw in the collapse of the empire and the weakness of the Weimar Republic an opportunity to establish an independent Bavarian state. Some hoped to see a restoration of the Wittelsbach monarchy; others envisioned a Danubian confederation of Bavaria, Austria, and Hungary. The Munich authorities proved distinctly hostile to “Red Berlin,” often refusing to implement directives and decrees from the central government. Efforts by Berlin to curb the vicious right-wing groups in the Reich were ostentatiously spurned by the Bavarian authorities, and as a result this largely conservative Catholic state became, ironically, a haven for counterrevolutionary nationalist-Völkisch extremists of all kinds. It is impossible to overstate the crucial importance of this tolerant, even supportive, posture to Hitler’s early success.
The situation in 1922 seemed particularly ripe for an assault on the embattled Republic. Between 1918 and 1924 Germany suffered from a severe case of cabinet instability—nine different governments since 1920, none with a workable majority in the Reichstag; a plague of political terrorism, and attempts to overthrow the fledgling Republic from both the radical left and right. The Reichstag elections in June 1920, held in the shadow of the Versailles Treaty, resulted in a devastating defeat for the parties of the Weimar coalition: the left-liberals, now called the Democratic Party, saw their vote cut in half, and the Social Democrats and Catholic Zentrum also experienced serious losses. The Conservatives were the big winners but were not strong enough to form a government. As a result, a string of minority cabinets and patchwork coalitions presided over the country, sometimes invoking Article 48 of the constitution, which gave the chancellor, with the approval of the Reich President, the power to take measures by emergency decree.
In 1920 a conspiracy of conservative monarchists under the leadership of Wolfgang Kapp sent troops angry at their demobilization orders into Berlin and declared the establishment of a dictatorship. The army, while refusing to defend the government, also declined to throw support behind the coup. Without that support, the Kapp Putsch collapsed after a mere six days, brought down by an effective general strike called by the labor unions. The trouble did not end there. Workers in the Ruhr were not ready to end the strike without guarantees for reform and meaningful action against the Free Corps. They formed a “Red Army of the Ruhr” to protect themselves from the anticipated reaction of the army. Indeed, the army showed no qualms about moving vigorously against the left; reinforced by Free Corps units, the army smashed the workers’ uprising, executing many and murdering others.
The ongoing unrest in the Reich prompted the Allies to demand that all paramilitary groups in Germany be disbanded or Germany would face invasion. The Reich government agreed, but Bavaria refused to comply. Under pressure from the Allies, Berlin at last demanded that Bavaria submit or face invasion from the north. With great reluctance the ultraconservative government of Bavarian monarchist Gustav Ritter von Kahr at last complied. By mid-1921 the various paramilitary organizations in Bavaria were dissolved, their members drifting to the NSDAP and other counterrevolutionary parties. Predictably, right-wing outrage against the Republic intensified, stoking the smoldering Bavarian resentment at Berlin.
Adding to the instability was a rising tide of political murder that swept across the country in these years. Hugo Haase, leader of the USPD, was assassinated in 1919; Matthias Erzberger, signatory of the Armistice and long vilified as one of the “November criminals,” was murdered while vacationing in the Black Forest in 1921; and a year later so was Walther Rathenau, the liberal Jewish foreign minister. All were committed by right-wing terrorists, many with ties to groups in Munich. Almost all escaped without serious consequences. Anti-republican police officials tolerated and in some cases colluded with right-wing fugitives, helping them to escape the law, and judges were notoriously lenient with those who were tried. When the Munich police chief Ernst Pöhner, who helped Erzberger’s killers flee across the Czech border, was asked if he was aware that there were “political murder gangs” operating in the city, he is said to have replied, “Yes, but not enough of them.”
The murder of these prominent national figures was but the tip of the iceberg. Numerous pro-Republican regional leaders as well as outspoken local supporters of the Republic fell victim to right-wing hit squads. Between 1919 and 1922, Germany recorded over three hundred political murders; in the first six months of 1922 alone, the number climbed to 376. Only twenty-two of these attacks were committed by leftists. “It was the time,” Konrad Heiden remarked, “when murder could be had for small change.”
The brazen murder of Rathenau in June 1922 was the final straw. The Reich government enacted the Law for the Protection of the Republic, which instituted stiff penalties for attacks against Republican institutions and officials, and called for a nationwide crackdown on extremist groups. It also created a special tribunal within the Supreme Court in Leipzig to hear cases of political terrorism and laid out regulations for strict monitoring of political parties and societies, including their meetings and printed propaganda materials. In Munich the Bavarian authorities refused to honor the law, claiming that it amounted to unconstitutional meddling in Bavarian affairs. Bavaria would deal with terrorism in its own fashion and enacted its own legislation, which, Bavarian leaders insisted, superseded the Reich law. Little changed. As 1922 turned to 1923, the Weimar Republic was still very much in peril, and the forces of the right were gathering strength.
The reparations issue continued to haunt the Weimar government. The Versailles Treaty had not set a specific amount for Germany’s reparations obligations, but in 1921 the Allied Reparations Commission had finally presented the German government with a figure. The bill was 123 billion gold marks, not counting payments amounting to 26 percent of Germany’s exports. In what was called the London Ultimatum, Germany had been given six days to accept or the Allies would occupy the Ruhr. The Republic had only with great reluctance bowed to the ultimatum, prompting another round of accusations of betrayal and cowardice from the political extremes. Although the government had accepted the terms, it also employed a variety of economic stratagems to avoid making the payments—disputing the value of payments in kind, especially timber and coal, the value of the mark, and the schedule of installments. In January 1923, France and Belgium, exasperated by Germany’s consistent evasion, invaded and occupied the Ruhr, setting off an economic and political crisis that threatened to unravel the delicate fabric of Weimar democracy. The German government called for a policy of passive resistance and let the printing presses of the treasury roll. Inflation, which had been mounting since the end of the war, spiraled into an utterly surrealistic hyperinflation. At the outbreak of the war in 1914 a dollar was worth 5 reichsmark (RM); at war’s end, 64 RM; in January 1923 following the Franco-Belgian invasion, 17,972 RM. Thereafter the value of the reichsmark was almost impossible to calculate for more than a few hours. In August 1923 a dollar was worth 109,996 RM; by November, 420,000,000,000 RM.
Banks received government permission to print their own currency, sometimes on paper (small bills printed on one side that looked rather like Monopoly money), later on bedsheets and pillowcases. Often banks simply stamped zeros on existing denominations, transforming a 5 RM note into a 5,000 or 500,000 or 5,000,000 bill. In November, a streetcar ticket in Berlin cost 150,000,000 RM; a kilo of potatoes 90,000,000,000 RM; a beer in Munich 500,000,000,000. Children constructed elaborate castles with stacks of worthless paper currency; women shopped with wheelbarrows heaped high with bills. Shopkeepers hoarded their goods, refusing to sell their merchandise since it would be impossible to replenish their inventory tomorrow with today’s now worthless currency. People were paid three times a day. Upon arriving at work in the morning, they received a payment and immediately dispatched an accompanying family member (often a child) to buy lunch; if they waited until lunch break, the morning’s pay would be worthless; at the midday break the process was repeated, with a runner sent to buy food for dinner. Finally at the end of the workday, workers and employees were paid again and bought food for the next morning, when the whole process would begin again. “Life,” one German glumly lamented, was “madness, nightmare, desperation and chaos.” It was the end of the world, “the death of money.”
With the economy careening toward utter collapse, the foundations of the Republic began to crumble. In late summer two Rhenish separatist movements, cheered on by the French, declared independent Rhineland republics, one in Aachen, the other in Koblenz; in Saxony and Thuringia, where the Communists and Socialists had formed a legitimate governing alliance, rumors of a leftist coup prompted Berlin to send in troops, disband the leftist government, and impose martial law. A Communist uprising in Hamburg in October was crushed by the army, leaving the country poised on the cusp of anarchy and civil war. It was in this cauldron of economic crisis and political instability that Hitler and the NSDAP made their first appearance on the national political scene.
Throughout the early months of 1923 Hitler had continued his feverish agitation against the Republic, heaping abuse on Berlin’s policy of passive resistance. It was, he roared, the Republic’s craven behavior, the government’s disgraceful inability to stand up to the Allies that had led Germany to this catastrophe. In January the NSDAP had held its first National Party Day. The party rented out a dozen of Munich’s largest beer halls, and throughout the day and into the night Hitler spoke in all twelve. He also presided over an imposing parade by the SA on the Marsfeld, where he stood in review of the passing columns for over two hours. In all, the police estimated the attendance at the Nazis’ Party Day events at 100,000. There were setbacks—on May Day an embarrassing confrontation with government forces, when a massive show of force by the Nazis was frustrated by the Bavarian Reichswehr and State Police (Landespolizei), who disarmed and dispersed the thousands of paramilitary men gathered on the Oberwiesenfeld. Hitler was humiliated, and yet despite this embarrassment, huge crowds still continued to flock to hear him speak.
In the late summer, as the economy spun out of control and the political situation deteriorated, rumors of an impending coup d’état swirled through the city. Pressure was building from the far right as well as separatist forces. On September 1–2, General Erich Ludendorff, an implacable enemy of the Republic and the hero of the far right, presided over a “German Day” celebration in Nuremberg. Over 100,000 militants from right-wing groups, veterans’ associations, and paramilitary organizations swarmed into the city. At the German Day event, Röhm managed to bring the right-wing organizations Reich War Flag, the Bund Oberland, and the SA into a new militant coalition, the German Battle League (Kampfbund). Remarkably, Hitler, who had always resisted entering into an alliance with other parties, had agreed to allow the SA to join as well. Hitler was recognized by the other groups as the “political leader” of the alliance, though exactly what that meant was not at all clear; retired Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Kriebel was to be its military commander, while Ludendorff was generally viewed as the future dictator of Germany. All three stood together on the podium at the impressive German Day demonstration, exhibiting an unusual degree of right-wing solidarity, and fresh rumors of an impending coup swept throughout Munich.
Hitler had succeeded in galvanizing popular opposition to the Bavarian Republic, but Röhm and others in his inner circle were worried that the party could not keep its followers at a fever pitch indefinitely. Hitler had preached action, revolutionary action. If he did not move, and soon, they would begin drifting away. Beyond the party faithful, the broader public was growing desperate. Unemployment was rapidly rising; food prices were exploding; savings were disappearing. In late October, reports from regional officials brought alarming news: in Upper Bavaria, one district office reported that the mood of the local population “is close to the mood of the November days of 1918 and April 1919,” and Bavarian officials were “expecting riots at any moment.” The people were demanding a solution to their economic distress. The time was ripe; the party had to act.
In November 1923 real power in Munich was in the hands of a triumvirate consisting of State Commissar Gustav Ritter von Kahr; Colonel Hans Ritter von Seisser, director of the State Police; and General Otto von Lossow, commander of the Bavarian Reichswehr. The last weeks of October were taut with intrigue and suspicion, as Hitler, Ludendorff, and other leaders of the Kampfbund held meetings with members of the triumvirate. Each pressed its vision of the future on the other, but little agreement could be reached. A veil of mutual mistrust hung over the meetings. Both groups wanted to hurry the demise of the democratic state they abhorred, but beyond that little common ground could be found. The triumvirate wanted the Republic overthrown and replaced by a dictatorship backed by the Reichswehr and led by an oligarchic group of conservative political leaders in Berlin. Kahr was engaged in talks to win support for such a plan in Berlin, without, however, gaining much traction. Especially disheartening was his failure to win over Reichswehr commander General Hans von Seeckt, whose support would be pivotal.
At a meeting with leaders of the Kampfbund on November 6, Kahr, backed by Lossow and Seisser, emphasized that any attempt to bring down the Republic would take time and careful planning, and he wanted no part of a Putsch, especially one led by Ludendorff and Hitler. All must act in concert; this was no time for unilateral moves. Hitler had not been at the meeting, and he was unsettled by Kahr’s intransigence. He wanted revolutionary action and was not inclined to wait. Still, he realized that any Putsch would need the support of the Munich police and the Bavarian Reichswehr, and he hoped to coax Kahr to back—or at least not block—such a move. On the night of the 6th he tried to arrange a meeting with Kahr for the next day, but the commissar refused to see him. That night, after conferring with his top advisors, Hitler decided that the time for the Putsch had come. Then on November 7, Kahr made an unexpected announcement: he would hold an important speech at the Bürgerbräu Beer Hall on the following evening. All Munich’s prominent political players, business leaders, military men, and social movers and shakers were to be in attendance. Hitler took Kahr’s refusal to meet with him as an ominous sign, and when Kahr again refused to meet with him on the 8th, either before or after his Bürgerbräu address, the Nazis were convinced that the commissar intended to exclude Hitler from his plans altogether. Of more immediate concern, Hitler and his lieutenants feared that Kahr might use his Bürgerbräu speech to announce his intention to break with Berlin, restore the Wittelsbach monarchy, and declare an independent Bavaria. Kahr’s hand would have to be forced.
That morning, Hitler conferred with his inner circle. He sensed a potential opportunity. With Munich’s top civilian and military leaders all gathered in one place, he would crash the meeting, hijack the proceedings, and launch his own Putsch from the Bürgerbräukeller. He would force Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser to endorse the Putsch. He convinced himself that the army would fall in line behind them. It was a desperate roll of the dice, a long shot, but, as he would demonstrate again and again in the coming years, Hitler was a gambler.
In the afternoon of November 7, the plan was finalized. It called for SA and Kampfbund troops to take control of all the major cities in Bavaria—Nuremberg, Augsburg, Regensburg, Ingolstadt, Würzburg, and Munich. They would seize railways, bridges, communications centers, radio stations, government buildings, and police headquarters. The offices of the labor unions, Social Democrats, and Communists were to be occupied and their leaders arrested. SA units from the surrounding countryside would converge on Munich, coming by truck and train. SA and Kampfbund leaders would be given their orders by telephone or courier. They were to alert their men for action the next day, although they were not to inform them of their mission. Secrecy was essential. Lieutenant Colonel Kriebel, the military leader of the Putsch, calculated that Hitler could count on roughly four thousand armed men arrayed against an army and police force of about half that number. But Hitler did not intend to use force. He hoped that no violence would be necessary. If the triumvirate could be convinced—or coerced—to cooperate with the Putsch, the Bavarian authorities, the municipal police, and the Bavarian Reichswehr would fall into line and together they would move on Berlin. It was to be, as historian Alan Bullock put it, “a revolution by sheer bluff.”
It was dark when Hitler and his entourage left party headquarters bound for the Bürgerbräukeller. The beer hall sat on a gentle rise on the east side of the Isar River, about a half mile from the Marienplatz in the center of the city. It was one of Munich’s largest beer halls, flanked by gardens and surrounded by a low stone wall. Its main hall could seat some three thousand people. It tended to draw a somewhat more upscale crowd than the earthier Hofbräuhaus or Löwenbräukeller, and that would certainly be the case for Commissar Kahr’s address. Aware of the possibility of trouble, a contingent of 125 municipal police was in place in and around the sprawling grounds, and a company of State Police was held in readiness at a nearby barracks.
Commissar Kahr’s address began promptly at eight o’clock. The hall was filled to capacity. Seated at dozens of round wooden tables before him were bankers and businessmen, military officers, newspaper editors, members of the Bavarian cabinet, and political figures from the center-right. His theme for the evening was the evils of Marxism, punctuated by the usual paeans to German nationalism, always a hit with this crowd. Kahr was deep into his remarks when Hitler arrived in his red Mercedes, bluffed his way through the police cordon, and, accompanied by his armed entourage, stepped into the lobby. Outside a stream of trucks began arriving. Within minutes they had disgorged their load of heavily armed SA men and helmeted members of Hitler’s special guard, the Shock Troop Adolf Hitler. Within minutes they had brushed aside the police cordon, surrounded the building, and blocked all the exits. Then, at just past 8:30, as Kahr droned on, the door to the hall burst open and in stormed Göring, “with all his medals clinking,” followed by two dozen uniformed shock troops brandishing pistols and machine guns. Behind them, in the entrance to the main hall, SA men mounted a heavy machine gun, training it directly on the audience.
In the general uproar, Hitler, surrounded by his Shock Troop guards, pushed his way through the crowd. Shouts of protest rang out, tables and chairs were overturned, beer mugs crashed to the floor. Just in front of the podium Hitler clambered onto a chair, gave a signal to the SA man on his right, and a pistol shot was fired into the ceiling. In the sudden silence, Hitler bellowed, “The German revolution has broken out! This hall is surrounded.” The response was not what he had anticipated. Many in the distinguished audience whistled and stamped their disapproval; others shouted “Mexico” or “South America.” This was no banana republic!
Dripping sweat, Hitler stripped off his rumpled trench coat, and to the surprise (and amusement) of some, stood before them in a long-tailed black cutaway. He appeared, one bemused onlooker remarked, “like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and a headwaiter.” But this was no laughing matter. Hitler climbed down from his chair and moved to the speaker’s platform where Kahr, Seisser, and Lossow stood as if paralyzed. After guaranteeing their safety, Hitler politely asked the three gentlemen to follow him into an adjoining room. There he apologized for the nature of his actions, but told them, “It is done and cannot now be undone.” He was creating a new Bavarian government in preparation for a move on Berlin. He assured them that all three would hold leading positions in that new government, and he hoped he could count on their cooperation. His manner seemed to swing between the respectful and the intimidating, pleading for their support one minute and at another threatening to shoot the “traitors” and then himself if his enterprise should fail.
The triumvirate did not immediately agree to cooperate. After fifteen minutes of alternately cajoling, menacing, and finally subjecting them to a hectoring speech about their patriotic duty, Hitler returned to the hall to address the crowd, which had grown restless in his absence. At one point Göring had to fire a shot into the ceiling to restore order, screaming that a new Germany was in the making. Everyone should settle down with their beer and be patient. When Hitler finally reappeared without Kahr and company, the crowd again grew raucous and did not subside when he tried to speak. Finally Hitler drew his pistol and fired yet another shot into the ceiling. If order wasn’t restored, he shouted, he would order a machine gun placed in the gallery.
The crowd noise subsided, and Hitler began to speak. At first he seemed shaky, unsure of himself, but he quickly rebounded, gaining confidence with every fiery word. A new government was being formed, Hitler told the crowd. General Ludendorff would assume command of the army; the triumvirate would all have prominent positions in the new government. With the army restored to its former glory and with the support of the people, the provisional government would “begin the march against Berlin, that sink of iniquity, with all the might of this state and the accumulated power of every province in Germany.”
In the audience was the peripatetic professor Karl Alexander von Müller, who had taught Hitler in the Reichswehr’s speakers course in 1919. He was thunderstruck. Hitler’s words, according to Müller, had an electrifying effect on the crowd. In a flash, the audience, sullen and skeptical at the outset, swung behind Hitler. His performance was “an oratorical masterpiece, which any actor might envy. . . . I cannot remember in my entire life such a change in the attitude of a crowd in a few minutes, almost a few seconds. . . . Hitler had turned them inside out, as one turns a glove inside out, with a few sentences. It had almost something of hocus-pocus, of magic about it. Loud approval roared forth, no further opposition was to be heard.” Hitler told the crowd that Kahr, Seisser, and Lossow were in an adjoining room, trying to decide whether to support the new government. Could he report to them that “you will stand behind them?” The room was filled with boisterous cries of “Yes, yes!”
Back with the sequestered triumvirate, Hitler was frustrated to discover that they were still wavering. The situation was saved only when General Ludendorff appeared, dressed in his impressive uniform from the Great War, topped off by the pointed Pickelhaube helmet. Ludendorff commanded great respect as the leader of the nationalist right, and together with Pöhner the general managed to convince the recalcitrant trio to join the cause, though Kahr still insisted that he was merely acting as regent in preparation for a restoration of the Wittelsbach monarchy. Hitler had no intention of restoring the monarchy but was happy to let Kahr posture as he would. The group now reappeared on the platform, joined by Ludendorff. Unity achieved, a beaming Hitler ostentatiously shook hands all around, projecting an image of harmony and solidarity. The crowd broke into thunderous applause. It was pure political theater. While this display of goodwill reigned onstage, contingents of SA men began rounding up members of the Bavarian cabinet in the hall. They would be held as hostages.
While these dramatic events were unfolding in the Bürgerbräukeller, Ernst Röhm and Hermann Esser were addressing a large Kampfbund crowd at the Löwenbräukeller. At about nine o’clock, Röhm received a short telephone message: “Safely delivered.” It was the signal he had been waiting for: Hitler had succeeded; the Putsch was successfully under way. Röhm strode to the podium and announced that the Kahr government had been deposed and Adolf Hitler had declared a national revolution. His words were met with wild cheering. He called for everyone to march on the Bürgerbräukeller to join the revolutionary troops there. But as the two thousand excited men began moving down the street, a motorcycle courier stopped them with a new order from Hitler. They were to proceed to the Reichswehr’s District IV headquarters and seize it. Another contingent was to collect some three thousand rifles from a monastery basement on St. Annaplatz. All across the city Kampfbund troops were moving on their assigned objectives.
Back at the Bürgerbräu, things had begun to go wrong. Hitler received a message that Kampfbund forces were in a standoff with government troops at the barracks of the army engineers. Believing that he might resolve the situation, Hitler sped to the scene, leaving Ludendorff in charge of the Bürgerbräukeller. Shortly after Hitler left, Lossow asked Ludendorff if he might leave the building to attend to matters at his office—after all, he had important orders to issue. He gave a solemn promise not to undertake any action that would harm the Putsch. Kahr and Seisser echoed Lossow’s request, and Ludendorff permitted them all to leave. When Hitler returned, he was flabbergasted at what Ludendorff had done. Didn’t the general realize that they could sabotage the whole enterprise? Ludendorff was surprised and offended. Didn’t Hitler, a corporal, understand that a German officer would never break his oath?
Hitler’s suspicions were well founded. As soon as Kahr and company gained their freedom, they renounced their pledge to Hitler, explaining that they were not bound by a promise made under duress, and immediately began working to rally government forces against the Putsch. Lossow and Seisser worked the phones to alert military and police units around the city to resist the rebels and issued orders to troops from the outlying districts to move on Munich. Inexplicably and contrary to their hastily drawn up plans, the Putschists had not taken the key communications and transportation centers that were so crucial to the success of their endeavor.
By ten o’clock Röhm had taken control of the Reichswehr headquarters without firing a shot, some bridges were occupied, and placards declaring the creation of the revolutionary government were being posted about town. Roving SA bands were harassing Jews, beating some, dragging others off to the Bürgerbräu, where they were thrown into the cellar to be held as hostages. But in the cold midnight hours, the Putsch began to fall apart. Efforts to seize the Municipal Police Directorate, the Office of the State Commissariat, the City Military Command, army barracks, and police installations had misfired. As the night wore on, it was becoming increasingly clear to Hitler and his allies that the Putsch had failed.
The crowd in the Bürgerbräukeller had long departed, and in the great hall hundreds of restless Storm Troopers stood about or tried to get a little rest, dozing on tabletops, in chairs pulled together, and on the floor. The frenzied excitement of the Putsch’s first hours was long gone, as were the beer and bread and pretzels (the management would later present the party with a bill of over 11 million marks). Still the leaders had no new orders to give them. As dawn approached and the unraveling of their plans sank in, the leadership debated its next move. In the hurried, improvised planning of the Putsch, Hitler had given little thought to the possibility of failure. There was no backup plan. Grasping at straws, Hitler dispatched a messenger to Crown Prince Ruppert in Berchtesgaden, hoping that he would intervene with Kahr and convince him to back the uprising. It was symptomatic of the Putsch’s disorganization that the messenger could not find a car and had to travel by train, arriving in the afternoon. Ruppert flatly refused. He had, in fact, already encouraged Kahr to crush the rebellion. Kriebel, the military commander of the Putsch, recommended pulling out of Munich and regrouping in Rosenheim on the nearby Austrian border. There they could count on the support of the local population. Göring agreed, but Ludendorff, who had gone home to rest and returned in civilian clothes, wouldn’t hear of it. “The movement cannot end in the ditch of some obscure country lane,” he snorted.
In the late morning, with the situation deteriorating with each passing hour and no resolution reached, Ludendorff made a straightforward declaration that sounded like an order: “We will march!” Röhm and his men were barricaded in the Reichswehr headquarters, surrounded by government troops. The Putschists would march through the city and liberate them. The idea of a march appealed to Hitler (so much so that he later claimed that it was his own). Freeing Röhm was the ostensible objective of the march, but as Hitler envisioned it, a march through the center of the city with banners flying and a band leading the way would stir support for the Putsch among the people. The public simply didn’t know about the revolution—that was the problem—and this display of power by the rebels would turn the tide. It was an exercise in the sort of performance politics that Hitler so enthusiastically practiced. The government troops would not dare fire on the aroused people; indeed, they would join their ranks, and Kahr and his allies would be forced to cooperate with the national revolution after all. Even in his desperation, Hitler must have realized that this was more of a hope than a realistic expectation.
As they made preparations to march, Hitler sent Feder, Streicher, and other party leaders into the streets to rouse the people. They were to hold speeches on public squares, explaining the goals of the national revolution, whipping up support. At 11 a.m. things at last began to move at the Bürgerbräukeller. Two thousand men, many of them exhausted from little sleep, hungover, and stiff in the bracing morning chill, began pouring out of the hall, forming up in the Rosenheimerstrasse. It was a ragtag assemblage. The Shock Troop Hitler, in Reichswehr helmets and outfitted with army-issue rifles and grenades, bore some resemblance to a military unit; the regiments of the Munich SA wore gray-green jackets, topped with Norwegian ski caps. Others were dressed in an array of civilian clothes—workers’ overalls and business suits with bits and pieces of wartime uniforms peeking through. All wore red swastika armbands and almost all were armed.
Kriebel quickly organized the men into columns, with ranks of eight across in the front, followed by ranks of four for the SA and other trailing units. Swastika banners and the black-white-red battle flags of the old imperial army sprouted at intervals throughout the formation. Leading the procession in the first rank were Hitler in his tightly belted trench coat, Ludendorff in hunting jacket and overcoat; Göring in a black leather coat, his Pour le Mérite visible at the neck, topped by a steel helmet with a white swastika painted on the front; and assorted other party officials. The brass band, which Hitler had engaged in the morning, played one uninspiring march as the troops assembled and then departed, angry that they had not had breakfast and had not been paid.
Finally, the procession lurched into motion, swinging westward down the sloping Rosenheimerstrasse to the Ludwigsbrücke, where they encountered a police blockade. The formation pushed through the outmanned police and continued across the river toward the Isar Gate. Along the way, curious onlookers lined the streets, uncertain of just what they were witnessing. Some shouted their support; some on the crowded sidewalks waved small Nazi flags; others jeered. Finally, the procession reached the Marienplatz, where it was swallowed up in an immense throng. An enormous Nazi flag fluttered from the balcony of the Rathaus, and smaller swastika banners flew from windows all around the square. Whipped up by Strasser and other Nazi speakers, the crowd greeted the Putschists with rousing cheers and shouts of Heil. Some joined the marchers, as if on parade. The spirits of the marchers soared. They sang as they marched. It was an encouraging sign that Hitler’s hope of an aroused public storming to support the Putsch might actually work.
The goal of the march had not been made clear to most of the men, and no one expected an armed confrontation. Some thought that having made a show of force, the formation would return to the Bürgerbräukeller in preparation for a next step. But Ludendorff was determined to liberate Röhm and his men trapped in the Reichswehr headquarters and pushed on. Reluctantly Hitler went along. Ludendorff led the procession away from the Marienplatz down a narrow street just off the Rathaus, then into the even narrower Residenzstrasse, barely wide enough for the eight-man ranks walking abreast. One hundred meters or so down the Residenzstrasse, the street widened into the broad Odeonsplatz, where nine years before Hitler had stood in the exultant multitude cheering the outbreak of war. Beyond the Odeonsplatz lay the Reichswehr headquarters.
Just as the marchers reached the Feldherrnhalle, a massive stone structure honoring Bavaria’s military heroes, at the mouth of the Odeonsplatz, the procession encountered a line of blue-uniformed State Police. This time the police did not buckle. As the marchers pushed forward, a shot rang out, echoing up the canyon walls of the tapered street. Then a frantic volley of gunfire. The shooting lasted no more than thirty seconds. When it stopped, eighteen men were lying dead in the street—fourteen Nazis and four policemen. The Putschists fell back in disarray. Hitler, his arm locked with another’s, was dragged down with such violence that his shoulder was separated. Göring was badly wounded, hit in the upper thigh. Rosenberg and Streicher, in the second rank, turned and fled. They saw Weber, leader of the Bund Oberland, pressed against a wall, weeping hysterically. Ludendorff, who immediately hit the cobblestones when the shots were fired, regained his feet and, certain that no troops would dare shoot the hero of the Great War, marched ramrod stiff through the police lines, where he was politely greeted by the officer in charge and escorted to safety in the Residenz. In the chaos, Hitler and Göring were dragged to safety and escaped the scene.
The ranks now dissolved in panic. Those in the rear of the formation were still singing patriotic marching songs when they heard the shots. They had no idea what had happened—no one expected a battle—but saw those in front of them frantically retreating from the Feldherrnhalle. The long column abruptly halted and began to scatter. During the afternoon the State Police rounded up hundreds of Putschists and disarmed them, taking the Bürgerbräukeller without any resistance from the dispirited revolutionaries. Hitler managed to evade capture until the 11th, when he was found hiding at the Hanfstaengl villa south of the city. By that time the NSDAP was officially banned, its newspaper closed down; its leaders either on their way to prison or hiding in exile. Hitler’s daring bid for power had lasted less than twenty-four hours and ended in an ignominious fiasco.
Hitler was removed to Landsberg Prison about forty miles west of Munich and placed in cell number 7. Defeated and humiliated, he wanted to see no one; he refused to talk to the interrogators from the state’s attorney’s office; he began a hunger strike. Formal charges of high treason were filed against him, Ludendorff, and several other Nazis. The trial date was set for February 27, 1924. By the time the court was called into session in the new year, Hitler and his Putsch were yesterday’s news. His short-lived political career seemed to be at an end—and by all rights should have been. The Putsch was almost universally ridiculed as hopelessly amateurish, almost laughable, an Italian comic opera led by a delusional self-important dilettante. But Hitler’s political obituary, as the trial would dramatically prove, was premature.
The timing and location of the proceedings proved crucial for his political resurrection. The Reichstag elected in June 1920 had been dissolved, and new elections called for May 4, 1924. The campaign was not officially under way when the trial opened at the end of February, but the national press, seeing it as a prelude to the election, descended on the courtroom, giving it front-page coverage for a full month. The venue was just as important. By law, the case should have been tried before the German high court in Leipzig, but in another reflection of the strained relations between Berlin and Munich, the Bavarian government claimed jurisdiction, and the central government relented.
The trial would be held before the Bavarian People’s Court in Munich. This proved to be of enormous significance. It was Hitler’s home turf, providing him a far more favorable environment than would have prevailed in Saxon Leipzig. And there was another advantage. Throughout the trial and forever after, Hitler, with his inexhaustible penchant for self-dramatization, projected an image of the lonely man of conviction, the upright common man, the front soldier, standing up boldly to the overpowering authority of a treasonous state. It was a self-conscious evocation of Luther at Worms, the simple German monk defiantly speaking his conscience before the combined might of the emperor and the papacy. It was a narrative that became engraved in Nazi legend.
In fact, even before the trial began, Hitler was confident of a sympathetic hearing. He had already come before the presiding judge, Franz Neidhardt, well known for his right-wing nationalist sympathies. In May Neidhardt had presided over Hitler’s trial for assault arising from a beer hall brawl and imposed the lightest possible sentence on the defendant: three months. He also sanctioned Hitler’s release from Stadelheim prison after serving only thirty days. With Neidhardt’s indulgence, the trial provided Hitler with exactly the national stage he craved. Although Ludendorff was by far the most well known of the defendants, from the beginning this was Hitler’s show.
Hitler appeared before the court in civilian clothes, his Iron Cross displayed on his chest. After the initial bout of despair in prison, his spirits had been lifted by visits from Drexler, Helene Hanfstaengl, Frau Bechstein, and others who brought encouraging words from his loyal followers. His self-confidence surged. And no wonder. From the opening gavel, the court proceedings were a scandal. Neidhardt allowed Hitler to interrupt the prosecutor, to cross-examine witnesses, and to give perorations of up to four hours. Hitler heaped scorn on the state’s witnesses, especially Lossow, Seisser, and Kahr, branding them cowards, hypocrites, and co-conspirators desperately trying to cover their tracks. He was allowed to ramble on at length about his political vision, about the November criminals, the Treaty of Versailles, Germany’s future foreign policy under his direction. He inveighed against parliamentary democracy and called for a dictatorship, immodestly laying claim to the role of Germany’s savior, its future dictator. The other defendants entered pleas of not guilty. Hitler defiantly took responsibility for all that had happened. He proudly admitted his guilt for wanting to reclaim the honor of Germany, to restore the glory of the German army, to free Germany from the grip of the November criminals who had enslaved the nation. Above all, he thundered, he was “resolved to be the destroyer of Marxism.”
In his closing statement he delivered one of his most impressive speeches, explaining that he and the National Socialists “wanted to create in Germany the preconditions that alone will make it possible for the iron grip of our enemies to be removed from us. We wanted to create order in the state, throw out the drones, take up the fight against international stock exchange slavery. Against our whole economy being cornered by stock exchange slavery, against the politicizing of the trade unions, and above all, for the highest honorable duty which we, as Germans, know should be once more introduced—the duty of bearing arms, military service. And now, I ask you: Is what we wanted high treason?”
He closed with a warning:
The army we have formed is growing from day to day, from hour to hour, and faster. Especially in these days I nourish the proud hope that one day the hour will come when these wild companies will grow to battalions, the battalions to regiments, the regiments to divisions; that the old cockade will be taken from the filth, that the old flags will wave again, that there will be a reconciliation at the last great divine judgment, which we are prepared to face. Then from our bones and our graves the voice of that court will speak, which alone is entitled to sit in judgment over us. For it is not you, gentlemen, who pronounce judgment upon us. The judgment is spoken by the eternal court of history. . . . What judgment you will hand down, I know. But that court will not ask us: “Did you commit high treason or did you not?”
No, he went on, that court would judge the men of November 9 as “Germans, who wanted and desired only the good of their people and fatherland; who wanted to fight and die. You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times over, the goddess of the eternal court of history will smile and tear to tatters the brief of the state’s attorney and the sentence of the court; for she acquits us.”
The crowd was with him, the judge was with him; even the state prosecutor praised his motives, if not his methods. On the day the sentence was to be announced, expectant crowds swarmed around the redbrick structure that served as courthouse and jail. The six defendants posed proudly on the steps of the building for a group photo. They looked stern but confident. Inside, the state prosecutors found the courtroom sprinkled with women carrying flowers for their hero; one even asked if she might bathe in Hitler’s bathtub. The international press and journalists from around Germany, on the other hand, were appalled by what one called the “Munich carnival” in the courtroom. Even ministers in the Bavarian government, some of whom had been held hostage in the Bürgerbräukeller, complained about Neidhardt’s indulgent handling of Hitler. When censured by a minister of state for allowing Hitler to speak for hours, Neidhardt lamely responded: “It is impossible to keep Hitler from talking.”
The worst fears of the Republic’s supporters were realized when the court rendered its final verdict on April 1. All evidence to the contrary, Ludendorff was acquitted outright. “Adolf Hitler [was] practically acquitted and all the rest of the accused [were] either freed without further ado or punished with such ridiculous sentences that they are to all intents and purposes free men. . . . To put the sentences in a nutshell,” The New York Times commented, “every one of the accused is as free as a mountain bird except Hitler, Kriebel, and Weber, and all Germany is convinced that they will likewise be free as soon as they have served the Munich court’s idea of punishment which a traitor to the German Republic should suffer—six months imprisonment” minus time already served. It was, most observers agreed, a farce. “All Munich is chuckling over the verdict which is regarded as an excellent joke for All Fools Day.” But while supporters of the Republic could only shake their heads in dismay, “reactionary Munich is delighted at the verdict,” the Times reported, “though some dissatisfaction is expressed that Hitler was not freed with Ludendorff.” In delivering Hitler’s sentence of five years—the minimum allowed by law—Neidhardt emphasized that the Nazi leader would be eligible for parole in six months, minus the four months already served. In other words, Hitler could be back on the streets in eight weeks. There was consternation in the international press. As the reporter for The New York Times cryptically put it: “To plot against the Constitution of the Republic is not considered a serious crime in Munich.”
Some had hoped that Hitler, still an Austrian citizen, would at a minimum be deported when released. They were sorely disappointed. “In the opinion of the court,” the final judgment read, “a man who thinks and feels as German as Hitler, a man who voluntarily served four and a half years in the German army during the war, who earned high war decorations for bravery in the face of the enemy, who was wounded and whose health was impaired . . . should not be subjected to the Law for the Protection of the Republic.” It was a remarkable turnaround. Ingloriously defeated in his attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Germany by force, Hitler had turned the trial into a major triumph. The trial had given him a national stage on which to spout his views, and he had delivered a propaganda masterpiece. Still, most assumed that his newfound notoriety would quickly fade. After all, he had no national following to speak of; he was still very much a regional phenomenon; and despite his dramatic courtroom theatrics, he would now disappear into prison. His party was in disarray, declared illegal, its leaders scattered, in exile or in prison. Germany, most believed, had seen the last of Adolf Hitler.