By rights, the ultimate outcome of the Putsch should have been oblivion for both Hitler and the NSDAP. Four policemen had been killed in the fighting, and the revolt was an undeniable act of treason, which was supposedly punishable by death. It also clearly demonstrated Hitler’s lack of genuine support among the Bavarian military circles that had been encouraging the militarist nationalist groups and secretly arming the militias. They were certainly contemplating a coup d’état themselves, but it was now clear that it would be launched only on their terms, not Hitler’s.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting in the Residenzstrasse, Hitler was treated for a dislocated shoulder by Walter Schultze, an SA doctor, and then bundled into a car that took him to the country house of a wealthy associate, the half-American socialite Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstängl, at Uffing on the Staffelsee, south of Munich. Police found him there two days later and took him to the prison fortress of Landsberg. The prisoner was “depressed but calm, dressed in a white nightgown, his injured left arm in a sling.”1There was some residual support for the Putsch in Bavaria,2 manifested in the form of demonstrations against the triumvirs, but these did not continue for long. In short, the revolution had failed, its leader was in custody and there was little popular support for a renewal of hostilities. That should have been the end of the matter, and the end of Hitler as a political force.
That was not to be the case because of the close links between the Bavarian government and army and the Putsch attempt. The attempted revolution was typically Hitlerite, characterised by “half-baked planning, dilettante improvisation [and] lack of care to detail,”3 but senior figures within the Bavarian establishment had been closely involved with it, too. Once it failed, they had to find a “fall guy,” and Hitler—for his own purposes—was happy to fill that role. A trial for high treason would provide a great propaganda opportunity at the national level and allow him to present himself as the potential saviour of Germany. Furthermore, his knowledge of the triumvirs’ antipathy towards Berlin and the role the local military had played in arming the paramilitaries virtually guaranteed lenient punishment.4
And so it proved. Some sort of deal seems to have been offered by von Kahr to ensure the defendants’ discretion. Certainly, the Bavarian government lobbied hard to move the trial from the Reich Court in Leipzig to the People’s Court in Munich, where the presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, showed extraordinary bias towards Hitler and his co-defendants.5 The trial was a piece of political theatre. Ludendorff, Hitler’s senior co-defendant, who had acted as “patron” of the Putsch but had not been intimately involved in its planning or execution (although he had marched on 9 November), arrived every day in a limousine dressed in full uniform with his decorations. Hitler was permitted to wear his own clothes, including his Iron Cross, rather than a prison uniform, and he was given unprecedented latitude to interrogate witnesses and harangue the court.6
Given these circumstances, the final result was hardly unexpected, although “the judgement was scandalous, even by the biased standards of the Weimar judiciary.”7 Ludendorff, much to his annoyance, was acquitted. Hitler and three others received five years’ “fortress incarceration”—a lenient form of imprisonment usually reserved for those who had acted with supposedly “honourable” motives.8 This verdict caused nearly as much outrage on the conservative right as it did on the left. It was not difficult to see through the court’s claim that the defendants had been moved to act by “a pure patriotic spirit and the most noble will.”9 It was an obvious fix.
Hitler was returned to Landsberg, where he lived in a bright, comfortable and airy cell, hitherto occupied by Count Arco-Valley, the murderer of Eisner. He had the company of some forty fellow inmates, some of whom had volunteered to share his incarceration. All enjoyed “almost all the comforts of normal daily life,”10 as well as many gifts and messages of goodwill.
Hitler’s conviction drew a line under the first phase of National Socialism. In some respects, the movement appeared shattered: the party had been suppressed, the SA banned and largely disarmed, and the nationalist-racist coalition was in a state of disintegration. But incarceration gave Hitler a chance to concentrate on his future and crystallise his political views. He was already an extreme anti-Semite with a passionate desire to overturn the terms of the Versailles Treaty, but the rest of his political outlook was far from focused. In Landsberg, at the urging of Max Amann, his platoon sergeant in the war, and with the assistance of Rudolf Hess and Emil Maurice, he set down his thoughts in detail for the first time. These writings would eventually be published under the title Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Although in no sense a manifesto or blueprint for his future actions as German dictator, this provided a basic framework of the philosophy that lay behind them.11 It is a turgid, almost unreadable tract with no literary merit, but it is useful in revealing an author obsessed with race and imbued with a startlingly visceral, murderous anti-Semitism, combined with a strong desire to acquire “living space” for the German race in the East. Of course, SS activity would later be dictated by these obsessions.
Imprisonment also gave Hitler the opportunity to plot his ascent to power. It was abundantly clear that the paramilitary route was no longer a realistic option for a relatively small movement whose centre of gravity was still in Bavaria. While the NSDAP would continue to position itself as the political party of the combat veterans of the Great War, Hitler began to realise that he would need to mobilise the wider masses to gain power, so a tighter and more disciplined organisation would be needed. He concluded that he should take on the full mantle of leadership of the National Socialist movement, rather than merely acting as its propagandist, or “drummer,” as he had previously described himself.12 His destiny was no longer to place a figure like Ludendorff in power, but to rule Germany himself.
Prior to his arrest, Hitler had passed control of the now banned NSDAP to Alfred Rosenberg, an Estonian German who had served in the Tsar’s army in the First World War. Rosenberg had been educated in Estonia, Latvia and Russia, but emigrated to Germany following the Bolshevik coup of 1917. There was undoubtedly a Machiavellian element in Hitler’s appointment of the uncharismatic and unpopular Rosenberg—he did not want to be challenged for leadership of the party when he was eventually released, so he picked an interim leader who was detested by everybody. However, there were also few other candidates who were not in prison themselves.13
Rosenberg’s leadership proved to be catastrophic. With both the NSDAP and the SA now temporarily illegal, in January 1924 he created the Grossdeutsche Volksgemeinschaft (GVG—Greater German Racial Community) as a rallying point for former members. However, Walter Buch, acting head of the SA at this time, refused to accept either Rosenberg’s or the GVG’s authority over the SA, while a number of significant former NSDAP members, including the charismatic Gregor Strasser, joined alternative splinter groups. Schism and rivalry continued throughout the first half of the year. Despite this, though, the Reichstag elections on 4 May saw the nationalist-racist parties gain 6.5 per cent of the vote nationwide, with particularly good results in Bavaria and Mecklenburg, in northern Germany. This threw into sharp relief the argument between those elements in the völkisch (literally “folkish,” but implying a Germanic nationalist-racist outlook) groups who favoured a legal parliamentary strategy and those who wanted to seize power by force.
The remnants of the NSDAP comprised a minority group among the thirty-two folkish deputies elected to the Reichstag, and shortly afterwards they agreed to merge, for parliamentary purposes, with their rivals. For many NSDAP supporters, this reeked of compromise and parliamentarianism, so bickering continued through the summer. This was exacerbated by Hitler’s equivocation over which route he favoured; by Ludendorff’s apparent interest in assuming the overall leadership of the folkish groups; by Hermann Esser and Julius Streicher, who ousted Rosenberg from the leadership of the GVG; and by Röhm, who attempted to unite the folkish and nationalist paramilitary groups under the title Frontbann.
Hitler himself withdrew from politics in June 1924 to concentrate on writing Mein Kampf. This was probably motivated in part by an acceptance of his inability to control events from inside the fortress, and in part by his hope for parole and an early release. Such was his self-confidence that he assumed he would be able to rejoin the cut and thrust of nationalist politics later, when he was in a better position to do so.14
In December, there were more elections to the Reichstag. This time, the “united” folkish groups secured only 3 per cent of the vote, which meant their representation in the parliament dropped to just fourteen seats. This electoral disaster pleased Hitler greatly. As far as he was concerned, the near collapse of the nationalist-racist groups in his absence strengthened his claims for overall leadership. He may also have calculated that the Bavarian government would now view the extreme right as a spent force, which would leave him free to rebuild the movement on his release from Landsberg.15
Hitler was freed on parole on 20 December 1924, meaning that he served just over thirteen months of his five-year sentence. Suggestions that he should be deported to Austria were quickly quashed by the Austrian government’s refusal to accept him, which allowed him to return immediately to the political fray in Bavaria. Hitler’s parole conditions meant that, in theory, he was not permitted to speak in public in most parts of Germany until 1927 (in Prussia until 1928), but he still had sufficient influence among sympathetic officials within the Bavarian government for the NSDAP and its newspaper to be unbanned in February 1925.16
Apart from the disintegration of the NSDAP and its blurring with the folkish groups, one of the key problems that Hitler faced was the issue of the SA, which had also been banned and had fragmented under various leaders. Prior to the Putsch, Hitler and Röhm had shared similar ideas about the purpose of the organisation and its allied paramilitaries: they were the armed force that would be needed to overcome both the state and political opponents and push through a National Socialist seizure of power. The failure of 9 November 1923, however, convinced Hitler that this was a ludicrous notion: the SA and the other paramilitaries had not even been able to take Munich, let alone Germany, and they had been outfought by the local police. He acknowledged that the SA, or something similar, might still be useful, but now he viewed it as only one of many tools that might bring him to power. Röhm, on the other hand, continued to insist on the primacy of the military element and lobbied for another coup. His involvement in thePutsch had finally led to him being cashiered from the army and placed on probation, but this had left him free to create a new organisation from the remnants of the SA and the other paramilitary groups. As Hitler had languished in Landsberg through the spring and summer of 1924, Röhm’s Frontbann had increased in strength to some thirty thousand members,17 drawn from former members of the SA as well as the Reichskriegsflagge (Imperial War Flag), the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmets—a First World War veterans’ group) and other Free Corps and combat leagues. The groups in this loose coalition usually maintained loyalty to their old leaders, mostly charismatic junior officers from the war such as Edmund Heines, Gerd Rossbach and Graf Wolf von Helldorf. They did not see either Röhm or the ostensible patron of the organisation, Ludendorff, as their new chief, but the Frontbann still seemed to be a significant and potentially threatening force.
Röhm and Hitler were personally close—Röhm was almost unique in addressing Hitler with the familiar du—but he did not appreciate that Hitler now saw himself as the overall leader and strategist of the movement, rather than as an equal, ally and associate. When Hitler was released from Landsberg, he asked Röhm to re-form the SA as “propaganda troops at the beck and call of party leaders,”18 but Röhm demurred and the issue was still not resolved by February 1925 when the SA was unbanned with the rest of the party and could be organised openly. Hitler had grasped, with a clarity that Röhm did not possess, that the route to power in Germany had to be largely legal, so the party and its peripheral groups needed to reflect this. Their reorganisation had to begin immediately, whether Röhm wanted to implement it or not.
Hitler and his associates had hoped the Munich Putsch would succeed given the collapse of the German economy, hyperinflation and consequent civil unrest precipitated by the French occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923. They had been proved wrong, but the occupation had still generated a great deal of international sympathy for Germany and parallel condemnation of France. Before long, an international committee was established to re-examine the question of war reparations. This resulted in the Dawes Plan of August 1924, in which it was agreed that Germany’s reparations payments would be reduced, the German central bank would be reorganised, and US loans would be made available to Germany. Foreign troops were also ordered to leave German soil, and the last French soldiers left the Ruhr almost a year later.
The Dawes Plan gave an immediate short-term boost to the German economy. Hyperinflation ended, foreign investment increased and exports began to flow, all of which ushered in a period of relative political stability. Nevertheless, violence remained a significant part of the political scene in Bavaria and many other parts of Germany. Hitler and other senior leaders of the NSDAP were potential targets for attack, both from the left and from rivals on the far right. Consequently, in March 1925, he ordered Julius Schreck to organise a new personal security detail. As Hitler later remarked: “When I came out of Landsberg, everything was broken up and scattered in sometimes rival bands. I told myself then I needed a bodyguard, even a very restricted one, but made up of men who would be enlisted without restriction, even to march against their own brothers. Only twenty men to a city (on condition that one could count on them absolutely) rather than a suspect mass.”19 Schreck, a stocky, coarse-featured man who wore a moustache like Hitler’s, had joined the NSDAP in 1921 via the Free Corps, having been a member of a “revolutionary” unit in 1919.20 He had been an early member of the SA and was in the small circle of tough ex-soldiers who formed Hitler’s personal entourage, acting as chauffeurs, bodyguards and even audiences for his monologues. He was also in the Headquarters Guard and was an organiser of the Raiding Squad Adolf Hitler, which had been in the vanguard during the Putsch. Now, in response to Hitler’s order, he mustered up to twelve of his close associates and formed the new bodyguard team.
The team—labelled the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad, or SS)—included several of the “usual suspects” who had formed Hitler’s close personal entourage since the early days of the movement: Maurice, currently Hitler’s first-choice dogsbody, chauffeur and factotum; Graf; Julius Schaub, who would later become Hitler’s personal adjutant* and bore SS number 7;21 and Erhard Heiden. Christian Weber and Rudolf Hess may have been members, too. In April 1925, eight members of the new force made their first public appearance, acting as torchbearers at the funeral of Ernst Pöhner, the former Munich Chief of Police and a National Socialist supporter, who had been killed in a car accident.22 In 1942, Hitler would remark: “It was Maurice, Schreck and Heyden [sic] who formed in Munich the first group of ‘tough ’uns,’ and were thus the origin of the SS.”23
However, soon the organisation had to look beyond Hitler’s existing inner circle for its recruits, and personnel records give an indication of the type of person who was favoured. A typical example was Robert Bednarek,24 who joined the SS on 20 May 1925 and was given membership number 467. Born in 1899 in Gleiwitz, Silesia, Bednarek completed just one year of secondary school and then served as an infantryman from May 1917 to August 1919. He was never promoted to NCO rank. After demobilisation, he joined a local Free Corps—the Jägerschar von Heydebreck—with whom he served for two years before moving into a succession of low-paid, unskilled jobs. Like many Germans, he had received no professional training before or after his military service, so he turned his hand to whatever work he could find: he was a bus conductor when he joined the SS. It is difficult to tell what motivated him to join the organisation, but political zealotry seems unlikely, as he did not join the party for another year. Most likely he was simply led into it by a former army or Free Corps comrade, but he probably shared the opinions of thousands of other right-wing paramilitaries: their politics were shaped by an ignorant resentment of the German state in the post-war era; and, on a personal level, they missed the discipline and the certainties of military life. Although one of its longest-serving members, Bednarek—who eventually became an SS officer—was expelled from the organisation in 1939 because of persistent drunkenness.
In later years, SS leaders liked to cite the Raiding Squad Adolf Hitler as its precursor, and certainly some of its earliest members had previously been in that group, but in reality the SS was something new. The Raiding Squad, like the SA, was a combat group, designed to be in the vanguard in a National Socialist revolution. The SS’s full title indicates that it was conceived for a totally different purpose.
Hitler had his first serious breach with Röhm in April 1925. By then, it was clear that Röhm did not want to reorganise the SA on Hitler’s terms, while Hitler would not support the continuation of Röhm’s alliance of right-wing militias as an independent organisation. In a conversation between the two men on the 16th, Hitler made his feelings clear to Röhm,25 and the next day Röhm resigned as leader of both the alliance and the SA. Soon afterwards, he got a job as a military adviser to the government of Bolivia and left Germany. Although the SA remained intact under new leadership, Schreck seized the opportunity to bolster his new, rival organisation.
Hitler wanted the SS to abandon the pseudo-military structure of the SA. Instead, he proposed that each local party group should form a squad of about ten men, drawn from its most reliable elements, to protect the local leadership and their meetings, and reinforce the party leaders’ escort whenever they visited. This was formalised in a circular issued by Schreck on 21 September 1925 to all “Gau* leaderships and independent local groups,”26 which outlined the guidelines under which leaders of the squads, labelledSchutzstaffeln, were to operate. The key was controllability: “the protection squads were not to become muddled up with the SA”; names of proposed leaders were to be approved by the central leadership of the squads; and membership application forms and membership cards were available only from the central leadership. Subscriptions were set at one mark per month (soon reduced to fifty pfennigs), which were to be forwarded promptly to the central leadership. Uniform items—initially a brown, SA-type shirt, a black kepi with a skull-and-crossbones badge and an imperial cockade, and a black necktie—were to be obtained from the SS’s headquarters in Munich.
There was not an overwhelming rush to join the new squads, but this is hardly surprising, as so many other paramilitary and combat groups were already associated with the NSDAP. It seems that local party members simply did not understand the need for the protection squads. Koehl points out that, by the time of Schreck’s circular, the Hamburg NSDAP was using teenagers from the nationalist Blücherbund group; Berlin was employing members of Röhm’s alliance; Cuxhaven was using the Stahlhelm nationalist war veterans’ group; while the Ruhr had created its own SA under a former Free Corps commander, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon.27 All of these were ill-disciplined mobs of bouncers and brawlers from the ranks of the SA, Free Corps and other trouble-making groups, who might very well attract the attention of regional and national authorities. That was specifically what Hitler and his immediate circle wanted to avoid—hence the need to put their personal security in the hands of a tight-knit, well-led, disciplined new organisation.
The SS was officially founded—or at least proclaimed as an organisation of the NSDAP—on 9 November 1925, the second anniversary of the Putsch. But there was certainly some form of SS administration several months before this date. Schreck’s file lists him as joining on 1 November,28 but, as we have seen, Bednarek’s dates his enrolment to May (and presumably 466 men had joined before him). More remarkably, Ulrich Graf supposedly signed up on “1.1.25.”29 This early membership—some months before the SS was even mooted—is doubtless the result of some sort of creative backdating, but it should not disguise the fact that Schreck wasted no time in implementing Hitler’s orders, and that local groups had begun to organise their protection squads long before his formal directives were issued.
The SS leadership was “directed to take over the ‘Hall Control’ for the [party anniversary meeting] on 25 February 1926,”30 but it is indicative of the somewhat ad hoc nature of the organisation at this time that it was also “absolutely essential that members of the appointed ‘hall protection’ receive a pass in order to ensure free entry.”31 SS groups continued to organise sporadically in March, but there was little impetus until the return to Munich of the diminutive Josef Berchtold, who had fled to Austria after thePutsch. In April, he took over from Schreck,* styling himself Reichsführer der Schutzstaffeln (National Leader of the Protection Squads), in contrast to his predecessor’s old title, Führer der Oberleitung (Leader of the Headquarters Staff). Berchtold soon installed Erhard Heiden as his deputy and issued a new set of rules—apparently drafted by Schreck—in order to establish the SS’s position vis-à-vis the SA. He specified that the “SS is neither a (para-)military organisation nor a group of hangers-on, but a small squad of men that our movement and our Führer can rely on. They must be people who can protect our meetings against troublemakers and professional stirrers. There are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in the SS, only party discipline.”32 He also suggested that the strength of a standard SS squad should be one officer and ten men, but stressed that bigger party districts might need more. A subsequent instruction forbade “district SS leaders to give their men military training, to allow them to be members of other ‘combat organisations’ or to participate in military training with them.”33
Berchtold’s efforts were rewarded on 4 July 1926, when Hitler placed the “Blood Banner,” a swastika flag allegedly stained with the blood of the fallen National Socialist “martyr” Andreas Bauriedl during the Putsch, into the SS’s safekeeping as a kind of holy relic of the movement. However, the SS still had a rival: the SA. Following Röhm’s departure, this had been reorganised as a mass, uniformed formation that would be tolerated by the authorities. At the end of July, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon was named as its leader.34
Around this time, there was something of a rupture between the southern and northern factions of the NSDAP. The latter, led by Gregor Strasser, recognised Hitler’s overall leadership but were less enthusiastic about the Bavarian cliques that surrounded him. To some extent, the problem was ideological: Strasser was extremely anti-Semitic, but he focused on the “socialist” rather than the “nationalist” elements of the NSDAP’s programme. Hitler knew that he had to bring the northerners back onside, and the way to achieve this was to allow the revival of the SA, whose non-southern branches had been largely untainted by the Putsch. On 1 November, Franz Pfeffer von Salomon was named leader of the SA, and shortly thereafter—despite Berchtold’s best efforts—the SS was subordinated to the SA as a “special formation.”
Part of Pfeffer von Salomon’s task was to bring the SA back under political control. Many of the organisation’s units were still directly descended from—indeed, in some cases, were one and the same as—the lawless Free Corps. In the relatively peaceful Germany of 1926, these groups were unlikely to appeal to the kind of people who were being targeted as potential supporters by the NSDAP. Hitler wanted the re-formed SA simply to create the conditions in which the party’s propagandists could do their work, so Pfeffer von Salomon introduced drill, parades and other straightforward military techniques to instil some discipline into his units.
By contrast, members of the SS, when not acting as personal bodyguards, were typical political activists: they collected donations, canvassed potential supporters and sold the party newspaper, the Völkische Beobachter (Folkish Observer). An SS newsletter, published in December 1926, gives somewhat breathless accounts of these relatively mundane tasks. However, it also offers to sell SS members “knockout gas pistols” for a few marks each, under the legal warning that they should “only be used in case of ‘danger’; unprovoked or unwarned use may result in legal punishment. Knockout guns are not toys, but primarily handy defence weapons.”35
The subordination of the SS to the SA appears to have disenchanted Berchtold, and he handed over leadership to his colourless deputy, Heiden, in March 1927. But Heinz Höhne notes that Heiden also “found it difficult to compete with the growing size and influence of the SA; Pfeffer von Salomon, for instance, forbade the SS to form units in towns where the SA was still under strength.”36 Even so, Heiden continued to enforce a far stricter code upon his SS members than would have been tolerated in the SA. He demanded that his men should not get involved in party matters that did not concern them; insisted on strict discipline during party meetings; and—notwithstanding the sale of “knockout guns”—ordered commanders to search for and confiscate any illegal weapons prior to SS men going on duty. The intention was to create a self-conscious elite that would take pride in its difference from the SA and attract a better class of recruit. Höhne repeatedly refers to the SS as a kind of party “aristocracy,” even at this early stage in its development. This may seem slightly odd, given the radical working- and lower-middle-class nature of the organisation, but it gives an indication of how members of the SS regarded themselves. It was always intended to be a small, elite group with a pronouncedesprit de corps.
Nevertheless, outside Munich, it struggled in the early years to maintain any organisational momentum. At Christmas 1925, it had claimed a membership of “about a thousand men,”37 but shortly thereafter this had declined to “about 200.”38 And there it languished for the next three years, throughout the reigns of Berchtold and Heiden. The latter was finally dismissed at the beginning of 1929, probably because of his lacklustre performance, although a rumour suggested that he had been exposed as a police spy. There would be no such doubts about his replacement.
* In the last days of the war, Schaub, by then an SS-Obergruppenführer (general), was tasked with destroying Hitler’s personal papers in Berlin, in Munich and at the Obersalzburg.
* Gaue were the regional organisations of the National Socialist Party. These were headed by Gauleiters (regional leaders), who were among the most important and influential of National Socialist Party officials, acting, in effect, as local representatives for Hitler himself.
* Schreck resumed his role as Hitler’s chauffeur and ceased to take an active part in the SS, although he was subsequently given the rank of SS-Standartenführer (colonel). He died on 15 May 1936 of meningitis. At his funeral, Heinrich Himmler gave a graveside eulogy which ended: “We have now taken our leave of you. But you live in our ranks still, as when you were actually there. And now I have an honour for you, dear Comrade Schreck, that your Führer has given you. When you founded the squad, you were a tiny group of ten men. From today the Führer has ordered that the 1st SS Regiment in Munich should bear the name ‘Julius Schreck.’ We will all strive to ensure that this regiment which carries this name—of a man who was a hero in our ranks—does so with honour!” (USNA: SSO100B)