Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)
Chapter 5. The King of Munich
“It was a wonderful time,” Hitler recalled in one of his monologues. “In my memory, it was the best time of all.”1 Even long after he had become Reich chancellor, Hitler enjoyed thinking back to the early years of the NSDAP in Munich. He regarded them as the party’s heroic period, the “time of struggle,” in which he and his followers had come together as an oath-bound community and overcome monsters of all varieties. “Our old National Socialists were something wonderful,” Hitler reminisced. “Back then you had little to gain by being in the party and everything to lose.”2 Hitler largely credited himself with turning the NSDAP from a tiny sect into a player in Bavarian politics within four years. As a “complete unknown,” he boasted, he had set out to “conquer a nation.”3 Fifteen years later, he would achieve his goal. Nonetheless, the German dictator never forgot that the Bavarian capital had been the springboard for his astonishing career, and he showed his gratitude in August 1935 by granting Munich the title “capital of the movement.”4
Without Hitler, the rise of National Socialism would have been unthinkable. In his absence, the party would have remained one of many ethnic-chauvinist groups on the right of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, the special conditions of the immediate post-war years in both Bavaria and the German Reich were also crucial: without the explosive mixture of economic misery, social instability and collective trauma, the populist agitator Hitler would never have been able to work his way out of anonymity to become a famous politician. The circumstances at the time played into Hitler’s hands, and he was more skilful and unscrupulous about using them than any of his rivals on the nationalist far right.
In March 1920, right-wing opponents of democracy under the leadership of the East Prussian civil servant Wolfgang Kapp and the commander of Reichswehr Group Commando 1 in Berlin, General Baron Walther von Lüttwitz, made the first attempt to topple the Weimar Republic. The putsch collapsed within a few days after workers brought public life to a standstill with a powerful general strike, but in Bavaria counter-revolutionary forces thought the time was ripe to force the government under Johannes Hoffmann to resign. On 16 March, the Landtag elected the government president of Upper Bavaria, Gustav von Kahr, the new Bavarian state president.5
Under Kahr, politics lurched dramatically to the right. Kahr was an outspoken monarchist whose express aim was to turn Bavaria into a “cell of order” in the Reich. He immediately issued an edict to stem the immigration of “Eastern Jews” to Bavaria, with which the government bent to the will of the ethnic-chauvinistic right and encouraged anti-Semitic currents within the populace.6 In the months that followed, Munich became an Eldorado for opponents of the Weimar Republic throughout Germany. Corvette Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, whose naval brigade had formed the military backbone of the Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch and who was wanted by the police, found refuge there, and in his new headquarters in Munich’s Franz-Josef-Strasse, he and some like-minded comrades founded a new secret society, “Organisation Consul,” whose purpose was to murder leading representatives of the Weimar Republic. On 9 June 1921 the USPD faction leader in the Bavarian Landtag, Karl Gareis, became their first victim. On 26 August 1921, the Centre Party politician and the ex-Reich Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger was also killed, and the murder of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau followed on 24 June 1922. Bogislaw von Selchow, who saw this racist movement as an “elementary, new force” in Germany, laid part of the blame for Rathenau’s murder with the Jewish foreign minister himself. “One should not stir up the embers within the German people in such turbulent times,” he wrote, “by having a member of a foreign race represent them abroad.”7 This was not an isolated voice. The general tenor within nationalist circles was no different.
In the summer of 1920, the man who had pulled the strings behind the failed putsch, the retired general Erich Ludendorff, also moved to Munich. His residence, a luxurious villa in the south of the city, now became a focal point for counter-revolutionary activities throughout Bavaria.8 Tolerated by the authorities, countless paramilitary organisations were permitted to lead their shady existences in the southern German state, including the citizens’ militias that had been founded after the demise of the Bavarian Soviet Republic and soon numbered 300,000 men. The presence of this counter-revolutionary private army had enormous influence on everyday life and political culture in Munich in the early 1920s. “They institutionalised Bavaria’s rejection of the Versailles settlement and its hatred for the Weimar Republic,” writes the historian David Clay Large. “Above all, they despised Berlin as Germany’s new mecca of left-wing politics, multiethnic society, and avant-garde culture.”9
Extremists who wanted to topple the state were encouraged by Munich Police President Ernst Pöhner and the director of Political Division VI, Wilhelm Frick, who looked the other way when confronted with the assassinations carried out by Organisation Consul. Hitler and the NSDAP also enjoyed the protection of these two officials right from the start. They had held a “protective hand” over the National Socialist Party and Hitler, Frick testified at the trial after the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, because they were seen as the “seed of renewal in Germany.”10 Hitler realised how much he owed these early supporters. In Mein Kampf, he praised Pöhner and Frick for being “Germans first and civil servants second.”11 In late March 1942, Hitler would compliment Frick as someone who had “always behaved beyond reproach, helpfully pointed the way and enabled the party to maximise its effect.”12
Already in the first year of its existence, the NSDAP became the most active of the ethnic-chauvinist groups in Munich. Hardly a week passed without a meeting or a rally. Since the quantum leap of 24 February 1920, party events were now held at the largest beer halls: the Hofbräuhaus, the Bürgerbräukeller, the Kindlkeller and the Hackerbräukeller. Audience sizes ranged from 800 to 2,500—in the second half of 1920, levels of 3,000 were reached. In December 1920, the Bavarian District Defence Commando VII concluded with satisfaction that “the lively activity of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in arranging meetings…has a beneficial, patriotic effect.”13 On 3 February 1921, the NSDAP staged their first event in the Zirkus Krone on Marsstrasse, at the time the largest covered arena in Munich. More than 6,000 people gathered there to hear Hitler speak. “The hall lay in front of me like a gigantic shell,” he recalled in Mein Kampf. “After the first hour, ever louder eruptions of spontaneous applause were beginning to interrupt me. After two hours they ebbed away again and the consecrated silence fell that I later experienced over and over in this space…For the first time, we left the realms of an ordinary, everyday party.”14
It was Hitler who drew in the crowds week after week. In 1920 alone, he appeared as the main speaker twenty-one times, and he served as a member of panel discussions on numerous other occasions. He also appeared in the Bavarian countryside, as the NSDAP sought to expand its appeal beyond Munich: in the early autumn of 1920, he also made four speeches during the Austrian election campaign. Taken together, it was a gruelling workload.15 Hitler’s main priority at this point was to attract attention to his still relatively small party and secure its place in the public sphere. “Who cares whether they laugh at us or insult us, treating us as fools or criminals?” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. “The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.”16 The better known the party became, the more its membership rolls swelled—from 190 members in January 1920 to 675 in May, and from 2,500 in January 1921 to 3,300 in August. Hitler was optimistic. There was no reason “to doubt the party’s rise because of its small size at present,” he told the chairman of the recently formed local Nazi chapter in Hanover, Gustav Seifert, in October 1921.17
Contrary to what many people still believe, Hitler did not speak extemporaneously: he diligently prepared for all his public appearances. He would fill a dozen pages with catchwords and slogans to keep him focused during his two- to three-hour performances. Right before the start of events, he would pace his room and run through the fundamental points of his speech, repeatedly interrupted by telephone calls from followers reporting on the atmosphere in the venue. Hitler usually arrived half an hour late to ratchet up the excitement. He would then place his notes to his right and occasionally glance down at them to reassure himself.18
His speeches followed a set pattern. As a rule, Hitler began calmly, almost hesitantly. As the historian John Toland put it, Hitler spent the first ten minutes or so gauging the mood of his audience with the fine sense of an actor.19 Only when he was convinced of their approval did he begin to relax. He then started to punctuate his remarks with dramatic gestures—throwing his head back, extending his right arm and underlining particularly vivid sentences with his finger or hammering on the lectern with his fists. At the same time his tone and choice of words became more aggressive. The more clearly an audience signalled with applause and calls of approval that the spark had caught, the more Hitler increased his volume and tempo. His own excitement was infectious. By the end of his speeches, after a furious crescendo, the entire venue would be in a state of intoxicated fervour, and the orator himself, covered in sweat, would accept the congratulations of his entourage.20
A variety of factors contributed to Hitler’s power as a speaker, starting with his full-bodied and flexible voice—“his best weapon,” as it has been called21—which he used like an instrument. “If one minute there was a vibrato to lament the undeserved fate of an aggrieved and repeatedly betrayed people, the next there would be the approach of a cleansing thunderstorm, only for Hitler’s voice to erupt suddenly in emotional displays that swept his audience irresistibly into mass ecstasy,” Hitler’s friend Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl wrote.22 Prior to 1928, Hitler spoke without the help of microphones or loudspeakers: his earliest followers heard the natural power of his baritone voice without any of the distortion of technological amplification.
Hitler was skilled at choosing his words to appeal to an audience. As Hanfstaengl put it, he had mastered the “language of the post-war little guy,” peppering his speeches not only with the coarse phrases of a former military man, but also with irony and sarcasm.23 He was good at responding to hecklers so he mostly kept the laughter on his side. Moreover, Hitler’s speeches clearly touched a nerve. Like no one else, he was able to express what his audience thought and felt: he exploited their fears, prejudices and resentments, but also their hopes and desires. “A virtuoso playing the soul of the masses like a keyboard” was how Hanfstaengl put it, adding: “Well beyond the measure of his inspiring rhetoric, this person seemed to have a gift for coupling the gnostic desire of the time for a strong leader with his own sense of personal mission. This conflation made every conceivable hope and expectation seem realistic.”24
That effect Hitler derived not just from what he said, but how he said it. He had become the Unknown Soldier from the world war who shared the problems and desires of his audience, and thus radiated an aura of veracity and authenticity. “The first thing you felt was that here was someone who meant what he said, who didn’t want to convince you of anything he didn’t believe entirely himself,” observed Hans Frank, who first heard one of Hitler’s speeches in January 1920 at the age of 19. “He spoke from the bottom of his own soul and all of our souls.”25 This was the “unity of the word and the man” that Hitler’s first biographer, Konrad Heiden, identified as the secret to the agitator’s success. During the high points of his speeches, Heiden wrote, Hitler was “someone seduced by himself,” someone who was so inseparable from his words “that a measure of authenticity flowed over the audience even when he was telling obvious lies.”26
From his very earliest speeches, Hitler liked using religious imagery and motifs. When he referenced the Bible, he sometimes went so far as to compare himself with Jesus Christ: “We may be small, but there was once a man who stood up for himself in Galilee, and today his teachings rule the entire world.”27 Conversely, many people who had been disoriented by the war and were looking for a political messiah attached their hopes and desires to Hitler, the man who propagated his ethnic gospel with such missionary fervour. Hitler seemed like “a second Luther” to the merchant Kurt Lüdecke, who was part of the demagogue’s inner circle for a time. “I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to a religious conversion,” he wrote in 1938.28 Such experiences were typical of many people who attended Hitler’s speeches; even those who were initially sceptical about the NSDAP were surprised to find themselves part of a community that got emotionally carried away.
Some of the appeal of Hitler’s appearances was the increasing cleverness with which they were staged. They combined, as Joachim Fest put it, “the spectacular elements of the circus and the grand opera with the uplifting ceremony of the church’s liturgical ritual.”29 Parades with flags and marching-band music prepared the crowd. Anticipation rose, all the more so the longer the speaker kept his audience waiting. Karl Alexander von Müller described the entrance of the local matador in the following terms: “Suddenly, at the back entrance, there was movement. Commands barked out. The speaker at the podium fell silent in mid-sentence. Everyone jumped up to shout ‘Heil!’ The man everyone had been waiting for strode to the stage with his entourage, his right arm raised rigidly in the air.”30 Even those who were not caught up in the feverish atmosphere were entertained by Nazi events, not least because beer flowed freely.31
Hitler possessed an extraordinary sense of political symbolism. The swastika flag became the party emblem very early on, in 1921, combining the colours of the German Reich—black, white and red—with a symbol which had long been in use among ethnic-chauvinist circles; Ehrhardt’s navy brigade, for instance, had worn it on their steel helmets during the Kapp-Lüttwitz putsch.32 There were also the pennant that became the sign of the SA, and the “Heil” greeting, which was made mandatory within the movement in 1926.33 The National Socialists also had no qualms about adopting leftist propaganda techniques. They announced their meetings on garish red posters, and they distributed flyers from trucks to the general populace. One goal was to seduce workers away from leftist parties, although in the beginning it was worried members of the lower middle classes, uprooted former soldiers and impoverished university graduates who flocked to Hitler’s events.34
Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners, even though his repertoire of topics was quite limited. His speeches typically began with a look back at “wonderful, flourishing Germany before the war,” in which “orderliness, cleanliness and precision” had ruled and civil servants had gone about their work “honestly and dutifully.”35 Again and again, Hitler directed his audience’s attention to the “great heroic time of 1914,”36 when the German people, unified as seldom before, had been dragged into a war forced upon them by the Entente powers. This idealised vision of the past allowed Hitler to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay. “Why do we stand today amidst the ruins of the Reich Bismarck created so brilliantly?” Hitler asked in a speech in January 1921, on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the German Reich.37 His answer was always the same: the revolution of 1918-19 had been Germany’s downfall, casting it into slavery.38 Those primarily responsible were Jews and leftists whom he described as “revolutionary” or “November criminals.”39They had undermined Germany’s armed forces, cheating the country of the victory it had earned and delivering it up helplessly to its enemies. “The ‘utterly fearless’ army was ‘stabbed from behind’ by ‘Jew-socialists’ bribed with Jewish money,” was how a USPD pamphlet cited a statement by Hitler at a meeting in the Hofbräuhaus in April 1920.40 Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the former heads of the Third Supreme Command, had launched the stab-in-the-back legend during an effectively staged appearance before the investigations committee of the German National Assembly in November 1919. This myth then became a constant component within the propaganda arsenal of right-wing nationalists.41
Polemical attacks on the Treaty of Versailles occupied a central position in Hitler’s campaigns, playing upon widespread bitterness about what was perceived as a shameful and humiliating peace. The conditions of the treaty, Hitler repeatedly hammered into his listeners’ heads, were “unfulfillable,” since they stripped Germany down to its “last shirt” and condemned it to “serfdom” for the foreseeable future. A peace had been dictated to the German people, Hitler raged, such as had “never been seen before in 6,000 years of human history.” Compared with Versailles, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which Imperial Germany had dictated to revolutionary Russia in March 1918, had been “child’s play.”42 That was a crass reversal of actual fact: the terms of the Treaty of Versailles had been relatively mild compared with those that the Soviet government had been forced to accept.
Hitler combined his agitation against the Versailles Treaty with hateful attacks on the Weimar Republic and its leading representatives. By turns he excoriated Germany’s new democratic order as a “republic of scoundrels,” a “Berlin Jew government” and a “criminal republic.”43 In his eyes all democratic politicians, including Reich President Friedrich Ebert, were incompetent and corrupt. Playing upon Ebert’s training as a saddler, a profession that included mattress-making, Hitler said of Germany: “Ripped and torn, full of holes and defective in every sense, with coils sticking out and ruptured knots, it is in extreme need of restoration. But one particular aspect of our Reich mattress stands out above all, Herr Ebert. It’s full of lice, completely full of lice.”44 Hitler defamed former Reich Finance Minister Erzberger as “a typical new-fangled German state criminal.”45 In early 1922, he turned his hateful sights on Foreign Minister Rathenau, whom he accused of “betraying and selling out the German people” by making concessions to the victorious Allies.46 This was very much in the spirit of the nationalist campaign of defamation against “fulfilment politicians”—those leaders who thought Germany should live up to its commitments in the Treaty of Versailles; Hitler’s tirades further contributed to the poisonous atmosphere in which both Erzberger and Rathenau were murdered. According to Hitler, Weimar Germany’s elected representatives were tools of “international stock-market and interest capital,” which held Germany in its clutches and was sucking the lifeblood out of the country.47 The once-so-successful Reich had thereby been reduced, he claimed, to “a colony of global capital and its henchmen…and hopelessly condemned to slavery.”48
But the political demagogue did not just adopt and magnify the worries and resentments of his audience. In the Nazi Party’s twenty-five-point manifesto Hitler also offered hope for the future. “Our most effective criticism is our programme,” he noted before a speech in August 1920. “Its brevity. Our will.”49 Even in his earliest speeches, Hitler vowed to annul the Treaty of Versailles: “As soon as we have the power, we’ll rip up this scrap of paper.”50 He made no bones of his view that economic recovery depended upon “smashing interest slavery.”51 The goal of “national rebirth” meant, externally, the creation of a “greater Germany” and, internally, the foundation of an “ethnic community” (Volksgemeinschaft) that abolished the chasm between the bourgeoisie and the working class.52 “We must become a people of honest hard workers,” Hitler proclaimed.
And to do that, we can’t have any classes any more, no bourgeois and no workers. We need to become a people of brothers, who are prepared to make sacrifices for the national cause…There should be no drivel about classes and no preferment of one segment of the people in national questions…People who work with their heads and those who work with their hands need to realise that they belong together and that only together can we get our people back on their feet again.53
That, Hitler said again and again, was the path “to genuine, German socialism in contrast to the class-warfare socialism preached by Jewish leaders.”54
Right from the start, Hitler wanted to eradicate Weimar democracy. “Let’s do away with the party graft that divides our people,” he exclaimed in April 1920. On this topic, too, he called upon widespread anti-democratic and anti-parliamentarian sentiments. He never tired of preaching the merits of “a relentless battle against this entire parliamentary brood, this whole system.”55 Democracy was to be replaced with “a government of power and authority” that would “ruthlessly clean out the pigsty.”56 When he demanded a “dictator who is also a genius…a man of iron who is the embodiment today of the Germanic spirit,” Hitler was speaking to the hearts of his audience.57 Germany, he declared in May 1921, “will only be able to live if the pigsty of Jewish corruption, democratic hypocrisy and socialist betrayal is swept clean by an iron broom—and that broom will be made in Bavaria.”58 Hitler made no secret about what he would do with the post-war revolutionaries. “We demand a German national court, before which all the men of 1918 and 1919 can be held responsible,” he thundered. The police report of a Hitler speech in September 1922 noted “minutes of frenetic applause” after he demanded “a final reckoning with the November criminals.”59
Reading through Hitler’s speeches from the period 1920-22, it seems amazing that he attracted larger and larger audiences with such repeated mantra-like phrases. But perhaps it was the monotonous repetition of his accusations, vows of revenge and promises for the future that was the key to his success.60 In the chapter in Mein Kampf that focuses on propaganda, Hitler wrote:
The receptivity of large masses is very limited. Their capacity to understand things is slight whereas their forgetfulness is great. Given this, effective propaganda must restrict itself to a handful of points, which it repeats as slogans as long as it takes for the dumbest member of the audience to get an idea of what they mean.61
Hitler’s analysis was hardly original. In fact, it recalled a pre-war book by the Frenchman Gustave Le Bon entitled The Psychology of the Masses, which by 1919 was in its third edition. Like Hitler, Le Bon described the masses as stupid, egotistical, feminine, fickle, incapable of accepting criticism and ruled by uncontrollable urges.62 Hitler presumably became acquainted with Le Bon’s ideas through a book by the Munich neurologist J. R. Rossbach called The Soul of the Masses, which appeared in 1919 and quoted the Frenchman extensively.63
Ironically, therefore, the beer-cellar rabble-rouser, who liked to depict himself as a man of the people, in fact despised the masses, which he regarded as nothing more than a tool to be manipulated to achieve his political ambitions. In this respect, too, Hitler was no exception, but rather a mouthpiece of the cultural pessimism represented in particular by the authors associated with the “conservative revolution” in the Weimar Republic.64 Nonetheless, unlike those theoreticians, Hitler knew how to draw a mass audience, and that in turn attracted the interest of nationalistic conservatives. As the doctor and “racial hygiene” expert Max von Gruber, who like many Munich University professors was an early Nazi sympathiser, recalled: “In upper-middle-class circles, one looked on with delight as Hitler achieved what we could not: winning over the circles of the little people and undermining Social Democracy. We overlooked the dangers his demagoguery presented, were it ever to be successful. The cure was worse than the disease.”65
A central motif running through almost all of Hitler’s speeches was his declaration of war on the Jews. From the very beginning, he treated this topic in the most radical of terms. One vivid example was his speech “Why are we anti-Semites?,” given in the Hofbräuhaus on 20 August 1920 in front of 2,000 people. It is the only speech from Hitler’s first year as a political propagandist that has been preserved in its entirety.66It contains all of the anti-Jewish stereotypes Hitler had picked up in his autodidactic study of works such as Richard Wagner’s “Judaism in Music” (1850), Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), Theodor Fritsch’s Handbook on the Jewish Question (1907) and Adolf Wahrmund’s The Law of the Nomad and Today’s Jewish Domination (1887).67 All in all, the speech was a murky mixture of pseudo-scientific and vulgar anti-Semitic clichés.
Hitler began his address with the contention that, unlike the northern European Aryan races, Jews were incapable of any productive work and cultural achievement. Because they had never been able to form a state, they had no alternative but to live as “nomads…parasites on the bodies of other peoples…as a race within other races and a state within other states.” Driven by their two most prominent racial characteristics, “Mammonism and materialism,” they had accumulated enormous wealth “without putting in the sweat and effort required of all other mortals.” With that, Hitler arrived at his favourite subject, international “interest and stock-market capital,” which dominated “practically the entire world…with sums of money growing beyond all measure and—what’s worst—with the effect of corrupting all honest work.” The National Socialists, Hitler claimed, had come forth to combat this destructive force by “awakening, augmenting and inciting the instinctual antipathy of our people for Jewry.” As he had previously argued in his letter to Adolf Gemlich in September 1919, Hitler defined his ultimate, unchangeable goal as “the removal of Jews from our people.”
The police report noted that Hitler was rewarded with lengthy applause and calls of approval at this juncture. All in all, he was interrupted fifty-six times during his two-hour speech by positive audience outbursts. It seems that he had precisely tapped into the anti-Semitic mood that had spread like a highly contagious fever through the Bavarian capital after the demise of the soviet republic. A reporter sent to the event by the Social Democratic Münchener Post newspaper wrote: “You have to grant Hitler one thing: he’s the cagiest of the rabble-rousers plying their unholy trade in Munich at the moment.”68
It was a small step from global “stock-market and interest capital” holding Germany in its vice-like grip to the nightmare of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy.” With the publication in German of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1919, conspiracy theory had become a stock element of ethnic-chauvinistic German propaganda. This pamphlet, which soon ran through 100,000 copies, contained fake reports about alleged secret meetings at the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897, which had supposedly yielded strategies for establishing global Jewish dominance. In his notes for a meeting on 12 August 1921, Hitler mentioned the Protocols for the first time.69 A report on a speech Hitler gave on 21 August 1921 in Rosenheim, where the first NSDAP chapter outside Munich had been founded on 18 April 1920, also read: “Hitler shows from the book The Elders of Zion…that establishing their rule, by whatever means, has always been and will always be the Semites’ goal.”70
By 1920 at the latest, the supposed Jewish drive to rule the world had become a fixed part of Hitler’s world view. “The only Jewish goal—global domination,” Hitler noted in early December. By September 1921, he was jotting down: “The question of questions, Jewry’s struggle for world domination, it’s a new crime.” The conclusions Hitler drew from this idea were unambiguous, and he repeatedly and unmistakably shared them with his audiences: “The German people can only be free and healthy if it is liberated from Jewish bandits.” The “resolution of the Jewish question” was “the main issue” for National Socialists.71Thus even in the early 1920s, no resident of Munich who had attended a Hitler speech or read about one in the newspapers could have been in any doubt about what Hitler intended to do with the Jews. But hardly anyone seems to have disapproved. On the contrary, storms of applause greeted precisely the most anti-Semitic passages of Hitler’s speeches, strongly suggesting that they were the source of much of the speaker’s appeal. When he demanded that Jews be “removed” from Germany by some unspecified means, therefore, Hitler and his audience were on the same wavelength. Both were carried away by the racist wishful thinking of a fully homogenous ethnic community.
There is a further, previously unknown indication that Hitler’s hateful anti-Semitic tirades were not just a populist strategy but reflected the core of his political convictions. In August 1920, Hitler received a visit from a young Munich law student, Heinrich Heim, who would later go on to be a ministerial counsel and an adjutant of Martin Bormann, responsible for taking notes during Hitler’s monologues in his headquarters. Hitler had made an “extraordinarily good” impression on him, Heim reported in a letter. He had been “friendly and earnest, a deep, distinguished character blessed with the strongest will.” As far as the “Jewish question” was concerned, Heim describes Hitler’s views as follows:
One has to root out the bacterium in order to restore the body’s natural defences. As long as the Jew remains active it will not be possible to break down the masses into rational individuals…and make them immune to his influence. He utterly rules out a Germanification of Jews in a larger or smaller sense. As long as Jews remain with their pernicious effects, Germany cannot convalesce. When it comes to the existence or non-existence of a people, one cannot draw a line at the lives of blinkered ethnic comrades and even less so at the lives of a hostile, dangerous, foreign tribe.72
Hitler would cling to his conviction that his battle against Jews was a matter of life or death right up until his suicide in his bunker in Berlin in late April 1945. In Vienna he had got to know anti-Semitic clichés and prejudices without identifying with them. Imperial Germany’s military defeat, which nationalist circles explained by scapegoating Jews in particular, no doubt also reinforced Private Hitler’s anti-Semitic leanings. But it was the experience of left-wing revolution and right-wing counter-revolution in Munich in 1918 and 1919 which vehemently radicalised anti-Jewish resentment in the Bavarian capital and made Hitler into what he would remain for the rest of his life: a fanatic anti-Semite whose primary political mission was to expunge a “dangerous, foreign tribe.”
Even after Hitler was discharged from the military in late March 1920, Captain Mayr kept supporting his protégé wherever he could. In September 1920, Mayr wrote to Wolfgang Kapp, the unsuccessful leader of the putsch who had fled to Sweden, that the NSDAP should “provide the basis for the strong assault troop we envision.” The party’s programme, he conceded, was “somewhat amateurish and full of holes,” but it would get better, and he had assembled a number of “very capable young men,” above all Hitler, who was “a motivational force” and a “first-rate popular speaker.” Mayr concluded his letter by pointing out that the National Socialists’ Munich chapter now had 2,000 members, compared to fewer than a hundred in the summer of 1919.73
In late March 1920, Mayr had arranged for Hitler and the right-wing journalist Dietrich Eckart to fly to Berlin to support the provisional government declared by the putsch, but they arrived after the attempted coup d’état had already collapsed. “The way you look and talk—people are going to laugh at you,” was the alleged reaction of Captain Waldemar Pabst, one of the men behind the murders of Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919 and a co-organiser of the 1920 putsch, when he saw Hitler and Eckart.74 Pabst would not be alone in underestimating Hitler. Indeed, the fact that the conservative elites often failed to appreciate Hitler’s ability to influence people and get his way was a major factor in his success.
Dietrich Eckart was more than Hitler’s travelling companion: he was one of the most important mentors of his early political career. Eckart was twenty years Hitler’s senior, and Ernst Hanfstaengl remembered him as “a perfect example of an old-fashioned Bavarian with the appearance of a walrus.”75 Eckart had unsuccessfully tried to make a career for himself as a playwright in pre-war Berlin but his only success had been a translation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. In 1915, he moved to Munich and joined the city’s pan-Germanic and nationalist circles. Beginning in December 1918, with the support of the Thule Society, he began publishing the magazine Auf gut deutsch (In Plain-spoken German), which soon became a platform for anti-Semitic authors. In August 1919, he gave a lecture to the members of the DAP, although he never joined either that party or the NSDAP. He met Hitler sometime in the winter of 1919-20 and liked what he saw, although it is no doubt a legend that the first time Eckart encountered Hitler, he proclaimed, “That’s Germany’s next great man—one day the whole world will talk about him.”76 But he did immediately appreciate Hitler’s extraordinary rhetorical gift and his immense appeal to the masses. Testifying to the Munich police after the Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923, Eckart said that he had recognised right from the start that Hitler was “the right man for the whole movement.”77
The two men developed a close, almost symbiotic relationship. As Joachim Fest noted, Eckart was “the first person from an educated, upper-middle-class background whose presence Hitler could tolerate without his deep-seated complexes breaking out.”78 Eckart helped the 30-year-old, who was eager to learn and still malleable, write his first print articles. “Stylistically I was still an infant,” Hitler would later admit.79 Eckart also encouraged his anti-Semitic convictions and opened the doors to wealthy Munich personages. Last but not least, he supported Hitler and the NSDAP financially. In December 1920, Eckart allowed the party to use his house and property as security for a 60,000-mark Reichswehr fund loan in order to acquire the Völkischer Beobachter.80 Hitler was effusive in his expressions of gratitude: “Without your helpful intervention, this would not have worked. Indeed, I believe that our prospects of acquiring a newspaper would have been postponed for many months. I am so attached to the movement in body and soul that you can hardly imagine how happy I am at achieving a goal we have desired for so long.”81 In October 1921, after he had been made editor-in-chief of the Völkischer Beobachter, Eckart reciprocated with a copy of his Peer Gynt translation dedicated to his “dear friend” Adolf Hitler.82
Their relationship dramatically cooled in the course of 1922, however. The more confident and composed Hitler became, the less need he had for a political mentor. In March 1923, Hitler transferred the editorship of the Völkischer Beobachter to Alfred Rosenberg. Nonetheless, Hitler maintained fond memories of his friend, who died of a heart attack in late December 1923. The second volume of Mein Kampf concludes with an elegy to the man, “who was one of the best and who devoted his life to awakening his and our people with his writing, his thinking and, finally, his deeds.”83 Years later, Hitler confided to his secretary Christa Schroeder that he had never again found a friend with whom he felt so deeply connected in “a harmony of thinking and feeling.” His friendship with Eckart was “one of the best things he had experienced in the 1920s.”84 In his monologues, Hitler deemed Eckart’s services “imperishable,” honouring him as “a guiding light of the early National Socialist movement.”85
Dietrich Eckart was the man who introduced Hitler to Alfred Rosenberg. Born in 1893 in Russian Reval (today’s Tallinn) as the son of a merchant, Rosenberg completed a degree in architecture in Moscow during the war. In November 1918 he moved to Munich, where he became part of the so-called “Baltic Mafia,” alongside Riga-born Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter and the illustrator of chauvinistic pamphlets Otto von Kursell.86 In Moscow Rosenberg had experienced the Russian Revolution first-hand and considered it the work of Jews. The first article he wrote for Eckart’s Auf gut deutsch bore the headline “The Russian-Jewish Revolution.” One of his first works, Russia’s Gravediggers, began with a passage programmatically entitled “Jewish Bolshevism” which clearly defined the enemy with which Rosenberg was obsessed and which he continued to attack in countless publications. His 1922 book Plague in Russia explicitly aimed at opening his contemporaries’ eyes to the gruesomeness of the “Jewish-Bolshevik experiment.”
Rosenberg’s nightmare scenarios had a huge impact on Hitler. Beginning in the summer of 1920, Hitler’s speeches clearly reveal that he began to see revolutionary Russia through the lens of Rosenberg’s writings and with reference to the idée fixe of a global Jewish conspiracy. “Russia has been completely abandoned to starvation and misery,” Hitler proclaimed in June 1920, “and no one is to blame but the Jews.” By the end of that month, Hitler was arguing that Bolshevism actually brought about the opposite of what it promised: “Those who are on top in Russia are not the workers but, without exception, Hebrews.” Hitler spoke of a “Jewish dictatorship” and a “Moscow Jew government” sucking the life out of the Russian people and called on the NSDAP to become “a battering ram of German character” against the “dirty flood of Jewish Bolshevism.”87 Hitler’s anti-Semitism had initially contained a strain of anti-capitalism. Now it acquired an additional, anti-Bolshevist dimension. With that, the later German dictator’s world view was essentially complete.
Along with Eckart and Rosenberg, the university student Rudolf Hess was a party member of the first hour, but he did not provide political advice or ideological slogans: he was one of the still-rare breed of Hitler disciples. Born in 1894 in Alexandria as the son of a wealthy German merchant, Hess had also volunteered for military service in 1914 and experienced the end of the war as a pilot in a fighting squadron on the Western Front. Typically for his generation, Hess had trouble readjusting to civilian life. He joined the Thule Society and helped overthrow the Bavarian Soviet Republic as part of Franz Ritter von Epp’s Freikorps. He, too, met Hitler through Eckart, and in early June 1920 he became a member of the NSDAP. While still enrolled at the University of Munich, where he studied with, among others, the professor of geography and originator of geopolitics, Karl Haushofer, he became one of Hitler’s most devoted followers. “I spend nearly every day with Hitler,” he told his parents in September 1920, and the following April he wrote to his cousin: “Hitler…has become a dear friend. A splendid person!…He comes from a humble background and has acquired a vast knowledge on his own, which I greatly admire.” Hess described what attracted him to Hitler’s political programme as follows: “His fundamental idea is to build a bridge between various classes of the people and to establish socialism on a national basis. That of course automatically includes battling against Jewry.”88
In May 1921, Hess accompanied Hitler as an NSDAP delegation was invited to exchange ideas with President von Kahr—a clear signal that the Bavarian government was beginning to take the National Socialists seriously as a political force. Hitler declared that his only mission was “to convert radical workers to a nationalist frame of mind” and asked that he be allowed to continue his work “undisturbed.” Kahr was impressed. “These warmly made and upstanding, truthful declarations,” the president wrote in his unpublished memoirs, made an “excellent impression.”89 After that meeting, without Hitler’s knowledge, Hess wrote a long letter to Kahr in which he praised the NSDAP’s propagandist as someone who combined “a rare sensitivity for the public mood, keen political instincts and enormous strength of will.” That, Hess explained, was why Hitler had so quickly become “an equally feared and respected personality in political battles and a man whose power extended much further than the public suspects.” Hess concluded his letter with the words: “He is a rare, scrupulously honourable and pure character, full of deeply felt goodness: he is religious and a good Catholic. He has only one goal: the welfare of the country.”90
Not all of the leading members of the NSDAP shared Hess’s worshipful enthusiasm. For many, Hitler’s industriousness was a thorn in their sides. Some were jealous, while others feared that his activism and the blunt nature of his propaganda were leading the party down a political dead end. In the spring of 1921, tension increased within the leadership. The main issue was the NSDAP’s efforts to merge with like-minded ethnic-chauvinist parties and groups. One of the first targets was the German Socialist Party (Deutsche Sozialistische Partei, or DSP) which had been founded, also under the patronage of the Thule Society, by the mechanical engineer Alfred Brunner. Its programme scarcely differed from that of the NSDAP. The DSP also advocated the idea of a nationalist socialism to combat “Jewish” capitalism, although their anti-Semitism was less aggressive and their activity extended to northern Germany instead of being virtually restricted to Munich and Bavaria. By mid-1920 the DSP had 35 local chapters with 2,000 members. Like the NSDAP, it was little more than a fringe party on the far right; it seemed only logical for the two to join forces.91
Previously, the NSDAP had insisted on maintaining its independence and had rebuffed all attempts by the DSP to make contact. Nonetheless, in early August 1920, at a conference of national socialists from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in Salzburg, an agreement seemed to be in the offing. A coordination committee was established to pave the way for the merger. Hitler, who spoke at Salzburg, had apparently succumbed to the enthusiasm for unity. In any case, he carried with him a card signed by party chairman Drexler, which proudly announced “the unification of all national socialists in the German-language realm.”92 But the NSDAP’s propagandist quickly distanced himself from the Salzburg agreements. In January 1921, he summarised his reasons for opposing the fusion of the NSDAP with the DSP. By founding so many local chapters, Hitler argued, the DSP had “so splintered its strength that it’s everywhere and nowhere at once.” He also criticised it “for losing itself in the democratic principle,” because the party had been willing to participate in parliamentary elections. By contrast Hitler demanded that the NSDAP rely on radical, anti-parliamentarian mass propaganda.93
Not all of the NSDAP’s leaders agreed. Indeed, the majority felt that the prospects for the merger with the DSP had not been exhausted and shared the DSP’s frustration with “the fanatic upstart” who was trying to put the brakes on the fusion of the two parties.94 In late March 1921, Drexler made a surprise appearance at the DSP party conference in the town of Zeitz and provisionally agreed to sanction a merger. The leadership of the unified party would move to Berlin. Hitler, who had not been consulted, was outraged, threatening to resign from the party if the plan was carried out. He succeeded in postponing the decision, but the issue remained up in the air. Indeed, in the spring of 1921, Hitler was neither able nor willing to take the drastic steps needed to resolve it. His behaviour during this period bears all the hallmarks of uncertainty and indecisiveness. He interpreted the unfamiliar resistance from the party leadership, including Drexler, as a personal attack and was correspondingly thin-skinned. “As a man who still mistrusted himself and his prospects, he was full of inferiority complexes towards all those who had already become something or were about to surpass him,” former Freikorps leader Gerhard Rossbach recalled. “He was subservient and uncertain, often crude when he felt he was being curtailed.”95
Hitler opposed all attempts to fuse ethnic-nationalist parties because he was afraid of losing the starring role his rhetorical skills had earned him in the NSDAP. Soon he also felt threatened from another quarter, the German Works Association, which was founded in March 1921 by the Augsburg University lecturer Otto Dickel. Dickel had created a stir in far-right circles with his book The Resurrection of the West, a reply to Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.96 In June 1921, while Hitler was in Berlin with Eckart trying to raise funds for the chronically underfunded NSDAP, the party invited Dickel to hold a lecture in the Hofbräuhaus, the site of Hitler’s greatest triumphs. Here Dickel met with an enthusiastic response, and a subsequent party newsletter welcomed the arrival of another “popular and powerful speaker.”97
A party meeting was arranged in Augsburg for 10 July to discuss merging with both the Nuremberg chapter of the DSP and Dickel’s German Works Association. Hitler got wind of the discussion while still in Berlin and arrived in Augsburg in advance of the NSDAP delegation and threatened to prevent “any form of unification.” During the three hours of discussions, Hitler repeatedly exploded in anger, ultimately storming out of the hall in a rage, much to the embarrassment of his party comrades. He resigned from the NSDAP the following day.98
Hitler’s emotional reaction is understandable: he saw his political existence threatened. The fact that a lecturer with a doctorate seemed about to steal his thunder must have summoned up all of the hatred for teachers and professors he had accumulated in Linz and Vienna. In a letter of 5 January 1922 to the tiny NSDAP chapter in Hanover, Hitler would express his “profound satisfaction” that the group had eventually rebuffed Dickel and his organisation: “Your negative opinion of our so-called educated people, who take every idiot down this precarious path, is unfortunately all too justified…A Dr. Dickel who is simultaneously a Works Association mouthpiece and a scion of the West is of no importance to us. On the other hand, a Dickel who claims to be a National Socialist, if only in his mind, is an enemy and needs to be combated.”99
Hitler’s reaction to his perceived competition presaged how he would later behave in crisis situations.100 He was risking everything. After humming and hawing for months about fundamental decisions, he suddenly issued an “all or nothing” ultimatum—in the hope that he would be able to blackmail the party leadership. It is possible that Hitler’s political career could have ended abruptly in June 1921, had Eckart not intervened. Anton Drexler, who was torn between his distaste for Hitler’s prima donna posturing and his fear of losing his biggest public draw, eventually relented and asked Hitler under what circumstances he would return to the party.
That gave Hitler the chance to turn the situation to his advantage in one fell swoop, and he seized the opportunity. On 14 July, he told the party committee that he would only rejoin the organisation if six conditions were “strictly fulfilled.” Hitler demanded that an extraordinary party conference be called within a week, at which he would put himself forward as “chairman with dictatorial powers of responsibility,” in order to carry out, with the help of a newly formed action committee, “a ruthless cleansing of the party of all those elements that have intruded upon it.” He also demanded that Munich be irrevocably declared the “seat of the movement,” that no changes in the name of the party and its programme be permitted for the span of six years, and that all efforts to merge with other parties cease immediately. Those who wanted to cooperate with the NSDAP would have to join it, negotiations would require Hitler’s personal approval, and he alone would choose the negotiators. Never again did Hitler want to be overruled and isolated by the majority of the party leadership. His sixth and final demand was that the NSDAP boycott a meeting planned for August in Linz that was intended as a follow-up to the conference in Salzburg the year before.101 Hitler claimed that he was not making his demands because he was thirsty for power, but because without “iron leadership” the NSDAP would soon cease to be a party fighting for national socialism. In reality of course, Hitler was clearly demonstrating that side of his personality which had already emerged when he booted Karl Harrer out of the DAP in January 1920. Hitler’s goal was unlimited power and that meant, first of all, achieving an unrestricted leadership role within his own party.
The majority of the committee members acceded to Hitler’s demands because they thought the party could not do without him. In recognition of his “enormous knowledge, his sacrifices for and contributions to the growth of the movement and his rare rhetorical gift,” the committee was willing to grant him dictatorial powers. It was “utterly delighted” that Hitler wanted to take over the position of chairman, which Drexler had repeatedly offered him.102 On 26 July, Hitler rejoined the NSDAP as member number 3,680.
Hitler’s adversaries did not give up without a fight, however. On the morning of 29 July, the day of the extraordinary party conference, they circulated a pamphlet entitled “Adolf Hitler—Traitor?” It argued that Hitler’s lust for power and personal ambition had seduced him into sowing “dissent and fragmentation” within the party, playing into the hands of “Jewry and its helpers.” It accused Hitler of trying to use the party as a springboard for corrupt purposes and “of trying to grab sole power for himself so that he could push the party in a completely different direction when the moment was right.” Hitler was a “demagogue,” whose only talent was his speaking ability. He also fought in “true Jewish fashion” by twisting the facts. The pamphlet urged party members to resist “this interloping megalomaniac and bigmouth.”103 A poster made by the anti-Hitler faction but prohibited by the Munich police contained the words: “The tyrant must be deposed. And we will not rest until we’ve seen the last of ‘His Majesty Adolf I,’ the current ‘King of Munich.’ ”104 The Münchener Post gleefully reprinted the pamphlet.
Hitler’s adversaries played right into his hands. When he took to the stage of the Hofbräuhaus that night to excoriate the anonymous authors of the pamphlet, Hitler was applauded “almost without end.” He said he had filed legal charges against his opponents and denied—falsely—that he had ever sought to become party chairman, claiming that he had only given in to a request by Drexler.105 The 554 party members in attendance unanimously voted Hitler into that position. Drexler was shunted off into the office of honorary chairman. They also approved Hitler’s amendments to the party charter, which gave the chairman “directorial responsibility,” thereby cementing Hitler’s claim to absolute leadership.106
The “Führer party” was born, as was the stylised image of Hitler as the leader of the movement. “No one could have served a cause…more selflessly, sacrificially, passionately and honestly,” Dietrich Eckart wrote in the Völkischer Beobachter on 4 August. Hitler’s “iron fist,” he gushed, had put an end to the “spectre” haunting the party. “What else is needed to show that he deserves our trust and to what extent?” Eckart asked.107 Hess also took Hitler’s critics to task: “Can you really be so blind as not to see that this man alone has the leadership personality enabling him to wage the battle? Do you really think that the masses would pack Zirkus Krone without him?”108
A few days after grabbing party power, Hitler founded his own paramilitary organisation: the SA. The beginnings of the National Socialist storm troopers lie in 1920, when the DAP/NSDAP began to organise security for their meetings to prevent them from being disrupted by “Marxist hecklers.” Later that year the security forces became the NSDAP’s “gymnastics and sports division.” The growth of the organisation was accelerated by the dissolution of the Bavarian citizens’ militias, to which President von Kahr had been forced to agree by the Allies and the Reich government. Most of the militiamen joined “patriotic” associations like the League of Bavaria and the Reich, which considered themselves home-front defence organisations, but some also went into the Nazi Party’s Security Service. Now, in early August 1921, Hitler ordered that the “gymnastics and sports division” be transformed into the party’s battle-ready army. Its mission was to “put its strength as a battering ram at the disposal of the movement” and to “embody the idea of a free people defending itself.”109
A key figure in this development was Reichswehr Captain Ernst Röhm. Born in 1887 as the son of a railway official, Röhm was a typical front-line officer who had trouble adjusting to civilian life after 1918. He had been wounded three times during the war: a bit of shrapnel had taken off half his nose, and his cheek bore the scars of a grazing shot. His dismay at Germany’s defeat and the left-wing revolution led him to align himself with the counter-revolutionary forces; like Hess he was one of the activists of the Epp Freikorps. In late 1919, he became member number 623 of the DAP and he soon came into close contact with Hitler: he was one of the few party comrades allowed to address Hitler informally after he became Führer.
Röhm replaced Mayr as Hitler’s most important connection to the Reichswehr. As a staff officer in the Epp Brigade, as the Freikorps was known after it had been absorbed into the regular military, he supplied the citizens’ militias with weapons, ammunition and military hardware, and after the militias were disbanded, he ensured that these were not turned over to the Allies. Röhm thus had a secret arsenal at his disposal, which could be distributed as needed to paramilitary organisations.110 He now played a central role in transforming the Sturmabteilung (SA), as it became known in September 1921, into precisely such an organisation. “You too shall be trained as a storm troop,” Hitler told his SA men in October 1921. “We must be strong not only in words, but in deeds against our enemy, the Jew.”111 Starting in the autumn of 1921, the SA not only protected NSDAP events but began disrupting those of the Nazis’ political enemies and beating up Jews on the streets.112 Even years later, Hitler still felt compelled to defend the SA’s use of violence. Politics back then was “made on the street,” he proclaimed in one of his monologues as Führer, saying that he had explicitly sought out people with no scruples about behaving brutally.113
The SA spread fear and terror throughout Munich. In mid-September 1921, they broke up a meeting of the Bavaria League in the Löwenbräukeller, battering the organisation’s leader, engineer Otto Ballerstedt, and throwing him off the stage so that his head started bleeding.114 That had legal consequences. In January 1922, Hitler was sentenced to three months in Stadelheim prison for inciting public violence, although he only ended up serving a little more than a month, from 24 June to 27 July. “At least he has a cell to himself,” Hess reported. “He can work, make his own food, receive visitors twice a week…and read newspapers. The peace and quiet is good for his nerves and his voice.”115
In September 1921 Gustav von Kahr resigned as president after deputies in the Bavarian Landtag, including those from his own party, the BVP, withdrew their support for him. Police President Pöhner, one of Hitler’s most determined supporters, also left office. Under Kahr’s successor, Count Hugo Lerchenfeld-Köfering, relations between Berlin and Munich improved somewhat, and the Munich police began to pay more attention to the activities of the NSDAP and the SA. In late October, Hitler was summoned and told that he could face deportation from Bavaria if he did not keep his men under control. He pledged “to do everything in his power to head off unrest.”116 That was an empty promise. On 4 November, a pitched battle took place in the Hofbräuhaus, with the SA brutally throwing protestors, largely left-wing workers, out of the beer hall. “My heart almost cries out with joy when I recall the old battle experiences,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf.117 Nazi propaganda later transformed “the Battle of the Hofbräuhaus” into a trial by fire for the SA. In any case, the violence paid off. The NSDAP’s political enemies were intimidated, and SA gangs unabashedly roamed Munich’s streets. “We’ll beat our way to the top” was one of their slogans.118 Even Reich President Friedrich Ebert got a taste of the Nazis’ domination of Munich’s public spaces when he paid an official visit to the Bavarian capital on 12 and 13 June 1922. No sooner had he arrived at the train station than he was yelled and spat at. The British consul general reported that Ebert was booed wherever he went and that there was no state guard or raising of flags in his honour.119
In the wake of Walther Rathenau’s murder on 24 June 1922, relations between Berlin and Munich deteriorated again. One day after it had been passed by the Reichstag, the Bavarian government lifted Ebert’s Law on the Protection of the Republic, which allowed the state to ban organisations that called for political assassinations or tried to overthrow democracy. In its stead, a new ordinance was proclaimed, whose most important provision was that Bavarian criminals should not be brought up in front of the new Republic Criminal Court in Leipzig. Still Bavaria’s far-right-wing associations thought that Munich had made too many concessions to Berlin, and on 16 August they staged a major demonstration on Munich’s Königsplatz. The NSDAP marched to it in closed-rank formation, led by the SA. Hitler, the event’s second speaker, pilloried the attempt to “subject Bavaria to Berlin’s course” and demanded an “extraordinary law…against international exploitation and usury.”120 By then it was abundantly clear that the beer-cellar rabble-rouser and his movement could no longer be ignored as a major player on the political Right.
The growing Nazi influence was even more apparent at a “Germany Day” event staged by the Union of Fatherland Associations in the northern Bavarian city of Coburg on 14 and 15 October 1922. Hitler had been invited to speak, and he arrived in a specially chartered train with 800 SA men. City leaders asked him to help avoid confrontations with left-wing groups by not entering the city in closed formation accompanied by marching music, but Hitler refused. The inevitable followed. The SA’s martial posturing provoked pitched street battles in which the storm troopers showed that they deserved their reputation as brutal thugs. In the end, Hitler crowed in Mein Kampf, “there wasn’t a trace of anything red left on the streets.”121 Coburg would become a Nazi hotspot, and Germany’s later Reich chancellor ordered a special medal to be made up for those who had participated in the orgy of violence.
Such undeniable propaganda successes helped the NSDAP expand. Local Nazi chapters were founded in a number of cities and towns beyond Munich.122 In October 1922 Julius Streicher, who like Hitler was a rabid anti-Semite, subordinated his Nuremberg chapter of the German Works Community to the NSDAP. With that, the DSP’s resistance to being swallowed by Hitler’s party dissolved. Hitler’s insistence that others join him had proved a success. By the end of 1922, the NSDAP had around 20,000 members, and its radius of action now went beyond Bavaria’s borders.123 The party’s new headquarters at Corneliusstrasse 12, which had replaced the old Sterneckerbräu ones in November 1921, were an increasingly busy hive of various types of activity.
Most of the new party members came from the lower middle classes. The largest group were artisans (20 per cent) followed by small businessmen and shopkeepers (13.6), white-collar workers (11.1) and farmers (10.4). Unskilled labourers represented only 9.5 per cent, and specialised workers 8.5.124 The NSDAP was thus essentially a middle-class movement, and the proportion of university graduates, students and professors in Munich was striking.125 Conversely, despite the fact that their propaganda was explicitly directed at blue-collar workers, the Nazis did not do well with that demographic group. In a letter to Reichswehr Major Konstantin Hierl in July 1920, Hitler admitted that it was “difficult to win over workers who have belonged to the same [socialist] organisations for decades.” Nonetheless, Hitler reiterated that the NSDAP’s goal was to become “a popular movement not a class organisation.”126 But in 1922, the party was far from achieving that aim, no matter how Hess may have tried to give the contrary impression in a description of a Hitler appearance in Zirkus Krone. Hess did, however, provide a clear vision of the Nazi ideal: “The blue-collar worker sits next to the factory owner, and the judge next to the hansom cab driver. Nowhere do you see a scene like this nowadays.” There was no way of holding back Nazism, Hess predicted, because it is “born itself of the working classes.”127
The sarcastic nickname coined by his enemies, the “King of Munich,” was becoming an ever more accurate description of Hitler’s status. But his private life remained carefully concealed from inquisitive eyes. Since May 1920, Hitler had lived in a room on Thierschstrasse 41, which had been allocated to him by the Munich housing authority. For the woman who sub-let him the room, he was an ideal tenant. He always paid his rent and telephone bills on time, seldom had female visitors and did not draw much attention to himself.128 The gaunt young man also seemed not to attach much importance to his appearance. Mostly he wore a threadbare blue suit, a beige trench coat and an old grey felt hat. His only unusual fashion accessory was a sjambok—a type of riding crop—with a silver handle and loop that he always carried with him.129
One of the few people who were allowed to visit Hitler at home was Ernst Hanfstaengl. Born in 1887 into an established Munich publishing family, Hanfstaengl had studied at Harvard and directed the New York branch of his father’s art publishing house, before returning to Munich in 1921 with his wife Helene, the daughter of a German-American businessman. In November 1922 he attended a Hitler speech in the Kindlkeller and was immediately fascinated by Hitler’s “phenomenal personality as a speaker.” He was keen to make Hitler’s acquaintance, and before long the privileged son of an upper-class family was part of the rabble-rouser’s entourage.130
In his memoirs, Hanfstaengl recorded his impressions of Hitler’s spartan domicile: “The room…was clean and pleasant, if somewhat narrow and not exactly luxuriously furnished. The floor was covered by cheap, scuffed linoleum and a few small, worn-out rugs. On the wall across from his bed…were a chair, a table and a crudely built shelf holding Hitler’s treasured books.”131 They included Hermann Stegemann’s History of the First World War, Erich Ludendorff’s Politics and the Waging of War, Heinrich von Treitschke’s German History of the Nineteenth Century, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, Franz Kugler’s biography of Friedrich the Great, Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Wagner biography, Gustav Schwab’s Most Beautiful Sagas of Classical Antiquity and Sven Hedin’s wartime memoirs as well as a number of popular novels, detective stories and—slightly concealed according to Hanfstaengl—The Illustrated History of Morals and The History of Erotic Art by the Jewish author Eduard Fuchs.132
Hanfstaengl shared Hitler’s interest in history, art and music. He was a fine pianist himself and soon discovered how to put the often irritable Wagner enthusiast Hitler in a good mood. Whenever Hanfstaengl played the first bars of the overture to Wagner’s Meistersänger on the piano in the landlady’s parlour, it was as if Hitler were transformed. “He would immediately stand up and pace up and down in the room, swinging his arms like a conductor and whistling along with every note in a strangely penetrating, but absolutely on-key vibrato,” Hanfstaengl recalled. “He knew the entire prelude by heart, and since he had an excellent ear for the spirit of the music, I gradually began to have fun with our duets.”133
What did Hitler live off? The authors of the anonymous anti-Hitler pamphlet in July 1921 had asked this question, and it continues to occupy historians. Hitler’s early sources of income remain unclear. He himself testified in front of a court in January 1921 that he had never received “a penny” for his work for the NSDAP, but that he did get paid for speeches he gave outside the party, for instance to the German-Nationalist Protection and Defiance Federation.134 It’s highly doubtful whether Hitler could live from those lecture fees alone. There is clear evidence that he was supported by sympathisers.135 Moreover, even early on in his career, Hitler charmed well-heeled elderly ladies. Most prominent among them was Hermine Hoffmann, the widow of a school principal, who mothered Hitler in her house in Solln on the periphery of Munich. “You simply must come to lunch on Sunday,” she wrote to her “respected and dear friend” Hitler on one presumably typical occasion in February 1923. Hitler was also invited to stay the night: “Recent times have brought so much commotion that you owe it to our holy cause to rest and recover for a couple of hours out here in the peace and quiet.”136
Hitler also got the occasional meal from Dora Lauböck, the wife of Government Counsel Theodor Lauböck, who founded the Nazi chapter in the town of Rosenheim. Whenever Hitler travelled, he always made sure to send the Lauböcks a postcard, and when Theodor was transferred to Munich, their relationship became even closer. Hitler spent Christmas with the couple in 1922, and the Lauböcks’ son Fritz served as Hitler’s private secretary in 1923.137
Even if the ascetic Hitler did not require much personally, the party coffers were perennially empty because membership fees and revenues from events were not enough to cover the running costs; the Völkischer Beobachter also had to be heavily subsidised.138 Thus Hitler had no choice but to scrounge around for people to help finance the NSDAP’s endeavours. One of the earliest patrons was the Augsburg manufacturer Gottfried Grandel, who also supported Eckart’s publication Auf gut deutsch.139 Another supporter was the chemist Emil Gansser, who worked for Siemens in Berlin and was friends with Eckart. As Karl Burhenne, the director of Siemens’s social-political department, wrote in March 1922, Gansser had followed the development of “the Hitlerian movement” for two years and was convinced that “generous, if discreet support for this healthy initiative, which arose from the people, would relatively quickly influence the political circumstances in Germany…in the most favourable sense possible.”140 On 29 May 1922, after Gansser’s encouragement, Hitler held a talk at the “National Club of 1919,” whose membership included not only officers and civil servants, but entrepreneurs. Hitler knew how to adapt to his audiences so that his lectures were usually received well.141 After that speech, the NSDAP appears to have received donations from Berlin industrialists such as Ernst von Borsig and the coffee manufacturer Richard Franck.142 After mediation by Gansser and Hess, who was studying at Zurich Polytechnic in the winter term of 1922-3, Hitler also established contact with Germanophile circles in Switzerland in order to solicit funds. In late August 1923, he and Gansser visited Swiss army general Ulrich Wille and his family in their Zurich villa. As a family member noted in her diary: “Hittler [sic] very likeable. The man positively vibrates when he speaks. He speaks wonderfully.”143
When Hitler did not have to appear at party events and travel around in search of money, he reverted to the haphazard daily routines of his pre-war existence. “You never quite knew where he was,” Hanfstaengl recalled. “Essentially he was a bohemian who had no roots anywhere.”144 Gottfried Feder even wrote to Hitler to express his worries “about our great work, the German liberation movement of national socialism, and you whom we acknowledge without envy to be its passionate leader.” Hitler was difficult to reach and devoted too little time to important party matters, Feder complained; he seemed to enjoy “relaxing in artistic circles and in the company of beautiful women.”145 Hitler was notorious for always being late and for having no sense of planning his working day. He preferred to spend his free time in Munich’s cafés and watering holes: in Café Neumayr, a beer bar on the edge of the Viktualienmarkt; in Café Heck in the Hofgarten; and in Osteria Bavaria, an artists’ tavern on Schellingstrasse. Hitler would spend hours there drinking coffee and eating cake with his intimates, his “sweet tooth” apparent in the fact that he could not get enough of gateau heaped with whipped cream.146
Hitler’s circle of acquaintances was a motley crew. It included hooligans like Christian Weber, a former horse trader who also carried around a whip, Hitler’s bodyguard Ulrich Graf, and his chauffeur Emil Maurice, another feared brawler. With these three thugs at his side, the National Socialist leader could move through Munich with the cockiness of a minor mafioso.147 Also part of the clique were Hitler’s former sergeant Max Amann, whom Hitler made party secretary in July 1921 and also head of the party’s publishing house, the Eher Verlag; the young journalist Hermann Esser, who had served as Karl Mayr’s press spokesman and who was considered the second-best speaker in the party after Hitler; and Johann Klintzsch, a former member of the Ehrhardt Brigade, who had been put in charge of building up the SA in August 1921. But Hitler’s circle also contained more genteel, intellectual members like Eckart, Hess, the “party philosopher” Rosenberg and Hanfstaengl. Hitler felt at home in what historian Martin Broszat has called a “bizarre mix of bohemians and condottieri.”148 In their company he was able to relax and hold his monologues while his true followers hung on his every word.
Hermann Göring once mocked Hitler’s entourage as a “club of provincial skittle enthusiasts with extremely limited horizons”149—although this did not prevent Göring from joining it. Born in 1893 as the son of a high-ranking colonial administrator, he had made a name for himself as a fighter ace in the First World War. He was the final commander of the famous Richthofen Squadron and was awarded Germany’s highest military medal, the Pour le Mérite, in June 1918. After the war, he had made his way doing various jobs in Sweden and Denmark. In early February 1922, he married Carin von Kantzow, born the Swedish Baroness von Fock, and moved with her to Munich. Göring met Hitler in October or November 1922 at a Nazi event and soon joined the party. Less than half a year later, Hitler put him in charge of the SA. “A famous combat pilot and a bearer of the Pour le Mérite—what a propaganda coup!” Hitler is said to have gushed. “What’s more, he has money and doesn’t cost me a penny. That’s very important.”150
Hanfstaengl and Göring were not the only ones who lent the provincial NSDAP a bit of cosmopolitan flair. Thanks to the help he received from influential patrons, Hitler gained entry into elevated social circles early on. In June 1921, Eckart introduced him to the salon of Helene Bechstein, the wife of a wealthy Berlin piano-maker. The elegant lady of the house developed a maternal affection for the ambitious politician thirteen years her junior and did everything she could to help him fit in with polite society. She bought him new outfits, taught him etiquette and repeatedly gave him money. Hitler was also a regular guest at the dinners the Bechsteins hosted at the Four Seasons Hotel in Munich.151
Hitler was frequently invited to Hanfstaengl’s apartment on Gentzstrasse on the fringe of the Schwabing district. It was here that the historian Karl Alexander von Müller met him again and insightfully described Hitler’s appearance:
Through the open door, you could see him greeting the hostess, almost subserviently, in the narrow hallway. He put away his riding crop and took off his velour hat and trench coat, then took off a belt with a revolver and hung that up as well on a coat hook. That was strange, like something out of [the Westerns of] Karl May…The man who entered was no longer the clumsy, sheepish instructor in a badly fitting uniform whom I had met in 1919. You could see the confidence he’d gained from his public appearances in his eyes. Nonetheless, there was still something gauche about him, and you had the unpleasant feeling that he could sense you had noticed it and held that against you.152
Hitler’s insecurity revealed the fear of the parvenu that he would never be taken entirely seriously in the upper-class circles to which he was now granted access.
The Hanfstaengls introduced Hitler to Elsa Bruckmann, the wife of the publisher Hugo Bruckmann, whose authors included Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Their salon, which prior to 1914 had offered a wide circle of renowned artists and men of letters the chance to exchange ideas, was increasingly becoming a meeting place for chauvinist and anti-Semitic authors and politicians.153 Elsa Bruckmann heard Hitler speak for the first time in Zirkus Krone in February 1921, and as she later recalled, she felt “reawakened” by his voice. Yet she first seems to have sought contact with him during his imprisonment at Landsberg, and it was not until December 1924 that Hitler participated for the first time in the Bruckmanns’ salon in their villa on Karolinenplatz 5.154 When Hugo Bruckmann died in September 1941, Hitler praised his “services to the early NSDAP.” At the Bruckmanns’ house, Hitler recalled, he had met all the important men in the nationalist scene in Munich.155
Munich social elites were probably less captivated by the aggressive anti-Semitism with which Hitler regularly enraptured his beer-hall audiences than by his bizarre appearance and eccentric behaviour. “He had the aura of a magician, a whiff of the circus and of tragic embitterment, and the harsh shine of the ‘famous beast,’ ” was how Joachim Fest put it.156 Members of good society simply had to see the man all of Munich was talking about, and even those who found his political radicalism repellent regarded him a fascinating object of study, whose mere presence guaranteed an evening’s entertainment. Thus he was passed from one salon to another, where he elicited a mixture of spine-tingling excitement and half-concealed amusement.157
In the autumn of 1923, Hitler gained access via the Bechsteins to the Wagner family in Bayreuth. “Full of reverence,” wrote Winifred Wagner, the composer’s daughter-in-law, after Hitler visited the family’s Villa Wahnfried for the first time on 1 October. “Deeply moved, he examined everything that was directly connected with R[ichard] W[agner]—the downstairs rooms with his desk, the grand piano, his pictures and books, etc.”158 Hitler talked about his days as a young man in Linz and the huge impression Wagner’s operas had made on him. By the time he left, he had won over not just Winifred but Wagner’s son Siegfried as well. “Thank God that there are still German men!” Siegfried exclaimed. “Hitler is a splendid fellow, a true slice of the German soul.”159 On 28 September 1923, Hitler held his first public speech in Bayreuth, after which he paid a visit to the ageing and frail Houston Stewart Chamberlain. In a letter to Hitler on 7 October, Chamberlain also praised him as “an awakener of souls from sleep and idleness.” In Chamberlain’s opinion, Hitler was not at all the fanatic he had been depicted as: “The fanatic heats up people’s heads, but you warm their hearts. The fanatic wants to drown people out, while you seek only to convince them, which is why you succeed.” Hitler’s visit, Chamberlain added, had renewed his faith: “The fact that Germany has given birth to a Hitler in the hour of its greatest need shows that it is still alive and well.”160
Just as Hitler absorbed chauvinist and anti-Semitic ideas like a sponge during the early years of his phenomenal rise from obscurity to political prominence, he now learned how to move in various social circles and play changing roles. The tone Hitler used in his public speeches might not be to everyone’s taste, Hess wrote in June 1921, but he could also speak in different modes.161 The ability to adapt his behaviour and speech to almost any given audience demonstrated his second greatest talent after his rhetorical skills: his acting ability. Ernst Hanfstaengl had immediately noted the startling accuracy with which Hitler could imitate people’s voices and personality quirks. His parodies were “masterly, good enough for cabaret.”162 Hitler was also able to use this skill as a mimic to conform to the image people had of him. “He had become a versatile actor on the political stage, calculating and with many different faces,” writes historian Lothar Machtan.163 A cunning mastery of the art of disguise was one of Hitler’s most prominent traits as a politician.
By 1923 Hitler was known well beyond Bavaria’s borders, but there is not a single photograph of him from this time. For four years he succeeded in preventing any picture of himself from being published, the dictator bragged years later, in April 1942, in a lunchtime monologue at the Wolfsschanze.164 Hitler’s refusal to allow himself to be photographed was apparently part of his public image: it only increased people’s interest in him. “What does Hitler look like?” asked illustrator Thomas Theodor Heine in the May 1923 edition of Simplicissimus magazine, only to conclude after twelve satiric attempts: “These questions must remain unanswered. Hitler is not an individual at all. He’s a condition.”165 Yet Hitler’s shyness in front of the camera also caused conflicts. In April 1923, on a visit to Berlin with Hanfstaengl, Hitler was recognised in an amusement park by press photographer Georg Pahl, who took his picture. Hitler immediately attacked Pahl, hitting at the camera with his walking stick. Only after a lengthy back and forth did Pahl agree to hand over the negative.166 Hitler’s drastic reaction may have been caused by the fact that the NSDAP was officially banned in Prussia under the Law on Protecting the Republic. The party leader, who was wanted by the Prussian authorities, would have wanted to remain incognito.
In early September 1923, a press photographer finally succeeded in getting a shot of Hitler at the “Germany Day” in Nuremberg. After that, Hitler stopped hiding from the camera and commissioned Heinrich Hoffmann to take his portrait. The Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung newspaper of 16 September 1923 published the first-ever Hitler portrait with the caption: “Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Bavarian National Socialists, who thus far refused to let himself be photographed has now been unfaithful to that principle.”167
Hoffmann would soon become Hitler’s court photographer. In 1909, at the age of 24, Hoffmann had established his own studio on Schellingstrasse and made a name for himself within the art scene for his pictures of artworks and artists. In 1918 and 1919 he was the most important chronicler of the revolution in Munich, although he did not sympathise with the Left. After the demise of the soviets, he supported counter-revolutionary propaganda, joined a militia and became a member of the NSDAP in April 1920. We do not know when he first met Hitler, but after Hitler’s first sitting for him, Hoffmann became part of the party leader’s entourage—not just as photographer, but as a witty entertainer who, like Hanfstaengl, knew how to keep everyone in a good mood.168
“The Fascists have grabbed power in Italy with a coup d’état. If they can hold on to it, this will be a historic event with unpredictable consequences not just for Italy, but for all of Europe,” Count Harry Kessler presciently commented on 29 October 1922 after Mussolini’s “March on Rome.”169 The Italian Fascists’ seizure of power was wind in the National Socialist sails. “Mussolini has shown what a minority can accomplish, if the holy national will lives inside it,” Hitler declared at a public event in November 1922, demanding “the formation of a national government along Fascist lines in Germany.”170 Impressed by the events in Italy, a small group of Hitler followers began to propagate an image of the Führer that drew heavily from Il Duce. In early November in the Hofbräuhaus, Hermann Esser explicitly proposed that “Germany’s Mussolini is named Adolf Hitler.”171
There was no cultish worship of the Führer in the early days of the NSDAP. Indeed, the term “Führer” first occurred in the Völkischer Beobachter in December 1921, and for a time it remained an exception. On posters or newspaper advertisements for events, the party chairman was usually referred to as “Herr Adolf Hitler” or “party comrade Hitler.” That practice changed after Mussolini’s “March on Rome.” Hitler was now styled into a charismatic Führer and the future saviour of the nation.172 In the autumn of 1922, the University of Munich held a contest for the best essay on the topic “What qualities will the man have who leads Germany back to the top?” Rudolf Hess won first prize for his encomium to the coming political messiah. In one passage, Hess wrote:
Deep knowledge in all areas of the life of the state and its history, the ability to learn lessons from them, belief in the purity of his own cause and in ultimate victory, and an untamable strength of will give him the power of captivating oration that make the masses celebrate him…Thus we have a picture of the dictator: sharp in intellect, clear and honest, passionate yet under control, cool and bold, daring, decisive and goal-oriented, without qualms about the immediate execution of his plans, unforgiving towards himself and others, mercilessly hard yet tender in his love for his people, tireless in his work, with an iron fist clothed in a velvet glove, capable of triumphing over himself. We still don’t know when he will intervene to save us all, this “man.” But he is coming. Millions sense that.
In a February 1923 letter to Karl Alexander von Müller, from whom he was taking classes, Hess confirmed that he had Hitler in mind. Hess sent Müller the manuscript of his essay with the words: “Some of what is contained in the enclosed document is wishful thinking. But in many respects it is indeed the picture I have after being around Hitler, often on a daily basis, for two and a half years.”173
Dietrich Eckart and Alfred Rosenberg, too, continually projected messianic expectations onto Hitler, praising him as the strong hand that would liberate Germany from its humiliation and shame and lead it into a new golden age. The first high point of the new Führer cult came on Hitler’s thirty-fourth birthday on 20 April 1923. The Völkischer Beobachter ran a banner headline reading “Germany’s Führer,” and the lead article was a poem by Eckart that ended with the couplet: “Open your hearts! Who wants to see, will see! / The strength is there, before which the night must flee!” In the same issue, Rosenberg also celebrated Hitler’s influence, which was “growing from month to month” and becoming “more captivating.” Throngs of desperate people longing for a “Führer of the German people,” Rosenberg asserted, were looking “ever more expectantly to the man in Munich.” This was a manifestation of “that mysterious reciprocal influence between the Führer and his followers…which has become so characteristic of the German liberation movement today.”174
Hitler did indeed receive a number of birthday congratulations from ordinary people who treated him as the coming “national messiah.” A letter from Breslau (today’s Wrocław) read: “The eyes of all tormented Germans are today looking towards your Führer figure.” One supporter wrote in the name of “all loyal followers in Mannheim”: “We will persist and, if necessary, die in the fight in which you are our Führer and role model, the fight to free our fatherland from humiliation and shame.”175
According to the sociologist Max Weber, the power of a charismatic politician depends on his having a community of followers who are convinced that he possesses extraordinary abilities and has been called by destiny.176 For Hitler, this group had crystallised in 1922, and they went on a publicity offensive in November that year with the aim of building a cult of the charismatic Führer. Historian Ludolf Herbst is correct when he writes of the “invention of a German messiah.”177 Conversely, the attempt to inflate the chairman of the NSDAP into a long-awaited national saviour would not have been successful if Hitler had not possessed several extraordinary political skills, above all his talent as an orator and an actor. The charisma ascribed to him and the charisma he projected fed off one another, and this symbiotic relationship alone can explain why the idea of Hitler as the “Führer of a Germany to come” could have such mass appeal.178
Did Hitler already see himself in the role in which his admirers saw him? As late as May 1921, he had still admitted to the editor-in-chief of the pan-Germanic Deutsche Zeitung newspaper, Max Maurenbrecher, that there were limits to his abilities. “He was not the Führer and statesman who could save the fatherland from sinking into chaos,” Maurenbrecher reported Hitler saying, “but the agitator who could gather the masses…He needed someone bigger behind him, whose commands he could orient himself around.” Likewise in June 1922, he told the advocate of the “conservative revolution,” Arthur Moeller van den Bruck: “I’m just a drummer and a gatherer.”179 But his self-image seems to have changed in the autumn of 1922 as a result of being deified by those around him. “We need a strong man, and the National Socialists will produce him,” Hitler declared in December 1922, leaving little doubt that he meant himself.180 The idea was reinforced by the first portrait Hoffmann took of Hitler. It showed Hitler in what would become his familiar Führer pose: his posture stiff and manly, his arms folded or his left hand pressed firmly against his hip, his brows knitted and his lips pressed thin under his neatly trimmed moustache. Hitler’s body language and facial expression were intended to communicate will-power, decisiveness and strength.181
Along with his increasing self-styling, Hitler also started concealing himself. As early as July 1921, his internal party critics had noted that he flew into a rage every time he was asked about his previous occupation.182 Hanfstaengl remarked that Hitler immediately closed up “like an oyster” whenever the conversation turned to his past—he was like Lohengrin whom Elsa von Brabandt was not allowed to ask the forbidden question.183 Hitler’s inflated self-image was difficult to square with his considerably less than impressive career before 1914, which is why, even before sitting down to write Mein Kampf, he started revising his past to make it conform with his sense of being on a national mission. In an initial biographical sketch he composed in late November 1921 for a certain “Herr Doktor” within the NSDAP, most likely Emil Gansser, he already depicted himself as an autodidact from a humble background who had become an anti-Semite after going through the school of hard knocks in Vienna, before finding a suitable political “movement” in 1919 in the “seven-member German Workers’ Party.”184
In early November 1922, the Munich correspondent for the Cologne newspaper Kölner Anzeiger wrote: “It is today a given that none of the biggest halls in Munich, not even Zirkus Krone, is large enough to accommodate the storm of people when Hitler speaks. Thousands have to go home after failing to be admitted.” The correspondent for the conservative but democratic paper went on to describe how he himself had been captivated by the speaker’s “overwhelming strength of conviction.”185 In late January 1923, Karl Alexander von Müller attended a talk by Hitler and was dumbfounded by how much he had changed since the time he had been in Müller’s audience:
He passed me closely by, and I could see he was a different person than the fellow I encountered here and there in private homes. His gaunt, pale features seemed to have been pinched together by an obsessive rage, and cold flames darted from his eyes, which seemed to glance right and left for enemies to be put down. Was it the masses that gave him this mysterious power? Or did it flow from him to them?186
A woman from Munich who attended a hopelessly overfilled event a few days later in the Löwenbräukeller offered one answer to Müller’s questions. He had so warmed to and spoken so passionately about his subject that his speech couldn’t leave anyone unaffected, she wrote to Hitler the very next day: “For us…those hours were a wonderful experience and constantly reminded me of the days when our troops marched out of Berlin in August 1914. Hopefully we will experience such hours once again.”187
Hitler’s increasing significance was not lost on foreign observers. Britain’s consul general in Munich, William Seeds, who had dismissed Hitler as a bit player in April 1922, reported in December: “During the last few months…Herr Hitler has developed into something much more than a scurrilous and rather comic agitator.” An observer from the British embassy in Berlin, John Addison, advised that it was unwise “to treat him as if he were a mere clown.” The British Foreign Office instructed Seeds to keep Hitler under close observation in future.188
In the space of only four years, Hitler had gone from an unknown soldier in the First World War to a popular public speaker who was a main attraction in Munich and who had begun to capture the imagination of people beyond Bavaria. He owed his phenomenal rise to the particular social and political crises of the post-war period, which provided an unusually advantageous situation for a right-wing populist of his ilk. On the other hand, his success was also down to his highly developed sensitivity to the unique chance that had opened up to him in the extremely anti-Semitic political climate in Munich. Initially uncertain and clumsy in his personal behaviour, he grew step by step into the role of the party leader who dispatched all his competitors for power and collected a horde of blindly loyal followers. Hitler refined his rhetorical and acting repertoire until he was comfortable that his posturing would produce the desired effect. The more intoxicating his triumphs in the large arenas of the Bavarian capital became, the more confident he grew in the role ascribed to him by his disciples. He was no longer the “drummer,” but rather the “saviour,” called to rescue Germany from its “humiliation and misery,” and lead it to new heights, much as the national saviour Rienzi had done for Rome.
As stubbornly as he clung to his obsessive anti-Semitism, he was all the more capable of adapting when it came to fitting in with the social conventions of upper-class salons. He realised how important it was to be connected to influential patrons like the Bechsteins, Bruckmanns and Wagners, and he knew how to use them for his own ends. In this phase of intensive political apprenticeship, Hitler already possessed all the characteristics that would later typify him as a politician: the ability to overwhelm audiences rhetorically, the capacity to trick others and to disguise himself, as well as extreme tactical cleverness.
Wartime comrades encountering him again scarcely believed that this was the same quiet, nondescript man they had known as a private at the front. “My dear Hitler, anyone who has had the opportunity to follow you from the founding of the movement until now can hardly fail to express admiration,” a former member of the List Regiment wrote on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday in 1923. “You have achieved something that probably no other man in Germany could have, and we, your former comrades, are at the disposal of your will. Thousands and thousands of men think this way.”189