On 21 November 1918, two days after leaving hospital in Pasewalk, Hitler was back in Munich. Approaching thirty years of age, without education, career, or prospects, his only plans were to stay in the army, which had been his home and provided for him since 1914, as long as possible. He came back to a Munich he scarcely recognized. The barracks to which he returned were run by soldiers’ councils. The revolutionary Bavarian government, in the shape of a provisional National Council, was in the hands of the Social Democrats and the more radical Independent Social Democrats (the USPD). The Minister President, Kurt Eisner, was a radical; and he was a Jew.
The revolution in Bavaria had preceded that in the Reich itself. It took place in circumstances and developed in ways that were to leave a profound mark on Hitler, and to fit more than the events in Berlin into what became the Nazi caricature of the 1918 revolution. It was more radical, with the leadership in the hands of the Independents; it degenerated into near-anarchy, then into a short-lived attempt to create a Communist-run Soviet-style system; this in turn led to a few days – though a few days which seared the consciousness of Bavarians for many years to come – that amounted to a mini-civil war, ending in bloodshed and brutality; and a number of the revolutionary leaders happened to be Jewish, some of them east European Jews with Bolshevik sympathies and connections. Moreover, the leader of the Bavarian revolution, the Jewish journalist and left-wing socialist Kurt Eisner, a prominent peace-campaigner in the USPD since the split with the Majority Social Democrats in 1917, together with some of his USPD colleagues, had unquestionably tried to stir up industrial unrest during the ‘January Strike’ in 1918, and had been arrested for his actions. That was to fit nicely into the Right’s ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend.
The provisional government that was soon constituted under Eisner’s leadership was from the outset a highly unstable coalition, mainly composed of the radical but largely idealistic USPD and the ‘moderate’ SPD (which had not even wanted a revolution). Moreover, it stood no chance of mastering the daunting social and economic problems it faced. The assassination of Eisner by a young, aristocratic former officer, currently a student at Munich University, Graf Anton von Arco-Valley, on 21 February 1919, provided then the signal for a deterioration into chaos and near-anarchy. Members of the USPD and anarchists proclaimed a ‘Councils Republic’ in Bavaria. The initial failure of attempts at counter-revolution simply strengthened the resolve of the revolutionary hotheads and ushered in the last phase of the Bavarian revolution: the full Communist takeover in the second, or ‘real’ Räterepublik – an attempt to introduce a Soviet-style system in Bavaria. It lasted little more than a fortnight. But it ended in violence, bloodshed, and deep recrimination, imposing a baleful legacy on the political climate of Bavaria.
It would be hard to exaggerate the impact on political consciousness in Bavaria of the events between November 1918 and May 1919, and quite especially of the Räterepublik. At its very mildest, it was experienced in Munich itself as a time of curtailed freedom, severe food shortages, press censorship, general strike, sequestration of foodstuffs, coal, and items of clothing, and general disorder and chaos. But, of more lasting significance, it went down in popular memory as a ‘rule of horror’ imposed by foreign elements in the service of Soviet Communism. The image, constructed and massively shored up by rightist propaganda throughout the Reich as well as in Bavaria itself, was that of alien – Bolshevik and Jewish – forces taking over the state, threatening institutions, traditions, order, and property, presiding over chaos and mayhem, perpetrating terrible acts of violence, and causing anarchy of advantage only to Germany’s enemies. The real gainers from the disastrous weeks of the Räterepublik were the radical Right, which had been given the fuel to stoke the fear and hatred of Bolshevism among the Bavarian peasantry and middle classes. Not least, extreme counter-revolutionary violence had come to be accepted as a legitimate response to the perceived Bolshevik threat and now became a regular feature of the political scene.
Its flirt with left-wing socialism over, Bavaria turned in the following years into a bastion of the conservative Right and a magnet for right-wing extremists throughout Germany. These were the conditions in which the ‘making of Adolf Hitler’ could take place.
The history of the Bavarian revolution was almost tailor-made for Nazi propaganda. Not just the legend of the ‘stab-in-the-back’, but the notion of an international Jewish conspiracy could be made to sound plausible in the light of the Munich Räterepublik. Though right-wing extremism had no stronger traditions in Bavaria than elsewhere up to this point, the new climate provided it with unique opportunities and the favour of a sympathetic establishment. Many of Hitler’s early followers were deeply influenced by the experience of the turbulent months of post-revolutionary Bavaria. For Hitler himself, the significance of the period of revolution and Räterepublik in Munich can hardly be overrated.
On his return to Munich, Hitler had been assigned to the 7th Company of the 1st Reserve Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, where, a few days later, he met up again with several wartime comrades. A fortnight later, he and one of these comrades, Ernst Schmidt, were among the fifteen men from his company (and 140 men in all) assigned to guard duties at the Traunstein prisoner-of-war camp. Probably, as Schmidt later recounted, Hitler suggested they let their names go forward when volunteers were called for to make up the deputation. Hitler, remarked Schmidt, did not have much to say about the revolution, ‘but it was plain enough to see how bitter he felt’. Both, according to Schmidt, were repelled by the changed conditions in the Munich barracks, now in the hands of the soldiers’ councils, where old standards of authority, discipline, and morale had collapsed. If that was indeed the reason for volunteering, Hitler and Schmidt could have found no improvement on reaching Traunstein. The camp, meant to contain 1,000 prisoners but much overcrowded, was also run by the soldiers’ councils which Hitler allegedly so detested. Discipline was poor, and the guards, according to one source, included some of the worst elements among the troops who – like Hitler – saw the army ‘as a means of maintaining a carefree existence at the expense of the state’. Hitler and Schmidt had an easy time of things, mainly on gate-duty, at Traunstein. They were there in all for almost two months, during which time the prisoners-of-war, mainly Russians, were transported elsewhere. By the beginning of February the camp was completely cleared and disbanded. Probably in late January, as Schmidt hinted, Hitler returned to Munich. Then, for just over two weeks, beginning on 20 February, he was assigned to guard duty at the Hauptbahnhof, where a unit of his company was responsible for maintaining order, particularly among the many soldiers travelling to and from Munich.
A routine order of the demobilization battalion on 3 April 1919 referred to Hitler by name as the representative (Vertrauensmann) of his company. The strong likelihood is, in fact, that he had held this position since 15 February. The duties of the representatives included cooperation with the propaganda department of the socialist government in order to convey ‘educational’ material to the troops. Hitler’s first political duties took place, therefore, in the service of the revolutionary regime run by the SPD and USPD. It is little wonder that in Mein Kampf he quickly passed over his own experience of the traumatic revolutionary period in Bavaria.
In fact, he would have had to explain away the even more embarrassing fact of his continued involvement at the very height of Munich’s ‘red dictatorship’. On 14 April, the day after the communist Räterepublik had been proclaimed, the Munich soldiers’ councils approved fresh elections of all barrack representatives to ensure that the Munich garrison stood loyally behind the new regime. In the elections the following day Hitler was chosen as Deputy Battalion Representative. Not only, then, did Hitler do nothing to assist in the crushing of Munich’s ‘Red Republic’; he was an elected representative of his battalion during the whole period of its existence.
Already in the 1920s, and continuing into the 1930s, there were rumours, never fully countered, that Hitler had initially sympathized with the Majority SPD following the revolution. There were even reported rumours – though without any supportive evidence – that Hitler had spoken of joining the SPD. In a pointed remark when defending Hermann Esser, one of his earliest supporters, in 1921 against attacks from within the party, Hitler commented: ‘Everyone was at one time a Social Democrat.’
In itself, Hitler’s possible support for the Majority Social Democrats in the revolutionary upheaval is less unlikely than it might at first sight appear. The political situation was extremely confused and uncertain. A number of strange bedfellows, including several who later came to belong to Hitler’s entourage, initially found themselves on the Left during the revolution. Esser, who became the first propaganda chief of the NSDAP, had been for a while a journalist on a Social Democratic newspaper. Sepp Dietrich, later a general in the Waffen-SS and head of Hitler’s SS-Leibstandarte, was elected chairman of a soldiers’ council in November 1918. Hitler’s long-time chauffeur Julius Schreck had served in the ‘Red Army’ at the end of April 1919. Gottfried Feder, whose views on ‘interest slavery’ so gripped Hitler’s imagination in summer 1919, had sent a statement of his position to the socialist government headed by Kurt Eisner the previous November. And Balthasar Brandmayer, one of Hitler’s closest wartime comrades and a later fervent supporter, recounted how he at first welcomed the end of the monarchies, the establishment of a republic, and the onset of a new era. Ideological muddle-headedness, political confusion, and opportunism, combined frequently to produce fickle and shifting allegiances.
That, as has been implied, Hitler was inwardly sympathetic to Social Democracy and formed his own characteristic racist-nationalist Weltanschauung only following an ideological volte-face under the influence of his ‘schooling’ in the Reichswehr after the collapse of the Räterepublik is, however, harder to believe. If Hitler felt compelled to lean outwardly towards the Majority Social Democrats during the revolutionary months, it was not prompted by conviction but by sheer opportunism aimed at avoiding for as long as possible demobilization from the army.
Whatever his opportunism and passivity, Hitler’s antagonism to the revolutionary Left was probably evident to those around him in the barracks during the months of mounting turmoil in Munich. If indeed, as was later alleged, he voiced support for the Social Democrats in preference to the Communists, it was presumably viewed as a choice of the lesser of two evils, or even, by those in Hitler’s unit who knew him of old, as an opportune adjustment betraying none of his real nationalist, pan-German sympathies. Ernst Schmidt, for example, who by then had been discharged but was still in regular touch with him, spoke later of Hitler’s ‘utter repugnance’ at the events in Munich. The nineteen votes cast for ‘Hittler’ on 16 April, electing him as the second company representative – the winner, Johann Blüml, received 39 votes – on the Battalion Council, may well have been from those who saw him in this light. That there were tensions within the barracks, and between the soldiers’ elected representatives, might be read out of the subsequent denunciation by Hitler of two colleagues on the Battalion Council at the Munich tribunal investigating the actions of the soldiers of his regiment during the Räterepublik. Hitler was probably known to those around him, at the latest towards the end of April, for the counter-revolutionary he really was, whose actual sympathies were indistinguishable from those of the ‘white’ troops preparing to storm the city. Significant, above all, is that within a week of the end of the rule of the councils, Hitler had been nominated – by whom is not known – to serve on a three-man committee to explore whether members of the Reserve Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment had been actively involved in the Räterepublik. This speaks in favour of the recognition within his battalion of his deep antagonism to ‘red’ rule. At any rate, his new role now prevented Hitler being discharged, along with the rest of the Munich garrison, by the end of May 1919. More importantly, it brought him for the first time into the orbit of counter-revolutionary politics within the Reichswehr. This, rather than any psychological trauma in Pasewalk at the news of the defeat, any dramatic decision to rescue Germany from the ‘November criminals’, was, within the following months, to open up his path into the maelstrom of extreme right-wing politics in Munich.
On 11 May 1919, under the command of Generalmajor von Möhl, the Bayerische Reichswehr Gruppenkommando Nr.4 (‘Gruko’ for short) was created from the Bavarian units that had been involved in the crushing of the Räterepublik. With the Bavarian government ‘exiled’ in Bamberg until the end of August, Munich – its centre crammed with barricades, barbed wire, and army control-points – was throughout the spring and summer a city effectively under military rule. Recognizing twin tasks of extensive surveillance of the political scene and combating by means of propaganda and indoctrination ‘dangerous’ attitudes prevalent in the transitional army, Gruko took over in May 1919 the ‘Information Department’ (Nachrichtenabteilung, Abt. Ib/P) which had been immediately established in Munich at the suppression of the Räterepublik. The ‘education’ of the troops in a ‘correct’ anti-Bolshevik, nationalist fashion was rapidly regarded as a priority, and ‘speaker courses’ were devised in order to train ‘suitable personalities from the troops’ who would remain for some considerable time in the army and function as propaganda agents with qualities of persuasion capable of negating subversive ideas. The organization of a series of ‘anti-Bolshevik courses’, beginning in early June, was placed in the hands of Captain Karl Mayr, who, a short while earlier, on 30 May, had taken over the command of the Information Department. Mayr, one of the ‘midwives’ of Hitler’s political ‘career’, could certainly have claimed prime responsibility for its initial launch.
In 1919, Mayr’s influence in the Munich Reichswehr extended beyond his rank as captain, and he was endowed with considerable funds to build up a team of agents or informants, organize the series of ‘educational’ courses to train selected officers and men in ‘correct’ political and ideological thinking, and finance ‘patriotic’ parties, publications, and organizations. Mayr first met Hitler in May 1919, after the crushing of the ‘Red Army’. Hitler’s involvement in his battalion’s investigations into subversive actions during the Räterepublik may have drawn him to Mayr’s attention. And we saw that Hitler had already been engaged in propaganda work in his barracks earlier in the spring – though on behalf of the socialist government. He had the right credentials and ideal potential for Mayr’s purposes. When he first met Hitler, Mayr wrote much later, ‘he was like a tired stray dog looking for a master’, and ‘ready to throw in his lot with anyone who would show him kindness … He was totally unconcerned about the German people and their destinies.’
The name ‘Hittler Adolf’ appears on one of the early lists of names of informants (V-Leute or V-Männer) drawn up by the Information Department Ib/P at the end of May or beginning of June 1919. Within days he had been assigned to the first of the anti-Bolshevik ‘instruction courses’, to take place in Munich University between 5 and 12 June 1919. For the first time, Hitler was to receive here some form of directed political ‘education’. This, as he acknowledged, was important to him; as was the fact that he realized for the first time that he could make an impact on those around him. Here he heard lectures from prominent figures in Munich, hand-picked by Mayr, partly through personal acquaintance, on ‘German History since the Reformation’, ‘The Political History of the War’, ‘Socialism in Theory and Practice’, ‘Our Economic Situation and the Peace Conditions’, and ‘The Connection between Domestic and Foreign Policy’. Among the speakers, too, was Gottfried Feder, who had made a name for himself among the Pan-Germans as an economics expert. His lecture on the ‘breaking of interest slavery’ (a slogan Hitler recognized as having propaganda potential), on which he had already published a ‘manifesto’ – highly regarded in nationalist circles – distinguishing between ‘productive’ capital and ‘rapacious’ capital (which he associated with the Jews), made a deep impression on Hitler, and eventually led to Feder’s role as the economics ‘guru’ of the early Nazi Party. The history lectures were delivered by the Munich historian Professor Karl Alexander von Müller, who had known Mayr at school. Following his first lecture, he came across a small group in the emptying lecture hall surrounding a man addressing them in a passionate, strikingly guttural, tone. He mentioned to Mayr after his next lecture that one of his trainees had natural rhetorical talent. Von Müller pointed out where he was sitting. Mayr recognized him immediately: it was ‘Hitler from the List Regiment’.
Hitler himself thought this incident – he said he had been roused to intervene by one of the participants defending the Jews – had led directly to his deployment as an ‘educational officer’ (Bildungsoffizier). However, he was never a Bildungsoffizier, but remained a mere informant, a V-Mann. Plainly, the incident helped to focus Mayr’s attention on Hitler. But it was certainly Mayr’s regular close observation of Hitler’s activity for his department rather than a single incident that led to the latter’s selection as one of a squad of twenty-six instructors – all drawn from the participants in the Munich ‘instruction courses’ – to be sent to conduct a five-day course at the Reichswehr camp at Lechfeld, near Augsburg. The course, beginning on 20 August 1919, the day after Hitler’s arrival in the camp, was arranged in response to complaints about the political unreliability of men stationed there, many having returned from being held as prisoners-of-war and now awaiting discharge. The task of the squad was to inculcate nationalist and anti-Bolshevik sentiments in the troops, described as ‘infected’ by Bolshevism and Spartacism. It was in effect the continuation of what the instructors themselves had been exposed to in Munich.
Alongside the commander of the unit, Rudolf Beyschlag, Hitler undertook the lion’s share of the work, including helping to stir discussion of Beyschlag’s lectures on, for example, ‘Who Bears the Guilt for the World War?’ and ‘From the Days of the Munich Räterepublik’. He himself gave lectures on ‘Peace Conditions and Reconstruction’, ‘Emigration’, and ‘Social and Economic Catchwords’. He threw himself with passion into the work. His engagement was total. And he immediately found he could strike a chord with his audience, that the way he spoke roused the soldiers listening to him from their passivity and cynicism. Hitler was in his element. For the first time in his life, he had found something at which he was an unqualified success. Almost by chance, he had stumbled across his greatest talent. As he himself put it, he could ‘speak’.
Participants’ reports on the course confirm that Hitler was not exaggerating the impact he made in Lechfeld: he was without question the star performer. A central feature of his demagogic armoury was antisemitism. In his ferocious attacks on the Jews, he was, however, doing no more than reflect sentiments which were widespread at the time among the people of Munich, as reports on the popular mood demonstrated. The responses to Hitler’s addresses at Lechfeld indicate how accessible the soldiers were to his way of speaking. The commander of the Lechfeld camp, Oberleutnant Bendt, even felt obliged to request Hitler to tone down his antisemitism, in order to prevent possible objections to the lectures as provoking antisemitic agitation. This followed a lecture by Hitler on capitalism, in which he had ‘touched on’ the ‘Jewish Question’. It is the first reference to Hitler speaking publicly about the Jews.
Within the group, and certainly in the eyes of his superior, Captain Mayr, Hitler must have acquired the reputation of an ‘expert’ on the ‘Jewish Question’. When Mayr was asked, in a letter of 4 September 1919 from a former participant on one of the ‘instruction courses’, Adolf Gemlich from Ulm, for clarification of the ‘Jewish Question’, particularly in relation to the policies of the Social Democratic government, he passed it to Hitler – whom he evidently regarded highly – for an answer. Hitler’s well-known reply to Gemlich, dated 16 September 1919, is his first recorded written statement about the ‘Jewish Question’. He wrote that antisemitism should be based not on emotion, but on ‘facts’, the first of which was that Jewry was a race, not a religion. Emotive antisemitism would produce pogroms, he continued; antisemitism based on ‘reason’ must, on the other hand, lead to the systematic removal of the rights of Jews. ‘Its final aim,’ he concluded, ‘must unshakeably be the removal of the Jews altogether.’
The Gemlich letter reveals for the first time key basic elements of Hitler’s Weltanschauung which from then on remained unaltered to the last days in the Berlin bunker: antisemitism resting on race theory; and the creation of a unifying nationalism founded on the need to combat the external and internal power of the Jews.
Following his success at Lechfeld, he was by this time plainly Mayr’s favourite and right-hand man. Among the duties of the informants assigned to Mayr was the surveillance of fifty political parties and organizations ranging from the extreme Right to the far Left in Munich. It was as an informant that Hitler was sent, on Friday, 12 September 1919, to report on a meeting of the German Workers’ Party in Munich’s Sterneckerbräu. He was accompanied by at least two former comrades from Lechfeld. The speaker was to have been the völkisch poet and publicist Dietrich Eckart, but he was ill and Gottfried Feder stood in to lecture on the ‘breaking of interest slavery’. According to his own account, Hitler had heard the lecture before, so took to observing the party itself, which he held to be a ‘boring organization’, no different from the many other small parties sprouting in every corner of Munich at that time. He was about to leave when, in the discussion following the lecture, an invited guest, a Professor Baumann, attacked Feder and then spoke in favour of Bavarian separatism. At this Hitler intervened so heatedly that Baumann, totally deflated, took his hat and left even while Hitler was still speaking, looking ‘like a wet poodle’. The party chairman, Anton Drexler, was so impressed by Hitler’s intervention that at the end of the meeting he pushed a copy of his own pamphlet, My Political Awakening, into his hand, inviting him to return in a few days if he were interested in joining the new movement. ‘Goodness, he’s got a gob. We could use him,’ Drexler was reported to have remarked. According to Hitler’s own account, he read Drexler’s pamphlet in the middle of a sleepless night, and it struck a chord with him, reminding him, he claimed, of his own ‘political awakening’ twelve years earlier. Within a week of attending the meeting, he then received a postcard informing him that he had been accepted as a member, and should attend a committee meeting of the party a few days later to discuss the matter. Though his immediate reaction, he wrote, was a negative one – he allegedly wanted to found a party of his own – curiosity overcame him and he went along to a dimly-lit meeting of the small leadership group in the Altes Rosenbad, a shabby pub in Herrenstraße. He sympathized with the political aims of those he met. But he was appalled, he later wrote, at the small-minded organization he encountered – ‘club life of the worst manner and sort’, he dubbed it. After a few days of indecision, he added, he finally made up his mind to join. What determined him was the feeling that such a small organization offered ‘the individual an opportunity for real personal activity’ – the prospect, that is, of quickly making his mark and dominating it.
Some time during the second half of September, Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party, and was given the membership number 555. He was not, as he always claimed, the seventh member. As the first party leader, Anton Drexler, put it in a letter addressed to Hitler in January 1940, but never sent:
No one knows better than you yourself, my Führer, that you were never the seventh member of the party, but at best the seventh member of the committee, which I asked you to join as recruitment director (Werbeobmann). And a few years ago I had to complain to a party office that your first proper membership card of the DAP … was falsified, with the number 555 being erased and number 7 entered.
Like so much of what Hitler had to say in Mein Kampf about his earlier life, his account of entering the party cannot be taken at face value, and was devised, like everything else, to serve the Führer legend that was already being cultivated. And whatever Hitler wrote about wrangling for days about whether or not to join the DAP, the decision might not ultimately have been his to take. In a little noticed piece of evidence, his Reichswehr boss Captain Mayr later claimed that he had ordered Hitler to join the German Workers’ Party to help foster its growth. For this purpose, Mayr went on, he was provided at first with funds – around the equivalent of 20 gold Marks a week – and, contrary to normal practice about members of the Reichswehr joining political parties, was allowed to stay in the army. He was able to do this, drawing his army pay as well as speaker fees, until his discharge on 31 March 1920. This already enabled him – in contrast to the other DAP leaders who had to fit politics around their normal jobs – to devote all his time to political propaganda. Now, on leaving the army, his confidence boosted by his early successes as a DAP speaker in the Munich beerhalls, he was in a position to do what, since he had made his mark in the anti-Bolshevik course at Munich University and worked with Mayr as a Reichswehr propagandist and informant, had emerged as a ready-made career-opening to replace the fantasies of becoming a great architect and the realities of returning to an existence as a small-time painter of street scenes and tourist attractions. Without Captain Mayr’s ‘talent-spotting’, Hitler might never have been heard of. As it was, if only on the beerhall fringes, he could now become a full-time political agitator and propagandist. He could do for a living the only thing he was good at doing: speaking.
The path from Pasewalk to becoming the main attraction of the DAP had not been determined by any sudden recognition of a ‘mission’ to save Germany, by strength of personality, or by a ‘triumph of the will’. It had been shaped by circumstance, opportunism, good fortune, and, not least, the backing of the army, represented through Mayr’s important patronage. Hitler did not come to politics; politics came to him – in the Munich barracks. His contribution, after making his mark through a readiness to denounce his comrades following the Räterepublik, had been confined to an unusual talent for appealing to the gutter instincts of his listeners, in the Lechfeld camp, then in the Munich beerhalls, coupled with a sharp eye to exploiting the main chance of advancement. These ‘qualities’ would prove invaluable in the coming years.
Without the Reichswehr’s ‘discovery’ of his talent for nationalist agitation, Hitler had every prospect of returning to the margins of society – an embittered war veteran with little chance of personal advancement. Without his self-discovery that he could ‘speak’, Hitler would not have been able to contemplate the possibility of making a living from politics. But without the extraordinary political climate of post-war Germany, and, quite especially, the unique conditions in Bavaria, Hitler would have found himself in any case without an audience, his ‘talent’ pointless and unrecognized, his tirades of hate without echo, the backing from those close to the avenues of power, on whom he depended, unforthcoming.
When he joined the infant German Workers’ Party in September 1919, he was still, as he himself put it, among the ‘nameless’ – a nobody. Within three years, he was being showered with letters of adulation, spoken of in nationalist circles as Germany’s Mussolini, even compared with Napoleon. And little more than four years later, he had attained national, not just regional, notoriety as a leader of an attempt to take over the power of the state by force. He had of course failed miserably in this – and his political ‘career’ looked to be (and ought to have been) at an end. But he was now a ‘somebody’. The first part of Hitler’s astonishing rise from anonymity to prominence dates from these years in Munich – the years of his political apprenticeship.
It is natural to presume that such a swift rise even to provincial celebrity status must have been the result of some extraordinary personal qualities. Without doubt, Hitler did possess abilities and traits of character that contributed towards making him a political force to be reckoned with. To ignore them or disparage them totally would be to make the same mistakes of underestimation made by his political enemies, who ridiculed him and regarded him as a mere cipher for the interests of others. But Hitler’s personality and his talents, such as they were, alone do not explain the adulation already being lavished on him by growing numbers in the völkisch camp by 1922. The origins of a leadership cult reflected the mentalities and expectations prevalent in some sectors of German society at the time, more than they did special qualities of Hitler. Nor would his abilities as a mob-orator, which were most of what he had to offer at the time, in themselves have been sufficient to have lifted him to a position where he could, even if for a mere few hours – in retrospect, hours of pure melodrama, even farce – head a challenge to the might of the German state. To come this far, he needed influential patrons.
Without the changed conditions, the product of a lost war, revolution, and a pervasive sense of national humiliation, Hitler would have remained a nobody. His main ability by far, as he came to realize during the course of 1919, was that in the prevailing circumstances he could inspire an audience which shared his basic political feelings, by the way he spoke, by the force of his rhetoric, by the very power of his prejudice, by the conviction he conveyed that there was a way out of Germany’s plight, and that onlythe way he outlined was the road to national rebirth. Another time, another place, and the message would have been ineffective, absurd even. As it was, indeed, in the early 1920s the great majority of the citizens of Munich, let alone of a wider population to whom Hitler was, if at all, known only as a provincial Bavarian hot-head and rabble-rouser, could not be captivated by it. Nevertheless, at this time and in this place, Hitler’s message did capture exactly the uncontainable sense of anger, fear, frustration, resentment, and pent-up aggression of the raucous gatherings in the Munich beerhalls. The compulsive manner of his speaking derived in turn much of its power of persuasion from the strength of conviction that combined with appealingly simple diagnoses of and recipes to Germany’s problems.
Above all, what came naturally to Hitler was to stoke up the hatred of others by pouring out to them the hatred that was so deeply embedded in himself. Even so, this had never before had the effect it was to have now, in the changed post-war conditions. What, in the Men’s Home in Vienna, in the Munich cafés, and in the regimental field headquarters, had been at best tolerated as an eccentricity now turned out to be Hitler’s major asset. This in itself suggests that what had changed above all was the milieu and context in which Hitler operated; that we should look in the first instance less to his own personality than to the motives and actions of those who came to be Hitler’s supporters, admirers, and devotees – and not least his powerful backers – to explain his first breakthrough on the political scene. For what becomes clear – without falling into the mistake of presuming that he was no more than the puppet of the ‘ruling classes’ – is that Hitler would have remained a political nonentity without the patronage and support he obtained from influential circles in Bavaria. During this period, Hitler was seldom, if ever, master of his own destiny. The key decisions – to take over the party leadership in 1921, to engage in the putsch adventure in 1923 – were not carefully conceived actions, but desperate forward moves to save face – behaviour characteristic of Hitler to the end.
It was as a propagandist, not as an ideologue with a unique or special set of political ideas, that Hitler made his mark in these early years. There was nothing new, different, original, or distinctive about the ideas he was peddling in the Munich beerhalls. They were common currency among the various völkisch groups and sects and had already been advanced in all their essentials by the pre-war Pan-Germans. What Hitler did was advertise unoriginal ideas in an original way. He gave voice to phobias, prejudice, and resentment as no one else could. Others could say the same thing but make no impact at all. It was less what he said, than how he said it that counted. As it was to be throughout his ‘career’, presentation was what mattered. He consciously learnt how to make an impression through his speaking. He learnt how to devise effective propaganda and to maximize the impact of targeting specific scapegoats. He learnt, in other words, that he was able to mobilize the masses. For him this was from the outset the route to the attainment of political goals. The ability to convince himself that his way and no other could succeed was the platform for the conviction that he conveyed to others. Conversely, the response of the beerhall crowds – later the mass rallies – gave him the certainty, the self-assurance, the sense of security, which at this time he otherwise lacked. He needed the orgasmic excitement which only the ecstatic masses could give him. The satisfaction gained from the rapturous response and wild applause of cheering crowds must have offered compensation for the emptiness of his personal relations. More than that, it was a sign that he was a success, after three decades in which – apart from the pride he took in his war record – he had no achievements of note to set against his outsized ego.
Simplicity and repetition were two key ingredients in his speaking armoury. These revolved around the unvarying essential driving-points of his message: the nationalization of the masses, the reversal of the great ‘betrayal’ of 1918, the destruction of Germany’s internal enemies (above all the ‘removal’ of the Jews), and material and psychological rebuilding as the prerequisite for external struggle and the attainment of a position of world power. This conception of the path to Germany’s ‘salvation’ and rebirth was already partially devised, at least in embryo, by the date of his letter to Gemlich in September 1919. Important strands remained, however, to be added. The central notion of the quest for ‘living space’ in eastern Europe was, for instance, not fully incorporated until the middle of the decade. It was only in the two years or so following the putsch debacle, therefore, that his ideas finally came together to form the characteristic fully-fledged Weltanschauung that thereafter remained unaltered.
But all this is to run ahead of the crucial developments which shaped the first passage of Hitler’s political ‘career’ as the beerhall agitator of an insignificant Munich racist party and the circumstances under which he came to lead that party.
The crowds that began to flock in 1919 and 1920 to Hitler’s speeches were not motivated by refined theories. For them, simple slogans, kindling the fires of anger, resentment, and hatred, were what worked. But what they were offered in the Munich beerhalls was nevertheless a vulgarized version of ideas which were in far wider circulation. Hitler acknowledged in Mein Kampf that there was no essential distinction between the ideas of the völkisch movement and those of National Socialism. He had little interest in clarifying or systematizing these ideas. Of course, he had his own obsessions – a few basic notions which never left him after 1919, became formed into a rounded ‘world-view’ in the mid-1920s, and provided the driving-force of his ‘mission’ to ‘rescue’ Germany. But ideas held no interest for Hitler as abstractions. They were important to him only as tools of mobilization. Hitler’s achievement as a speaker was, therefore, to become the main popularizer of ideas that were in no way his invention, and that served other interests as well as his own.
When Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party, it was one of some seventy-three völkisch groups in Germany, most of them founded since the end of the war. In Munich alone there were at least fifteen in 1920. Within the völkisch pool of ideas, the notion of a specifically German or national socialism, tied in with an onslaught on ‘Jewish’ capitalism, had gained ground in the last phase of the war, and spawned both Drexler’s German Workers’ Party and what was soon to become its arch-rival, the German-Socialist Party (Deutschsozialistische Partei).
Already during the war, Munich had been a major centre of anti-government nationalist agitation by the Pan-Germans, who found a valuable outlet for their propaganda in the publishing house of Julius F. Lehmann, otherwise renowned for the publication of texts on medicine. Lehmann was a member of the Thule Society, a völkisch club of a few hundred well-heeled individuals, run like a masonic lodge, that had been founded in Munich at the turn of the year 1917–18 out of the pre-war Germanen-Orden, set up in Leipzig in 1912 to bring together a variety of minor antisemitic groups and organizations. Its membership list, including alongside Lehmann the ‘economics expert’ Gottfried Feder, the publicist Dietrich Eckart, the journalist and co-founder of the DAP Karl Harrer, and the young nationalists Hans Frank, Rudolf Heß, and Alfred Rosenberg, reads like a Who’s Who of early Nazi sympathizers and leading figures in Munich. The colourful and rich head of the Thule Society, Rudolf Freiherr von Sebottendorff – a cosmopolitan adventurer and self-styled aristocrat who was actually the son of a train-driver and had made his fortune through shady deals in Turkey and an opportune marriage to a rich heiress – ensured that meetings could be held in Munich’s best hotel, the ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’, and provided the völkisch movement in Munich with its own newspaper, the Münchener Beobachter (renamed in August 1919 as the Völkischer Beobachter, and eventually bought by the Nazis in December 1920). It was from the Thule Society that the initiative arose towards the end of the war to try to influence the working class in Munich. Karl Harrer was commissioned to attempt this, and made contact with a railway workshop locksmith, Anton Drexler. Having been found unfit for military service, Drexler had in 1917 temporarily found an expression of his nationalist and racist sentiments in the short-lived but huge, rabidly pro-war Fatherland Party. Then, in March 1918, he had founded a ‘Workers’ Committee for a Good Peace’ in an effort to stir enthusiasm for the war effort among Munich’s working class. He combined his extreme nationalism with an anti-capitalism demanding draconian action against profiteers and speculators. Harrer, a sports-reporter on the right-wing Münchner-Augsburger Abendzeitung, persuaded Drexler and a few others to set up a ‘Political Workers’ Circle’ (Politischer Arbeiterzirkel). The ‘Circle’, a group of usually three to seven members, met periodically for about a year from November 1918 onwards to discuss nationalist and racist themes – such as the Jews as Germany’s enemy, or responsibility for the war and defeat – usually introduced by Harrer. Whereas Harrer preferred the semi-secretive völkisch ‘club’, Drexler thought discussing recipes for Germany’s salvation in such a tiny group had scant value, and wanted to found a political party. He proposed in December the setting up of a ‘German Workers’ Party’ which would be ‘free of Jews’. The idea was well received, and, on 5 January 1919, at a small gathering – mainly contacts from the railway yards – in the Fürstenfelder Hof in Munich, the German Workers’ Party was formed. Drexler was elected chairman of the Munich branch (the only one that existed), while Harrer was given the honorary title of ‘Reich Chairman’. Only in the more favourable climate after the crushing of the Räterepublik was the infant party able to stage its first public meetings. Attendance was sparse. Ten members were present on 17 May, thirty-eight when Dietrich Eckart spoke in August, and forty-one on 12 September. This was the occasion on which Hitler attended for the first time.
Hitler’s part in the early development of the German Workers’ Party (subsequently the NSDAP) is obscured more than it is clarified by his own tendentious account in Mein Kampf. And, as throughout his book, Hitler’s version of events is aimed, more than all else, at elevating his own role as it denigrates, plays down, or simply ignores that of all others involved. It amounts to the story of a political genius going his way in the face of adversity, a heroic triumph of the will. In his own version, he had joined a tiny body with grandiose ideas but no hope of realizing them, raising it single-handedly to a force of the first magnitude which would come to rescue Germany from its plight. Towering over the weak and vacillating early leaders of the party, certain of himself and of the coming to fruition of his mighty vision, proven successful in his methods, his greatness – so his account was designed to illustrate – was apparent even in these first months after joining the movement. There could be no doubt about his claim to supremacy in the völkisch movement against all pretenders.
After dealing with subsequent successes in building up the party’s following, Hitler returned to the early party history in a later passage in Mein Kampf when, surprisingly briefly and remarkably vaguely, he described his takeover of the party leadership in mid-1921. His terse summary simply indicates that after intrigues against him and ‘the attempt of a group of völkisch lunatics’, supported by the party chairman (Drexler), to obtain the leadership of the party had collapsed, a general membership meeting unanimously gave him leadership over the whole movement. His reorganization of the movement on 1 August 1921 swept away the old, ineffectual quasi-parliamentary way of running party matters by committee and internal democracy, and substituted for it the leadership principle as the organizational basis of the party. His own absolute supremacy was thereby assured.
Here, it seems, embodied in the description in Mein Kampf, is the realization of Hitler’s ambition for dictatorial power in the movement – subsequently in the German state – which could be witnessed in his early conflicts with Harrer and Drexler, and his rejection of the initial inner-party democratic style. The weakness of lesser mortals, their inability to see the light, the certainty with which he went his own way, and the need to follow a supreme leader who alone could ensure ultimate triumph – these, from the outset, are the dominant themes. The beginning of his claim to leadership can thus be located in the earliest phase of his actitity within the party. In turn, this suggests that the self-awareness of political genius was present from the beginning.
Little wonder that, on the basis of this story, the enigma of Hitler is profound. The ‘nobody of Vienna’, the corporal who is not even promoted to sergeant, now appears with a full-blown political philosophy, a strategy for success, and a burning will to lead his party and sees himself as Germany’s coming great leader. However puzzling and extraordinary, the underlying thrust of Hitler’s self-depiction has found a surprising degree of acceptance. But, though not inaccurate in all respects, it requires substantial modification and qualification.
The break with Karl Harrer soon came. It was not, however, an early indicator of Hitler’s relentless striving for dictatorial power in the movement. Nor was it simply a matter of whether the party should be a mass movement or a type of closed völkisch debating society. A number of völkisch organizations at the time faced the same problem, and attempted to combine an appeal to a mass audience with regular meetings of an exclusive ‘inner circle’. Harrer tended strongly towards the latter, represented by the ‘Workers’ Circle’, which he himself controlled, in contrast to the party’s ‘Working Committee’, where he was simply an ordinary member. But Harrer found himself increasingly isolated. Drexler was as keen as Hitler to take the party’s message to the masses. He later claimed that he, and not Hitler, had proposed announcing the party’s programme at a mass meeting in the Hofbräuhausfestsaal, and that Hitler had initially been sceptical about the prospects of filling the hall. As long as Harrer directed the party through his control of the ‘Workers’ Circle’, the question of the more viable propaganda strategy would remain unresolved. It was necessary, therefore, to enhance the role of the Committee, which Drexler and Hitler did in draft regulations that they drew up in December, giving it complete authority and ruling out any ‘superior or side government, whether as a circle or lodge’. The draft regulations – bearing Hitler’s clear imprint – determined that the Committee’s members and its chairman should be elected in an open meeting. Their unity, it went on, would be ensured through strict adherence to the programme of the party (which Hitler and Drexler were already preparing). The new regulations were plainly directed against Harrer. But they were not devised as a stepping-stone on the way to Hitler’s supreme power in the party. Evidently, he had no notion of dictatorial party rule at the time. He was ready to accept the corporate leadership of an elected committee. Decisions to stage mass meetings in the next months were, it seems, those of the Committee as a whole, approved by a majority of its members, not Hitler’s alone, though, once Harrer had departed and in view of Hitler’s increasing success in drawing the crowds to listen to his speeches, it is hard to believe that there was any dissension. Harrer alone, it appears, opposed the staging of an ambitious mass meeting in early 1920, and accepted the consequences of his defeat by resigning. Personal animosity also played a role. Harrer, remarkably, thought little of Hitler as a speaker. Hitler was in turn contemptuous of Harrer.
The party’s first mass meeting was initially planned to take place in January 1920, but had to be postponed because of a general ban on public meetings at the time. It was rescheduled for the Hofbräuhaus on 24 February. The main worry was that the attendance would be embarrassingly small. This was why, since Drexler recognized that neither he nor Hitler had any public profile, he approached Dr Johannes Dingfelder, not even a party member but well known in Munich völkisch circles, to deliver the main speech. Hitler’s name was not even mentioned in any of the publicity. Nor was there any hint that the party’s programme would be proclaimed at the meeting.
The twenty-five points of this programme – which would in the course of time be declared ‘unalterable’ and be in practice largely ignored – had been worked out and drafted over the previous weeks by Drexler and Hitler. Its points – among them, demands for a Greater Germany, land and colonies, discrimination against Jews and denial of citizenship to them, breaking ‘interest slavery’, confiscation of war profits, land reform, protection of the middle class, persecution of profiteers, and tight regulation of the press – contained little or nothing that was original or novel on the völkisch Right. Religious neutrality was included in the attempt to avoid alienating a large church-going population in Bavaria. ‘Common good before individual good’ was an unobjectionable banality. The demand for ‘a strong central power’ in the Reich, and ‘the unconditional authority’ of a ‘central parliament’, though clearly implying authoritarian, not pluralistic, government, gives no indication that Hitler envisaged himself at this stage as the head of a personalized regime. There are some striking omissions. Neither Marxism nor Bolshevism is mentioned. The entire question of agriculture is passed over, apart from the brief reference to land reform. The authorship of the programme cannot be fully clarified. Probably, the individual points derived from several sources among the party’s leading figures. The attack on ‘interest slavery’ obviously drew on Gottfried Feder’s pet theme. Profit-sharing was a favourite idea of Drexler. The forceful style sounds like Hitler’s. As he later asserted, he certainly worked on it. But probably the main author was Drexler himself. Drexler certainly claimed this in the private letter he wrote to Hitler (though did not send) in January 1940. In this letter, he stated that ‘following all the basic points already written down by me, Adolf Hitler composed with me – and with no one else – the 25 theses of National Socialism, in long nights in the workers’ canteen at Burghausenerstraße 6’.
Despite worries about the attendance at the party’s first big meeting, some 2,000 people (perhaps a fifth of them socialist opponents) were crammed into the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus on 24 February when Hitler, as chairman, opened the meeting. Dingfelder’s speech was unremarkable. Certainly, it was un-Hitler-like in style and tone. The word ‘Jew’ was never mentioned. He blamed Germany’s fate on the decline of morality and religion, and the rise of selfish, material values. His recipe for recovery was ‘order, work, and dutiful sacrifice for the salvation of the Fatherland’. The speech was well received and uninterrupted. The atmosphere suddenly livened when Hitler came to speak. His tone was harsher, more aggressive, less academic, than Dingfelder’s. The language he used was expressive, direct, coarse, earthy – that used and understood by most of his audience – his sentences short and punchy. He heaped insults on target-figures like the leading Centre Party politician and Reich Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger (who had signed the Armistice in 1918 and strongly advocated acceptance of the detested Versailles Treaty the following summer) or the Munich capitalist Isidor Bach, sure of the enthusiastic applause of his audience. Verbal assaults on the Jews brought new cheers from the audience, while shrill attacks on profiteers produced cries of ‘Flog them! Hang them!’ When he came to read out the party programme, there was much applause for the individual points. But there were interruptions, too, from left-wing opponents, who had already been getting restless, and the police reporter of the meeting spoke of scenes of ‘great tumult so that I often thought it would come to brawling at any minute’. Hitler announced, to storms of applause, what would remain the party’s slogan: ‘Our motto is only struggle. We will go our way unshakeably to our goal.’ The end of Hitler’s speech, in which he read out a protest at an alleged decision to provide 40,000 hundredweight of flour for the Jewish community, again erupted into uproar following further opposition heckling, with people standing on tables and chairs yelling at each other. In the subsequent ‘discussion’, four others spoke briefly, two of them opponents. Remarks from the last speaker that a dictatorship from the Right would be met with a dictatorship from the Left were the signal for a further uproar, such that Hitler’s words closing the meeting were drowned. Around 100 Independent Socialists and Communists poured out of the Hofbräuhaus on to the streets cheering for the International and the Räterepublik and booing the war-heroes Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and the German Nationalists. The meeting had not exactly produced the ‘hall full of people united by a new conviction, a new faith, a new will’ that Hitler was later to describe.
Nor would anyone reading Munich newspapers in the days following the meeting have gained the impression that it was a landmark heralding the arrival of a new, dynamic party and a new political hero. The press’s reaction was muted, to say the least. The newspapers concentrated in their brief reports on Dingfelder’s speech and paid little attention to Hitler. Even the Völkischer Beobachter, not yet under party control but sympathetic, was surprisingly low-key. It reported the meeting in a single column in an inside page four days later.
Despite this initial modest impact, it was already apparent that Hitler meetings meant political fireworks. Even in the hothouse of Munich politics, the big meetings of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), as the movement henceforth called itself, were something different. Hitler wanted above all else to make his party noticed. In this he rapidly succeeded. ‘It makes no difference whatever whether they laugh at us or revile us,’ he later wrote, ‘whether they represent us as clowns or criminals; the main thing is that they mention us, that they concern themselves with us again and again …’ He observed the dull, lifeless meetings of bourgeois parties, the deadening effect of speeches read out like academic lectures by dignified, elderly gentlemen. Nazi meetings, he recorded with pride, were, by contrast, not peaceful. He learnt from the organization of meetings by the Left, how they were orchestrated, the value of intimidation of opponents, techniques of disruption, and how to deal with disturbances. The NSDAP’s meetings aimed to attract confrontation, and as a result to make the party noticed. Posters were drafted in vivid red to provoke the Left to attend. In mid-1920 Hitler personally designed the party’s banner with the swastika in a white circle on a red background, devised to make as striking a visual impact as possible. The result was that meetings were packed long before the start, and the numbers of opponents present guaranteed that the atmosphere was potentially explosive. To combat trouble, a ‘hall protection’ squad was fully organized by mid-1920, became the ‘Gymnastic and Sports Section’ in August 1921, and eventually developed into the ‘Storm Section’ (Sturmabteilung, or SA).
Only Hitler could bring in the crowds for the NSDAP. In front of a beerhall audience his style was electrifying. While in his Nuremberg cell awaiting the hangman, Hans Frank, the ex-Governor General of Poland, recalled the moment, in January 1920, while he was still only nineteen years old (though already committed to the völkisch cause), that he had first heard Hitler speak. The large room was bursting at the seams. Middle-class citizens rubbed shoulders with workers, soldiers, and students. Whether old or young, the state of the nation weighed heavily on people. Germany’s plight polarized opinions, but left few unmoved or disinterested. Most political meetings were packed. But, to Frank – young, idealistic, fervently anti-Marxist and nationalistic – speakers were generally disappointing, had little to offer. Hitler, in stark contrast, set him alight.
The man with whom Hans Frank’s fate would be bound for the next quarter of a century was dressed in a shabby blue suit, his tie loosely fastened. He spoke clearly, in impassioned but not shrill tones, his blue eyes flashing, occasionally pushing back his hair with his right hand. Frank’s most immediate feeling was how sincere Hitler was, how the words came from the heart and were not just a rhetorical device. ‘He was at that time simply the grandiose popular speaker without precedent – and, for me, incomparable,’ wrote Frank.
I was strongly impressed straight away. It was totally different from what was otherwise to be heard in meetings. His method was completely clear and simple. He took the overwhelmingly dominant topic of the day, the Versailles Diktat, and posed the question of all questions: What now German people? What’s the true situation? What alone is now possible? He spoke for over two-and-a-half hours, often interrupted by frenetic torrents of applause – and one could have listened to him for much, much longer. Everything came from the heart, and he struck a chord with all of us … When he finished, the applause would not die down … From this evening onwards, though not a party member, I was convinced that if one man could do it, Hitler alone would be capable of mastering Germany’s fate.
Whatever the pathos of these comments, they testify to Hitler’s instinctive ability, singling him out from other speakers relaying a similar message, to speak in the language of his listeners, and to stir them through the passion and – however strange it might now sound to us – the apparent sincerity of his idealism.
Rising attendances marked Hitler’s growing success and mounting reputation as the party’s star speaker. By the end of 1920 he had addressed over thirty mass meetings – mostly of between 800 and 2,500 persons – and spoken at many smaller internal party gatherings. In early February 1921 he would speak at the biggest meeting so far – over 6,000 people in the Zircus Krone, which could accommodate the largest indoor crowds in Munich. Until mid-1921 he spoke mainly in Munich, where the propaganda and organization of the meetings would ensure a satisfactory turn-out, and where the right atmosphere was guaranteed. But, not counting the speeches made during a fortnight’s visit to Austria in early October, he held ten speeches outside the city in 1920, including one in Rosenheim where the first local group of the party outside Munich had just been founded. It was largely owing to Hitler’s public profile that the party membership increased sharply from 190 in January 1920 to 2,000 by the end of the year and 3,300 by August 1921. He was rapidly making himself indispensable to the movement.
Hitler spoke from rough notes – mainly a series of jotted headings with key words underlined. As a rule, a speech would last around two hours or more. In the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus he used a beer table on one of the long sides of the hall as his platform in order to be in the middle of the crowd – a novel technique for a speaker which helped create what Hitler regarded as a special mood in that hall. The themes of his speeches varied little: the contrast of Germany’s strength in a glorious past with its current weakness and national humiliation – a sick state in the hands of traitors and cowards who had betrayed the Fatherland to its powerful enemies; the reasons for the collapse in a lost war unleashed by these enemies, and behind them, the Jews; betrayal and revolution brought about by criminals and Jews; English and French intentions of destroying Germany, as shown in the Treaty of Versailles – the ‘Peace of shame’, the instrument of Germany’s slavery; the exploitation of ordinary Germans by Jewish racketeers and profiteers; a cheating and corrupt government and party system presiding over economic misery, social division, political conflict, and ethical collapse; the only way to recovery contained in the points of the party’s programme – ruthless showdown with internal enemies and build-up of national consciousness and unity, leading to renewed strength and eventual restored greatness. The combination of traditional Bavarian dislike of the Prussians and the experience of the Räterepublik in Munich meant that Hitler’s repeated onslaught on the ‘Marxist’ government in Berlin was certain to meet with an enthusiastic response among the still small minority of the local population drawn to his meetings.
While Hitler basically appealed to negative feelings – anger, resentment, hatred – there was also a ‘positive’ element in the proposed remedy to the proclaimed ills. However platitudinous, the appeal to restoration of liberty through national unity, the need to collaborate of ‘workers of the brain and hand’, the social harmony of a ‘national community’, and the protection of the ‘little man’ through the crushing of his exploiters, were, to go from the applause they invariably produced, undeniably attractive propositions to Hitler’s audiences. And Hitler’s own passion and fervour successfully conveyed the message – to those already predisposed to it – that no other way was possible; that Germany’s revival would and could be brought about; and that it lay in the power of ordinary Germans to make it happen through their own struggle, sacrifice, and will. The effect was more that of a religious revivalist meeting than a normal political gathering.
Though Hitler was invariably up-to-date in finding easy targets in the daily politics of the crisis-ridden Republic, his main themes were tediously repetitive. Some, in fact, often taken for granted to be part of Hitler’s allegedly unchanging ideology, were missing altogether at this stage. There was, for example, not a single mention of the need for ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) in eastern Europe. Britain and France were the foreign-policy targets at this time. Indeed, Hitler jotted among the notes of one of his speeches, in August 1920, ‘brotherhood towards the east’. Nor did he clamour for a dictatorship. Such a demand occurs only in one speech in 1920, on 27 April, in which Hitler declared that Germany needed ‘a dictator who is a genius’ if it were to rise up again. There was no implication that he himself was that person. Surprisingly, too, his first outright public assault on Marxism did not occur before his speech at Rosenheim on 21 July 1920 (though he had spoken on a number of occasions before this of the catastrophic effects of Bolshevism in Russia, for which he blamed the Jews). And, remarkably, even race theory – where Hitler drew heavily for his ideas from well-known antisemitic tracts such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Adolf Wahrmund, and, especially, the arch-popularizer Theodor Fritsch (one of whose emphases was the alleged sexual abuse of women by Jews) – was explicitly treated in only one speech by Hitler during 1920.
This scarcely meant, however, that Hitler neglected to attack the Jews. On the contrary: the all-devouring manic obsession with the Jews to which all else is subordinated – not observable before 1919, never absent thereafter – courses through almost every Hitler speech at this time. Behind all evil that had befallen or was threatening Germany stood the figure of the Jew. In speech after speech he lashed the Jews in the most vicious and barbaric language imaginable.
Genuine socialism, declared Hitler, meant to be an antisemite. Germans should be ready to enter into a pact with the devil to eradicate the evil of Jewry. But, as in his letter to Gemlich the previous autumn, he did not see emotional antisemitism as the answer. He demanded internment in concentration camps to prevent ‘Jewish undermining of our people’, hanging for racketeers, but ultimately, as the only solution – similar to the Gemlich letter – the ‘removal of the Jews from our people’. The implication, as in his explicit demands with regard to Ostjuden (usually poor refugees from persecution in eastern Europe), was their expulsion from Germany. This was undoubtedly how it was understood. But the language itself was both terrible and implicitly genocidal in its biological similes. ‘Don’t think that you can combat racial tuberculosis,’ he declared in August 1920, ‘without seeing to it that the people is freed from the causative organ of racial tuberculosis. The impact of Jewry will never pass away, and the poisoning of the people will not end, as long as the causal agent, the Jew, is not removed from our midst.’
His audiences loved it. More than anything else, these attacks evoked torrents of applause and cheering. His technique – beginning slowly, plenty of sarcasm, personalized attacks on named targets, then a gradual crescendo to a climax – whipped his audiences into a frenzy. His speech in the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus on 13 August 1920 on ‘Why are we Antisemites?’ – his only speech that year solely relating to the Jews and probably intended as a basic statement on the topic – was interrupted fifty-eight times during its two hours’ duration by ever wilder cheering from the 2,000-strong audience. To go from a report on another Hitler speech a few weeks later, the audience would have been mainly drawn from white-collar workers, the lower-middle class, and better-off workers, with around a quarter women.
At first, Hitler’s antisemitic tirades were invariably linked to anti-capitalism and attacks on ‘Jewish’ war profiteers and racketeers, whom he blamed for exploiting the German people and causing the loss of the war and the German war dead. The influence of Gottfried Feder can be seen in the distinction Hitler drew between essentially healthy ‘industrial capital’ and the real evil of ‘Jewish finance capital’.
There was no link with Marxism or Bolshevism at this stage. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, Hitler’s antisemitism was not prompted by his anti-Bolshevism; it long predated it. There was no mention of Bolshevism in the Gemlich letter of September 1919, where the ‘Jewish Question’ is related to the rapacious nature of finance capital. Hitler spoke in April and again in June 1920 of Russia being destroyed by the Jews, but it was only in his Rosenheim speech on 21 July that he explicitly married the images of Marxism, Bolshevism, and the Soviet system in Russia to the brutality of Jewish rule, for which he saw Social Democracy preparing the ground in Germany. Hitler admitted in August 1920 that he knew little of the real situation in Russia. But – perhaps influenced above all by Alfred Rosenberg, who came from the Baltic and had experienced the Russian Revolution at first hand, but probably also soaking up images of the horror of the Russian civil war which were filtering through to the German press – he plainly became preoccupied with Bolshevik Russia in the second half of the year. The dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – the forgery about Jewish world domination, widely read and believed in antisemitic circles at the time – probably also helped to focus Hitler’s attention on Russia. These images appear to have provided the catalyst to the merger of antisemitism and anti-Marxism in his ‘world-view’ – an identity which, once forged, never disappeared.
Hitler’s speeches put him on the political map in Munich. But he was still very much a local taste. And however much noise he made, his party was still insignificant compared with the established socialist and Catholic parties. Moreover, though it is going too far to see him as no more than the tool of powerful vested interests ‘behind the scenes’, without influential backers and the ‘connections’ they could provide his talents as a mob-agitator would not have got him very far.
Though Hitler had already signalled his intention of making a living as a political speaker, he was, in fact, until 31 March 1920 still drawing pay from the army. His first patron, Captain Mayr, continued to take a close interest in him and, if his later account can be believed, provided limited funding towards the staging of the mass meetings. At this time, Hitler was still serving both the party and the army. In January and February 1920, Mayr had ‘Herr Hittler’ lecturing on ‘Versailles’ and ‘Political Parties and their Significance’ in the company of distinguished Munich historians Karl Alexander von Müller and Paul Joachimsen to Reichswehr soldiers undertaking ‘citizenship education courses’. In March, during the Kapp Putsch, when a short-lived armed coup had attempted to overthrow the government, forcing it to flee from the Reich capital, he sent him with Dietrich Eckart to Berlin to instruct Wolfgang Kapp on the situation in Bavaria. They arrived too late. The Right’s first attempt to take over the state had already collapsed. But Mayr was undeterred. He retained both his contact with Kapp and his interest in Hitler. He still had hopes, so he told Kapp six months later, that the NSDAP – which he thought of as his own creation – would become the ‘organization of national radicalism’, the advance-guard of a future, more successful, putsch. He wrote to Kapp, now exiled in Sweden:
The national workers’ party must provide the basis for the strong assault-force that we are hoping for. The programme is still somewhat clumsy and also perhaps incomplete. We’ll have to supplement it. Only one thing is certain: that under this banner we’ve already won a good number of supporters. Since July of last year I’ve been looking … to strengthen the movement … I’ve set up very capable young people. A Herr Hitler, for example, has become a motive force, a popular speaker of the first rank. In the Munich branch we have over 2,000 members, compared with under 100 in summer 1919.
Early in 1920, before Hitler had left the Reichswehr, Mayr had taken him along to meetings of the ‘Iron Fist’ club for radical nationalist officers, founded by Captain Ernst Röhm. Hitler had been introduced to Röhm by Mayr, probably the previous autumn. Interested in a variety of nationalist parties, particularly with a view to winning the workers to the nationalist cause, Röhm had attended the first meeting of the DAP addressed by Hitler on 16 October 1919 and had joined the party shortly afterwards. Now Hitler came into far closer contact with Röhm, who rapidly came to replace Mayr as the key link with the Reichswehr. Röhm had been responsible for arming the volunteers and ‘civil defence’ (Einwohnerwehr) units in Bavaria and had in the meantime become an important player in paramilitary politics, with excellent connections in the army, the ‘patriotic associations’, and throughout the völkisch Right. He was, in fact, at this time, along with his fellow officers on the Right, far more interested in the massive Einwohnerwehren, with a membership of over quarter of a million men, than he was in the tiny NSDAP. Even so, he provided the key contact between the NSDAP and the far larger ‘patriotic associations’ and offered avenues to funding which the constantly hard-up party desperately needed. His connections proved invaluable – increasingly so from 1921 onwards, when his interest in Hitler’s party grew.
Another important patron at this time was the völkisch poet and publicist Dietrich Eckart. More than twenty years older than Hitler, Eckart, who had initially made his name with a German adaptation of Peer Gynt, had not been notably successful before the war as a poet and critic. Possibly this stimulated his intense antisemitism. He became politically active in December 1918 with the publication of his antisemitic weekly Auf gut Deutsch (In Plain German), which also featured contributions from Gottfried Feder and the young émigré from the Baltic, Alfred Rosenberg. He spoke at DAP meetings in the summer of 1919, before Hitler joined, and evidently came to regard the party’s new recruit as his own protégé. Hitler himself was flattered by the attention paid to him by a figure of Eckart’s reputation in völkisch circles. In the early years, relations between the two were good, even close. But for Hitler, as ever, it was Eckart’s usefulness that counted. As Hitler’s self-importance grew, his need for Eckart declined and by 1923, the year of Eckart’s death, the two had become estranged.
At first, however, there could be no doubt of Eckart’s value to Hitler and the NSDAP. Through his well-heeled connections, Eckart afforded the beerhall demagogue an entrée into Munich ‘society’, opening for him the door to the salons of the wealthy and influential members of the city’s bourgeoisie. And through his financial support, and that of his contacts, he was able to offer vital assistance to the financially struggling small party. Since membership fees did not remotely cover outgoings, the party was dependent upon help from outside. It came in part from the owners of Munich firms and businesses. Some aid continued to come from the Reichswehr. But Eckart’s role was crucial. He arranged, for example, the funding from his friend, the Augsburg chemist and factory-owner Dr Gottfried Grandel, who also backed the periodical Auf gut Deutsch, for the plane that took him and Hitler to Berlin at the time of the Kapp Putsch. Grandel later served as a guarantor for the funds used to purchase the Völkischer Beobachter and turn it into the party’s own newspaper in December 1920.
To the Munich public, by 1921, Hitler was the NSDAP. He was its voice, its representative figure, its embodiment. Asked to name the party’s chairman, perhaps even politically informed citizens might have guessed wrongly. But Hitler did not want the chairmanship. Drexler offered it him on a number of occasions. Each time Hitler refused. Drexler wrote to Feder in spring 1921, stating ‘that each revolutionary movement must have a dictatorial head, and therefore I also think our Hitler is the most suitable for our movement, without wanting to be pushed into the background myself’. But for Hitler, the party chairmanship meant organizational responsibility. He had – this was to remain the case during the rise to power, and when he headed the German state – neither aptitude nor ability for organizational matters. Organization he could leave to others; propaganda – mobilization of the masses – was what he was good at, and what he wanted to do. For that, and that alone, he would take responsibility. Propaganda, for Hitler, was the highest form of political activity.
In Hitler’s own conception, propaganda was the key to the nationalization of the masses, without which there could be no national salvation. It was not that propaganda and ideology were distinctive entities for him. They were inseparable, and reinforced each other. An idea for Hitler was useless unless it mobilized. The self-confidence he gained from the rapturous reception of his speeches assured him that his diagnosis of Germany’s ills and the way to national redemption was right – the only one possible. This in turn gave him the self-conviction that conveyed itself to those in his immediate entourage as well as those listening to his speeches in the beerhalls. To see himself as ‘drummer’ of the national cause was, therefore, for Hitler a high calling. It was why, before the middle of 1921, he preferred to be free for this role, and not to be bogged down in the organizational work which he associated with the chairmanship of the party.
The outrage felt throughout Germany at the punitive sum of 226 thousand million Gold Marks to be paid in reparations, imposed by the Paris Conference at the end of January 1921, ensured there would be no let-up in agitation. This was the background for the biggest meeting that the NSDAP had until then staged, on 3 February in the Circus Krone. Hitler risked going ahead with the meeting at only one day’s notice, and without the usual advance publicity. In a rush, the huge hall was booked and two lorries hired to drive round the city throwing out leaflets. This was another technique borrowed from the ‘Marxists’, and the first time the Nazis had used it. Despite worries until the last minute that the hall would be half-empty and the meeting would prove a propaganda debacle, more than 6,000 turned up to hear Hitler, speaking on ‘Future or Ruin’, denounce the ‘slavery’ imposed on Germans by the Allied reparations, and castigate the weakness of the government for accepting them.
Hitler wrote that after the Zircus Krone success he increased the NSDAP’s propaganda activity in Munich still further. And indeed the propaganda output was impressive. Hitler spoke at twenty-eight major meetings in Munich and twelve elsewhere (nearly all still in Bavaria), apart from several contributions to ‘discussions’, and seven addresses to the newly-formed SA in the latter part of the year. Between January and June he also wrote thirty-nine articles for the Völkischer Beobachter, and from September onwards contributed a number of pieces to the party’s internal information leaflets. Of course, he had the time in which to devote himself solely to propaganda. Unlike the other members of the party leadership, he had no other occupation or interest.
Politics consumed practically his entire existence. When he was not giving speeches, or preparing them, he spent time reading. As always, much of this was the newspapers – giving him regular ammunition for his scourge of Weimar politicians. He had books – a lot of them popular editions – on history, geography, Germanic myths, and, especially, war (including Clausewitz) on the shelves of his shabby, sparsely-furnished room at 41 Thierschstraße, down by the Isar. But what, exactly, he read is impossible to know. His lifestyle scarcely lent itself to lengthy periods of systematic reading. He claimed, however, to have read up on his hero Frederick the Great, and pounced on the work of his rival in the völkisch camp, Otto Dickel, a 320-page treatise on Die Auferstehung des Abendlandes (The Resurrection of the Western World) immediately on its appearance in 1921 in order to be able to castigate it.
Otherwise, as it had been since the Vienna days, much of his time was spent lounging around cafés in Munich. He specially liked the Café Heck in Galerienstraße, his favourite. In a quiet corner of the long, narrow room of this coffee-house, frequented by Munich’s solid middle class, he could sit at his reserved table, his back to the wall, holding court among the new-found cronies that he had attracted to the NSDAP. Among those coming to form an inner circle of Hitler’s associates were the young student Rudolf Heß, the Baltic-Germans Alfred Rosenberg (who had worked on Eckart’s periodical since 1919) and Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter (an engineer with excellent contacts to wealthy Russian émigrés). Certainly by the time Putzi Hanfstaengl, the cultured part-American who became his Foreign Press Chief, came to know him, late in 1922, Hitler had a table booked every Monday evening at the old-fashioned Café Neumaier on the edge of the Viktualienmarkt. His regular accompaniment formed a motley crew – mostly lower-middle class, some unsavoury characters among them. Christian Weber, a former horse-dealer, who, like Hitler, invariably carried a dog-whip and relished the brawls with Communists, was one. Another was Hermann Esser, formerly Mayr’s press agent, himself an excellent agitator, and an even better gutter-journalist. Max Amann, another roughneck, Hitler’s former sergeant who became overlord of the Nazi press empire, was also usually there, as were Ulrich Graf, Hitler’s personal bodyguard, and, frequently, the ‘philosophers’ of the party, Gottfried Feder and Dietrich Eckart. In the long room, with its rows of benches and tables, often occupied by elderly couples, Hitler’s entourage would discuss politics, or listen to his monologues on art and architecture, while eating the snacks they had brought with them and drinking their litres of beer or cups of coffee. At the end of the evening, Weber, Amann, Graf, and Lieutenant Klintzsch, a paramilitary veteran of the Kapp Putsch, would act as a bodyguard, escorting Hitler – wearing the long black overcoat and trilby that ‘gave him the appearance of a conspirator’ – back to his apartment in Thierschstraße.
Hitler scarcely cut the figure of a mainstream politician. Not surprisingly, the Bavarian establishment regarded him largely with contempt. But they could not ignore him. The old-fashioned monarchist head of the Bavarian government at the time, Minister President Gustav Ritter von Kahr, who had assumed office on 16 March 1920 following the Kapp Putsch and aimed to turn Bavaria into a ‘cell of order’ representing true national values, thought Hitler was a propagandist and nothing more. This was a not unjustifiable assessment at the time. But Kahr was keen to gather ‘national forces’ in Bavaria in protest at the ‘fulfilment policy’ of Reich Chancellor Wirth. And he felt certain that he could make use of Hitler, that he could control the ‘impetuous Austrian’. On 14 May 1921 he invited a delegation from the NSDAP, led by Hitler, to discuss the political situation with him. It was the first meeting of the two men whose identical aim of destroying the new Weimar democracy was to link them, if fleetingly, in the ill-fated putsch of November 1923 – a chequered association that would end with Kahr’s murder in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ at the end of June 1934. Whatever Kahr’s disdain for Hitler, his invitation to a meeting in May 1921 amounted to recognition that the latter was now a factor in Bavarian politics, proof that he and his movement had to be taken seriously.
Rudolf Heß, still studying at Munich under the geopolitician Professor Karl Haushofer, introverted and idealistic, and already besotted with Hitler, was part of the delegation. Three days later, unsolicited and unprompted by Hitler, he wrote a lengthy letter to Kahr, describing Hitler’s early life and eulogizing about his political aims, ideals, and skills. Hitler, he wrote, was ‘an unusually decent, sincere character, full of kind-heartedness, religious, a good Catholic’, with only one aim: ‘the welfare of his country’. Heß went on to laud Hitler’s self-sacrifice in this cause, how he received not a penny from the movement itself but made his living purely from the fees he received for other speeches he occasionally made.
This was the official line that Hitler himself had put out the previous September in the Völkischer Beobachter. It was quite disingenuous. On no more than a handful of occasions, he claimed, did he speak at nationalist meetings other than those of the NSDAP. The fees from these alone would certainly not have been enough to keep body and soul together. Rumours about his income and lifestyle were avidly taken up on the Left. Even on the völkisch Right there were remarks about him being chauffeured around Munich in a big car, and his enemies in the party raised questions about his personal financial irregularities and the amount of time the ‘king of Munich’ spent in an expensive lifestyle cavorting with women – even women smoking cigarettes. In fact, Hitler was distinctly touchy about his financial affairs. He repeated in court in December 1921 in a libel case against the socialist Münchener Post that he had sought no fees from the party for sixty-five speeches delivered in Munich. But he accepted that he was ‘supported in a modest way’ by party members and ‘occasionally’ provided with meals by them. One of those who looked after him was the first ‘Hitler-Mutti’, Frau Hermine Hofmann, the elderly widow of a headmaster, who plied Hitler with endless offerings of cakes and turned her house at Solln on the outskirts of Munich for a while into a sort of unofficial party headquarters. A little later the Reichsbahn official Theodor Lauböck – founder of the Rosenheim branch of the NSDAP, but subsequently transferred to Munich – and his wife saw to Hitler’s well-being, and could also be called upon to put up important guests of the party. In reality, the miserable accommodation Hitler rented in Thierschstraße, and the shabby clothes he wore, belied the fact that even at this date he was not short of well-to-do party supporters. With the growth of the party and his own expanding reputation in 1922–3, he was able to gain new and wealthy patrons in Munich high society.
The party was, however, perpetually short of money. It was on a fundraising mission in June 1921 to Berlin by Hitler, to try (in the company of the man with the contacts, Dietrich Eckart) to find backing for the ailing Völkischer Beobachter, that the crisis which culminated in Hitler’s take-over of the party leadership unfolded.
The background was shaped by moves to merge the NSDAP with the rival German-Socialist Party, the DSP. To go from the party programmes, despite some differences of accent, the two völkisch parties had more in common than separated them. And the DSP had a following in north Germany, which the Nazi Party, still scarcely more than a small local party, lacked. In itself, therefore, there was certainly an argument for joining forces. Talks about a possible merger had begun the previous August in a gathering in Salzburg, attended by Hitler, of national socialist parties from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. A number of overtures followed from the DSP leaders between then and April 1921. At a meeting in Zeitz in Thuringia at the end of March, Drexler – presumably delegated by the NSDAP, but plainly in the teeth of Hitler’s disapproval – even agreed to tentative proposals for a merger and – anathema to Hitler – a move of the party headquarters to Berlin. Hitler responded with fury to Drexler’s concessions, threatened to resign from the party, and succeeded ‘amid unbelievable anger’ in reversing the agreement reached at Zeitz. Eventually, at a meeting in Munich in mid-April, amidst great rancour and with Hitler in a towering rage, negotiations with the DSP collapsed. The DSP was in no doubt that Hitler, the ‘fanatical would-be big shot’, whose successes had gone to his head, was solely responsible for the NSDAP’s obstructionism. Hitler, dismissive of notions of a specific political programme to be implemented, interested only in agitation and mobilization, had set his face rigidly from the outset against any possible merger. To Hitler, the similarities in programme were irrelevant. He objected to the way the DSP had rushed to set up numerous branches without solid foundations, so that the party was ‘everywhere and nowhere’, and to its readiness to resort to parliamentary tactics. But the real reason was a different one. Any merger was bound to threaten his supremacy in the small but tightly-knit NSDAP.
Though the merger with the DSP had been fended off for the time being, an even bigger threat, from Hitler’s point of view, arose while he was away in Berlin. Dr Otto Dickel, who had founded in March 1921 in Augsburg another völkisch organization, the Deutsche Werkgemeinschaft, had made something of a stir on the völkisch scene with his book Die Auferstehung des Abendlandes (The Resurrection of the Western World). Dickel’s mystic völkisch philosophizing was not Hitler’s style, and, not surprisingly, met with the latter’s contempt and angry dismissal. But some of Dickel’s ideas – building up a classless community through national renewal, combating ‘Jewish domination’ through the struggle against ‘interest slavery’ – bore undeniable similarities to those of both the NSDAP and the DSP. And Dickel, no less than Hitler, had the conviction of a missionary and, moreover, was also a dynamic and popular public speaker. Following the appearance of his book, which was lauded in the Völkischer Beobachter, he was invited to Munich, and – with Hitler absent in Berlin – proved a major success before a packed audience in one of Hitler’s usual haunts, the Hofbräuhaus. Other speeches were planned for Dickel. The NSDAP’s leadership was delighted to find in him a second ‘outstanding speaker with a popular touch’.
Hitler, meanwhile, was still in Berlin. He failed to turn up at a meeting with a DSP representative on 1 July for further merger talks, and did not return to Bavaria until ten days later. He had evidently by then got wind of the alarming news that a delegation of the NSDAP’s leaders was due to have talks there with Dickel and representatives of the Augsburg and Nuremberg branches of the Deutsche Werkgemeinschaft. He appeared before the NSDAP delegates themselves arrived, beside himself with rage, threatening the Augsburg and Nuremberg representatives that he would see that a merger was stopped. But when his own people eventually turned up, his uncontrolled fury subsided into sulky silence. Three hours of suggestions from Dickel for the formation of a loose confederation of the different groups and recommendations for improvements to the NSDAP’s programme prompted numerous outbursts from Hitler before, being able to stand it no longer, he stormed out of the meeting.
If Hitler hoped his tantrums would convince his colleagues to drop the negotiations, he was mistaken. They were embarrassed by his behaviour and impressed by what Dickel had to offer. Even Dietrich Eckart thought Hitler had behaved badly. It was accepted that the party programme needed amending, and that Hitler ‘as a simple man’ was not up to doing this. They agreed to take back Dickel’s proposals to Munich and put them to the full party committee.
Hitler resigned from the party in anger and disgust on 11 July. In a letter to the committee three days later, he justified his move on the grounds that the representatives in Augsburg had violated the party statutes and acted against the wishes of the members in handing over the movement to a man whose ideas were incompatible with those of the NSDAP. ‘I will and can not be any longer a member of such a movement,’ he declared. Hitler had resigned ‘for ever’ from the party’s committee in December 1920. As noted, he threatened resignation yet again following the Zeitz conference in late March 1921. The histrionics of the prima donna were part and parcel of Hitler’s make-up – and would remain so. It would always be the same: he only knew all-or-nothing arguments; there was nothing in between, no possibility of reaching a compromise. Always from a maximalist position, with no other way out, he would go for broke. And if he could not get his way he would throw a temper-tantrum and threaten to quit. In power, in years to come, he would sometimes deliberately orchestrate an outburst of rage as a bullying tactic. But usually his tantrums were a sign of frustration, even desperation, not strength. It was to be the case in a number of future crises. And it was so on this occasion. The resignation was not a carefully planned manoeuvre to use his position as the party’s star performer to blackmail the committee into submission. It was an expression of fury and frustration at not getting his own way. His threat of resignation had worked before, after the Zeitz conference. Now he was risking his only trump card again. Defeat would have meant the party’s amalgamation in Dickel’s planned ‘Western League’ and left Hitler with only the option – which he seems to have contemplated – of setting up a new party and beginning again. There were those who would have been glad, whatever his uses as an agitator, to have been rid of such a troublesome and egocentric entity. And the spread of the party that the merger with Dickel’s organization presented offered more than a little compensation.
But the loss of its sole star performer would have been a major, perhaps fatal, blow to the NSDAP. Hitler’s departure would have split the party. In the end, this was the decisive consideration. Dietrich Eckart was asked to intervene, and on 13 July Drexler sought the conditions under which Hitler would agree to rejoin the party. It was full capitulation from the party leadership. Hitler’s conditions all stemmed from the recent turmoil in the party. His key demands – to be accepted by an extraordinary members’ meeting – were ‘the post of chairman with dictatorial power’; the party headquarters to be fixed once and for all as Munich; the party programme to be regarded as inviolate; and the end of all merger attempts. All the demands centred upon securing Hitler’s position in the party against any future challenges. A day later the party committee expressed its readiness in recognition of his ‘immense knowledge’, his services for the movement, and his ‘unusual talent as a speaker’ to give him ‘dictatorial powers’. It welcomed his willingness, having turned down Drexler’s offers in the past, now to take over the party chairmanship. Hitler rejoined the party, as member no.3680, on 26 July.
Even now the conflict was not fully at an end. While Hitler and Drexler publicly demonstrated their unity at a members’ meeting on 26 July, Hitler’s opponents in the leadership had his henchman Hermann Esser expelled from the party, prepared placards denouncing Hitler, and printed 3,000 copies of an anonymous pamphlet attacking him in the most denigratory terms as the agent of sinister forces intent on damaging the party. But Hitler, who had shown once more to great effect how irreplaceable he was as a speaker in a meeting, packed to the last seat, in Circus Krone on 20 July, was now in the driving seat. Now there was no hesitancy. This was Hitler triumphant. To tumultuous applause from the 554 paid-up members attending the extraordinary members’ meeting in the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus on 29 July, he defended himself and Esser and rounded on his opponents. He boasted that he had never sought party office, and had turned down the chairmanship on several occasions. But this time he was prepared to accept. The new party constitution, which Hitler had been forced to draft hurriedly, confirmed on three separate occasions the sole responsibility of the First Chairman for the party’s actions (subject only to the membership meeting). There was only one vote against accepting the new dictatorial powers over the party granted to Hitler. His chairmanship was unanimously accepted.
The reform of the party statutes was necessary, stated the Völkischer Beobachter, in order to prevent any future attempt to dissipate the energies of the party through majority decisions. It was the first step on transforming the NSDAP into a new-style party, a ‘Führer party’. The move had come about not through careful planning, but through Hitler’s reaction to events which were running out of his control. Rudolf Heß’s subsequent assault on Hitler’s opponents in the Völkischer Beobachter not only contained the early seeds of the later heroization of Hitler, but also revealed the initial base on which it rested. ‘Are you truly blind,’ wrote Heß, ‘to the fact that this man is the leader personality who alone is able to carry through the struggle? Do you think that without him the masses would pile into the Circus Krone?’