ONTHEFRINGE, 1925 –28
When Hitler returned to Landsberg Prison on April 1, 1924, his old cell was waiting. He had left the prison for his trial an ob-
scure street corner agitator whose notoriety was confined largely to Ba- varia. When he returned, he was the “martyr of Munich,” a hero of the radical right. The disastrous Putsch had been ridiculed everywhere as a bumbling, almost farcical calamity, but Hitler’s virtuoso performance in the courtroom had transformed him into a national figure. Now he was Landsberg’s “prisoner of honor,” a celebrity to the other conspirators, the jailers, and the prison officials.
In the wing of Landsberg Prison reserved for political prisoners—a com- modity with which Bavaria, given its turbulent postwar history, was well stocked—Hitler was again assigned cell 7 on the upper floor, reserved for the most important prisoners. His cell was small but comfortable, holding a table, two chairs, a cupboard, and bed. Light poured in from two large windows, and although Hitler complained about the bars, his view was of shrubbery, trees, and hills. Visitors brought geraniums and other fl wers.
Under the circumstances, he had all he could ask for. He dressed in his own clothes, usually lederhosen and the traditional Tyrolean jacket, white shirt, and sometimes a tie. Telegrams and letters from loyal party mem- bers and doting admirers poured into the prison; some sent books, others packages of food (Hitler was partial to Viennese pastries and fretted about his weight). Hitler’s cell, Putzi Hanfstaengl later remarked, “looked like a delicatessen. You could have opened up a flower and fruit and a wine shop with all the stuff stacked in there.”
Although visitors were to be restricted, the sympathetic prison authorities turned a blind eye to the rising tide of visitors who arrived for an audi- ence with “the hero of Munich.” On some days Hitler spent up to six hours receiving guests. Even his dog was allowed a visit. By summer Hitler was be- sieged by so many visitors that he asked the jailers to admit only those with a written appointment. The prisoners were granted two hour-long sessions of physical exercise, including boxing and gymnastics. Hitler sometimes ref- ereed the contests but usually preferred to walk—after all, the leader of the movement could hardly enter into a physical competition with his followers.
Even as a prisoner, Hitler was very much in command, the master of his surroundings. When a new prisoner was assigned to the block, he was taken immediately to report to Hitler. At meals in the common room Hitler presided over the table, holding court. One fellow conspirator wrote to a friend that every day at 10 a.m. “there is normally an hour’s discus- sion with the Chief or better still an address by the Chief.” The jailers and other prison staff often listened from beyond the doorway, and were as impressed as the prisoners. When Hitler spoke, “the warders gathered outside on the staircase and listened without making a sound . . . the men of the police guard unit would form up in the courtyard outside and none of these listeners ever made even the smallest disturbance.”
Hitler’s main occupation while at Landsberg was writing. He had in mind to write a book about his wartime experiences, his political awak- ening, and the beginnings of the NSDAP. A second volume might be nec- essary to explain National Socialism’s Weltanschauung, its ideological goals and assumptions. Together the two volumes would constitute an autobiographical political manifesto. Visitors supplied him with paper, pen, and ink, even a typewriter, on which he tapped out the pages, using the two finger method. Sometimes he dictated to fellow conspirators Emil Maurice or Rudolf Hess. One jailer remarked that “all day long and late into the night the typewriter would be tapping and one could hear Hitler in his small room dictating to his friend Hess. On Saturday evenings he would generally read the completed sections to his fellow prisoners who sat around him like schoolboys.”
Hitler was not altogether unhappy with this respite from the frenetic rough and tumble of politics. Since his entry into the party, he had found little time to reflect and write. His considerable energies had been de- voted to speaking, organizing, and attempting to hold the rambunctious NSDAP together. Now, with the enforced discipline and quiet of prison, he could turn at last to developing his ideas in a more systematic form. As he would recall many years later, his book would never have been written had it not been for his time in prison. In Landsberg, with few diversions, he threw himself into his writing. He had high hopes for the book. He intended to call it Fouranda Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Corruption, and Cowardice, but was dissuaded by his old army comrade and publisher Max Amann, who gingerly suggested that the title might not be as compelling to potential readers as it was to Hitler. Amann suggested a shorter, pithier title: MeinKampf (My Struggle).
Although Hitler was kept informed about developments beyond the prison walls, he refused to become involved in the incessant wrangling among his lieutenants. While awaiting trial, he had deputized Alfred Rosen- berg, the editor of the VölkischerBeobachter, to act as caretaker for the party in his absence. It was a curious choice. Pedantic, aloof, and bereft of any personal charisma, Rosenberg liked to think of himself as the philos- opher of the party. He had no administrative experience and no personal following. Many believed that Hitler had chosen him for precisely these reasons. Rosenberg was in no danger of usurping his power, nor would he be a threat to his position as leader when he returned.
Almost immediately Rosenberg encountered challenges on several fronts. Little had been done to prepare for the possibility that the coup might fail, and Rosenberg discovered that the party’s organization was in almost hopeless disarray. Hoping to establish a caretaker organization for the banned NSDAP, he founded the Greater German People’s Community (Grossdeutsche Volksgemeinschaft or GVG) on January 1, 1924, but few party leaders were ready to accept him as leader. Many Hitler loyalists remained aloof, and by summer Esser and Streicher had assumed control of the GVG. Other Nazi leaders attached themselves to a rival radical party, the German Völkisch Freedom Party (DVFP), headquartered in Berlin and headed by Ludendorff and Albrecht von Graefe, who had marched in the failed Putsch. What was left of the NSDAP was fragmenting by the day, splintering into mutually mistrustful factions.
Complicating matters further, the Nazis were confronted by the approach of the first national elections since 1920. Hitler had always vehemently opposed participation in democratic elections, but the situation in early 1924 seemed to offer rich possibilities. Between November 1923 and the spring of 1924 the Reich government, using emergency decree powers provided by Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, introduced a series of stringent deflationary measures that led to an immediate stabilization of the economy but also had serious social and political ramifications. They entailed the de facto suspension of the eight-hour workday, a massive and unprecedented dismissal of civil servants and public employees, a severe restriction of credit, which produced a flood of bankruptcies, especially by small businesses, and a startling rise in unemployment, most striking among white-collar personnel. In addition, the government’s Third Emergency Tax Decree, which revalued debts and mortgages at only 15 percent of their original value, triggered a volcanic eruption of protest from creditors. The inflation crisis of 1923 quickly gave way to the stabilization crisis of 1924.
Contributing to the furor raised by the government’s harsh stabilization measures was the revival of the reparations issue. The question—how much, in what form, and on what schedule Germany would pay—had not been set- tled at Versailles or at subsequent international conferences. It would prove to be the most intractable issue in postwar international politics. In early 1924, an international committee of economic experts, appointed by the League of Nations’ Reparations Commission and chaired by the American banker Charles Dawes, drafted a new scheme of payment to be presented to the German government. In early April, with the Reichstag campaign just getting under way, the committee presented its report to the commission. Quickly dubbed the Dawes Plan, this bundle of recommendations called for a graduated schedule of payments, beginning with approximately one billion marks in 1925–26 and rising to a normal annual payment of 2.5 billion by 1928–29. To Berlin’s dismay, it did not, however, establish Ger- many’s total liability, and hence the ominous prospect of paying and paying endlessly into the future loomed over the negotiations.
Among the most galling aspects of the plan were provisions that were widely viewed as infringements on Germany’s sovereignty. The plan called for the creation of an international general council with broad powers to oversee the German economy. Since a stable currency and a balanced budget were viewed as prerequisites for German recovery, the operations of the German central bank (Reichsbank) were to be closely supervised by the international general council, and an Allied reparations agent was to be stationed in Berlin to direct the transfer of reparations payments. As sweeteners, the committee indicated that acceptance of the Dawes Plan and a good-faith effort to put Germany’s economic house in order would prompt a much needed influx of foreign capital that would allow the coun- try to get back on its feet again. Although not formally part of the plan, the Allies also suggested that evacuation of the Ruhr within one year could be expected if the Germans cooperated and accepted the report.
As soon as the details of the Dawes Plan—and its positive reception by the German government—were made public, a nationwide furor erupted. The Conservatives, Nazis, and Völkisch parties as well as the Communists denounced the plan as a “second Versailles,” another link in the chains of slavery imposed on Germany by the vindictive Allied governments. Al- though the press referred to it as the “inflation election,” the government’s harsh stabilization policies and the Dawes Plan quickly became the central issues of the ensuing campaign, galvanizing all the enemies of the Republic.
With the election scheduled for May 4, the Nazis would have to make a decision on whether to participate—and quickly. It was a highly contentious issue. Held in the shadow of the hyperinflation and the draconian stabilization that followed, the spring campaign of 1924 seemed to offer anti-Republican forces a tremendous launching pad. Anger over the destruction of the currency and the severe measures undertaken to stabilize the economy—all unpopular and all by emergency decree—was running high. At the same time, the extensive media coverage of the Hitler trial had thrown a spotlight on the National Socialists just as the campaign was getting under way, and although Hitler was no longer on the scene, many within the party believed that the moment should not be wasted.
The foremost advocate of this position was Gregor Strasser, a thirty- two-year-old druggist who in 1924 emerged as one of the most energetic and influential leaders of the NSDAP. Like Hitler, Strasser was a decorated war veteran, a militant nationalist, and an anti-Semite. After four years in the trenches, he returned home to Bavaria, finished his degree in pharmacology at Erlangen, and began a career as an apothecary. In 1919 he signed on with Franz Ritter von Epp’s Free Corps to overthrow the Bavarian Socialist Republic; two years later he joined Hitler’s fledgling party. Big, gruff in appearance, Strasser had a commanding personality, boundless energy, and a talent for organization. He founded an SA unit in Landshut, acted as SA chief for all of Lower Bavaria, and worked assiduously to establish party chapters in other Bavarian towns. A former army officer, a man of action, he also enjoyed reading Homer in the original classical Greek. Strasser had participated in the Putsch but was cast in a minor role. A few days later he was arrested, charged not for his minimal participation in the coup but with attempting to recruit a soldier for the now-outlawed NSDAP. His stay in prison was brief; he was released in late April 1924 after he was elected to the Bavarian state legislature, a reflection of his burgeoning regional stature.
Strasser was convinced that the party should dive into the Reichstag campaign, even if it meant an alliance with other parties, and he vigorously championed a coalition with the German Völkisch Freedom Party (DVFP). This might be a short-term accommodation, Strasser acknowledged, but he hoped to exploit the DVFP’s connections in northern Germany to expand Nazi influence beyond Bavaria. His plans met stiff resistance from Esser and Streicher, leaders of the Bavarian clique that dominated party headquarters in Munich. Despite their considerable personal liabilities, both were longtime party men. They were slavishly devoted to Hitler, who returned their loyalty and trust in equal measure. Both rejected even a temporary alliance with the DVFP and scorned Strasser’s efforts to thrust the NSDAP into electoral politics. Didn’t he understand that Hitler had always rejected collaboration with other parties and had opposed on prin- ciple any participation in Weimar’s corrupt parliamentary system?
In spite of these rancorous disagreements within the Nazi camp—or perhaps because of them—Graefe and Ludendorff relentlessly pressed the case for a joint Nazi-Völkisch venture. They saw in Hitler’s absence an opportunity to assume the leadership of the entire Völkisch movement and score a major electoral victory. With Strasser’s support, Graefe began negotiations with Rosenberg and other Nazi leaders for an amalgamation of the two organizations. At a January meeting in Salzburg, Rosenberg refused to accept a merger but did agree to the formation of a temporary electoral alliance. The DVFP would focus primarily (but not exclusively) on the north, the Nazis on the south—and policy would be determined by consultation between the leadership of the two parties. It would be the Nazis’ first election campaign.
Although the Nazis had to operate under the banner of the DVFP, the spring campaign displayed all the basic themes of National Social- ist ideology. Denouncing class struggle, the Nazis were determined to break down social barriers and establish a “genuine people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) that would bridge the deep divides of German so- ciety. The “ultimate cause” of Germany’s collapse in 1918 lay precisely in this “hate-filled divisiveness,” which had been “systematically fostered by Jewish Marxism.” After having driven the kings from their thrones in 1918, the workers now confronted the “kings of finance.” “International bank and stock-market capital” had assumed absolute power, with the greatest financial clout resting in the hands of the Jews, who “maintain a powerful network covering the whole world.” The central issue confront- ing the German people, the Nazis warned, was not left or right, National- ist or Socialist, but “for or against the Jews.”
With the aftershocks of the political and economic eruptions of 1923 still reverberating, Germans went to the polls on May 4, and the extent of their disaffection was reflected in a dramatic surge of the radical, antidem- ocratic parties. The anti-Republican Conservatives, whose vote jumped from 14 percent in 1920 to 19.5 percent, were the big winners, but with
6.5 percent of the vote, the DVFP made a surprisingly strong showing. De- spite organizational difficulties, bitter personal rivalries, and internecine bickering, the Nazis and their partners collected almost two million votes, surpassing each of the small special interest and regional parties and the mainstream Democratic Party (DDP) as well. As expected, support for the Nazis was centered in the south, particularly in Bavaria, but the ability of the Nazi-Völkisch coalition to win votes in the north served notice that the appeal of National Socialism was hardly a regional phenomenon.
With the anti-Republican forces of both right and left claiming almost 40 percent of the vote and the democratic parties divided on a number of issues, the creation of a stable majority cabinet proved elusive, and in October, after much wrangling, the Reichstag was dissolved again and new elections called for December. But the political and economic environment had undergone a considerable transformation since May. The ominous sense of impending doom that had clouded the spring campaign had dissipated. Passage of the Dawes legislation triggered a massive infusion of for- eign, especially American, capital, which acted as a catalyst to economic revival. Unemployment dropped, real wages rose, and the desperate pall of economic calamity that had lingered throughout the spring had begun to lift before the fall campaign began. The threat of Rhenish and Bavarian separatism as well as armed insurrection by the political extremes had also greatly diminished. French and Belgian troops were evacuating the Ruhr. The Republic, against all odds, had managed to survive.
For the Nazi-Völkisch alliance none of these developments was wel- come news. Following their surprisingly strong showing in May, the forces of the radical right were unable to bridge the steadily widening rifts in their coalition. In late August, Strasser and Rosenberg decided to join Lu- dendorff in founding a new party of Völkisch unity, the National Socialist Freedom Movement (NSFB), in time for the new election. But in Bavaria, Streicher and Esser refused to join the new national party and established their own rival organization. The NSFB was apparently neither sufficiently anti-Semitic nor xenophobic enough to suit their tastes. They denounced the Ludendorff-Strasser creation as hopelessly bourgeois and urged Bavar- ian National Socialists to boycott the approaching elections.
Although repelled by Esser and Streicher, many Nazi leaders shared their aversion to parliamentary elections and particularly disliked any formal association with the NSFB. They openly advocated total abstention from the new campaign, even encouraging those Nazis who did vote to cast Conservative ballots. To no one’s surprise, the radical right lost over half of its constituency in the December election. With a paltry 3 percent of the vote, the Nazis and the Völkisch right began a drift back to the periphery of German politics, where they remained firmly anchored until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.
Cocooned in Landsberg, Hitler chose to sit on the sidelines. Until the ill-fated Kampfbund, he had always disparaged cooperation, not to mention merger, with other right-wing parties, and he had condemned any participation in parliamentary politics. But removed from the scene and unable to stay abreast of developments, he seemed surprisingly ambiva- lent, evasive. Rival leaders who made the pilgrimage to Landsberg seeking Hitler’s blessing for their plans often departed believing that they had se- cured his support, only to discover that he had offered similar encouragement to their adversaries. It often seemed to depend on who had seen him last. When Ludendorff made two visits to Landsberg in May, hoping to coax Hitler into agreeing to a union of the NSDAP with the much stronger DVFP, Hitler temporized. Ludendorff responded by issuing a press release claiming that Hitler had, in fact, endorsed the merger. When Hitler publicly disavowed the article, it merely added to the confusion. Hitler was livid, furious at his own powerlessness and at the treachery of Ludendorff. The event vividly underscored just how little he was able to manage events from the confines of prison.
So frustrated with the situation was Hitler that in early July he announced his temporary withdrawal from active politics and requested that no more delegations from the different party factions visit him. He had had enough. He explained that he could not be responsible for developments while still in prison. He would bide his time, finish his book, and would, he hoped, be released in the not too distant future. Hitler’s announcement surprised and disappointed many party leaders, some of whom lashed out at his curious disengagement, his passivity. Hitler, they felt, was simply drifting along, allowing the rudderless party to disintegrate.
Hitler fully understood this. But he had little incentive to try to sort out matters, to referee the conflicts between the different factions of his movement. Why should he be involved in matters over which he had no control? It was clear to him—and to all others—that no real unity in the movement could be attained without him, and he was more than content to await events. He was due for parole in September; then he would leave Landsberg as the savior of a revived National Socialist movement.