The Leap into Politics - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 4. The Leap into Politics

“I became a politician against my will,” Hitler claimed in January 1942. “Some people think it will be tough for me when I’m no longer as busy as I am now. On the contrary, the day I leave politics and put all the worries, hardships and irritations behind me will be the happiest of my life.”1 The notion that Hitler only got into politics out of love for his country, and that his actual calling was that of an artist, was part of the dictator’s carefully maintained image. In fact, politics was the one arena in which he could use his rhetorical talents and demagogic skills. As hesitant as he was when he initially tested the waters, Hitler would soon trump all his rivals within the chauvinist-nationalist camp and become the Führer of a far-right-wing party of brawlers.

Hitler’s political career began in Munich, and the post-war Bavarian capital contained all the conditions that made Hitler’s rise possible in the first place. With the declaration of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in the spring of 1919 the radical pendulum swung very far to the left, and the counter-revolution was correspondingly radical on the right. Hitler instinctively knew how to exploit this situation. He also had some influential patrons in military circles helping to pave his way into politics.

On 19 November 1918, Hitler was discharged from the hospital in Pasewalk. The private, who by this time was almost 30 years old, was one of millions of ordinary soldiers who returned to their home garrisons for demobilisation. His mood must have been bleak. He had no job, no family and no real social contacts, and he faced the prospect of being plunged back into his insecure pre-war existence. When he returned to Munich on 21 November, his only plan was to delay getting discharged from the army for as long as possible. He was assigned to the 7th Company of the 1st Replacement Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment. There he met again several of his former comrades from RIR 16, including Ernst Schmidt.2

Things were changing apace in the Bavarian capital. Revolution broke out on 7 November, two days before it did in Berlin. The leader was Kurt Eisner, the chairman of Munich’s tiny USPD faction, who had only been released in mid-October from Stadelheim prison, where he had been incarcerated since the January strikes. In the late afternoon of 7 November, after a mass demonstration in Munich’s Theresienwiese park, Eisner bravely led a gang of followers and stormed one military garrison after another. They met with no resistance. It was a clear sign of how hollow monarchist authority had become in Bavaria during the war. The next morning, the revolutionaries proclaimed a “Free State of Bavaria” on bright red placards and declared that the Wittelsbach dynasty had been deposed. That afternoon, the USPD and the MSPD formed a joint government. Eisner became both president and foreign minister while the chairman of the MSPD, Erhard Auer, took over the Interior Ministry; from the outset, he was Eisner’s main cabinet rival.3The fact that the revolution proceeded non-violently and that the first pronouncements of the new government were quite moderate helped extend support for the president well beyond the working classes. “Isn’t it something wonderful? We’ve achieved a revolution without shedding a drop of blood!” Eisner declared. “It’s a historical first!”4

The turbulence of the early days of November had calmed down by the time Hitler returned to Munich, but tension quickly developed in the governing cabinet between Eisner and the MSPD ministers. Like their colleagues in the Council of People’s Deputies in revolutionary Berlin, the MSPD cabinet members were vigorously opposed to enshrining the workers’ and soldiers’ councils or soviets—as they were named after the Russian example—which had formed spontaneously at the start of the revolution, in a future democratic constitution. They regarded them as provisional institutions that would only exist until the election of a constitutional convention. Eisner, on the other hand, favoured cooperation between the soviets and parliament, and this put him on a collision course with Auer, who pushed for early Bavarian elections in the hope of making the soviets obsolete and undermining Eisner’s position. After a meeting of ministers on 5 December, the election was scheduled for 12 January 1919.

Another point of conflict was Eisner’s clear admission of German war guilt. On 23 November, he allowed the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper to publish excerpts of reports made by the Bavarian consul in Berlin from July and August 1914, which proved that the Reich leadership had ramped up the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia as a way of bringing about a decisive test of strength with the Entente.5Eisner’s move not only attracted condemnation from the MSPD ministers but opened him up to accusations of “treason” from nationalists. Eisner now became the target of vitriolic anti-Semitic attacks. The son of a Jewish merchant from Berlin, and a career journalist in the SPD, Eisner was defamed as a “Galician Jew,” whose real name was supposedly Salomon Kosmanowsky. “Will we be able to believe in the future that we tolerated such blackguards in Germany for even one single day?” the outraged navy captain Bogislaw von Selchow asked in his diary on 25 November 1918.6

According to a statement by Ernst Schmidt, Hitler did not talk much about the revolution upon returning to Munich, but it was clear “how bitter he felt.”7 He had no love lost for the Wittelsbach dynasty. He was more dismayed that soldiers’ soviets now had their say in the garrisons, which offended his sense of order and discipline. “I found the whole business so disgusting that I decided to leave as soon as possible,” he wrote in Mein Kampf.8 He was probably even more offended by the atmosphere of exuberance that broke out in Munich and other big cities in the first weeks and months after the revolution. All of Germany was hit by a dance craze. It was taking on “terrible dimensions,” one member of Eisner’s ministerial cabinet complained: “Women are going crazy, and tavern owners are powerless to stop them.”9

Given the circumstances, Hitler probably welcomed it when he and Schmidt were transferred to the southern Bavarian town of Traunstein im Chiemgau in December 1918. There they were assigned as guards in a camp for prisoners of war and civilian inmates. Hitler spent more than a month in Traunstein, and during that time he again disappears almost completely from view. Before the camp was dissolved in mid-January—and not, as he recalled in Mein Kampf, in March—Hitler returned to Munich.10 In mid-February, the replacement battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment was restructured, and Hitler was assigned to the 2nd Demobilisation Company. Next to nothing is known about his activities in this period. He probably spent most of his time in the barracks. Occasionally, resuming his old habits, he appears to have gone to the opera with Schmidt. From 20 February to 8 March he may have been ordered to stand guard at Munich’s central train station, but this cannot be verified.11

Meanwhile, conflicts were becoming radicalised in a way that would completely change the face of the revolution in Munich and Bavaria. The spark was Eisner’s murder on 21 February 1919. That day the president was on his way to the Bavarian parliament, the Landtag, to dissolve his cabinet after his party had suffered a crushing defeat in the election of 12 January. The USPD had received only 2.5 per cent of the vote and 3 parliamentary seats compared with 33 per cent and 61 seats for the MSPD. The strongest party was the Bavarian People’s Party (BVP), which received 35 per cent of the vote and 66 seats, even though it had only been founded the previous November. Eisner’s assassin, who shot him twice in the back of the head, was a 22-year-old army lieutenant and Munich University law student, Count Anton Arco auf Valley. In a note he wrote before the attack, Arco described his motivations: “Eisner is a Bolshevist and a Jew. He’s not German. He doesn’t feel German and he undermines all patriotic thoughts and emotions. He is a traitor to his country.”12 Only a few hours after the murder, the barman Alois Lindner, who was a member of the workers’ council, fired two shots at Eisner’s rival Auer, seriously wounding him. The revolutionary elements within Munich’s working classes were convinced that Auer had been complicit in the assassination since he had done everything in his power to damage Eisner’s public reputation in the preceding months.

“We are beginning to suspect that the bullet that killed Eisner has ushered in a new epoch of the revolution,” the writer Ricarda Huch noted in her diary on 26 February.13 Her hunch was right. On 22 February, delegates of the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets from all over Bavaria assembled in Munich to form a “Central Soviet of the Bavarian Republic.” The Augsburg schoolteacher Ernst Niekisch, a member of the left wing of the MSPD, was elected chairman. After difficult negotiations with representatives of the soviets and the political parties, the Central Soviet decided to reconvene the Landtag, which had been dissolved. On 17 March, that body elected Johannes Hoffmann, the former minister of culture in the Eisner government, as Bavaria’s new state president. But he was unable to calm the turmoil within the working classes. The news that Hungary had become a republic of soviets under the leadership of Béla Kun encouraged all those who dreamed of a similar experiment in Munich, and in the night of 6-7 April, the Central Soviet proclaimed a Bavarian Soviet Republic. The Hoffmann government fled to Bamberg, where it declared itself to be “the sole legitimate power in Bavaria.”14

“It’s the first part of Germany to go Bolshevik,” the art patron and diplomat Count Harry Kessler commented. “If the Communists hang on there, it will be a German and European event of the first order.”15 Yet the Communists themselves refused to get involved. The head of the Bavarian branch of the newly formed German Communist Party (KPD), Eugen Leviné, rejected the new government as “a fake soviet republic,” since it was headed by men who had previously treated Communists with deep mistrust. The new chairman of the Central Soviet was the writer Ernst Toller, who had gone from military volunteer to pacifist in the course of the war and had joined the USPD. The twelve representatives in the soviet government included respected figures like the independent socialist and writer Gustav Landauer, who took over the Education Ministry, as well as eccentrics like the anarchist Silvio Gesell, whose unorthodox suggestions for reforming the currency created a panic among Bavaria’s wealthy.

The Toller experiment only lasted a week. After the Hoffmann government and loyalist troops failed in their attempt on 13 April, Palm Sunday, to overthrow the Soviet Republic in a putsch, the Communists under Leviné decided that their time had come. That very night, a conference of factory and garrison soviets declared the Central Soviet dissolved. A fifteen-member committee was appointed as the new government, with a five-member council serving as its executive and Leviné as its chairman. A nine-day general strike was called to give workers the opportunity to form a “Red Army.”

The central government in Berlin had now had enough. On 16 April, Reich Prime Minister Philipp Scheidemann (MSPD) announced to his cabinet that he would approve the Hoffmann government’s request for military support. The Prussian lieutenant Ernst von Oven was put in charge of the mission. The troops who intervened included paramilitary Freikorps volunteers under Franz Ritter von Epp and his right-hand man, later SA leader Ernst Röhm, as well as a navy brigade under Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, who would be one of the leaders of the Kapp putsch in March 1920.16 The hastily assembled units of the “Red Army” under sailor Rudolf Egelhofer had no chance against this force of 30,000 men.

By late April, Munich was completely encircled. Deliveries of food were no longer reaching the Bavarian capital, and the city’s monetary system collapsed. Last-minute attempts to avoid bloodshed failed. Reich Defence Minister Gustav Noske (MSPD) wanted to make an example of Munich, and Egelhofer drastically overestimated his followers’ determination. Apparently on the latter’s orders, the left-wing rebels shot and killed ten hostages, including seven members of the far-right-wing Thule Society, in the Luitpold Gymnasium on 30 April. The executions came as revenge for atrocities committed by the Freikorps as they marched on Munich, but the public was outraged by the “hostage murder.” The adherents of the Soviet Republic also vigorously denounced it, but the event remained alive in Munich’s collective memory as an example of “the Red reign of terror.” In terms of cruelty, however, it was dwarfed by the deeds of the Reich troops as they marched on Munich and entered the city in early May.

By 3 May, the resistance of the “Red Army” was broken. No German city had ever experienced the level of White Terror that followed. More than 600 people were killed, many of them innocent civilians. Landauer was arrested on 2 May and brutally murdered by Freikorps paramilitaries when he was delivered to Stadelheim prison. Egelhofer was discovered in his hiding place the same day. After being tortured, he was shot in the head in the royal residence’s inner courtyard on 3 May. After a brief trial before a kangaroo court, Leviné was put in front of a firing squad in Stadelheim on 5 May. Toller was able to hide until 4 May. He got off with five years in prison. On 7 May 1919, Erich Mühsam, who had also been involved in the Soviet Republic, noted in his diary from Eberbach prison: “That’s the revolution I so longed for. After half a year of bloodletting, I can only shudder in horror.”17

What did Hitler do and think in those dramatic weeks between Eisner’s assassination and the demise of the Soviet Republic? In Mein Kampf, he barely mentioned it, and his silence fuelled speculation early on that he was trying to gloss over an unpleasant chapter in his biography—that is, the fact that he had initially sided with the leftists. Konrad Heiden lent credence to this idea in the mid-1930s when he asserted that Private Hitler and his comrades had defended the Social Democrats against the Communists.18 What is beyond doubt is the fact that on 3 April 1919 Hitler was elected the liaison of his demobilisation battalion, something that would never have happened had he publicly opposed the revolution. But can we therefore conclude that Hitler must have been close to the Majority Social Democrats?19

It would be extremely bizarre for Hitler to support the political party to which he had developed such an aversion in his Vienna days and which he had come to loathe even more during wartime. Thus it must have been tactics, not conviction, that made him seemingly lean towards the Majority Social Democrats in the first months of the revolution. After 9 November 1918, the MSPD represented the last hope of everyone who feared that the revolution would lead to a socialist remaking of society. Indeed, the majority of Germany’s conservative middle classes supported the MSPD’s call for quick elections on national and local levels. They did so not because they had suddenly been converted into passionate adherents of parliamentary democracy but because they wanted to preserve the traditional social order and private property. In Bavaria, it was Eisner’s great rival Auer who had become “the best hope of those fundamentally opposed to the revolution.”20 In his later monologues, Hitler occasionally praised Auer and other MSPD leaders: “In the case of the leaders of 1918, I draw a distinction. Some of them ended up in it like Pilate in the Creed. They never intended to spark a revolution. Noske was one, as were Ebert, Scheidemann, Severing, and Auer in Bavaria.”21

Joachim Fest argued plausibly that Hitler’s behaviour in the spring of 1919 was a mixture of “desperation, passivity and opportunistic adaptation.”22 It is possible (although the photographic evidence is not incontrovertible) that Hitler was part of the funeral procession of 26 February in which Eisner’s body was carried through Munich city centre to the Eastern Cemetery.23 During the two Bavarian soviet republics, Hitler neither volunteered to join the Hoffmann government in Bamberg nor did he attach himself to one of the many Freikorps units. On 13 April, the day of the Palm Sunday putsch, he allegedly urged his comrades to keep out of the fighting: “We’re no pack of revolutionary guards for a gang of vagrant Jews!”24 But this anecdote may be apocryphal. Hitler’s second election as liaison on 15 April, two days after the declaration of the second Bavarian Soviet Republic, shows in any case that he was not an open opponent of the revolution.25 He seems to have already learned the art of disguise, refusing to take a stand, and may have kept a low profile in the reasonable belief that the soviet experiment would be short-lived. But the story he told in Mein Kampf, of having attracted the displeasure of the Communist authorities and of forcibly resisting the threat to arrest him on 27 April 1919, appears to be entirely fictional.26

Immediately after the demise of the council government, Hitler dropped his guard and openly aligned himself with the counter-revolutionaries. On 9 May, we suddenly find him as a member of a three-person commission charged with investigating the behaviour of his regiment’s soldiers during the two soviet republics. In Mein Kampf he described this as “my first more or less purely political activity.”27 He had no qualms about informing on comrades who, in contrast to himself, had shown genuine sympathy for the revolution. He denounced Georg Dufter, who had been elected along with him to the battalion council of the 1st Demobilisation Company on 15 April, as the “worst and most radical rabble-rouser within the regiment…who had constantly spread propaganda for the soviet republic.”28 Hitler was rewarded for these services. When his company was disbanded in early May, he was able to avoid being discharged from the army. From June 1919 onwards, he was a member of the demobilisation office of the 2nd Infantry Regiment.29 This post was to prove enormously significant in his political career.

The Hoffmann government only returned to Munich in late August 1919. From early May until then, power rested with the military, in particular with Reichswehr Group Commando 4, which was formed on 11 May under General Arnold von Möhl and to which all army units stationed in Bavaria were subordinated. An edict of 20 May defined the army’s main priority as being able “to carry out, in conjunction with the police, stricter surveillance of the populace and [to] recognise its moods and potential points of resistance early enough so that the ignition of any new unrest can be discovered and extinguished in its inception.”30 The “intelligence department” of the Group Commando, which was headed as of late May by Captain Karl Mayr, was charged with carrying out this mission. Mayr, an ambitious and scheming officer, was to become the “midwife of Hitler’s political career.”31

Hitler initially attracted Mayr’s attention with his work on the investigatory commission. “When I first met him, he was like a tired stray dog looking for a master,” wrote the anonymous author of an article that appeared in a U.S. magazine in 1941 and who we can reasonably assume was Mayr.32 For his part, the army captain was looking for reliable liaisons who could spread “counter-propaganda” among the troops, educating them about the dangers of Bolshevism and reigniting the spirit of nationalism and militarism. A list likely drawn up by the intelligence department in early July featured the name “Hittler [sic], Adolf.”33 But before Private Hitler could get to work, he was sent on a training course. He was not, as had been previously assumed, part of the first such course, which took place from 5 to 12 June at Munich University. He participated in the third one held from 10 to 19 July in the Museum Society’s space at the Palais Porcia.34

Karl Mayr exploited his connections in lining up the speakers, including his old school chum, the nationalist historian Karl Alexander von Müller, who lectured about post-Reformation German history and the political history of the world war.35 Also taking part was Müller’s brother-in-law, the engineer Gottfried Feder from Murnau, who had created a stir in pan-Germanic, chauvinist circles in Munich with his May 1919 “Manifesto on Breaking the Interest Slavery of Money.” The self-appointed economic theorist saw Mammonism—people’s fixation on money and the drive to acquire more and more of it—as the main evil of his times. Feder put the blame on the lending practices of the financial markets, which he regarded as being in the hands of Jews. Breaking “interest slavery” meant making it impossible for people to earn a living from their capital without working and taking up the cause of “creative” capital against “money grabbing.” On 6 June, Feder gave his first lecture in front of 300-400 people, who kept interrupting him with applause. He returned for the July course.36 Hitler was impressed, writing in Mein Kampf: “For the first time in my life I fundamentally got to grips with international stock-market and loan capital.”37 Feder’s theories, which combined anti-capitalist with anti-Semitic resentments, would become an integral part of the Nazi Party’s early ideology.

In his memoirs, Müller recalled that as the hall was emptying after his lecture, a group of people remained behind, transfixed by a man who was speaking to them with growing passion and an unusual guttural voice. “I had the strange feeling that he had got them excited and at the same time that their interest had given him his voice,” remembered the historian. “I saw a pale, drawn face underneath a decidedly unmilitary shock of hair, with a trimmed moustache and remarkably large, light blue, fanatically cold, gleaming eyes.”38 For the first time, someone had remarked on what was Hitler’s greatest skill: his oratorical ability. “Do you know that one of your trainees is a natural-born public speaker?” Müller asked Mayr, who then invited Hitler to join them. “The man came up to the podium, moving awkwardly, as if both defiant and embarrassed. Our conversation yielded nothing of interest.”39 The future champion of the German people had not yet grown into that role. His public bearing did not match his natural speaking ability. Being in the presence of a famous history professor must also have daunted Hitler and reminded him of his failure at school. On more than one occasion in Mein Kampf, Hitler’s inferiority complex in this regard led him to excoriate “the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ who…in their never-ending arrogance look down on everyone who hasn’t been run through the obligatory schools and been pumped full of the necessary knowledge.”40

Mayr did not care about Hitler’s lack of diplomas: he immediately took to the private. In late July 1919, when an “educational commando” was formed to hold anti-Bolshevik classes at the temporary camp in Lechfeld for soldiers returning from the front, Hitler was named one of twenty-six instructors.41 During the five-day course from 20 to 25 August, Hitler not only gave lectures with titles such as “Conditions of Peace and Reconstruction” and “Very Social and Economic Political Catchphrases,” he also spoke during the discussions following the other lectures.42 These days at Lechfeld were Hitler’s political initiation. For the first time in his life, he received affirmation and recognition from a larger circle of people, and he realised the effect his speaking ability could have on an audience. “I began with enthusiasm and passion,” he wrote five years later in Mein Kampf. “I suddenly had the opportunity to talk to a larger audience, and what I had always instinctively assumed without knowing was confirmed: I could ‘speak well.’ ”43 Several people on the course confirmed this impression. “Herr Hittler [sic] especially,” one attendee remarked, “is a born public speaker, whose commitment and natural demeanour commands the attention of an audience and forces its members to think.”44

Hitler’s first recorded anti-Semitic statement comes from his time in Lechfeld. The director of the camp, First Lieutenant Walther Bendt, reported that during a “nice, clear, impassioned lecture…about capitalism” Hitler had touched upon “the Jewish question.”45 Hitler had obviously adopted some of the ideas in Feder’s talk, but he also incorporated the radical anti-Semitic sentiments that were spreading like an epidemic, particularly among soldiers, in Munich and elsewhere in Bavaria.46 Even mainstream conservative circles had attacked Eisner as a tool of “Jewish Bolshevism,” and after Munich’s “liberation” the hate campaign was directed against other prominent representatives of the soviet governments who had Jewish backgrounds, such as Toller, Leviné, Mühsam and Towia Axelrod. In May 1919, the Bayrisches Bauernblatt newspaper, the main organ of the Christian Farmers’ Association, which was published by the BVP politician Georg Heim, wrote: “The gallery of famous men from the time of the soviet republics is a picture album full of criminals. Foreign riff-raff, mostly from the district office of Jerusalem, have targeted the innocent Bavarian people as an object of exploitation and have filled their pockets.”47 The soviet republics were frequently described as a “Jewish tyranny” and conflated with the bête noire of Bolshevism. In October 1919, in light of the anti-Semitic propaganda spreading throughout society, the intelligence department of the Munich police deemed an anti-Jewish pogrom “entirely possible.”48 On the other hand, police authorities typically dismissed complaints from the leaders of the Jewish community and the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith by claiming that “hatred of Jewishness has been greatly encouraged by the fact that most Communist leaders are Jewish.”49

Like a sponge, Hitler sucked up popular anti-Jewish sentiments and the anti-Semitic slogans of ethnically chauvinist brochures and pamphlets.50 His turn towards fanatical anti-Semitism, which he would later claim had originated in Vienna, actually took place amidst the revolution and counter-revolution in Munich. From then on, the bête noire of “the Jew” as the incarnation of all evil occupied the centre of his racist world view, and he expressed this idea with such unmistakable clarity in Lechfeld that Walther Bendt had to tell him to be more moderate to avoid creating the impression of Jew-baiting. Hitler was ordered to be more “careful in discussing the Jewish question,” and to “avoid making overly direct references to this race, which is foreign to the German people.”51

Karl Mayr was not only aware of Hitler’s anti-Semitic views, but seems to have shared them. On 10 September 1919, the captain told Hitler to answer a letter from a former course participant, Adolf Gemlich. Gemlich had asked for advice as to whether Jews represented “a national danger,” and if so, what approach the ruling Social Democrats were taking to this threat.52 Hitler’s extensive reply, dated 16 September, can be regarded with utter justification as the key document in his early biography. It featured all of the anti-Semitic prejudices he had acquired in the preceding months, including the idea that Jews were “a racial and not a religious community,” combined into one neurotic complex. As a race, Hitler argued, Jews were incapable of assimilating. “After thousands of years of inbreeding,” he wrote to Gemlich, “the Jew has generally preserved his race and its innate traits better than most of the people in whose midst he lives.” As a disciple of Gottfried Feder, Hitler saw boundless greed, the “dance around the golden calf,” as one of those characteristics. “His power is the power of money, which in the form of interest infinitely reproduces itself in his hands without any effort on his part,” Hitler instructed Gemlich. “Everything that inspires people to strive for something higher—be it religion, socialism or democracy—is for a Jew just a means serving the end of satisfying monetary greed and the desire to rule. His effect on other peoples is that of racial tuberculosis.”53

Hitler put on the airs of the coolly rational analyst, arguing that political anti-Semitism should not be based on outbursts of emotion, which would only lead to pogroms. In this regard, Hitler was taking sides in a debate between “cultural” and “pogrom” anti-Semitism unleashed by the Leipzig anti-Semite Heinrich Pudor in August 1919. Pudor had argued against combating Jews solely with laws and regulations, demanding that all means, including pogroms, should be used to break “Jewish tyranny.”54 The anti-Semitic German-Nationalist Protection and Defiance Federation had distanced itself from this “incitement to pogroms” and revived the demand of the Pan-Germanic League for Jews to be legally classified as foreigners.55 Hitler, too, preferred what he called “the anti-Semitism of reason” to “emotional anti-Semitism.” The former, he wrote to Gemlich, would necessarily lead to a “controlled legal fight against and eradication of Jewish advantages.” Only a “government of national strength,” he added, would be able to achieve this end. In his view, Germany’s current government was too dependent on Jews, who had been, after all, “the driving forces of revolution.”56

Hitler would never lose sight of the central goal of removing Jews from German society, and it was by no means the eccentric idea of a lone individual. There was a large amount of consensus among the reconstituted army, the Reichswehr, and the Freikorps that this was a desirable objective. Mayr agreed with Hitler’s “very clear explanations,” expressing reservations only about the mention of the “interest problem.” Interest, Mayr objected, was not a Jewish invention, but rather a fundamental institution of property and an element of healthy business acumen—one had to combat excesses but not, as Feder did, “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” On the other hand, Mayr completely agreed that “what people call the ruling social democracy was completely chained to Jewry.” He also reaffirmed that “all harmful elements—including the Jews—should be cast out or quarantined like pathogens.”57

On 12 September 1919, four days before he composed his letter to Gemlich, Hitler attended his first meeting of the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP). One day, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, he had received orders from his superiors to investigate this political association.58 Historians have therefore often assumed that Hitler was essentially acting as an undercover agent at Mayr’s behest, but that view has been disproven. Mayr was already quite well informed about the DAP and the culture surrounding it and would have had no need for such information. And Hitler certainly did not spy on the organisation. As the attendance list makes clear, Hitler came not alone, but in the company of several comrades from the Lechfeld commando. Their presence there is more likely to have reflected Reichswehr Group Commando 4’s interest in gaining influence over the DAP.59

The party was one of many ethnically chauvinist, nationalist groups that evolved after 1918 from the Pan-Germanic League, the most influential right-wing agitation group of the pre-war and war years. The Thule Society in Munich was one of their organisational nuclei, and it was run by its chairman, the dubious figure of Baron Rudolf von Sebottendorff, like a secret lodge. Its members encompassed Munich bigwigs like the publisher Julius F. Lehmann, one of the founders of the Munich chapter of the Pan-Germanic League, and several lesser-known adherents of right-wing ethnic chauvinism who would later play a role in the development of Nazi ideology. They included Feder, the journalist Dietrich Eckart, and the students Hans Frank, Rudolf Hess and Alfred Rosenberg.60

The Thule Society provided a platform for counter-revolutionary activities. It used the swastika as its symbol and had its own newspaper, the Münchener Beobachter. It did not just restrict its appeal to middle-class circles, but also reached out to blue-collar workers. One of its founders, the sports journalist Karl Harrer, was charged with establishing contact with the locomotive mechanic Anton Drexler, who had made a name for himself during the war as a follower of the nationalist German Fatherland Party and who had founded the “Free Workers’ Committee for a Just Peace” in March 1918.61 Together Harrer and Drexler established a “political workers’ circle,” out of which the DAP was born on 5 January 1919. Drexler became the chairman of the Munich chapter, and Harrer took over the office of “Reich chairman”—a pompous title considering that the newly formed party had only thirty members and would remain a fringe group in the months to come.62

A grand total of forty-one people attended the DAP meeting at the Sterneckerbräu tavern on 12 September. Feder spoke on the topic “How and by what means can we get rid of capitalism?” Hitler was already familiar with Feder’s ideas, so he spent the time observing the audience. “The impression it made on me was neither good nor bad,” Hitler would write in Mein Kampf. “It was just another one of many newly formed associations.” After the lecture, when Hitler was about to leave, one of those in attendance, a Professor Baumann, vigorously argued that Bavaria should break away from Prussia and join the Republic of Austria. Hitler felt he had no choice but to speak out and rebuff the “educated gentleman” in no uncertain terms, whereupon Baumann left the tavern “with his tail between his legs.”63 But Hitler’s version of events does not square with reality—the name Baumann only appears on the attendance lists a couple of months later.64 It seems more likely that Hitler spoke, as he had in the Lechfeld camp, in an attempt to impress those around him. After the meeting, Drexler followed Hitler and gave him a copy of his pamphlet “My Political Awakening.” “That one’s got quite a mouth on him! We could use that!” the party chairman was supposed to have remarked.65

The next day Hitler read Anton Drexler’s pamphlet and recognised a number of details from his own “political awakening.” What seems to have impressed him most, though, was the idea of fusing nationalism and socialism, of freeing the working classes from the “false teachings” of Marxism and winning them over for the nationalist cause. To his surprise, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, a week later he received a postcard informing him that he had been accepted as a member of the DAP and inviting him to take part in the party’s next committee meeting. But what he experienced in a shabby tavern in Herrnstrasse exceeded his most pessimistic expectations: “It was clubby small-mindedness…Notwithstanding a couple of general ideas, they had nothing. No political programme, no pamphlet, nothing at all printed up, not even membership cards or one lousy stamp. All they had was faith and goodwill.”66

Why did Hitler join a political party that he himself described as a “mixture of a lodge and an early evening drinking club”?67 The rudimentary nature of the group seems to have been part of the appeal. “Such a ridiculously small entity with a couple of members,” Hitler wrote, “had not yet ossified into an ‘organisation’ but rather remained open to each individual finding something to do.”68 In other words, the DAP offered Hitler the opportunity to get ahead quickly and shape the party according to his own ideas.

With his characteristic fondness for superlatives, in Mein Kampf Hitler described his decision to join the DAP as the “most decisive resolution” of his life.69 Some have pointed out that as a member of Germany’s new armed forces, the Reichswehr, Hitler was prohibited from joining a political organisation, but this is incorrect: Hitler was, in fact, still a member of the old German army.70 Nor was he the seventh member of the DAP, as legend had it, but the seventh member of the committee Drexler had asked him to join as a general recruitment specialist. As of February 1920, the party began to maintain an alphabetical membership list, which began with the number 501 to give the impression that it had more members than it did; Hitler’s membership number was 555.71

From the very beginning Hitler’s goal was to turn what was a sect-like regulars’ table at a tavern into an effective political party. In October 1919 a DAP office was set up in a side room at the Sterneckerbräu. It contained a typewriter used to compose flyers for meetings. Hitler told later of distributing the flyers himself, and of the number of listeners gradually rising “from eleven to thirteen, then seventeen, twenty-three and thirty-four.”72 By the middle of the month, the party gambled on attracting a larger audience. When it published an ad in the Münchener Beobachter for an event in the city’s Hofbräuhaus, more than a hundred people turned up. Hitler was the second speaker of the evening. For the 30-year-old, his first public speech was a watershed, and his memories of it in Mein Kampf nearly repeat the passage about the episode in the Lechfeld camp: “I talked for thirty minutes, and what I used to sense internally without really knowing it was now confirmed by reality: I could speak well.”73

These lines were written five years after the fact, but they still communicate the euphoria Hitler must have felt when he discovered his great gift. The positive response of his audience gave him the validation that made up for the many disappointments of his early years. Max Amann no longer recognised Hitler when he ran into him around this time. “There was an unfamiliar fire burning in him,” Amann recalled after the war. “I was at two or three of his meetings…He yelled and indulged in histrionics. I’d never seen the like of it. But everyone said, ‘This fellow means what he says.’ He was drenched in sweat, completely wet. It was unbelievable.”74

More and more people began attending DAP events, and in no time, Hitler advanced to become the party’s star speaker. On 13 November 1919, before an audience of 130 in the Eberlbräu beer cellar, Hitler used his strongest language yet to condemn the Treaty of Versailles, which had been signed at the end of June. “As long as the earth has existed,” Hitler thundered, “no people have ever been forced to declare themselves willing to sign such a shameful treaty.” The person who wrote up a report of the event for the Munich police noted someone yelling out “The work of Jews!” at this point. Hitler combined his criticism of the treaty with scabrous personal attacks on Reich Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger, who had signed the armistice agreement in the woods of Compiègne on 11 November 1918. Hitler bellowed that he was certain that “the man who had hung such a treaty around our necks would not be in his post for much longer and would not even be a schoolteacher in Buttenhausen (cry from the audience: He’ll get it like Eisner).”75 Indeed, Erzberger would be forced by right-wing nationalists to resign in 1920, and he would be murdered in 1921. The Münchener Beobachter reported that “repeated frenetic applause greeted Hitler’s graceful speech.”76

Hitler’s rise within the DAP did not escape the notice of the Reichswehr. In late October 1919 a position as an assistant to the educational officer was created for him in the staff of the 41st Rifleman’s Regiment at Prinz Arnulf Garrison. Hitler later described himself as an “educational officer,” which was impossible since as a private he would never have been allowed to hold an officer’s position.77 While maintaining his connection to Karl Mayr in the intelligence department of the Group Commando, he increasingly shifted his focus to propaganda activities for the DAP. On 10 December, he spoke in the Deutsches Reich restaurant. The title of his talk was “Germany as it faces its worst humiliation.” He made no bones about who he considered responsible for military defeat and revolution: “the Jews, who alone are profiting from it and don’t shy away from inciting civil war with their rabble-rousing and base agitation.” Hitler insisted on the idea of “Germany for Germans!”78 He was even more outspoken at a meeting on 16 January 1920. “We refuse to tolerate our destiny being ruled by a foreign race,” Hitler thundered. “We demand a stop to Jewish immigration.”79 Any intimation that Hitler moderated his anti-Semitism at the beginning of his political career is completely mistaken. From the very start, he appeared as a radical anti-Semite—and this was precisely why he seems to have appealed to his audience. The anti-Semitism boiling over in Munich in the autumn of 1919 ensured that Hitler’s speeches would resonate with his listeners.

DAP Reich Chairman Harrer viewed Hitler’s aggressive public stance with unease. He would have preferred to continue running the party as a secret sect like the Thule Society. But in December 1919, using a new set of rules that tied down the seven-man party committee to certain principles, Hitler succeeded in stripping Harrer of practically all his power.80 Harrer resigned from his post on 5 January 1920, and together with Anton Drexler, who succeeded Harrer, Hitler began to work on a party programme to be announced at the next mass meeting in February 1920. The twenty-five points the two men hammered out in Drexler’s apartment on Burghausener Strasse 6 contained no original ideas. On the contrary, they were a cross section of ideas in currency among ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic circles at the time. At the top of the agenda (Point 1) was the demand for all ethnic Germans to be united within a greater Germany. This was followed by demands for the revocation of the Treaty of Versailles (Point 2) and the return of Germany’s colonies (Point 3). Point 4 clearly expressed the party’s anti-Semitic orientation, reading “Only an ethnic comrade [Volksgenosse] can be a citizen. Only someone who is of German blood, irrespective of religion, can be an ethnic comrade. Thus no Jew can be an ethnic comrade.” This was followed by the demands that Jews in Germany be treated as foreigners under the law (Point 5) and that all further Jewish immigration be halted (Point 8).

Gottfried Feder’s influence made itself felt in demands for “the eradication of work-free, effortless income” (Point 11) and the “confiscation of all wartime profits without exception” (Point 12). Demands for the nationalisation of big business, for profit-sharing and for an expansion of the pension system (Points 13-15) were designed to appeal to the working classes. A promise to communalise large department stores (Point 16) was aimed at the middle classes, and the prospect of land reform (Point 17) at farmers. The programme also contained the slogans “communal welfare comes before selfishness” (Point 24) and “strengthening of central authority” (Point 25), combined with the pledge to fight against “the corrupting parliamentary system” (Point 6). As a whole the programme left no doubt that the aim was to get rid of the democracy of the young Weimar Republic and create an authoritarian government for an ethnic community, which would no longer have any room for Jews.81

Drexler and Hitler chose the Hofbräuhaus as the location for announcing this programme, and the DAP advertised the event with garish red posters. Initial fears that not enough people would show up proved to be unfounded. On the evening of 24 February 1920, around 2,000 people squeezed into the Hofbräuhaus’s main first-floor hall. Hitler was the second speaker, but he was the one who really got the crowd whipped up with his attacks on the Treaty of Versailles, Erzberger and, above all, the Jews. The police transcript of the event read: “First chuck the guilty ones, the Jews, out and then we’ll purify ourselves. (Enthusiastic applause.) Monetary fines are no use against the crimes of fencing and usury. (Beatings! Hangings!) How shall we protect our fellow human beings against this band of bloodsuckers? (Hang them!)”82

Hitler then read out the individual points of the party manifesto, whereupon numerous opponents from the political Left, who were also in attendance, raised their voices in protest. The police observer noted: “There was often great tumult and I was convinced that fights were going to break out at any moment.”83 Party legend later romanticised the meeting of 24 February into a heroic, foundational act of the Nazi movement. Hitler himself laid the groundwork for this, ending the first volume of Mein Kampf with the words: “A fire was sparked, from whose embers the sword would necessarily come which would restore freedom to the German Siegfried and life to the German nation…The hall gradually emptied. The movement was under way.”84 The mainstream Munich press paid little attention to the event: the DAP, which would rename itself the NSDAP on 24 February 1920, was still too insignificant. The thirty-seven-line report on the meeting in the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten newspaper failed to mention Hitler by name. Even the Völkischer Beobachter (as the Münchener Beobachter had been known since late 1919) restricted itself to a brief note.85

On 31 March 1920, Hitler was discharged from the military, but he would continue to remain close to the milieu of the Reichswehr, to which he was indebted for crucial help in starting his political career.86Over the course of just a few months, the unknown private had made himself irreplaceable as the (NS)DAP’s most effective speaker. This was the first step of his meteoric rise. Hitler’s task now was to expand the party’s base and establish himself at its head. Supported by powerful patrons, the beer-cellar demagogue was about to become a public attraction—in Munich and beyond.