Landsberg Prison and Mein Kampf - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

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

Chapter 7. Landsberg Prison and Mein Kampf

“Landsberg was my state-paid university,” Hitler once remarked to his legal adviser Hans Frank.1 After years of frenetic political activity and weeks of a trial that had demanded his entire attention, incarceration in Landsberg prison offered Hitler a not necessarily unwelcome break. “Among the many lucky aspects of Hitler’s political career, these nine months of non-interruption were one of the most valuable gifts,” his biographer Konrad Heiden concluded.2 As an inmate, Hitler had time to reflect on the debacle of 8-9 November and learn his lessons. He also used his involuntary stay behind bars to continue his autodidactic studies. He once again had the chance “to read and to learn,” he wrote to Siegfried Wagner in early May 1924, whereas previously he had barely had time to acquaint himself with the “newly published works on the ethnic-nationalist book market.”3 All his reading now was going to serve the book he had decided to write. Without Landsberg, there would have been no Mein Kampf, Hitler recalled in 1942, since it was only there that he had achieved conceptual clarity about things “he had largely intuited” before.4 It had been stupid of the government, he claimed, to imprison him: “They would have been better off letting me speak and speak again and never find my peace of mind.”5

Imprisonment only encouraged Hitler’s belief in himself and his historic mission. In Landsberg, he recalled, “he had gained the level of confidence, optimism and faith that could no longer be shaken by anything.”6 His sense of being the Chosen One, which he had vaguely felt already in his youth, was now set in stone. And his fellow inmates, first and foremost Hess, did everything they could to strengthen his conviction that he was meant to play the role of the tribune as in Wagner’s Rienzi. In mid-June 1924 Hess wrote to his later wife Ilse Pröhl: “Hitler is the ‘man of the future’ in Germany, the ‘dictator’ whose flag will fly sooner or later over public buildings in Berlin. He himself has faith enough to move mountains.”7 Nowhere does that peculiar symbiotic relationship between the messianic hopes and expectations projected by Hitler’s disciples and Hitler’s own self-image as national saviour emerge more clearly than in Hess’s letters from Landsberg.

“Hitler’s punishment is the sort handed out for a gentleman’s indiscretion—a holiday disguised by some legalese,” the journalist Carl von Ossietzky protested in late April 1924.8 And indeed, the conditions at Landsberg were more like a spa than a prison, and Hitler enjoyed a wide variety of privileges. His “cell” was a large, airy, comfortably furnished room with an expansive view. In addition to the hearty food cooked by the prison kitchen, Hitler constantly received care packages; his quarters reminded some visitors of a “delicatessen.”9 For his thirty-fifth birthday on 20 April, Hitler was showered with gifts, letters and telegrams. “His quarters and the common room looked like a forest of flowers,” commented one of the prison guards. “It smelled like a greenhouse.”10 In Munich, supporters of the NSDAP, which had been banned, and former front-line soldiers held an event to honour the man who, in their words, “sparked the current flame behind the idea of liberty and the ethnic consciousness of the German people.”11

Hitler’s admirers and his political followers kept up a continuous pilgrimage to Landsberg. In April and May, Hitler was receiving upwards of five visitors per day from all over Germany. “Every social class and age was represented,” recalled one of the guards.

There were bearded guys in lederhosen and crudely nailed shoes, cosmopolitan gentlemen from industry and high society, clergymen of both Christian confessions, rural lower-middle-class folks, lawyers, former military officers, professors, farmers, artists, day labourers, aristocrats, booksellers, publishers and newspaper editors. All of them came—sometimes for the strangest of reasons.12

Among the flood of visitors were older ladies who enjoyed mothering Hitler. Hermine Hoffmann spoiled him with sweets and whipped cream, Helene Bechstein brought a gramophone, and Elsa Bruckmann waited two hours to speak to him. In her essay “My First Trip to the Führer,” written in 1933, Bruckmann described her first encounter with Hitler as though she had met a saint:

Finally, someone came and got me. I was led through a number of long corridors and approached Hitler, who was dressed in Bavarian lederhosen and a yellow linen jacket. He looked simple and chivalrous, and his eyes were bright. The moment of our encounter was so important for me because I perceived the same simple greatness, the same mature and genuine nature and the same life flowing from the roots, in the person who stood across from me as I had previously experienced at a distance in the great Führer and orator within the total spectacle of mass events…I brought him best regards from a great man who was still alive then and who had foreseen the Führer’s destiny: Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was also our friend.13

Bruckmann’s account of their meeting is extremely stylised. Nonetheless, it does reveal Hitler’s talent for slipping into the roles he assumed would most impress the people he met. In the presence of this upper-class salon lady, Hitler presented himself as a humble man of the people in traditional Bavarian dress. Hitler also wore lederhosen with suspenders and a white linen shirt with a tie when he took his daily walk through the prison yard, often accompanied by one of his disciples.14 Well fed and enjoying the fresh air, he quickly recovered from the physical demands of the preceding years. “The Tribune looks splendid,” Hess wrote to Ilse Pröhl on 18 May. “His face is no longer so drawn. The involuntary break is good for him.”15

Hess first arrived at Landsberg in mid-May. Initially, he was housed on the first floor, in the so-called “commanders’ wing,” which also contained Hitler, Kriebel, Weber and Hitler’s chauffeur Emil Maurice. Maurice, who was brought to Landsberg in April, served as the group’s connection to the “lansquenet” contingent in the prison: some forty members of the Stosstrupp Hitler, who had been sentenced to imprisonment at a subsequent trial.16 Hitler also assumed the role of Führer vis-à-vis other prisoners. Each new arrival had to report to him for inspection. “I hardly had time to look around in my cell,” recalled inmate Hans Kallenbach, “when Emil Maurice appeared and ordered me to report to the Führer immediately. The old Nazi drive was present even here!”17

Despite the physical proximity to his underlings, Hitler was careful to maintain a sense of distance from them, refusing, for instance, to participate in sporting activities. When Ernst Hanfstaengl advised the 35-year-old, who was putting on weight, to join in, Hitler shot back: “No, no. That’s out of the question. It would be bad for discipline. A Führer can’t afford to be beaten by his followers, even at gymnastics or games.”18

Communal lunch in the prison’s large common room always followed a set ritual. Hitler’s fellow inmates would wait, standing silently behind their chairs, for the cry “Attention!” The Führer would then walk, accompanied by his inner circle, through the rows of his faithful followers and sit down at the top end of the table.19 A similar ceremony was maintained at the social evenings every Saturday. “When the Führer arrived, the house band would strike up a welcome march and then segue into a lansquenet or military song everyone could sing along to,” Hans Kallenbach wrote. As a rule Hitler would give a short speech that concluded with his followers crying “Never say die! Sieg heil!” “On those evenings,” Kallenbach recalled, “the leader and those he led kept alive the true spirit of front-line soldiers.”20

Not only did the guards do nothing to disrupt these activities: many of them sympathised with the aims of National Socialism, treating Hitler with great respect and greeting him under their breath with “Heil!”21 Rudolf Belleville, the officer who arrested Hitler and who served as a guard for several weeks in the summer of 1924, greeted Hess with the words: “Hello, I know you. I’m a National Socialist too.” Belleville, Hess recorded, told him that it still brought “tears to his eyes” when he remembered taking Hitler into custody.22 Whenever Hitler gave his speeches, the guards would gather in the hallway and listen in.23 Inmates were also allowed to publish a prison newspaper, “The Landsberg Honorary Citizen,” to which Hitler occasionally contributed articles and caricatures.24 Thus life in this unusual jail was varied and entertaining, and the all-male inmates pleasantly whiled away their time there. None of them felt that they had done anything wrong—let alone harboured moral qualms.

Hitler instructed his fellow inmates, he later claimed, to behave in a way that “no one in the facility could fail to become a committed National Socialist by the time he was released.”25 But no huge amount of persuasion was necessary. Hitler scrupulously avoided any conflict with the prison authorities, preferring to achieve “peacefully and amicably what was possible.” He said he had no desire to play the role of the “wild man” and strictly forbade his followers from disobeying the prison rules.26 His true concern was no doubt his parole. By being openly cooperative, Hitler wanted to ensure he would be released after six months, on 1 October 1924.

Yet while a tight-knit fellowship was forming behind prison walls, in the outside world, the ethnic-chauvinistic movement was quickly disintegrating into a host of rival groups. Gustav von Kahr had immediately banned the NSDAP and the various organisations of the Fighting Association on 9 November 1923. The Völkischer Beobachter was forced to cease publication, and party property was confiscated.27 Directly before he went to prison, Hitler had dictated to Helene Hanfstaengl a message for Alfred Rosenberg, asking him to lead the movement in his absence.28 It is unclear why Hitler chose Rosenberg, who was hardly the most practically oriented mind. Perhaps it was Rosenberg’s obvious lack of leadership qualities that appealed to Hitler, who did not want a competitor appearing on the scene while he was away.29 In his first newsletter, dated 3 December 1923 and signed by “Rolf Eidhalt” (an anagram of Adolf Hitler), Rosenberg announced that despite everything the leadership of the party was “once again in good hands.” Nonetheless, the ban meant that “the party from now on must be run as a secret organisation,” and everyone concerned would have to pitch in to “prevent the dissipation of our movement.”30

Yet that was precisely what happened. Hitler was the lynchpin who integrated and maintained a balance between divergent forces and interests, and the party sorely missed him. “The ups and downs in the movement after Hitler’s arrest were the best indication of his exceptional leadership personality,” commented one of his followers after the Führer’s release from Landsberg.31 Rosenberg lacked the necessary authority to hold the party together, and as Hanfstaengl observed, “everywhere busybodies and opportunists from the second or third ranks are trying to push their way forward.”32 The movement was riven with people who felt they needed to make their mark and were jealous of everyone else. Moreover, because of its weak organisational structure beyond Munich, it quickly emerged that the NSDAP was ill-equipped to deal with life as an illegal body. For that reason, in January Rosenberg and his deputy Hans Jacob founded another party, the Greater German Popular Community (Grossdeutsche Volksgemeinschaft, or GVG), which they had no trouble officially registering, even though it was a transparent surrogate for the NSDAP.33 But if they hoped it would serve as a reservoir for all of Hitler’s adherents, they were disappointed. A bitter rivalry soon broke out between Rosenberg, on the one hand, and Hermann Esser, who returned from Austrian exile in May, and Julius Streicher on the other. In early June, Rosenberg was forced out, and Esser and Streicher formed a new leadership duo. In a newsletter, they immediately demanded that “the emphasis of the old Hitler movement must continue to be extra-parliamentary.”34

This declaration was primarily directed against the Ethnic Block (Völkischer Block, or VB), another umbrella organisation of ethnic-chauvinist and National Socialist Bavarian groups, which had also formed in January 1924 and which had announced its intention to participate in the electoral process. In the Bavarian Landtag elections of 6 April, the VB recorded a remarkable triumph, immediately winning 17.1 per cent of the votes and 23 parliamentary seats, which made it the third-strongest political force in Bavaria behind the BVP (32.8 per cent of the vote) and the SPD (17.2 per cent). In Munich, the VB attracted 25.7 per cent of the vote—more than any other party.35 For the national elections the following month, the VB had concluded an alliance with the Ethnic German Liberation Party (Deutschvölkische Freiheitspartei, or DVFP), which had been founded by three rebel members of the German National People’s Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei, or DNVP), Albrecht von Graefe, Reinhard Wulle and Wilhelm Hennig, and which had its power base in northern Germany. The DVFP sensed a chance to occupy the vacuum left behind by the ban on the NSDAP and become the leading force within the ethnic-nationalist movement. Their ambitions were bolstered by Erich Ludendorff, who called for all rival ethnic-chauvinist and National Socialist groups to unite under the umbrella of one organisation.36

In the Reichstag elections on 4 May 1924, the unified list of ethnic-chauvinist parties got 6.5 per cent of the vote and 32 parliamentary seats. Twenty-two of them went to representatives of the DVFP, compared with only 10 for the National Socialists, whose deputies included Röhm, Feder, Frick and Gregor Strasser, a pharmacist from Landshut who would soon play a leading role in the NSDAP.37 The most famous member of the faction was Ludendorff, who twice visited Hitler in Landsberg and tried to win him over to the idea of an association of all ethnic-chauvinist groups. Hitler behaved in conciliatory fashion, while expressing reservations.38 But he could not prevent the Reichstag deputies from uniting under the banner of the “National Socialist Liberation Party,” when they met as a faction on 24 May. A short time later, the following declaration was published in the press: “It is the will of ethnic-popular leaders General Ludendorff, Hitler and Graefe that their followers should in future form one political organisation throughout the Reich.”39 Ludendorff underscored the validity of the declaration, by claiming that Hitler had come out “clearly and unambiguously for the necessity of the merger of the DVFP and the National Socialist Workers’ Party into one party outside the Reichstag as well.”40

Many of Hitler’s followers were opposed to the transition to parliamentary participation and the idea of a fusion with the DVFP. National Socialists in northern Germany were particularly alarmed.41 In late May they sent a four-man delegation led by Ludolf Haase, a party comrade from Göttingen, to Landsberg to discuss their concerns with Hitler, but the Führer was as evasive as he had been with Ludendorff. As far as the elections were concerned, Hitler had already written to Siegfried Wagner at the beginning of the month, telling him that he would have found it “more correct to avoid participating at least this time around.”42But apparently he was no longer opposed to the parliamentary strategy in principle. Hitler, at least in Hess’s summary, took the view that “after others had gone to parliament against his will, activity in parliament would have to be seen…as one of many means to combat the present system.” That did not mean constructive participation in the parliamentary process, but rather opposition and obstruction. The idea was “to extend parliament or, better said, parliamentarianism, ad absurdum.”43

In fact, Hitler never budged an inch in his rejection of a merger of the NSDAP and the DVFP, even though to the disappointment of the northern German contingent he refused to give them a statement to that effect. His priority was to keep out of the internal party squabbles and unsavoury personal intrigues, which he correctly recognised could only damage his aura as Führer. As he told Ludolf Haase on 16 June, he could hardly be expected “to intervene in any way or assume any responsibility” from the confines of Landsberg. He had decided “to withdraw from public politics until such a time as his restored liberty made it possible for him to genuinely lead.”44 A short time later Hermann Fobke, a law student and former member of the Stosstrupp Hitler who also served time at Landsberg, told friends in northern Germany Hitler thought “that the wagon has gone so far off the road as to require a complete start from scratch when he goes free.” Nonetheless, Hitler was confident that within a few days of his release he would have “all the reins firmly in his grasp.”45

On 7 July, Hitler publicly announced his decision. In a press release, he stated that he had “stepped down from the leadership of the National Socialist movement” and would refrain from “all political activities for the duration of his imprisonment.” An additional reason was given for his decision: “Herr Hitler is writing a substantial book and wants to preserve the free time necessary for it.” He therefore requested his supporters not to pay any more visits to Landsberg.46 The pilgrimages did not abate, however, so Hitler was forced to repeat his request on 29 July. In the future, Hitler would only receive visitors who stated their purpose in advance and who were approved. “In all other cases, as much as I regret it, I’m compelled to turn visitors away,” Hitler wrote.47

Hitler’s withdrawal encouraged the ethnic-chauvinist movement to spin further out of control. A conference on 20 July in Weimar that was intended to bring unity ended in tumult, with various sides trading insults. Such scenes made him sick, declared Ludendorff, adding that if that was the German ethnic movement, then he would take his leave and express his regret that he had mistakenly spent time in its midst.48A follow-up conference, also in Weimar, in mid-August may have achieved the merger of the NSDAP and DVFP into a “National Socialist Liberation Movement,” but that was merely a declaration on paper. Despite individual appeals for unity and solidarity, the disintegration of the NSDAP and the ethnic-chauvinist movement continued apace.49

Though constantly pressured by his followers to put his foot down, Hitler stuck rigidly to his policy of not taking sides and keeping silent about what he thought. He had to “behave with complete neutrality,” he told the northern German delegation, in order to be able to carry out the reorganisation of the party impartially as soon as he was released. “Whoever doesn’t obey then, will be out—regardless of who they are,” he threatened.50 This approach helped Hitler avoid getting drawn into fights between various groups and sub-groups. “His person remains elevated above small quarrels,” Hess noted in mid-August 1924. “When he’s back on the outside, his authority will ensure that everything will quickly be under control again.” Hess speculated that the constant feuding in the party and the movement were not altogether unwelcome for Hitler: “He thereby shows our people outside that they can’t get anything done without him and that it’s not as easy as they thought to do the work he does.”51 Some of Hitler’s followers even suspected that he deliberately encouraged the disputes “in order to secure his position at the very top.”52 Indeed, Hitler’s behaviour while in Landsberg seems to have been an example of a technique of rule that he would develop to perfection as Reich chancellor. Divide and conquer was the best way to cement his own claim to leadership.53

The declarations of July 1924 were the first indications the public got that Hitler was writing a book. In fact, he had been at it since the first weeks of his imprisonment. Even at his trial, when he was cross-examined by Hans Ehard on 13 December 1923, Hitler mentioned his plan to write a testimonial that would “tear the mask” from his detractors’ faces.54 The prison director granted him permission to procure a typewriter, and prison guard Franz Hemmrich provided him with a table and paper.55 Hitler’s testimonial has not been preserved, but its contents can be reconstructed from his speeches in front of the court.56After he was sentenced on 1 April, Hitler continued writing. One of the first products of his work was an essay entitled “Germany’s Awakening” that appeared in a pan-Germanic monthly—many passages are repeated word for word in Mein Kampf.57 Hitler’s motivation for putting pen to paper remained constant. As he told Siegfried Wagner on 5 May, he was writing “to comprehensively settle accounts with those gentlemen who enthusiastically cried ‘Hurrah’ on 9 Nov. only to try to prove the ‘ill-considered nature of the insane undertaking’ on the 10th.”58

In early June, Eher Verlag—the Nazi publishing house—had announced the appearance of Hitler’s book, then entitled “4½ Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice,” for publication in July. The hastily sketched contents indicated that this was to be a one-volume work, but Hitler’s decision to withdraw from politics changed that.59 What was originally a settling of accounts was expanded to include autobiographical sections.60 Hitler began working intensively on the manuscript in the second half of June. By the end of the month, he read Hess the section on his experience on the Western Front in 1914 (Mein Kampf, Chapter 5) and discussed the design of the cover with him.61 On 23 July he returned to Hess’s cell asking whether he could read him the chapter about Munich which he had just completed (Mein Kampf, Chapter 4). “I’m still overwhelmed by my impressions,” Hess told his girlfriend. When Hess praised what Hitler had written, the latter had beamed. “What a mixture of the sober, mature superiority of the man with boundless boyish joy,” Hess wrote.62

It is a myth that Hitler often dictated passages until the small hours of the morning to Hess, who, serving as his secretary, typed them up. Many of Hitler’s biographers have simply passed on this legend from the memoirs of prison guard Otto Lurker.63 In reality, Hitler typed the manuscript himself, using the “hunt-and-peck” system, after he had outlined his thoughts by hand on sheets of paper.64 In a letter from late July, Hess described his role in the composition of Mein Kampf. “Hitler regularly reads to me from his book,” Hess wrote. “Whenever a chapter is done, he takes it to me. He explains it to me and we discuss the odd point.”65 By early August, Hitler hoped he would be finished writing in a few days and he solemnly invited Hess to proofread the final draft with him.66 But that never seems to have happened. Hitler kept postponing finishing the manuscript. In late August, he was still working on it constantly and did not wish to be disturbed.67 In September, prison director Otto Leybold witnessed him working on the draft “for several hours each day.”68 By the time he was released from Landsberg on 20 December 1924, large sections of the manuscript were finished. Emil Maurice claimed that he hid them in the wooden body of his gramophone and smuggled them out.69

The appearance of the book was delayed for months. That was partly due to the financial difficulties in which Eher Verlag found itself. “Debts, debts, debts everywhere,” publisher Max Amann complained to Hanfstaengl.70 But politics also played an important role: Hitler did not want the publication of the book to damage his efforts to get the ban on the NSDAP lifted and to found the party anew.71 This was the context in which not only the title was changed—it was advertised as of February 1925 as Mein Kampf (My Struggle)—but the overall structure as well. What had been conceived as one volume was now to appear in two. The first volume ended with the announcement of the Nazi Party manifesto on 24 February 1920, while several programmatic chapters were reserved for volume two.72 In April 1925, Hitler made the final changes to volume one on the Obersalzberg. Josef Stolzing-Cerny, the Völkischer Beobachter’s music critic, and Hess’s fiancée Ilse Pröhl helped with the editing.73

The first volume of Mein Kampf appeared on 18 July 1925, but it would be a while before the second volume was published. It was not until the autumn of 1926 that Hitler once again withdrew to the Obersalzberg to dictate the final parts to one of his secretaries.74 Hess, who had in the meantime become Hitler’s private secretary, did the final editing.75 On 11 December of that year, the second volume appeared in the bookshops. Hess had prophesied that it would unleash a “wave of astonishment, anger and admiration…throughout the German lands,” but sales were initially sluggish, which may have been because of the relatively expensive price tag of 12 marks per volume.76 By the end of 1925, the 10,000-strong first edition of the first volume was sold out, but demand for the second volume was nowhere near as great.77 It was not until the Nazis’ electoral triumphs in 1930 that sales picked up again—in particular the cheaper popular one-volume edition proved to be a big hit. Almost 228,000 copies had been sold by the end of 1932, and after Hitler came to power in 1933, that figure naturally shot up. About 4,000 copies were being sold every day, Hitler told Hess in April 1933: “Good old Amann can’t fund enough printing works to keep up with the demand.” Public libraries and schools were required to buy copies, and starting in 1936, state employees performing civil marriage ceremonies were instructed to give newly-weds a copy of Mein Kampf. During the Second World War, there was a lightweight-paper edition for soldiers. By 1944, almost twelve and a half million copies had been printed.78

If he had suspected he would one day become Reich chancellor, he would never have written Mein Kampf, Hitler once remarked to Hans Frank.79 That was sheer sophistry. Hitler was visibly proud of his book and often gave away signed copies of it as gifts.80 Not only did Mein Kampf make him a rich man, it also played a significant role in his political career. The book served two purposes. On the one hand, by connecting his biography and his political programme, Hitler could portray his life up until his entry into politics as a prelude to his historic mission. His early years of deprivation and disappointment emerged as an essential stage of his development, as the incubation period of a political genius who had been hardened by real life. On the other hand, the book underscored his claim to party leadership in an intellectual sense. It was proof that Hitler was both a politician and a theorist, a combination that, as he crowed in Mein Kampf, tended to occur only very rarely in human history.81 That was one reason for the book’s utterly pretentious style. Hitler was keen to show that, despite his incomplete formal education, he was just as well read and knowledgeable as any university professor.82

Prison guards Lurker and Hemmrich recalled that Hitler built up an extensive library in Landsberg, which took up “a large part of his room with its nice-looking pictures and flowers.”83 But it is hard to determine what he read and what might have served as sources for Mein Kampf. He hardly ever discussed his reading habits and was loath to acknowledge who he took ideas from by name. Otto Strasser, the brother of Gregor, thought he could identify the anti-Semitic notions of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde.84 Other sources that left their mark on Mein Kampf were Arthur de Gobineau’s teachings on the inequality of human races; Hans F. K. Günther’s Racial Ethnology of the German People, which was in its third edition by 1923 and which publisher J. F. Lehmann had given Hitler with a personal dedication; and the racist pamphlet by American carmaker Henry Ford, “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” which had appeared in German translation in 1922 and became a huge hit. “I regard Ford as my inspiration,” Hitler allegedly told an American reporter.85 For the second volume, Hitler apparently used American eugenicist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, which had been published in German in 1925, also by Lehmann, and which argued that racial mixing was the cause of the demise of peoples and cultures.86 This book did not give Hitler any new ideas, but it did reinforce his already strong convictions. That seems to have been typical of Hitler’s reading habits in Landsberg: he did not read in order to test but rather in order to confirm his opinions. Hitler was constantly in search of mosaic stones that could be added to his already existing world view.87

As a result, Mein Kampf contained little that was original. On the contrary, the two-volume work essentially summarised the things Hitler had said in countless speeches before November 1923, although it did maintain the pretence of systematising the highlights of Hitler’s reading and presenting them as a consistent, coherent world view.88 At the core of Hitler’s interpretation of history were the categories “people and race”—the title of Chapter 11 of the first volume of Mein Kampf. Hitler saw the “racial question” as the “key not only to world history but to human culture itself.”89 That distinguished his understanding of history from Marxist thought: for Hitler, races and not classes were the motors of events. Consequently, racial and not class warfare determined the course of historical development. Hitler saw his racial theory as being based on the laws of nature and particularly a supposed natural tendency towards racial purity. “The fox is always a fox, the goose a goose and the tiger a tiger,” Hitler argued. For him, any mixing of races was a violation of the “iron logic of nature” that would automatically lead to decadence and decay. “The reason all the great cultures of the past collapsed,” Hitler proposed, “was that the original creative race died of blood poisoning.”90

Hitler combined his biological racial theory with the social Darwinist ideas he had internalised as a soldier. Nature’s only wish was “the victory of the strong and the destruction or unconditional subordination of the weak.” There was no room for humanitarian considerations in the pitiless “fight for survival” between peoples: “Whoever wants to live must fight, and whoever does not want to fight in this world of eternal tests of strength does not deserve to live.” Within this profoundly inhumane logic, the ultimate goal was the “breeding towards perfection” of the races until the point, somewhere in the distant future, when “the best form of humanity is in charge, having taken possession of the earth.”91 Aryans, who were deemed the sole “creative race,” were the ones to carry out this task. On that score, Hitler was absolutely clear: “Everything we see today of human culture and artistic, scientific and technological achievements is almost exclusively the creative work of the Aryan.”92

In Hitler’s Manichaean world view, the “Jewish race” was the negative mirror image of the Aryan one. Many passages in Mein Kampf are word-for-word repetitions of anti-Semitic tirades like his “Why we are anti-Semites” speech from August 1920. “The Jew” was scapegoated into the incarnation of everything evil, and the fight against him was correspondingly the most important part of Hitler’s political mission. Compared to his earlier statements, however, Mein Kampf did radicalise the measures to be taken to combat this threat. In late July, when asked by one of his visitors at Landsberg whether his attitude towards Jews had changed, Hitler replied: “Yes indeed…I’ve realised that I was far too mild! In the course of working on my book, I’ve come to see that in future we will have to employ the most severe means if we are to triumph. I’m convinced that this is a question of survival not just for our people, but for all peoples. The Jew is a global plague.”93

Hitler was convinced he was acting in the interests not just of the German people but of all the world’s peoples in striving for the “elimination of the Jews.” His obsession was so all-consuming that the anti-Jewish struggle took on apocalyptic dimensions. “If the Jew triumphs over the peoples of the world with his Marxist faith,” Hitler warned, “the crowning moment will be humanity’s danse macabre, for the planet will fly through the ether unpopulated as it did millions of years ago.” That doomsday scenario yielded the following conclusion: “Thus I believe that I am acting according to the will of the Almighty Creator. By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of Our Lord.”94 Saul Friedländer has characterised this sort of vulgar, extreme, quasi-religious hostility towards Jews as “redemptive anti-Semitism” and traces its origins back to the Wagner circle and, in particular, the influence of Chamberlain.95

Hitler no longer spoke of deporting or driving out Jews: he now used words like “destruction” and “eradication.” He also availed himself on numerous occasions in Mein Kampf of the language of parasitology, by describing Jews as vermin that needed to be exterminated.96 His anti-Semitic paranoia now included murderous fantasies, as revealed by a passage near the end of the second volume of Mein Kampf: “If at the beginning and over the course of the [First World] war we had subjected twelve to fifteen thousand of these Hebraic corrupters of the people to the same poison gas that hundreds of thousands of our best productive Germans had to endure in the field, then the sacrifice of millions of lives at the front would not have been in vain.”97

Hitler’s foreign-policy views were also radicalised in Mein Kampf. Originally Hitler had entered politics demanding an abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, a settling of accounts with Germany’s “arch-enemy” France, the restitution of German colonies and the restoration of Germany’s 1914 borders. These were the sorts of revisionist views prevalent throughout pan-Germanic, ethnic-chauvinist and nationalist circles. In Mein Kampf, Hitler now shifted his emphasis to the idea that a nation with an expanding population like Germany needed territory large enough to feed its people and continue to increase its political power. The notion that Germany needed “living space” can be traced back to the geopolitical ideas of Professor Karl Haushofer. These had considerable influence on the foreign policy of Hitler, who likely learned about them from Haushofer’s student Hess.98 In Landsberg, Hitler also read the 1897 book Political Geography by the geopolitical scientist and co-founder of the Pan-Germanic League Friedrich Ratzel, which Haushofer had brought for Hess.99

How was “living space” to be conquered? In Chapter 4 of Mein Kampf ’s first volume, which criticised pre-1914 German foreign policy, Hitler wrote: “If one wants territory in Europe, it can more or less only happen to the detriment of Russia. The new Reich would have to march in the footsteps of the Teutonic Knights and conquer with the German sword the soil that the German plough would till in order to provide our people with their daily bread.”100 Hitler’s turn of phrase left no doubt that he believed any eastward expansion would require military action. Hitler was even more explicit in Chapter 14 of Mein Kampf ’s second volume, entitled “Eastern Orientation or Eastern Policy,” in which he proclaimed the German people’s right “to an appropriate territory on this earth” as one of his central foreign-policy goals. “We will stop the eternal movement of the Germanic tribes to the south and west of Europe,” Hitler wrote, “and train our sights on land to the east. We will finally wind down the colonial and trade policies of the pre-war period and go over to a land policy for the future.”101

Hitler envisioned such a war for living space as a relatively risk-free endeavour. He saw the Soviet Union as being in the hands of “Jewish Bolsheviks,” which in his logic meant that Russia’s racial foundation had been decisively weakened. “The gigantic empire to the east is ripe for collapse,” Hitler wrote. “And the end of Jewish domination in Russia will spell the end of Russia as a state. We have been chosen by destiny to bear witness to a catastrophe that will provide the most powerful confirmation of the accuracy of ethnic-popular racial theory.”102 This passage sets out and combines Hitler’s two most important goals: the destruction of “Jewish Bolshevism” and the conquest of “living space in the east.” Despite all the tactical flexibility and political manoeuvrability he was to show later in his career, Hitler always insisted on these two goals with dogmatic rigidity.

“It will always remain one of the great mysteries of the Third Reich,” wrote Victor Klemperer in LTI, his 1946 analysis of Nazi language, “how this book could have been disseminated throughout the public sphere, and how nonetheless Hitler achieved his twelve-year rule. The bible of National Socialism was in circulation years before his rise to power.”103 Indeed, in Mein Kampf, Hitler had spelled out with exemplary clarity everything he intended to do if he was ever given power. Did the people who voted for him and who cheered him on not read it? Historians have long assumed they did not.104 Many of them cite the anecdote which Otto Strasser told in his 1940 book Hitler and I. When at the party conference in Nuremberg in 1927 Strasser had admitted to a circle of party functionaries that he had not read all of Mein Kampf, but merely memorised some of the more striking sentences, he claimed that others, including his brother Gregor and Joseph Goebbels, acknowledged not having read it either.105 If that was the case among Hitler’s most immediate subordinates, must it not also be true for his millions of followers—not to mention the many people who were not involved in the NSDAP?

Historian Othmar Plöckinger, however, has dismissed the idea of Mein Kampf being an “unread bestseller” as a myth that in the early years after the Second World War helped Germans to justify and excuse their behaviour.106 When it appeared in 1925, the first volume of Mein Kampf attracted a broad, mostly negative reaction in the mainstream press. In the Berlin magazine Das Tagebuch, liberal-left pundit Stefan Grossmann published an extensive review in which he questioned “the sanity of the author of these memoirs.” The liberal Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper opined that Hitler was “over and done with” after publishing his confession. On the other hand, the Augsburger Neueste Nachrichten called Hitler a “highly gifted man,” writing: “[He is] a true fighter for the convictions he has won in a life of struggle. Anyone who wants to get more closely acquainted with Hitler’s unique personality and to understand his actions should get hold of this book. Whether he sees it positively or critically, it is useful reading.”107 After the Nazis’ electoral successes in 1929 and 1930, many people apparently followed this advice. Not only did Mein Kampf ’s sales figures explode, but daily newspapers began mentioning the book more and more frequently. And by no means were the majority of the opinions as critical as the one published by Hellmut von Gerlach in the June 1932 issue of Die Weltbühne. “Whoever has read Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf,” Gerlach wrote, “will ask himself in horror how a sadistic master of confusion could become the preferred leader of a good third of the German people.”108

By the early 1930s at the latest, Mein Kampf had established itself as the party bible. Of course, not everyone who received the book after 1936 as a wedding gift studied it in detail, but it must be assumed that convinced National Socialists read at least major parts of it. The fact that the book was borrowed relatively frequently from libraries in the first years of the Third Reich also speaks for a genuine popular interest in it.109

In late August 1924, Hitler was still convinced that he would be released once the first six months of his sentence were up on 1 October.110 By mid-September, he was comparing prices for a car he intended to buy when he got out of prison. “The difficulty for me is that in case of my release on 1 October, I cannot expect any major revenue from my work before mid-December so that I see myself compelled to ask for some sort of advance or a loan,” the automotive enthusiast Hitler wrote to Jakob Werlin, the head of the Munich office of Benz & Cie (later Daimler-Benz), who had visited him in Landsberg.111

If the prison authorities had got their way, Hitler would indeed have been released at the first possible opportunity. Otto Leybold was a great fan of his famous inmate. “I can’t find any fault with him,” the prison director told Franz Hemmrich. “He’s an idealist…When I hear him, I could almost become a National Socialist myself.”112 In a report he wrote on 15 September, Leybold praised Hitler as a “man of order and discipline.” He was “content, humble and eager to please,” someone who “did not make any demands” and was “at pains to accept the restrictions accompanying his incarceration.” Hitler had always behaved “politely and never in insulting form” towards prison employees. In Leybold’s opinion, Hitler had become “more mature and calmer” during his detention so that there was no reason to expect him to pose any further danger.113

Munich Deputy Police President Friedrich Tenner was of a different opinion. After his release, Tenner protested, Hitler—who was “more than ever the soul of the movement”—would “resume his ruthless battle with the government and not shy away from breaking the law.”114 The head prosecutor of Munich’s First District Court, Ludwig Stenglein, also came out against granting Hitler early release. Considering their behaviour during the trial and their incarceration, Stenglein objected, there was no sign that the convicts had given up their “state-threatening” views or would abide by the law in future. On 29 September, after Munich’s Third Criminal Division had nonetheless granted Hitler’s appeal for early release, state prosecutors filed an appeal to the Bavarian Supreme Court.115 That ruled out Hitler being set free on 1 October, which turned the mood bleak among his supporters in Landsberg.116

Hitler, however, did not seem particularly concerned. What bothered him more were considerations within the Bavarian government about whether he should be deported to Austria. In October 1924, the government sent a representative to Vienna to negotiate “Austria potentially taking over Hitler.” But the border control in Passau had already received instructions to deny Hitler entry to the country. The Austrian government stuck to its view that by “emigrating” to Bavaria and serving in the Bavarian army Hitler had forfeited his Austrian citizenship.117 On 16 October, after being erroneously informed that he had been stripped of his Austrian citizenship, Hitler declared that he did not perceive this as a loss because he had never “felt like an Austrian citizen but rather always like a German.”118 In early April 1925 he officially applied to be released from Austrian citizenship. The government in Vienna granted his request by the end of the month.119 Hitler was henceforth stateless: he would not become a German citizen until 1932.

The Bavarian Supreme Court rejected the Munich prosecutors’ appeal on 6 October 1924. The latter made one final attempt to get permission for Hitler’s early release revoked, but when Leybold once again put in a good word for his model prisoner, the court ruled that Hitler should be let go on 20 December.120 The results of national elections on 7 December may have influenced that decision. The National Socialist Liberation Movement only polled 3 per cent of the vote, less than half of what it had got in May.121 Ethnic right-wing radicalism seemed to have passed its zenith, and many people no longer saw it posing much of a threat. In this context, a well-to-do Munich woman petitioned Bavarian President Heinrich Held “to make peace with that most German of Germans, Adolf Hitler.” With the vote having gone against his party, the woman argued, there was no need to keep him behind “dungeon walls.” She added: “If the German people had twenty Hitlers, we’d be in a lot better shape today.”122

When he left Landsberg, Hitler asserted in February 1942, everyone from the director to the guards wept. “We won them all over,” he bragged.123 Gregor Strasser and Anton Drexler had come with a car, intending to chauffeur Hitler immediately to a meeting with Ludendorff. “The competition for him has started even earlier than I expected,” wrote Hess. “[Hitler] had no intention of going with them. He was outraged, saying that for the meantime he wanted to rest and nothing else.”124 Hitler’s relationship with Ludendorff had cooled noticeably during his incarceration. The party leader had not forgotten how the general had let Kahr, Lossow and Seisser “escape” on 8 November.125 He also resented Ludendorff not only for getting himself elected to the Reichstag but for taking the lead in efforts to merge the DVFP and the NSDAP. “Ludendorff had another think coming,” when Hitler was released, Hess wrote on 11 December. “He doesn’t know the Tribune at all!”126

Instead of going to meet Ludendorff, Hitler had himself picked up by Adolf Müller, the owner of the printing press used by Eher Verlag, and his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. Hoffmann took a shot of Hitler posing before the Landsberg city gate, which ran in numerous newspapers with the caption “Hitler leaves Landsberg.”127 Arriving back in Munich, he found his apartment in Thierschstrasse full of flowers and laurel wreaths. “My dog almost knocked me back down the stairs from sheer joy,” Hitler recalled.128 Three days later, Hitler paid his respects at the Bruckmanns’ salon on Karolinenplatz. “How nice it is here,” he was said to have remarked on seeing the splendour of the place, before writing in the Bruckmanns’ guestbook: “Whoever is broken by sorrow deserves no joy.”129 He spent Christmas with the Hanfstaengls, who had swapped their apartment in Gentzstrasse for a villa in Pienzenauerstrasse near the Herzogpark. “Please, Hanfstaengl, play me the Liebestod,” Hitler requested when he arrived at the house. The sound of Wagner’s music, Hanfstaengl recalled, dissolved Hitler’s tension: “He seemed relaxed, almost giddy, as he greeted my wife…He apologised again for what had happened in Uffing, hummed a funny melody for our daughter Hertha and couldn’t stop praising our new home.”130

A newsletter circulating among the local groups of the VB at the end of December 1924 greeted Hitler with the words: “The man of strong action and unwavering political goals has come back to us.”131 But during the first few weeks after Christmas, Hitler refrained from involving himself in politics. He visited the inmates who remained behind in Landsberg and devoted himself to readying Mein Kampf for publication. “He had to run around a lot because of those left behind in Landsberg and because of his book,” a former fellow inmate from Munich recalled.132 Hitler was carefully checking out the terrain to avoid any missteps when he returned to the arena of politics. “Hitler is maintaining his icy silence,” the Bayerischer Anzeiger newspaper reported on 21 January 1925, “as well as the aloofness his supporters find so unnerving.”133