As things turned out, that career was merely interrupted, and not for long. Hitler was shrewd enough to see that his trial, far from finishing him, would provide a new platform from which he could not only discredit the compromised authorities who had arrested him but—and this was more important—for the first time make his name known far beyond the confines of Bavaria and indeed of Germany itself. He was well aware that correspondents of the world press as well as of the leading German newspapers were flocking to Munich to cover the trial, which began on February 26, 1924, before a special court sitting in the old Infantry School in the Blutenburgstrasse. By the time it had ended twenty-four days later Hitler had transformed defeat into triumph, made Kahr, Lossow and Seisser share his guilt in the public mind to their ruin, impressed the German people with his eloquence and the fervor of his nationalism, and emblazoned his name on the front pages of the world.
Although Ludendorff was easily the most famous of the ten prisoners in the dock, Hitler at once grabbed the limelight for himself. From beginning to end he dominated the courtroom. Franz Guertner, the Bavarian Minister of Justice and an old friend and protector of the Nazi leader, had seen to it that the judiciary would be complacent and lenient. Hitler was allowed to interrupt as often as he pleased, cross-examine witnesses at will and speak on his own behalf at any time and at any length—his opening statement consumed four hours, but it was only the first of many long harangues.
He did not intend to make the mistake of those who, when tried for complicity in the Kapp putsch, had pleaded, as he later said, that “they knew nothing, had intended nothing, wished nothing. That was what destroyed the bourgeois world—that they had not the courage to stand by their act … to step before the judge and say, ‘Yes, that was what we wanted to do; we wanted to destroy the State.’”
Now before the judges and the representatives of the world press in Munich, Hitler proclaimed proudly, “I alone bear the responsibility. But I am not a criminal because of that. If today I stand here as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the revolution. There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918.”
If there were, then the three men who headed the government, the Army and the police in Bavaria and who had conspired with him against the national government were equally guilty and should be in the dock beside him instead of in the witness stand as his chief accusers. Shrewdly he turned the tables on the uneasy, guilt-ridden triumvirs:
One thing was certain, Lossow, Kahr and Seisser had the same goal that we had—to get rid of the Reich government … If our enterprise was actually high treason, then during the whole period Lossow, Kahr and Seisser must have been committing high treason along with us, for during all these weeks we talked of nothing but the aims of which we now stand accused.
The three men could scarcely deny this, for it was true. Kahr and Seisser were no match for Hitler’s barbs. Only General von Lossow defended himself defiantly. “I was no unemployed komitadji,” he reminded the court. “I occupied a high position in the State.” And the General poured all the scorn of an old Army officer on his former corporal, this unemployed upstart, whose overpowering ambition had led him to try to dictate to the Army and the State. How far this unscrupulous demagogue had come, he exclaimed, from the days, not so far distant, when he had been willing to be merely “the drummer” in a patriotic movement!
A drummer merely? Hitler knew how to answer that:
How petty are the thoughts of small men! Believe me, I do not regard the acquisition of a minister’s portfolio as a thing worth striving for. I do not hold it worthy of a great man to endeavor to go down in history just by becoming a minister. One might be in danger of being buried beside other ministers. My aim from the first was a thousand times higher than becoming a minister. I wanted to become the destroyer of Marxism. I am going to achieve this task, and if I do, the title of Minister will be an absurdity so far as I am concerned.
He invoked the example of Wagner.
When I stood for the first time at the grave of Richard Wagner my heart overflowed with pride in a man who had forbidden any such inscription as “Here lies Privy Councilor, Music Director, His Excellency Baron Richard von Wagner.” I was proud that this man and so many others in German history were content to give their names to history without titles. It was not from modesty that I wanted to be a drummer in those days. That was the highest aspiration—the rest is nothing.
He had been accused of wanting to jump from drummer to dictator. He would not deny it. Fate had decreed it.
The man who is born to be a dictator is not compelled. He wills it. He is not driven forward, but drives himself. There is nothing immodest about this. Is it immodest for a worker to drive himself toward heavy labor? Is it presumptuous of a man with the high forehead of a thinker to ponder through the nights till he gives the world an invention? The man who feels called upon to govern a people has no right to say, “If you want me or summon me, I will co-operate.” No! It is his duty to step forward.
Though he might be in the dock facing a long prison sentence for high treason against his country, his confidence in himself, in the call to “govern a people,” was undiminished. While in prison awaiting trial, he had already analyzed the reasons for the failure of the putsch and had vowed that he would not commit the same mistakes in the future. Recalling his thoughts thirteen years later after he had achieved his goal, he told his old followers, assembled at the Buergerbräukeller to celebrate the anniversary of the putsch, “I can calmly say that it was the rashest decision of my life. When I think back on it today, I grow dizzy … If today you saw one of our squads from the year 1923 marching by, you would ask, ‘What workhouse have they escaped from?’ … But fate meant well with us. It did not permit an action to succeed which, if it had succeeded, would in the end have inevitably crashed as a result of the movement’s inner immaturity in those days and its deficient organizational and intellectual foundation … We recognized that it is not enough to overthrow the old State, but that the new State must previously have been built up and be ready to one’s hand … In 1933 it was no longer a question of overthrowing a State by an act of violence; meanwhile the new State had been built up and all that remained to do was to destroy the last remnants of the old State—and that took but a few hours.”
How to build the new Nazi State was already in his mind as he fenced with the judges and his prosecutors during the trial. For one thing, he would have to have the German Army with him, not against him, the next time. In his closing address he played on the idea of reconciliation with the armed forces. There was no word of reproach for the Army.
I believe that the hour will come when the masses, who today stand in the street with our swastika banner, will unite with those who fired upon them … When I learned that it was the Green police which fired, I was happy that it was not the Reichswehr which had stained the record; the Reichswehr stands as untarnished as before. One day the hour will come when the Reichswehr will stand at our side, officers and men.
It was an accurate prediction, but here the presiding judge intervened. “Herr Hitler, you say that the Green police was stained. That I cannot permit.”
The accused paid not the slightest attention to the admonition. In a peroration that held the audience in the courtroom spellbound Hitler spoke his final words:
The army we have formed is growing from day to day … I nourish the proud hope that one day the hour will come when these rough companies will grow to battalions, the battalions to regiments, the regiments to divisions, that the old cockade will be taken from the mud, that the old flags will wave again, that there will be a reconciliation at the last great divine judgment which we are prepared to face.
He turned his burning eyes directly on the judges.
For it is not you, gentlemen, who pass judgment on us. That judgment is spoken by the eternal court of history. What judgment you will hand down I know. But that court will not ask us, “Did you commit high treason or did you not?” That court will judge us, the Quartermaster General of the old Army [Ludendorff], his officers and soldiers, as Germans who wanted only the good of their own people and Fatherland, who wanted to fight and die. You may pronounce us guilty a thousand times over, but the goddess of the eternal court of history will smile and tear to tatters the brief of the state prosecutor and the sentence of this court. For she acquits us.10
The sentences, if not the verdicts, of the actual judges were, as Konrad Heiden wrote, not so far from the judgment of history. Ludendorff was acquitted. Hitler and the other accused were found guilty. But in the face of the law—Article 81 of the German Penal Code—which declared that “whosoever attempts to alter by force the Constitution of the German Reich or of any German state shall be punished by lifelong imprisonment,” Hitler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in the old fortress of Landsberg. Even then the lay judges protested the severity of the sentence, but they were assured by the presiding judge that the prisoner would be eligible for parole after he had served six months. Efforts of the police to get Hitler deported as a foreigner—he still held Austrian citizenship—came to nothing. The sentences were imposed on April 1, 1924. A little less than nine months later, on December 20, Hitler was released from prison, free to resume his fight to overthrow the democratic state. The consequences of committing high treason, if you were a man of the extreme Right, were not unduly heavy, despite the law, and a good many antirepublicans took notice of it.
The putsch, even though it was a fiasco, made Hitler a national figure and, in the eyes of many, a patriot and a hero. Nazi propaganda soon transformed it into one of the great legends of the movement. Each year, even after he came to power, even after World War II broke out, Hitler returned on the evening of November 8 to the beer hall in Munich to address his Old Guard comrades—the alte Kaempfer, as they were called—who had followed the leader to what seemed then such a grotesque disaster. In 1935 Hitler, the Chancellor, had the bodies of the sixteen Nazis who had fallen in the brief encounter dug up and placed in vaults in the Feldherrnhalle, which became a national shrine. Of them Hitler said, in dedicating the memorial, “They now pass into German immortality. Here they stand for Germany and keep guard over our people. Here they lie as true witnesses to our movement.” He did not add, and no German seemed to recall, that they were also the men whom Hitler had abandoned to their dying when he had picked himself up from the pavement and ran away.
That summer of 1924 in the old fortress at Landsberg, high above the River Lech, Adolf Hitler, who was treated as an honored guest, with a room of his own and a splendid view, cleared out the visitors who flocked to pay him homage and bring him gifts, summoned the faithful Rudolf Hess, who had finally returned to Munich and received a sentence, and began to dictate to him chapter after chapter of a book.*
* A year later General Freiherr Walther von Luettwitz, a reactionary officer of the old school, would show how loyal he was to the Republic in general and to Noske in particular when he led free-corps troops in the capture of Berlin in support of the Kapp putsch. Ebert, Noske and the other members of the government were forced to flee at five in the morning of March 13, 1920. General von Seeckt, Chief of Staff of the Army and nominally subordinate to Noske, the Minister of Defense, had refused to allow the Army to defend the Republic against Luettwitz and Kapp. “This night has shown the bankruptcy of all my policy,” Noske cried out. “My faith in the Officer Corps is shattered. You have all deserted me.” (Quoted by Wheeler-Bennett in The Nemesis of Power, p. 77.)
* There were flaws, to be sure, and in the end some of them proved disastrous. The system of proportional representation and voting by list may have prevented the wasting of votes, but it also resulted in the multiplication of small splinter parties which eventually made a stable majority in the Reichstag impossible and led to frequent changes in government. In the national elections of 1930 some twenty-eight parties were listed.
The Republic might have been given greater stability had some of the ideas of Professor Hugo Preuss, the principal drafter of the constitution, not been rejected. He proposed at Weimar that Germany be made into a centralized state and that Prussia and the other single states be dissolved and transformed into provinces. But the Assembly turned his proposals down.
Finally, Article 48 of the constitution conferred upon the President dictatorial powers during an emergency. The use made of this clause by Chancellors Bruening, von Papen and von Schleicher under President Hindenburg enabled them to govern without approval of the Reichstag and thus, even before the advent of Hitler, brought an end to democratic parliamentary government in Germany.
* It restricted the Army to 100,000 long-term volunteers and prohibited it from having planes or tanks. The General Staff was also outlawed. The Navy was reduced to little more than a token force and forbidden to build submarines or vessels over 10,000 tons.
* The “Black Reichswehr” troops, numbering roughly twenty thousand, were stationed on the eastern frontier to help guard it against the Poles in the turbulent days of 1920–23. The illicit organization became notorious for its revival of the horrors of the medieval Femegerichte—secret courts—which dealt arbitrary death sentences against Germans who revealed the activities of the “Black Reichswehr” to the Allied Control Commission. Several of these brutal murders reached the courts. At one trial the German Defense Minister, Otto Gessler, who had succeeded Noske, denied any knowledge of the organization and insisted that it did not exist. But when one of his questioners protested against such innocence Gessler cried, “He who speaks of the ‘Black Reichswehr’ commits an act of high treason!”
* Some years later, in approving Streicher’s appointment as Nazi leader for Franconia over the opposition of many party comrades, Hitler declared, “Perhaps there are one or two who don’t like the shape of Comrade Streicher’s nose. But when he lay beside me that day on the pavement by the Feldherrnhalle, I vowed to myself never to forsake him so long as he did not forsake me.” (Heiden, Hitler: A Biography, p. 157.)
* Before the arrival of Hess, Emil Maurice, an ex-convict, a watchmaker and the first commander of the Nazi “strong-arm” squads, took some preliminary dictation.