Lessons from Yesterday

One hundred years ago in 1922, the Nazis were just another fringe nationalist group, wallowing in the humiliation of sudden defeat in World War I. Under the terms of the Versailles agreement, Germany lost territory to Poland, Belgium and France, its colonies, its foreign investments — and owed reparations of 132 billion goldmarks. Defeat spawned a plethora of radicalised nationalist groups and resurrected old generals such as Ludendorff and Hindenburg who pledged to make Germany great again.

The Nazis blamed the Jews for the collapse of the German military even though thousands had died on the battlefield in the service of kaiser and country. Clause 4 of their constitution ruled that ‘only those of German blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the nation. Accordingly no Jew may be a member of the nation.’

In 1922, the Nazis were a bunch of beer-hall bouncers in Munich who revelled in the violence of the times. There had been around 400 killings of political figures since 1919 — the vast majority of which had been committed by the nationalist Right. Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-Jewish revolutionary had been murdered during the White Terror and her body thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. The German Foreign Minister, Walther Rathenau, a successful Jewish captain of industry, was assassinated in June 1922 by right wing nationalists, spraying his official car with bullets from a machine gun. Rathenau was regarded by his killers as one of ‘the elders of Zion’.   

Outside Munich, Adolf Hitler’s name was hardly known. It was not mentioned in any issue of the Jewish Chronicle for 1922. Yet the year marked a fundamental change for the future Führer. He had previously seen himself as a rabble-rouser, an agitator, surrounded by a protective wall of thugs. The genesis of private armies had been initiated just a few months before when the brownshirted stormtroopers had been founded. Indeed Hitler had been sentenced in January 1922 to three months in Stadelheim prison for a breach of the peace. He therefore described himself at the time as ‘nothing but a drummer and rallier’. Now he saw himself as a new kind of leader who could paint messianic landscapes for those who were taken in by him. Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy in October 1922 after the Italian king capitulated before the march on Rome deeply impressed Hitler. He now projected himself as ‘the Mussolini of Munich’.

One of the strong foundations of Hitler’s anti-Semitism was his Catholic faith, imbibed in his native Austria. Many leading Nazis came from religious families. Many were Austrians — who joined the Nazi party and later the SS at twice the rate of the Germans. In April 1922, he conveyed his admiration for the determination of Jesus Christ to ‘drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adder…to fight against the Jewish poison.’

Hitler regretted that European Christianity had been fragmented into Catholicism and Protestantism — and frequently praised Martin Luther, originally a Catholic Augustinian priest. Hitler regarded him as ‘the mighty opponent of the Jews’ and it was not by accident that Luther’s utterance, ‘the Jews are our misfortune’, later became a mainstay of Nazi dogma. Hitler saw Luther as a premature fascist, seeing ‘what we are seeing today’.

Hitler’s other motivating force was his hatred of Bolshevism which he regarded as a vehicle for global Jewish domination. For Hitler, all Jews were communists.

In the immediate aftermath of the military defeat, Hitler had lived through a cack-handed attempt by the anarchic Kurt Eisner to proclaim a socialist Bavarian republic amidst the political chaos. Anti-Semitic caricature was never far away. A French journalist described Eisner as ‘a shylock in a shiny frock coat and greasy skull cap’. Demonstrations against the regime were peppered with anti-Semitic slogans and canards — until Eisner was killed by a German nationalist.

Eisner was succeeded by more professional revolutionaries, Eugene Leviné and Tobias Axelrod, both Jews. The Papal Nuncio in Munich at the time, Eugenio Pacelli, referred to ‘grim Russian-Jewish revolutionary tyranny’ and even turned the non-Jewish communist leader, Max Levien, into a Jew. Pacelli later became Pope Pius XII whose controversial approach during the Shoah remains a question of ongoing debate.   

A central tactic of nationalists had been to cultivate conservatives and to co-opt them. Mussolini had formed the ‘bloco nazionale’ to take power. In the UK, figures such as Lord Sydenham, the Duke of Northumberland and the Conservative MP, William Joynson-Hicks publicly proclaimed their anti-Semitism. One hundred years ago, the Jewish Chronicle described Joynson-Hicks as ‘the most avowed and determined anti-Semite in the House of Commons’. He went on to become Home Secretary in the Conservative government of the 1920s.

The inability of the Weimar Republic to quell violence and maintain law and order in the immediate post-war years provided Hitler with an opportunity to cultivate the conservative elite in Munich who feared a Bolshevik coup. In May 1922, Hitler spoke to the conservative National Club of Berlin on the need to halt the onward march of the Bolsheviks and this led to further talks in homes and salons and in Munich’s Hall of Merchants Guild. The head of the piano firm, Edwin Bechstein, introduced him to Siegfried and Winifred Wagner, the son and daughter-in-law of the composer. Hitler’s ragged clothes and fashion indifference were cast aside and he was fitted out with 1920s-style smoking jackets and expensive leather shoes. In 1922, the first formal studio portraits of a brooding Hitler were taken in a Munich photographic studio.

Students at German universities were also attracted to the radicalism of the nationalist Right. Jews were often excluded from German student fraternities and an anti-Semitic demonstration forced a cancellation of a lecture by Albert Einstein. Karl Haushofer, a geography professor in Munich, began to argue for a German expansion to the East.

However the seminal episode that really assisted the Nazis was the galloping inflation which really took off in the summer of 1922.

In January 1919, one dollar was worth 8.9 marks. By January 1922, it was worth 493 marks. By January 1923, a German citizen would have required just under 18,000 marks to buy a dollar. A besieged Weimar Republic asked the Allies for a moratorium on reparation payments. All this allowed Hitler to seduce not only a disgruntled middle class but also to make inroads into a bewildered working class, aligned with the Left, while all the time blaming the Jews.

Hitler capitalised on the growing public anger by mobilising violence to ensure the Nazi conquest of urban areas, street by street. In 1922, both Hermann Göring and Julius Streicher joined the Nazis. By the end of the year, the Nazis had emerged as the most powerful force in Munich.

Peter Fritzsche’s recent book, Hitler’s First Hundred Days, brilliantly shows how enthusiastically and eagerly Germans later embraced the Nazis after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. How 1922 laid the foundations for 1933. How committed socialists smoothly and easily transitioned to Hitler’s delusions. How the acquiescence of the conservatives paved the way for world war and mass murder.

Jewish Chronicle 25 February 2022

1 thought on “Lessons from Yesterday”

  1. Dear Colin,

    I just came across this in the Jewish Chronicle and couldn’t help but want to pass on a couple of thoughts. I think you’re being a little unfair in your description of Kurt Eisner and his achievements.

    Firstly ‘cack-handed’ aren’t the first words that come to mind when describing how an intellectual pacifist managed to overthrow the centuries old Bavarian Royal Family to become the first Prime Minister of Bavaria. You also say ‘attempt….to proclaim a socialist Bavarian republic..’ It wasn’t just an attempt – he achieved it, laws were passed (women getting the vote for example).

    You also suggest what followed were more professional revolutionaries – how so? did they achieve much? Not really. I therefore can’t really see them as more professional. In fact Eisner’s revolution was largely peaceful with very few casualties, and achieved goals, compared to the bloodshed that followed with the next lot. It was certainly a successful revolution also, although obviously short lived for him!

    When all of Munich turned out for Eisner’s state funeral (with Hitler in the crowd), I think they realised they’d let him down in the elections, and how things could have been different. So ‘cack-handed’ and unprofessional are not words I’d use for Eisner – maybe visionary, peaceful, and progressive before his time would be my choices.

    Thank you for letting me comment, and I hope you don’t mind me adding a different point of view.

    Kind Regards,

    Julian Cassell


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