Despite 75 years of historical research following his death by suicide on April 30, 1945, in Berlin, certain things about Hitler remain far from understood. Not only was he of secretive nature, but he was also an inveterate liar, a constant actor and professional deceiver.
He wrote a book – “Mein Kampf” – a sort of mixture of autobiography and political manifesto – which was published in two volumes 1925 and 1926. Literally thousands of articles and have been written about it, and the gist of the analysis is that while it is full of half-truths and some outright lies in personal matters, his thoughts are fairly well represented – no one could say he beat around the bush. Literature concerning “Mein Kampf” is liberally and freely available on the internet and it shall not be the subject of this selection of Hitler’s own documents. We shall concentrate – as best as we may – on documents of what we believe may be of illuminating importance or depicting decisive events.
Source-wise, the two classic collections of Hitler documents, handwriting and speeches are:
Until recently, say, the last twenty years, the subject of this series of articles had been somewhat buried below the historical hagiography of the Third Reich, which idolized Hitler as a war hero and destroyed everything that did not fit the bill – and the subsequent loss of many documents due to the Allied bomber campaign.
We owe it mostly to the efforts of Anton Joachimsthaler and Thomas Weber that we have improved our knowledge in the last years. Their books are of principal value for research and build the foundation for the following articles:
In the first week of August, everywhere in Europe trains had begun to devour young men, their gear and rifles, and spit them out on the railway heads of their destinations, as per the schedules developed and pigeonholed years earlier. The Railway Department of the German General Staff coordinated the movements of over 11,000 trains during mobilization, each one of them consisting of 54 wagons. The Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine at Cologne, for example, was crossed by 2148 trains between August 2 and 18; about 134 trains a day, respectively, one every eleven minutes, day or night. The French Railway Department scheduled over 7,000 trains, on a slightly smaller network. It was about 3 am on September 21, that Adolf Hitler and his fellow recruits of Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 and their gear were loaded upon three trains and sent off westward. The first stop was Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein, whence Hitler sent a postcard to his landlords, the Popps. (16) On the next day, the train reached the Rhine, and Hitler saw the great German stream for the first time, as well as the Niederwald-Monument, the gigantic statue of Germania protecting the river and the country. He never forgot the day – as late as 1944 he recalled that:
“I saw the Rhine for the first time when I travelled to the Western Front with my regiment in 1914. I will never forget the feelings that abounded in me when I saw, for the first time, this river of German destiny. Just as moving were the sympathy and the hearty encouragement of the people living there, who surprised us with a completely unanticipated welcome. We were supplied with everything we could imagine. When we came to Aachen in the evening, I promised myself never to forget this day as long as I lived.”
In the night to Thursday, October 22, the trains crossed the Belgian border, and arrived, via Liège and Brussels, at Lille in France by October 24. Private Hitler narrated the events of the last part of this journey and his first days at war in a letter to an acquaintance of his, Munich law student Erich Hepp, in so typical a frame of mind that it may appear here unabridged:
“Dear Herr Assessor Hepp, I am glad that my last postcard reached you. Also, many warm thanks for your welcome letter. I should have written at greater length before, but shall now try to make up for it. First of all, let me tell you at once, Herr Assessor, that on December 2nd I had the opportunity to acquire, thank God, more than enough experience. Our regiment was not, as we expected, held back in the reserve, but early in the morning of October 29 was thrown into battle, and ever since we have been in those fellows’ hairs with some interruptions, first as attackers and then as defenders. After a really lovely journey down the Rhine we reached Lille on October 23. We could already see the effects of the war as we travelled through Belgium. We saw the conflagrations of war and heard its ferocious winds. As far as Douai our journey was reasonably safe and quiet. Then came shock after shock. In some places the base artillery had been destroyed in spite of the strongest defence. We were now frequently coming upon blown up bridges and wrecked locomotives. Although the train kept going at a snail’s pace, we encountered more and more horrors – graves. Then in the distance we heard our heavy guns. Towards evening we arrived at Lille, which was knocked about rather a lot in the suburbs. We got off the train and hung about around our stacked rifles, and shortly before midnight we were on the march, and at last we entered the town. It was an endless monotonous road left and right with miserable workmens’ dwellings and the countryside blackened with smoke. The pavements were poor and bad and dirty. There were no signs of any inhabitants, and there was no one in the streets after 9 pm except the military. We were almost in danger of our lives because the place was so full of guns and ammunition carts, and through them we eventually reached the Citadel, and this part of Lille is a bit better. We spent the night in the courtyard of the stock exchange building. This pretentious building was not yet completed. We had to lie down with full packs, and were kept at the ready. It was very cold on the stone pavement and we could not sleep. The next day we changed our quarters, and this time we were in a very large glass building. There was no lack of fresh air, the iron framework was still standing, and the panes of glass had been smashed into millions of fragments in the German bombardment. During the day something more was attempted. We inspected the town and most of all we admired the tremendous military equipment, and all of Lille lay open, the gigantic shapes of the town rolling before our astonished eyes. At night, there was singing, and for me it was the last time. On the third night, about 2 am, there was a sudden alarm, and about 3 am we marched away in full marching order from the assembly point. No one knew for certain why we were marching, but in any case we regarded it as an exercise. It was rather a dark night, and we had hardly been marching for twenty minutes when we turned left and met two columns of cavalry and other troops, and the road was so blocked there was no room for us. Then morning came. We were now a long way from Lille. The thunder of gunfire had grown a bit stronger. Our column moved forward like a giant snake. At 9 am we halted in the park of a country house. We had two hours’ rest and then moved on again, marching until 8 pm. We no longer moved as a regiment, but split up in companies, each man taking cover against enemy airplanes. At 9 pm we pitched camp, I couldn’t sleep. Four paces from my bundle of straw lay a dead horse. The animal was already half decayed. Finally, a German howitzer battery immediately behind us kept sending two shells flying over our heads into the darkness of the night every quarter of an hour. They came whistling and hissing through the air, and then far in the distance there came two dull thuds. We all listened. None of us had ever heard that sound before. While we were huddled close together, whispering softly and looking up at the stars in the heavens, a terrible racket broke out in the distance. At first it was a long way off and then the crackling came closer and closer, and the sound of single shells grew to a multitude, finally becoming a continuous roar. All of us felt the blood quickening in our veins. The English were making one of their night attacks. We waited a long time, uncertain what was happening. Then it grew quieter and at last the sound ceased altogether, except for our own batteries, which sent out their iron greetings to the night every quarter of an hour. In the morning we found a big shell hole. We had to brush ourselves up a bit, and about 10 am there was another alarm, and a quarter of an hour later we were on the march. After a long period of wandering about we reached a farm that had been shot to pieces and we camped there. I was on watch duty that night, and at about one o’clock we suddenly had another alarm, and we marched off at three o’clock in the morning. We had just taken a bit of food, and we were waiting for our marching orders, when Major Count Zech rode up: “Tomorrow we are attacking the English!” he said. So it had come at last! We were all overjoyed, and after making the announcement, the Major went on foot to the head of the column. Early, around 6 am, we came to an inn. We were with another company and it was not till 7 am that we went to join the dance. We followed the road into a wood, and then we came out in correct marching order on a large meadow. In front of us were guns in partially dug trenches and behind these we took up our positions in big hollows scooped out of the earth and waited. Soon the first lots of shrapnel came over, bursting in the woods and smashing up the trees as though they were brushwood. We looked on interestedly, without any real idea of danger. No one was afraid. Every man waited impatiently for the command: “Forward!” The whole thing was getting hotter and hotter. We heard that some of us had been wounded. Five or six men brown as clay were being led along from the left, and we all broke into a cheer: six Englishmen with a machine—gun! We shouted to our men marching proudly behind their prisoners. The rest of us just waited. We could scarcely see into the streaming, seething witches’ cauldron, which lay in front of us. At last there came the ringing command: “Forward!” We swarmed out of our positions and raced across the fields to a small farm. Shrapnel was bursting left and right of us, and the English bullets came whistling through the shrapnel, but we paid no attention to them. For ten minutes we lay there, and then once again we were ordered to advance. I was right out in front, ahead of everyone in my platoon. Platoon leader Stöver was hit. Good God, I had barely any time to think, the fighting was beginning in earnest! Because we were out in the open, we had to advance quickly. The captain was at the head. The first of our men had begun to fall. The English had set up machine guns. We threw ourselves down and crawled slowly along a ditch. From time to time someone was hit, we could not go on, and the whole company was stuck there. We had to lift the men out of the ditch. We kept on crawling until the ditch came to an end, and then we were out in the open field again. We ran fifteen or twenty yards, and then we found a big pool of water. One after another we splashed through it, took cover, and caught our breath. But it was no place for lying low. We dashed out again at full speed into a forest that lay about a hundred yards ahead of us. There, after a while, we all found each other. But the forest was beginning to look terribly thin. At this time there was only a second sergeant in command, a big tall splendid fellow called Schmidt. We crawled on our bellies to the edge of the forest, while the shells came whistling and whining above us, tearing tree trunks and branches to shreds. Then the shells came down again on the edge of the forest, flinging up clouds of earth, stones, and roots, and enveloping everything in a disgusting, sickening yellow-green vapour. We can’t possibly lie here forever, we thought, and if we are going to be killed, it is better to die in the open. Then the Major came up. Once more we advanced. I jumped up and ran as fast as I could across meadows and beet fields, jumping over trenches, hedgerows, and barbed-wire entanglements, and then I heard someone shouting ahead of me: “In here! Everyone in here!” There was a long trench in front of me, and in an instant I had jumped into it, and there were others in front of me, behind me, and left and right of me. Next to me were Württembergers, and under me were dead and wounded Englishmen. The Württembergers had stormed the trench before us. Now I knew why I had landed so softly when I jumped in. About 250 yards to the left there were more English trenches; to the right, the road to Leceloire was still in our possession. An unending storm of iron came screaming over our trench. At last, at ten o’clock, our artillery opened up in this sector. One – two – three – five – and so it went on. Time and again a shell burst in the English trenches in front of us, and after bloody hand-to-hand fighting in some places; we threw them out of one trench after another. Most of them raised their hands above their heads. Anyone who refused to surrender was mown down. In this way we cleared trench after trench. At last we reached the main highway. To the right and left of us there was a small forest, and we drove right into it. We threw them all out of this forest, and then we reached the place where the forest came to an end and the open road continued. On the left lay several farms, all occupied, and there was withering fire. Right in front of us men were falling. Our Major came up, quite fearless and smoking calmly, with his adjutant, Lieutenant Piloty. The Major saw the situation at a glance and ordered us to assemble on both sides of the highway for an assault. We had lost our officers, and there were hardly any non-commissioned officers. So all of us, everyone who was still walking, went running back to get reinforcements. When I returned the second time with a handful of stray Württembergers, the Major was lying on the ground with his chest torn open, and there was a heap of corpses around him. By this time the only remaining officer was his adjutant. We were absolutely furious. “Herr Leutnant, lead us against them!” we all shouted. So we advanced straight into the forest, fanning out to the left, because there was no way of advancing along the road. Four times we went forward and each time we were forced to retreat. In my company only one other man was left besides myself, and then he also fell. A shot tore off the entire left sleeve of my tunic, but by a miracle I remained unharmed. Finally at 2 pm we advanced for the fifth time, and this time we were able to occupy the farm and the edge of the forest. At 5 pm we assembled and dug in a hundred yards from the road. So we went fighting for three days in the same way, and on the third day the British were finally defeated. On the fourth evening we marched back to Werwick. Only then did we know how many men we had lost. In four days our regiment consisting of thirty-five hundred men was reduced to six hundred. In the entire regiment there remained only thirty officers. Four companies had to be disbanded. But we were all so proud of having defeated the British! Since that time we have been continually in the front line. I was proposed for the Iron Cross, the first time in Messines, then again at Wytschaete by Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt, who was our regimental commander. [FN1] Four other soldiers were proposed for the Iron Cross at the same time. Finally, on December 2, I received the medal. My job now is to carry dispatches for the staff. As for the mud, things are a bit better here, but also more dangerous. In Wytschaete during the first day of attack three of us eight dispatch riders were killed, and one was badly wounded. The four survivors and the man who was wounded were cited for their distinguished conduct. While they were deciding which of us should be awarded the Iron Cross, four company commanders came to the dugout. That means that the four of us had to step out. We were standing some distance away about five minutes later when a shell slammed into the dugout, wounding Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt and killing or wounding the rest of his staff. This was the most terrible moment of my life. We worshiped Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt. I am sorry; I will have to close now. The really important thing for me is to keep thinking about Germany. From eight in the morning to five in the afternoon, day after day, we are under heavy artillery fire. In time even the strongest nerves are shattered by it. I kept thinking about Munich, and there is not one man here who isn’t hoping that we shall soon finish off this rabble once and for all, make mincemeat of them, at whatever the cost.
The hope is that those of us who have the good fortune to see our homeland again will find it purer and less corrupted by foreign influence. The sacrifices and misery extracted daily from hundreds of thousands of peoples, the rivers of blood flowing every day against an international world of enemies will, we hope, result in smashing Germany’s external enemies and bring the destruction of our internal internationalism. That would be better than any territorial gains. As for Austria, the matter will come about as I already told you. Once more I express my heartfelt gratitude and remain your devoted and grateful
There is a second, slightly different translation of the letter here as a PDF if the reader likes to compare.
[FN1] Colonel List was killed on October 31st at Gheluvelt Castle. (19) Lieutenant Colonel Philip Engelhardt took over the regiment on November 12, for five days, before being wounded on November 17 in the accident narrated by Hitler above. (20)
Given that Hitler’s war record and decorations played a huge part in later Nazi propaganda – giving the Austrian a sort of supernatural German identity – we should be looking at the matter right away. There was little literature available that specifically and critically examined the history of RIR 16 and Hitler’s role in it, which results to a degree from the paucity of the record, and the fact that post-1933 it was purged of everything that disagreed with the gospel of war hero Adolf Hitler.
Most of the attention, pre-1933 and now, centred around Hitler’s decoration with prestigious Iron Cross First Class, which he was awarded on August 4, 1918. The properness of the Second Class decoration that he earned in December 1914 is not generally doubted, for it was awarded in the aftermath of the great battle of First Ypres, during which Hitler and his company were in the forward trenches. Likewise, neither is much cognizance allotted nor critique directed at his other citations – the Bavarian Military Cross 3rd Class with Swords, awarded on September 17, 1917, the Regimental Diploma for bravery, May 9, 1918, the Medal for the Wounded, May 18, 1918, and the Military Service Medal 3rd Class of August 25, 1918. (21) What did cause much ado about Hitler’s Iron Cross First Class in the early 1930s was not only that it figured prominently in the Nazi apotheoses of the Führer as a war hero, which of course awarded his critics opportunities for counterclaims, but that the decoration seemed to have been proposed and effected by the highest-ranking Jewish officer of the regiment, adjutant Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann, and, in the light of Hitler’s post-1919 anti-Semitism, that was, of course, most embarrassing.
We shall address the merits issue first. In the German presidential election campaign of 1932, in which Hitler challenged the incumbent Hindenburg – and lost – a direct advantage for Hindenburg was that his war record could not be doubted – except for the fact, naturally, that Germany had lost, but, as both Nazis and reactionaries agreed, this defeat had not been the aged field marshal’s fault nor of anyone else in the army but that of socialist and liberal politicians, the “November Criminals”. Since the Hindenburg campaign was in this enviable position, they started to direct their artillery, so to say, on the challenger’s military merits. Josef Stettner, a veteran of RIR 16, wrote in a 1932 article in the VOLKSFREUND (the “People’s Friend”), a Social Democratic newspaper in Braunschweig, that…
” … Hitler had worked out for himself how to get out of the line of fire on time. He had already managed to get a small post as regimental dispatch runner behind the front at the end of 1914. At first, he lay with the regimental staff in the underground vaults and basements of Fromelles. For months, the infantry companies that lay in reserve behind the front and pioneers [i.e. engineers respectively sappers] that had specially deployed for this task had to make the shelters of the regimental staff bomb-proof. While we had to lie in the wet trenches at the front line for seven or ten days without a break or while we stood up to our stomachs in the mud, Hitler lay on a warm, lice-free stretcher and had several metres of protective stone above his hero’s body. But it did not take very long before the entire regimental staff set itself up even more comfortably in Fournes, approximately 10 kilometres behind the first line. There for more than a year the dispatch runners had a room of their own in a former Estaminet (small pub or café). Every one of us in the trench would have given his eye teeth to swap with the hero Hitler even just for eight days. … The front experience of Private Hitler consisted more in the consumption of artificial honey and tea than of the participation in any combat. He was separated from the actual combat zone by a zone some 10 kilometres deep. Thousands of family fathers would have filled Hitler’s post behind the front just as well as him: however, at the time Hitler did not display any sign that he felt driven towards military front-line action, as he is trying to tell the blinded German youth today. He did, as we front-line soldiers used to say at the time, ‘keep his position.'”
The essence of Stettner’s argument was that Hitler was a dispatch runner at the regimental level, as opposed to the battalion or company level, and his duties rarely brought him face to face with actual enemy fire.
“Some worshippers of Hitler have pointed out now that the job of a dispatch runner was more dangerous than that of a soldier in the trenches. While the troops in the first line could calmly lie under cover, it is said in Hitler’s defence, the dispatch runners would have been much more exposed to enemy fire while on duty. However, I can accept that only for dispatch runners of companies or maybe also of battalions. In the worst-case scenario, the regimental dispatch runner had to go to the dugout of a battalion which still lay far behind the first line. And even in those cases, it was for the most part the dispatch runners of the battalion themselves who had to pick up the messages at the regimental headquarters, particularly when things were getting dangerous. All the duties of a regimental dispatch runner lay outside the dangerous zone of machine-gun fire.”
A bigger dent into the gospel of front-line hero Adolf Hitler than that caused by the relatively obscure Braunschweig newspaper might have ensued from an article in the weekend edition of the Hamburg Social Democratic newspaper ECHO DER WOCHE (“The Weekly Echo”) of March 1932, which resulted in Hitler’s bringing of a libel action against the paper. At court, the “great obstacle for the defence team of the ECHO DER WOCHE was that the paper had decided that in order to protect his safety it would not disclose the identity of the veteran who was the author of the bitter attack on Hitler’s war record.” (24) The article in question essentially argued, like Stettner had, that a regimental dispatch runner’s duty was not particularly hazardous and that Hitler had received his Iron Cross First Class for other reasons than bravery. Since the newspaper could not produce the writer, Hitler won the lawsuit by default and set out to establish the identity of the author. His thugs had no problem in identifying the writer as the former RIR 16 member Korbinian Rutz. Herr Rutz had entered the ranks of RIR 16 as a battalion dispatch runner with the 2nd Company on November 12, 1914, where he soon made the acquaintance of Hitler. Unlike Hitler, Rutz was steadily promoted and became a Lieutenant and commander of 1st Company on April 23, 1916. (25) In an open letter to the press on April 8, 1932, Rutz wrote:
“I entered the RIR 16 (List) as a private on November 12, 1914 with the 1st Reserve Detachment, and eventually became an officer and company leader. At that time Hitler was already an attendant with the regimental staff, and remained one until the end of the war. Regimental orderlies had to fetch orders at the brigade post and return with the replies of the regimental staff. To transfer the regimental orders down to the battalion post was the job of the battalion attendants. The job of a regimental orderly demanded an apt and proper person, but particular courage was not required. … The regimental staff always lived behind the front. In our position at Fromelles, for instance, our foremost lines were about 20 or 30 minutes west of the village, while the regimental staff resided at Fournes, a good hour east of it. They lived thus at least 11 hours distant from the front line. The regimental staff always resided in the best buildings, which had concrete basements and coverings. While the front line soldiers and officers had to hold out in the trenches under the most primitive of conditions, without even straw to lie on, the regimental orderlies slept on mattresses, had pillows and woollen blankets, and sleep galore. … Attendants had an easier time to earn decorations than trench troops, for the officers were familiar with their faces, while the name or face of a simple front line fighter, who stoically endured toil and danger, was, at best, known to the company commander, but not the higher-ups. And while attendants and orderlies had a regular life and three square meals a day, the John Does of the front lines got warm food perhaps at midnight, or even later, if at all, amidst utter filth, live fire and the such. We often received our midday meals an hour or so past midnight. Then Hitler was seriously wounded. I can tell you the truth about this. He lay in the palatial gardens of Fromelles, where the regimental staff was at that time. With a few comrades, he was taking a sun bath when a grenade exploded close by and wounded him. Not in action, mind, not on his post, he was hit, but on his having a siesta. … So Hitler has the Iron Cross, First Class. At the end, every regimental attendant received one. But a brave company comrade of mine, a simple man who spent four years at the front and was wounded twice, did not get it.”
But Rutz did not do himself a favour with the inaccuracies of his report – the sunbathing story, for example, was easily proved false, as was the promotion of the public notary’s simple house in Fournes to a concrete citadel – and the Nazis had easy revenge by retiring him from teaching after 1933. Rutz’ and Stettner’s criticism was later shared by the medical scribe Alexander Frey, who argued that Hitler remained a dispatch runner and avoided promotion for reasons of safety:
“Without a doubt Hitler could have re-enlisted with a company and done trench duty with the goal of promotion. But he did not seem to have wanted that; there were certain positions, so treasured that if troops got hold of them, they would not want to give them up, as they had certain automatic advantages. In this case, there were better quarters and better food than infantrymen in the trenches had. I had to resist the urging of my company commander that I leave my post in the medical service (since I was not a doctor, I couldn’t go much farther in this particular field) and take part in an officer training course. I did not want to leave my field of work – probably for the same reasons that Hitler did not want to leave his. Measured against the dreadful hardship of trench duty, our posting was a small alleviation, combined with small comforts.”
Yet there were other opinions, and since several of them came from officers, history has – everything else being equal – tended to reflect their views of Adolf Hitler as a soldier. At the Beer Hall Putsch Trial of 1924, the last commander of RIR 16, Lieutenant Colonel Maximilian von Baligand, testified as follows:
“It is not true that Hitler’s post with the regimental staff was a safe job. If all the purveyors of safe jobs in the army had evidenced Hitler’s courage, the trenches would not have developed a disliking of their superiors.”
First Lieutenant Friedrich Wiedemann, between January 1, 1916, and August 16, 1917, staff adjutant of RIR 16, wrote in his memoirs, published in 1964:
“One of the dispatch runners attached to the regimental staff was Adolf Hitler. I cannot remember the exact time I first noticed him, a private first class, which he was at that time, but he came under my direct command and hence I thought a good deal about him when attempting to determine on whom one could truly rely on. Between Hitler and me, organization-wise, was only the regimental scribe and First Sergeant Max Amann, who later became General Manager of the NSDAP and Director of the Franz Eher Publishing House. … When I was dispatched to RIR 16 [on January 1, 1916] as the new regimental adjutant, the war of movement, in whose final phase the regiment had partaken in late 1914, had already been replaced by trench warfare. The regiment had its trenches south of Lille while the regimental staff resided in Fournes, in the house of the local notary public. When the army communiqués reported “All Quiet on the Western Front”, our dispatch runners, together with the whole staff, had a relatively placid life. They were used for petty jobs or accompanied the commander or me on the regular inspections of the rampart. I well remembered Hitler from such occasions as a quiet man of somewhat unmilitary appearance, who, at first sight, was not different from his comrades. Only slowly did we get the impression that his interests were somewhat deeper than those of his comrades, most of whom came from Bavaria south of the Danube. But that by itself was not exceptional in our regiment. … While our attendants had a quiet life in quiet times, this changed rapidly as soon as combat resumed. The telephone lines to the battalion posts and company leaders were usually shot up quickly, and the regimental commander’s orders could then only be transmitted via messenger. There was no choice – the enemy’s fire might be heavy or light – the runners had to leave the bunker and make it, through the fire, to the front line. Losses, and thus the rate of replacements among the runners, were therefore high. On the other side, one found out quickly whom one could rely on. … Thus, we kept three or four of the most dependable men at the regimental post, whom we saved for the important jobs, under difficult circumstances. One of the men we could depend on was Hitler. His later enemies have accused him of avoiding – shirking – front duty by being a dispatch runner and never having received the EK 1. Both charges are incorrect. As long as he was with the staff – that is, from the beginning until the end of the war — he has proven himself brave and reliable, and fully earned his EK I. I recall quite well how we discussed, in the aftermath of a bigger action, together with regimental scribe Max Amann whom to propose for the EK I. I opined that Hitler had earned this decoration since a long time already, and thus we put him on the list, albeit not in the top spot but at the bottom. This we did because the companies complained that we always put people on the regimental staff up front. At this occasion Hitler did not receive the EK I. We had proposed ten soldiers, but were allowed only five medals. When I was transferred to another post, my successor as regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant (Reserve) Hugo Gutmann renewed the proposal, and this time Hitler received the Iron Cross First Class.”
The circumstances of the decoration are relatively clear. Eugen Tannhäuser, who had spoken with Gutmann about the matter, testified on August 4, 1961:
“Herr Gutmann was regimental adjutant of the List Regiment, wore the Iron Cross First Class himself, as well as the Bavarian Order of Military Merit, and I have seen with my own eyes the promotion diplomas, on account of exemplary courage, to Master Sergeant and later to Lieutenant, when he was especially mentioned in the army’s order of the day. He told me that Hitler was a soldier like any other soldier and rewarded himself neither through particular exploits nor attracted any negative attention. One time there was an important message to be forwarded to the front. The telephone lines had been shot up, and, to be on the safe side, Gutmann called upon two runners and gave them the message, hoping that at least one would make it to the trenches. He promised both the Iron Cross First Class as the reward of success. They both came through, but, as Gutmann told me, keeping the promise proved harder than making it. It took him two months to convince the division commander of the properness of decorating these two messengers, for it had been a deed that happened daily in battle.”
Lieutenant Colonel Emmerich von Godin, first Deputy and later Commander of RIR 16, wrote to the Commander of the 12th Brigade on July 31, 1918:
“Hitler is with the regiment since its inception and has made the best of impressions in all battles. As dispatch runner he was a paragon of composure and courage in static as well as mobile warfare and was always willing to transport messages no matter the difficulties or the danger to his life. After a complete blackout of communications in a difficult situation it was Hitler’s untiring and selfless dedication to duty that ensured the delivery of important messages despite all adversities. Hitler has received the EK II for bravery in the Battle of Wytschaete on December 2, 1914. I consider Hitler completely deserving of the decoration of the EK I.”
Johann Raab, assigned to the regimental staff since December 1915 as a telephone operator, reported:
“I was with the regimental staff of RIR 16 (List) at the same time when Hitler was a dispatch runner there. I well remember that he very often volunteered for missions that, except for him, would have gone to colleagues who were married. I can also remember how he got the EK I, since I received the EK II at the same time. Hitler delivered a message to the front when all other connections were broken or extinguished by enemy fire. His deed was particularly mentioned in a Regimental Order.”
In the discussion of the sensitive matter of Hitler in the First World War – given the prominence of the subject and the ongoing historical discussion – we may pause for a moment of reflection. As the author pointed out in the introduction of “The Little Drummer Boy”, we deal here with a young Hitler between his 25th and 30th year, at a time when he has not committed – as far as we know – any crimes. We shall not judge in hindsight when reporting the facts and the reasonable assumptions we make of the time and the deeds at hand.
In 2010, Thomas Weber – with whom the author has been in contact – published his major work “Hitler’s First War” [Oxford University Press 2010, ISBN 978-0-19-923320-5]. For the longest of times, little has been truly known about the military service of Adolf Hitler in the war except for the hagiography of Third Reich historians, his own (sparse) account in “Mein Kampf” and the publications of critical newspapers during the Weimar Republic, mostly by left-wing magazines, during the years of his ascendancy 1925 to 1933. After 1933, these stopped – naturally.
Before Weber, it has been more or less only Anton Joachimsthaler, who unearthed in his books “Korrektur einer Biographie”, Langen Müller 1989, 3-7766-1575-3 and the extended reissue “Hitler’s Weg begann in München 1913 -1923”, F.A. Herbig, München 2000, 3-7766-2155-9, valuable details on the subject.
Thomas Weber’s ample study took as its main angles a few of the exaggerations, hyperbole, even legends of Hitler in the field, which had largely been the result of the Nazi hagiography mentioned above; and concentrated on the military details and duties of the field as well as the subjects personality as it then displayed itself.
He has identified many points of interest very well – as the legend of Hitler being called – in most general histories – a corporal (or lance-corporal), implying he had men under his command. He never did. All his life he held the rank of “Gefreiter”, i.e. Private First Class, a sort of “Senior Soldier”.
While in his early days at the front he was undoubtedly used in the front-line but was soon moved to the dispatch runners. Most of his service he spent as a regimental dispatch runner, i.e. delivering messages usually not to the front line but to the battalion or sometimes company staff, who generally enjoyed somewhat safer conditions in their quarters than the trench soldiers.
In essence, this meant that he was not – as he claimed – a front line soldier but had a relatively safe job at (relatively) cosy regimental quarters; that he was much less in physical danger than he (and later propaganda) asserted, and that, consequently, this job required much less courage and/or sacrifice than suggested.
Weber describes at length the begrudging feelings, hate and envy the trench-line troops felt for such “Etappenschweine” – the fellow soldiers in rear areas. There is no actual evidence, he finds, that Hitler ever displayed unusual bravery, and it was perhaps the close and persisting contact he had with the regimental officers that led to his awards.
That may all well be and true – but the question is, what did it matter post-war in Hitler’s career respectively the criticism of his enemies? By nature, criticism by fellow soldiers comes in the form of gossip, personal arguments, and the like – and there is a long line of negative statements on Hitler or rear-area-pigs in general that Weber brings to our attention, some of which were widely reported in Weimar-Era newspapers and even were at times the matter of legal proceedings.
But these were all essentially of a gossipy nature – no actual misconduct was alleged, far less proven – and after all the dust had settled, Hitler could point to six decorations – Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class, the Bavarian Military Cross 3rd Class with Swords, awarded on September 17, 1917, the Regimental Diploma for bravery, May 9, 1918, the Medal for the Wounded, May 18, 1918, and the Military Service Medal 3rd Class of August 25, 1918 – and the opposition could point to nothing, as far as facts were concerned. This was, for political, respectively propaganda reasons, enough to settle the score, and the critics fell by the wayside.
In general, the written record thus appears more or less positive, and many later accusations were made in the heat of the political battle. The present author has discussed the subject with military men, and in the context of the Great War, they tend to regard dispatch runners as front-line soldiers. The author’s late father, who survived Stalingrad as an artillery officer with a Nebelwerfer regiment, concurred. As always, questions remain.
To be continued: From mid-September 1914 on, Hitler’s unit was dispatched to what became known as the First Battle of Ypres …
“If we are engaged in war, we shall suffer but little more than we shall suffer even if we stand aside.” Sir Edward Grey, In the House of Commons, August 1914
All delays are dangerous in war. John Dryden “Tyrannic Love”, Act 1, Sc. 1
One of the enduring legends of the Great War is that its outbreak was hailed, on either side, by a wave of popular support. This perception is largely a result of propaganda – contrived chiefly a posteriori – by the rosy memory of those who had survived what they saw as a well-earned victory over the German menace, and others who suggested that so great a patriotic endeavour could only be lost to treason. It is true that some protagonists of these days greeted the dawn of war with enthusiasm. In London, Winston Churchill wrote his wife – “My darling One & Beautiful” – on July 28 that while “everything tends towards catastrophe, & collapse,” he was “interested, geared-up & happy”. (1) In Munich, a protagonist of temporarily lesser prominence, the unemployed freelance painter Adolf Hitler, agreed wholeheartedly. He had learned of the German declaration of war on Russia on the evening of August 1, and on the next day, a Sunday, walked the two miles from his room at Schleissheimer Strasse 34 to the Odeonsplatz Square, where, in front of the Feldherrnhalle, the Hall of Generals, a crowd of pro-war enthusiasts had congregated. Adolf’s mood was jubilant.
“Even today,” he wrote in ‘Mein Kampf’ (1924), “I am not ashamed to say that, overcome with rapturous enthusiasm, I fell to my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being allowed to live at this time.” (2)
A photograph – subsequently acquiring fame – taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, who was soon to become Hitler’s court photographer, shows twenty-five-year-old Adolf Hitler in front of the square’s fountain, in the eight row or so of the assembly, ecstatically applauding patriotic speeches delivered by ad-hoc orators from the steps of the great hall. How he successfully exploited in his later days this fortunate accident is a good early example of Hitler’s knack for framing and arranging realities. Thomas Weber relates the story behind the legendary photograph:
It is true that in the days prior to the outbreak of war, brass bands had played patriotic songs in the streets and cafés of Munich. Students and a rowdy crowd had smashed up a café that was perceived as insufficiently patriotic. Yet it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which these cases of patriotic outbursts were representative of the general population, as the loudest and most visible responses to the outbreak of war do not necessarily equate to the most widespread responses to war. In fact, only a minority of Germans were initially genuinely enthusiastic about the war. Anxiety, fear, and grief were the initial responses. A young Heinrich Himmler, who experienced the outbreak of the First World War in Landshut in Lower Bavaria, complained on 27 August of the lack of popular enthusiasm for the war in Lower Bavaria. He noted with disdain in his diary that Landshut had been full of sobbing and weeping people. There is, in fact, a vast discrepancy between immediate responses to the war as the one described by Himmler and accounts that were published later on in an attempt to give the war meaning retrospectively. This is why we need to treat post-war recollections of August 1914 with a huge grain of salt. The same is true of the photograph of Hitler amidst crowds in Odeonsplatz from 2 August. The photograph, in actuality, does not in any way support Hitler’s claim that he was representative of the population of Munich, or of the would-be members of the List Regiment, or of the German population at large. The photo tells us more about why its photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, would later become Hitler’s personal photographer than anything about the mindset of the German people at the outbreak of war. During the Third Reich, it would be his masterful photographs and Leni Riefenstahl’s magnificent propaganda movies that would create the public image of Hitler and of a young, energetic, and forward-looking Germany. On 2 August, only a tiny fraction of Munich’s near 600,000 residents attended the patriotic assembly Hoffmann depicted. On Hoffmann’s photo, the entire square appears filled with cheering people. However, a film clip that has survived of the scene and that, unlike Hoffmann’s photo, did not zoom in onto the crowd immediately in front of the Feldherrnhalle gives us a very different impression. Parts of the square are not filled with people. There is even enough space for a tram to move at normal speed across the square. When the film camera started filming the crowd, we see restless people. Only when they become aware that the camera is filming do they start to cheer and to raise their hats. At that very moment, Heinrich Hoffmann, standing close to the camera crew, took his photo. And thus the myth of central Munich overflowing with cheering and warmongering crowds was born. There is even some indication that Hoffmann might have “doctored” his photograph to place Hitler in a more prominent position, for in the film clip Hitler stands in a less central position than in the photo. And where there are crowds of people in front of Theatiner Church in the background of the photo, there are far fewer people at the same spot in the film clip. (3)
Just as the photograph aided subsequent Nazi propaganda, Hitler was busy creating his own legend in “Mein Kampf”. Nobody then knew about the embarrassing affair with the Austrian consulate and military commission that had taken place earlier in the year, and we shall now investigate how it happened that Hitler, whose intense dislike of the Austrian army we have encountered above, made it, as a foreigner, into the ranks of the Royal Bavarian Army. In “Mein Kampf”, he wrote:
“I presented myself on August 4, 1914, through an immediate petition to His Majesty the King of Bavaria, for consideration and voluntary entry into the 1st Bavarian Infantry Regiment, thus to join the Bavarian, i.e. German army. The petition was granted the next day, August 5, and a few days later I was transferred to the 2nd Regiment. I then joined, on August 16, the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, which was in completion at that time.” (4)
The reality was more prosaic. Not only has no trace of Hitler’s petition to King Ludwig III or its sanction ever materialized, Hitler’s army rolls do not mention anything taking place before August 16, 1914. They report:
KrStR.Nr. 166/148: “Am 16.8.1914 eingetreten als Kriegsfreiwilliger b. R.D.VI, 2.I.R. u. a. 1.9.14 anher versetzt.” (5)
[Roll # 166/148:] [‘Entered on August 16, 1914, as war volunteer at Recruiting Depot VI, 2nd Infantry Regiment and transferred here September 1, 1914’] [Recorded by the Replacement Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment]
KrStR.Nr. 1062: “16.8.14 beim Ers. Batl. 2 Inf. Reg. Dep. VI eingetreten. 1.9.14 z. 1.Komp. Res. Inf. Reg. Nr. 16 vers.” (7)
[Roll II 1062:] [‘16.8.14 entered Replacement Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment (Recruiting) Depot VI. 1.9.14. transferred to 1st Company, Reserve Infantry Regiment 16’] [Recorded by Reserve Infantry Regiment 16]
Hitler’s claims of petitioning the King and immediately being awarded a place in the prestigious 1st, the King’s Own Regiment, are hereby revealed as bogus – his military career began on Sunday, August 16, when he reported to the School on Elisabeth Square, which was used, as many schools were, as temporary barracks. The first two weeks he spent learning basic infantry skills at the exercise areas Oberwiesenfeld and Freimann. It was an arduous business for the not very athletic Hitler and Frau Popp remembered that “he frequently came by, happy to rest from the exertions of the drill.” (8) On September 1, 1914, he was transferred as Private # 148 to 1st Company, Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16, called, after its commander Colonel Julius von List, the “List Regiment”.
The question remains how it came that he – being a foreigner – was accepted in the first place. Only the War Ministry, not some company or regimental officer, had the legal authority, under certain conditions, to accept foreign volunteers. During the Beer Hall Putsch Trial of 1924, the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior directed an inquiry at the War Ministry regarding the circumstances of Hitler’s enlistment. Yet it would seem that the venerable archivists were unable to find a satisfactory explanation, for their answer was of highly speculative nature:
“At the breakout of war, Hitler lived at Schleißheimerstraße 34 in Munich. Apparently he went, in August 1914, to the closest troop’s office, which was that of the 2nd Infantry Regiment and offered himself there. … In the general war fever, he has probably acted on an instinct by applying at the nearest office. The more so as Germany, of course, had according to her treaty obligations announced her support for Austria. … It cannot surprise anyone that an enthusiastic young man forgets the borders of the Inn and Salzach [which form the Bavarian-Austrian frontier) and only joins the forces to help in the common defence of the endangered homeland. … It is quite possible that Hitler, as many others did, presented himself in the earliest days of mobilization. Since he could not be processed right away, he was probably told to wait and come back later – as so many others.” (9)
It would seem that nobody checked Hitler’s nationality: not a single document in the very extensive and thorough files of the Bavarian War Ministry mentions the fact of Hitler’s Austrian citizenship. That the creation of the reserve regiments – incongruous mixtures of young volunteers and Landsturm seniors – occurred under somewhat haphazard circumstances had its main reason in the horrendous losses that were incurred from the very beginning of this first mechanized European war. By mid-August, OHL [“Oberste Heeresleitung”, Army High Command) demanded the immediate creation of one complete ersatz army of four corps respectively eight divisions, for the normal reservists had already been called up at mobilization. Bavaria had to supply one division of this new army, the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, which was composed of the 12th and 14th Reserve Infantry Brigades. The 12th Reserve Brigade itself, commanded by Major General Kiefhaber, was formed by Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 (München, Colonel List) and 17 (Augsburg, Colonel Grossmann). About the former, Anton Joachimsthaler reports:
The mustering of Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 [=”RIR 16″, ¶] was finished by September 1, 1914; it was composed of three battalions, each one about 1,000 men strong, and each battalion was divided into four companies (thus 1st to 12th Company). The RIR 16, which had been composed of the Recruiting Depots of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments, was quite a chequered collection; mostly volunteers and persons without prior service experience, a mixture of the young and the elderly. The majority of RIR 16’s soldiers were students, artists, engineers and artisans from Munich and many rural men from Upper and Lower Bavaria. … The volunteers which had been collected in the various Recruitment Depots (I-VIII), among them Hitler, had all been transferred to the new RIR 16 on September 1, 1914. Hitler ended up in 1st Company, I. Battalion (under Battalion Commander Major of the Reserve Count Zech auf Neuhofen and Company Commander of 1st Company, Captain Pflaumer). It was only with the greatest of labour that weapons, uniforms and other necessary equipment could be provided. Supplies of the Pickel helmets, for example, were insufficiently low, and the regiment was equipped with the same black caps worn by the Landsturm, draped over with green cloth. Yet this came at the expense of a fatal misunderstanding at the front, where Bavarian volunteers were mistaken for Englishmen [some of whom wore similar green caps, ¶], and hundreds of RIR 16’s men were killed by friendly fire. (10)
Because OHL expected to use the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division at the Franco-Belgian border by the end of October, less than two months remained for the regiment’s initial training and subsequent transport. The first five weeks of their military life Hitler and his new comrades spent in Munich’s boot camps, being taught essential skills like digging holes while being yelled at by sergeants. Since RIR 16 was not composed of normal reservists, who could be trusted to remember much of their former service after a bit of a refresher, instruction was passed out rather summarily and could in no way prepare the men for the reality of the trenches.
Adolf Hitler – and subsequent Nazi propaganda creating another myth of the Great War – asserted post-1918 that the List Regiment was a volunteer unit, which was, at its best, intentional misrepresentation of the truth. It is correct that there were some volunteers, like Hitler, but overall about eighty-five per cent or so of the men were “not volunteers at all,” but “had been members of the Ersatzreserve or supplementary reserve… Recruits assigned to the supplementary reserve were generally men who were deemed insufficiently fit to serve in the army at peacetime but still sufficiently fit to be called up in the event of war.” (11)
On October 8 the regiment was sworn in, in the presence of King Ludwig III, and greeted by its commanding officer, Colonel Julius von List, with the following words:
“Comrades! I welcome with all my heart and full of confidence all officers, doctors, and officials, all petty officers, NCOs, and troops. The Regiment, whose men for the most part are untrained, is expected to be ready for mobile deployment within a few weeks. This is a difficult task, but with the admirable spirit which animates all members of this regiment, not an impossible one. … With God’s blessing, let’s begin our work for Kaiser, King, and Fatherland.” (12)
RIR 16 was scheduled to be sent, on October 10, on a march of seventy miles to the Lechfeld training ground in Swabia. On the day before, Hitler visited the Popps to say goodbye. Frau Anna later recalled:
“He took my husband’s hand and said, ‘If I were to die, please let my sister know, perhaps she wants to take care of my few possessions; if not, please do keep them. I am sorry if I should cause you any trouble.’ He then shook my hand, too, while I stood there and wept. We all liked him so very much. He embraced Peppi and Liesl, whom he loved, turned around, and vanished.” (13)
We must, however, be aware that Frau Popp told her recollections to a Nazi reporter in the Third Reich, so we should not be surprised about her devotion to the former lodger. Yet, be that as it may, on Saturday, October 10, RIR 16 marched off to Lechfeld. Due to the urgency of the situation at the front, the regiment was allowed only about ten days of manoeuvre, from October 10 to 21, at the exercise area, in which it was to train not only its own deployment but also to practice, as much as possible in the short time, coordination with other units. On Sunday, October 18, i.e., a week later, an exercise of the complete 12th Brigade was scheduled, both regiments, artillery and all, including a field mass and consecration of the regimental standards. (14) Opinions on the quality of the training were divided: while Hitler wrote Frau Popp that “the first five days in the Lech valley were the most tiring of my whole life,” an officer of the List Regiment, Count Bassenheim, complained that “discipline has grown very bad due to [the] marches and over-exertion.” (15) On October 20, Hitler informed the Popps that, this very evening, the regiment was to embark on a railway journey – to Belgium or England, he hoped, and expressed his exultation that the great game was about to begin.
He had to wait a few more hours. Everywhere in Europe, trains had begun in the first week of August to devour young men, their gear and rifles, and spit them out on the railway heads of their destinations, as per the schedules developed and pigeonholed years earlier. The Railway Department of the German General Staff coordinated the movements of over 11,000 trains during mobilization, each one of them consisting of 54 wagons. The Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine at Cologne, for example, was crossed by 2148 trains between August 2 and 18; about 134 trains a day, respectively, one every eleven minutes, day or night. The French Railway Department scheduled over 7,000 trains, on a slightly smaller network.
It was about 3 am on October 21, that the men of RIR 16 and their gear were loaded upon three trains and sent off westward. The first stop was Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein, whence Hitler sent a postcard to the Popps. (16) On the next day, the train reached the Rhine, and Hitler saw the great German stream for the first time, as well as the Niederwald-Denkmal, the gigantic statue of Germania protecting the river and the country. He never forgot the day – as late as 1944 he recalled that:
“I saw the Rhine for the first time when I travelled to the Western Front with my regiment in 1914. I will never forget the feelings that abounded in me when I saw, for the first time, this river of German destiny. Just as moving were the sympathy and the hearty encouragement of the people living there, who surprised us with a completely unanticipated welcome. We were supplied with everything we could imagine. When we came to Aachen in the evening, I promised myself never to forget this day as long as I lived.” (17)
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.
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.
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 , 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.
And, on March 27, at the trial’s conclusion:
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!
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.
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.
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:
“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 Decemberuntil 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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]
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”:
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
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.
Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself) The Oracle of Delphi
And love’s the noblest frailty of the mind. John Dryden “The Indian Emperor”, Act 2, Sc. 2
The Youth of Adolf Hitler
Our protagonist thus enters the stage and a few remarks are in order. There is little in the available sources regarding Hitler’s childhood and adolescence that has not been subjugated to interpretative efforts in the furtherance of the one or other psychological or political theory. Ian Kershaw observed that …
The historical record of Adolf’s early years is very sparse. His own account in Mein Kampf is inaccurate in detail and coloured in interpretation. Post-war recollections of family and acquaintances have to be treated with care and are at times as dubious as the attempts during the Third Reich itself to glorify the childhood of the future Führer. For the formative period so important to psychologists and “psycho-historians”, the fact has to be faced that there is little to go on which is not retrospective guesswork. (1)
That the early familiar environment, the experiences of youth and adolescence, are of paramount importance in the gestation of the adult mind is a commonplace, yet even in regard to the basics of Adolf Hitler’s family life a lot of speculation remains. Ian Kershaw, for example, arrives at a more critical judgement of his father Alois Hitler than many earlier biographers did – the question of course is what would he have expected from an Austrian Customs officer in the age of nationalism?
Family life, was, however, less than harmonious and happy. Alois was an archetypal provincial civil servant – pompous, status-proud, strict, humourless, frugal, pedantically punctual, and devoted to duty. He was regarded with respect by the local community. But both at work and at home, he had a bad temper which could flare up quite unpredictably. … He took little interest in bringing up his family and was happier outside rather than inside the family home. (2)
Our knowledge of early Hitler family affairs experienced an unexpected amelioration when Anton Joachimsthaler published 1989 in Munich his work “Correction of a Biography – Adolf Hitler 1908-1920”. [FN1] He presented many previously unknown or hard-to-find documents, unearthed police files, personal letters, paintings and drawings, photographs of Hitler’s war and post-war friends, their activities and much more. Of particular importance are military documents of the immediate post-war period, which suggest that Hitler developed his political convictions not, as he claimed in “Mein Kampf” and some historians have incautiously taken for granted, in Vienna before the war but in post-war Munich, and second, that his initial political sympathies in this era may have belonged to the Social Democrats. These interesting discoveries will be discussed in their proper context.
[FN1] Original Title: “Korrektur einer Biographie – Adolf Hitler 1908-1920”. In 2000, he presented an extended version, “Hitler’s Weg begann in München” [‘Hitler’s Path began in Munich’], that provided additional documentation. See Bibliography for details.
Most of Joachimsthaler’s findings relate to Hitler’s period before and after WW I in Munich, but some are relevant to his earlier life. Anton Joachimsthaler published, for example, the Legalisirungs-Protocoll of Alois Hitler discussed in the preceding chapter, and there will be a few more references to his work before we follow Adolf Hitler to Munich.
At this point in our account, Baby Adolf is being baptized, two days after he entered this world, by Father Ignaz Probst in the Catholic Church of Braunau. His name was given as Adolfus Hitler and is so recorded on the birth certificate. The family resumed life in the Gasthaus Pommer, comfortably, as far as we know. It seems that Klara, who has been promoted from chambermaid to nurse, from nurse to mistress, and from mistress to wife, acquainted herself well. At first, she had continued to address her husband as “uncle”, and remained shy for a time; but eventually, she found contentment in her homely duties, her devotion to the elder children Alois Jr. and Angela, and the care for the younger ones that arrived at regular intervals. The early deaths of her first three children, however, caused a crisis in the household, and Klara required some time to overcome the successive tragedies. She did not become pregnant for two years after Otto had died, only a few days after his birth, in the autumn of 1887.
Alois’ life revolved around the usual quarters very much: the Customs station at the river bank, the inns, and the beehives that were his hobby since childhood. He continued his work in good standing and was promoted again in 1892 when Adolf was three years old. The family moved to his next duty station, Passau, fifty miles downriver.
The change of residence was to exert a profound influence upon young Adolf. Braunau was a provincial, sleepy border town, which had only provided a tiny footnote to German history. During the Napoleonic wars, the book trader Johannes Palm was executed in Braunau by French troops, for having written a pamphlet critical of the French emperor. The tract was titled “Germany in the Hour of her Deepest Humiliation”; Napoleon took umbrage, and the author was fusilladed. The execution remained a fixture of German nationalist complaints and was remembered with a vengeance in 1870/71.
The former Imperial town and Episcopal see Passau was of a different calibre. In the Middle Ages, the Prince-Bishop of Passau had ruled over the important market, bishopric and county at the confluence of the Inn and Danube Rivers; splendid churches, castles and palaces bore witness to the glory days of the town. Although Passau was on the German bank of the river and border, the Austrian Customs inspection was located, by the mutual disposition of the respective governments, on German territory, where, by a favourable happenstance, the inns closed an hour later at night.
Yet for the family in general, and Alois in particular, the change of posting seems not to have been entirely welcome. Alois had lived seventeen years in Braunau, where he had buried two wives and had developed affection for the small town. There was also the fact that in Braunau he was necessarily a bigger fish than in the much larger Customs office in Passau, and, in addition, the position in Passau was a provisional appointment only, subject to confirmation by his superiors.
It was perhaps only for the youngest member of the family, Adolf, three and a half years old, that the new town was an unmitigated success; he was in the impressionable age in which a child leaves home for the first time and is unfailingly altered by the first impressions of the new environment, the sight of the buildings, the sound of the language. For the rest of his life, Adolf Hitler would speak the distinctive dialect of Lower Bavaria that was spoken in Passau. He insisted later that, from his time in Passau onwards, he had always felt more German than Austrian, and the old town’s cultural and historic pedigree certainly provided a different impression than sleepy Braunau. In all probability, he spent two carefree years in Passau.
When he was almost five years old, his mother gave birth to another son, Edmund. Only a week later, the father, obviously having satisfied the expectations of his peers, was promoted and transferred again: from the provisional appointment at the German border to a new post in Linz, the provincial capital. Because of little Edmund, the rest of the family remained in Passau for another year, which gave Adolf, freed from paternal supervision, lots of opportunities to roam about town. He enjoyed twelve months of freedom, and it was perhaps in this picturesque town, that commanded buildings in Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance style galore, that his lifelong interest in architecture awoke. Since he was not yet in school, time was on his side.
In addition, he had his mother for himself when his elder siblings were at school. Not only the Freudian faction of psychologists has commented at length upon Hitler’s devotion to his mother and hostility versus his father. Hitler was aware of his feelings and never thought of hiding them. All sources agree that he carried photographs of his mother at all times, until the last days of his life. In the cauldron of the final Russian attack on Berlin in April 1945, more than fifty years later, a framed photograph of his mother was the sole decoration of his bunker bedroom. Of his father, he spoke with fury or contempt.
As one would expect, it has been argued that a fixation on his mother as the unattainable ideal of womanhood destroyed his future relations to women; that he would subconsciously compare every other woman to his mother and consequently find them all wanting. A related theory held that he, unable to overcome this frustration, would develop homosexual tendencies. This theory perhaps confuses his friendship with Erich Röhm and the latter’s predilection for young and slim SA men with authenticity; anyway, no facts support the meretricious, not meritorious, theory. Hitler’s adult love life, as far as it will surface in this account, was less determined by his actual feelings for the young ladies themselves but his functions as revolutionary, party leader, chancellor and warlord that took up most of his time. Hitler met many women, and some were his mistresses, one of whom he married, in the end. Most, however, are best described as his “fans”, ardent supporters of his cause and person, socialites like Winifred Wagner, Unity Mitford or Helene Hanfstängl, who did him many favours and introduced him to the salons of the “better society”. He did go through a somewhat tragic love affair later in his life, which will be discussed in its proper place. Manifestly true is the observation that he was able to mobilize German women in his support as they had supported no other politician before him, but, then again, we don’t know how much of this support was based on erotic or maternal instincts. But the female vote was one of the pillars of his eventual success.
When the family followed the father to Linz in 1895, Adolf’s carefree life drew to a close. His father practised education by the standards of authoritative Austria and based his pedagogy on the cane – as it was the custom of the age. His stern character clashed easily and regularly with the imperfections he was wont to observe in the conduct of his two sons. From the spring of 1895 on, after Alois had decided to retire from His Majesty’s Customs Service, and spent most of his time at the family home, he had even more opportunity to correct the comportment of the children and hence father and sons collided even more often. Alois then bought a farm about thirty miles or fifty kilometres south-west of Linz, in the small village of Hafeld in the community of Fischlham near Lambach in Upper Austria. (3)
Hafeld was a tiny hamlet of about two dozen houses and harboured perhaps a hundred souls. If one remembers the hilly settings of “The Sound of Music”, one has a good impression of how the settlement must have looked like. A sub-alpine village high on a crest, between trees, orchards and meadows, accommodated the nine acres of Alois’ farm on a gentle ascension. The house, called the “Rauschergut” was pretty and substantial, laid out on a slight slope; split-level, Californians would call it, and featured a small apple orchard, stables for the cows and horses, and that great prerequisite for kids´ play on a farm, a hayloft. A rivulet completed the picture.
Yet there was one problem. Alois was a farmer by heart; he was an ardent beekeeper, loved the physical side of farming and the husbandry of animals. But he lacked a green thumb, or, perhaps, the soil wasn’t good. One theory has advanced that his retirement from public service was less than voluntary, but, again, nothing in the record supports such an allegation. He retired with full pension rights, and there is nothing to conclude that he was anything but a well-respected man; no indication that the move to Hafeld might have had ulterior motives. Yet another factor compromised the idyll for his younger son: life handed Adolf a new challenge by his enrolment in elementary school.
From September 1895 on, Adolf and Angela were scheduled to visit the tiny Volksschule, the primary school, in the village of Fischlham, three miles away. For the first time in his life, Adolf was separated from his mother and the village children, who had been his playmates. Adolf and Angela had to walk to school and back every day, about one hour in fine weather, much longer in winter. Due to the diminutive size of the population it served, the school in Fischlham was divided into two summary classes only, one for the boys and one for the girls.
One of the teachers, Herr Mittermaier, remembered the children in general, as pupils of the school, and Adolf in particular, because he was one of his students. He could clearly remember, he said, many decades later, that both of them kept the contents of their knapsacks in “exemplary order”, and that Adolf was “mentally very much alert, obedient, but lively.” (4)
In the first year, Adolf earned the highest marks for deportment, something he was not truly known for later. In “Mein Kampf”, he remembered:
“It was during these times that the first ideas formed in my breast. All that playing around in the open, the long way to school and my companionship with the rugged boys sometimes caused my mother grief and suffering, but that did not prevent me from being the opposite of a stay-at-home boy. And while I had hardly any thoughts of a future career at this time, I definitely had no sympathy for the direction my father’s career had taken. I imagine that even my talent for speaking in public came about through the more or less savage arguments that I often had with my school buddies. I had become a little ringleader and learned quite easily and well at school, but in other respects, I became quite difficult to handle.” (5)
Indeed, this passage seems to have been written straight from the heart. If true, it might evidence that, even as a boy, he was able to relate and defend his own ideas. What all sources agree on is that he was the ringleader at play, whether it was Cowboys and Indians or Boers versus Englishmen, a boy terror with a fast mouth, and busy with mischief. To Alois Jr., Hafeld proved a rough environment. The closeness of village life led to frequent arguments with his father. Alois Sr. worked long hours every day, but the barren soil rendered most of his labours fruitless and caused him frustration that all too readily turned to anger. In addition, Klara had given birth to little Paula in the fall of 1898, and the household now comprised five children. The distress over the farm may not have much improved the father’s patience.
Since he had given up his profession, Alois was very much of a presence on the farm and in the village, looming over his family with stern and unforgiving authority. As far as physical punishments are concerned, the sources disagree. The sons both complained about the beatings the father supposedly provided, Adolf remarked, “with a hippopotamus whip.” (6) On the other hand, Adolf’s future warden and burgomaster of Leonding, Josef Mayrhofer, who knew the family well, claimed that Alois’ bark was worse than his bite. We must keep here in mind that beatings, in liberal amounts and with frequent repetition, were deemed a disciplinarian’s panacea, instilling morale, obedience and character.
Alois Jr. alleged that the punishments happened on an irregular schedule, independent of cause and effect, which, if it were true, would indicate that alcohol played a role. Sometimes, he said, there were beatings for Adolf as well, or the dog, and he alleged that, on occasion, Klara also fell victim to her husband’s grim. If such scenes truly happened, they may have had strong psychological implications for young Adolf. Alois Jr. characterized his father as follows:
“He was imperious and quick to anger from childhood onward and would not listen to anyone. My stepmother always took his part. He would get the craziest notions and get away with it. If he didn’t have his way, he got very angry. … He had no friends, took to no one and could be very heartless. He could fly into a rage over every triviality.” (7)
Yet the elder son kept his own opinions, and was in the habit of defending them, and “after fierce fights with his father, fourteen-year-old Alois Jr. left the home in Hafeld and was disinherited.” (8) The family house, however, did not remain the only place where Alois Jr. found trouble. Four years later, in the year 1900, he was arrested, convicted of theft and sentenced to five months in jail. He received another such sentence later, this time for eight months. Like his possible grandfather Johann Georg Hiedler, he became a vagrant and earned meagre wages as a waiter in various countries: from Austria to Germany, from Germany to France, and from France, in 1909, to Ireland. Dublin, however, could not hold him any longer than other towns had, and the following year, 1910, finds him in Liverpool, where he became the proprietor of a small restaurant.
It was in this town that he married the buxom Irish lass Elizabeth Dowling, who bore him a son whom he named William Patrick. In early 1924, Alois Jr. went back to Germany, albeit without his family whom he, perhaps, considered an unnecessary burden. He resettled in Hamburg, but the old Hanseatic town got the better of him: a second marriage, undertaken without a prior divorce from Elizabeth, sent him to prison again, for bigamy, six months this time.
After his half-brother Adolf’s career had taken off in 1933, Alois materialized in Berlin, where he opened a bar and restaurant on the Wittenbergplatz, near the heart of the city’s nightlife. His eventual clientele, most of them Nazis, SS or SA officers, knew exactly what his family relations were. Although it could never be determined exactly whether these excellent connections now helped or not, the customers of Café Alois believed in them and the establishment was a success. Alois survived the war and his brother, but the prominence of the family name may have got a bit too close to him, or perhaps some of his former wives were on the hunt for outstanding alimony payments: at any rate, Alois Jr. changed his name to Hans Hiller and disappeared from history, although he lived until 1956. Adolf’s younger sister Paula was a quiet and docile girl. She never appeared in the limelight, never married, and lived in obscurity until her death in 1960.
The urge to change places frequently, Alois Jr. had certainly acquired from his father. His friend August Kubizek remembered what Adolf had told him about the family’s movements:
During his [Alois Sr.] period of service in Braunau, there are recorded twelve changes of address; probably there were more. During the two years in Passau, he moved house twice. Soon after his retirement, he moved from Linz to Hafeld, from there to Lambach – first in the Leingarner Inn, then to the mill of the Schweigbach Forge, that is to say, two changes in one year – then to Leonding. When I first met Adolf he remembered seven removals and had been to five different schools. (9)
(1) (2) Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889 – 1936: Hubris, W.W. Norton & Company 2000, ISBN 0-393-32035-9 (pbk.), p. 11
(3) (8) Hamann, Brigitte, Hitler’s Vienna, 1st Ed. Oxford UP 1999, Tauris Parks 2010, ISBN 978-1-84885-277-8 (pbk.), p.8, 8
(4) (6) (7) Toland, John, Adolf Hitler, Anchor Books 1992, ISBN 0-385-42053-6 (pbk.), p. 8,9,9
The business of the Civil Service is the orderly management of decline.
In the Year of the Lord 1889, the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph celebrated his fifty-ninth birthday and forty-first anniversary of his reign over the vast Empire of Austria and Hungary; when he died, in 1916, he had ruled the state for sixty-eight years. The realm was huge – covering over 180,000 square miles or about 450,000 square kilometres. The emperor’s domains stretched, in the east-west axis, from Czernowitz on the Prut River in today’s Ukraine to Vorarlberg near the Swiss border, and, in the north-south axis, from the lower Elbe River near Aussig to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) in southern Croatia, two-thirds down the eastern Adriatic coast.
Ethnically and thus politically, however, these territories were hopelessly divided. The racial diversity of the Imperial population included Germans in Austria, Hungary and the Sudetenland; Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia; Slovaks to their east; Poles in western Galicia and Ruthenians, Catholic Ukrainians, in the eastern part of it; Magyars in Hungary and Transylvania interspersed with some more Germans and Romanians; Slovenes, Friulians and Italians south of the Julian Alps; and finally Croats, Bosnians, Albanians, Montenegrinos and Serbs in and around the Balkan mountains.
these groups fought incessant but mostly inconclusive battles over
appointments, representation and influence
in the empire and its court, while a
laborious civil administration struggled with the actual governance of the
multitudes. The exceptionally long reign of Francis Joseph had much aided the
ossification of the Imperial
structures, which, given the Habsburgs’ reverence for tradition, were
conservative, to say the least; pre-modern, and reactionary.
Yet on the outside things appeared fit for eternity. Stefan Zweig, one of Vienna’s famous sons, describes the peculiar atmosphere of town and country:
When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-years-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanence, and the state itself was the chief guarantor of this stability. The rights which it granted to its citizens were duly confirmed by parliament, the freely elected representatives of the people, and every duty was exactly prescribed.
Our currency, the Austrian crown, circulated in bright gold pieces, as assurance of its immutability. Everyone knew how much he possessed or what he was entitled to, what was permitted and what was forbidden. Everything had its norm, its definite measure and weight. He who had a fortune could accurately compute his annual interest. An official or an officer, for example, could confidently look up in the calendar the year he would be advanced in rank, or when he would be pensioned.
family had its fixed budget, and knew how much could be spent for rent and
food, for holidays and entertainment; and what is more, invariably a small sum
was carefully laid aside for sickness and the doctor’s bills, for the
Whoever owned a house looked upon it as a secure domicile for his children and grandchildren; estates and businesses were handed down from generation to generation. When the babe was still in its cradle, its first mite was put in its little bank, or deposited in the savings’ bank, as a “reserve” for the future. In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovable in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed), another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence seemed impossible in an age of reason.
feeling of security was the most
eagerly sought-after possession of millions, the common ideal of life. Only the
possession of this security made life seem worthwhile, and constant widening
circles desired their share of this costly treasure.
At first, it was only the prosperous who enjoyed this advantage, but gradually the great masses forced their way toward it. The century of security became the golden age of insurance. One’s house was insured against fire or theft, one’s field against hail and storm, one’s person against accident or sickness. Annuities were purchased for one’s old age, and a policy was laid in a girl’s cradle for her future dowry. Finally, even the workers organized, and won standard wages and workman’s compensation. Servants saved for old-age insurance and paid in advance into a burial fund for their own interment. Only the man who could look into the future without worry could thoroughly enjoy the present. (1)
This peaceful state of bliss, however, did not necessarily embrace the whole empire; a new age has brought forth anarchists and socialists. Neither was the status of the rural poor much to write home about. Yet law and order were generally held in high regard for the safety and continuity of society they implied. Into this world of order, a son, whom she named Alois, was born, on the morning of June 7, 1837, out of wedlock, to the peasant maid Maria Anna Schicklgruber in the hamlet of Strones in the Austrian Waldviertel.
The Waldviertel, which literally translates as the “Wooden Quarter” or “Forest Quarter”, was one of the Austrian monarchy’s backwaters, a hilly “country of peasant villages and small farms, and though only some fifty miles from Vienna it has a somewhat remote and impoverished air, as if the main currents of Austrian life had passed it by.” (2) It is located slightly north-east of Linz, respectively north-west of Vienna, between the Danube River and the Czech border in the direction of Brno. It is a borderland and has seen its shares of marauding armies over the centuries. German tribes on the way to the treasures and temptations of the Roman Empire had crossed through the land which the Romans called “Noricum”, followed by the Huns, various tribes of Goths, the Hungarians and finally the Turks. It had seen armies in the Thirty-Years-War and the Napoleonic Wars; only after the Congress of Vienna a century of peace graced its gently rolling hills.
The name “Hitler”, variably spelled “Hidler”, “Hiedler”, “Hüttler”, “Hietler”, “Hytler” or “Hittler” was one of the more common names in the district. It is documented as early as 1435, when the Abbot of the Herzogenburg Monastery drew up a deed granting to Hannsen Hydler and his wife property near Raabs, on the Thaya River. (3) The etymology of the name indicates a possible derivation from the German word “Heide” [in English “heather”, relating to a meadow], of which the Waldviertel was full. All of Alois’ life occurred within a radius of one hundred miles of Linz, then as now the capital of the province of Oberösterreich, Upper Austria.
Little is known about Adolf Hitler’s paternal grandmother Maria Schicklgruber. The tiny village of Strones where she lived was far too small to be a parish of its own, and thus baby Alois had to be registered in the slightly bigger village of Döllersheim, a couple of miles to the north-west. It was generally known that the baby was born out of wedlock and therefore was, strictly speaking, “illegitimate”. Many theories have been spun and explanations offered in which this circumstance supposedly played the one or other role in Alois Hitler’s life or in that of his son Adolf, and they are all bunkum. The reality of the Waldviertel dictated that “legitimacy” was a concept the peasants simply could not afford to pay heed to, and which occasioned no advantages in their daily lives. “Illegitimacy” might have been a significant problem for the heir of a throne or the prospective owner of land, a shop or business, but not to farmhands and share croppers. It was a common occurrence, and there is not the slightest indication that Alois ever suffered from an imagined stigma attached to it. There were no empires to bestow on Alois, and his son took them regardless of a court’s permission.
Another disparaging theory was circulated in the early 1930s regarding Adolf Hitler’s parental grandfather. Alois, the rumours held, was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Jewish merchant from Graz named Frankenberger or Frankenreither, who had seduced Maria, who was working as a maid in his household – in a variation of the theme, the merchant’s son was the debaucher, and his father paid for the girl’s discretion.
Such a story, if true, would naturally be a feast for Hitler’s political enemies. After a few Austrian newspapers had come up with it during the German general election campaign of 1930, the allegations resurfaced when Hitler ran for German president against Hindenburg in 1932. At length, Hitler dispatched his legal counsellor Hans Frank to investigate. The lawyer was told that the nineteen-year-old son of a Mr. Frankenberger from Graz was the culprit, whose father had allegedly paid alimonies to Fräulein Schicklgruber for fourteen years; a variance of the story had Mr. Frankenberger and his lecherous son in Linz, not Graz. There was, however, not a shred of evidence available in either town, no trace of payments, and hence the story slowly died. Research in the Austrian and Jewish records of Graz and Linz undertaken after 1945 established conclusively that no Jewish families had been allowed to settle in either town before the 1860s, twenty years after Alois’ birth. Neither were there any Frankenbergers or Frankenreiters at all, and thus the bottom fell out of the story for good.
The first five years of Alois Schicklgruber’s life were spent in Strones with his mother, who married, in 1842, a seldom employed millworker named Johann Georg Hiedler from the nearby hamlet of Spital near Weitra. [FN1] The marriage seems not to have changed much: the couple lived in abject poverty, and after Maria died five years later of tuberculosis and Johann Georg re-entered the vagrant lifestyle, the child passed into the wardship of Johann Georg Hiedler’s brother Johann Nepomuk Hüttler of Spital, House # 36. This wardship gave rise to a fair amount of village gossip: rumour control asserted that Johann Nepomuk was, in fact, the biological father of the boy.
[FN1] The name “Spital” is a common name for Austrian villages and towns, and the village of Spital in Lower Austria, which plays a role here, must not be confused with the town of Spital in Carinthia, whither, for example, historian Marlis Steinert puts Johann Nepomuk Hüttler.
knows who Alois’ father truly was, and it is possible that Maria did not know
herself. In this time and place, sexual relations among farmhands were
essentially unregulated, babies born out of wedlock numerous and considered
welcome additions to the work force if they survived early childhood.
More interesting than idle speculation about the identity of Adolf Hitler’s grandfather is the question of why Alois’ original birth certificate underwent rewriting, tampering and forgery in the summer of 1876, when he was already thirty- nine years old. What had happened in the meantime that could explain such an act?
In 1850, at the age of thirteen, Alois ran away from home, a fact that allows an inference or two about the circumstances or happiness of his childhood. He fled to Vienna, where he quickly found employment as apprentice to a cobbler. He finished, as far as we know, the four years standard apprenticeship and became a shoemaker, but soon quit this profession and enlisted in the Austrian civil service. He passed the entrance examination, which seems quite an achievement since he had enjoyed little schooling at home, and was accepted to serve in the Customs division of the Austrian financial administration. In “Mein Kampf“, son Adolf described his father’s arrival in the Austrian capital as follows:
the son of a poor cottager, he [Alois] could not even in those early days bear
to stay at home. Before he was thirteen, the youngster laced his tiny knapsack
and fled from his homeland, the Waldviertel. Despite all the attempts of “experienced”
villagers to dissuade him, he made his own way to Vienna in order to learn a
This was in the fifties of the last century. It was a bitter decision to take the road and plunge into the unknown with only three Gulden for travel money. But by the time the thirteen-year-old had grown to seventeen, he had passed his apprentice’s examination [as a cobbler], but was not yet content with his lot – quite to the contrary. The long period of hardship, the endless poverty and misery he had suffered, strengthened his determination to give up the trade in order to become something “better”.
Once the village priest had seemed to the poor boy the embodiment of all humanly attainable heights, so now, in the great city, which had so powerfully widened his perspective, it was the rank of civil servant. With all the tenacity of a young man, who had grown “old” in suffering and sorrow while still half a child, the seventeen-year-old clung to his new decision – and he became a civil servant.” (4)
These words must be read with the knowledge that Adolf Hitler was on the record to regard his father with feelings closer to hate than love, but here he attempts to draw a picture of success, which was to contrast sharply to the opinions he shared in private, or at his headquarters’ dinner tables in the Second World War. More than from the laundered account of his father in “Mein Kampf” we can infer, regarding the happiness of the family Adolf grew up in, from the fact that Alois’ first son Alois Jr., Adolf’s half-brother, left this home at the same age of thirteen as his father had, never to return.
Meanwhile, the stations of Alois Schicklgruber’s rise to a somewhat respectable position in the Customs department – the highest to which he could aspire, given his limited education – followed the predictable patterns of civil service careers; that is, moving through the ranks and around the country. Originally attached as a most junior servant to the Austrian Ministry of Finance in 1855, he was relatively quickly promoted. In the year 1861 we find him as a supervisor in Saalfelden, Tyrolia, and in 1864 as an assistant in the bigger Customs office in Linz. In 1870, he was moved again, to Mariahilf, a change that was sweetened by a promotion to assistant collector. A year later he arrived in the small border town of Braunau at the Inn River, with the rank of Senior Assistant; he grew to like the little town and stayed for almost two decades. In 1875, he was promoted to Assistant Customs Inspector. His career was not spectacular per se, but it was a decent calling for a man of his origins and, apparently, that was what his family thought when they concocted a scheme to bestow upon him a dollop of enhanced respectability.
June 6, 1876, Alois and three of his friends – Josef Romeder, who was one of
Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s sons- in-law, Johann Breiteneder and Engelbert Paukh –
paid a visit to the public notary Josef Penkner in the small town of Weitra, not far from Alois’ birthplace
Strones. The notary was paid to prepare for Alois a “LEGALISIRUNGS-PROTOCOLL“, a protocol of legitimization for his
birth. The three friends attested that Johann Georg Hiedler, he of the vagrant lifestyle (whom they had known well, they said), had
attested to them at various times that he was, in fact, the biological father of
Alois Schicklgruber, whom he planned to legitimize one day. The document was
drawn up, the witnesses signed, but for a reason that remains unexplained, the
paper featured Alois’ new family name in the form “Hitler”, not as
“Hiedler” or “Hüttler”. Beweaponed with this document, the posse made its way to the little town of
Döllersheim on the next morning, where they paid a visit to the local priest,
Father Josef Zahnschirm, upon whom they played
a “cunning peasant trick”. (5)
On the power of the notarized document, and perhaps a contribution to the church funds, Father Zahnschirm agreed to make a few changes to Alois Schicklgruber’s baptismal record. The original birth certificate featured blanks in the space for the name of the father and the field for remarks. The blanks were now filled by entering “Georg Hitler. Cat.rel., Living in Spital” as the father, and under “Remarks” that …
“The undersigned witnesses hereby confirm that Georg Hitler, who was well-known to them, acknowledged paternity of the child Alois, son of Anna Schicklgruber, and they requested that his name be entered in the baptismal register. +++ Josef Romeder, Witness, +++ Johann Breiteneder, Witness, +++ Engelbert Paukh, Witness.” (6)
Speculations about this mission abound. Some private family business may have played a role; rumours tied Johann Nepomuk Hüttler, who had been so conspicuously absent in Weitra and Döllersheim, into the drama; “There was village gossip that Alois was his natural son.” (7)
The net result of the clandestine affair was that Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler. Father Zahnschirm had clearly been lied to when he was told that Johann Georg Hiedler was still alive [“Living in Spital“], but the churchman may have had his own thoughts about the procedure from the beginning, as had, apparently, the witnesses: the priest “forgot” to date and sign for the changes, and the witnesses had turned illiterate, signing with crosses, which could be explained as errors, should the need arise. The climax of the play came when the improved birth certificate was registered at the nearest Austrian chancery in Mistelbach. [FN2]
[FN2] Marlis Steinert followed up on the Austrian government’s subsequent authentication of the fraud: “A correspondence between the priest, the communal administration and the Financial Office in Braunau confirmed the legal validation of the document per matrimonium subsequens [due to Georg’s marriage to Maria Anna five years after Alois’ birth], citing a decree of the Ministry of the Interior in Vienna from September 12, 1868, in which such legitimations should be granted as far as possible.” (9)
The formerly illegitimate Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler, civil servant and owner of a gold-buttoned uniform; when he, half a year after Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s death, bought a farm for the proud sum of five thousand florins in cash; the village gossip nodding – conclusions confirmed.
Alois had gone through a number of romantic entanglements in his life, and had sampled experience in holy matrimony as well. He had married for the first time on October 1873 at thirty-six years of age, although it seems that at this time he had already fathered a child in a different relation. (8) At any rate, the marriage seems to have been built on reasons superior to love alone: the bride, Anna Glassl-Hoerer, was the daughter of a high-ranking financial officer, an inspector in the Treasury’s Bureau of Tobacco, fourteen years older than her husband and of ill health. Nobody would have been surprised had status and finances played a role in the match.
Due to the frequent changes of assignment, Alois had made it a habit to lodge in Gasthäusern, inns, for the greater part of his life, and these lodgings brought him into daily contact with waitresses, chambermaids, laundresses and tobacco girls, whether he liked it or not. Apparently he did not mind, and he did possess the most important condition to warrant female attention, a steady job and hence a steady income. By the time Anna filed for separation in 1880, perhaps tired of his infidelities, he had quite openly conducted an affair with the waitress of the Gasthaus Streif, a girl named Franziska (Fanny) Matzelsberger, for some time.
Yet the relation to Fanny did not preclude Alois, as it seems, from experiencing an urgent need for another maidservant, and he soon installed another young girl of sixteen years in his mansard under the roof of the inn; a slender, attractive girl named Klara Pölzl. The idea met with the furious opposition from Franziska, who had zero doubt about the nature of the services Klara would be asked to perform for Alois, and she succeeded in having the competition thrown out quickly. In due time Franziska bore a son to Alois Hitler, who was named Alois Junior, on January 13, 1882. When Anna, who had in the meantime obtained a legal decree of separation, died in the following year of consumption, Alois was free to marry Franziska. She soon bore Alois another child, a girl named Angela.
At this time Alois officially decided to accept the paternity of the children and had Alois Jr. and Angela legitimized. It was an outward sign of his striving for recognition and respectability, which were what counted in this deeply authoritative society. He had a gratifying career and money to spend; he earned more than, for instance, the local school principal. He was in his “best years” and loved to have his photo taken, in uniform. A question remains as far as the sympathies of his colleagues at work are concerned; one source describes him as “rigid and pedantic“, yet these would be qualities his employer might favour and may explain his success. In a letter to a cousin who had inquired about a job for his son, Alois drew the following portrait of himself and his profession:
“Don’t let him think that the ‘Finanzwach’ [Fiscal Service] is a kind of game, because he will quickly be disillusioned. First, he has to show absolute obedience to his superiors at all levels. Second, there is a good deal to learn in this occupation, all the more so if he had little previous education. Topers, debtors, card players, and others who lead immoral lives cannot enlist. Finally, one has to go out on duty in all weathers, day or night.” (10)
Characteristically, Alois’ enumeration of “immoral” lifestyles did not include dubious and perhaps illicit contacts to waitresses and chambermaids, nor illegitimate babies. But a shadow soon appeared on his private horizon; a short time after giving birth to Angela, Franziska developed tuberculosis, as Anna had, and was forced to leave Braunau to seek a cure in mountain air. Alois was suddenly left alone with two small children on the top floor of the inn, and since his career as Customs official had not prepared him for the care of toddlers, he reimported Klara as soon as Franziska had left town. Klara Pölzl was actually Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s granddaughter, and therefore Alois’ niece, in the context of which the closeness of family relations in the Waldviertel may be observed again. One photo of Klara has survived. She was tall and slender, almost as tall as her husband, had very regular and attractive features framed by brown hair; not a beauty but what is called in France a “belle laide”, an interesting girl. The outstanding aspect of her face was certainly her voluminous turquoise eyes. By all accounts she was neat, simple, and loving. Her education was close to nil, but, then again, the sources agree that she behaved correctly in public and had no problems with the role of being the common-law wife of a Customs official. In private, she was known as a most efficient housekeeper, cook, organizer, and nurse to the children.
The community in Braunau accepted her without qualms, which is somewhat surprising: it was one of these little towns in which the neighbours take an interest in everything that is not their business. In the summer of 1884, Franziska died of consumption, as Anna had earlier, and Klara was already pregnant. Alois wanted to marry her, but now the manipulation of the birth certificate backfired: since the former Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler, he was officially Klara’s uncle and no marriage was possible under the laws of the Austrian Catholic church unless a dispensation was granted. With the aid of the local priest, Alois composed a letter to the Bishop of Linz, which has survived:
who with most humble devotion have appended their signatures below have decided
upon marriage. But according to the enclosed family tree, they are prevented by
the canonical impediment of collateral affinity in the third degree, touching
second. They therefore make the humble request that the Most Revered Episcopate
will graciously secure for them a dispensation on the following grounds:
bridegroom has been a widower since August 10th of this year, as can be
observed from the enclosed death certificate, and he is the father of two minors, a boy of two and a half
years (Alois) and a girl of one year and two months (Angela), and they
both need the services of a nurse, all the more because he is a Customs
official away from home all day and often at night and therefore in no position
to supervise the education and upbringing of his children. The bride has been
caring for these children ever since their mother’s death, and they are very
fond of her.
Thus, it may be justifiably assumed that they will be well brought up and the marriage will be a happy one. Moreover, the bride is without means, and it is unlikely that she will ever have another opportunity to make a good marriage. For these reasons the undersigned repeat their humble petition for a gracious procurement of dispensation from the impediment of affinity.
Enclosed was a version of the family tree, which presented Alois Hitler as the son of Johann Georg Hiedler, the vagrant, whose brother Johann Nepomuk Hüttler was the grandfather of Klara Pölzl, the bride. We will have the opportunity to encounter a letter or two written by the young Adolf, Alois’ son, in a later post, and they will sound oddly similar in diction and style to the epistle above. Alois’ petition for a dispensation reeks of the same sort of not very sublime deception that he had employed in the “improvement” of his original birth certificate; what John Toland had called the “cunning peasant trick“. The son was to employ similar tactics in his own time.
The addressee, the Bishop of Linz, hesitated, and decided, following proper bureaucratic procedure, to call upon a higher authority. A short summary of the case, including the original letter, family tree and a “testimonium paupertatis“, an instrument of declaring poverty which waived the payment of the usual fees, was forwarded to the Sacra Rota, the department of the Holy See that deals with matrimonial issues. The Vatican apparently cared as much or little about a wee bit of incest in Braunau as the peasants of the Waldviertel cared about legitimacy, and the release was granted three weeks later.
Alois Hitler and Klara Pölzl were married on January 7, 1885. The ceremony took place in the morning, in a hurry, it seems: Klara complained that before noon, “my husband was already on duty again.” (12) Later in the evening, a small banquet in the company of Alois’ Customs colleagues followed at the Gasthaus Pommer.
Marriage hardly changed anything in their lives. The pair had known each other for years, and Klara was accustomed to her duties in the household. She was a simple but quiet, modest and polite woman that never put up demands on her husband, the children, or the community. She was deeply religious and attended services regularly. The family lived without any trace of scandal, even Alois’ private investigations into the lives of the local waitresses and chambermaids seemed to abate. Money was not plenty but sufficient to afford the family a proper living standard, and they played their parts in the community without fail.
If we gaze at Klara’s photograph, taken when she was about twenty-six, we look into the face of a simple but pleasant country girl. The most impressive feature of her face are indeed her luminous, expressive eyes. Robert Payne observed:
In the photograph she looks vulnerable, but not too vulnerable. She was a spirited woman, who could, if necessary, stand up to her husband. She was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but her face suggests an uncommon gentleness and tenderness, an essential goodness. She was one of these women who live for their husbands, their children, and their faith. (13)
She was to bear six children to Alois, four sons and two daughters, of which one each survived childhood. The elder children Alois Jr. and Angela were joined by Adolf in April 1889 and Paula in January 1896. Four children died young: Gustav at the age of two; Ida at the same age; Otto died in the cradle, and Edmund in his sixth year. [FN3]
[FN3] It seems that the fate of the Hitler family was no exception. A boyhood friend of Adolf, August Kubizek, described the early trials of his freshly-married parents as follows: “At first the young couple lived in the house of my mother’s parents. My father’s wages were low, the work was hard, and my mother had to give up her job when she was expecting me. Thus, I was born in rather miserable circumstances. One year later my sister Maria was born, but died at a tender age. The following year, Therese appeared; she died at the age of four. My third sister, Karoline, fell desperately ill, lingered on for some years, and died when she was eight. My mother’s grief was boundless. Throughout her life she suffered from the fear of losing me, too; for I was the only one left to her of her four children.” (14)
this point in time and place, such a mortality rate was considered almost
normal. Children were born and died by the thousands, of measles, diphtheria, pneumonia
and other common childhood diseases; deadly in a time which knew not yet sulphonamides or penicillin. The
family was in the care of Dr. Eduard Bloch, a general practitioner, but the
science of microbiology was not yet invented
and the invisible agents of death prospered unhindered.
general, however, it was a respectable and orderly family which welcomed, at
six o’clock in the evening of April 20, 1889, its newest member, Adolfus.
As John Heineman reports, by early November 1923, the political and economic conditions in Bavaria – and much of Germany – was chaotic. In Munich, Minister-President Kahr – endowed with dictatorial powers – had declared a state of emergency and suspended the elected Bavarian Parliament. He began negotiations with a number of anti-Republican groups but seemed prepared to wait for the right moment to declare Bavarian independence and restore the monarchy.
Having fired the enthusiasm and expectations of his followers up to fever pitch in the days after the German Day in Coburg, Hitler could not wait because he suspected the economic crisis would not last forever. With the appointment of [new Secretary of Treasury] Schacht there were signs that the national government in Berlin was getting ready to move on the hyper-inflation. Once conditions returned to normal, Hitler knew he may have lost his opportunity forever. He decided, therefore, to manipulate the situation so that Kahr and his co-conspirators, General von Lossow (Reichswehr commander of the Bavarian District) and Colonel von Seisser (head of the Bavarian Landespolizei [paramilitary State Police]) would be forced to join him. For the evening of 8 November, these three leaders had scheduled a public meeting in the Bürgerbräukeller, a big Munich beer cellar, in order to protest the growth of Bolshevism in Germany and, perhaps, start their own takeover. Kahr was to speak and all the leading citizens of Munich were to be present. Hitler secretly surrounded the hall with some six hundred armed SA men, bursting in and interrupting Kahr’s speech, to announce “the beginning of a national revolution. Exiled Nazi Otto Strasser described the beginnings of the failed Beer Hall Putsch in “Hitler and I”, first published in 1940:
The conspirators [Hitler, Goering, Röhm, Gregor Strasser, Hess, Streicher, Frick and possibly Himmler], met every evening in the private rooms of the Bürgerbräu [Bürgerbräukeller], a Munich brasserie and restaurant, which also had a big hall for public meetings.
Hitler therefore decided to force their hand. The date of the putsch was originally fixed for the 10th and 11th of November, . But at the last moment, learning that von Kahr was holding a meeting at the Bürgerbräukeller at which he was to make a speech on the programme of the Bavarian Monarchists, Hitler altered the date. November 8 was solemnly fixed as the historic date of the German Revolution.
Hitler’s instinct ought to have told him that it would have been better to have left these aged servants of a decrepit regime out of it. Both Kahr, Lossow and Seisser had served under the Kaiser. In spite of incessant discussions, which dragged on for week after week, no serious steps had yet been taken by Hermann Goering. But Hitler wanted action, and with a handful of followers proposed taking the risk of compromising the great German national revolution forever.
Hitler had six hundred men. Gregor Strasser, warned late, assembled three hundred and fifty stormtroopers at Landshut and led them to Munich. General Ludendorff, who had not been kept informed of what was going on, was at Ludwigshöhe, where a motorcar was hurriedly sent to fetch him.
On the fatal day Adolf wore a frock-coat, on which he pinned his Iron Cross. He proposed bursting into the hall at the head of his men while paramilitary detachments surrounded the building, whereupon von Kahr, before even beginning his speech, would be forced to surrender to the insistence of the heavily armed putschists. ‘He cannot help joining us,’ Hitler said to Scheubner-Richter, whose mission it was to fetch General Ludendorff to Munich. ‘Once Kahr is persuaded the others will follow.’
Strong in this conviction, Adolf gravely got into the car that took him to the Bürgerbräukeller. At the entrance the young fanatic with the Iron Cross kept asking to speak to Governor Kahr, but the dense crowd refused to let him pass. He was pale and trembling, and looked like a madman. Inside the hall the meeting had already begun and von Kahr had started his speech.
Hitler hesitated, but it was too late to go back. He listened, and could hear the steps of his faithful shock-troops. ‘Clear the vestibule!’ he ordered the policeman on duty at the entrance. Impressed by the Iron Cross, the policeman obeyed. A few minutes later the stormtroopers marched in. Adolf waited for them with his eyes closed and his hands in his pockets, where there was a revolver. He felt the eyes of his young men upon him, but he had not yet decided what to do if his coup failed and the triumvirate refused to march with him.
Like a maniac he burst into the hall, where three thousand Bavarians, seated before their beer-mugs, were listening to the unctuous oratory of von Kahr. Adolf jumped on to a chair, fired his revolver at the ceiling, and shouted, his hoarse voice half-quenched with excitement:
Herr von Kahr had spoken for half an hour. Then there was movement at the entrance as if people were wanting to push their way in. Despite several warnings, the disturbance did not die
Eventually, steel helmets came into sight. From this moment on, the view from my seat was rather obscured. People stood on chairs so that I didn’t see Hitler until he had come fairly near along the main gangway; just before he turned to the platform, I saw him emerge between two armed soldiers in steel helmets who carried pistols next to their heads, pointing at the ceiling. They turned towards the platform, Hitler climbed on to a chair on my left. The hall was still restless, and then Hitler made a sign to the man on his right, who fired a shot at the ceiling. Thereupon Hitler called out (I cannot recollect the exact order of his words): “The national revolution has broken out. The hall is surrounded.” Maybe he mentioned the exact number, I am not sure. He asked the gentlemen Kahr, Lossow, Seisser to come out and guaranteed their personal freedom. The gentlemen did not move. The General State Commissioner [Kahr] had stepped back and stood opposite Hitler, looking at him calmly. Then Hitler went towards the platform. What happened I could not see exactly; I heard him talk to the gentlemen and I heard the words: Everything would be over in ten minutes if the gentlemen would go out with him. To my surprise the three gentlemen went out with him immediately….
The official Bavarian Political Police Report on the Events of 8 November 1923 then described the happenings as follows:
After the three gentlemen had entered the room, Adolf Hitler called out: “No one leaves the room alive without my permission.” At the door a member of the bodyguard walked up and down continually, holding a pistol. Then Hitler turned to Excellency von Kahr with the statement: “The [new] Reich Government has been formed, the Bavarian Government has been overthrown. Bavaria is the springboard for the Reich Government. There must be a Reich governor in Bavaria. Pöhner [the Police chief of Munich and sympathetic to the Nazis] is to become Minister-President with dictatorial powers. You will be Reich Governor. Reich Government—Hitler; national army—Ludendorff; Lossow—army minister; Seisser—police minister.
“I know this step is a difficult one for you, gentlemen, but the step must be taken, it must be made easier for the other gentlemen to make the leap. Everybody must take up the post which he is allotted. If he does not, then he has no right to exist. You must fight with me, achieve victory with me, or die with me. If things go wrong, I have four bullets in my pistol, three for my colleagues if they desert me, the last bullet for myself.” While saying this, he put the pistol which he had been holding all the time to his head. While he was speaking to Excellency von Kahr, he noticed Major Hunglinger [General Seisser’s aide] in the room and motioned with his hand for him to leave.
Kahr declared to Herr Hitler: “You can arrest me, you can have me shot, you can shoot me yourself. Whether I live or die is unimportant.” Whereupon Hitler turned to Colonel von Seisser who accused him of not keeping his promise [not to attempt a putsch.] Hitler replied: “Yes, that’s true, but I did it in the interests of the fatherland. Forgive me.”
Herr von Lossow tried to say something to the other two gentlemen. But this was prevented by a shout: “You gentlemen are not allowed to talk to one another.” Lossow then stepped back to the window, disgusted with the proceedings. While looking out between the curtains, he noticed in front of every window a group of armed men, some of whom looked into the room with their guns at the ready. Hitler, who clearly saw the unpleasant impression this made, waved them away with his hand. Excellency von Lossow asked: “What is Ludendorff’s attitude to the affair?” Hitler replied: “Ludendorff is ready and will soon be fetched.” Hitler then left the room. He got no answer during this time, either from Herr von Kahr or from the other gentlemen….
Historian von Müller continued:
The general mood—I can of course only judge from my surroundings, but I think that this represented the general feeling in the hall—was still against the whole business. One heard: “Theatrical!” “South America!” “Mexico!” That was the prevailing mood. The change came only during Hitler’s second speech when he entered about ten minutes later, went to the platform and made a short speech. It was a rhetorical masterpiece. In fact, in a few sentences it totally transformed the mood of the audience. I have rarely experienced anything like it. When he stepped on to the platform the disturbance was so great that he could not be heard, and he fired a shot. I can still see the gesture. He got the Browning out of his back pocket and I think it was on this occasion that the remark about the machine gun was made. When things did not become quiet, he shouted angrily at the audience: “If you are not quiet, I shall have a machine gun put up on the gallery.” In fact he had come in to say that his prediction of everything being over in ten minutes had not come true. But he said it in such a way that he finally went out with the permission of the audience to say to Kahr that the whole assembly would be behind him if he were to join. It was a complete reversal. One could hear it being said that the whole thing had been arranged, that it was a phoney performance. I did not share this opinion because Kahr’s attitude seemed to contradict it. Seeing him at close quarters, one got the impression of confusion, of great dismay….
Then war hero Ludendorff appeared, according to the Bavarian Political Police Report of the Meeting:
Ludendorff then entered the room in a hat and coat and, without asking any questions, with obvious excitement and with a trembling voice, declared: “Gentlemen I am just as surprised as you are. But the step has been taken; it is a question of the fatherland and the great national and Völkisch cause, and I can only advise you, go with us and do the same.” … Shortly after Ludendorff, Pöhner entered the room. Hitler, Ludendorff and Weber [leader of a paramilitary group called Freikorps Oberland] now began a process of urgent persuasion. Excellency von Kahr, in particular, was besieged on all sides. Moved by the feelings previously described, Lossow at last gave Ludendorff the consent he wanted with the dry comment, “All right.” After some hesitation. Colonel von Seisser also nodded his agreement. Then Hitler, Ludendorff, and Dr Weber, with Pöhner also, worked on Excellency von Kahr with coaxing and pleading. Lossow and Seisser were asked to take part in the coaxing, but neither replied. … Hitler could no longer go back, whatever the position of Kahr, Lossow, and Seisser might prove to be. Hitler kept bringing this out with statements like: “The deed has been done, there is no going back. It has already passed into history.”
After long urging, Kahr declared: “I am ready to take over the destiny of Bavaria as the representative of the monarchy.” Hitler insisted that this statement should be made in the hall. Herr von Kahr replied that after the way in which he had been led out of the hall he refused to go back into the hall. He wanted to avoid any public fraternizing. But Hitler insisted with the words: “You will be carried shoulder-high. You will see what jubilation will greet you: the people will kneel before you.” Kahr replied: “I can do without that.” They then went into the hall.
BAVARIAN POLITICAL POLICE REPORT
Karl Alexander von Müller reported further:
An hour after Hitler’s first appearance the three gentlemen came back into the hall with Hitler and Ludendorff. They were enthusiastically received. On the platform Kahr began to speak first without being requested to and gave the speech which was printed word for word in the papers. Ludendorff too, in my opinion, spoke without being requested to, whereas Lossow and Seisser only spoke after repeated requests—I can’t remember the words, but only the gestures—on Hitler’s part. If I am to depict the impression made by the gentlemen on the platform, I would say that Kahr was completely unmoved. His face was like a mask all evening. He was not pale or agitated; he was very serious, but spoke very composedly. I got the impression that there was a melancholy look about his eyes. But that is perhaps being subjective. Hitler on the other hand, during this scene was radiant with joy. One had the feeling that he was delighted to have succeeded in persuading Kahr to collaborate. There was in his demeanor, I would say, a kind of childlike joy, a very frank expression which I shall never forget. Excellency Ludendorff by comparison was extremely grave; when he came in he was pale with suppressed emotion. His appearance as well as his words were those of a man who knew it was a matter of life and death, probably death rather than life. I shall never forget his expression. It was such that when I heard in town on the following day the rumor that he had been killed, I said to myself: That’s what he looked like last night. Lossow’s expression was very different; there was something detached, relaxed about his whole attitude. I don’t want to make a party point but, if I am to describe it, it struck me that he made a slightly ironical fox face. A certain impenetrable smile never left his features. Seisser was pale and upset. He was the only one who gave the impression of personal agitation, of external agitation. His words were merely a variant of Lossow’s. The report in the papers of the words of these two gentlemen was not correct: it was somewhat touched up.
Yet, momentarily unbeknownst to the present public, the endeavour was already collapsing; Hitler’s triumph was premature. A few hours earlier, Ernst Röhm, the head of the Munich SA, had occupied Army headquarters in Munich where he was received with sympathy by the junior officers. But the Reichswehr’s senior officers remained loyal to the Republic, and when General Lossow returned to his headquarters following his release, he immediately ordered military reinforcements to the Bavarian capital, where they surrounded the building which Röhm had occupied. Upon his release, Kahr too revoked his agreement with Hitler, saying he had been forced to make it at gunpoint. A little after midnight, it was clear to all in the Bürgerbräukeller that there would be no March on Berlin. Would a march on Munich suffice instead?
As it is perhaps a tradition of dramatic events and last acts, a leaden dawn had greeted the day of the coup; it was cold, and scattered snowflakes fell on the sidewalks. The morning light barely had the strength to pierce the depths of the Bürgerbräukeller, in which the prospective putschists had a breakfast of stale bread and cheese, the remains of last night’s buffet.
The morning hours had brought no better plan than to march into the city centre and to appeal to the support of the masses. The clock of the church struck twelve noon, when the sun, like a milky disc, began to break through the layers of morning mist and illuminated the hesitant gathering of troops. They had lost the brass music for lack of payment and a touch of finality surrounded the meeting.
Finally, the marching order was given. The vanguard formed a wedge; somewhat hesitantly, consisting of veterans and the standard-bearers of the party’s swastika banner and the black and white colours of the Empire. In the second group marched the lead: Hitler was flanked on the left by Ludendorff and on the right by Scheubner-Richter. At their sides walked Hermann Kriebel, Ulrich Graf (Hitler’s personal bodyguard), and Hermann Göring, who contributed the fashion highlight of the procession: he wore a helmet painted with a large white swastika and a black leather coat, under which the strong contrast of his blue and gold glowing Pour Le Mérite could not be overlooked. Hitler rejected Göring’s proposal to take some of the arrested city councillors as hostages; to create martyrs for the opposition was not his intention.
Behind the point guard, three groups, four-abreast, marched side by side. On the left side, the elite, a hundred of Hitler’s bodyguards in military outfits with guns and hand grenades; the Munich SA regiment, winner of many beer halls fights in the middle, and to their right the Bund Oberland, Colonel Kriebel’s men.
Behind these paramilitary outfits, a slightly incongruous collection of men attempted to form a semblance of anti-republican unity: whether these men wore old uniforms or not, whether they brandished weapons or not or whether they were trained or not, they presented a swastika band on left arm as their unifying feature. A few infantry cadets, following the motley crowd and bringing up the rear, marched, easily distinguishable, with much more aplomb than the civilians. A short roll call revealed about two thousand men, who slowly closed their ranks and moved toward the Ludwig Bridge to cross the Isar River on their way downtown.
It was only half a mile to the river and ten minutes after they had started, the revolutionary assembly faced a platoon of State Police on the banks of the bridge. The vanguard approached slowly when the police chief in a loud voice – not to be ignored – ordered his men to load live ammunition. He had barely finished the command when a surprise attack of the SA involved both the police and the rebels in a brief struggle; the next minute saw the police line overrun and the rebels moved on north-westward towards the city centre.
The march led through the eastern neighbourhoods of the town, where they were welcomed with applause by many citizens and visitors, who had been mobilized by the rumours that spread like wildfire. The centipede continued to grow when idle spectators joined the train and children ran around the standard-bearers as if a circus were in town. The men made good for the loss of the brass band by singing their favourite hymns; perhaps not perfect, but with a lot of heart and perhaps a little fear.
The troops passed the Isartor, the old eastern town gate, and entered the “Valley”, the thoroughfare that led to the Marienplatz at the city centre. The Valley is always one of Munich’s most frequented streets and this day was no exception. The size of the lindworm had grown considerably and when the train reached Marienplatz, the heart of the city, it was densely populated with supporters and spectators. The crowds chanted patriotic songs and the trams of line 6 were hopelessly stuck. Julius Streicher, editor of the infamous Nazi paper “Der Stürmer“, was at the centre of the square and gave a speech.
Suddenly the centipede hesitated; as if there was confusion about which way to turn. Colonel Kriebel, who had tactical command, was not sure what to do, but indecision ended when Ludendorff turned right into Weinstraße, which led to Odeonsplatz and Feldherrnhalle; to the same place where Heinrich Hoffmann had captured – on August 2, 1914 – a snapshot of the cheering crowd with Hitler at its centre, that celebrated the declaration of war.
Everybody followed the general. Kriebel later said he never thought about it twice: “If Ludendorff marches there, we go with him.” (18) Ludendorff himself could not remember a conscious decision: ” Sometimes you act in life just instinctively and do not know why…. “(19) It is less than half a mile (700 meters) from Marienplatz to Odeonsplatz. Access to the square was sealed off by police. The next sixty seconds ran in slow motion.
Who exactly then stood facing each other, on that noon of November 9, 1923, on the Odeonsplatz Square in Munich? The numbers can be found in Harold Gordon‘s “Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch”, Princeton University Press 1972, ISBN 0-691-10000-4, pages 270-272:
The rebels could count on a very considerable number of men from Munich and were reinforced by delegations from many parts of southern Bavaria. They also enjoyed the advantage of the support of the city’s population. However, many of the members of their organizations and trailers were hardly of direct military value. In terms of actually-present troop strengths were approximately as follows:
about 2 infantry companies – about 150 officers and men
All together approximately 4000 men, but dispersed over town.
They faced the following government forces:
(A) Bavarian Police
Blue Police – regular town police – about 250 officers and men
State Police Munich with:
the Personnel of the Bureau and Staff of the Police headquartered at the Army Museum
Central Office of the Munich Police headquarters in the Ettstrasse
First Battalion (First Section) – about 400 officers and men (quartered in the former Royal residence)
Second Battalion (Second Section) – about 400 officers and men (headquartered in the Max II Barracks, at the corner Leonrodstraße and Dachauerstraße)
Third Battalion (Third Section) – about 400 officers and men (Maximilianeum and Türkenkaserne)
About 1 motorized division (Automotive Detachment) – about 75 officers and men (Türkenkaserne)
1 tanks group with 12 obsolete tanks – about 75 officers and enlisted men (Türkenkaserne)
1 Communication Technical battalion (Türkenkaserne)
1 Battalion National Police München Country – about 400 officers and men (Max II barracks)
1 mounted reconnaissance squadron (Fight Season) – about 50 officers and men (Max II barracks)
Except for these units in the city itself, about two more regiments were available, one battalion at the police preschool Eichstätt and various smaller units scattered across the state
(B) Reichstruppen (Federal troops)
At the headquarters of Wehrkreis VII and Seventh Infantry Division (Ludwig and Schönfeld Roads):
First Battalion, Nineteenth Infantry Regiment – 300 men (Oberwiesenfeld)
Headquarters Infantry Leader VII and artillery leader VII (Ludwig and Schönfeld roads) – perhaps 100 men
Seventh Engineer Battalion – about 225 officers and men (Oberwiesenfeld, Pioneer Casern I and II)
Seventh Signal Battalion – about 150 officers and men (Oberwiesenfeld)
Seventh Motor Transport Battalion, Headquarters and First Company – about 100 officers and men
Seventh Transportation Battalion (Mounted), Headquarters and First and Second Company – about 125 officers and men
Seventh Medical Battalion
Fifth Battery of the Seventh Artillery Regiment – about 90 officers and enlisted men (Oberwiesenfeld)
Stadtkommandantur Headquarters (Army Museum) – approx. 50 men
Infantry School – about 350 officers, cadets and men (Blutenburgstraße on Mars Square) (The rest of the Seventh Division and the Seventeenth Cavalry Regiment under the command of General von Lossow would be available within 24 hours for the operation against the rebels if the trains continued to work).
From these figures, we can draw the following conclusion: by the sheer numbers, the putschists were superior, the more so since many of the army soldiers were on unarmed commands; hence of the perhaps 1500 men theoretically available against some 4,000 rebels, perhaps only 800 were ready. The infantry and pioneer schools were not even under Bavarian command but answered to Berlin.
Rebels and police, just maybe twenty feet apart, stood facing each other now.
Here a line of city police blocked the way. But the Putschists surged forward, singing, “0 Deutschland Hoch in Ehren” [‘Oh Germany high in honours’]. Looking down from her hotel room, Frau Winifred Wagner was amazed to see her idol, Hitler, marching down the narrow Residenzstrasse next to Ludendorff. Just ahead in the Odeonsplatz small groups of green-uniformed men were scrambling into a blocking position. There was only room enough in the street for eight abreast.
Hitler locked arms with Scheubner-Richter in preparation for trouble but Ludendorff touched no one, still supremely confident that no one would fire on him. Directly ahead was a cordon of state police under First Lieutenant Michael Freiherr von Godin. Faced with an oncoming mob, Godin called out, “Second Company, double-time, march!” The state police jogged forward but the Putschists did not break, standing off the enemy with levelled bayonets and pistols. Godin used his rifle to parry two bayonet thrusts, “overturning the men behind them with the rifle at high port.” All at once a shot exploded. Godin heard it zing past his head; it killed a sergeant. “For a fraction of a second, my company stood frozen. Then, before I could give an order, my people opened fire, with the effect of a salvo.”
The Putschists returned the fire and panic broke out as marchers and bystanders scrambled for safety. One of the first to fall was Scheubner¬Richter, shot in the lungs. Another was Graf, who had leapt in front of Hitler to take the half dozen bullets meant for him. In falling, the personal bodyguard clutched Hitler, yanking him down so sharply that his left arm was dislocated. On the other side, Scheubner-Richter also helped drag Hitler to the pavement. Ludendorff’s faithful servant, who had been ordered to go home, was bleeding on the asphalt. His friend Aigner, the servant of the dying Scheubner¬Richter, crawled to him. He was dead. Someone stepped over Aigner. It was General Ludendorff marching erectly, left hand in coat pocket, into the line of fire. [FN1]
[FN1] Most accounts picture Ludendorff as courageous for staying on his feet and Hitler as ignoble for dropping to the street even though Hitler’s arm dislocation indicates he was dragged down. Undoubtedly Hitler would have hit the ground on his own, since he was a seasoned front-line soldier. Robert Murphy testified that “both Ludendorff and Hitler behaved in identical manners, like the battle-hardened soldiers they were. Both fell flat to escape the hail of bullets.” Another eyewitness, a watchman, also saw Ludendorff throw himself to the ground and then find cover “behind a corpse or wounded man.” A second watchman corroborated the fact that no one was standing after the volley. (21)
As Hitler sprawled on the ground thinking he had been shot in the left side, comrades tried to shield him. Eighteen men lay dead in the streets: fourteen followers of Hitler and four state police, all, incidentally, more or less sympathetic with National Socialism. Those in the front of the marching column alone knew what had happened. The crows jammed up behind only heard firecracker explosions ahead, then a rumour that both Hitler and Ludendorff were killed. The Putschists scrambled to the rear.
Ludendorff marched through the police cordon and into the arms of a lieutenant who placed him under arrest and escorted him to the Residenz [the former town palace of the Wittelsbachers] … Hitler painfully struggled to his feet, cradling his injured arm. He was in agony as he slowly moved away from the battleground, face pale, hair falling over his face. He was accompanied by Dr Walter Schultze, chief of the Munich SA medical corps, a towering young man. They came upon a small boy lying at the curb, bleeding profusely. Hitler wanted to carry him off but Schulze called to his wife’s cousin (a botany student named Schuster) to take the boy.
At Max Joseph Platz they finally reached Hitler’s old grey Selve 6-20, which had been loaded with medical supplies. An elderly first-aid man named Frankel got in the front seat with the driver while Hitler and the doctor got into the rear seat. Schuster stood on the running board holding the wounded boy. Hitler told the driver to head for the Bürgerbräukeller, so he could find out what was going on. But at the Marienplatz, they came under heavy machine-gun fire and had to change directions several times. They found the Ludwig Bridge blocked and turned back.
By this time the boy had regained consciousness and Schuster dismounted, so he could take the youngster home. The car continued toward the Sendlinger Torplatz. Here they encountered another burst of -fire near the old southern cemetery. Since it was impossible to get back to the beer hall, there was nothing to do but keep driving south towards Salzburg.
Göring’s display of his Pour Le Mérite decoration had not saved him, and he lay on the pavement with a bullet in his upper thigh. Frau Ilse Ballin, who had rushed from her home to help the wounded, found him bleeding profusely. With the help of her sister, she dragged the heavy burden indoors. The sisters dressed Göring’s wound and were about to summon an ambulance when he weakly asked them to help him get to a private clinic. He could not bear the indignity of the arrest. Frau Ballin, the wife of a Jewish merchant, had pity on him, and thus he escaped prison. (20)
There are, however, reasons to doubt some details of the account above, in particular, the story of the wounded boy. In the years after 1933, party hagiography had Hitler carry the boy out of danger in his own arms; an act that would certainly qualify as a miracle given his dislocated shoulder. Nobody ever offered trustworthy corroboration, and, alas, the boy was never found. Moreover, the story of the getaway by car through hails of machine-gun bullets may appeal mostly to the credulous.
The official police report also blamed the Putschists for opening fire:
The column of National Socialists about 2,000 strong, nearly all armed, moved on through the Zweibrückenstraße, across the Marienplatz towards the Theatinerstraße. Here it split up, the majority going down the Perusastraße to the Residenz, the rest going on along the Theatinerstraße.
The police stationed in the Residenz tried to cordon it off as well as the Theatinerstraße by the Preysingstraße. Numerous civilians hurried on ahead of the actual column in Residenzstraße and pushed aside the police barricade. The ceaseless shouts of “Stop! Don’t go on!” by the state police were not obeyed. Since there was the danger of a break-through here, a police section, originally in the Theatinerstraße, hurried round the Feldherrenhalle [War Memorial] to give support. They were received with fixed bayonets, guns with the safety catches off, and raised pistols. Several police officers were spat upon, and pistols with the safety catches off were stuck in their chests. The police used rubber truncheons and rifle butts and tried to push back the crowd with rifles held horizontally. Their barricade had already been broken several times. Suddenly, a National Socialist fired a pistol at a police officer from close quarters. The shot went past his head and killed Sergeant Hollweg standing behind him. Even before it was possible to give an order, the comrades of the sergeant who had been shot opened fire as the Hitler lot did, and a short gun battle ensued during which the police were also shot at from the Preysingpalais and from the house which contains the Café Rottenhofer. After no more than thirty seconds the Hitler lot fled, some back to the Maximilianstraße, some to the Odeonsplatz. General Ludendorff apparently went on towards the Odeonsplatz. There he was seen in the company of a Hitler officer by a police officer barring the Briennerstraße, who went up to General Ludendorff and said to him: ‘Excellency, I must take you into custody.’ General Ludendorff replied: ‘You have your orders. I’ll come with you.’ Both gentlemen were then accompanied into the Residenz.
Yet the consequences of Hitler’s mistakes in challenging the power of the state were immediately clear: in less than a minute, in the blink of an eye, the revolution had turned into an exodus and the proposed national campaign had collapsed – in a single volley of bullets. Nullified were four years of dreams, conspiracies and agitation. The two thousand men of the Putschist column had all but evaporated after the salvo; the flower of the rebellion sought salvation in escape.
Mopping up took the police the better part of the remaining day; they found Putschists hiding in places as peculiar as under the flour sacks of a bakery, public toilets on cemeteries, and about a dozen in the closets of a young ladies’ academy. By evening, over a hundred arrests were counted. The rear echelons of the movement, which had preferred the safety of the beer hall to the vagaries of the street, had no desire to link their fortunes to a lost cause: they meekly stacked their rifles on the floor, left the cellar, and vanished in the crowd. Röhm was informed, by one of Lossow’s aides that Hitler was dead and Ludendorff arrested. Further resistance was futile, he realized and gave up.
What had happened, in the meantime, to the other detachments of the coup, those on special missions?
Between the Bürgerbräukeller and the city centre, Gregor Strasser’s SA unit still held the bridge over the Isar; still exchanging hostile stares with the police. The news of the fiasco on the Odeonsplatz reached them soon, informing them that Ludendorff was dead and Hitler wounded and captured. Gregor Strasser now showed some of the experience he had gained in the war. Having no ambition to become a martyr of a failed cause, he shepherded his men into a tactical retreat nimble enough that the police found no gap to attack. The column marched into the direction of the Eastern railway station, when, passing a stretch of woodland, they met a Munich SA detachment busy smashing their rifles against the trees, a pastime Strasser immediately ordered them to cease. The guns, he said, will find their use another day. When the station came into sight, they closed ranks, seized a train, and vanished.
Another absconding SA company, the one that had arrested the city councillors, had already reached the highway leading in south-easterly direction from Munich to Salzburg and the Austrian border. About halfway, at a forest close to Rosenheim, the cavalcade halted, and the prisoners were led into the woods. They must have assumed the worst, and thus were almost ecstatically grateful when they were asked to surrender their clothes rather than their lives. The Putschists climbed into the Excellencies’ festive suits and disappeared quickly, leaving the honourable city fathers to their own resources. The police eventually found them and restored them to their offices.
The situation at the Tegernsee Lake, whither the platoon of Rudolf Hess had taken Minister President von Knilling and the other hostages taken at the Bürgerbräukeller, proved disastrous. Hess had stowed the distinguished servants of the public good into a lakeside villa, which, however, lacked a telephone. Hess left to find one, to report his success back to Munich and ask for further instructions, but when he arrived back at the building he found it deserted: the hostages had persuaded their guards to take them back to Munich. Thus, Hess not only lost his hostages but the truck as well, and found himself stuck forty miles south-east of Munich.
At the Odeonsplatz, the Red Cross had meanwhile taken over and loaded the numerous wounded into ambulances. Scheubner-Richter’s faithful servant Aigner established the deaths of his employer and of his best friend, Ludendorff’s valet, and took it upon himself to inform the families. He later recalled:
“Sick in my soul and totally shattered I returned to our residence in the Widenmayerstrasse.” Frau Scheubner-Richter asked where her husband was. Aigner lied but she insisted on the truth. “I can still remember her words, ‘That’s terrible but that is why one is an officer’s wife.'” (23)
The only man momentarily not in the picture was Putzi Hanfstängl. Just before the revolutionary column had left the beer hall, he had been dispatched to another intelligence mission: to observe and report on the tactical dispositions of police and Reichswehr around the city centre.
“Where only an hour before droves of citizens had surrounded the party speakers in the inner precincts and exulted in the commotion, now the faces of the passers-by showed irresolution. The majority of the public as well of the police, Reichswehr, and Battle League units had thought the troop and police deployments in the city centre parts of the preparations for the “March on Berlin”, but the understanding of the sad reality now precipitated distress and a feeling of futility.
Municipal policemen tore the proclamations of the last evening, signed by Hitler, Kahr, Lossow and Seisser, off the doors and walls of the houses or replaced them with Kahr’s more recent anti-Putsch declaration. The weather joined in the tristesse, with intermittent showers from a leaden sky. It did not look better in the offices of the Völkischer Beobachter whither I retired. The common feelings were confusion and depression, and Rosenberg characterized the prevailing mood with the words ‘The whole story is over now.’ I took this as advice to think of what might come next, and marched home. I had barely arrived when the telephone rang, and my sister Erna informed me excitedly that ‘Sauerbruch (the famous surgeon) just called, and told me that Hitler and Ludendorff, and their men, have left the Bürgerbräu and are marching over the Ludwig Bridge into the Tal.'” (24)
Hanfstängl left the house in the direction of Brienner Strasse, which would take him to the town centre, but soon met scores of men fleeing from it. He was informed that the police had fired, that Hitler, Ludendorff and Göring were dead, and that the day had brought “finis Germaniae”. (25) He turned on his heels to go back home but met, halfway, Esser, Amann, Eckart and Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s photographer, in an open car rushing down the road. Hanfstängl joined the posse which retired to Hoffmann’s apartment, which, they surmised, was safest from a police search. On arrival, they began preparations to escape to Austria; each man for himself, they hoped, would be less conspicuous than a group.
Thus, it came to pass that Helene Hanfstängl did not receive a visit from her husband on that day in the family’s recently acquired dacha in Uffing, some thirty miles south of Munich, but from Hitler, her great admirer. He arrived in the escape car, having been diagnosed for the moment with a dislocated shoulder which, Dr. Schulze pointed out, was very hard to fix in a small, erratically moving car. Hitler directed the driver to Uffing.
It may be a telltale sign whither a man turns to when hurt or threatened; whither he directs his hopes of sanctuary. One might have assumed that Hitler would seek to reach Landshut or Rosenheim, places where SA units existed and where local indifference to the state police might have assisted his concealment.
But in this existential crisis he sought to find shelter with the woman he admired and respected most, and, perhaps, unattainably romanced: Helene Hanfstängl, the beautiful, intelligent and sensible socialite; a woman as far removed in personality and manners from his small bourgeois, Lower Austrian roots as could be. She was the one he had trusted with the knowledge of the personal reasons for his anti-Semitism, and he constantly showed up at the Hanfstängl’s town apartment with the flimsiest of excuses; that he was too tired to return to his apartment in the Thierschstrasse, that he had to wait for an important telephone call to reach him at Hanfstängl’s telephone or that someone was to meet him down on the street and would ring the door bell soon. For the rest of his life Helene was a persistent subject of his private conversations. An old hand once reminisced that all his life“he continued to chat about the evils of smoking, the joys of motoring, dogs, the origin of Tristan and Isolde, the beauty of Frau Hanfstängl and Jews.”
The fugitives reached a small forest on the outskirts of the little village of Uffing, where they decided to ditch the car. They proceeded per pedes to the small Hanfstängl cottage where they arrived in the late afternoon. Frau Hanfstängl betrayed no surprise over the sudden visitation and showed at once that she was a practical woman as well as a semi- goddess. She fed the company, assisted Dr. Schulze in provisionally fixing Hitler’s shoulder, and sent the party to bed early.
The company still felt less than rested when the morning dawned; nobody had slept well, either for pain, as in Hitler’s case, or for the tension of expecting the police to show up any minute. After breakfast Hitler asked the medic to return to Munich by train, find the Bechsteins, and ask them to send their limousine, to pick up Hitler discreetly. Dr. Schulze was asked to drive the escape car back to Munich and enlist the aid of a medical acquaintance of his, an assistant of the famous Professor Dr. Sauerbruch. If possible, he should bring him to Uffing to work on Hitler’s arm.
After the departure of the two doctors Hitler tried to reassure his hostess that her husband was safe [he had no idea where he was], then fretted about what might have happened to his comrades. If he got any sleep that night it was shattered early the next morning by the deafening tintinnabulation of bells from the nearby church. It was Sunday the eleventh. Hitler did not appear until lunch. Because of the sling [around his arm], he could not wear his coat and had draped Hanfstängl’s huge dark blue terry cloth bathrobe around him. It brought a smile to his gaunt face. He felt like a pseudo-Roman senator, he said, and he told Helene the story of how his father had ridiculed him as the “toga boy.”
As the afternoon wore on Hitler grew restless and began pacing up and down the sitting room. He became increasingly impatient concerning the Bechstein car. Why the delay? It was only a matter of hours, perhaps minutes, he fretted, before he would be traced to Uffing. At dusk, he asked Helene to close the shutters and draw the curtains, then resumed his moody pacing. (26)
Eventually, the police caught up with him. Ernst Hanfstängl later described their appearance.
First they closed in and searched the property of my mother, outside of the village, for a good hour; even the hay in the loft and the plumeaus on the beds were probed with bayonets. Meanwhile, my house was under observation, and Hitler grew aware that flight would be impossible. (27)
The consequences Hitler drew from the presence of the police, were, if we believe Herrn Hanfstängl’s narrative, likely to guarantee a great if bloody finale. Here we need to digress for a minute. A long time ago, Hanfstängl’s Harvard music teacher, Professor Marshall, had invited his student to dinner at the St.-Botholph-Club in Boston, on the same evening that a guest speaker, a Boston police agent, gave an address on the basic teachings of Jiu-Jitsu, the Japanese art of self-defence.
Chosen to be the lecturer’s object of demonstration, the detective showed me a useful trick to disarm an attacker armed with a revolver, a move that I – years later – taught my wife. … Then, on the evening of November 11, two police trucks full of green uniformed state police — the arrest commando — stopped in front of our cottage in Uffing. When my wife hastened up the stairs to the attic where Hitler hid, she met him, armed with a gun, in the tiny antechambre. “This is the end!” he screamed. “Have these pigs arrest me? I rather be dead!” Yet before he could effect his resolution, my wife applied the Boston cop’s Jiu-Jitsu trick and – in a high arc – the revolver flew into a large flour bin, where it vanished at once. (28)
In a fragment of her diary, Frau Hanfstängl described the story as follows:
“Hitler and his companions got out and hid in the forest while the driver tried to repair the car. It turned out soon, that this would require a mechanic. The three men could not afford to be seen, since the news of the events in Munich had spread in the country like wildfire as well. They hid in the forest. Hitler thought of our house and as soon as it was dark, they went on their way. On the long, arduous march, they avoided main roads and used hidden paths. Since we have a side entrance, their arrival went unnoticed. I took them into the house, locked the door and led them to the first floor. Hitler lamented the death of his friends Ludendorff and Ulrich Graf, who, as he thought, were fallen when the first shots were fired.” [The next day] … “Shortly after 5 pm, the phone rang. It was my mother-in-law, living close by, who, before being interrupted, hastily told us that the police searched her house. ‘Now everything is lost!’ cried Hitler. With one swift movement he grabbed his revolver, which he had placed on a cabinet. I reacted immediately, grabbed his arm and took the gun. ‘How can you give up at the first setback? Think of your followers! ‘ As he sank into a chair, I hid the revolver in a container of flour. Then I took paper and pen and asked him, as long as there would be time, to write instructions for his main followers – a sheet for each should suffice.”
The goddess now scolded Hitler as if he were a schoolboy; reminding him of his responsibilities — the men, the party, and the people — and offered to take quick notes if he wished to send messages to his closest followers before the police showed up. Hitler realized his duties, thanked her sincerely, and began to dictate a short message to his men. Rosenberg would become acting leader of the NSDAP with Amann as his deputy, who should also direct the business and finance matters; together with Julius Streicher and Hermann Esser, the former two were to form a quadrivirate that was to take care of party activities until further notice. He appointed the goddess’s husband to the post of principal solicitor of contributions, uninformed that the latter was on the way to Austria. After finishing the notes and hiding them in the flour bin, Frau Hanfstängl went down to answer the door bell.
The sounds of police cars, shouting, and the barking of dogs filled the air of the quiet village. A trio of constables eventually appeared on the Hanfstängl’s doorstep and were allowed to enter. Helene guided the men upstairs to the small sitting room and opened the door, unveiling Hitler, still dressed in Hanfstängl’s bathroom attire. Without much ado, the policemen took him into custody; so happy to have found their prey at last that they forgot to search the house. They packed their captive into a truck and left immediately for Weilheim, the county centre.
It was almost ten o’clock at night when they arrived at the local court where Hitler was formally arraigned. It was decided that probable cause existed to charge him with high treason, and that the detainee was to be taken immediately to the prison at Landsberg, a small town about forty miles west of Munich. (29)
Since it was thought entirely possible that remnants of the Putschists might try to free the prisoner, the Reichswehr was asked to provide security. They sent an armed detail to Landsberg forthwith, which had, however, not yet arrived when the police column reached the prison compound. The prison of Landsberg consisted of a medium security housing unit for thieves or fraudsters and the like, and a “fortress”, a high-security section for murderers, rapists or political prisoners. Hitler was brought to cell # 7, which was the sole one that had an anteroom for visitors and guards, and which had, until this evening, housed Count Arco-Valley, the assassin of Kurt Eisner.
Since Hitler was accustomed to little space since his days in the asylum and the Männerheim in Vienna and the small rooms he had lived in for most of the last five years in Munich, he betrayed no problems in adapting to the narrowness of his new residence. In fact, his cell was bigger and better lighted than his room in the Thierschstrasse, and the window had a view of the prison garden’s shrubs and flowerbeds. From the first night onward, Hitler found himself in the care of gaoler Franz Hemmrich, who was instructed to look after him in particular and aid him as much as was permissible, and had no other duties. In the outside world, news of the Beer Hall Putsch, as it became known, dominated the newspaper headlines for a few days. For a lack of reliable witnesses, however, most of the articles had to rely on speculation.
Alfred Rosenberg was born 1893 in Tallinn (Reval), Estonia, and had studied engineering and architecture in Riga and Moscow. He fled the Bolshevik October Revolution and emigrated first to Paris, then moved to Munich. He was a fanatic pro- German, anti-Soviet, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic theorist from a small-bourgeois background comparable to Adolf Hitler. It was his opinion that the Russian October Revolution was the result of a Jewish-Capitalist-Bolshevik conspiracy, and did his best to convince the burghers of Munich of imminent danger. Upon making his nightly rounds in the pubs, cafés and tavern of the town, he heard about an author and poet who was believed to share many of his dreams and prejudices. Rosenberg strove to make his acquaintance.
This man was Dietrich Eckart, a sanguine beer-garden and coffee-house philosopher, who often sat in taverns drinking for hours while reciting poems in Attic Greek. He came from a family of some means in the Upper Palatinate, former court-counselors and civil servants, and although his early years as poet and playwright in Leipzig, Berlin and Regensburg were less successful than he wished, the contacts of his family made him, on the occasion of his return to Munich in 1915, the pet poet of the aristocracy. His easy access to the salons of the nobility would later come in handy for Hitler. He was a multi-faceted man; on the one side he was a morphine addict and had spent time in a few mental institutions, on the other side, his new translation of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” was given at the Royal Theatre in Berlin and became his great artistic success, considered the standard for many years to come. He was a nonconforming anti-Semitist and Pan-Germanist and published his own weekly political magazine AUF GUT DEUTSCH [“In True German”, ¶] since December 1918. At its heights, the paper had a respectable circulation of about 30,000 copies, which made it one of the most influential anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and Pan-German newsletters in Bavaria. One day in the summer of 1919, he received a visitor.
Rosenberg appeared, without introduction, at Eckart’s apartment. The poet was impressed by what he saw in the doorway; an intense, dead-serious young man. Rosenberg’s first words were: “Can you use a fighter against Jerusalem?” Eckart laughed. “Certainly!” Had he written anything? Rosenberg produced an article on the destructive forces of Judaism and Bolshevism on Russia. It was the beginning of a relationship that would affect the career of Adolf Hitler. Eckart accepted Rosenberg as a “co-warrior against Jerusalem” and soon his articles on Russia began appearing not only in Eckart’s paper but in another Munich weekly, DEUTSCHE REPUBLIK [“German Republic”, ¶]. The theme of these articles was that the Jew stood behind the world’s evils: the Zionists had planned the Great War as well as the Red Revolution and were presently plotting with the Masons to take over the world. [John Toland,Adolf Hitler, Anchor Books 1992. ISBN 0-385-42053-6. pp. 78-79]
But even Rosenberg’s aid could not surpass the real problem that Eckart as well as other nationalists, anti-Semitists and Pan-Germanists in Munich and Germany shared, the fact that the right-wing was hopelessly atomized in a multitude of little parties, clubs and fraternities; the lack of someone able to address the broad masses was felt most critically. One of these tiny political groups in Munich was a fellowship formed by a man called Anton Drexler.
Anton Drexler was one of those rather simple-minded workmen who believe that the poor, the exploited, and the oppressed will always be vindicated in the end. His father was a Social Democrat, and he remembered vividly being taken on May Day to a Social Democrat outing in the woods near Munich when he was a child. In those days the names of Ferdinand Lassalle and August Bebel were still revered by German workingmen, who remembered that it was the Social Democrats who had wrested from Bismarck the highly developed social legislation that was the envy of workingmen all over the world. Drexler came out of the soil of Social Democracy as a plant grows out of the earth. He belonged to the working class, and it would never have occurred to him that there was any other class worth belonging to. [Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Praeger Publishers 1973, Lib. Con. 72-92891, p.134]
After his journeyman years, he returned to Munich and was employed in October 1902 by the Royal Bavarian Central Railway Repair Works as a blacksmith and toolmaker. He volunteered for the Bavarian Army in August 1914, but the railroad office refused to release him for service. The war awakened his political conscience, and on March 7, 1918, he founded a “Workers’ Council for a Good Peace”. In the fall of the same year, Drexler met Karl Harrer, a sport reporter of the “München-Augsburger Abendzeitung“, a local newspaper. The two decided on the foundation of another little club, the “Political Workers’ Circle“, which met once or twice a week to discuss solutions for the world’s major issues. Harrer, politically better connected than Drexler through his membership in the Thule Society, insisted that the topics of their weekly discussions were duly recorded for posterity, including the names of the attendees. The protocol for December 1918 to January 1919 read:
Meeting on 12/05/1918, Topic: “Newspapers as the Tools of Politics”, Speaker: Harrer. 12/11/1918, Topic: “The Jew, Germany’s greatest Enemy”, Speaker: Harrer. 12/17/1918, Topic: “Why the War Happened”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Lotter, v.Heimburg, Girisch, Kufner). 12/30/1918, Topic: “Who Bears the Guilt for the War?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Brummer, Sauer, Kufner). 01/16/1919, Topic: “Why we had to Win the War”, Speaker Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Kufner, Brunner). 01/22/1919, Topic: “Were we able to Win the War?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Kufner). 01/30/1919, Topic: “Why was the War Lost?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Brummer).
[Anton Joachimsthaler, Hitler’s Weg begann in München 1913 -1923, F.A. Herbig, München 2000. ISBN 3-7766-2155-9 , p. 249]
Drexler quickly realized that Harrer’s omnipresence, so to say, and his penchant for intimate audiences was not very likely to awaken the workers’ interest in the circle’s political agenda. He resolved that a regular party must be founded.
“One week before Christmas 1918, I explained during a circle meeting that the salvation of Germany was unlikely to be found within such a small circle as we were; that we needed a new party, a ‘German Socialist Workers’ Party,’ without Jews Thus it came to the decision to go public and form a new party (GermanSocialist Workers’ Party). The word ‘socialist’ was then dropped. The bylaws and guidelines of the ‘German Workers Party‘ were written by me.” [Joachimsthaler, p.250]
Thus it came to pass that on Sunday, January 5, 1919, Drexler and Michael Lotter, the circle’s record keeper, founded the “German Workers’ Party” in a room of the Munich tavern “Fürstenfelder Hof”. Drexler brought twenty-four prospective members, chiefly colleagues from the railway repair shop, to the constitutive session and was elected steward of the new party’s Munich chapter. Karl Harrer was appointed – perhaps in his absence, the sources contradict each other – national chairman of the fledgling organization, and the assembly unanimously voted for the adoption of the party statutes as composed by Drexler. The same then gave the new party’s inaugural address, which showed his humanitarian impulses: the party should strive to end the divisive class warfare and internationalism promoted by the Bolsheviks in favour of a national and patriotic socialism. Details were to follow.
There had been a bit of a problem regarding the christening of the new party; the original proposal of “German National Socialist Party” was popular, but another party with similar teachings had chosen exactly this name a few months earlier in Bohemia, and, incidentally, the Bohemians’ emblem featured a swastika. Hence the epithets “national” and “socialist” were dropped, and the name “Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei” (DAP, German Workers’ Party, ¶) adopted. Drexler explained his liking for the name as an integrative statement: himself a slightly higher educated member of the working class, he proposed that skilled workers should not be considered simple workmen anymore but should have a legal right to be counted among the aspiring middle classes. The middle classes themselves should be enlarged, at the cost of the “capitalists”. Drexler was an incurable romantic.
Although Drexler and many of his work colleagues were anti-Semitic, the only reference in the statutes and bylaws that pointed in this direction was a declaration that “religious teachings contrary to the moral and ethical laws of Germany should not be supported by the state.” This was, comparatively, rather tame. In the wake of the foundation, Drexler wrote a small pamphlet summarizing his political thought, called “Mein Politisches Erwachen” – My Political Awakening – which he distributed at party meetings and among his colleagues in the railway shop.
For a time, Harrer’s original circle remained in existence, although an executive council was established which acted simultaneously as the new party’s presidium. Still, the attractiveness of the party to Munich’s workers remained modest – a report of the general meeting of July 12, 1919, lists twenty-one persons present, the one of August 14 thirty-eight. The meetings of the executive circle continued in the intimacy of the usual five or six participants.
It is not entirely clear, however, how Captain Mayr‘s unit I b/P came into the possession of a typewritten invitation, dating of September 3, to a meeting of the DAP on September 12, 1919, 7:30 pm, to be held at the “Sterneckerbräu” tavern near the Isartor, one of Munich’s old town landmarks. The flyer announced that Engineer Gottfried Feder, our old acquaintance from the university lectures, would speak on his favourite theme of the breaking of the interest slavery, in particular of “How and by which means can we eliminate Capitalism?”
On the evening of September 12, 1919, Adolf Hitler set out to visit a meeting of the recently formed DAP. What turn would history have taken had Hitler visited, on this day, a different group on Mayr’s list, perhaps the “Society of Communist Socialists” or the “Block of Revolutionary Students”? No one knows. But it was to the Sterneckerbräu that Hitler directed his steps. The tavern was one of the smaller beer halls in Munich, and the side room, in which the meeting took place, the “Leiberzimmer”, could seat perhaps fifty or sixty people. The protocol of September 12 lists twenty-five party members and eighteen guests present, one of them Adolf Hitler. The scheduled speaker of the day had been Dietrich Eckart, who fell ill, and had to be replaced by Gottfried Feder. Hitler and most likely everybody else in the room knew Feder’s lecture from earlier occasions. Drexler recalled:
“Dietrich Eckart fell ill and our meeting had to be postponed. Then Gottfried Feder spoke, and subsequently Professor Baumann, a guest. Baumann was a democrat. … Baumann said that Tyrolia should unite with Bavaria, but not with Germany!
To this Hitler responded sharply, and gave a short but intense reply in favour of a Greater Germany, which excited me and all of us so much that I thanked him very much for his contribution and asked him to take home a copy of my pamphlet ‘Mein Politisches Erwachen’, to read it … and, if he agreed with it, to come back in a week and work with us, because we could dearly use people like him.” [Joachimsthaler, p.252]
Famous became Drexler’s line “This Austrian’s got a gob! We need him!” Hitler’s depiction of the evening, characteristically, does not reflect on Feder’s or, for that matter, Baumann’s theories; enraptured, Hitler noted that “… I realized that I could speak!” He claimed that he remembered only two scenes from his visit: that Baumann left the room like a wet poodle and that he still had no big impressions of the party. But then he presents a meticulous description in “Mein Kampf” of the events that presumably happened early the next morning. Lying on his barracks cot, he watches mice hunting for the crumbs of bread that he threw on the floor.
[Hitler] had gotten into the
habit of passing the hours before dawn “watching the droll little beasts
chasing around after these choice morsels. I had known so much poverty in my
life that I was well able to imagine the hunger, and hence also the pleasure,
of the little creatures.”
At about five that morning he was still awake on his cot following the antics of the mice, when he remembered the pamphlet that Drexler had forced upon him. Hitler was surprised to find himself enthralled from the first page. “Involuntary I saw my own development come to life before my eyes.” The ideas and phrases of the little book kept intruding into his thoughts the following day. He was struck by the phrases “National Socialism” and “new world order”, as well as the prediction that a new political party would capture the disillusioned and disinherited among not only the workers but civil servants and the solid lower middle class.But his interest waned quickly and he was surprised to receive a postcard informing him that he had been accepted as a member of the German Workers Party. He was requested to attend a committee meeting the following Wednesday. He had no intention of joining a ready-made party since he wanted to found his own and he was about to send off an indignant refusal when “curiosity won out” and he decided to have another look at the queer little group. [Toland, p.87]
It is intriguing, and a bit peculiar, how Hitler
describes his initial unwillingness and lack of interest, only to submit, as he
suggests, to providence; it was Germany’s destiny that made him return. He also
goes through some pain to point out that, unlike Drexler’s, his political views
were not founded upon a worker’s perspective of the world: he, Hitler, was an
artist, a member of the highest class.
The date and place of the committee meeting that saw Hitler’s second visit and presumed party entry is usually given as September 17, 1919, in the “Altes Rosenbad”, although Drexler later dated it to November 16 in the “Helenen- Bad” inn. Since this was a meeting of the party’s venerable ‘Executive Committee’, and not of the whole party, Hitler was perhaps not too surprised to find only four people sitting on a table in the corner. Drexler enthusiastically welcomed Hitler and explained that the chairman, Karl Harrer, was to arrive any minute.
After His Excellency appeared, an evening transpired typical of every small club: the minutes of the previous meeting in the Sterneckerbräu were recited, and the assembled honoraries accepted a report from the treasurer declaring that the present wealth of the party, in cash at hand, amounted to seven marks and fifty penning. Letters from like-minded groups were read and discussed, and replies composed.
Hitler was shocked. He wrote: “Terrible! Terrible! This was club life of the worst manner and sort. Was I to join this organization?” [Toland, p.88]
After the formal part of the evening had passed, Hitler
asked a few questions, specifically how the party planned to acquire new
members. Was there a program? Did the party print leaflets? Did it advertise?
The answer to all these inquiries was a timid negative. No organization
existed, no stationary, not s single rubber stamp; but a lot of good
intentions. Hitler wrote that he left uncommitted – perhaps – and went pregnant
for two days pondering the all-important question whether to join or not.
He clearly perceived the DAP for what it was, a pathetic club of
middle-aged men caressing their intolerances and nursing their prejudices; it
had no similarity to the efficiently
organized political machine of the future. But practical aspects recommended
the German Workers Party, for some of its weaknesses might as well turn out
blessings in disguise: the total absence of form and structure allowed Hitler
to forge his imprint upon the
nascent movement with ease; the very fact of the party’s incompleteness
guaranteed him the necessary malleability.
The smallness of the party was its charm, Hitler finally decided. The DAP was only one of many groups attempting to amalgamate nationalism with socialism, but Hitler quickly realized that persons like Drexler and Harrer weren’t fighters, unable to oppose a determined attempt at a takeover. If he were able to attract new members, the old guard could be outvoted and retired, and the party could be shaped according to his own image.