Military history


The prospects for a political career in Germany for this thirty-year-old Austrian without friends or funds, without a job, with no trade or profession or any previous record of regular employment, with no experience whatsoever in politics, were less than promising, and at first, for a brief moment, Hitler realized it. “For days,” he says, “I wondered what could be done, but the end of every meditation was the sober realization that I, nameless as I was, did not possess the least basis for any useful action.”7

He had returned to Munich at the end of November 1918, to find his adopted city scarcely recognizable. Revolution had broken out here too. The Wittelsbach King had also abdicated. Bavaria was in the hands of the Social Democrats, who had set up a Bavarian “People’s State” under Kurt Eisner, a popular Jewish writer who had been born in Berlin. On November 7, Eisner, a familiar figure in Munich with his great gray beard, his pince-nez, his enormous black hat and his diminutive size, had traipsed through the streets at the head of & few hundred men and, without a shot being fired, had occupied the seat of parliament and government and proclaimed a republic. Three months later he was assassinated by a young right-wing officer, Count Anton Arco-Valley. The workers thereupon set up a soviet republic, but this was short-lived. On May 1, 1919, Regular Army troops dispatched from Berlin and Bavarian “free corps” (Freikorps) volunteers entered Munich and overthrew the Communist regime, massacring several hundred persons, including many non-Communists, in revenge for the shooting of a dozen hostages by the soviet. Though a moderate Social Democratic government under Johannes Hoffmann was nominally restored for the time being, the real power in Bavarian politics passed to the Right.

What was the Right in Bavaria at this chaotic time? It was the Regular Army, the Reichswehr; it was the monarchists, who wished the Wittelbachs back. It was a mass of conservatives who despised the democratic Republic established in Berlin; and as time went on it was above all the great mob of demobilized soldiers for whom the bottom had fallen out of the world in 1918, uprooted men who could not find jobs or their way back to the peaceful society they had left in 1914, men grown tough and violent through war who could not shake themselves from ingrained habit and who, as Hitler, who for a while was one of them, would later say, “became revolutionaries who favored revolution for its own sake and desired to see revolution established as a permanent condition.”

Armed free-corps bands sprang up all over Germany and were secretly equipped by the Reichswehr. At first they were mainly used to fight the Poles and the Balts on the disputed eastern frontiers, but soon they were backing plots for the overthrow of the republican regime. In March 1920, one of them, the notorious Ehrhardt Brigade, led by a freebooter, Captain Ehrhardt, occupied Berlin and enabled Dr. Wolfgang Kapp,* a mediocre politician of the extreme Right, to proclaim himself Chancellor. The Regular Army, under General von Seeckt, had stood by while the President of the Republic and the government fled in disarray to western Germany. Only a general strike by the trade unions restored the republican government.

In Munich at the same time a different kind of military coup d’état was more successful. On March 14, 1920, the Reichswehr overthrew the Hoffmann Socialist government and installed a right-wing regime under Gustav von Kahr. And now the Bavarian capital became a magnet for all those forces in Germany which were determined to overthrow the Republic, set up an authoritarian regime and repudiate the Diktat of Versailles. Here the condottieri of the free corps, including the members of the Ehrhardt Brigade, found a refuge and a welcome. Here General Ludendorff settled, along with a host of other disgruntled, discharged Army officers.* Here were plotted the political murders, among them that of Matthias Erzberger, the moderate Catholic politician who had had the courage to sign the armistice when the generals backed out; and of Walther Rathenau, the brilliant, cultured Foreign Minister, whom the extremists hated for being a Jew and for carrying out the national government’s policy of trying to fulfill at least some of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty.

It was in this fertile field in Munich that Adolf Hitler got his start.

   When he had come back to Munich at the end of November 1918, he had found that his battalion was in the hands of the “Soldiers’ Councils.” This was so repellent to him, he says, that he decided “at once to leave as soon as possible.” He spent the winter doing guard duty at a prisoner-of-war camp at Traunstein, near the Austrian border. He was back in Munich in the spring. In Mein Kampf he relates that he incurred the “disapproval” of the left-wing government and claims that he avoided arrest only by the feat of aiming his carbine at three “scoundrels” who had come to fetch him. Immediately after the Communist regime was overthrown Hitler began what he terms his “first more or less political activity.” This consisted of giving information to the commission of inquiry set up by the 2nd Infantry Regiment to investigate those who shared responsibility for the brief soviet regime in Munich.

Apparently Hitler’s service on this occasion was considered valuable enough to lead the Army to give him further employment. He was assigned to a job in the Press and News Bureau of the Political Department of the Army’s district command. The German Army, contrary to its traditions, was now deep in politics, especially in Bavaria, where at last it had established a government to its liking. To further its conservative views it gave the soldiers courses of “political instruction,” in one of which Adolf Hitler was an attentive pupil. One day, according to his own story, he intervened during a lecture in which someone had said a good word for the Jews. His anti-Semitic harangue apparently so pleased his superior officers that he was soon posted to a Munich regiment as an educational officer, a Bildungsoffizier, whose main task was to combat dangerous ideas—pacifism, socialism, democracy; such was the Army’s conception of its role in the democratic Republic it had sworn to serve.

This was an important break for Hitler, the first recognition he had won in the field of politics he was now trying to enter. Above all, it gave him a chance to try out his oratorical abilities—the first prerequisite, as he had always maintained, of a successful politician. “All at once,” he says, “I was offered an opportunity of speaking before a larger audience; and the thing that I had always presumed from pure feeling without knowing it was now corroborated: I could ‘speak.’” The discovery pleased him greatly even if it came as no great surprise. He had been afraid that his voice might have been permanently weakened by the gassing he had suffered at the front. Now he found it had recovered sufficiently to enable him to make himself heard “at least in every corner of the small squad rooms.”8 This was the beginning of a talent that was to make him easily the most effective orator in Germany, with a magic power, after he took to radio, to sway millions by his voice.

One day in September 1919, Hitler received orders from the Army’s Political Department to have a look at a tiny political group in Munich which called itself the German Workers’ Party. The military were suspicious of workers’ parties, since they were predominantly Socialist or Communist, but this one, it was believed, might be different. Hitler says it was “entirely unknown” to him. And yet he knew one of the men who was scheduled to speak at the party’s meeting which he had been assigned to investigate.

A few weeks before, in one of his Army educational courses, he had heard a lecture by Gottfried Feder, a construction engineer and a crank in the field of economics, who had become obsessed with the idea that “speculative” capital, as opposed to “creative” and “productive” capital, was the root of much of Germany’s economic trouble. He was for abolishing the first kind and in 1917 had formed an organization to achieve this purpose: the German Fighting League for the Breaking of Interest Slavery. Hitler, ignorant of economics, was much impressed by Feder’s lecture. He saw in Feder’s appeal for the “breaking of interest slavery” one of the “essential premises for the foundation of a new party.” In Feder’s lecture, he says, “I sensed a powerful slogan for this coming struggle.”9

But at first he did not sense any importance in the German Workers’ Party. He went to its meeting because he was ordered to, and, after sitting through what he thought was a dull session of some twenty-five persons gathered in a murky room in the Sterneckerbräu beer cellar, he was not impressed. It was “a new organization like so many others. This was a time,” he says, “in which anyone who was not satisfied with developments … felt called upon to found a new party. Everywhere these organizations sprang out of the ground, only to vanish silently after a time. I judged the German Workers’ Party no differently.”10 After Feder had finished speaking Hitler was about to leave, when a “professor” sprang up, questioned the soundness of Feder’s arguments and then proposed that Bavaria should break away from Prussia and found a South German nation with Austria. This was a popular notion in Munich at the time, but its expression aroused Hitler to a fury and he rose to give “the learned gentleman,” as he later recounted, a piece of his mind. This apparently was so violent that, according to Hitler, the “professor” left the hall “like a wet poodle,” while the rest of the audience looked at the unknown young speaker “with astonished faces.” One man—Hitler says he did not catch his name—came leaping after him and pressed a little booklet into his hands.

This man was Anton Drexler, a locksmith by trade, who may be said to have been the actual founder of National Socialism. A sickly, bespectacled man, lacking a formal education, with an independent but narrow and confused mind, a poor writer and a worse speaker, Drexler was then employed in the Munich railroad shops. On March 7, 1918, he had set up a “Committee of Independent Workmen” to combat the Marxism of the free trade unions and to agitate for a “just” peace for Germany. Actually, it was a branch of a larger movement established in North Germany as the Association for the Promotion of Peace on Working-Class Lines (the country was then and would continue to be until 1933 full of countless pressure groups with highfalutin titles).

Drexler never recruited more than forty members, and in January 1919 he merged his committee with a similar group, the Political Workers’ Circle, led by a newspaper reporter, one Karl Harrer. The new organization, which numbered less than a hundred, was called the German Workers’ Party and Harrer was its first chairman. Hitler, who has little to say in Mein Kampf of some of his early comrades whose names are now forgotten, pays Harrer the tribute of being “honest” and “certainly widely educated” but regrets that he lacked the “oratorical gift.” Perhaps Harrer’s chief claim to fleeting fame is that he stubbornly maintained that Hitler was a poor speaker, a judgment which riled the Nazi leader ever after, as he makes plain in his autobiography. At any rate, Drexler seems to have been the chief driving force in this small, unknown German Workers’ Party.

The next morning Hitler turned to a perusal of the booklet which Drexler had thrust into his hands. He describes the scene at length in Mein Kampf. It was 5 A.M. Hitler had awakened and, as he says was his custom, was reclining on his cot in the barracks of the 2nd Infantry Regiment watching the mice nibble at the bread crumbs which he invariably scattered on the floor the night before. “I had known so much poverty in my life,” he muses, “that I was well able to imagine the hunger and hence also the pleasure of the little creatures.” He remembered the little pamphlet and began to read it. It was entitled “My Political Awakening.” To Hitler’s surprise, it reflected a good many ideas which he himself had acquired over the years. Drexler’s principal aim was to build a political party which would be based on the masses of the working class but which, unlike the Social Democrats, would be strongly nationalist. Drexler had been a member of the patriotic Fatherland Front but had soon become disillusioned with its middle-class spirit which seemed to have no contact at all with the masses. In Vienna, as we have seen, Hitler had learned to scorn the bourgeoisie for the same reason—its utter lack of concern with the working-class families and their social problems. Drexler’s ideas, then, definitely interested him.

Later that day Hitler was astonished to receive a postcard saying that he had been accepted in the German Workers’ Party. “I didn’t know whether to be angry or to laugh,” he remembered later. “I had no intention of joining a ready-made party, but wanted to found one of my own. What they asked of me was presumptuous and out of the question.”11 He was about to say so in a letter when “curiosity won out” and he decided to go to a committee meeting to which he had been invited and explain in person his reasons for not joining “this absurd little organization.”

The tavern in which the meeting was to take place was the Alte Rosenbad in the Herrenstrasse, a very run-down place … I went through the ill-lit dining room in which not a soul was sitting, opened the door to the back room, and there I was face to face with the Committee. In the dim light of a grimy gas lamp four young people sat at a table, among them the author of the little pamphlet, who at once greeted me most joyfully and bade me welcome as a new member of the German Workers’ Party.

Really, I was somewhat taken aback. The minutes of the last meeting were read and the secretary given a vote of confidence. Next came the treasury report—all in all the association possessed seven marks and fifty pfennigs—for which the treasurer received a vote of confidence. This too was entered in the minutes. Then the first chairman read the answers to a letter from Kiel, one from Duesseldorf, and one from Berlin and everyone expressed approval. Next a report was given on the incoming mail …

Terrible, terrible! This was club life of the worst manner and sort. Was I to join this organization?12

   Yet there was something about these shabby men in the ill-lit back room that attracted him: “the longing for a new movement which should be more than a party in the previous sense of the word.” That evening he returned to the barracks to “face the hardest question of my life: should I join?” Reason, he admits, told him to decline. And yet … The very unimportance of the organization would give a young man of energy and ideas an opportunity “for real personal activity.” Hitler thought over what he could “bring to this task.”

That I was poor and without means seemed to me the most bearable part of it, but it was harder that I was numbered among the nameless, that I was one of the millions whom chance permits to live or summons out of existence without even their closest neighbors condescending to take any notice of it. In addition, there was the difficulty which inevitably arose from my lack of schooling.

After two days of agonized pondering and reflection, I finally came to the conviction that I had to take this step.

It was the most decisive resolve of my life. From here there was and could be no turning back.13

   Adolf Hitler was then and there enrolled as the seventh member of the committee of the German Workers’ Party.

There were two members of this insignificant party who deserve mention at this point; both were to prove important in the rise of Hitler. Captain Ernst Roehm, on the staff of the Army’s District Command VII in Munich, had joined the party before Hitler. He was a stocky, bull-necked, piggish-eyed, scar-faced professional soldier—the upper part of his nose had been shot away in 1914—with a flair for politics and a natural ability as an organizer. Like Hitler he was possessed of a burning hatred for the democratic Republic and the “November criminals” he held responsible for it. His aim was to re-create a strong nationalist Germany and he believed with Hitler that this could be done only by a party based on the lower classes, from which he himself, unlike most Regular Army officers, had come. A tough, ruthless, driving man—albeit, like so many of the early Nazis, a homosexual—he helped to organize the first Nazi strong-arm squads which grew into the S.A., the army of storm troopers which he commanded until his execution by Hitler in 1934. Roehm not only brought into the budding party large numbers of ex-servicemen and free-corps volunteers, who formed the backbone of the organization in its early years, but, as an officer of the Army, which controlled Bavaria, he obtained for Hitler and his movement the protection and sometimes the support of the authorities. Without this help, Hitler probably could never have got a real start in his campaign to incite the people to overthrow the Republic. Certainly he could not have got away with his methods of terror and intimidation without the tolerance of the Bavarian government and police.

Dietrich Eckart, twenty-one years older than Hitler, was often called the spiritual founder of National Socialism. A witty journalist, a mediocre poet and dramatist, he had translated Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and written a number of unproduced plays. In Berlin for a time he had led, like Hitler in Vienna, the bohemian vagrant’s life, become a drunkard, taken to morphine and, according to Heiden, been confined to a mental institution, where he was finally able to stage his dramas, using the inmates as actors. He had returned to his native Bavaria at the war’s end and held forth before a circle of admirers at the Brennessel wine cellar in Schwabling, the artists’ quarter in Munich, preaching Aryan superiority and calling for the elimination of the Jews and the downfall of the “swine” in Berlin.

“We need a fellow at the head,” Heiden, who was a working newspaperman in Munich at the time, quotes Eckart as declaiming to the habitues of the Brennessel wine cellar in 1919, “who can stand the sound of a machine gun. The rabble need to get fear into their pants. We can’t use an officer, because the people don’t respect them any more. The best would be a worker who knows how to talk … He doesn’t need much brains … He must be a bachelor, then we’ll get the women.”14

What more natural than that the hard-drinking poet* should find in Adolf Hitler the very man he was looking for? He became a close adviser to the rising young man in the German Workers’ Party, lending him books, helping to improve his German—both written and spoken—and introducing him to his wide circle of friends, which included not only certain wealthy persons who were induced to contribute to the party’s funds and Hitler’s living but such future aides as Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg. Hitler’s admiration for Eckart never flagged, and the last sentenceof Mein Kampf is an expression of gratitude to this erratic mentor: He was, says Hitler in concluding his book, “one of the best, who devoted his life to the awakening of our people, in his writings and his thoughts and finally in his deeds.”15

   Such was the weird assortment of misfits who founded National Socialism, who unknowingly began to shape a movement which in thirteen years would sweep the country, the strongest in Europe, and bring to Germany its Third Reich. The confused locksmith Drexler provided the kernel, the drunken poet Eckart some of the “spiritual” foundation, the economic crank Feder what passed as an ideology, the homosexual Roehm the support of the Army and the war veterans, but it was now the former tramp, Adolf Hitler, not quite thirty-one and utterly unknown, who took the lead in building up what had been no more than a back-room debating society into what would soon become a formidable political party.

All the ideas which had been bubbling in his mind since the lonesome days of hunger in Vienna now found an outlet, and an inner energy which had not been observable in his make-up burst forth. He prodded his timid committee into organizing bigger meetings. He personally typed out and distributed invitations. Later he recalled how once, after he had distributed eighty of these, “we sat waiting for the masses who were expected to appear. An hour late, the ‘chairman’ had to open the ‘meeting.’ We were again seven, the old seven.”16 But he was not to be discouraged. He increased the number of invitations by having them mimeographed. He collected a few marks to insert a notice of a meeting in a local newspaper. “The success,” he says, “was positively amazing. One hundred and eleven people were present.” Hitler was to make his first “public” speech, following the main address by a “Munich professor.” Harrer, nominal head of the party, objected. “This gentleman, who was certainly otherwise honest,” Hitler relates, “just happened to be convinced that I might be capable of doing certain things, but not of speaking. I spoke for thirty minutes, and what before I had simply felt within me, without in any way knowing it, was now proved by reality: I could speak!”17 Hitler claims the audience was “electrified” by his oratory and its enthusiasm proved by donations of three hundred marks, which temporarily relieved the party of its financial worries.

At the start of 1920, Hitler took over the party’s propaganda, an activity to which he had given much thought since he had observed its importance in the Socialist and Christian Social parties in Vienna. He began immediately to organize by far the biggest meeting ever dreamt of by the pitifully small party. It was to be held on February 24, 1920, in the Festsaal of the famous Hofbräuhaus, with a seating capacity of nearly two thousand. Hitler’s fellow committeemen thought he was crazy. Harrer resigned in protest and was replaced by Drexler, who remained skeptical* Hitler emphasizes that he personally conducted the preparations. Indeed the event loomed so large for him that he concludes the first volume of Mein Kampf with a description of it, because, he explains, it was the occasion when “the party burst the narrow bonds of a small club and for the first time exerted a determining influence on the mightiest factor of our time: public opinion.”

Hitler was not even scheduled as the main speaker. This role was reserved for a certain Dr. Johannes Dingfelder, a homeopathic physician, a crackpot who contributed articles on economics to the newspapers under the pseudonym of “Germanus Agricola,” and who was soon to be forgotten. His speech was greeted with silence; then Hitler began to speak. As he describes the scene:

There was a hail of shouts, there were violent clashes in the hall, a handful of the most faithful war comrades and other supporters battled with the disturbers … Communists and Socialists … and only little by little were able to restore order. I was able to go on speaking. After half an hour the applause slowly began to drown out the screaming and shouting … When after nearly four hours the hall began to empty I knew that now the principles of the movement which could no longer be forgotten were moving out among the German people.18

In the course of his speech Hitler had enunciated for the first time the twenty-five points of the program of the German Workers’ Party. They had been hastily drawn up by Drexler, Feder and Hitler. Most of the heckling at Hitler had really been directed against parts of the program which he read out, but he nevertheless considered all the points as having been adopted and they became the official program of the Nazi Party when its name was altered on April 1, 1920, to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Indeed, for tactical reasons Hitler in 1926 declared them “unalterable.”

They are certainly a hodgepodge, a catchall for the workers, the lower middle class and the peasants, and most of them were forgotten by the time the party came to power. A good many writers on Germany have ridiculed them, and the Nazi leader himself was later to be embarrassed when reminded of some of them. Yet, as in the case of the main principles laid down in Mein Kampf, the most important of them were carried out by the Third Reich, with consequences disastrous to millions of people, inside and outside of Germany.

The very first point in the program demanded the union of all Germans in a Greater Germany. Was this not exactly what Chancellor Hitler would insist on and get when he annexed Austria and its six million Germans, when he took the Sudetenland with its three million Germans? And was it not his demand for the return of German Danzig and the other areas in Poland inhabited predominantly by Germans which led to the German attack on Poland and brought on World War II? And cannot it be added that it was one of the world’s misfortunes that so many in the interwar years either ignored or laughed off the Nazi aims which Hitler had taken the pains to put down in writing? Surely the anti-Semitic points of the program promulgated in the Munich beer hall on the evening of February 24, 1920, constituted a dire warning. The Jews were to be denied office and even citizenship in Germany and excluded from the press. All who had entered the Reich after August 2, 1914, were to be expelled.

A good many paragraphs of the party program were obviously merely a demagogic appeal to the mood of the lower classes at a time when they were in bad straits and were sympathetic to radical and even socialist slogans. Point 11, for example, demanded abolition of incomes unearned by work; Point 12, the nationalization of trusts; Point 13, the sharing with the state of profits from large industry; Point 14, the abolishing of land rents and speculation in land. Point 18 demanded the death penalty for traitors, usurers and profiteers, and Point 16, calling for the maintenance of “a sound middle class,” insisted on the communalization of department stores and their lease at cheap rates to small traders. These demands had been put in at the insistence of Drexler and Feder, who apparently really believed in the “socialism” of National Socialism. They were the ideas which Hitler was to find embarrassing when the big industrialists and landlords began to pour money into the party coffers, and of course nothing was ever done about them.

There were, finally, two points of the program which Hitler would carry out as soon as he became Chancellor. Point 2 demanded the abrogation of the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain. The last point, number 25, insisted on “the creation of a strong central power of the State.” This, like Points 1 and 2 demanding the union of all Germans in the Reich and the abolition of the peace treaties, was put into the program at Hitler’s insistence and it showed how even then, when his party was hardly known outside Munich, he was casting his eyes on further horizons even at the risk of losing popular support in his own bailiwick.

Separatism was very strong in Bavaria at the time and the Bavarians, constantly at odds with the central government in Berlin, were demanding less, not more, centralization, so that Bavaria could rule itself. In fact, this was what it was doing at the moment; Berlin’s writ had very little authority in the states. Hitler was looking ahead for power not only in Bavaria but eventually in the Reich, and to hold and exercise that power a dictatorial regime such as he already envisaged needed to constitute itself as a strong centralized authority, doing away with the semiautonomous states which under the Weimar Republic, as under the Hohenzollern Empire, enjoyed their own parliaments and governments. One of his first acts after January 30, 1933, was to swiftly carry out this final point in the party’s program which so few had noticed or taken seriously. No one could say he had not given ample warning, in writing, from the very beginning.

Inflammatory oratory and a radical, catchall program, important as they were for a fledgling party out to attract attention and recruit mass support, were not enough, and Hitler now turned his attention to providing more—much more. The first signs of his peculiar genius began to appear and make themselves felt. What the masses needed, he thought, were not only ideas—a few simple ideas, that is, that he could ceaselessly hammer through their skulls—but symbols that would win their faith, pageantry and color that would arouse them, and acts of violence and terror, which if successful, would attract adherents (were not most Germans drawn to the strong?) and give them a sense of power over the weak.

In Vienna, as we have seen, he was intrigued by what he called the “infamous spiritual and physical terror” which he thought was employed by the Social Democrats against their political opponents.* Now he turned it to good purpose in his own anti-Socialist party. At first ex-servicemen were assigned to the meetings to silence hecklers and, if necessary, toss them out. In the summer of 1920, soon after the party had added “National Socialist” to the name of the “German Workers’ Party” and became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or N.S.D.A.P., as it was now to be familiarly known, Hitler organized a bunch of roughneck war veterans into “strong-arm” squads, Ordnertruppe, under the command of Emil Maurice, an ex-convict and watchmaker. On October 5, 1921, after camouflaging themselves for a short time as the “Gymnastic and Sports Division” of the party to escape suppression by the Berlin government, they were officially named the Sturmabteilung, from which the name S.A. came. The storm troopers, outfitted in brown uniforms, were recruited largely from the freebooters of the free corps and placed under the command of Johann Ulrich Klintzich, an aide of the notorious Captain Ehrhardt, who had recently been released from imprisonment in connection with the murder of Erzberger.

These uniformed rowdies, not content to keep order at Nazi meetings, soon took to breaking up those of the other parties. Once in 1921 Hitler personally led his storm troopers in an attack on a meeting which was to be addressed by a Bavarian federalist by the name of Ballerstedt, who received a beating. For this Hitler was sentenced to three months in jail, one of which he served. This was his first experience in jail and he emerged from it somewhat of a martyr and more popular than ever. “It’s all right,” Hitler boasted to the police. “We got what we wanted. Ballerstedt did not speak.” As Hitler had told an audience some months before, “The National Socialist Movement will in the future ruthlessly prevent—if necessary by force—all meetings or lectures that are likely to distract the minds of our fellow countrymen.”19

In the summer of 1920 Hitler, the frustrated artist but now becoming the master propagandist, came up with an inspiration which can only be described as a stroke of genius. What the party lacked, he saw, was an emblem, a flag, a symbol, which would express what the new organization stood for and appeal to the imagination of the masses, who, as Hitler reasoned, must have some striking banner to follow and to fight under. After much thought and innumerable attempts at various designs he hit upon a flag with a red background and in the middle a white disk on which was imprinted a black swastika. The hooked cross—the hakenkreuz—of the swastika, borrowed though it was from more ancient times, was to become a mighty and frightening symbol of the Nazi Party and ultimately of Nazi Germany. Whence Hitler got the idea of using it for both the flag and the insignia of the party he does not say in a lengthy dissertation on the subject in Mein Kampf.

The hakenkreuz is as old, almost, as man on the planet. It has been found in the ruins of Troy and of Egypt and China. I myself have seen it in ancient Hindu and Buddhist relics in India. In more recent times it showed up as an official emblem in such Baltic states as Estonia and Finland, where the men of the German free corps saw it during the fighting of 1918–19. The Ehrhardt Brigade had it painted on their steel helmets when they entered Berlin during the Kapp putsch in 1920. Hitler had undoubtedly seen it in Austria in the emblems of one or the other anti-Semitic parties and perhaps he was struck by it when the Ehrhardt Brigade came to Munich. He says that numerous designs suggested to him by party members invariably included a swastika and that a “dentist from Sternberg” actually delivered a design for a flag that “was not bad at all and quite close to my own.”

For the colors Hitler had of course rejected the black, red and gold of the hated Weimar Republic. He declined to adopt the old imperial flag of red, white and black, but he liked its colors not only because, he says, they form “the most brilliant harmony in existence,” but because they were the colors of a Germany for which he had fought. But they had to be given a new form, and so a swastika was added.

Hitler reveled in his unique creation. “A symbol it really is!” he exclaims in Mein Kampf. “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalist idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.”20

Soon the swastika armband was devised for the uniforms of the storm troopers and the party members, and two years later Hitler designed the Nazi standards which would be carried in the massive parades and would adorn the stages of the mass meetings. Taken from old Roman designs, they consisted of a black metal swastika on top with a silver wreath surmounted by an eagle, and, below, the initials NSDAP on a metal rectangle from which hung cords with fringe and tassels, a square swastika flag with “Deutschland Erwache.’ (Germany Awake!)” emblazoned on it.

This may not have been “art,” but it was propaganda of the highest order. The Nazis now had a symbol which no other party could match. The hooked cross seemed to possess some mystic power of its own, to beckon to action in a new direction the insecure lower middle classes which had been floundering in the uncertainty of the first chaotic postwar years. They began to flock under its banner.

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