The Nazi party was born out of a fundamental change in the German political environment. For German anti-Semites didn’t just hold the Jews responsible for even more problems now than before the war – their hatred gained an entire new dimension.
In 1912 the leader of the Pan-Germans, Heinrich Class, had entitled his attack on the Jews ‘If I Were Kaiser’. Class thus imagined that the changes he called for could be made within the established political system of which the Kaiser was the head. But it was inconceivable in 1919 that a leading anti-Semite would call a new attack on the Jews ‘If I were President of the Weimar Republic’. That is because the government was no longer seen as the means by which a solution to the Jewish ‘problem’ could be sought – the government was seen as part of the Jewish ‘problem’.
Amid all this discontent, anti-Semitic groups flourished. The most powerful was the Deutschvölkischer Schutz- und Trutzbund (German People’s Protection and Defiance League), founded in February 1919. By 1922 the League had 150,000 members; and every one of them had signed up to a constitution calling for the ‘removal’ of the ‘pernicious and destructive influence of Jewry’.1
Bavaria, in particular, was a breeding ground for a whole host of radical anti-Semitic groups. In Munich, for instance, the Thule Society demanded that each prospective member swear that ‘no Jewish or coloured blood’ flowed ‘in his or his wife’s veins’.2 Once they had fulfilled these entrance requirements, members of the society were exposed to the rhetoric of the founder – Rudolf Freiherr von Sebottendorff. His views became positively apocalyptic at the time of the defeat of the German Army in November 1918. He proclaimed that now ‘our mortal enemy rules: Judah. We don’t know yet what will arise from this chaos. We can guess. The time of fight will come, of bitter hardships, a time of danger! We, who are in this fight, are all in danger, for the enemy hates us with the infinite hatred of the Jewish race. It is now an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth … Now, brothers and sisters, it is no longer the time for contemplative speeches and meetings and feasts! Now it is time to fight, and I want to and will fight! Fight until the swastika [the symbol of the Thule Society] ascends triumphantly … Now we need to talk about the German Reich, now we need to say that the Jew is our mortal enemy …’3
Another leading member of the Thule Society was an alcoholic playwright in his early fifties called Dietrich Eckart – a man who would have a very considerable influence on the thirty-year-old Adolf Hitler. Eckart was a convinced anti-Semite. He was most famous for his adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which he altered so as to make the trolls into caricature Jews.4 In another of his plays, Familienvater, Eckart told the story of a courageous journalist who tried to expose the corrupt power of the Jews in the media; the journalist wrote a play in order to warn the public about the danger of the Jews, but the Jews used their influence to make it fail. In a twist of events that would be comic were the underlying history not so bleak, when Eckart’s play about an unsuccessful playwright whose play failed because of the Jews was itself unsuccessful, Eckart blamed – predictably – the Jews.5 For Eckart, ‘the Jewish question’ was the ‘issue that actually contains every other issue. Nothing on earth would remain obscure if one could only shed light on its mystery.’6 Furthermore, he wrote, ‘No people in the world’ would let the Jew live if they understood him: if they ‘suddenly saw through what he is and what he wants, screaming in horror they would strangle him the very next minute’.7
Eckart was a supporter of a small political group in Munich called the German Workers’ Party, which was loosely associated with the Thule Society, and it was through this association that he and Hitler came to form a special bond. On 12 September 1919, a week before Hilter sent his letter outlining the reasons for his anti-Semitism, he attended a meeting of the party in a beer hall in Munich. The German Workers’ Party was one of many small Bavarian political groups on the far right. All of them followed the same essential script: German soldiers had lost the war because they had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by Jewish profiteers working behind the lines, and the Jews were the instigators of both Communist revolution and the hated Weimar democracy. At the meeting Hitler was talent-spotted by the chairman of the party, a railway mechanic called Anton Drexler. Recognizing Hitler’s ability to express himself in forceful terms, Drexler pressed him to join.
Over the next months, however, it was Dietrich Eckart who most influenced Hitler’s development. Paradoxically, the qualities in Hitler that Eckart valued were the very ones that had previously made him appear rather ‘peculiar’8 to his comrades during the First World War. Hitler’s intolerance, his social inadequacies, his inability to engage in normal conversation and his absolute certainty that he was right – these, to Eckart, were all now positive attributes. There was, Eckart no doubt believed, a great deal to be angry about in the wake of the German defeat, and Hitler was anger personified. That, combined with his extreme views about who was to blame for the current situation, was exactly what the confused masses in Munich needed to hear. Above all, Hitler’s service in the war as an ordinary soldier who had won an Iron Cross for his bravery marked him out from the old leadership elite who had so demonstrably failed the nation. ‘The rabble has to be scared shitless,’ said Eckart. ‘I can’t use an officer; the people no longer have any respect for them. Best of all would be a worker who’s got his mouth in the right place … He doesn’t need to be intelligent; politics is the stupidest business in the world.’9 All of which led Eckart to make this prophecy about Hitler: ‘This is the coming man of Germany, one day the world will speak of him.’10
As for Hitler, his relationship with Eckart was one of the closest he ever had with another human being. He revered Eckart almost to the point of hero worship. He said that when he first met Eckart, ‘I was intellectually a child still on the bottle. But what comforted me was that, even with him, it hadn’t all sprouted of itself – that everything in his work was the result of a patient and intelligent effort.’11 Hitler felt that Eckart ‘shone in our eyes like the polar star’.12
This odd couple – the bald, prematurely aged alcoholic and the socially awkward ex-soldier – had many adventures together before Eckart’s death in December 1923. Some alleged escapades attained an almost mythical status. Later accounts claimed, for example, that in March 1920 they flew in a light plane to Berlin in an attempt to make contact with right-wing revolutionaries who had just overthrown the government in the ‘Kapp Putsch’. After a journey battling through the elements, during which Hitler vomited over the side of the plane, they landed in Berlin. Eckart now posed as a businessman and Hitler pretended to be his assistant. In order to make the impersonation more effective, Hitler put on a fake beard. They made their way to the Hotel Adlon, the headquarters of Wolfgang Kapp, the leader of the short-lived Putsch, only to be told by his press officer that he wasn’t there. Eckart looked at the press officer and told Hitler they had to leave at once – because the press officer was clearly Jewish. Hitler subsequently said that he had realized that the Kapp Putsch would fail, because the ‘press chief of Kapp’s government … was a Jew’.13
Three weeks before this alleged abortive trip to Berlin, the German Workers’ Party – now renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (colloquially, the Nazis) – had launched a twenty-five-point party programme at the Hofbräuhaus beer hall in Munich. Point four of the programme, which was composed largely by Hitler and Anton Drexler, read: ‘Only members of the nation may be citizens of the State … Accordingly, no Jew may be a member of the nation.’14 The penultimate point elaborated further on the anti-Semitic policy of the party by announcing that the Nazi party ‘combats the Jewish-materialist spirit within and without us’.
Over the next few months and years, Hitler preached his anti-Semitic beliefs at countless rallies and meetings of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. He said that ‘solving the Jewish question is the central question for National Socialists’ and that the Nazis could ‘solve’ it only by using ‘brute force’.15 He also claimed that ‘the Jew destroys and must destroy because he completely lacks the conception of an activity which builds up the life of the community’16 and that ‘no salvation is possible until the bearer of disunion, the Jew, has been rendered powerless to harm.’17Hitler even attacked the Jews for bringing democracy to Germany – ‘Democracy is fundamentally not German: it is Jewish’18 – and repeated the traditional anti-Semitic fantasy that ‘the Jews are a people of robbers. He [the Jew] has never founded any civilization, though he has destroyed civilizations by the hundred. He possesses nothing of his own creation to which he can point.’19
Hitler emphasized to his audience that there could never be such a thing as a ‘good’ Jew. Individual actions and achievements counted for nothing. For Hitler ‘it is beside the point whether the individual Jew is ‘decent or not’. In himself he carries those characteristics which Nature has given him, and he cannot ever rid himself of those characteristics. And to us he is harmful.’20 For Hitler, the decision to emancipate the Jews was ‘the beginning of an attack of delirium’ because ‘equality’ had been given to a ‘people’ that was ‘clearly and definitely a race apart’.21 The official policy of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was for the German Jews to be stripped of their citizenship, but in an article in March 1921 for the Völkischer Beobachter – a newspaper bought for the Nazis with the assistance of Dietrich Eckart – Hitler went further, and suggested that Germany could also be protected by imprisoning Jews. ‘The Jewish undermining of our Volk must be prevented,’ he wrote, ‘if necessary through confining its instigators in concentration camps. Briefly, our Volk must be cleansed of all the poison at the top and the bottom.’ 22
Hitler’s radical anti-Semitism was obvious, even at this early stage in the history of the Nazi party, but it did not necessarily follow that all of those who joined the party at this time did so because they also felt strongly about the Jews. Some, like Emil Klein, were motivated primarily by disillusionment about the lost war and fear of a Communist revolution. ‘We were a young war generation,’ he says. ‘We saw our fathers being called up. We saw them garlanded with flowers at the stations as they set off for war in France. We saw the weeping mothers they left behind.’23Then, after his father returned, defeated, in 1919 ‘at the time of the Munich collapse, we suddenly saw the red flags. Because the Communists had entered and bombarded the whole city in their vans, distributing leaflets. And they advertised for their party and for the revolution with the slogan, “Workers of the world unite!” ’
Emil Klein’s route to anti-Semitism came via the alleged link between Communism and Judaism: ‘I looked into it at the time and I discovered that the ones at the top [at the time of the Munich “Soviet republic”] were mainly literary Jews – well, a whole series of them. It did cause enormous offence in Bavaria that Jews were setting the tone. And that’s where the expression came from: “Jew republic”.’ Once exposed to the rhetoric of the Nazi party, Klein extended the scope of his anti-Semitism, and came to believe that the Jews were not just behind Communism, but responsible for the ills of capitalism as well. He thought that ‘the fight against Jewry’ contained within the Nazi party programme was ‘not against the Jews as such, but against international high finance, the financial power of Jewry … So, not against the Jews as individuals, but against capitalism, which stems from Jewry, from Wall Street that is. Wall Street was always being mentioned.’
Hitler did much more, however, than merely tell Nazi supporters that the Jews were to blame for Germany’s problems. He didn’t only preach a doctrine of hate – he also offered hope. He painted a vision of a new Germany in which class differences would disappear and all ‘Aryan’ Germans would bond themselves together in a national community. Emil Klein was attracted by the idea that the Nazi party ‘wanted to eradicate class differences, with the working class here, the bourgeoisie here and the middle classes here. These were deeply ingrained concepts that split the nation into two parts, and that was an important point for me, one that I liked … that the nation has to be united.’24
Jutta Rüdiger, who would later become a senior figure in the Nazi organization Der Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls, also wanted to see a united German community: ‘The fact that the family comes first, then the clan, then the community, then the nation and then Europe, [this was] not a nebulous concept but an idea based on the roots of the family … The concept was a real classless society without any differences, whereas previous youth movements, and that is partly true of the boy scouts, too, had consisted mostly of grammar school boys, with the working-class children kept mostly to themselves. We had united the young workers and the young people still at school into one entity. There was no difference between them and nobody would ask “what does your father do?” ’25
Rüdiger’s support for the idea of the ‘classless’ Germany was encapsulated by one experience after the Nazis came to power. ‘It was shortly before Christmas and everybody was collecting money, especially on the Day of National Solidarity as it was called then.* And leading members of the party were present as well as ministers and industrialists. They were on the street in the wind and the rain.’ A rich foreigner approached one of the German industrialists and asked why he was standing out in the cold asking the public for small change when all he needed to do was to ‘put a thousand marks in the tin’. The German industrialist turned to Jutta Rüdiger and said simply, ‘They do not get the point at all.’
Bruno Hähnel, who joined the Nazi party in the early 1920s, also felt drawn to the idea of a ‘national community’ (in German, Volksgemeinschaft). ‘It simply means that there had always been two distinct strata in German society,’ he says, ‘the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. And so in order to bridge the gap, a national community was to be established, in order to ensure that both the intellectuals and the workers would join forces. The national community was expressed in the [Nazi party’s] catchphrase, which I think most of us used again and again: “The public’s interest comes first.” Hence also the expression that we weren’t merely National Socialists, but national-minded Socialists.’26
As a senior German officer, secretly recorded in captivity by the British during the war, put it: ‘Some things will remain for ever. They will last for hundreds of years. Not the roads [the Nazis built] – they are unimportant. But what will last is the way in which the state has been organized, particularly the inclusion of the workingman as part of the state. He [Hitler] has made a place for the workingman in the state and no one has ever done that before … This principle of everyone working for the common cause, the idea that the industrialist is really the trustee for the capital represented by German labour and for the other capital, all sounds so easy, but no one managed it before.’27
However, the Nazi supporters who approved of ‘classlessness’ were also, as a consequence, supporting a darker idea altogether. That is because Hitler taught that this new ‘classless’ life would be possible only when those of a different ‘race’ were excluded from the society of ‘true’ Germans. ‘We said to ourselves’, Hitler declared, ‘there are no such things as classes: they cannot be. Class means caste and caste means race.’28 The notion of a ‘classless’ Germany followed, as far as Hitler was concerned, from an acceptance that ‘race’ was the most vital quality of all. The Jews were thus the barrier to a Germany in which everyone was united in the Nazi ideal of a classless world. It was the Jews who were preventing Germans becoming happy and prosperous. If their ‘power’ was not somehow neutralized, there could be no progress, no way out of the morass. In a speech in September 1922, Hitler summed up what he saw as Germany’s predicament: ‘We in Germany have come to this: that sixty-million people sees its destiny to lie at the will of a few dozen Jewish bankers.’29
The Nazi party was not the only organization promoting both anti-Semitism and the ideals of the völkisch movement. Up to seventy other groups listed in the German Völkisch Yearbook of 1921 all believed that by stripping the Jews of German citizenship the Volk could flourish anew.30 One of them, the small Deutschsozialistische Partei (German Socialist Party), based in Franconia in northern Bavaria, established a newspaper in 1920. An article in the first edition tried to convert socialists to the cause of the radical right by arguing that, while the parties on the left claimed to ‘fight against all capital, even the Jewish big loan money’, they were actually sponsored by the Jews: ‘Do you really think that the Rothschilds, Mendelssohns, Bleichröders, Warburgs and Cohns will ever let you near their supply of money? Don’t believe this swindle after all! As long as the blood brothers of the Mendelssohns, of the Bleichröders and Cohns are your captains and as long as your group leaders are mercenaries of the Jews, you don’t pose a danger to the big-money people. As long as you do not become leaders yourselves, as long as the black shadow of aliens is behind you, you are seduced and fooled. The black alien is interested in his own benefit, not in you.’31
The author of the article was a thirty-six-year-old schoolteacher and veteran of the First World War who would subsequently play a leading role in inciting anti-Semitism in Germany. His name was Julius Streicher. Like Hitler, Streicher had won the Iron Cross during the war, but unlike Hitler he had been born a German, not an Austrian. He had grown up around Augsburg in south-west Bavaria. This area changed a great deal during his childhood as the population increased and several thousand Jews moved into the district. Streicher traced his own dislike of the Jews to an incident that he claimed occurred when he was five years old. His mother bought some fabric from a Jewish shop and it later turned out that the material wasn’t of high quality. His mother burst into tears and said that this deception was typical of a Jew.32
In the autumn of 1921 Streicher joined the Deutsche Werkgemeinschaft (German Working Community), and his attacks on the Jews became more extreme and more personal. He claimed that Jews in Nuremberg snatched Christian children and murdered them in order to obtain blood to use in baking bread at Passover – the same ‘Blood Libel’ that had helped incite the pogrom in Kishinev in Russia nearly twenty years before. On 5 September 1922, at the district court in Schweinfurt, in a judgment against Streicher for ‘an offence against religion’, the assessor stated that Streicher had ‘accused the Jews of still maintaining the custom of ritual murder. He [Streicher] referred to the east, where he previously fought in the World War as an officer, and explained that the people over there spoke quite bluntly about ritual murders by the Jews. He added that in Germany one hundred children would mysteriously disappear every year around the Easter period and he asked: “Where do these children get to?” ’33
In another speech in 1922 Streicher said it should not be considered a crime if ‘one day we stand up and chase the Jews to hell’ and ‘grab the bastards for their lies’.34 He also alleged that the Jews had been ‘proven’ to ‘wish for Germany’s misfortune’ and that if ‘the [German] people had known the contents of the secret treaties of the war, they would have slain all the Jews’.35
While Streicher’s rhetoric was popular among a select group, it was also inevitably the cause of conflict. At least one meeting had to be called off after he inflamed the audience so much that they started to fight among themselves. Even the leadership of the Deutsche Werkgemeinschaft criticized Streicher for his antics. It was obvious to everyone that he was an aggressive and potentially dangerous individual who was obsessed with hatred of the Jews and foreign ‘races’. As a result, he was precisely the kind of man that Hitler wanted in the Nazi party. Reminiscing about this period nearly twenty years later, Hitler remarked that ‘More than once’ Dietrich Eckart had told him that Streicher was a ‘lunatic’. But, said Hitler, Eckart ‘always added that one could not hope for the triumph of National Socialism without giving one’s support to men like Streicher’.36
Late in 1922, Streicher travelled to Munich and listened to Hitler speak for the first time. At his trial at Nuremberg after the war, he described the experience: ‘First slowly, hardly audible, then faster and more powerfully, and finally with overpowering strength … He revealed an enormous treasure trove of thought in a speech of more than three hours, clothed with the beauty of inspired language. Each person felt it: this man spoke from a godly calling, he spoke as a messenger from heaven at a time when hell threatened to swallow up everything. And everyone understood him, whether with the brain or the heart, whether man or woman. He had spoken for everyone, for the entire German people. Just before midnight his speech concluded with the inspiring call: “Workers, blue collar or white! To you is extended the hand of a German people’s community of heart and action.” ’37
Streicher now believed that it was his destiny to serve Adolf Hitler. Indeed, he seems to have experienced an almost religious conversion. ‘I saw this man shortly before midnight,’ he said at Nuremberg, ‘after he had spoken for three hours, drenched in perspiration, radiant. My neighbor said he thought he saw a halo around his head, and I experienced something which transcended the commonplace.’38 Shortly afterwards, Streicher persuaded his own followers to join the Nazi party and accept Hitler’s leadership. In 1923 he launched his anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmerand he continued to preside over this infamous hate sheet until the end of the Second World War.
Around this time Hitler attracted others into the party who would subsequently become leading figures in the Nazi movement. Ernst Röhm, Hermann Göring, Hans Frank, Rudolf Hess – all of these people and more decided to follow Hitler in the early 1920s. Some of them were young and impressionable, but men like Röhm and Göring were hard-bitten, cynical veterans of the war. Both had served as officers and had distinguished themselves as leaders of men in battle. Now, in the wake of the German defeat, they had countless political parties to choose from in order to pursue their goals, and yet they decided to subordinate themselves to a former soldier from the ranks called Adolf Hitler.
In part, this was because they witnessed the power of his rhetoric. They saw how he could attract new followers to the cause – just as he had with Julius Streicher. But just as important, they shared Hitler’s beliefs. In terms of policy, Hitler had to convince them of nothing. What he offered them, in large part via his speech-making, was a combination of clarity of vision and the promise of a radical method of turning this vision into a reality.
As a necessary precondition of this, Hitler spoke with absolute certainty. He laid out the alleged reasons for the mess Germany was in, and then he told his audience the way these troubles should be fixed. There was no debate, no discussion. Hitler’s belief that he was right was so intense that it dominated everything else. At a rally in Munich in 1923 Professor Karl Alexander von Müller watched him walk to the stage. He had previously met the Nazi leader once or twice in private houses, but the man before him now was a different Hitler. ‘Gaunt, pale features contorted as if by inward rage,’ wrote Professor Müller afterwards, ‘cold flames darting from his protruding eyes, which seemed to be searching out foes to be conquered. Did the crowd give him this mysterious power? Did it emanate from him to them? “Fanatical, hysterical romanticism with a brutal core of willpower” I noted down. The declining middle class may be carrying this man, but he is not one of them. He assuredly comes from totally different depths of darkness.’39
Many in the völkisch movement had longed for an individual to come forward and offer them a way through the disorder that appeared all around. As Stefan George, the prophet of the movement, put it in 1907: ‘The Man! The Deed! Volk and high counsel yearn for The Man! The Deed!’40Now Hitler appeared to fulfil this destiny. As Nazi supporter Bruno Hähnel says: ‘it was our aim that a strong man should have the say, and we had such a strong man.’41
Hitler was soon the undisputed leader of the Nazis, and in a memorandum he wrote in January 1922 he outlined where previous leaders of the völkisch movement had gone wrong. They had been intelligent but ‘fantastically naive’ and had ‘lacked the warm breath of the nation’s youthful vigour’. What Hitler believed the movement needed was ‘the impetuous force of headstrong fire-eaters’.42 And he found just such men in Streicher, Röhm and Göring. They were exactly the people he needed for what he called ‘a party of struggle and action’.
Hitler thus offered not only a racist and anti-Semitic vision of the world; not only an analysis of why Germany had lost the war and was now losing the peace; not just a promise of a ‘classless’ nation. He also offered a way forward that was exciting, dangerous and calculated to appeal to the young. ‘The old parties train their youth in the gift of the gab,’ he said in a speech in July 1922, ‘we prefer to train them to use their bodily strength. For I tell you, the young man who does not find his way to the place where in the last resort the destiny of his people is most truly represented, only studies philosophy and in a time like this buries himself behind his books or sits at home by the fire, he is no German youth! I call upon you! Join our Storm Divisions!’43
During that same year, 1922, a twenty-one-year-old agricultural student at the University of Munich called Heinrich Himmler was trying to make sense of his own life. In the process, he absorbed many of the beliefs of the radical right. However, he was not moved by the crude, emotional anti-Semitism of men like Julius Streicher. Instead, Himmler preferred the pseudo-academic analysis contained within Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s work. He wrote of Foundations of the Nineteenth Century that it was ‘objective’ and not full of ‘hate-filled’ anti-Semitism.44 The young Himmler believed that he could deal with individual Jews in a professional fashion, while still understanding that racially the Jews were a threat. In January 1922, for instance, he met a Jewish lawyer and described him in his diary as ‘Extremely amiable and kind’, but nonetheless ‘He cannot hide his Jewishness’ because it was in his ‘blood’.45 Himmler also approved of treating in a brutal way those Jews who were perceived by fanatical nationalists to have harmed Germany. When he heard the news that the German Jewish Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau had been shot in June 1922, he wrote, ‘I’m glad … he was a villain.’46
Like many who hadn’t seen combat in the First World War, Himmler wanted to show that he could be a brave fighter. After hearing a speech in Munich from a general who in 1919 had fought in the Baltic against the Bolsheviks, he wrote in his diary, ‘Now I know more certainly than ever, if there is another campaign in the east, I will go along. The east is the most important thing for us. The west is simply dying. In the east, we need to fight and settle.’47 They were unconsciously prophetic words, given that Himmler would subsequently orchestrate genocide ‘in the east’ during the Second World War.
The Himmler that emerges from his diaries is a repressed, prissy young man who thinks a great deal of himself, and has trouble in his relationships with women. He believed that he was one of those ‘types of people’ who were ‘melancholic’ and ‘strict’ and ‘who are necessary in the people’s community, but who in my opinion will still fall one day if they don’t get married or engaged soon enough, because the human animalistic nature is too powerful within us’.48 He also believed that ‘the objective that every man should have’ was ‘to be an upright, straight, fair man, who is never shy or afraid and that is hard’.49 Like that of many others, Himmler’s career development was damaged by the economic problems of 1922. He had hoped to stay on and study politics at the University of Munich after finishing his agricultural exams, but instead, by the autumn of 1922, he was working for a fertilizer company. It was a change in fortune almost certainly caused by the hyperinflation that was now rampant and that made it hard for middle-class parents to fund their children’s studies. Himmler had not yet met Adolf Hitler, but he was already predisposed by his intellectual beliefs and his personal circumstances to find his message an attractive one.
Above all else in these early years, Hitler and his party saw themselves as revolutionaries. They lived in a time of revolution – from the Communist uprisings in Berlin and Munich in 1919 to the right-wing Kapp Putsch in 1920. And by 1922 Hitler was not only prepared to talk about violence as the route to power, he was ready to lead into battle his own group of paramilitaries – the Stormtroopers or Sturmabteilung. Originally members of the euphemistically known ‘gymnastic and sports’ section of the party, the Stormtroopers protected party rallies and beat up political opponents.
In October 1922 Hitler hired a train to take around 800 Nazi Stormtroopers to Coburg in the north of Bavaria, an area with strong left-wing support. His aim at Coburg was to provoke a confrontation; and he succeeded, as his Stormtroopers fought the socialists in the streets before finally declaring themselves victorious. As a consequence of actions like this, the true nature of the Nazi party was clear for all to see.
Like all revolutionaries, Hitler was not concerned whether his ideas succeeded at the ballot box. He did not have to worry whether or not a majority of Germans supported Nazi policies – such as his desire to strip the Jews of their citizenship – which was just as well for him, because there was no evidence that most Germans supported this radical idea. The Nazis, it should be remembered, were still a fringe party opposed by substantial groups who despised their anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. Indeed, a study of voting patterns at national elections in the early 1920s reveals that a majority of Germans voted for parties who did not agree with anti-Semitic policies.50 Nor should it be forgotten that there were many Germans, like Josef Felder, later a Social Democratic member of the Reichstag, who felt revulsion when they heard what Hitler had to say. He remembers listening to one of Hitler’s anti-Semitic diatribes in the early 1920s and afterwards remarking to a friend that ‘hopefully’ Hitler ‘would never come to power’.51
However, in 1922 it appeared to Hitler and his followers that the omens for a successful revolution were good. The same month that Hitler led his Stormtroopers into the streets of Coburg, a fellow revolutionary – Benito Mussolini – saw his Blackshirted followers march on Rome and provoke a change in government. By the end of October that year Mussolini was Prime Minister of Italy. Meanwhile, in Germany the economic crisis escalated when French and Belgian troops crossed into German territory at the start of 1923 and occupied the Rhineland. The occupation – the result of Germany defaulting on reparation payments – was, not surprisingly, hugely unpopular. It appeared that the Weimar government could not even protect German borders. In the wake of the crisis, membership of the Nazi party more than doubled and by November there were about 55,000 members. It was one of the first signs that this was a movement that thrived on calamity.
In Bavaria, Gustav von Kahr became State Commissioner – effectively a dictator. Hitler now hoped to force Kahr and the German troops based in Bavaria to support the Nazis and other right-wing paramilitaries in a march on Berlin. What had worked for Mussolini in Italy would now, Hitler supposed, work for the Nazis in Germany. Nazi Stormtroopers interrupted a meeting that Kahr was holding at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on the evening of 8 November and then marched through the city the following day. Taking part in what became known as the ‘Beer-Hall Putsch’ were many who would go on to play important roles in the Nazi party, including Himmler (who had still not met Hitler personally), Göring and Streicher – all of them dedicated revolutionaries. During the march through Munich the Nazis and their supporters were confronted by police at the corner of the Feldenherrnhalle and the Odeonsplatz in the centre of the city. Shots were fired and sixteen Nazis and four policemen were killed that day.
The whole episode was misconceived from the beginning. Despite promising to support the Putsch when Hitler threatened him at the Bürgerbräukeller, Kahr disavowed the Nazis as soon as he was out of their hands. Hitler had misread the potential willingness of the right-wing Bavarian authorities to support his revolution and had no contingency plan to put in place once the revolutionaries were on their own. But despite all this, he was able to transform this humiliating defeat into a propaganda triumph.
He was arrested and put on trial in February 1924. Knowing, as a result of Kahr’s initial support at the Bürgerbräukeller, that the Bavarian authorities themselves were implicated in the Putsch, Hitler used the courtroom as a stage to shout his political beliefs to the world. He announced that he was the ‘destroyer of Marxism’ and that far from practising ‘high treason’ he had wanted only to create conditions in Germany that would ‘make it possible for the iron grip of our enemies to be removed from us’.52 Hitler did not regret his actions. Instead, he appeared proud of them.
Hitler was found guilty of high treason – no other verdict was possible given the evidence against him. But the court was lenient. The judge, Georg Neithardt, was one of many leading figures in the Bavarian establishment who was sympathetic to the aims of the Nazis. As a result, Hitler received the lightest sentence possible – five years in prison – with the expectation that he would be out on probation long before that sentence had been served.
What is significant about this episode in any attempt to understand the origins of the Nazi party as a revolutionary, anti-Semitic movement, is not so much the individual character of Hitler – though that is important – as the noxious mix of circumstances that made the situation in Bavaria possible. It is hard to see how the rise of such a motley group of violent people could have been tolerated in a civilized state without the turbulent conditions of the time.
Germans wrestled in the years immediately following the First World War with a whole host of difficulties that made their lives potentially hazardous. Hyperinflation wrecked their savings, the Weimar administration appeared impotent in the face of foreign intervention – the arrival of French and Belgian troops on German soil in the Rhineland was a particular humiliation – and Communist revolutionaries still threatened. Democracy appeared to have brought little but chaos. But paradoxically, since the Nazis were a party of violence, they claimed to offer a path to stability. As a result, a small minority of Germans – and only a small minority at this stage – supported them.
Finally, at a time of enormous suffering, Hitler offered reassurance. ‘Listen,’ the subtext of his speeches seemed to say, ‘none of these problems are your fault.’ Over the next months as he served his prison sentence, he would elaborate on just whose fault he believed all of Germany’s troubles were – and why.