History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Month: July 2019

The Trial and Detention of Adolf Hitler in 1924


Preceding Post: The Beer Hall Putsch

Videos: US – Video from 1945 (no sound) / German Clip


In the early afternoon of November 9, 1923, the Nazis‘ wannabe-putsch had miserably failed at the Odeonsplatz in Munich under the guns of the Bavarian police. Adolf Hitler had dislocated his left arm as he fell on the pavement. Walter Schulze, head of the Munich SA Medical Unit, led him to Max-Joseph Platz, where they mounted Hitler’s old Selve 6/20 and fled southbound.

Selve 6/20 Model

After some errant manoeuvring, the car finally drove to Uffing at the Staffelsee Lake, to the house of the foreign press chief of the NSDAP, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstängl. The landlord was not at home – he had not been on Odeonsplatz, but on a special mission in Munich’s Neuhausen district and was picked up by Heinrich Hoffmann, the party photographer, and brought to his apartment, whence he planned his escape to Austria.

In Uffing, the refugees were taken care of by Putzi’s wife Helene Hanfstaengl, but the idyll did not last long – on Sunday, 11 November in the afternoon, the criminal police appeared and seized Hitler. He was first taken to Weilheim, the county seat, from where the magistrate examining the case transferred him to the custody of the state prison at Landsberg am Lech, where he arrived Monday at 11 o’clock.

The trial of Ludendorff, Hitler and the other defendants began on the morning of February 26, 1924, in the Munich Central Infantry School at Blutenburgstraße. 368 witnesses were heard in total. Lots of correspondents from all over the world and hundreds of spectators crowded the hall. Two battalions of police sealed the Mars- and Blutenburgstraße off with barbed wire and Spanish riders.

During the days of the trial at the Bavarian Peoples’ Court – established in violation of the Weimar Constitution and therefore actually illegal (the Reichsgericht at Leipzig – outside of Bavaria – would have been the proper court), he was housed in the local prison at Stadelheim in Munich.

The trial of Hitler et al. lasted from February 26 to April 1, 1924.

The Defendants: Heinz Pernet (Ludendorff’s son-in-law), Dr Friedrich WeberWilhelm Frick (Chief of the Munich Criminal Police), Hermann Kriebel, General Ludendorff, Hitler, Wilhelm Brückner (Leader of the SA München), Ernst Röhm, and Robert Wagner (Aide-de-Camp of Ludendorff)

The website of the Austrian historian Kurt Bauer features the statements of Hitler before the court (PDF link in German).

Here an excerpt of Hitler’s speech of February 26, 1924, before the court (in English, see link below):

[As the Putsch ended], I wanted to hear nothing more of this lying and libellous world, but in the course of the next few days, during the second week [of my arrest], as the campaign of lies which was being waged against us [by the Bavarian government] continued, and as one after another was arrested and brought to Landsberg prison, honest men whom I knew to be absolutely innocent, but whose sole crime was that they belonged to our Movement, men who knew nothing whatsoever about the events, but who were arrested because they shared our philosophy and the government was afraid that they would speak up in public, I came to a decision. I would defend myself before this court and fight to my last breath. Thus I have come into this room, not in order to explain things away, or lie about my responsibility; no indeed! In fact, I protest that Oberstleutnant Kriebel has declared that he bears responsibility for what happened. Indeed, he had no responsibility for it at all. I alone bear the responsibility. I alone, when all is said and done, wanted to carry out the deed. The other gentlemen on trial here only negotiated with me at the end. I am convinced that I sought nothing bad. I bear the responsibility, and I will shoulder all the consequences. But one thing I must say: I am not a crook, and I do not feel like a criminal. On the contrary! …

If I stand here before the court [accused of being] a revolutionary, it is precisely because I am against revolution and against crimes. I do not consider myself guilty. I admit all the factual aspects of the charge. But I cannot plead that I am guilt of high treason; for there can be no high treason against that treason to the Fatherland committed in 1918 [by the Republican Revolution].

It is impossible to prove that I began to commit high treason during the events of 8 and 9 November [1923], for the important points are my attitude and my whole activities which went on months before. Treason cannot arise from a single act, but in the preliminary conversations and planning for this act. If I really committed high treason thereby, I am astonished that the men with whom I planned all this [i.e. the Bavarian politicians], are not sitting in the dock beside me. I cannot plead guilty, since I am aware that the Prosecuting Attorney is legally obligated to charge everyone who discussed with us, and planned to carry out those acts; I mean Messrs von Berchem, von Aufsaß, Kahr, Lossow, and Seißer and others. I must consider it an oversight that the Prosecuting Attorney has not charged these gentlemen too. And as I stated before, admit all the facts, disputing only the guilt, so long as my companions here in the dock are not increased by the presence of the gentlemen who wanted to the same things as we, and who in conversations with us planned to do the same thing—all of which I will be glad to tell the court, in the absence of the public! So long as these gentlemen do not stand here beside me, I reject the charge of high treason. …

I do not feel like a traitor,  but as a good German,  who wanted only the best for his people.

https://www2.bc.edu/john-heineman/Weimar.html
Hitler (x) before the Court

And, on March 27, at the trial’s conclusion:

My Lords!

The action on 8/9 November did not miscarry. I would have considered it a failure if even one mother had come to me and said, “Herr Hitler, you have my child on your conscience; my child too fell that day.” But I assure you most solemnly: no mother ever said that to me. On the contrary, ten, hundreds, and ten thousand [men and women] have come, and have joined our ranks. An event which has not occurred in Germany since 1918 happened on that day: joyfully, young men went forth to death, to a death which one day will be hailed like the saying on the Obelisk: “They too died for the liberation of the Fatherland.” That is the most obvious sign of the success of that 8 November: for afterwards, the German people were not more depressed, but rather a wave of young Germany rose up, and joining together everywhere, and in powerful organizations, announced their new-found will. Thus, we see in this 8 November a great triumph, not only did it not produce depression, but it became the means for our Volk to become terribly enthusiastic to an extreme degree, and therefore I now believe that one day the hour will come when these masses who today bear our Swastika, and walk the streets carrying our swastika banners, will unite themselves with the very units which opposed us on 8 November. I thus believe that the blood which flowed on that day is not doomed to divide us forever.

When I learned, on the third day [of my arrest], that it was the Green Police [i.e. the riot-control police of Munich] a feeling of joy welled up within my soul; at least it had not been the German army which had shot us down! I rejoiced that it was not the German army, which had befouled itself. Instead, the German army remained as it had been, and with certain exceptions, we could still express the conviction that one day the hour would come in which the German army, officers and men, would stand on our side, and the old Quartermaster-General of the World War [Ludendorff] could rejoin this military unit …

The army which we have been building grows and grows, from day to day, from hour to hour, faster than ever, and in these very days we can express the proud hope that in the near future these wild groups will become battalions, and the battalions will grow to be regiments, and the regiments to be divisions, and the old colours of the Empire will be picked up out of the slime, and our old flags will whip in the wind, and reconciliation will be attained, just as on the day of the last judgment! And we ourselves will be ready and willing to join in that reconciliation.

And then, my Lords, then out of our graves, our bones will appeal to that higher court which rules over all of us. For you, my Lords, will not speak the final judgment in this case; that judgment will be up to “History,” the goddess of the highest court, which will speak over our graves and over yours. And when we appear before that court, I know its verdict in advance. It will not ask us: “Did you commit high treason?” for in the eyes of history, the Quartermaster-General of the World War, and his officers, who desired only the best, are considered to be only Germans who wanted to fight to defend their fatherland.

You may speak your verdict of “guilty” a thousand times over, but “History,” the goddess of a higher truth and a higher court, will one day laughingly tear up the charges of the Prosecution, and will laughingly tear up the verdict of this court, for she declares us to be innocent!

https://www2.bc.edu/john-heineman/Weimar.html
Proclamation of the Sentence, drawing by Otto. D. Franz
Ludendorff, who was acquitted, leaves the Court

The trial never lost the character of a horse trade. Right at the beginning, the three lay judges Leonhard Beck (born May 6, 1867 in Schwandorn), Philipp Hermann (born October 21, 1865 in Nuremberg, † January 10, 1930 in Munich) and Christian Zimmerman told the court that they would agree to possible convictions only on the condition that any sentences would be suspended. To prevent the immediate disintegration of the trial and subsequent referral to the proper court in Leipzig, the court had to accept.

Newspaper Extra, April 1, 1924, at 10 a.m.

The Judgement in the German Original

Ludendorff was acquitted and Hitler, Weber, Kriebel and Pöhner sentenced to a minimum sentence of five years of “Festungshaft” imprisonment and fines of 200 gold marks. Since pre-trial detention counted towards the time of incarceration, Frick, Röhm, Wagner and Brückner were immediately released on probation.

The term “Festungshaft” meant, according to the Reich Penal Code of 1871, imprisonment without compulsory labour and was a special provision for capital crimes on the occasion of duels or political crimes, in which “honourable reasons” were assumed – in contrast to greed, jealousy or other “lower” motives.

A few days after the end of the trial, Hitler, Herrmann Kriebel and Dr Friedrich Weber returned to Landsberg prison. The only other inmate in custody was the murderer of former Bavarian minister-president Kurt Eisner, Anton Count von Arco auf Valley, but he was released on probation on April 13, 1924, and pardoned in 1927. He had already been evicted from his old cell # 7, which Hitler took over.

Landsberg Prison, the main entrance
Hitler’s Cell, no. 7

Hitler, Dr Weber, Kriebel, Emil Maurice and Rudolf Hess, who arrived in May, were brought to five cells that formed a separate wing of the building, where a common day room was available as well. The men met there almost every day for social gatherings.

A rather interesting point of view was first published on December 19, 2015, in an article by Sven Felix Kellerhoff, Chief Editor of the Department of History of the German newspaper “Die Welt“. Prisoners of the “Festungshaft” category had the privilege of self-sufficiency (at their own expense) and hence the judicial guard Franz Hemmrich, who was responsible for their orders, noted in the second half of 1924:

Hitler, Maurice, Kriebel, Hess and Dr Weber

Notable was his consumption of butter (34 kilograms), sugar (45 kilograms), eggs (515 pieces), potatoes (50 kilograms) and lemons (88 pieces). Otherwise, Hitler also ordered noodles (black and white vermicelli, spaghetti, macaroni), peas (one kilogram), onions (2.5 kilograms), rice (3.5 kilograms), salad oil, vinegar essence, soup cubes, coffee beans (5 pounds), condensed milk (one can), vanilla and cinnamon (50 grams).

Other purchases, however, shattered the image of the teetotaller, that Hitler claimed all his life in public:

More interesting, however, is what Hitler ordered in addition: beer. 62 bottles in July, 47 in August, 60 in September and 47 were delivered in October. For November, there are hardly any entries while 34 bottles accrued in December until one week before Christmas. These were half-litre bottles; thus, Hitler drank an average of just under a litre a day. That the beer was actually intended for him, can be concluded from the fact that Hemmrich noted specifically, if occasionally one of the then three daily bottles was intended for Hitler’s friend Emil Maurice, later SS-member No. 2.

It may, therefore, be concluded that a circle of merry men knew how to spend the days of their imprisonment in a rather liberal fashion. Of Hitler’s literary work on his book “Four and a half years of a fight against falsehood, stupidity and cowardice” – whose bulky title he later renamed “Mein Kampf” on the advice of a publisher –  party legend claimed later, that the author dictated the text to Rudolf Hess freewheelingly in the style of an ingenious rhetorician, but recent findings indicate that he probably typed the text himself on the old portable typewriter which can be clearly seen in cell picture # 2.

The treatment given to Hitler and his fellow prisoners regarding visits was, however, truly extraordinary. The director, senior government councillor Otto Leybold, described the men as “nationally-minded men” and for that reason authorized the admission of visitors far beyond the normal level. Until his release, Hitler received no fewer than 330 visits. The Historical Lexicon of Bavaria relates:

In addition to lawyer Lorenz Roder, the most frequent visitors were Berlin piano manufacturers Edwin Bechstein(1859-1934) and his wife Helene, Erich Ludendorff, Max Amann (Hitler’s war sergeant, 1891-1957), and Hermione Hoffmann.

Since the beginning of April, Kriebel and Dr Weber enjoyed the privilege of “receiving visits of their closest relatives without surveillance,” which extended to members of their sprawling families. From his own family environment, Hitler was visited only by his half-sister Angela Franziska Raubal from Vienna and her minor children Leo (1906-1977) and Angela Maria, called “Geli” (1908-1931). They were allowed to speak to their half-brother and/or uncle on 17 June and 14 July 1924 for a period of just under three and four hours, respectively, without supervision. In addition, Leybold had approved that Hitler was allowed to conduct confidential discussions with political friends regularly without the presence of a prison guard.

One probably will not err in characterizing the conditions of detention as rather mimicking a men’s pension than a prison. The inmates reckoned with their release on probation after serving the minimum detention period of nine months, estimating their release approximately on October 1, 1924. To their detriment, the Munich prosecutor found out that the prisoners had established smuggling of their correspondence, which torpedoed the earliest release date. Director Leybold was then asked for a written recommendation, which turned out quite surprisingly positive (here the German PDF of the document from a transcript in the Bavarian State Archives). After this hymn of praise – which allows us a few insights into the thoughts of the good Mr Leybold – their release on probation on 20 December 1924 was only a matter of form.

December 20, 1924, after release

Many relevant documents relating to Hitler’s detention were considered lost for years until they were offered for sale in July 2010; an action prevented, however, by the State of Bavaria, by seizure.

Inmate Hitler on the warden’s list – healthy, 175 cm height, 77 kg weight
A visiting card by Ludendorff and various other documents

As it was to be expected, after 1933 the Nazis made Hitler’s cell and prison a national shrine – with much fanfare and millions of postcards; a “place of pilgrimage to the German youth” – in the words of Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach – where the hard time of the leader was to be honoured and kept in awe. [PDF in German by Manfred Deiler with pics] The city of Landsberg eventually crowned the adulation; in 1937 she declared the room the “National Sanctuary Hitler Cell”.

Obviously, the US military government after 1945 wanted to erase the whole haunting affair as quickly as possible – and to make it clear to everyone where the madness had ultimately led, executed between 248 and 308 war criminals there (depending on the source), including Oswald Pohl, Head of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt, Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D and Paul Blobel, the butcher of Babi Yar.

Graves of the War Criminals

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019 – The pictures from Landsberg were provided, if not in the public domain, by the European Holocaust Memorial Landsberg, Foundation e.V. [English version] and especially from the archive of Manfred Deilers. Thank you very much!)

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The Oedipus Factor – Alois Hitler and his son Adolf


Preceding post: Children of the Lesser Men


After Alois Jr., the eldest child, had left the apparently not so cosy household of the Hitler family, the freedom the elder son now enjoyed came at a high price for the younger, Adolf, who became the foremost recipient of the father’s pedagogic exercises. It was around this time that Alois Sr. conceded defeat in the agricultural campaign at Hafeld and sold the underperforming farm in the hope of finding a more congenial life in the small town of Lambach, about six miles or ten kilometres away. The family’s first residence there, the Leingartner Inn, was situated on the opposite side of the town’s dominant architectural feature, the old Benedictine monastery.

Leingartner Inn

Lambach had a quite modern primary school in which Adolf did well. In the school year of 1897/98, he scored the best mark, a “1”, in a dozen subjects. He also participated in the monastery’s boys’ choir, where he, probably for the first time in his life, saw a swastika. The depiction was part of a previous abbot’s coat of arms, a huge specimen of which was fastened to the stone arch over the abbey’s entrance, which the boys had to pass under on the way to choir practice. The monastery, dating from the eleventh century, was known for well-preserved frescoes and paintings by medieval masters. The second architectural highlight of the town was the Paura Church, which featured a triangular design, with three altars, gates and towers.

Lambach Monastery and Church today, frontal view

The school was located just aside of the monastery, and the busy church calendar with its many festivities strongly attracted the youngster. He was fascinated with the monks and priests, the celebrations, and the abbot’s presidency over the ceremonial community, the memories of which never left him. In Mein Kampf, he reminisced:

“Again and again I enjoyed the best possibility of intoxicating myself with the solemn splendour of the dazzling festivals of the church. It seemed to me perfectly natural to regard the abbot as the highest and more desirable ideal, just as my father regarded the village priest as his ideal.

(10)

Whether Alois Hitler, habitually championing the causes of sexual liberation and, perhaps, alcoholic intoxication, still regarded priests as ideals may be doubted. But since he had been raised in the bosom of the Catholic Church, he paid his respects, at least to a degree, and visited services on Easter, Christmas and on August 18, the Emperor’s birthday.

One thing his son clearly kept in mind was the swastika he had discovered on the abbot’s coat of arms. The original bearer of the coat, Abbot Theoderich von Hagen, had been the prior of the monastery in the middle of the preceding century, and the swastika symbol was not only featured on his coat but was found at many places in the structure as an element of decoration. The swastika, also known as the equilateral cross or crux gammata, is an attribute of prosperity and good fortune, widely used by cultures ancient as well as modern. The word is derived from Sanskrit swastika, meaning “conducive to well-being“. It was a favourite symbol on ancient Mesopotamian coins and appears frequently in medieval Christian, especially Byzantine, art, where it is known as the gammadion cross. It is also found in South and Central America, used by the Maya, and in North America among the Navajo and related tribes.[1]

Hakenkreuz at Lambach

The German word for swastika is “Hakenkreuz”, the ‘Hooked Cross’. In the case of the venerable abbot, it was perhaps a pun on his name, for in German his name Hagen, and Haken, the hook, are pronounced almost identically.

Lambach, however, was not the kind of town to stop Alois’ wanderlust, and in the late fall of 1898, he bought a small house in the town of Leonding, a south-western suburb of Linz. The house stood opposite the church, was not too big but had a nice garden, about one-half acre in size, abutting the cemetery wall. Leonding housed perhaps three thousand souls, but its proximity to Linz made it a somewhat livelier place than the number of inhabitants alone might suggest.

The Hitler family house at Leonding (Wiki)

[More Pictures of the house and Leonding in the blog of Mark Felton, PhD]

Adolf and Angela had to change school again, for the third time in four years, but Adolf did well at the small school in Leonding. Yet the family atmosphere apparently did not change much, for better or worse, and Paula reported that her brother remained the chief target the father’s temper tantrums were directed at. She remarked:

“It was him who challenged my father to extreme hardness and who got his sound thrashing every day. He was a scrubby little rogue, and all attempts of my father to thrash him for his rudeness and to cause him to love the profession of an official of the state were in vain.How often, on the other hand, did my mother caress him and try to obtain with her kindness, where the father could not succeed with harshness.”

(11)

Thus, if the sister blamed the father’s violence, she also attested to her brother’s being a “scrubby little rogue”, which we may take as a hint that the father’s educational manoeuvres were not entirely unwarranted.

The famous picture of Adolf Hitler in the fourth grade of primary school in Leonding (1899), presiding on top of the class …

The first two years in Leonding passed by, and Alois seemed to adjust better to the lifestyle of a retiree. He worked in the garden mornings for an hour or two, visited his beloved bees, and then proceeded to pay his dues at one of the inns, for a glass of wine. In the afternoon the schedule repeated itself; the Gasthaus session, however, was finished punctually at the time for dinner at home.

An important witness for this time is the mayor of Leonding, Josef Mayrhofer. He portrayed Klara as a most friendly and nicely dressed woman and explicitly stated that he never saw or heard of Alois beating the children, although he often enough threatened them with the whip. The truth may, as so often, lie somewhere in the middle, for corporeal punishment was widely accepted in this age.

Out of the blue, on February 2, 1900, Edmund, six years old, died of the measles. There are indications that the sudden death of his little brother shocked Adolf to the core, and may have contributed to the school problems which began soon thereafter. It seems that no other event in his young life had a comparable impact on Adolf. His scholarly success diminished dramatically, and problems with his discipline escalated.

Our photograph right, taken in the fall of 1900, in the first grade of the Unterrealschule, the Junior Technical High School in Linz, depicts a strangely mutated child: the boy faces the camera morosely, sullenly sulking, mumpish and dumpish, as if a flame had gone out. During primary school, he had always been near the academic top of the class but now his scholastic efforts and consequently his achievements dropped quickly. By his own account, his personal yearnings for academic laurels were diminished by the sudden discovery of a talent he had been unaware of yet: that of drawing.

Yet after school hours, if not drawing, he remained the lively leader of the pack, in all probability neither worse nor better than a typical schoolboy. Since his family had moved to four different locations within the first few years of his life and had thus provided him with an intimate knowledge of faraway places, he became the indispensable authority in all foreign matters. We can imagine him natter to his chums for hours, as he did later to his dinner guests.

He always found topics to talk about. All through his life, the observations agree, he was buried in books and this habit had begun early. He read all the time, and if the latest tome he had ingested was one of James Fenimore Cooper’s, he felt like Natty Bumppo, alias Hawk-Eye or Leatherstocking; if the last volume had been one of Karl May’s adventures, he was Old Shatterhand or Winnetou, chief of the Apache. Young boys have read adventure books and built fortresses in the woods since the dawn of time, and young Adolf was initially no exception. All boys pass through the heroic age, and so they should, but in young Adolf’s case, a deviation of the norm occurred. Juvenile obsessions diminish into the background of half-forgotten childhood memories when the ascent of puberty shifts priorities; when girls, cars and beer replace the heroes of the past. For Adolf, however, some childhood dreams persisted, like his veneration for the books of Karl May.

Karl May

Virtually unknown outside of the German-speaking people, Karl May was the son of a poor family from the Erzgebirge, the Ore Mountains, the low mountain ridge separating Saxony and Bohemia. The son of a weaver, he became an elementary school teacher before a conflict with the law, a conviction for petty theft, sent him for seven years to prison. Upon his release in 1874, he embarked on a career as a writer. He started out with short stories, which eventually grew larger and were serialized; like Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Christo” had found success in France. May soon graduated to full-length novels, chiefly fictitious traveller’s tales.

While he eventually wrote about almost every corner of the globe, most of the stories concentrate upon his and a bunch of trusty sidekicks’ fictional adventures in the Wild West of the USA and Mexico of the 1860s and 1870s respectively the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan, Arabian and Turkish provinces. His alter ego was, in the case of the Wild West, “Old Shatterhand”, a trapper, surveyor and know-it-all, and in the East, “Kara Ben Nemsi”, a mixture between Sir Henry Morton Stanley and jack-of-all-­parades. In the 1960s a few of his tomes were turned into movies, featuring second-tier Hollywood stars like Stewart Grainger or Lex Barker in hilarious German-Italian co-productions, with Yugoslavian extras playing the assorted Indian braves.

In the German-speaking countries around the turn of the century, Karl May became an improbable success and a veritable household name. A whole printing house was dedicated solely to his oeuvre, followed by a museum. An open-air theatre was built to give dramatizations of his yarns, and the movies are a staple of weekend-afternoon child pacification. Total sales of his works exceed 100 million copies.

Most of his seventy novels and story collections follow unpretentious recipes. Mr May, as trapper Old Shatterhand, accompanied by his friend and blood-brother Winnetou, chief of the Apache Indians, encounters a party of strangers somewhere on the prairie, who, for the one or other reason, arouse his suspicion. After parting from their company, the heroes return, clandestinely, at night, and listen in on the fishy characters’ fireside chat, hidden by the bushes that grow handily around the suspects’ fireplace. The evildoers invariably engage in a lengthy and detailed discussion of their criminal enterprise, but, armed with the knowledge of their plan, our friends are able to thwart the heinous plot, as the laws of suspense prescribe, in the last minute. They save the prospective victims from bodily and/or financial harm and, at the end of the tale, ride together into the sunset.

For variety, evil Indian tribes may be replaced by Arabian criminals or Turkish gangsters. Books like those of Karl May have, of course, fired puerile imagination for centuries; in literate societies, they are an indispensable part of the male coming of age. In Hitler’s case, however, Karl May’s novels continued to form a part of his reality all through his life, he was unable to outgrow them. By his words, and the reports of his staff, he read the complete seventy novels at least four times in his life. He found time in his first year as chancellor of Germany, in 1933, to read them once again. His ideas of tactics and in particular of military intelligence were partly formed by his favourite literature; he did, in fact, more than once encourage his generals to read Karl May. One may hope they found enough bushes around their opponents’ campfires, for cover.

A quite linear way led young Adolf’s sense of adventure from the Wild West to the military. He admitted that when he found, by accident, a few illustrated magazines depicting the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 in the attic, he became an instant fan of the patriotic struggle. At this time, it was official Austrian policy to ignore the events of these years: first, because their army’s defeat at Königgrätz in 1866 by the Prussians still rankled, second, because Austria had played no part in the success of 1870/71, and, third, because the Austrian government was unwilling to acknowledge German efficiency in general, and the more so because it contrasted so unfavourably to its own bumbling ways. Adolf himself admitted that:

“It was not long before the great historic struggle had become my greatest inner experience. From then on, I became more and more enthusiastic about everything that was in any way connected with the war, or, for that matter, with soldiering.” (13)

The fascination with all things military that was to remain with him all his life had begun. The neighbours in Leonding were used to see Adolf and his associates playing war all day and night, the boy with the characteristic forelock urging on the action.

The year that had begun so baneful with Edmund’s death brought more trouble to Adolf in the fall. In September 1900, he had transferred to the Unterrealschule in Linz. Comparable to a junior technical high school, it was a four-year school with an impetus on science, mathematics and modern languages, preparing its students for careers in the modern industry fields of engineering, design and production. It was a feeder school for industry and trade, not for aspiring university students. For those pupils, Austria, like Germany, had the Gymnasium, in which the prospective earners of academic degrees were treated to a classical curriculum that included Latin and Greek. The Realschule did not offer ancient languages or courses in philosophy; it taught practical subjects to the children of the lesser men.

How it felt in general to be a student in a contemporary Austrian school we are being told by Stefan Zweig, who remembers his days in a gymnasium in Vienna.

It was not that our Austrian schools were bad in themselves. On the contrary, after a hundred years of experience, the curriculum had been carefully worked out and, had it been transmitted with any inspiration, could have been the basis for a fruitful and fairly universal education.

But because of their accurate arrangement and their dry formulary our lessons were frightfully barren and lifeless, a cold teaching apparatus which never adapted itself to the individual, but automatically registered the grades, “good”, “sufficient” and “insufficient”, depending on how far we complied with the “requirements” of the curriculum.

It was exactly this lack of human affection, this empty impersonality and the barracks-like quality of our surrounding, that unconsciously embittered us. We had to learn our lessons and were examined on what we learned. For eight years no teacher asked us even once what we personally wished to learn, and that encouraging stimulus, for which every young person secretly longs, was totally lacking. (14)

It was the normal procedure of the age that the father of the student chose in which type of institution to enrol his offspring after he or she finished elementary school, and, not surprisingly, Alois chose the more practically oriented Realschule over the more cerebral Gymnasium for his son; perhaps in the hope that its more utilitarian education would improve, at length, the boy’s willingness to pursue the career of a civil servant.

The virtues of the civil service were proverbial in the Hitler household. It was necessary that one child should be prepared for the bureaucracy, almost as noble sons once were destined for army and Church. Yet, when the actual decision had to be made, the old man ran into unexpected resistance.                A serious conflict erupted between father and son because the boy refused to cooperate in Alois’ plans. He claimed that he had no interest in an official’s life; nothing his father could propose, through either commands or blandishments, succeeded in changing his stand. The struggle between father and son gradually became more serious. Alois became increasingly bitter and intransigent. And Adolf’s whole manner of life was profoundly changed.

During the years in Realschule (1900-1905), he emerged as a solitary, resentful, and uncooperative youth who sullenly went through the motions at home and failed in school. After compiling an excellent record in Volksschule, he slipped from one mediocre term to another, either failing completely (1900-1901) or barely skating by. The whole experience deeply affected his later development. It barred his way to higher education and left him with a full measure of unhappy confusion and resentment about himself, his family and his future. (15) [FN1]

[FN1] Most of the school reports of these years have been preserved. They are somewhat confusing to the outsider, hence here a link to a useful summary.

It is quite possible that Adolf initially seconded the selection of the Realschule over the Gymnasium, for drawing was part of the curriculum in the former but not the latter. The Realschule closest to Leonding was, of course, in Linz, and on September 17, 1900, Adolf had to report to it for the first time. From his home, it was a walk of about three miles. At this time the foremost entry Linz had contributed to the annals of German respectively Austrian history was the fact that she bore the ruins of Kürnberg Castle, where, according to folklore, the “Nibelungenlied”, the Song of the Nibelungs, had been composed. At the time of our survey, it was a town of perhaps 50,000 residents, on the brink of industrialization, dominated by a German middle class eager to introduce the pleasures of the arts and the comforts of modernity to their habitat. Two recent improvements were the opening of a municipal opera house and an electric trolley line that ran down Landstrasse, the main thoroughfare. The Realschule, a square block of utilitarian dark grey stone, was perhaps a less inspiring sight.

It is evident that Adolf almost immediately ran into problems. A few of his report cards have survived, and they show that the majority of the grades he received in these years balanced precariously between a “3” [‘acceptable’] and a
“5” [‘insufficient’]; in “Moral Conduct” he received an “adequate”, but hid diligence was rated as “erratic”, and he missed passing grades in mathematics and natural history [=science, ¶] in the class of 1900/1901. He did better the next year, although it was the same curriculum he went through, for the second time, and between 1901 and 1904 his grade average dropped from 2.7 in 1902 to 2.9 in 1904. Even in his favourite course, drawing, he was poised close to failure, although he liked it and judged himself a talent. While he scored between “1” and “2” in Geometrical Drawing, in Freehand Drawing he was never rated better than a “4”. His works consequently never made it being hung in the classroom, as some other boys’ drawings were.

Grades

Not only was he in a new scholarly environment, but the new year had also changed his social status. He was not any more, by fiat, the natural leader of the pack; neither worked the relatively high social prestige of his father in Leonding the same way in the big town. Adolf had never faced much competition in the small primary schools he had visited, but in Linz, he could not count on being the brightest boy by default, and his mother was not around to help him.

He seemed incapable of any concentrated effort, disliked the teachers, and was not popular with the other boys. He did so badly that he had to go through the work of the first class all over again the following year. That he was obviously having grave difficulties with his work and that he was completely unable to adapt himself to the Realschule showed that he was suffering from some profound psychological malaise, not that
he was stupid. His pride had been assailed, the inner citadel of his life no longer stayed firm, and he was at the mercy of all
these accumulative shocks that attack people in a state of depression, leaving them almost defenceless. Edmund’s death, his burial in the depth of winter, the whole family in mourning, all this drew a long shadow over his life, but there were many other things that contributed to his misery. For the first time he was living for a large part of the day away from home among strangers who did not care what happened to him. Loneliness, too, played an important part in the sudden change that came over him.

(16)

He was in dire need of aid, and when none was forthcoming, he dove deeply into the reservoir of hope his musings provided. The scholastic decline hurt him, of course, and in his depression, he clung more and more to the only talent he thought he still possessed, that of drawing. His father had no understanding of the son’s sudden failure, and the teachers were not interested in the quandary the boy presented. Only his mother was able at times to supply the quantum of solace the boy required. His grades failed to improve. That he had to repeat the first grade of the Realschule he later portrayed as a result of adolescent rebellion.

“I thought that once my father saw how little progress I was making in the Realschule, he would let me devote myself to my dream, whether he liked it or not.”

(17)

Alois was not swayed that easily. Much has been made of Hitler’s academic failure in the Realschule, frequently by political enemies who welcomed every chance to belittle their less-educated antagonist. It appears obvious, though, that the problem was of psychological nature. Laziness may have played a part; a penchant of his for letting time take care of things will become impossible to overlook in his later career. A pattern might emerge here for the first time; that if he could not tackle a problem right away, he tended to ignore it and retreat into his dream world. Alas, this is a point not easily criticized – who has never taken refuge in dreams?
The botched year had two favourable side effects: in the next year Adolf had the advantage of relearning a curriculum that he was already familiar with, and he was a year older than his classmates, which aided his recently diminished authority. He did better on the second attempt, which eased the situation on the home front. But clashes still did happen, if we believe the scenes he describes in “Mein Kampf”:

“But when it [Adolf’s desire to become an artist, ¶] was explained to him [Alois, ¶], and especially when he realized the seriousness of my intentions, he opposed me with all the determination of his nature. His decision was quite simple, and he refused to pay the slightest heed to any talents I might have possessed.
‘Artist, no! Never as long as I live!’ As his son, among various other qualities, had apparently inherited his father’s stubbornness, the same answer was given back to him. Of course, the meaning was just the opposite. Thus, the situation remained on both sides.
My father did not depart from his ‘Never!’ and I was even more determined with my ‘Nevertheless!’ The
consequences, indeed, were not very pleasant. The old man became embittered, and as much as I loved him, so did I. My father forbade me to entertain any hope of being allowed to study painting. I went one step further and declared that I absolutely would not study any more. Of course, after such a ‘declaration’ I got the worst of it, and now the old man relentlessly enforced his authority.”

(18)

Subsequently, Adolf relates how he attempts to run from home at an even earlier age than Alois and Alois Jr.: the first time, he says, when the family was still living in Lambach, although then the school problem certainly did not exist yet. At any rate, it would seem that the father had somehow learned about the filial plans and locked the boy into the attic. When Adolf attempted to proceed with the absquatulation, a barred window prevented further advance. Plan B called now for a complete disrobing, after which, the boy pondered, he might just fit through the available opening. With unerring paternal instinct, however, the father happened to unlock the door and enter the attic in the very moment when the son was halfway outside the window, stuck, and stark naked. Poised in a delicate balance, the boy eventually decided to give up the flight, crawled back into the room and covered his nudity, not completely, as it turned out, with a tablecloth that had hung on the line to dry. This saved him, at least for the day, from physical punishment, for the father took his son’s display of nature with humour and called in the rest of the family to watch the “Roman in his toga”. (19)
Many years later Hitler confessed to Helene Hanfstängl, the wife of his first foreign press agent, that the ridicule had hurt him more, and longer, than a beating could have. Finally, he claimed, he found a strategy to end the corporal punishments.

“I then resolved never again to cry when my father whipped me. A few days later, I had the opportunity of putting my will to the test. My mother, frightened, took refuge in front of my door. As for me, I counted silently the blows of the stick which lashed my rear end.”

(20)

The resolution of silence worked, he claimed: from this day on the beatings ceased. But we have reason to doubt his veracity, in particular because Josef Mayrhofer later categorically denied that Alois had a special propensity for physical punishment. That he was strict, we can assume with reasonable certainty, and Paula did testify that her brother received some thrashings, but overall, they were probably in line with the pedagogic recommendations of the time. That Adolf definitely changed after Edmund’s death, Robert Payne observed:

From being a rather cocky, good-humoured, outward-going boy who found his lessons ridiculously easy, sailing through life as though all things were possible to him, he becomes a morose, self-absorbed, nervous boy, who never again did well in his lessons and continued to wage a sullen war against his teachers until they gave up in despair.

(21)

Some early and nationalist feelings may around this time have become a matter of strife in the former Customs official’s household – if we believe “Mein Kampf, which we probably should not – for Alois had spent his life in the enforcement of Austrian law, and strove to instil pro-Austrian feelings upon his son. The son, perhaps naturally, claimed to oppose the father’s support for the Habsburgs and felt encouraged in his opinion by the teachers in school, who, he claimed, were also Pro-German yet forbidden by legal decree to show their colours openly.

Brigitte Hamann has researched this claim and confirms that the general …

” … atmosphere at Linz high school was politically turbulent. Together, ‘clericalists’ and Hapsburg loyalists fought against libertines and German nationalists. Pupils eagerly collected and displayed their colours: while the high school students loyal to the emperor collected black-and-yellow [the colours of the Habsburgs, ¶] ribbons and badges, photographs of the imperial family, and coffee cups depicting Empress Elizabeth and Emperor Franz Josef, the German nationalists collected devotional objects such as Bismarck busts made of plaster, beer mugs with inscriptions of heroic maxims about Germany’s past, and, above all, ribbons, pencils, and pins with the ‘greater German’ colours of 1848: black, red, and gold.”

(23)

Eventually, he showed some scholastic improvement; his grade average was slightly better at 2.63 and in conduct and diligence he scored “good” respectively “very satisfactorily”. We must, however, keep in mind that this was the second time he went through the identical curriculum. In the following school year, with new courses and new teachers, the old problems resurfaced.

Disagreements with the father continued. Alois’ ideas for his son’s life were tailored from his own legacy: learn well, enter the civil service, climb the ladder of promotion, and, one day, retire with a pension. He took Adolf to the Customs office in Linz once; the son vowed to die rather than to submit to a second visit.
Alois then caught a bad case of the flu in December 1899 and took to bed for several weeks, but appeared to recover fully. In August of the following year he suffered a haemorrhage of the lung, but again, seemed to convalesce completely. But on January 3, 1903, apparently feeling unwell, Alois abandoned a chat over the fence with the neighbour and decided to visit the Gasthaus Stiefler. He sat down, called for a glass of wine, and died. He was buried two days later, only paces from his house, on the cemetery of the Leonding church. As it was common at this time in Austria and still is in some places, a photograph was affixed to the gravestone that shows him looking resolutely ahead, purposeful and serious. His obituary in the Linzer newspaper “Tagespost”, the Daily Post, read as follows:

“Leonding, January 5th. We have buried a good man – this we can rightly say about Alois Hitler, Higher
Official of the Imperial Customs, retired, who was carried to his final resting place today. On the third of this month his life came to a sudden end as the result of an apoplectic stroke in the Gasthaus Stiefler, where he had gone because he was feeling unwell, hoping to revive himself with a glass of wine.
Alois Hitler was in his 65th year, and had experienced a full measure of joy and sorrow. Having only an elementary school education, he had first learned the trade of a cobbler, but later taught himself the knowledge needed for a civil service career, which he served with distinction, and in addition he achieved success in husbandry.
Salzburg, Braunau, Simbach, Linz, were among the places where he saw service. Alois Hitler was a progressive minded man through and through, and as such was a warm friend of free education. In company, he was always cheerful, not to say boisterous. The harsh words that sometimes fell from his lips could not belie the warm heart that beat under the rough exterior.
At all times an energetic champion of law and order and universally well-informed, he was able to pronounce authoritatively on any matter that came to his notice. Fond of singing, he was never happier than when in joyful company of fellow enthusiasts. In the sphere of beekeeping he was an authority. Not the least of his characteristics was his great frugality and sense of economy and thrift.
All in all Hitler’s passing has left a great gap, not only in his family -he leaves a wife and four children not well provided for – but also in the circle of his friends and acquaintances who will preserve pleasant memories of him.” [Emphasis in original]

(28)

There are a few things in this eulogy which may benefit from a translation of the contemporary euphemisms into the vernacular: “progressive-minded” at that time meant that he was an anti-Ultramontanist, anti-Papal, and against the political influence of the Austrian Catholic Church; “able to pronounce authoritatively” means that he was a smart-ass and know-it-all; “boisterous” indicates that his voice could be heard on the other side of the river, and a “champion of law and order” denotes his being, not surprisingly, a political reactionary. We may speculate what the reference to his frugality must have meant for the tips the local waitresses hoped to collect from his frequent visits. The family paid for the following notice in the “Tagespost”:

Grave of the parents until 2012

Bowed in the deepest grief, we, on our behalf, and on behalf of all the relatives announce the passing of our dear and unforgettable husband, father, brother-in-law, uncle
ALOIS HITLER
Higher Official of Royal and Imperial Customs, retired, who, on Sunday, January 3rd, 1903, at 10 o’clock in the morning, in
his 65th year, suddenly fell peacefully asleep in the Lord. The burial will take place on Monday, January 5th, 1903, at ten
o’clock in the morning.
Leonding, January 3rd, 1903
ANGELA HITLER KLARA HITLER ALOIS HITLER
PAULA HITLER Wife ADOLF HITLER
Daughters Sons

(29)
Hitler visiting the grave 1938, Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann, Postcard

It had been a full life for Alois Hitler, who was laid to rest on the clear and cold morning of January 5. He had reached the highest achievements in the history of the family; he was its first member to have successfully made the transition from Waldviertel peasantry into Austria’s petit bourgeoisie. He had married three times and fathered nine children that we know of.
He had also been stern and judicious. Now the way was free for his son.


(10) (18) Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf [German Edition], Eher Verlag, Munich 1924, p.4, 7-8

(11) (19) (20) Toland, John, Adolf Hitler, Anchor Books 1992, ISBN 0-385-42053-6 (pbk.), p. 12, 12, 12 – 13

(13) (17) Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf, Houghton Mifflin 1942, p. 6, 10

(14) Zweig, Stefan, The World of Yesterday, T & L Constable, Edinburgh, 4th Ed., 1947, p. 34

(15) Smith, Bradley F., Adolf Hitler – Family, Childhood and Youth, Hoover Institution Press 1979, ISBN 0-8179-1622-9 (pbk.), p. 70 – 71

(16) (21) (28) (29) Payne, Robert, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Praeger Publishers 1973, Lib. Con. 72-92891 (hc.), p. 24, 22, 29, 31

(23) Hamann, Brigitte, Hitler’s Vienna, 1st Ed. Oxford UP 1999, Tauris Parks 2010, ISBN 978-1-84885-277-8 (pbk.), p.12

[1] See the relevant article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Barbarians at the Gate

Raphael’s The Meeting between Pope Leo I, the Great and Attila depicts Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun king outside Rome

And from your city do not
Wholly banish fear,
For what man living, free from fear,
Will still be just?


Aeschylus “The Eumenides“, L. 698


Deos fortioribus adesse.
The Gods are on the side of the stronger.


Tacitus “Histories“, Bk. 4, Ch. 17


Peoples do not, and neither do nations, come into being in a year or two, much less on a single day. Neither do languages and cultures. Consequently, one cannot point to a definitive date on which the natives living north and east of the great rivers of the Danube, Elbe and Rhine became “Germans”. The word “German” itself was not commonly used until, at around AD 100, the Roman historian Tacitus employed the term in a book and thus became godfather to the eventual nation.

The first peoples relevant to this account, who were populating the western and northern reaches of the continent while Rome was still a city-state, were the Celts, or Gauls. Leaving their indigenous settlements in the western heart of Europe around today’s Belgium and central France in the fourth century BC, they migrated for the better part of the next two hundred years over great parts of the continent, the neighbouring isles, and in particular to the south and east: following the Danube river into what are today Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Romania.

Others went north and over the sea. The Celtic colonization of the British Isles and the petty kingdoms they subsequently established are best known to us by the literary influence they extended on the legend, and perhaps the deeds, of King Arthur, the sword Excalibur and the Knights of the Round Table. Written down by Sir Thomas Malory in the fourteenth century and titled “Le Mort D’Arthur”, the tale has become a part of Western culture. T.E. White’s “The Once And Future King” is perhaps the most charming rendering of the epos.

The farthest branches of the Celtic migration expanded as far as Spain, northern Italy and Greece; a few fragments made it as far as Anatolia, then called “Asia Minor”. There they founded the Kingdom of Galatia, with Ankyra [Latin “Ancyra”, today’s Ankara] as its capital, which eventually became a client kingdom of Rome. After frequent clashes between Romans and Celts in the third and second centuries BC, the recurrences of conflict diminished, and subsequent improvement of neighbourly relations eventually gave rise to the spread of Roman civilization into Gallia Transalpina, Gaul on the further side of the Alps. Today’s Provence became the province of Gallia Narbonensis and its great ports of Massilia and Narbo, today’s Marseille and Narbonne, traded goods from near and far. Over a period of roughly a century, a number of adjacent Celtic tribes were introduced to the Roman fold, initially awarded the status of allies, and later that of citizens of Rome.

In 58 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar arrived in “Gallia Comata” (‘long-haired Gaul’), the northern and western unromanized parts of the land, with ten legions, and within seven years transformed all of today’s France, Belgium and the Upper Netherlands into Roman provinces. While he did have temporary problems with the particularly wild tribes of the Belgians, he was aware that the real danger for Rome lurked on the eastern, the far bank of the Rhine; a land where a wholly different and far more ferocious congregation of barbarians skulked in the forests, longing for the riches of civilization. Caution was advisable.

Germanic warriors as depicted in Philipp Clüver’s Germania Antiqua 1616

Caesar knew as much about these wild tribes as it was possible to know at this time, as told by his great-uncle Gaius Marius. Not since the days of Hannibal had the Roman Republic faced an adversary able to threaten her very existence; the “German” danger, however, commanded vigilance and preparedness. This was particularly true after the debacle of Arausio, in which Quintus Servilius Caepio had managed to lose the complete Roman army; that the German throng had not proceeded straight into Italy had been pure luck. For reasons unknown, the victorious German tribes had undertaken various detours, first into Spain, then back to northern Gallia, reaching the beaches of Normandy in the summer of 103 BC, but were back, in the fall of the next year, less than fifty miles from Arausio, at Aquae Sextae, today’s Aix-en-Provence.


Related Post: The Heist of the Millennium – The Gold of Tolosa and the Catastrophe of the Battle of Arausio 105 BC


Migrations of the Cimbri and Teutones

This time, however, a welcoming committee was ready, commanded by the former hayseed from Arpinum, Gaius Marius, and his newly formed army of “head count” soldiers. That these impoverished fellows would primarily depend on their general for their retirement was a foregone conclusion Marius did not forget for a second and planned his long-term goals accordingly: upon leaving service, his veterans would receive a bit of real estate and a small pension; the veteran might farm a bit, have sons, enjoy the sun, and, if need be, visit Rome and vote for his good friend, the general.

AD 410 – The Visigoths sack Rome

At Aquae Sextae, Marius found out that he was confronted with the Teutones only, who had split from the other tribes and were on their way along the Tyrrhenian Coast to Genova. Marius did not hesitate and led the legions to a complete victory over the disorganized enemy, and about 30,000 women and children who survived their men, fathers and suicide were sold on the slave markets of Massilia, the proceeds going, by tradition, to the general alone.

The wives of the Teutones kill their children and commit suicide to escape capture and subsequent slavery at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae, by Heinrich Leutemann

A year later and with the help, or, as some said, despite the hindrance of his co-consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus Caesar, Marius repeated the success of Aquae Sextiae against the second half of the original German horde, the Cimbri. They were coming down from the slopes of the Alps, which they had crossed by way of the Brenner pass and were on the descent into the riches of the Po Valley when they were checked by Marius’s legions before they could rest or gather supplies. At Vercellae, near today’s Rovigo, the legions won another victory and Marius’s purse pocketed the proceeds from the sale of another 20,000 women and children to the slave markets of Rome [101 BC].

Gaius Marius’ victory over the Cimbri by Francesco Saverio Altamura

Yet victory did not always smile upon the legions. Less luck than Marius had had fell upon Proconsul Gaius Varus and his three legions a little over a century later (AD 9). He had been dispatched to Germany by Emperor Augustus in return for a few border violations and a couple of plundered villages. The expedition crossed the Rhine and pursued the malefactors into the lands of the Cherusci, around the Weser River, somewhere in the vicinity of today’s town of Bielefeld.
The Cherusci were commanded by Arminius, a man who had served in the legions and was familiar with their tactics. He laid an ambush in a particularly dense forest which the legions had to traverse, thereby creating a scenario in which he hoped the biggest advantage of the legions, mutual support in a tight formation, would be nullified. The forest split the legions into small groups: not a single man survived. Varus and his men disappeared without a trace, an occurrence unprecedented in the annals of the legions. Rome concluded that the German danger merited unprecedented attention and decided upon the eventual fortification of the border. Jared Diamond comments on the early relations of Romans and barbarians as follows:

Battle at the Teutoburg Forest
Italian Map of the Battle
The Forest
Attack of the German warriors, by Otto Albert Koch

All but a few historical societies have been geographically close enough to some other societies to have at least some contact with them. Relations with neighbouring societies may be intermittently or chronically hostile. A society may be able to hold off its enemies as long as it is strong, only to succumb when it becomes weakened for any reason, including environmental damage. The proximate cause of the collapse will then be military conquest, but the ultimate cause – the factor whose change led to the collapse – will have been the factor that caused the weakening. Hence, collapses for ecological or other reasons often masquerade as military defeats. The most familiar debate about such possible masquerading involves the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Rome became increasingly beset by barbarian invasions, with the conventional date for the Empire’s fall being taken somewhat arbitrarily as A.D. 476, the year in which the last emperor of the West was deposed. However, even before the rise of the Roman Empire, there had been “barbarian” tribes who lived in northern Europe or central Asia beyond the borders of “civilized” Mediterranean Europe, and who periodically attacked civilized Europe (as well as civilized China and India). For over a thousand years, Rome successfully held off the barbarians, for instance slaughtering a large invading force of Cimbri and Teutones bent on conquering northern Italy at the Battle of Campi Raudii [i.e. Vercellae] in 101 B.C.

Eventually, it was the barbarians rather than the Romans who won the battles: what was the fundamental reason for that shift in fortune? Was it because of changes in the barbarians themselves, such that they became more numerous or better organized, acquired better weapons or more horses, or profited from the climate change in the central Asian steppes? In that case, we would say that barbarians really could be identified as the fundamental cause of Rome’s fall. Or was it instead that the same old unchanged barbarians were always waiting on the Roman Empire’s frontiers, and that they couldn’t prevail until Rome became weakened by some combination of economic, political, environmental, and other problems? In that case, we would blame Rome’s fall on its own problems, with the barbarians just providing the coup de grace. This question continues to be debated. (1)

The rise of a threat beyond the banks of Rhine and Danube persuaded the Roman historian Tacitus to investigate the barbarians. Soon he found himself in need of a general classification of the tribes who lived north and east of the rivers, in a land that was covered to ninety per cent by swamps and forests. He christened them “Germani, after a tribe who lived close to the Rhine near Bonna, today’s Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, in his book “De Origine et Situ Germanorum” [“About the Origins and Places of the Germans”], published in AD 98.
Tacitus never saw the land and the people he described: he relied on the words of mouth, perhaps of soldiers who had served there or perhaps on talking to the one or other Latin-speaking German he could find in Rome. Yet by virtue of his one being the only book on the subject, it received attention for centuries to come. He compared, not unfriendly, the simple virtues of the Germani, their sense of family, braveness and honour, but also their impressive vices, a certain predilection for rape, pillage and slaughter, with the decadence prevailing in Imperial Rome. He was the first author to describe the customs of the Germani extensively; earlier contact reports had been restricted to a syllabus of the battle and a count of limbs and bodies. As we have seen, the military results were mixed: Marius won, Varus lost, and the protracted campaigns of Drusus, Tiberius and Germanicus during the principate of Augustus [ca. 12 BC-AD 16] ended indeterminate.

Principal Germanic Movements 750 BC – 1 AD

After a few invasive campaigns, the Romans confined themselves to defensive measures along the Limes, a fortified line of earthworks, moats and watchtowers that protected the area between the Danube, Rhine and Moenus [today’s Main] Rivers. The final offensives into German territory were undertaken by Emperor Marcus Antonius Aurelius [AD 161-180]. The Germani, however, turned out a rather undistinguished tribe; after they crossed the Rhine in the direction of central France they disappeared in the mists of the past; no one knows what happened to the original Germani. Tacitus was intrigued by the strange political customs of the Germani as outlined by Edward Gibbon:

Some tribes, however, on the coast of the Baltic, acknowledged the authority of kings, though without relinquishing the rights of man, but in the far greater part of Germany, the form of government was a democracy, tempered, indeed, and controlled, not so much by general and positive laws as by the occasional ascendant of birth or valour, of eloquence or superstition. Civil governments, in their first institution, are voluntary associations for mutual defence. To obtain the desired end, it is absolutely necessary that each individual should conceive himself obligated to submit his private opinions and actions to the judgement of the greater number of his associates. The German tribes were contented with this rude but liberal outline of political society. … The assembly of the warriors of the tribe was convened at stated seasons, or on sudden emergencies. The trial of public offences, the election of magistrates, and the great business of peace and war were determined by its independent voice. … For the Germans always met in arms, and it was constantly to be dreaded lest an irregular multitude, inflamed with faction and strong liquor, should use those arms to enforce as well as to declare their furious resolves. (2)

Rome faced the problem that these tribes accepted no higher authority, knew no superior body that could arrange a truce or binding peace, nor declare general war, for that matter, and thus Emperor Domitian at around AD 80 came up with the idea to erect a wall between civilization and wilderness along those borders that were not naturally defended by a river. The line of what would become the Limes originated near the Danube’s northernmost point at Castra Regina, today’s Regensburg in Bavaria, then zigzagged through south-western Germany until it met the Main river, then zigzagged a bit more, over the heights of the Taunus Hills, and ultimately reached the Rhine at Bonna. A few miles ahead, down the river, another extensive Roman settlement was founded, Colonia Claudia, today’s Cologne.

The most decisive change of Roman organization relevant to the fate of the German tribes occurred when, as a reaction to the great migration beginning in the fourth century AD, Emperor Diocletian restructured the administration of the Empire. From now on, the state was not to be ruled by a single man but four. He had associated three colleagues in the exercise of the supreme power; and as he was convinced that the abilities of a single man were inadequate to the public defence, he considered the joint administration of four princes not as a temporary expedient but as a fundamental law of the constitution. It was his intention that the two elder princes should be distinguished by the use of the diadem [the Greek equivalent to a crown] and the title of Augusti, that, as affection or esteem might direct their choice, they should regularly call to their assistance two subordinate colleagues; and that the Caesars, rising in their turn to the first rank, should supply an uninterrupted succession of emperors.

The empire was divided into four parts. The East and Italy were the most honourable, the Danube and the Rhine the most laborious stations. The former claimed the presence of the Augusti; the latter were entrusted to the administration of the Caesars. The strength of the legions was in the hand of the four partners of sovereignty, and the despair of successfully vanquishing four formidable rivals might intimidate the ambition of an aspiring general. In their civil government, the emperors were supposed to exercise the undivided power of the monarch, and their edicts,
inscribed with their joint names, were received in all the provinces as promulgated by their mutual councils and authority. Notwithstanding these precautions, the political union of the Roman world was gradually dissolved, and a principle of division was introduced which, in the course of a few years, occasioned the perpetual separation of the Eastern and the Western Empires. (3)

GERMANS AT THE ROMAN BORDER AROUND AD 100, ACCORDING TO TACITUS – AS IT IS EASY TO SEE, THE MAIN BORDER RUNS ALONG THE RHINE AND DANUBE RIVERS.
Governmental Division of the Empire under Diocletian

As far as the German tribes were concerned, the most direct result of the reform was that, from now on, Roman policies affecting them were not formulated in distant Rome any more but in the new residence of the Western Caesar in Augusta Treverorum, today’s Trier at the Moselle River, only fifty miles west of the Rhine, or in Constantinople or Antiochia. This fostered particularism and diminished the already weakened unity of Roman executive coordination. The preponderance of military power went to the two most threatened borders along the Rhine and Danube and the Asian border in the provinces of Syria and Cappadocia facing the Parthians. This, in turn, gave the local commanders power that increased with the number of the legions under their personal control. Many of the usurpers of the Imperial purple in the second to fourth century AD were generals from border provinces who claimed their imperial purple through the strength of their legions.


(1) Diamond, Jared, Collapse, Penguin Books 2005, 0-14-30.3655-6, p.13

(2) (3) Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library, First Citation: Mass Market Edition 2005 Second Citation: 4th Edition 2003-4, ISBN 0-345-47884-3, pp. 157 (135); 243 (207)


Related Post: The End of the Legions – Gothic Invasions and the Economic Breakdown of the West


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Drusilla and Caligula

The court of Caligula by Virgillo Mattoni de la Fuente, 1842-1923 ( Note: This work is also known as The Baths of Caracalla)

The historical Julia Drusilla was born on September 16, AD 16, in Abitarvium (today Koblenz, Germany) as a scion of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the second daughter and fifth child of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder to survive infancy, and died at the age of 21 on June 10, AD 38. She had two sisters, Julia Livilla and the Empress Agrippina the Younger, and three brothers, Emperor Caligula, Nero Julius Caesar, and Drusus. She was a great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, grand-niece of Emperor Tiberius, niece of Emperor Claudius, and aunt of Emperor Nero. (See Wiki)

YouTube Video

As we have found with many of the family, her reputation is seriously smeared by the negative picture many contemporary historians have painted of the whole clan. What seems clear is that she was her brother Caligula’s favourite, and the scandalous tongues, of which there were many in Rome, credited her with having an incestuous relationship with her emperor brother – who apparently had more than brotherly feelings for all his sisters, whom he awarded the privileges of Vestal Virgins and had coins issued in their likenesses.

Statue of Iulia Drusilla at the Museo Gregoriano
Bust of Drusilla

Whether this is true or not, we cannot say. It is possible that Caligula, who was, as we know, of a somewhat disturbed mind, attempted to emulate the pattern of his Roman lineage after the Hellenistic monarchs of the Ptolemaic dynasty where marriages between jointly ruling brothers and sisters had become generally accepted. His contempt for the Roman elite may have played a part in such a scheme. Since what happened in the royal bedchamber was not a matter of public knowledge, some observers registered that the emperor reserved the female position of honour at the imperial dinners always for Drusilla, not her sisters or his wives, which they took as a sure sign of his despotism.

She died of the one or other epidemic that frequently plagued Rome in these times. Her brother, who reportedly never left her sickbed, posthumously made her an Augusta and had the Senate enact a decree declaring her a Goddess, as Diva Drusilla, on a par with Venus (Aphrodite).

To our eyes, she lives on in the movies – as on the TV series I, Claudius, wherein she is played by Beth Morris, and, more, er …, revealingly, by Teresa Ann Savoy in the famous and notorious movie Caligula ( Link to Movie – for documentation only, please).

As can be seen on the early poster above, Maria Schneider – of Last Tango in Paris fame – was originally cast as Drusilla.

About this scandalous movie, there is a most extensive website, that delves deeply in the myths and legal troubles of the film at caligula.org, which informs in-depth and has never-before-published information and pictures galore.

Pics from caligula.org

  1. Teresa Ann Savoy, Anneka Di Lorenzo, Lori Wagner
  2. Valerie Ray Clark
  3. Anneka di Lorenzo and Lori Wagner
  4. Suzanne Saxon and Carolyn Patsis

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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