Anton Drexler
Anton Drexler

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’sPeer 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.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)