The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (8 page)

BOOK: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
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In point of fact, the civilian government headed by Prince Max of Baden, which had not been told of the worsening military situation by the High Command until the end of September, held out for several weeks against Ludendorff’s demand for an armistice.

One had to live in Germany between the wars to realize how widespread was the acceptance of this incredible legend by the German people. The facts which exposed its deceit lay all around. The Germans of the Right would not face them. The culprits, they never ceased to bellow, were the “November criminals”—an expression which Hitler hammered into the consciousness of the people. It mattered not at all that the German Army, shrewdly and cowardly, had maneuvered the republican government into signing the armistice which the military leaders had insisted upon, and that it thereafter had advised the government to accept the Peace Treaty of Versailles. Nor did it seem to count that the Social Democratic Party had accepted power in 1918 only reluctantly and only to preserve the nation from utter chaos which threatened to lead to Bolshevism. It was not responsible for the German collapse. The blame for that rested on the old order, which had held the power.
But millions of Germans refused to concede this. They had, to find scapegoats for the defeat and for their humiliation and misery. They easily convinced themselves that they had found them in the “November criminals” who had signed the surrender and established democratic government in the place of the old autocracy. The gullibility of the Germans is a subject which Hitler often harps on in
Mein Kampf
. He was shortly to take full advantage of it.

When the pastor had left the hospital in
that evening of November 10, 1918, “there followed terrible days and even worse nights” for Adolf Hitler. “I knew,” he says, “that all was lost. Only fools, liars and criminals could hope for mercy from the enemy. In these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed … Miserable and degenerate criminals! The more I tried to achieve clarity on the monstrous event in this hour, the more the shame of indignation and disgrace burned my brow. What was all the pain in my eyes compared to this misery?”

And then: “My own fate became known to me. I decided to go into politics.”

As it turned out, this was a fateful decision for Hitler and for the world.


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.”

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” (
) 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
; 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
overthrew the
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
of Versailles. Here the
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
, 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
, 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.”
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’
. 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.”

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.”
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
. 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.

BOOK: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
5.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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