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The Watershed Moment in German History That Created Adolf Hitler

That tipping point that led to Hitler's rise was a set of extraordinary events that played out in Munich exactly 100 years ago today, on November 9, 1923.
Adolf Hitler. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly before midnight on May 31, 1962, Adolf Eichmann was hanged inside the maximum security Ramla prison, south of Tel Aviv. Earlier that evening, president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi had turned down Eichmann’s mercy plea post his conviction and sentencing by a Jerusalem court under Israel’s Nazis & Nazi Collaborators Punishment Act, 1950. The 56-year-old Nazi had been found guilty of war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity, and Israel’s Supreme Court later confirmed the conviction and the sentence.

A crematorium had been specially built on the prison compound because Eichmann had requested to be cremated, though traditional Jewish custom forbade cremation. Early on the morning of June 1, 1962, before sunrise, the ashes were taken out on a police motorboat and scattered in the sea six miles beyond Israel’s territorial waters; the country’s shores could scarcely be allowed to be soiled by Nazi detritus.

Adolf Eichmann (inside his bullet-proof glass booth) at his trial, 1961. Photo: Author provided

One of the two men charged with the disposal of Eichmann’s ashes was Meilach Goldman-Gilead, an Auschwitz survivor aged 37. Goldman was a Polish Jew who had moved to Israel in the early 1950s and was now a police officer requisitioned to help in the Eichmann trial as one of the junior prosecutors. The ashes had been placed in a two-litre milk jar no more than three-quarters full, and Goldman was struck by how little ash remained of a human adult. It was at that point that Goldman had his epiphany:

“Standing there, I remembered that about a week after I had arrived at Birkenau, in November, 1943, I was taken out of the block with a group of some ten prisoners, and we were led towards the crematoria. We already knew what was happening there, and thought we were being led to our death. The ground was icy and we were walking with our wooden ‘Dutch’ shoes. A Polish ‘capo’ (a prisoner coopted as a forced labour supervisor or prison guard) stood there, with some SS men. We were brought to a mountain of ash. We were told to get wheelbarrows, fill them with ash, and scatter it on the routes the SS guards would take during their patrols, so they wouldn’t slip. It was a full day’s job. Later we were returned to the camp. 

…Immediately after they had removed Eichmann’s body (from the oven) and I saw what little was left of it, I realised how many hundreds of thousands must have been in that ash pile at Birkenau. It’s an association I will not forget for the rest of my life.”

There was no way Gilead could have forgotten. A gangly 17-year-old in 1942, he had looked on helplessly as his parents and 10-year-old sister were bundled off to the Belzec death camp, where all three were to be gassed to death. Adolf Eichmann had been the ‘Final Solution’s’ top gun, overseeing with clinical efficiency the deportation of European Jews to the rash of extermination camps that occupied Poland was dotted with. It was unsurprising, therefore, that the first time Goldman sat opposite Eichmann to take down his testimony before the trial and Eichmann opened his mouth to speak, Goldman “had the feeling I was seeing the gates of the crematorium open”.

Having disposed of Eichmann’s ashes, Goldman and his colleague described their journey back like this: “… [we were] headed back, and the Sun had come up. The fishermen were returning from their nighttime fishing, and we saw Tel Aviv awaken to a new day…..I suddenly felt we were alive: the Sun was shining….[and] the nightmare was over. A new chapter had begun.

Holocaust survivor Abba Kovner testifying at Eichmann’s trial. Photo: Author provided

With Eichmann’s trial and execution, Nazism could plausibly be thought to have run its course. The naivete of such optimism, though, was to become apparent fairly soon.

To Israel, at any rate, it looked as though Nazism had been exorcised for good: wasn’t it extraordinary that it was the Jewish state which happened to send Hitler’s executioner-in-chief to the gallows? Monsters such as Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie still remained at large – but for then it seemed not far-fetched to believe that the nightmare was finally over.

But if the Eichmann trial marked the end of Nazism in a manner of speaking, was there a point in time that could conceivably be described as Nazism’s jumping-off point, its opening gambit? Can we identify a watershed, a moment which set Nazism on course for its murderous later ascendancy, even though that ascendancy could not necessarily have been visualised at that point? I will argue there indeed was such a point, a crossroads from where several distinct pathways radiated out, some likelier to be followed than the rest, but as has often happened in history, the choice made was as fortuitous as it was bizarre. But being fortuitous did not stop it from leading up to one of the goriest episodes of blood-letting in recorded history. 

That tipping point was a set of extraordinary events that played out in Munich exactly one 100 years ago today, on November 9, 1923. Elsewhere I have referred to the day’s proceedings as ‘Germany’s own 9/11’ but probably that description somewhat downplays the momentousness of their repercussions. The terrifying attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York’s iconic Twin Towers were no doubt a particularly ghastly terrorist strike with a vast number of victims. The sequel to the attacks was even deadlier, because by announcing that 9/11 had changed everything – the US did change everything.

Also read: ‘Operation Valkyrie’: The Failed Plot to Kill Adolf Hitler

Former US President George W. Bush declared war on Saddam Hussain (who was not an actor in the 9/11 drama), much of West Asia was plunged in the most violent chaos, perhaps for all of foreseeable future, vast swathes of Iraq and Afghanistan were laid waste, the ISIS was born and thrived, millions of ordinary men, women and children were killed and some other parts of the region – notably Syria and Yemen– were also mutilated beyond recognition. 

There is no gainsaying all of that – but what happened on that fateful November morning in Munich belongs in an altogether different league. For, if the world has ever found itself staring at the apocalypse, it was thanks to the extraordinary train of events set in motion that day.

History’s bloodiest war – consuming no fewer than 80 million lives; the unspeakable bestiality of the Holocaust; the forced migration, in Europe alone, of 75+ million humans; the horrors of the atomic bomb blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These and other spectacular abominations make up the grisly harvest of what November 9, 2023 sowed on German soil.     

Munich city council members being taken hostage by the puschists. Photo: Author provided

So what happened? In the early afternoon that day, Hitler led about 2,000 of his Kampfbund acolytes, all variously armed, on a violent and raucous march to Munich’s city centre. Hitler’s original project had been more grandiose: a march on Berlin to seize political power by throwing out the ‘vile, Jewry-infested’ Weimar Republic. He was hoping to mimic Benito Mussolini’s triumphant march on Rome of one year prior, the march that catapulted the Fascist supremo to the position of the Italian Il Duce.

However, Hitler’s wildly fanciful plan had fallen through when he failed to get Bavaria’s far-right state commissioner and its military and police chiefs – who had at some point been co-conspirators – on board his plot. The night before had been tumultuous. In a scene straight out of a knockabout farce, Hitler’s men waylaid a large political rally ongoing in Munich’s Burgerbraukeller beer-hall, shooed the speakers off the stage and held them hostage, leaving the floor open for Hitler to make a dramatic entry.

He fired pistol shots in the air and proceeded to harangue the 3000-strong gathering on the ‘illegitimacy’ of the Berlin government, announce the death of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the ‘national socialist revolution’. Later that night, Hitler’s men occupied the war ministry complex, raided arms caches, plundered currency-printing presses, vandalised Jewish businesses and a prominent newspaper’s office and kidnapped Munich’s mayor and his council members. But as dawn broke on November 9, support for the ‘revolution’ evaporated and the regular army and the police came out in strength to put it down.

At a loss what to do and increasingly listless, Hitler, “a little man in an old waterproof coat with a revolver at his hip”, as the New York Times’ Munich correspondent wrote in his despatch, “scarcely seemed to fill the part” of the strapping young leader of a coup d’etat. 

Also read: How Fear of Communism Led to the Rise of Hitler, Nazism and World War Two

The army had meanwhile driven Hitler’s men out of the war ministry. Something had to be done quickly, and when someone suggested a march on the city centre, Hitler, aware that it was a desperate, possibly fatal, gamble, agreed. The marchers set off on their outrageous last-gasp mission. Inevitably, there ensued a deadly showdown with law enforcement near Odeonplatz. In the mayhem that followed, four Bavarian policemen and fifteen Nazi marchers – besides an ill-fated bystander – were shot to death. Hitler fled the scene (with only a dislocated shoulder), leaving his dead and dying comrades to their own devices, and hid for two days inside the loft of a friend’s house at some distance from Munich. His injured arm in a sling, the future arbiter of Germany’s destiny was disconsolate with despair and considered suicide. On November 11, 1923, the police arrived to pick him up. Dressed in no more than a borrowed, loose-fitting bathrobe, Hitler gave himself up. He knew that, at a minimum, a sizeable prison sentence, even a likely deportation, awaited him. Hitler reckoned it was the end of the road for him and his revolution. 

Hitler and the other leaders of the ‘revolution’. Photo: Author provided.

He was not alone in thinking thus. The world outside more than agreed with him. On November 10, The Manchester Guardian reported how “(t)he German reactionaries have struck and failed”. The New York Times did not disagree. ‘Reichswehr Troops Crush Bavarian Revolt’, ran the most prominent headline of the newspaper’s front page. In an opinion piece, the NYT commented:’The Burgerbrau’ coup d’etat was the craziest farce pulled off in memory’.

Much of German and continental press was often more dismissive, rubbishing the uprising as a ‘Beer Hall Putsch’. The Berliner Tagleblatt called it a childish prank. Le Petit Parisien dubbed the performance sheer vaudeville. Le Matin compared it to a carnivalesque adventure. Vossische Zeitung opined that the end had come for ‘charlatan Hitler’. Frankfurter Zeitung actually ran an obit on the Nazi Party. In his defeat, Hitler looked ludicrous and nowhere near menacing.

In one of history’s great ironies, however, his weakest moment metamorphosed swiftly into Hitler’s moment of triumph. The disgraced leader of a thuggish band of no more than a few thousand men had a fairy-tale image makeover. The circumstances that combined to create that miracle make for an absorbing read. 

One, there was a great outpouring of public support for Hitler and the Nazis in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany, where antisemitism and anti-republicanism already ran rife. Hitler’s arrest and ensuing trial were noisily celebrated in and around Munich as a martyr’s oblation to his fatherland, thus turning a little-known rabble-rouser into a serious political actor.

Two, the abortive march and the trial focussed on Hitler such public attention in and outside Germany as he couldn’t ever have dreamed of. Three, the Bavarian authorities themselves were more than keen to downplay the criminality of the Nazi misadventure. They had much to fear for, including a possible unveiling of the close links that top men of the state administration maintained with Hitler till just before the coup.

This proximity ensured that Hitler and the others were arraigned only for ‘high treason’. The five policemen killed, many Jewish establishments vandalised, government officials kidnapped, arms and cash plundered, a prominent newspaper office burnt to the ground – all these serious charges were ignored in the indictment. 

Finally, and most importantly, Hitler’s trial turned out to be not merely a travesty of justice but also a moral outrage: it provided him with the ideal platform for broadcasting, virtually unchecked, his odious views on nearly everything on earth, from ‘the numberless vices of Jewry’ through the ‘evil machinations of Marxists and Bolshevists’ to how Germany had been stabbed in the back by ‘the November criminals’ and forced to sign a dishonourable peace in the first World War. In his long, shrill defence arguments, Hitler cynically but adroitly whipped up antisemitic and anticommunist sentiments which found echoes inside the courthouse and outside it.

Adolf Hitler serving the ‘prison sentence’. Photo: Author provided

The choice of the trial court – as unusual as it was baffling – contributed in no small measure to the trial’s eventual outcome. Logically, Hitler should have been tried at the federal-jurisdiction Leipzig special state court, which would likely have handed down the death sentence, or at any rate deported Hitler, an Austrian national, to his home country.

But the rightwing Bavarian administration defied the federal government and had Hitler tried at Munich’s ‘People’s Court’, which featured a mixed bench of two professional judges and three lay judges and disallowed any appeals against its judgements. All the judges had unabashedly far-right, ultranationalist sympathies and allowed Hitler full play of his demagogical skills.

Hitler insisted he was ‘out-and-out a German patriot’ and the judges couldn’t agree more, thereby ruling out his deportation. At the end of that charade of a trial, the judges sentenced Hitler to a mere five-year jail term. Even more incredibly, he was to be paroled after only eight months of prison-time on account of ‘exemplary conduct’! On December 20, 1924, Hitler walked out of jail to a hero’s welcome. The convicted criminal had transmogrified into the Fuehrer.

All his disappointments and failures behind him, he would now march relentlessly towards his hideous goals. The icing on the cake was that he penned his convoluted, obnoxious opus – Mein Kampf – in the safe haven of his comfortable Festungshaft prison-house, one of the mildest jail sentences under German law.

It’s perhaps not idle to speculate what might have happened if

  1. Hitler was to get killed on November 9, 1923 at Munich’s Odeonplatz. (After all, the man he had locked arms with as they marched, Scheubner-Richter, had been shot through his lungs and died instantly.) Or;
  2. The trial that magically changed his, and Nazism’s, fortunes were to be somewhat less perverse than it actually was.

Counterfactuals are, of course, passé in historical inquiry, but it is hard to smother the thought that, had November 9 not played out as insanely as it did, we might have been living in a different world than what history bequeathed to us. And it may not thus be inapposite to trace Nazism’s take-off moment to that bleak, early-winter day in Munich one hundred years ago. 

Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator based out of Bangalore. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.

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