By Ronald Bleier.
I was agreeably surprised to find that my modest expectations for a book dealing with a single year of Hitler’s life were more than exceeded by Peter Ross Range’s 1924: The Year That Made Hitler (Little, Brown; 2016). I regard Range’s book as one of the most important works on Hitler’s political development. Range’s lucid and well-paced narrative details the critical events during the thirteen months between November 1923 and December 1924. By the end of 1924, at the age of thirty-five, Hitler rose from the ashes of his failed Munich beer hall putsch, emerging from prison unbowed and confident, poised to pick up the reins of his Nazi Party and drive it to its next level.
Range’s focus on Hitler’s consequential year also opens the way to examining some of the elements that will figure for the remainder of Hitler’s career: his key anti- Semitism and lebensraum watchwords; his homosexuality and his fateful plans for Germany, Europe, and the whole world.
Range’s account covers the critical details of Hitler’s failed power grab, some of the main personalities involved, and the reasons it failed. The debacle landed him in Landsberg prison near Munich, on charges of high treason and sent Hitler into the deepest depression of his life. So despairing was he at first that he determined on suicide–his lifelong and life-ending obsession. He refused food for a week before allowing himself to be talked into resuming his life.
In due course his spirits were lifted in prison by the surge in support he experienced from his many well-wishers. His spiritual renewal enabled him to take on the preparations for his trial with the vigor and purpose that led to his triumph. Famously, he turned his trial into a political victory and became a national and international phenomenon. Due to politically sympathetic judges and the nationalist feelings which he tapped into, Hitler was paroled after only eight months of a strikingly lenient five-year prison sentence, to be added to the four months he had served on remand.
Hitler made very good use of his prison time, especially by writing his political memoir, Mein Kampf. Range provides evidence that Hitler typed all of Mein Kampf himself, thus puncturing the widely believed story that Hitler dictated his book to Rudolf Hess, his fellow prison inmate. Range quotes a 1952 letter from Hess’s wife, Ilse Pröhl Hess, published in Der Spiegel in 1966, asserting that Hitler pounded out Mein Kampf “’with two fingers’ on his little typewriter.” In Range’s telling, Rudolf Hess, though not his amanuensis, was Hitler’s first reader and sounding-board, patiently listening and providing feedback.
More than half of Range’s sources–if they can be estimated from his notes and bibliography–come from German books and documents, enabling him to provide readers limited to English with important new details. For example, until I read Range’s book I was unaware that during the course of Hitler’s nearly day-long seizure of power in Munich, on November 8-9, 1923, his Storm troopers demonstrated ugly and unspeakable foreshadowing of what life was to be like in a Hitler regime. His thugs arrested dozens of people, mostly Jews, beating up some of them and threatening others with death. Some of Hitler’s victims came from a prepared list of his political enemies who were in attendance at the Munich Burgerbraukeller beer hall where Hitler announced his intended coup. Others were rounded up from the prosperous neighborhood in Bogenhausen where it was thought many Jews lived. There, Hitler’s men broke into the homes of those with Jewish-sounding names, fired shots into ceilings, and caused general mayhem. One Nazi suggested executing some of those they had arrested, but Hermann Göring, already a top lieutenant, wisely countered with: “We don’t have the right to shoot them yet.”
At the same time, other Nazis targeted the Münchener Post, a Social Democratic newspaper that had exposed Hitler’s extremist views. Hitler’s men destroyed everything they could: they smashed windows and tables, made off with or destroyed typewriters, and wrecked the presses and typesetting equipment.
Lebensraum, Living Space for Germany
More substantially, Range takes a critical look at two of the watchwords most closely associated with Hitler: anti-Semitism and Lebensraum. In both cases, Range highlights evidence that whatever may have been Hitler’s essential beliefs, he used these concepts cynically to advance his political agenda. In prison, Rudolf Hess introduced Hitler to the term Lebensraum, literally, “living space” for the German people. Hess was a close disciple of Karl Haushofer, a quirky ex-military man turned university professor who often visited Hess in prison, and who had developed the term. Hitler had earlier put forth in his Nazi Party manifesto the slogan that extraterritorial “land and soil” was required for Germany’s future. Since the “living space” Hitler wanted for Germany was to come at the expense of sovereign countries, it was no secret that from the beginning of his political career, he intended aggression. As Range puts it, “military invasion was now elevated to a law of nature, and Hitler had a shiny new name for one of his fundamental principles.”
Range is also skeptical of Hitler’s claim in Mein Kampf that his anti-Semitism was stimulated in his pre-war Vienna period by suddenly noticing an Orthodox Jew–“an apparition in a black caftan and black hair locks”–as he walked the streets of Vienna in his pre-war period–1908-1912. As Range argues, such Jews were a constant presence in Vienna at this time, so that Hitler’s claim “smacks of a stylized eureka moment to dramatize Hitler’s developmental tale.” Range quotes historian Othmar Plochinger that Hitler only began using anti-Semitism as a political weapon in Munich, after WWI, presumably because he saw it “as the winning horse in the existing political environment.”
Before WWI Hitler appears not to have been a fanatical anti-Semite. Well known is Hitler’s feeling of indebtedness to Eduard Bloch, his Jewish family doctor in Linz, Austria, not least for the care he gave to Hitler’s mother in the course of her suffering, and eventual death, from breast cancer. After Germany absorbed Austria in the March 1938 Anschluss and Austrian Jews faced dire oppression, Hitler went out of his way to ensure the safety of Eduard Bloch and his family. Hitler saw to their safe emigration and they finally arrived in the U.S. in 1940.
Testimony from Reinhold Hanisch, Hitler’s close companion in the years 1909 and 1910, reveals that Hitler was not a Jew-hater during those years. Hanisch cited Hitler’s Jewish friends and acquaintances in the Men’s Home where he lived for three years. Hitler even preferred to sell his paintings to Jewish dealers. In 1912 one anonymous resident of the Men’s Home commented, “Hitler got along exceptionally well with Jews, and said at one time that they were a clever people who stick together better than the Germans do.”
Were Germans, Too, Hitler’s Intended Victims?
Jews of course were not Hitler’s only victims. Among the 60 million WWII deaths were also eight million Germans. Were the Germans who died merely collateral damage, or were they also Hitler’s intended victims? Joachim Fest, one of Hitler’s German biographers, tellingly wrote in 2004 of Hitler’s “hatred of the world and his thirst for extermination.”
In March 1945, a month and a half before ending his life, Hitler issued his scorched-earth orders for Germany, similar to the orders he issued as his troops retreated from occupied territory. (Hitler had ordered the destruction of Paris, but mercifully his orders were not carried out.) But when it came to similar orders for Germany, Albert Speer, Hitler’s senior minister for armaments, objected, arguing that Hitler had no right to doom Germany’s future.
Risking his life, Speer spoke up forcefully, actually upbraiding Hitler for his demonic plans: “No one,” said Speer, “has the right to take the viewpoint that the fate of the German people is tied to his personal fate. . . . At this stage of the war it makes no sense for us to undertake demolitions which may strike at the very life of the nation.”
Hitler’s reply (as reported by Speer) was as cold as ice. Since Germany had fallen to its eastern enemy, asserted Hitler, she didn’t deserve a future.
If the war is lost, the people will be lost also. It is not necessary to worry about what the German people will need for elemental survival. On the contrary, it is best for us even to destroy these things. For the nation has proved to be the weaker, and the future belongs solely to the stronger eastern nation. In any case, only those who are inferior will remain after this struggle, for the good have already been killed.
Hitler’s last testament, written shortly before he committed suicide, can also be read as a disguised acknowledgement that by engaging in war, he was responsible for the destruction of Germany. In his testament he wrote that the Jews were “’the real people to blame for this murderous struggle,’ calling upon Germany and the Germans ‘to observe the racial laws precisely and to resist pitilessly the world-poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.'””
Hitler used the device of his last public pronouncement, typically a special moment of sincerity, to deflect blame away from himself onto the Jews. One clue is his use of the meaningless intensifier “real” when he wrote: “the real people to blame would be the Jews!” The real person to blame was of course himself. Ever the ultimate cynic and con-man extraordinaire, Hitler attempted to obscure his use of Allied personnel and Allied weaponry as his means of killing his own people and destroying his country. His last testament, was indirectly his sardonic boast that he was going to his death knowing that he had accomplished much more of his agenda of destruction, suffering, and death than he could have expected to fulfill ten years earlier.
Hitler Finds a Career
After WWI Hitler had no prospects for, nor any interest in, pursuing a civilian career. He resisted demobilization and remained in the army, doing odd jobs like pulling guard duty and taking on temporary assignments. In June 1919 he was recruited into an intelligence unit to spy on leftist elements. It was at one of his training sessions that his extraordinary gift for oratory emerged. “I can speak,” Hitler is reported to have said, as he became aware of his political potential. Range believes that this was “the moment that created Adolf Hitler, the politician.”
As an army spy, in September 1919 Hitler was sent to Munich to report on a new political group, the German Worker’s Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei). In the discussion period at the end of the meeting Hitler displayed his verbal gifts and his ability to think on his feet when he was roused to speak against a participant who favored Bavarian secession. Afterwards, Anton Drexler, the Party’s co-founder, pressed on Hitler his own forty-page manifesto, inviting him to return to future party meetings. Hitler wrestled for two days over whether to join the little group. In the end, of course, he did join the German Worker’s Party, understanding that he would acquire a ready-made speaking platform, and a political base. As early as that first meeting, Hitler is likely to have sized up his chances for a future leadership role.
The Tottering Weimar Republic
Hitler’s intuition was accurate. Relatively soon, he defeated those in the party who opposed him and eventually he was recognized as the Nazi Party’s unchallenged leader. In fewer than two years he built up his name to the point where he successfully addressed a crowd of four thousand people. Not long after, in January 1923, the French (and Belgians) invaded Germany’s Ruhr, as punishment for defaulting on German reparations payments and to ensure the continuation of German coal exports. In response, Germany devalued the mark, presumably to make Germany’s mineral resources less valuable to the French.
Large-scale printing of German marks led to the notorious hyperinflation of 1923-1924, resulting in widespread misery—a terrific boost to Nazi Party membership. About ten months later, in the midst of Germany’s social turmoil, a politically surging Hitler tried to reproduce, in Germany, Mussolini’s successful March on Rome of the year before.
I will never let those swine take me. I will shoot myself first.
—Adolf Hitler, November 11, 1923
It is widely understood that Hitler’s inexperience, his naiveté, doomed his power grab of November 8-9, 1923. But the larger point to be made, in hindsight, is Hitler’s resilience reflected in his willingness and ability to learn from his mistakes. His flexibility was due to a realistic self-appraisal of his extraordinary political, administrative, and rhetorical abilities, and to his clear understanding of the turbulent politics in which he operated. Before his release from prison, he had come to the realization that henceforth he would have to operate nominally within constitutional limits and with the approval of the military.
His 1923 plan to take power in Munich, and then Berlin, had been founded on the three Bavarian power brokers: Gustav Ritter von Kahr, Bavaria’s commissioner general; General Otto von Lossow, Commander of the military region that included Bavaria; and Colonel Hans Ritter von Seisser, Commander of the Bavarian State Police. Although he understood that these three men were not one-hundred percent on board with his plan to overthrow the Berlin government, one of his big mistakes was to count on forcing them into obedience. Range details other key mistakes that derailed the putsch, such as failing to control the communications system. In the final confrontation, when Hitler’s march with 2,000 men was stopped by the Bavarian State police, four Bavarian police and sixteen Nazi marchers were killed. Hitler was captured two days later and held on charges of high treason. His twenty-four day trial began at the end of February 1924. He was found guilty, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, and paroled after only eight months.
At his trial, Hitler turned the political tables on the prosecution by embracing, rather than denying, his treason, which he held up as the mark of his patriotism. He pointed out the stark truism that, “High treason is the only crime that is punishable only if it fails.” He argued that the traitors of 1918 should be held responsible for treason, but not Hitler himself, for “I do not consider myself a traitor, but rather simply a German who only wanted the best for his people.”
The decisive factor responsible for Hitler’s getting much his own way in the course of his trial was chief judge Georg Neithardt’s tolerant and openly partisan treatment. The judge had a nationalist track record of harshness against leftists and leniency for rightists. He revealed his bias when he granted Hitler early parole a year earlier on a breach-of-the-peace conviction. Neidhart had also commuted to life imprisonment, the death sentence of the assassin of Kurt Eisner, the Bavarian Minister President. Judge Neidhart’s tendentious rationale was that Eisner had such low standing in the polls that it was not such a terrible murder. When Hitler came to power he duly rewarded Neithardt.
Rare Opposition to Hitler Noted
At his trial, Hitler had pretty much his own way, suffering little pushback–with an exception noted below. This was not the case earlier when, like other minor politicians, he was buffeted by the sort of opposition an extremist rabble-rouser might expect. Range cites one such case from March 1923, some months before the putsch. By then, Hitler’s political star had risen to a point where he was granted an audience with the formidable General Hans von Seeckt, commander in chief of the German army. At the meeting, Hitler had no problem treating the general to a trademark four-hour harangue in which he inveighed against the “November criminals”–those in Hitler’s eyes who were responsible for Germany’s defeat in WWI–and the threats from the “perfidious Jews.” At one point Hitler declared, “We National Socialists will see to it that the members of the present Marxist regime in Berlin will hang from the lampposts. We will send the Reichstag up in flames, and when all is in flux we will turn to you, Herr General, to assume leadership of all German workers.” When Hitler was finished, Seeckt simply replied: “From today forward, Herr Hitler, we have nothing more to say to one another.”
Later, during Hitler’s trial, General Otto von Lossow, whom Hitler had attempted to suborn into treason, ably defended himself. With great effect he called Hitler a liar, claiming that Hitler had given him “his word of honor that he would not stage a putsch.” Lossow noted that “Hitler is obsessed with the word ‘brutality.’” Lossow’s effective speech turned out to be one of the few moments in the trial when Hitler was exposed for who he was. As we know, Hitler never won a majority in any free and fair election. Many were opposed to his policies, but the Hitler phenomenon was one of those terrible cases where the majority did not prevail.
Parole and Escaping Deportation
Hitler was eligible for parole on October 1, 1924, after serving less than a year in prison and only five months after his conviction. One looming crisis he faced was whether he would be deported to his native Austria, which could ended his political career. Though Hitler had the friendly Bavarian courts on his side, he was still facing some formidable opposition from the Bavarian bureaucracy. The Munich deputy police chief strongly opposed Hitler’s release on parole due to the “permanent danger” he represented to the “internal and external security of the state.” As “the soul of the volkisch [nationalist] movement,” if Hitler was to be released, then he should be deported, wrote the deputy. The prosecuting attorney, Ludwig Stenglein, also weighed in, citing Hitler’s responsibility for the violence, kidnapping, and theft during the putsch, as well as his 1922 conviction for assaulting opposing politician Otto Ballerstedt, for which Hitler was still on parole!
In the end, the friendly Bavarian courts beat back all the opposition to Hitler’s release, although there was an almost three months’ delay until December as appeals made their way through the courts. Hitler managed to escape deportation to Austria in large part because the Austrian government, challenged by the strain of its own pro-Nazi elements, refused to allow him to be returned to Austria. The Austrians used the legally dubious argument that Hitler’s service in the German army meant he was no longer an Austrian citizen.
German professor Lothar Machtan’s exposé in The Hidden Hitler (2001) has convinced many “by the sheer weight of direct and circumstantial evidence,” that Hitler was a homosexual — of the type that could not bear the slightest intimacy with women. (Hitler’s homosexuality is not addressed in Range’s book.) In Machtan’s view, Hitler was able to conceal his sexual nature because he relentlessly pursued and destroyed whatever evidence he could find. He was also determined to silence, even by means of murder, those who could expose him. When he became Chancellor of Germany he made a point of confiscating the six-volume file kept on him by the Munich police. Similarly, in 1938, when Germany absorbed Austria into Greater Germany in the Anschluss, Hitler sent agents to confiscate the files that the Vienna police had compiled, presumably because in addition to whatever else, it contained records of his sexual contacts.
In Explaining Hitler (1999), Ron Rosenbaum stresses that Hitler was a frequent target of blackmail attempts. Machtan asserts that it was the threat of exposing his sexuality that spurred much of the blackmail efforts, some apparently successful. Along similar lines, Machtan provides a revisionist angle to at least part of the motivation for Hitler’s bloody purge of June 30, 1934, known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” Among the hundreds Hitler ordered murdered was his mentor, friend, and perhaps lover, Ernst Rohm, leader of the SA, the Sturmabteilung, Hitler’s paramilitary wing. Doubtless others were also murdered during that time due to their knowledge of Hitler’s sexual activity.
During his time at Landsberg prison, Hitler and his fellow conspirators enjoyed relaxed special treatment. Machtan reports that in the so-called Feldherren wing, Hitler and Hess and others took pleasure in sporting contests, rowdy evenings, and hot baths in the “modern bathroom reserved for us alone.” The prison governor had to restrain their unruly behavior from time to time with such messages as: “Nudity outside the fortress living room . . . is not allowed. The proprieties have to be observed everywhere, especially when several fellow inmates share a room with you.”
Effect of Hitler’s Homosexuality on His Politics
Clearly it wasn’t Hitler’s homosexuality which turned him into one of history’s most horrific mass murderers. If his sexual orientation had anything at all to do with Hitler’s vicious ruthlessness it would likely have been his alienation in reaction to society’s prevailing homophobia. Once Hitler became Chancellor, Machtan theorizes, Hitler lived under self-imposed celibacy for the rest of his life, a condition that would seem to have done little to diminish his murderous resolve.
Machtan’s findings may also spur new investigation into the radical change Hitler underwent when he was an adolescent. He began as leader of his boyhood friends as they played cowboys and indidans, and attained good marks in school. And all of a sudden, around 11 years old, he became anti-social and his schoolwork suffered dramatically to the point that he never graduated from high school. Perhaps it was his isolation, anger and frustration at the emergence of his sexual identity that played a critical role in his “hatred of the world and his thirst for extermination.”
One of the best things about Range’s 1924 is that it points to the need for a similar book equally deep in German sources, a book that would give a sense of what political life was like in the years leading up to January 30, 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Such a book would detail the terribly destabilizing violence and anarchy caused in large part by Hitler and his storm troopers, especially the murders of political opponents whose elimination helped pave the way to Hitler’s rise to power. In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum offers a window into some of the “politics” of those years.
Scarcely an issue [of the newspaper] went by in those final years without one and usually two, three, or four brief dispatches reporting the blatant cold-blooded murder of political opponents by Hitler Party members. Cumulatively, what one is witnessing is the systematic extermination of the best and bravest, the most outspoken opponents of the Hitler Party as they’re gunned down or clubbed to death with truncheons or as bodies are found stabbed, strangled, drowned, or simply never found at all. Followed frequently by reports of how one court after another has allowed the murderers to go free or get off with sentences more appropriate for petty theft.
Rosenbaum’s details were based on his research in German archives, where he found contemporary newspaper articles. A book-length treatment could provide the context that made it possible even for Hitler’s opponents to accept the new reality when they woke up on the morning of January 31, 1933 to their new Nazi Chancellor. Optimists might have hoped to regain some of the law and order missing in the last months–if not years–of the Weimar Republic. Unfortunately, they got the order, but not the law they preferred.