Military history


In the summer of 1921 the rising young agitator who had shown such surprising talents not only as an orator but as an organizer and a propagandist took over the undisputed leadership of the party. In doing so, he gave his fellow workers a first taste of the ruthlessness and tactical shrewdness with which he was to gain so much success in more important crises later on.

Early in the summer Hitler had gone to Berlin to get in touch with North German nationalist elements and to speak at the National Club, which was their spiritual headquarters. He wanted to assess the possibilities of carrying his own movement beyond the Bavarian borders into the rest of Germany. Perhaps he could make some useful alliances for that purpose. While he was away the other members of the committee of the Nazi Party decided the moment was opportune to challenge his leadership. He had become too dictatorial for them. They proposed some alliances themselves with similarly minded groups in South Germany, especially with the “German Socialist Party” which a notorious Jew-baiter, Julius Streicher, a bitter enemy and a rival of Hitler, was building up in Nuremberg. The committee members were sure that if these groups, with their ambitious leaders, could be merged with the Nazis, Hitler would be reduced in size.

Sensing the threat to his position, Hitler hurried back to Munich to quell the intrigues of these “foolish lunatics,” as he called them in Mein Kampf. He offered to resign from the party. This was more than the party could afford, as the other members of the committee quickly realized. Hitler was not only their most powerful speaker but their best organizer and propagandist. Moreover, it was he who was now bringing in most of the organization’s funds—from collections at the mass meetings at which he spoke and from other sources as well, including the Army. If he left, the budding Nazi Party would surely go to pieces. The committee refused to accept his resignation. Hitler, reassured of the strength of his position, now forced a complete capitulation on the other leaders. He demanded dictatorial powers for himself as the party’s sole leader, the abolition of the committee itself and an end to intrigues with other groups such as Stretcher’s.

This was too much for the other committee members. Led by the party’s founder, Anton Drexler, they drew up an indictment of the would-be dictator and circulated it as a pamphlet. It was the most drastic accusation Hitler was ever confronted with from the ranks of his own party—from those, that is, who had firsthand knowledge of his character and how he operated.

A lust for power and personal ambition have caused Herr Adolf Hitler to return to his post after his six weeks’ stay in Berlin, of which the purpose has not yet been disclosed. He regards the time as ripe for bringing disunion and schism into our ranks by means of shadowy people behind him, and thus to further the interests of the Jews and their friends. It grows more and more clear that his purpose is simply to use the National Socialist party as a springboard for his own immoral purposes, and to seize the leadership in order to force the Party onto a different track at the psychological moment. This is most clearly shown by an ultimatum which he sent to the Party leaders a few days ago, in which he demands, among other things, that he shall have a sole and absolute dictatorship of the Party, and that the Committee, including the locksmith Anton Drexler, the founder and leader of the Party, should retire….

And how does he carry on his campaign? Like a Jew. He twists every fact … National Socialists! Make up your minds about such characters! Make no mistake. Hitler is a demagogue … He believes himself capable … of filling you up with all kinds of tales that are anything but the truth.21

Although weakened by a silly anti-Semitism (Hitler acting like a Jew!), the charges were substantially true, but publicizing them did not get the rebels as far as might be supposed. Hitler promptly brought a libel suit against the authors of the pamphlet, and Drexler himself, at a public meeting, was forced to repudiate it. In two special meetings of the party Hitler dictated his peace terms. The statutes were changed to abolish the committee and give him dictatorial powers as president. The humiliated Drexler was booted upstairs as honorary president, and he soon passed out of the picture.* As Heiden says, it was the victory of the Cavaliers over the Roundheads of the party. But it was more than that. Then and there, in July 1921, was established the “leadership principle” which was to be the law first of the Nazi Party and then of the Third Reich. The “Fuehrer” had arrived on the German scene.

The “leader” now set to work to reorganize the party. The gloomy tap-room in the back of the Sterneckerbräu, which to Hitler was more of “a funeral vault than an office,” was given up and new offices in another tavern in the Corneliusstrasse occupied. These were lighter and roomier. An old Adler typewriter was purchased on the installment plan, and a safe, filing cabinets, furniture, a telephone and a full-time paid secretary were gradually acquired.

Money was beginning to come in. Nearly a year before, in December of 1920, the party had acquired a run-down newspaper badly in debt, the Voelkischer Beobachter, an anti-Semitic gossip sheet which appeared twice a week. Exactly where the sixty thousand marks for its purchase came from was a secret which Hitler kept well, but it is known that Eckart and Roehm persuaded Major General Ritter von Epp, Roehm’s commanding officer in the Reichswehr and himself a member of the party, to raise the sum. Most likely it came from Army secret funds. At the beginning of 1923 the Voelkischer Beobachter became a daily, thus giving Hitler the prerequisite of all German political parties, a daily newspaper in which to preach the party’s gospels. Running a daily political journal required additional money, and this now came from what must have seemed to some of the more proletarian roughnecks of the party like strange sources. Frau Helene Bechstein, wife of the wealthy piano manufacturer, was one. From their first meeting she took a liking to the young firebrand, inviting him to stay at the Bechstein home when he was in Berlin, arranging parties in which he could meet the affluent, and donating sizable sums to the movement. Part of the money to finance the new daily came from a Frau Gertrud von Seidlitz, a Balt, who owned stock in some prosperous Finnish paper mills.

In March 1923, a Harvard graduate, Ernst (Putzi) Hanfstaengl, whose mother was American and whose cultivated and wealthy family owned an art-publishing business in Munich, loaned the party one thousand dollars against a mortgage on the Voelkischer Beobachter* This was a fabuloussum in marks in those inflationary days and was of immense help to the party and its newspaper. But the friendship of the Hanfstaengls extended beyond monetary help. It was one of the first respectable families of means in Munich to open its doors to the brawling young politician. Putzi became a good friend of Hitler, who eventually made him chief of the Foreign Press Department of the party. An eccentric, gangling man, whose sardonic wit somewhat compensated for his shallow mind, Hanfstaengl was a virtuoso at the piano and on many an evening, even after his friend came to power in Berlin, he would excuse himself from the company of those of us who might be with him to answer a hasty summons from the Fuehrer. It was said that his piano-playing—he pounded the instrument furiously—and his clowning soothed Hitler and even cheered him up after a tiring day. Later this strange but genial Harvard man, like some other early cronies of Hitler, would have to flee the country for his life.*

Most of the men who were to become Hitler’s closest subordinates were now in the party or would shortly enter it. Rudolf Hess joined in 1920. Son of a German wholesale merchant domiciled in Egypt, Hess had spent the first fourteen years of his life in that country and had then come to the Rhineland for his education. During the war he served for a time in the List Regiment with Hitler—though they did not become acquainted then—and after being twice wounded became a flyer. He enrolled in the University of Munich after the war as a student of economics but seems to have spent much of his time distributing anti-Semitic pamphlets and fighting with the various armed bands then at loose in Bavaria. He was in the thick of the firing when the soviet regime in Munich was overthrown on May 1, 1919, and was wounded in the leg. One evening a year later he went to hear Hitler speak, was carried away by his eloquence and joined the party, and soon he became a close friend, a devoted follower and secretary of the leader. It was he who introduced Hitler to the geopolitical ideas of General Karl Haushofer, then a professor of geopolitics at the university.

Hess had stirred Hitler with a prize-winning essay which he wrote for a thesis, entitled “How Must the Man Be Constituted Who Will Lead Germany Back to Her Old Heights?”

Where all authority has vanished, only a man of the people can establish authority … The deeper the dictator was originally rooted in the broad masses, the better he understands how to treat them psychologically, the less the workers will distrust him, the more supporters he will win among these most energetic ranks of the people. He himself has nothing in common with the mass; like every great man he is all personality … When necessity commands, he does not shrink before bloodshed. Great questions are always decided by blood and iron … In order to reach his goal, he is prepared to trample on his closest friends … The lawgiver proceeds with terrible hardness … As the need arises, he can trample them [the people] with the boots of a grenadier …22

No wonder Hitler took to the young man. This was a portrait perhaps not of the leader as he was at the moment but of the leader he wanted to become—and did. For all his solemnity and studiousness, Hess remained a man of limited intelligence, always receptive to crackpot ideas, which he could adopt with great fanaticism. Until nearly the end, he would be one of Hitler’s most loyal and trusted followers and one of the few who was not bitten by consuming personal ambition.

Alfred Rosenberg, although he was often hailed as the “intellectual leader” of the Nazi Party and indeed its “philosopher,” was also a man of mediocre intelligence. Rosenberg may with some truth be put down as a Russian. Like a good many Russian “intellectuals,” he was of Baltic German stock. The son of a shoemaker, he was born January 12, 1893, at Reval (now Tallinn) in Estonia, which had been a part of the Czarist Empire since 1721. He chose to study not in Germany but in Russia and received a diploma in architecture from the University of Moscow in 1917. He lived in Moscow through the days of the Bolshevik revolution and it may be that, as some of his enemies in the Nazi Party later said, he flirted with the idea of becoming a young Bolshevik revolutionary. In February 1918, however, he returned to Reval, volunteered for service in the German Army when it reached the city, was turned down as a “Russian” and finally, at the end of 1918, made his way to Munich, where he first became active in White Russian émigré circles.

Rosenberg then met Dietrich Eckart and through him Hitler, and joined the party at the end of 1919. It was inevitable that a man who had actually received a diploma in architecture would impress the man who had failed even to get into a school of architecture. Hitler was also impressed by Rosenberg’s “learning,” and he liked the young Balt’s hatred of the Jews and the Bolsheviks. Shortly before Eckart died, toward the end of 1923, Hitler made Rosenberg editor of the Voelkischer Beobachter, and for many years he continued to prop up this utterly muddled man, this confused and shallow “philosopher,” as the intellectual mentor of the Nazi movement and as one of its chief authorities on foreign policy.

Like Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering had also come to Munich some time after the war ostensibly to study economics at the university, and he too had come under the personal spell of Adolf Hitler. One of the nation’s great war heroes, the last commander of the famed Richthofen Fighter Squadron, holder of the Pour le Mérite, the highest war decoration in Germany, he found it even more difficult than most war veterans to return to the humdrum existence of peacetime civilian life. He became a transport pilot in Denmark for a time and later in Sweden. One day he flew Count Eric von Rosen to the latter’s estate some distance from Stockholm and while stopping over as a guest fell in love with Countess Rosen’s sister, Carin von Kantzow, née Baroness Fock, one of Sweden’s beauties. Some difficulties arose. Carin von Kantzow was epileptic and was married and the mother of an eight-year-old son. But she was able to have the marriage dissolved and marry the gallant young flyer. Possessed of considerable means, she went with her new husband to Munich, where they lived in some splendor and he dabbled in studies at the university.

But not for long. He met Hitler in 1921, joined the party, contributed generously to its treasury (and to Hitler personally), threw his restless energy into helping Roehm organize the storm troopers and a year later, in 1922, was made commander of the S.A.

A swarm of lesser-known and, for the most part, more unsavory individuals joined the circle around the party dictator. Max Amann, Hitler’s first sergeant in the List Regiment, a tough, uncouth character but an able organizer, was named business manager of the party and the Voelkischer Beobachter and quickly brought order into the finances of both. As his personal bodyguard Hitler chose Ulrich Graf, an amateur wrestler, a butcher’s apprentice and a renowned brawler. As his “court photographer,” the only man who for years was permitted to photograph him, Hitler had the lame Heinrich Hoffmann, whose loyalty was doglike and profitable, making him in the end a millionaire. Another favorite brawler was Christian Weber, a horse dealer, a former bouncer in a Munich dive and a lusty beer drinker. Close to Hitler in these days was Hermann Esser, whose oratory rivaled the leader’s and whose Jew-baiting articles in the Voelkischer Beobachter were a leading feature of the party newspaper. He made no secret that for a time he lived well off the generosity of some of his mistresses. A notorious blackmailer, resorting to threats to “expose” even his own party comrades who crossed him, Esser became so repulsive to some of the older and more decent men in the movement that they demanded his expulsion. “I know Esser is a scoundrel,” Hitler retorted in public, “but I shall hold on to him as long as he can be of use to me.”23 This was to be his attitude toward almost all of his close collaborators, no matter how murky their past—or indeed their present. Murderers, pimps, homosexual perverts, drug addicts or just plain rowdies were all the same to him if they served his purposes.

He stood Julius Streicher, for example, almost to the end. This depraved sadist, who started life as an elementary-school teacher, was one of the most disreputable men around Hitler from 1922 until 1939, when his star finally faded. A famous fornicator, as he boasted, who blackmailed even the husbands of women who were his mistresses, he made his fame and fortune as a blindly fanatical anti-Semite. His notorious weekly, Der Stuermer, thrived on lurid tales of Jewish sexual crimes and Jewish “ritual murders”; its obscenity was nauseating, even to many Nazis. Streicher was also a noted pornographist. He became known as the “uncrowned King of Franconia” with the center of his power in Nuremberg, where his word was law and where no one who crossed him or displeased him was safe from prison and torture. Until I faced him slumped in the dock at Nuremberg, on trial for his life as a war criminal, I never saw him without a whip in his hand or in his belt, and he laughingly boasted of the countless lashings he had meted out.

Such were the men whom Hitler gathered around him in the early years for his drive to become dictator of a nation which had given the world a Luther, a Kant, a Goethe and a Schiller, a Bach, a Beethoven and a Brahms.

   On April 1, 1920, the day the German Workers’ Party became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—from which the abbreviated name “Nazi” emerged—Hitler left the Army for good. Henceforth he would devote all of his time to the Nazi Party, from which neither then nor later did he accept any salary.

How, then, it might be asked, did Hitler live? His fellow party workers themselves sometimes wondered. In the indictment which the rebel members of the party committee drew up in July 1921, the question was bluntly posed: “If any member asks him how he lives and what was his former profession, he always becomes angry and excited. Up to now no answer has been supplied to these questions. So his conscience cannot be clean, especially as his excessive intercourse with ladies, to whom he often describes himself as ‘King of Munich,’ costs a great deal of money.”

Hitler answered the question during the subsequent libel action which he brought against the authors of the pamphlet. To the question of the court as to exactly how he lived, he replied, “If I speak for the National Socialist Party I take no money for myself. But I also speak for other organizations … and then of course 1 accept a fee. 1 also have my midday meal with various party comrades in turn. I am further assisted to a modest extent by a few party comrades.”24

Probably this was very close to the truth. Such well-heeled friends as Dietrich Eckart, Goering and Hanfstaengl undoubtedly “lent” him money to pay his rent, purchase clothes and buy a meal. His wants were certainly modest. Until 1929 he occupied a two-room flat in a lower-middle-class district in the Thierschstrasse near the River Isar. In the winter he wore an old trench coat—it later became familiar to everyone in Germany from numerous photographs. In the summer he often appeared in shorts, the Lederhosen which most Bavarians donned in seasonable weather. In 1923 Eckart and Esser stumbled upon the Platterhof, an inn near Berchtesgaden, as a summer retreat for Hitler and his friends. Hitler fell in love with the lovely mountain country; it was here that he later built the spacious villa, Berghof, which would be his home and where he would spend much of his time until the war years.

There was, however, little time for rest and recreation in the stormy years between 1921 and 1923. There was a party to build and to keep control of in the face of jealous rivals as unscrupulous as himself. The N.S.D.A.P. was but one of several right-wing movements in Bavaria struggling for public attention and support, and beyond, in the rest of Germany, there were many others.

There was a dizzy succession of events and of constantly changing situations for a politician to watch, to evaluate and to take advantage of. In April 1921 the Allies had presented Germany the bill for reparations, a whopping 132 billion gold marks—33 billion dollars—which the Germans howled they could not possibly pay. The mark, normally valued at four to the dollar, had begun to fall; by the summer of 1921 it had dropped to seventy-five, a year later to four hundred, to the dollar Erzberger had been murdered in August 1921. In June 1922, there was an attempt to assassinate Philipp Scheidemann, the Socialist who had proclaimed the Republic. The same month, June 24, Foreign Minister Rathenau was shot dead in the street. In all three cases the assassins had been men of the extreme Right. The shaky national government in Berlin finally answered the challenge with a special Law for the Protection of the Republic, which imposed severe penalties for political terrorism. Berlin demanded the dissolution of the innumerable armed leagues and the end of political gangsterism. The Bavarian government, even under the moderate Count Lerchenfeld, who had replaced the extremist Kahr in 1921, was finding it difficult to go along with the national regime in Berlin. When it attempted to enforce the law against terrorism, the Bavarian Rightists, of whom Hitler was now one of the acknowledged young leaders, organized a conspiracy to overthrow Lerchenfeld and march on Berlin to bring down the Republic.

The fledgling democratic Weimar Republic was in deep trouble, its very existence constantly threatened not only from the extreme Right but from the extreme Left.

*The expression appeared in the first German edition of Mein Kampf, but was changed to “revolution” in all subsequent editions.

* The attribution of the myth to an English general was hardly factual. Wheeler-Bennett, in Wooden Titan: Hindenburg, has explained that, ironically, two British generals did have something to do—inadvertently—with the perpetration of the false legend. “The first was Maj.-Gen. Sir Frederick Maurice, whose book The Last Four Months, published in 1919, was grossly misrepresented by reviewers in the German press as proving that the German Army had been betrayed by the Socialists on the Home Front and not been defeated in the field.” The General denied this interpretation in the German press, but to no avail. Ludendorff made use of the reviews to convince Hindenburg. “The other officer,” says Wheeler-Bennett, “was Maj.-Gen. Malcolm, head of the British Military Mission in Berlin. Ludendorff was dining with the General one evening, and with his usual turgid eloquence was expatiating on how the High Command had always suffered lack of support from the Civilian Government and how the Revolution had betrayed the Army. In an effort to crystallize the meaning of Ludendorff’s verbosity into a single sentence, General Malcolm asked him: ‘Do you mean, General, that you were stabbed in the back?’ Ludendorff’s eyes lit up and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone. ‘Stabbed in the back?’ he repeated. ‘Yes, that’s it exactly. We were stabbed in the back.’”

*A few generals were courageous enough to say so. On August 23, 1924, the Frankfurter Zeitung published an article by General Freiherr von Schoenaich analyzing the reasons for Germany’s defeat. He came to “the irresistible conclusion that we owe our ruin to the supremacy of our military authorities over civilian authorities … In fact, German militarism simply committed suicide.” (Quoted by Telford Taylor in Sword and Swastika, p. 16.)

* Kapp was born in New York on July 24, 1868.

*At the war’s end Ludendorff fled to Sweden disguised in false whiskers and blue spectacles. He returned to Germany in February 1919, writing his wife: “It would be the greatest stupidity for the revolutionaries to allow us all to remain alive. Why, if ever I come to power again there will be no pardon. Then with an easy conscience, I would have Ebert, Scheidemann and Co. hanged, and watch them dangle.” (Margarine Ludendorff, Als ich Ludendorffs Frau war, p. 229.) Ebert was the first President and Scheidemann the first Chancellor of the Weimar Republic. Ludendorff, though second-in-command to Hindenburg, had been the virtual dictator of Germany for the last two years of the war.

* Eckart died of overdrinking in December 1923.

* Harrer also was opposed to Hitler’s violent anti-Semitism and believed that Hitler was alienating the working-class masses. These were the real reasons why he resigned.

* See above, pp. 22–23.

* He left the party in 1923 but served as Vice-President of the Bavarian Diet from 1924 to 1928. In 1930 he became reconciled with Hitler, but he never returned to active politics. The fate of all discoverers, as Heiden observed, overtook Drexler.

* In his memoirs, Unheard Witness, Hanfstaengl says that he was first steered to Hitler by an American. This was Captain Truman Smith, then an assistant military attaché at the American Embassy in Berlin. In November 1922 Smith was sent by the embassy to Munich to check on an obscure political agitator by the name of Adolf Hitler and his newly founded National Socialist Labor Party. For a young professional American Army officer, Captain Smith had a remarkable bent for political analysis. In one week in Munich, November 15–22, he managed to see Ludendorff, Crown Prince Rupprecht and a dozen political leaders in Bavaria, most of whom told him that Hitler was a rising star and his movement a rapidly growing political force. Smith lost no time in attending an outdoor Nazi rally at which Hitler spoke. “Never saw such a sight in my life!” he scribbled in his diary immediately afterward. “Met Hitler,” he wrote, “and he promises to talk to me Monday and explain his aims.” On the Monday, Smith made his way to Hitler’s residence—“a little bare bedroom on the second floor of a run-down house,” as he described it—and had a long talk with the future dictator, who was scarcely known outside Munich. “A marvelous demagogue!” the assistant U.S. military attaché began his diary that evening. “Have rarely listened to such a logical and fanatical man.” The date was November 22, 1922.

Just before leaving for Berlin that evening Smith saw Hanfstaengl, told him of his meeting with Hitler and advised him to take a look at the man. The Nazi leader was to address a rally that evening and Captain Smith turned over his press ticket to Hanfstaengl. The latter, like so many others, was overwhelmed by Hitler’s oratory, sought him out after the meeting and quickly became a convert to Nazism.

Back in Berlin, which at that time took little notice of Hitler, Captain Smith wrote a lengthy report which the embassy dispatched to Washington on November 25, 1922. Considering when it was written, it is a remarkable document.

The most active political force in Bavaria at the present time [Smith wrote] is the National Socialist Labor Party. Less a political party than a popular movement, it must be considered as the Bavarian counterpart to the Italian fascisti … It has recently acquired a political influence quite disproportionate to its actual numerical strength….

Adolf Hitler from the very first has been the dominating force in the movement, and the personality of this man has undoubtedly been one of the most important factors contributing to its success … His ability to influence a popular assembly is uncanny. In private conversation he disclosed himself as a forceful and logical speaker, which, when tempered with a fanatical earnestness, made a very deep impression on a neutral listener.

Colonel Smith, who later served as American military attaché in Berlin during the early years of the Nazi regime, kindly placed his diary and notes of his trip to Munich at the disposal of this writer. They have been invaluable in the preparation of this chapter.

* Hanfstaengl spent part of World War II in Washington, ostensibly as an interned enemy alien but actually as an “adviser” to the United States government on Nazi Germany. This final role of his life, which seemed so ludicrous to Americans who knew him and Nazi Germany, must have amused him.

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