Hitler served his sentence at Landsberg prison, just over 30 miles west of Munich. Landsberg was a Festungshaft or ‘fortress’ prison, which meant that the accommodation was comfortable and there were few restrictions on visitors. One Nazi supporter later remarked that he thought he had ‘walked into a delicatessen’ when he visited Hitler, since he found that admirers had provided the Nazi leader with an abundance of ‘ham, sausage, cake, boxes of chocolates and much more’.1
In these convivial surroundings, among many of his comrades who had also taken part in the Putsch, Hitler composed a book – Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Though written in a crude and hyperbolic style, Mein Kampf nonetheless offers valuable insights into Hitler’s worldview. The book was not a blueprint for the Holocaust – Hitler did not outline a plan to exterminate the Jews – but he did lay bare the nature of his own anti-Semitism. He explained, in greater detail than in any of his previous utterances, just why he hated the Jews. It was a hatred that reads today as the product of a mind so deeply mired in prejudice as to be almost unhinged.
The subject of the Jews dominated the book. Indeed, it is not going too far to say that ‘the Jew’ was the glue that held Hitler’s entire worldview together. ‘The Jew’ was, in this sense, helpful to Hitler in an almost calculated way. For he believed the ‘great leader’ should direct ‘the struggle’ against just ‘one enemy’.2 This was partly, he argued, because ‘the receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous.’3 However, the tactical usefulness that Hitler found in linking the Jews to every problem Germany faced should not blind us to the reality that he genuinely believed in the threat the Jews posed. ‘Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultural life, without at least one Jew involved in it?’ he wrote in Mein Kampf. ‘If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light – a kike!’4
Hitler attempted to outline in Mein Kampf not just a coherent vision of the way the world worked, but also the manner in which his own life had developed since his youth. We have already noted how doubts have been cast on the extent to which he held anti-Semitic views during his time in Vienna, but in Mein Kampf he asserted unequivocally that he had formed his destructive views about the Jews as a result of his time in the Austrian capital. In Vienna, he claimed, he had come to hate the Jews for a myriad of reasons. The Jews were dirty – ‘by their very exterior you could tell that these were no lovers of water’;5 they were cunning – ‘I didn’t know what to be more amazed at: the agility of their tongues or their virtuosity at lying’;6 they were involved in sexual slavery – ‘The relation of the Jews to prostitution and, even more, to the white slave traffic, could be studied in Vienna as perhaps in no other city of Western Europe, with the possible exception of the southern French ports’;7 and they were behind the political ideology he most despised – ‘The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature …’8
Hitler wrote that he had vociferous arguments with Jews in an attempt to convince them of the dangers of their ‘Marxist doctrine’. But the trouble was that ‘Whenever you tried to attack one of these apostles, your hand closed on a jelly-like slime which divided up and poured through your fingers, but in the next moment collected again.’9 Hitler portrayed himself during his time in Vienna as a political agitator who ‘talked my tongue sore and my throat hoarse’ in argument with Jews. It was a claim that was scarcely believable, since no one ever came forward subsequently and said they were part of any such discussion. But it is not hard to understand why Hitler wanted to craft this image of his pre-war self. That is because what he created in Mein Kampf was a mythic fable – almost an ersatz religious tract. The stages of his awakening, as he described them, are clear and logical. In Vienna as a young man he became a fanatical Jew-hater because he saw the dangers inherent in their ‘race’. During the First World War he learnt of the way in which Jews, luxuriating back in Germany, were sabotaging the brave soldiers in the front line. As soon as the war ended, he was finally enlightened to his mission – ‘I, for my part, decided to go into politics.’10
The reality was very different. During his time in Vienna and serving in the German Army he remained a solitary figure on the edge of the group. He never demonstrated any interest in a career in politics or in arguing for hours with Jews. After all, he already knew the career he wanted to pursue – he longed to be an artist. Even in the immediate aftermath of the war, and contrary to his assertion in Mein Kampf, he showed no desire to go into politics. He didn’t join a paramilitary Freikorps but remained in the army. Only in the summer of 1919 after he had been assigned to work for Captain Karl Mayr, head of the army’s Information Department in Munich, does he appear to have manifested any interest in becoming a politician.
The trouble for Hitler was that his true autobiography did not make him look heroic. In reality he was just like most people, knocked about by events over which he had no control. If it had not been for the outbreak of the First World War he would most likely have remained a struggling artist who was prepared to sell his pictures to Jewish dealers. If the war had not ended as it did, he would almost certainly have never entered politics. But Hitler was astute enough to realize that no potential follower of his would value his genuine personal history. He had to maintain that he was born to greatness. He had to claim that he was the master of events; they were not the master of him.
This is significant in the context of the Holocaust, because it means that one cannot explain the crime by arguing that Hitler was somehow destined to commit it. While it is true that by the time he wrote Mein Kampf he had developed an immense hatred of Jews, the real trigger for that emotion seems to have been the manner of the German defeat in November 1918 combined with the political and economic situation in Bavaria in the immediate post-war years. These circumstances also explain why many people were suddenly entranced by his speeches. Before the war, when Hitler had ranted on to his acquaintances about his views on art, no one wanted to listen. Now, talking about politics, he connected with his followers because they shared the same essential emotions and prejudices.
However, Hitler did more than merely parrot back to his followers the views they already held. His anti-Semitism and racism were so extreme that they legitimized his supporters as they extended and hardened their own hatred. When he wrote a hyperbolic sentence in Mein Kampf like the Jew ‘is and remains the typical parasite, a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favourable medium invites him’,11 he acted to push the boundaries of his supporters’ existing anti-Semitic views and radicalize the latent or ‘moderate’ anti-Semite. It would have been much harder to infect with anti-Semitism an adult who was not already contaminated by such prejudice. As Aldous Huxley wrote: ‘The propagandist is a man who canalizes an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.’12
Hitler’s most radical statement about the Jews in Mein Kampf is notorious. ‘If at the beginning of the War and during the War,’ he wrote, ‘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 have not 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.’13
It seems unequivocal. Hitler was arguing that Jews should have been gassed during the First World War. But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that he necessarily had a similar fate in mind for all Jews at some point in the future. While we cannot look into Hitler’s mind and know his unspoken intentions, we can say with some certainty that he did not argue publicly for the extermination of the Jews at this time. In his statement about ‘poison gas’ he was speaking about a specific number of Jews whom he considered had sabotaged the war effort. There was no suggestion that he wanted to extend this fate to entire Jewish families and murder Jews en masse. The policy of the Nazi party remained one of persecuting the Jews and removing their German citizenship – and that was the assumption about their future on which the rest of Hitler’s comments in Mein Kampfwere based.
However, there was one direct causal link between the views he expressed about the Jews in Mein Kampf and what was to come. That’s because, believing as he did that the Jews had sabotaged Germany’s chance of winning the First World War from behind the front line, he was determined that they would never get the chance to do the same thing again. ‘That race of criminals has on its conscience the two million dead of the [First] World War,’ he said in private on 25 October 1941, two years into the Second World War, ‘and now already hundreds of thousands more …’14 The idea that there was a straightforward ‘lesson’ to be taken from the First World War and that this legitimized the Holocaust is something that we will encounter later.
Equally, even though it is hard to sustain the argument that Hitler at the time he wrote Mein Kampf intended to institute a policy to kill all the Jews if he ever came to power, that is not to say that somewhere in his mind, even at this stage, he would not have liked them just to disappear. If, as he wrote Mein Kampf, he had been able to push a button that made all the Jews of the world vanish – without any repercussions to him or the Nazi party – then surely he would have pressed it. That doesn’t mean he already had a plan to kill the Jews, merely that his hatred of Jews was so intense as to be almost overwhelming.
When it came to the underlying justification for anti-Semitism, Hitler was careful to make a reference in Mein Kampf to the traditional Christian-based prejudice against the Jews. He said that he believed he was ‘acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.’15 Two years before, in a speech he gave in Munich, he had been even more explicit in his reference to Christianity. ‘My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter,’ he said in April 1922. ‘It points me to the man who, once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and who – God’s truth! – was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.’16
The fact that Jesus was born Jewish was obviously awkward for the Nazis, but the widespread adoption of Houston Chamberlain’s argument that Jesus might have been not of Jewish but of Aryan descent overcame this difficulty. In his Myth of the Twentieth Century the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg developed Chamberlain’s idea and proposed ‘Positive Christianity’ – the establishment of a Christian church free of ‘Jewish’ influence, with Jesus descended from a Nordic ancestor.
However, Hitler’s own position on Christianity was more complex than it first appeared. While in 1922 he explicitly said that he was a ‘Christian’, the motive behind this statement was almost certainly cynical, since he was well aware that he risked alienating many of his own followers if he said he was a non-believer. As he remarked: ‘I need Bavarian Catholics as well as Prussian Protestants to build up a great political movement. The rest comes later.’17
Revealingly, two years later as he wrote Mein Kampf, Hitler did not say he was a Christian. Instead he made the ambiguous statement that he was acting in accordance with the ‘Almighty Creator’ and fighting for the ‘work of the Lord’. The Christians who read this would have assumed that ‘the Lord’ in question was Jesus, but Hitler’s words could also mean that he believed in a non-Christian creator God who left human beings to work out their own problems on earth, and that there was no afterlife except the life of the nation. His subsequent statements about Christianity make this interpretation persuasive. For instance, he later criticized the ‘meekness and flabbiness’ of Christianity.18 In 1941 Goebbels wrote that Hitler ‘hates Christianity, because it has crippled all that is noble in humanity’.19 There is no evidence that Hitler genuinely believed in Jesus’ divinity or resurrection or any of the other key tenets of the Christian faith. Instead, he was careful to point out that ‘for the space of many millenniums, a uniform concept of God did not exist.’20
The whole thrust of the argument in Mein Kampf, apart from this mention of the ‘Almighty Creator’, was anti-religious. For Hitler, the issue that determined the nature of the world was not religion but race. The reason the Jews were dangerous was because of who they were in themselves. In Mein Kampf he wrote that the ‘whole existence’ of the Jews ‘is based on one single great lie, to wit, that they are a religious community while actually they are a race – and what a race!’21
The ‘sole’ reason that cultures decline, he argued, was the interbreeding of different races and the ‘resultant drop in the racial level’. Adopting Houston Chamberlain’s argument, Hitler maintained that because the Jews jealously guarded their own blood, since ‘The Jew almost never marries a Christian woman,’22 they were particularly dangerous. The central struggle of existence was therefore the fight between the two most racially pure peoples – the Aryans and the Jews. None of this, it is worth stating, was true. In fact the German Jews were one of the most assimilated Jewish groups in Europe.
Two further ideas that Hitler outlined in Mein Kampf were important for what was to come. The first was the attraction he felt towards the idea, developed by the ‘racial hygiene’ theorists, of preserving the quality of the ‘race’ through controlling who was allowed to produce children. ‘The demand’, he wrote, ‘that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of the clearest reason and if systematically executed represents the most humane act of mankind.’23 The second was Hitler’s belief that more land must be obtained for the German people if the nation was to flourish. He explicitly said where this extra ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) was to be found. ‘If we speak of soil in Europe today,’ he wrote, ‘we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states.’24 Moreover, the area of the Soviet Union coveted by Hitler – such as the fertile land of the Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine – also contained a large number of Jews. A confrontation with both the Soviet Union and the Jews was therefore inevitable if Hitler ever pursued his stated intention.
Mein Kampf was an immensely significant piece of work. It laid bare unequivocally the central pillars of Hitler’s thinking. Everything was here: the enormity of the threat posed by the Jews; the centrality of the issue of race; the importance of policing who was allowed to breed; the need for Germany to gain territory in the east. The content was so explicit that it was as if Hitler was hiding his radical ideas in plain sight. As his first biographer Konrad Heiden wrote, it did indeed turn out that ‘there was no more effective method of concealment than the broadest publicity.’25
What Mein Kampf did not contain was any mention of the planning or implementation of the Beer-Hall Putsch. Yet this was the event that had spread Hitler’s name across Germany and was the one subject guaranteed to interest his readers. There was a simple reason, however, why Hitler would have wanted to avoid raking up once again the events of Munich in November 1923. As he sat in his well-appointed cell in Landsberg in 1924, he could not be sure when he would be granted release on probation; and once he was released, he needed the cooperation of the Bavarian authorities in order to re-form the Nazi party and practise politics once again. Why risk antagonizing powerful figures in Munich by naming – and potentially shaming – those figures in the administration who had been involved in the initial stages of the Putsch? Far better to let it all lie quiet. It thus followed that Hitler must have calculated that the views he expressed in Mein Kampf would not upset the Bavarian authorities and so stand in the way of re-establishing his political career.
By the autumn of 1924 Hitler hoped that he would soon be permitted to leave prison. But officials working for the Bavarian state prosecutor were against the idea. They reminded the court that Hitler had incited a revolution and had never expressed remorse for his actions. Furthermore, he had been sentenced to five years’ incarceration and had served less than a year.26 However, a number of influential figures supported his early release. The governor of Landsberg prison, Otto Leybold, for instance, wrote an effusive report in which he claimed that Hitler had ‘undoubtedly become more mature and calm’ during his imprisonment, and that he was ‘a man of many-sided intelligences, particularly political intelligence, and possesses extraordinary will power and directness in his thinking’. Leybold’s report also revealed that he was not only aware that Hitler had been writing Mein Kampf while behind bars, but knew of the contents: ‘He is entirely taken up with the writing of his book, which is due to appear in the next few weeks. It consists of his autobiography together with his thoughts about the bourgeoisie, Jewry and Marxism, the German revolution and Bolshevism, and the National Socialist movement with the events leading up to November 8th 1923.’27
In a further report, written in December 1924, Leybold was even more emphatic, writing that Hitler was ‘especially deserving of parole’.28 The Bavarian Minister of Justice, Franz Gürtner, agreed with this judgement and Hitler was released on 21 December 1924. Hitler did not forget Gürtner’s generosity. After the Nazis came to power, Gürtner served Hitler as Reich Minister of Justice.
Hitler emerged from Landsberg having made two crucial decisions. One was about the future tactics he would employ to overthrow the Weimar state. He resolved now to seek power through democratic means, remarking, ‘If outvoting them takes longer than outshooting them, at least the results will be guaranteed by their own constitution.’29 The second was about the Jews. In the summer of 1924, while working on Mein Kampf, he said this to a comrade: ‘It is quite true that I have changed my view on the way of fighting the Jews. I have realized that I have been far too mild up to now. While working on my book, I have come to the realization that in the future, the harshest means of struggle need to be adopted in order to win through. I am convinced that this is a vital issue not only for our people, but for all peoples. For the Jews are the pestilence of the world.’30
Hitler found on his emergence from prison that the political climate in Germany had changed, and not to his advantage. The Allies had agreed via the Dawes Plan to restructure the debts the Germans owed and to end the occupation of the Rhineland. The Americans had arranged to loan the Germans money, which then helped them to pay the reparations owed to the Allies. As a consequence, the United States became a more prominent player in the European economy than before, and any subsequent financial problems that the Americans faced would impact strongly on Europe – as would be discovered five years later at the time of the Wall Street Crash. But at the end of 1924 it appeared that the worst might be behind Germany. The currency was stabilized and Gustav Stresemann as Foreign Minister was negotiating with the Western Allies to try and normalize relationships – a process that would result in the signing of the Locarno Treaties in 1925. At the Reichstag elections in December 1924 there was a massive fall in support for extremist parties. The Communists alone saw their share of the vote drop by 17 per cent.
The two volumes of Mein Kampf were thus launched in the mid-1920s into an indifferent world. The book did not sell well. Only 15,000 copies of the second volume had been bought by 1929. In part that was because of the lack of quality in the writing – Mussolini famously remarked that the book was so boring he had been unable to finish it31 – but it was also because by the time of its publication interest in Hitler had cooled.
However, the prejudice against the Jews that had been vociferously fostered in the immediate post-war years could not so easily be extinguished. Arnon Tamir, a Jewish German who went to school in Stuttgart during the 1920s, recalls that his teachers ‘never missed an opportunity to make disparaging remarks about the Weimar Republic. And the Republic was to a large extent identified with Jews.’ He remembers that, ‘even as a small boy, I had already experienced what anti-Semitism was. First of all I had it drummed into me, by my parents, how a Jewish child had to behave, in order not to be conspicuous.’ When he was a young boy, his Jewish origin was ‘betrayed’ to the rest of his playmates by a friend. ‘As a child I found it especially painful when my so-called best friend joined the others and then they roared out in chorus: “Jewish pig, cowardly Jewish pig!” or some other zoological expression. I learnt very quickly that I was different and seen differently, and then when I came home crying, my father said to me: “Don’t put up with it when they pester you, hit back!” The consequence was that I came home every couple of days bloody from fighting, with torn clothes, but I had begun to defend myself. Now I had the misfortune to be the only Jew in a rather reactionary grammar school. There were teachers who were perhaps not expressly anti-Semitic, and one, a former major general with scars on his face, said: “Yes, in my regiment there were decent and brave Jews.” But it sounded as if what he meant to say was that in other regiments, or among the Jews he didn’t know, there were actually cowardly and ignoble people. That seeped in so, in some subterranean way, it was fed to us, drop by drop. And such remarks, and other remarks, they made me seem, to my classmates, a person set apart.’32
As Arnon Tamir struggled to reconcile his life as both a German and a Jew, around 320 miles to the north-east, in Berlin, Eugene Leviné wrestled with many of the same emotions. He shared a similar name to that of his father, and it was a name in Germany that was infamous – or famous – depending on your point of view. Eugen Leviné the elder had been one of the Jewish leaders of the Communist Revolution in Munich in 1919, and had been shot by a firing squad just after the Freikorps regained control of the city. For his son, this was a heavy history to carry: ‘I was made to understand that he had been very brave the way he met his death – in fact, he had called out “Long live the world revolution!” As a little boy I didn’t understand the whole thing, I just knew that this is what you have to say when they shoot you – and I used to practise saying, “Es lebe die Weltrevolution!” [Long live the world revolution]. And I also wondered, increasingly, would I be brave enough if they put me against the wall to be shot? When I was a little boy I used to practise going up to a wall, turning round and imagining I was going to be shot, because I realized it would be most important not to be frightened and to die bravely. And, somehow, I came to the conclusion as a boy that it would be all right on the day, and that I would be able to make it. Right throughout my young years I believed that an honourable person would die sooner or later – either on the barricades or put up against the wall.’33
Eugene’s mother told him stories of her own childhood in Russia. How her family had sat huddled in their house at night with the lights out, as gangs of anti-Semites marched by, looking for Jews to attack. ‘But Communism was to end all that,’ says Eugene; ‘under Communism the Jews were simply one national minority and officially there was no anti-Semitism.’
During his own childhood in Germany in the 1920s, Eugene experienced some problems as a result of his Jewish background. On occasion bullies picked on him in school, but since he was keen on boxing he was able to fight back. Overall, he says, ‘I had a very happy boyhood in Germany. I like German. I like German art, I like German poetry, I like German songs. I liked many of my comrades … I mean anti-Semitism was there, but if you’d said to most Germans, “Look, you’re going to have a government that’s going to kill six million Jews,” they would have said, “No, no, no, no. This is a civilized country.” ’
‘I’m not suggesting’, he adds, ‘that all the Germans were rushing around to be kind to Jews, but there was a lot of individual sympathy.’ A number of the people he encountered made a distinction between their hatred of the supposed ‘Jewish international conspiracy’ and the individual Jews they met in everyday life: ‘To an extent, some people realized that when you hate “the Jews” it isn’t because you hate individual Jews, you just believe “the Jews” are bad – they’ve crucified Jesus Christ, they’ve lost the war, and they’ve done all sorts of things which are bad. But individual Jews can be OK. At one of the schools I was in, there was a Nazi and he said, “You really should be one of us,” and I said, “Look, I can’t, I’m a Jew.” He would [then] say – and many Jews had that said to them – “We don’t mean you. Decent chaps like you will be perfectly all right in the New Germany.” After all I’d proved that I must be a decent Jew because I’d joined the fencing club so I can’t be all that bad.’
Eugene Leviné even recalls that some Nazi Stormtroopers had Jewish girlfriends – a claim that might seem outlandish were it not for the fact that in the 1920s Joseph Goebbels, who would later become close to Hitler and offer enthusiastic support for the Holocaust, also had a girlfriend with Jewish ancestry. Goebbels, active in the Nazi party from 1924, dated a schoolteacher called Else who had a Jewish mother. He claimed that he had loved Else, and said she was ‘good and beautiful’. But he was also anxious about her background, writing in his diary that the ‘Jewish spirit in part of Else’s nature has often tormented and depressed me’.34 The fundamental problem, as far as he was concerned, was that she was a ‘half-breed’.35
What is extraordinary about Goebbels’ relationship with Else is that he was emotionally attached to her at precisely the moment that his own anti-Semitism was hardening. Shortly after the failure of the Beer-Hall Putsch, Goebbels wrote that ‘the Jews are the poison that is killing the body of Europe’ and that one wants to ‘punch’ the Jews ‘in the face’.36 In April 1924 he was one of the founder members of a group that supported the Nazis in his hometown in the Rhineland. Their first meeting was dominated by a discussion about the ‘anti-Semitic idea’. Afterwards, Goebbels wrote that ‘I am on the völkisch side: I hate the Jew with my instincts and my reason. I detest and dislike him from the depth of my soul.’37 Yet a few weeks later he wrote of Else that she was ‘a dear, good child. A bit boring. But a loyal, hard-working little servant. One can rely on her, and she’ll do you every possible favour.’38
The fact that Goebbels could hold two contradictory ideas in his head – he hated ‘the Jews’ and yet he loved a woman of Jewish ancestry – is a powerful reminder of the reality that Eugene Leviné encountered: that it was possible for some Nazis to despise Jews in the abstract and yet care for an individual Jew in the flesh. As Bruno Hähnel, who was a Stormtrooper in the 1920s, says, ‘I had relatives who were Jews and we would meet at family gatherings. I had a very warm relationship with two cousins who were Jewish.’39 Yet none of that prevented Bruno Hähnel – or seemingly Joseph Goebbels – from becoming a committed Nazi.
Goebbels’ journey to Nazism is also instructive because it demonstrates the key role the political and economic situation played in creating support for the far right. There is no evidence that Goebbels was a committed anti-Semite before the end of the First World War. He was twenty-one years old when the war ended and had been unable to serve in the army because of a disabled leg, an affliction which caused him to walk with a pronounced limp. Prevented from becoming a soldier, he had pursued an academic career. The supervisor of his thesis was a Jew – Professor Max von Waldberg. But this doesn’t appear to have bothered Goebbels. The turning point in his life came in 1923 when the French entered the Rhineland. He had been born in the small town of Rheydt in the west of the Rhineland, and in 1923 was living at home with his parents. He was out of work, suffering like millions of others through a time of hyperinflation and political chaos, and now a despised enemy had just occupied his homeland; like many others he sought someone to blame for what was happening, and found an easy target in the Jews.
Once Goebbels started reading Hitler’s speeches, he concluded that the Nazi leader could be the saviour that Germany needed. In March 1924 he wrote that he found Hitler ‘liberating’ because of his ‘completely upright and honest personality. That’s rarely found in our world of party interests …’40 Three days later he added, ‘Hitler is an enthusiastic idealist. A man who brings new faith to the German people. I’m reading his speech, inspired and carried to the stars. The path runs from the brain to the heart … The Jewish question cannot be solved, unless one is hard and rigorous and relentless.’41
Significantly, Goebbels was captivated by Hitler long before he met him face to face. The words of Hitler’s speeches on paper were enough to convince him of his worth, for though emotional feelings played a part in Goebbels’ journey to Nazism, so did rationality. He had looked around in order to find who was responsible for Germany’s problems, decided it was the Jews, and then discovered in Hitler someone who first reinforced and then extended his hatred.
Goebbels also remained sane enough to recognize, when he attended a gathering in Weimar of the far right in August 1924, that some of his fellow Nazi supporters were – to put it mildly – rather odd. One encounter with Julius Streicher was enough for him to decide that he was a ‘fanatic with pinched lips’ and ‘a bit pathological’.42 But Goebbels remained true to the cause, and four months later when Hitler was released from Landsberg he wrote, ‘Adolf Hitler is free! Now we can break away from the backward-looking völkisch people and be true National Socialists again. Heil, Adolf Hitler! Now we have faith again in the victorious power of the idea.’43
It was not until July 1925, when Goebbels attended another gathering in Weimar, that he finally encountered Adolf Hitler for the first time. The experience of seeing him in person was almost overwhelming. ‘Weimar was literally a resurrection,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘A day I will never forget. I am still in a dream … What a voice. What gestures, what passion. Just as I wanted him to be.’44 Goebbels, the man who would later write, ‘the world war is here, the destruction of the Jews must be the inevitable consequence,’45 was utterly entranced.
Goebbels may have been immensely positive about Hitler, but as we have seen the vast majority of Germans were not. In the middle 1920s Germany appeared to grow more prosperous, and the Nazi party seemed an irrelevance, an eccentric group on the fringes of political life. But it would be a mistake to pass over this period of the Nazi party’s development. That’s because the way Hitler structured the decision-making process within the party elite during these years offers an insight into how his leadership would come to function during the years of extermination.
Crucially, by the time Goebbels heard Hitler speak in the summer of 1925 the Nazis were not a normal political party, but a ‘movement’, led by a single individual who relied for his legitimacy primarily on the charismatic effect he had on his followers. ‘Now I know that the man who leads is a born leader,’ wrote Goebbels in his diary in July 1925. ‘I’m ready to sacrifice everything for this man. In times of greatest need, history gives the people the greatest men.’46 This notion that members of the Nazi party should subordinate themselves to their ‘Führer’ (leader) because he was somehow destined to lead them was thus central to the concept of the party long before the Nazis came to power.
However, this was not an organization in which Hitler dictated all detailed policy. Indeed, as long as he was confident that his subordinates unquestioningly accepted the principle of his leadership, he could be remarkably non-dictatorial for long periods. Goebbels, for instance, held very different views in 1925 about the Soviet Union to those of Hitler. In an article in the Völkischer Beobachter in November 1925, Goebbels wrote that it would be wrong to see Bolshevism as essentially the work of Jews. Instead Bolshevism should be understood as a potential route to a better society in Russia. Such views were anathema to Hitler, but the Nazi leader was still friendly to Goebbels when they both subsequently attended a meeting.47
By the start of 1926, Goebbels was part of a group within the party that was pressing for other changes. Led by Gregor Strasser, a leading Nazi from Bavaria now working in north Germany, this faction campaigned for the party to become more ‘socialist’. This crossed a line for Hitler – it appeared that Strasser and Goebbels were challenging his authority, which was something he would never permit. At a conference in Bamberg in February 1926 he dealt with the threat not by debating with the dissenters but by giving a two-hour speech in which he repudiated their ideas. He reiterated that ‘Bolshevism is a Jewish plot’ and that the ‘natural allies’ of Germany did not include Russia but were, instead, Italy and Britain.
Goebbels was devastated. ‘One of the biggest disappointments of my life,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘I don’t completely believe in Hitler any more. That’s the terrible thing: I’ve lost my inner conviction … I despair!’48 But Hitler, recognizing the value of Goebbels to the Nazi cause, moved swiftly to soothe his ego. He invited him to Munich, allowed him the use of his car and driver, spent time with him personally and praised him. Hitler also spoke in general terms about his own vision for Germany in a collection of feel-good terms that rekindled Goebbels’ enthusiasm. ‘I love him [Hitler],’ he subsequently wrote in his diary. ‘He has thought it all through … I bow to the greater – the political mastermind!’49
Hitler had managed to manoeuvre Goebbels – a person he clearly valued – away from policies that he disagreed with and back to a position of unquestioning support. Moreover, he had achieved this without a personal confrontation. Hitler never berated Goebbels directly. He didn’t attempt to best him in debate. He manipulated Goebbels by first giving a speech critical of his beliefs and then repairing the damage with a charm offensive. It is not the conventional image that many people have of Hitler as a leader. Taking their impression primarily from the antagonistic tone of his speeches captured on old black and white newsreels, they believe that he must have been an angry, rude and aggressive boss. But he was capable, as this incident demonstrates, of subtle man-management. Not only that, his dealings with Goebbels illustrated how Hitler’s priority was always to ensure that his own ultimate authority was not challenged by his subordinates. He was much less concerned with the details of policy. By focusing on a broad ‘vision’ of the Germany he wanted to create, he could leave his followers to work out the specifics of how this vision could be crafted in practice, and then correct them later if he disagreed strongly with the methodology they had devised.
There was another important part of Hitler’s leadership technique that Goebbels also encountered around this time. Hitler rarely defined an individual’s exact responsibilities within the party, and so conflict between ambitious Nazis was inevitable. For example, after Goebbels had been appointed head of Nazi propaganda he found that other people still exercised control over aspects of radio, film and the training of speakers. He had to scheme and fight to gather as many of these strands to himself as he could. All this created immense dynamism within the party, especially since Hitler rarely intervened in disputes about areas of responsibility between his subordinates. As we shall see, this style of leadership would have considerable impact on the way the Holocaust developed.
In 1928, Hitler wrote a new volume of his thoughts. This time he focused almost exclusively on foreign affairs. The so-called Second Book was never published in his lifetime, but it nonetheless offers an insight into his developing political beliefs. What it tells us, in essence, is how Hitler used ‘race’ as a guide to foreign policy.
Hitler asked why it was that America so thrived as a nation, while Russia remained relatively backward; and he saw the answer in the question of race. He argued that because the ‘best blood’ from Europe had emigrated to America, it was not surprising that the country had prospered. On the other hand, since ‘Jewish-Bolshevist’ Russia was filled with people of lesser racial value it could never rise high as a nation.
Yet again, Hitler placed the Jews centre stage. ‘The ultimate goal of the Jewish struggle for survival is the enslavement of productively active peoples,’50 he wrote. ‘His ultimate aim is the denationalization and chaotic bastardization of the other peoples, the lowering of the racial level of the highest, and domination over this racial mush … The Jewish international struggle will therefore always end in bloody Bolshevization …’51
In his Second Book Hitler said once again that Germany needed more land in order to prosper, and that this new territory would have to be gained by force: ‘One does not obtain freedom through begging or cheating, or through labor and industriousness either, but exclusively through fighting – fighting one’s own battles.’52
By the time he wrote his Second Book, Hitler had established himself as the dominant figure on the völkisch right. He had achieved this not just by producing works that demonstrated his ‘visionary’ credentials, and by exercising the kind of shrewd leadership that won over Joseph Goebbels, but by accepting into the Nazi party people he did not always wholeheartedly agree with. In 1927, for instance, Count Reventlow joined the Nazis. Reventlow had helped form the German Völkisch Freedom Party in 1924, but had now decided to ‘subordinate’ himself ‘without further ado to Herr Adolf Hitler’. Why had Reventlow taken this action? Because, he said, Hitler ‘has proven that he can lead; he has created his party on the basis of his views, his will, and his unified national socialist ideas, and leads it. He and the party are one, and represent the unity that is the essential prerequisite for success.’53 Reventlow called on members of his old party to join the Nazis, claiming that ‘the only possibility for making any advance is through the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – the only!’
Reventlow believed strongly in the socialist ideas favoured by Gregor Strasser that Hitler had dismissed at the Bamberg conference in 1926. But despite this, Hitler welcomed him into the Nazis. He knew that he needed to tolerate a wide variety of opinion if he was to gather all of the various völkisch parties under the Nazi banner and stand a chance of winning power.
One policy Reventlow and Hitler could agree on was anti-Semitism. In March 1928, Reventlow said he wanted a law introduced that ‘would prohibit all further Jewish immigration, expel all Jews who had entered Germany since 1914, and place those remaining under Alien Law, whilst reserving the right to expel them subsequently, and exclude them from all the rights associated with German citizenship’.54
That proposal came to nothing. But the fact that Reventlow felt he could voice such ideas demonstrated the confidence of Nazi anti-Semites. Despite the apparent prosperity and modernity of the Weimar state, anti-Semitism remained entrenched in certain areas of German life. Anti-Semitism was particularly rife, for example, among student and youth groups. So much so that many young Jews had to form their own hiking clubs in order to enjoy the countryside. Eugene Leviné was one of those who rambled in the German countryside during this period with an all-Jewish youth association. He recalls a surprising encounter with an anti-Semite when he and his friends were travelling back home from a hiking trip. ‘Don’t forget there were parts of Germany who’d never seen a Jew,’ he says, ‘so it was easy enough to hate the Jews. I remember in my hiking days being in a railway compartment going home to Berlin, with my rucksack and my brown shirt.’ Sharing the compartment with Eugene and his friends was a farmer, who started: ‘swearing about the Jews, and so we said, “Well look, we are all Jews.” And he roared with laughter, and he said, “You must think that we country people are daft. You are obviously nice clean-living, sporting German boys. You’re not going to tell me you’re Jews.” And he meant it. Because we weren’t dirty, we didn’t wear side locks, we didn’t have a caftan, we didn’t have a beard. We looked like any other German boys to his eye. I mean, there might be a longer nose or darker eyes, but lots of Germans have long noses and dark eyes. The comical thing is the racial idea of “the German” – most of the Nazis didn’t look like that [an idealized “Aryan”], for God’s sake!’55
Hitler claimed anti-Semitism was more present than ever within Germany. At the annual general meeting of the Nazi party in September 1928, he said that ‘anti-Semitism grows as an idea. What was hardly there ten years ago is there today: the Jewish question has been brought to people’s notice, it will not disappear any more and we shall make sure that it becomes an international world question; we shall not let it rest until the question has been solved. We think we shall live to see that day.’56
Nonetheless, despite Hitler’s boast, there is no evidence that the majority of Germans supported the Nazis and their virulent anti-Semitism. Quite the contrary. As he spoke those words, Hitler knew that four months before, at the German general election in May 1928, the Nazis had polled just 2.6 per cent of the vote. It was a disastrous result for them. Yet within five years Hitler would be Chancellor of Germany, at the head of the largest political party in the country. What made this transformation possible was not Hitler’s bogus claim of widespread concern within Germany about ‘the Jewish question’ but a factor that was wholly out of his control – an economic catastrophe.
The Weimar economy, reliant on American loans, was devastated by the Wall Street Crash in October 1929. In just one year – between September 1929 and September 1930 – German unemployment more than doubled from 1.3 million to 3 million. Democratic government effectively ended in Germany in March 1930 when the grand coalition that included the German People’s Party and the Social Democrats broke down. The new government, under Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, had to rely on Article 48 of the constitution which allowed government by Presidential decree.
In the elections of September 1930 the Nazis gained over 6 million votes and became the second-largest political party in the Reichstag. It was an astonishing result. Millions of Germans, who had previously rejected Hitler and the Nazis, suddenly turned to them in these desperate times. But despite in 1928 trumpeting the alleged growth of anti-Semitism in Germany, Hitler understood the reality – these new supporters had not come to him primarily because of any anti-Semitic beliefs. So he downplayed his obsession with the Jews. A study of his speeches between 1930 and 1933 demonstrates that he now placed much less emphasis on the role of the Jews than previously. He even said, in October 1930, that ‘we have nothing against decent Jews; however, as soon as they conspire with Bolshevism we look on them as an enemy.’57
Instead of ranting about the Jews, Hitler focused more on the need for the regeneration of Germany through the creation of a National Socialist state. He called for a rejection of the punitive measures imposed on Germany by the Allies after the end of the First World War, and warned of the dangers of ‘Bolshevism’. ‘Today,’ he said to an audience of industrialists in Düsseldorf in January 1932, ‘we are at the turning point in German destiny.’ That was because Germany risked falling into ‘Bolshevist chaos’.58 Nowhere in his lengthy speech did he refer to the Jews.
But it does not follow from this that his audiences were hoodwinked into thinking that the Nazis had suddenly rejected anti-Semitism. Nazi propaganda had stated over and over again that the Jews were responsible for ‘Bolshevism’, for the hated Treaty of Versailles and for the corruption of capitalism that had brought about the economic slump. So when Hitler mentioned any of these concepts in his speeches, many of his audience would have understood that the Jews were ultimately to be held accountable.
When Jutta Rüdiger, then a twenty-one-year-old student, heard Hitler speak in 1932 she certainly understood that behind the word ‘Bolshevism’ lay the Jews. ‘Jews were associated with Communism, definitely,’ she says. ‘There was a vicious joke making the rounds … that it was just as well that there was one goy – a slightly derogatory term for a non-Jew – among the Communists in Russia, because at least he could sign the death warrants on a Saturday [the Jewish holy day]. That is a bit vicious, but there was a strong connection between Communism and the Jews, definitely.’59
While Jutta Rüdiger says that she was chiefly attracted to Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s because she thought they offered a way out of the economic depression and a chance for Germans to be united in a common goal, she also believes that their anti-Jewish agenda was not a barrier to their success: ‘There was actually a general feeling among people, which had already been present in Imperial times and which may have been present in other nations at some time, too, that the Jews were perceived as an alien element.’60
Johannes Zahn, in 1932 a banker in his mid-twenties, agrees with this assessment: ‘The general opinion was that the Jews had gone too far in Germany.’61 By ‘too far’ he meant that German Jews were present in disproportionate numbers in professions like the law, medicine and journalism. (It was hardly surprising that Jews had chosen jobs like these, since they had been banned from many other avenues for so long.) According to Johannes Zahn, ‘one day it was just too much, the general feeling was that the idea that the Jews should be driven back was not opposed; but that they should be killed in the end, nobody, or very few people, in Germany would have approved …’62
However, the prime reason for the rise of the Nazi party remained Germany’s dire economic situation. For large numbers of people, in this time of economic catastrophe, what mattered was to find a job and support a family in an atmosphere of political uncertainty. There were 6 million unemployed by the start of 1933, and the Communists were gaining support at the same time as the Nazis. It was as if the country was splitting to the extremes – Communists on one side and Nazis on the other. ‘Six million unemployed means, with three people in one family, six times three equals eighteen million without food,’ says Johannes Zahn. ‘And when a man was unemployed at that time, then there was only one thing left: either he became a Communist or he became an SA man [Nazi Stormtrooper]. And so business thought that it was better for these people to become SA men, because there was discipline and order; and at the beginning – you really have to say this today – at the beginning you couldn’t tell whether National Socialism was something good with a few bad side-effects or something evil with a few good side-effects, you couldn’t tell.’63
Such statements are largely self-serving. That is because while it is true that Hitler did not emphasize his hatred of the Jews during the Nazis’ rise to prominence between 1930 and 1933, many of his followers were not so restrained. Not only did Julius Streicher continue to publish anti-Semitic filth in Der Stürmer, he made these remarks in a speech in 1932: ‘We National Socialists believe that Adolf Hitler is an emissary for a new Germany. We believe that he has been sent by God to liberate the German people from the blood-sucker almighty Jewry.’64
Joseph Goebbels also continued to voice his anti-Semitic beliefs during this period. Ever since his appointment as Gauleiter (Nazi leader) of Berlin at the end of 1926 he had made the Jews of the capital his special target – in particular Dr Bernhard Weiss, the deputy police commissioner. Goebbels persistently referred to him as ‘Isidor’ Weiss in his propaganda magazine Der Angriff (The Attack), ‘Isidor’ being an archetypal Jewish first name in contrast to Dr Weiss’s given name of Bernhard. ‘Isidor’ Weiss was caricatured in a variety of ways in Der Angriff: as a hooked-nosed, untrustworthy Jew and even as a donkey. After Weiss complained, and a court confirmed that the donkey caricature was indeed supposed to represent him, Goebbels reprinted the cartoon with a caption announcing that judges had agreed that Dr Weiss looked like a donkey.65 Goebbels also supported action against Jews on the streets. At the Jewish New Year, in September 1931, Stormtroopers moved in force on to the main shopping street of the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin and harassed anyone they thought was Jewish. By now Goebbels had banished his half-Jewish girlfriend Else from his life and was seeing the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Magda Quandt. They married in December 1931.
During the early 1930s, Nazi propaganda also targeted economic interests that many believed were owned by Jews. For instance, a Nazi election pamphlet in northern Germany read: ‘A new blow aimed at your ruin is being prepared and carried out in Hanover! The present system enables the gigantic concern WOOLWORTH (America), supported by finance capital, to build a new vampire business in the centre of the city in the Georgstrasse to expose you to complete ruin.’66
Many people would immediately understand this reference to ‘Woolworth’ as an attack on the Jews. That’s because the Nazis had said for years that large department stores were predominantly Jewish owned and a threat to the traditional shopkeeper. These stores – symbols of modernity – were considered ‘vampire’ businesses by the Nazis because they supposedly sucked the lifeblood out of the traditional high street. The Nazis were so angered by the presence of department stores that one of the twenty-five points in the original Nazi programme had explicitly referred to them. Point sixteen called for department stores to be leased ‘at a cheap rate to small traders’.
Once the Nazis came to power department stores were a particular target. The district president of Hanover reported that in December 1934 ‘riots against Jewish businesses reoccurred … On the Sunday before Christmas, canisters of tear gas were thrown one after the other into Jewish stores and into the store F. W. Woolworth. Because of serious symptoms of poisoning, ten shop assistants of the Woolworth Company had to be taken to a hospital by ambulances.’67 In fact, the founder of Woolworths was of Methodist, not Jewish, ancestry.
Goebbels approved of this policy of guilt by association. When ordinary Germans heard the words ‘department stores’ many thought ‘Jewish ownership’, when they listened to a speech about the dangers of Marxism they thought ‘Marx was a Jew’ and so on. Goebbels believed that propaganda was at its most powerful when an audience could be manipulated into thinking that they had reached their own conclusions about a subject.68
But even though support for Nazis was growing during this period, a majority of Germans still opposed them. In particular, many socialists found their anti-Semitism despicable. Communist supporters like Alois Pfaller felt that since non-Jewish and Jewish Germans ‘spoke the same language’ and ‘went to the same school’ then ‘why should you hate them?’ He and his friends understood that ‘someone can’t do anything about his birth, that was clear – nobody is responsible for his birth.’69 For Pfaller what was important was not ‘race’ but creating a more equal Germany by restraining the power of the ‘bosses’.
There were also prophetic warnings in the German press about what was likely to happen if the Nazis ever came to power. For instance, the Jewish journalist Lion Feuchtwanger wrote in the newspaper Welt am Abend in January 1931: ‘National Socialism strives to depose reason and install in its place emotion and drive – to be precise, barbarity … What the intellectuals and artists have therefore to expect once the Third Reich is definitely established is clear: extermination.’70
Most Germans, however, desired radical change. While the Nazis themselves never gained a majority of the popular vote, a majority of Germans did support parties that openly said they intended to remove democracy. In the general election of July 1932 the Nazis received 37 per cent of the vote and the Communists 14 per cent – so a total of 51 per cent between them. It was an extremely significant result, since it meant that most voters wanted to destroy the system of democratic government that existed at the time. Germans felt that they had been let down not just by individual politicians or parties, but by the entire mechanism of governance.
The aversion of Germans to democracy during the early 1930s excited comment at the time. ‘Speaking for the victory of National Socialism, above all, is the fact that in this country democracy has never been won in bloody battle,’ wrote the novelist Heinrich Mann in December 1931. ‘In one historical moment, after the defeat in the war, it appeared as a possible way out, compared to the disaster of the monarchy and the threat of bolshevism – only a way out, not a goal, much less a passionate experience.’71
‘The Germans have no democratic tradition,’ claims Arnon Tamir. ‘Never have had. There has been, in Germany, until today no democracy which the citizens themselves fought for.’ Growing up as a Jew in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, he also reached the conclusion that Hitler flourished only because of the crisis within the German state: ‘The Nazis emerged in circumstances during the 1920s, after the world war had been lost, when the German people were oppressed and humiliated and staggering from one economic crisis and from one political crisis to another. So this actually was very propitious. Someone must be to blame for it. And the entire anti-Semitism of the Nazis is actually encapsulated in the words: The Jew is guilty, for everything, always.’72
While Hitler may have toned down his rhetoric on Jews during their period of electoral growth, Nazi policy remained clear – and it wasn’t far from Arnon Tamir’s paraphrase: ‘The Jew is guilty.’ As Gregor Strasser, a senior member of the Nazi party, said in October 1931, once in power the Nazis would make certain that ‘the rule of Jews in Germany would come to an end.’ This would be achieved by ‘the exclusion of Jews from all areas in which they are in a position to obstruct the German economy’.73 The 37 per cent of the electorate who supported the Nazis in July 1932 were therefore voting for a party that openly intended, if elected, to persecute German Jews. The Nazis did not pretend otherwise.
Many in the German political elite had common ground with the Nazis. They also wanted to restore order to Germany by eliminating democracy and crushing the threat from the Communist Party. In 1932 President von Hindenburg, the eighty-five-year-old former commander of German troops in the First World War, was prepared to remove democracy and support the establishment of a government of the right. The trouble, as far as Hindenburg was concerned, was that though the Nazis were by now the most powerful force on the right in German political life, Hitler was not acceptable as Chancellor. When the two of them met in August 1932, Hindenburg told Hitler that he ‘could not justify before God, before his conscience or before the Fatherland, the transfer of the whole authority of government to a single party, especially to a party that was biased against people who had different views from their own’.74 He reiterated this opinion when he met Hitler again in November 1932, saying that he feared that ‘a Presidential Cabinet headed by you would inevitably develop into a party dictatorship with all its consequences, resulting in a worsening of the antagonisms within the German people …’ Hindenburg added that he could not reconcile such a situation ‘with his oath and his conscience’.75
Hindenburg’s objections to Hitler as a potential Chancellor were partly based on class. He referred to Hitler as a ‘bohemian corporal’.76 But he also indicated that he did not support every Nazi policy – in particular he questioned the party’s overt anti-Semitism. In August 1932 he wrote to the Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith condemning attacks against Jews. The Nazi deputies in the Reichstag had even ridiculed Hindenburg as the ‘Jewish candidate’ during his re-election campaign for the Presidency earlier that year.77
However, a number of those close to Hindenburg did hold anti-Semitic views. Franz von Papen, Chancellor of Germany for much of 1932, revealed in an interview with the London Evening Standard the following year that the large number of Jews in medicine and the law in Germany would be ‘unthinkable’ in Britain, and that it was necessary to combat the influence of the ‘international Jews’ who held high positions within the German civil service.78
The problem that Hindenburg faced was that neither of the Chancellors he appointed during 1932 – Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher – had mass support, and he feared that the disconnect between the governing class and the ordinary German voter might grow still wider in the future. It could even lead to civil war as the Communists and Nazi Stormtroopers fought on the streets.
Hitler positioned himself both as respectful of Hindenburg and as the young patriot determined to unite Germany. In a speech in Detmold on 4 January 1933, he said, ‘What has brought the National Socialist movement into being is the desire for a true community of the German people … Fate has set us the great task of removing the disunity of the German people …’ What was necessary, argued Hitler, was ‘uncompromisingly [to] eliminate everything’ that was pulling the country apart. He named ‘Marxists’ as one threat to the unity of the Volk, and though there was no specific mention of the Jews, once again many would have heard the reference to ‘Marxists’ as code for Jews.79
Franz von Papen finally managed to reconcile Hindenburg to Hitler. Papen had been forced to give up the Chancellorship to Kurt von Schleicher in December 1932 because his administration lacked popular support. Schleicher, a born intriguer, had attempted – and failed – to gain a broader base for his own government. Now Papen took revenge and proposed re-entering government as Vice-Chancellor with Hitler as Chancellor. Hindenburg agreed. Their theory was that Hitler as Chancellor would be ‘tamed’ as Papen and a number of other non-Nazis would be appointed to the cabinet.
On 30 January 1933, thirteen years after he had announced his party’s programme at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, and less than five years after the Nazis had gained just 2.6 per cent of the popular vote in the general election, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Now, at last, he could attempt to put his long-cherished beliefs into practice.