Modern history

3

THE RISE OF NAZISM

BOHEMIAN REVOLUTIONARIES

I

When Kurt Eisner was released from Cell 70 in Munich’s Stadelheim gaol under a general amnesty proclaimed in October 1918, there was little indication that he was soon to become one of Germany’s leading revolutionaries. Best known as a theatre critic, he personified the bohemian lifestyle associated with Munich’s Schwabing district, close to the city centre.1 His appearance advertised his bohemianism. Small and heavily bearded, he went around wearing a black cloak and a huge, broad-brimmed black hat; a pair of little steel-rimmed spectacles was perched on his nose. Eisner was not a native Bavarian, but came from Berlin, where he was born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1867. He was identified with the right-wing fringe of the Social Democratic Party, losing his job with its local newspaper in the early 1900s because of his support for the ‘revisionists’ who wanted the Social Democrats to abandon their Marxism. Like many ‘revisionists’, however, Eisner was opposed to the war. He took a leading role in forming the anti-war Independent Social Democratic Party and subsequently organized a series of strikes in January 1918 to try to bring an end to the conflict.2

When things began to fall apart on November 1918, it was Eisner who, thanks to his gift for rhetoric and his disdain for political convention, took the lead in Munich. As the Majority Social Democrats proposed a traditional political march through the Bavarian capital in an orderly demonstration for peace, led by a brass band and carrying banners, Eisner jumped onto the speakers’ platform and told the crowd to occupy the army barracks and take control of the city. Accompanied by a group of followers, Eisner proceeded to do just that, meeting with no resistance from the soldiers. Obtaining authorization from the local revolutionary workers’ and soldiers’ council, Eisner proclaimed Bavaria a Republic and established a revolutionary government staffed by Majority and Independent Social Democrats, with himself at its head. But his government failed utterly in the basic tasks of maintaining food supplies, providing jobs, demobilizing the troops and keeping the transport system going. The conservative Bavarian peasantry, outraged at the events in Munich, were withholding foodstuffs, and the Allies had requisitioned most of the railway locomotives. Workers began to heckle Eisner and shout him down at meetings. In cabinet, Eisner was angrily told by one of its members: ‘You are an anarchist ... You are no statesman, you are a fool ... We are being ruined by bad management.’3 Not surprisingly, therefore, elections held on 12 January resulted in a crushing victory for the Majority Social Democrats and a humiliating defeat for Eisner’s Independents.

Eisner was everything the radical right in Bavaria hated: a bohemian and a Berliner, a Jew, a journalist, a campaigner for peace during the war, and an agitator who had been arrested for his part in the January strikes of 1918. Indeed, with his secretary, the journalist Felix Fechenbach, he even published secret and incriminating documents on the outbreak of the war from the Bavarian archives. He was, in short, the ideal object onto which the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend could be projected. On 21 February 1919, the far right’s detestation found its ultimate expression as a young, aristocratic student, Count Anton von Arco-Valley, shot Eisner twice at point-blank range as he was walking through the street on his way to the Bavarian Parliament, killing him instantly.4 The assassination unleashed a storm of violence in the Bavarian capital. Eisner’s guards immediately shot and wounded Arco-Valley, who was surrounded by an angry crowd; only Fechenbach’s prompt intervention saved him from being lynched on the spot. While the injured assassin was bundled off to the same cell in Stadelheim prison that Eisner had occupied only the year before, one of Eisner’s socialist admirers walked into the Parliament shortly afterwards, drew a gun, and in full view of all the other deputies in the debating chamber, fired two shots at Eisner’s severest critic, the Majority Social Democratic leader Erhard Auer, who barely survived his wounds. Meanwhile, ironically, a draft resignation document was discovered in Eisner’s pocket. The assassination had been completely pointless.

Afraid of further violence, however, the Bavarian Parliament suspended its meetings, and, without a vote, the Majority Social Democrats declared themselves the legitimate government. A coalition cabinet headed by an otherwise obscure Majority Social Democrat, Johannes Hoffmann, was formed, but it was unable to restore order as massive street demonstrations followed Eisner’s funeral. In the power vacuum that ensued, arms and ammunition were distributed to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. News of the outbreak of a Communist Revolution in Hungary suddenly galvanized the far left into declaring a Council Republic in which Parliament would be replaced by a Soviet-style regime.5 But the leader of the new Bavarian Council Republic was no Lenin. Once more, literary bohemianism had come to the fore, this time in the form of a dramatist rather than a critic. Only 25, Ernst Toller had made his name as a poet and, playwright. More of an anarchist than a socialist, Toller enrolled like-minded men in his government, including another playwright, Erich Mühsam, and a well-known anarchist writer, Gustav Landauer. Faced with the outspoken support of the Munich workers’ and soldiers’ councils for what Schwabing’s wits soon dubbed ‘the regime of the coffee house anarchists’, Hoffmann’s Majority Social Democratic cabinet fled to Bamberg, in northern Bavaria. Meanwhile, Toller announced a comprehensive reform of the arts, while his government declared that Munich University was open to all applicants except those who wanted to study history, which was abolished as hostile to civilization. Another minister announced that the end of capitalism would be brought about by the issue of free money. Franz Lipp, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, telegraphed Moscow to complain that ‘the fugitive Hoffmann has taken with him the keys to my ministry toilet’, and declared war on Wurttemberg and Switzerland ‘because these dogs have not at once loaned me sixty locomotives. I am certain’, he added, ‘that we will be victorious.’6

An attempt by the Hoffmann government to overthrow the Council Republic with an improvised force of volunteers was easily put down by the ‘Red Army’ recruited from the armed members of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Twenty men died in the exchanges of fire, however, and the situation was now clearly becoming much more dangerous. On the same day as the fighting took place, organized Communists under the Russian Bolsheviks Max Levien and Eugen Leviné pushed the ‘coffee house anarchists’ brusquely aside. Without waiting for the approval of the German Communist Party, they established a Bolshevik regime in Munich and opened communications with Lenin, who asked politely whether they had managed to nationalize the banks yet. Levien, who had been accidentally caught in Germany at the outbreak of war in 1914 and drafted into the German army, followed Lenin’s instructions, and began arresting members of the aristocracy and the upper middle class as hostages. While the main church in Munich was turned into a revolutionary temple presided over by the ‘Goddess Reason’, the Communists set about expanding and training a Red Army, which soon numbered 20,000 well-armed and well-paid men. A series of proclamations announced that Bavaria was going to spearhead the Bolshevization of Europe; workers had to receive military training, and all weapons in private possession had to be surrendered on pain of death.7

All this frightened the Hoffmann government far more than the week-long regime of the coffee house anarchists had done. The spectre loomed of an axis of Bolshevik revolutionary regimes in Budapest, Munich and possibly Vienna as well. The Majority Social Democrats in Bamberg clearly needed a serious fighting force at their disposal. Hoffmann signed up a force of 35,000 Free Corps soldiers under the leadership of the Bavarian colonel Franz Ritter von Epp, backed by regular military units including an armoured train. They were equipped with machine guns and other serious military hardware. Munich was already in chaos, with a general strike crippling production, and public services at a standstill. Looting and theft were spreading across the city, and now it was blockaded by the Free Corps as well. No quarter would be given, they announced; anyone in Munich found bearing arms would immediately be shot. Terrified, the Munich workers’ and soldiers’ councils passed a vote of no-confidence in the Communists, who had to resign, leaving the city without a government. In this situation, a panicky unit of the Red Army began to take reprisals against hostages imprisoned in a local school, the Luitpold Gymnasium. These included six members of the Thule Society, an antisemitic, Pan-German sect, founded towards the end of the war. Naming itself after the supposed location of ultimate ‘Aryan’ purity, Iceland (‘Thule’), it used the ‘Aryan’ swastika symbol to denote its racial priorities. With its roots in the pre-war ‘Germanic Order’, another conspiratorial organization of the far right, it was led by the self-styled Baron von Sebottendorf, who was in reality a convicted forger known to the police as Adam Glauer. The Society. included a number of people who were to be prominent in the Third Reich.8 It was known that Arco-Valley, the assassin of Kurt Eisner, had been trying to become a member of the Thule Society. In an act of revenge and desperation, the Red Army soldiers lined up ten of the hostages, put them in front of a firing squad, and shot them dead. Those executed included the Prince of Thurn and Taxis, the young Countess von Westarp and two more aristocrats, as well as an elderly professor who had been arrested for making an uncomplimentary remark in public about a revolutionary poster. A handful of prisoners taken from the invading Free Corps made up the rest.

The news of these shootings enraged the soldiers beyond measure. As they marched into the city, virtually unopposed, their victory became a bloodbath. Leading revolutionaries like Eugen Levine were arrested and summarily shot. The anarchist Gustav Landauer was taken to Stadelheim prison, where soldiers beat his face to a pulp with rifle butts, shot him twice, then kicked him to death in the prison courtyard, leaving the body to rot for two days before it was removed. Coming across a meeting of a Catholic craftsmen’s society on 6 May, a drunken Free Corps unit, told by an informer that the assembled workmen were revolutionaries, arrested them, took them to a nearby cellar, beat them up and killed a total of 21 of the blameless men, after which they rifled the corpses for valuables. Numerous other people were ‘shot trying to escape’, killed after being reported as former Communists, mown down after being denounced for supposedly possessing arms, or hauled out of houses from which shots had allegedly been fired, and executed on the spot. All in all, even the official estimates gave a total of some 600 killed at the hands of the invaders; unofficial observers made the total anything up to twice as high.9 After the bloodbath, moderates such as Hoffmann’s Social Democrats, despite having commissioned the action, did not stand much of a chance in Munich. A ‘White’ counter-revolutionary government eventually took over, and proceeded to prosecute the remaining revolutionaries while letting off the Free Corps troops, a few of whom had been convicted for their murderous atrocities, with the lightest of sentences. Munich became a playground for extremist political sects, as virtually every social and political group in the city burned with resentment, fear and lust for revenge.10 Public order had more or less vanished.

All this was deeply disturbing to the officers who were now faced with the task of reconstructing a regular army from the ruins of the old one. Not surprisingly, considering the fact that the workers’ and soldiers’ councils had enjoyed considerable influence amongst the troops, those who ran the new army were concerned to ensure that soldiers received the correct kind of political indoctrination, and that the many small political groups springing up in Munich posed no threat to the new, post-revolutionary political order. Among those who were sent to receive political indoctrination in June 1919 was a 30-year-old corporal who had been in the Bavarian army since the beginning of the war and had stayed in it through all the vicissitudes of Social Democracy, anarchy and Communism, taking part in demonstrations, wearing a red armband along with the rest of his comrades, and disappearing from the scene with most of them when they had been ordered to defend Munich against the invading forces in the preceding weeks. His name was Adolf Hitler.11

II

Hitler was the product of circumstances as much as anything else. Had things been different, he might never have come to political prominence. At the time of the Bavarian Revolution, he was an obscure rank-and-file soldier who had so far played no part in politics of any kind. Born on 20 April 1889, he was a living embodiment of the ethnic and cultural concept of national identity held by the Pan-Germans; for he was not German by birth or citizenship, but Austrian. Little is known about his childhood, youth and upbringing, and much if not most of what has been written about his early life is highly speculative, distorted or fantastical. We do know, however, that his father Alois changed his name from that of his mother, Maria Schicklgruber, to whom he had been born out of wedlock in 1837, to that of his stepfather, Johann Georg Hiedler or Hitler, in 1876. There is no evidence that any of Hitler’s ancestors was Jewish. Johann Georg freely acknowledged his true paternity of Hitler’s father. Alois was a customs inspector in Braunau on the Inn, a minor but respectable official of the Austrian government. He married three times; Adolf was the only child of his third marriage to survive infancy apart from his younger sister Paula. ‘Psychohistorians’ have made much of Adolf’s subsequent allusions to his cold, stern, disciplinarian and sometimes violent father and his warm, much-loved mother, but none of their conclusions can amount to any more than speculation.12

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Map 6. Nationalities in the Hasburg Empire 1910

What is clear is that the Hitler family was often on the move, changing houses several times before settling in 1898 in a suburb of Linz, which Adolf ever after regarded as his home town. The young Hitler did poorly at school and disliked his teachers, but otherwise does not seem to have stood out amongst his fellow-pupils. He was clearly unfitted for the regular, routine life and hard work of the civil service, for which his father had intended him. After his father’s death early in 1903, he lived in a flat in Linz, where he was looked after by his mother, his aunt and his younger sister, and dreamed of making a future career as an artist while spending his time drawing, talking with friends, going to the opera and reading. But in 1907 two events occurred which put an end to this idle life of fantasizing. His mother died of breast cancer, and his application to the Viennese Academy of Art was rejected on the grounds that his painting and drawing were not good enough; he would do better, he was told, as an architect. Certainly, his forte lay in drawing and painting buildings. He was particularly impressed by the heavy, oppressive, historicist architecture of the public buildings on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, constructed as symbolic expressions of power and solidity at a time when the real political foundations of the Habsburg monarchy were beginning to crumble.13 From the very beginning, buildings interested Hitler mainly as statements of power. He retained this interest throughout his life. But he lacked the application to become an architect. He tried again to join the Academy of Art, and was rejected a second time. Disappointed and emotionally bereft, he moved to Vienna. He took with him, in all probability, two political influences from Linz. The first was the Pan-Germanism of Georg Ritter von Schonerer, whose supporters in the town were particularly numerous, it seems, in the school that Hitler attended. And the second was an unquenchable enthusiasm for the music of Richard Wagner, whose operas he frequently attended in Linz; he was intoxicated by their romanticization of Germanic myth and legend, and by their depiction of heroes who knew no fear. Armed with these beliefs, and confident in his future destiny as a great artist, he spent the next five years in the Austrian capital.14

Hitler’s subsequent account of this period lent a retrospective coherence to it that it does not seem to have possessed in reality. There is, again, little reliable independent evidence about what he did or thought. But a few things seem clear enough. First, unable to come to terms with his failure to get into the Academy, Hitler conceived a violent hatred for bourgeois convention, the establishment, rules and regulations. Rather than train or apply for a regular job, he lived an idle, chaotic, bohemian life, and spent his savings on going to Wagner operas. When the money ran out, he was forced to sleep rough, or find night-quarters in a doss-house. Things only looked up when he received some money from his aunt, and began to sell small paintings, mostly copies, providing himself with the means to live in a Men’s Home, where he rented a cheap room and was able to use the library and the reading-room. Here he stayed for three years, living a life that belonged to the outermost fringes of bohemian culture.

The political views Hitler had imbibed in Linz were strengthened as he encountered in a more direct form the Pan-Germanism of Schönerer that had been so influential in Linz. Hitler undoubtedly loathed the Habsburg monarchy and its capital city, whose institutions had denied him the fulfilment of his artistic ambitions. He found Schönerer’ s demand that the German-speaking areas of Austria be absorbed into the German Empire irresistibly appealing as a result. The racial mixing of Vienna was repulsive to him; only a racially homogeneous nation could be a successful one. But Schonerer, he realized, was incapable of winning the support of the masses. This was the achievement of Vienna’s Mayor Karl Lueger, whose antisemitic demagogy revealed, Hitler thought, a true understanding of men. Hitler could scarcely ignore the everyday antisemitism of the kind of newspapers that were available in the reading-room of the Men’s Home, and the cheap antisemitic pamphlets he later described reading at this time. And his enthusiasm for Wagner, whose operas he went to hundreds of times in this period, can only have strengthened his political views. Virtually all the followers of Schönerer, Wagner and Lueger were antisemitic by this time, many of them rabidly so, and there is no reason why Hitler should have been an exception. The fact that he sold his pictures to Jewish traders and borrowed money from Jewish inmates of the Men’s Home does not mean that he was not antisemitic. Nevertheless, it is likely that his antisemitism at this time had an abstract, almost theoretical quality to it; his hatred of Jews only became visceral, personal and extreme at the end of the First World War.15

Some of the most interesting pages of Hitler’s later autobiographical work My Struggle (Mein Kampf) describe the feelings of excitement he experienced when watching Social Democratic mass demonstrations in Vienna. He found the Social Democrats’ Marxism abhorrent, and thought their propaganda full of loathsome and vicious slanders and lies. Why did the masses believe in it, then, rather than in the doctrines of someone like Schönerer? His answer was that the Social Democrats were intolerant of other views, suppressed them within the working class as far as they could, projected themselves simply and strongly and won over the masses by force. ‘The psyche of the great masses’, he wrote, ‘is not receptive to anything that is half-hearted and weak ... The masses love a commander more than a petitioner.’ He added: ‘I achieved an equal understanding of the importance of physical terror towards the individual and the masses ... Terror at the place of employment, in the factory, in the meeting hall, and on the occasion of mass demonstrations will always be successful unless opposed by equal terror.’ The Social Democrats, he concluded, ‘command weaklings in both mind and force. They know how to create the illusion that this is the only way of preserving the peace, and at the same time, stealthily but steadily, they conquer one position after another, sometimes by silent backmail, sometimes by actual theft ...’ All of this may have been to some extent retrospective rationalization, as Hitler projected his own feelings and purposes back onto the most successful mass movement of the Austria of his youth. But, certainly for anyone who lived in Vienna before 1914, there was no escaping the power of the Social Democrats over the masses, and it is reasonable to suppose that Hitler was impressed by it and learned from it even as he rejected the doctrines which the Social Democrats purveyed.16

Perhaps the most important political lesson he derived from his time in Vienna, however, was a deep contempt for the state and the law. There is no reason to disbelieve his later statement that as a follower of Schönerer he considered the Habsburg monarchy to be the oppressor of the Germanic race, forcing it to mix with others and denying it the chance of uniting with Germans in the Reich. ‘If the species itself is in danger of being oppressed or utterly eliminated,’ he wrote, ‘the question of legality is reduced to a subordinate rule.’ Racial self-preservation was a higher principle than legality, which could often be no more than a cloak for tyranny. Any means were justified in this struggle. Moreover, the ‘rotten state’ of the Habsburgs was completely dominated by parliamentarism, a political system for which Hitler acquired an abiding contempt by spending a great deal of time in the public gallery of the Austrian Parliament, where parties of rival nationalities shouted, and screamed at each other, each in its own language, and prevented anything much being achieved. He conceived a special hatred for the Czechs, who were specially disruptive. It was Schonerer’s mistake to try and reach his goal through Parliament, he thought. Hitler concluded that only a strong leader directly elected by the people could get anything done.17

There is no indication, however, that Hitler thought of himself as that leader before 1914, or indeed that he considered entering politics at all. On the contrary, he was still wedded to the idea of becoming an artist. The abject financial misery to which his failure to achieve this ambition had brought him was alleviated somewhat by the payment of a legacy from his father’s estate, which he received at the age of 24, on 20 April 1913. Hitler quickly wound up his affairs in Vienna and departed for Germany, thus giving practical expression to the Pan-Germanism he had imbibed from Schönerer. He later described, with every appearance of authenticity, the happiness he felt when he moved to Munich, leaving behind him the colourful and, to him, repulsive racial cosmopolitanism of the Austrian capital and the sense of political confusion and decline that characterized the Habsburg political system. Such a system, he felt, was not worth fighting for; and not the least reason why he left was to avoid the military service for which he was shortly to become liable. Now he was in Germany, he felt at home.

He rented a room on the edge of Schwabing, and resumed the kind of life he had led in Vienna, copying postcards of famous Munich buildings in watercolour and selling enough of them to make a meagre living. Like other Schwabing bohemians, he whiled away much of his time in coffee houses and beer-cellars, but he was an outsider to the real bohemian world as well as the world of respectable society, for while men like Eisner, Toller, Landauer or Mühsam were heavily involved in the theatre, discussing anarchist utopias, or making a name for themselves as poets and writers, Hitler continued his previous, aimless existence, and made no attempt to acquire in Munich the artistic training he had been denied in Vienna. And while the official art establishment remained closed to him, the unofficial avant-garde that generated so much excitement in the more fashionable of Schwabing’s coffee houses, with painters like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, August Macke and the ‘Blue Rider’ group, broke with convention and moved into Expressionism and abstraction. The avant-garde aroused in Hitler only incomprehension and revulsion. His own practice of art was limited to painstaking, lifeless reproductions of buildings; his own taste in art never moved beyond the kind of conventional, classically inspired representations that were the stock-in-trade of the Academy that he had so wanted to join in Vienna.18 What Hitler did share with the Schwabing bohemians, however, was an inner contempt for bourgeois convention and rules, and a belief that art could change the world.

Hitler was rescued from his existence as a bohemian on the margins of cultural life by the outbreak of the First World War. A photograph exists of him in the crowd that gathered in the centre of Munich on 2 August to celebrate the declaration of war, his face shining with excitement. Three days later, he volunteered to join the Bavarian army. In the chaos and confusion of the first days of the war, when vast numbers were volunteering, nobody seems to have thought of checking up on whether or not he was a German citizen. He was enlisted on 16 August, and was sent almost immediately to the Western Front. This was, he wrote later, a ‘release from the painful feelings of my youth’. For the first time, he had a mission he could believe in and follow, and a close-knit group of comrades with whom he could identify. His heart ‘overflowed with proud joy’ at the fact that he was now fighting for Germany.19 For the next four years he remained with his regiment, acting as a dispatch runner, gaining promotion to corporal, and winning two decorations for bravery, the second being the Iron Cross, First Class, on the recommendation, ironically, of a Jewish officer. Shortly afterwards he was caught in a poison-gas attack, a frequent occurrence on both sides in the later stages of the war. Temporarily blinded, he was sent to a military hospital at Pasewalk, in Pomerania in the German north-east, to recover. Here he learned in due course of the German defeat, the Armistice and the Revolution.20

In My Struggle, Hitler described this as ‘the greatest villainy of the century’, the negation of all his hopes, rendering all his sacrifices futile. As he was told the news, ‘everything went black before my eyes’, he tottered back to his dormitory and wept. There is no reason to doubt that it was a terrible trauma for him. The memory of 1918 was to play a central role in all his subsequent thought and action. How had the disaster happened? Searching for an explanation, Hitler seized eagerly on the rapidly spreading story of the ‘stab-in-the-back’. The Jews, whom he already regarded with suspicion and distaste, must have been to blame, he thought. All the inchoate and confused ideas and prejudices he had so far garnered from Schönerer, Lueger, Wagner and the rest now suddenly fell into a coherent, neat and utterly paranoid pattern. Once more, he looked to propaganda as the prime political mover: enemy war propaganda, undermining Germany’s will from without, Jewish, socialist propaganda spreading doubt and defeatism from within. Propaganda, he learned from contemplating the disaster, must always be directed at the masses:

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be ... The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.

And it had to appeal to the emotions rather than to reason, because: ‘The people in their overwhelming majority are so feminine by nature and attitude that sober reasoning determines their thoughts and actions far less than emotion and feeling.’ Finally, propaganda had to be continuous and unvarying in its message. It should never admit a glimmer of doubt in its own claims, or concede the tiniest element of right in the claims of the other side.21

Armed with these thoughts - or perhaps earlier, more rudimentary versions of them - Hitler obeyed his superior officer’s orders and went along to the political instruction courses in June 1919 that were to launch him on his political career. The moment was the right one. Munich was a world that in the view of many conservatives had been turned upside down, and it was time to put it the right way up again. Where Prussia had failed, Bavaria could show the way. The whole language of politics in Munich after the overthrow of the Communist regime was permeated by nationalist slogans, antisemitic phrases, reactionary keywords that almost invited the rabid expression of counter-revolutionary sentiment. Hitler was to prove adept as few others were at mastering its cadences and mobilizing the stereotypical images of the enemies of order into an emotionally violent language of extremism.22

III

The courses Hitler attended were designed to root out any lingering socialist sentiments from regular Bavarian troops and indoctrinate them with the beliefs of the far right. Among the lecturers were the conservative Munich history professor Karl Alexander von Müller, and the Pan-German economic theorist Gottfried Feder, who put an antisemitic gloss on economics by accusing the Jews of destroying the livelihood of hard-working ‘Aryans’ through using capital unproductively. So readily did Hitler imbibe the ideas of such men that he was picked out by his superiors and sent as an instructor on a similar course in August 1919. Here for the first time he discovered a talent for speaking to a large audience. Comments by those attending his lectures referred admiringly to his passion and commitment and his ability to communicate with simple, ordinary men. They also noted the vehemence of his antisemitism. In a letter written on 16 September, Hitler expounded his beliefs about the Jews. The Jews, he wrote, in a biological metaphor of the kind that was to recur in many subsequent speeches and writings, brought about ’the racial tuberculosis of peoples’. He rejected ’antisemitism from purely emotional grounds’ which led to pogroms, in favour of an ‘antisemitism of reason’, which had to aim at ‘the planned legislative combating and removal of the Jews’ privileges’. ‘Its final aim must unshakeably be the removal of the Jews altogether.’23

In the rabidly vengeful, ultra-nationalist atmosphere of the months following the Free Corps’ violent suppression of the Munich Revolution, such sentiments were far from unusual. Hitler had by now become a trusted political agent of the army. In this capacity he was sent to report on one of a large range of political groups that sprang up in Munich in this period, to see whether it was dangerous or whether it could be enrolled in the cause of counter-revolution. This was the German Workers’ Party, founded on 5 January 1919 by one Anton Drexler, a locksmith who had previously belonged to the Fatherland Party. Drexler insisted that he was a socialist and a worker, opposed to unearned capital, exploitation and profiteering. But this was socialism with a nationalistic twist. Drexler ascribed the evils he fought to the machinations of the Jews, who had also devised the pernicious ideology of Bolshevism. He directed his appeal not to industrial workers but to the ‘productive estates’, to all those who lived from honest labour.24In the short run, this meant the lower middle classes, but equally, in a tradition going back to Adolf Stocker’s Christian Social movement in the 1880s and echoing many similar nationalist initiatives in both Germany and Austria before and above all immediately after the war, Drexler’s party sought in the longer term to win the working class over from Marxism and enlist it in the service of the Pan-German cause.

The fledgling party was in fact another creation of the hyperactive Thule Society. There was nothing unusual about Drexler or his tiny party in the far-right hothouse of Munich after the defeat of the Revolution. What was unusual was the attention Hitler aroused when he went to a meeting of the party on 12 September 1919 and spoke passionately from the floor against a previous speaker who had advocated Bavaria’s separation from the Reich. Impressed, Drexler readily acquiesced when Hitler, again acting on the orders of his army superiors, applied to join. Although he later claimed to have been only the seventh person to join the party, he was in fact enrolled as member number 555. This was less impressive than it sounded; the German Workers’ Party membership began, following a habit long established amongst fringe political groups, not with the number 1, but with the number 501, to suggest that it enjoyed a membership of hundreds rather than just a few score.25

Hitler, still encouraged by his superior officers in the army, rapidly became the party’s star speaker. He built on his success to push the party into holding ever larger public meetings, mostly in beer-halls, advertised in advance by brash poster campaigns, and often accompanied by rowdy scenes. By the end of March 1920, now indispensable to the Party, he had clearly decided that this was where his future lay. Demagogy had restored to him the identity he had lost with the German defeat. He left the army and became a full-time political agitator. The appeal of radical antisemitism in counter-revolutionary Munich was obvious, and had already been tapped by a much larger organization with similar views, the German-Racial Defence and Defiance League. This was yet another far-right group that used the swastika as its main political symbol. With its headquarters in Hamburg, the League boasted some 200,000 members all over Germany, drawn from ex-members of the Fatherland Party, from disgruntled ex-soldiers and from nationalist-inclined students, teachers and white-collar workers. It ran a sophisticated propaganda machine, churning out millions of leaflets and putting on mass meetings where the public numbered thousands rather than the hundreds which Drexler’s organization was able to attract.26The League was far from being the only far-right movement of this kind; another, much smaller one, the German-Socialist Party, led by the engineer Alfred Brunner, also had branches in a number of German cities, though its membership was only a tenth of the size of the League’s. But neither had a speaker whose pulling power in any way compared to Hitler’s.27

While conventional right-wing politicians delivered lectures, or spoke in a style that was orotund and pompous, flat and dull, or rough and brutish, Hitler followed the model of Social Democratic orators such as Eisner, or the left-wing agitators from whom he later claimed to have learned in Vienna. And he gained much of his oratorical success by telling his audiences what they wanted to hear. He used simple, straightforward language that ordinary people could understand, short sentences, powerful, emotive slogans. Often beginning a speech quietly, to capture his audience’s attention, he would gradually build to a climax, his deep, rather hoarse voice would rise in pitch, climbing in a crescendo to a ranting and screaming finale, accompanied by carefully rehearsed dramatic gestures, his face glistening with sweat, his lank, dark hair falling forward over his face as he worked his audience into a frenzy of emotion. There were no qualifications in what he said; everything was absolute, uncompromising, irrevocable, undeviating, unalterable, final. He seemed, as many who listened to his early speeches testified, to speak straight from the heart, and to express their own deepest fears and desires. Increasingly, too, he exuded self-confidence, aggression, belief in the ultimate triumph of his party, even a sense of destiny. His speeches often began with an account of his own poverty-stricken early life, to which he drew an implicit parallel with the downcast, downtrodden and desperate state of Germany after the First World War, then, his voice rising, he would describe his own political awakening, and point to its counterpart in Germany’s future recovery and return to glory. Without necessarily using overtly religious language, Hitler appealed to religious archetypes of suffering, humiliation, redemption and resurrection lodged deep within his listeners’ psyche; and in the circumstances of postwar and post-revolutionary Bavaria, he found a ready response.28

Hitler’s speeches reduced Germany’s complex social, political and economic problems to a simple common denominator: the evil machinations of the Jews. In My Struggle, describing how, in his view, Jewish subversives had undermined the German war effort in 1918, he declared:

If at the beginning of the war and during the war twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain. On the contrary: twelve thousand scoundrels eliminated in time might have saved the lives of a million real Germans, valuable for the future. But it just happened to be in the line of bourgeois ‘statesmanship’ to subject millions to a bloody end on the battlefield without batting an eyelid, but to regard ten or twelve thousand traitors, profiteers, usurers, and swindlers as a sacred national treasure and openly proclaim their inviolability.29

Such uncompromising radicalism lent Hitler’s public meetings a revivalist fervour that was hard for less demagogic politicians to emulate. The publicity he won was enhanced by the tactic of advertising them with red posters, to attract the left, with the result that protests from socialist listeners often degenerated into fisticuffs and brawls.

In the climate of postwar counter-revolution, national brooding on the ‘stab-in-the-back’, and obsession with war profiteers and merchants of the rapidly mushrooming hyperinflation, Hitler concentrated especially on rabble-rousing attacks on ‘Jewish’ merchants who were supposedly pushing up the price of goods: they should all, he said, to shouts of approval from his audiences, be strung up.30 Perhaps to emphasize this anti-capitalist focus, and to align itself with similar groups in Austria and Czechoslovakia, the party changed its name in February 1920 to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party; hostile commentators soon abbreviated this to the word ‘Nazi’, just as the enemies of the Social Democrats had abbreviated the name of that party earlier on to ‘Sozi’. Despite the change of name, however, it would be wrong to see Nazism as a form of, or an outgrowth from, socialism. True, as some have pointed out, its rhetoric was frequently egalitarian, it stressed the need to put common needs above the needs of the individual, and it often declared itself opposed to big business and international finance capital. Famously, too, antisemitism was once declared to be ‘the socialism of fools’. But from the very beginning, Hitler declared himself implacably opposed to Social Democracy and, initially to a much smaller extent, Communism: after all, the ‘November traitors’ who had signed the Armistice and later the Treaty of Versailles were not Communists at all, but the Social Democrats and their allies.31

The ‘National Socialists’ wanted to unite the two political camps of left and right into which, they argued, the Jews had manipulated the German nation. The basis for this was to be the idea of race. This was light years removed from the class-based ideology of socialism. Nazism was in some ways an extreme counter-ideology to socialism, borrowing much of its rhetoric in the process, from its self-image as a movement rather than a party, to its much-vaunted contempt for bourgeois convention and conservative timidity. The idea of a ‘party’ suggested allegiance to parliamentary democracy, working steadily within a settled democratic polity. In speeches and propaganda, however, Hitler and his followers preferred on the whole to talk of the ‘National Socialist movement’, just as the Social Democrats had talked of the ‘workers’ movement’ or, come to that, the feminists of the ‘women’s movement’ and the apostles of prewar teenage rebellion of the ‘youth movement’. The term not only suggested dynamism and unceasing forward motion, it also more than hinted at an ultimate goal, an absolute object to work towards that was grander and more final than the endless compromises of conventional politics. By presenting itself as a ‘movement’, National Socialism, like the labour movement, advertised its opposition to conventional politics and its intention to subvert and ultimately overthrow the system within which it was initially forced to work.

By replacing class with race, and the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of the leader, Nazism reversed the usual terms of socialist ideology. The synthesis of right and left was neatly symbolized in the Party’s official flag, personally chosen by Hitler in mid-1920: the field was bright red, the colour of socialism, with the swastika, the emblem of racist nationalism, outlined in black in the middle of a white circle at the centre of the flag, so that the whole ensemble made a combination of black, white and red, the colours of the official flag of the Bismarckian Empire. In the wake of the 1918 Revolution these came to symbolize rejection of the Weimar Republic and all it stood for; but by changing the design and adding the swastika, a symbol already used by a variety of far-right racist movements and Free Corps units in the postwar period, the Nazis also announced that what they wanted to replace it with was a new, Pan-German, racial state, not the old Wilhelmine status quo.32

By the end of 1920, Hitler’s early emphasis on attacking Jewish capitalism had been modified to bring in ‘Marxism’, or in other words Social Democracy, and Bolshevism as well. The cruelties of the civil war and ‘red terror’ in Lenin’s Russia were making an impact, and Hitler could use them to lend emphasis to common far-right views of the supposedly Jewish inspiration behind the revolutionary upheavals of 1918-19 in Munich. Nazism would also have been possible, however, without the Communist threat; Hitler’s anti-Bolshevism was the product of his antisemitism and not the other way round.33 His principal political targets remained the Social Democrats and the vaguer spectre of ‘Jewish capitalism’. Borrowing the stock arguments of antisemitism from before the war, Hitler declared in numerous speeches that the Jews were a race of parasites who could only live by subverting other peoples, above all the highest and best of all races, the Aryans. Thus they divided the Aryan race against itself, both organizing capitalist exploitation on the one hand and leading the struggle against it on the other.34 The Jews, he said in a speech delivered on 6 April 1920, were ‘to be exterminated’; on 7 August the same year he told his audience that they should not believe ‘that you can fight a disease without killing the cause, without annihilating the bacillus, and do not think that you can fight racial tuberculosis without taking care that the people are free of the cause of racial tuberculosis’. Annihilation meant the violent removal of the Jews from Germany by any means. The ‘solution of the Jewish question’, he told his listeners in April 1921, could only be solved by ‘brute force’. ‘We know’, he said in January 1923, ‘that if they come to power, our heads will roll in the sand; but we also know that when we get our hands on power: “Then God have mercy on you!” ’35

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