Hitler's Bavarian Black Comedy


Hitler's Bavarian Black Comedy Putsch! How Hitler Made Revolution By Richard Hanser Peter H Wyden 409 pp $8 9t Reviewed by Richard C. Hottelet CBS News correspondent at the United Nations This...

...How Hitler Made Revolution By Richard Hanser Peter H Wyden 409 pp $8 9t Reviewed by Richard C. Hottelet CBS News correspondent at the United Nations This pungent and powerful book is the anatomy of a nightmare It goes beyond its title—Putsch' How Hitlei Made Revolution—to sketch the tragedy of a nation unhinged And yet it tells its story—the fateful conjunction of public confusion and fanatic, gifted personality—in colorful detail and with a strong grasp of essentials Hanser thoroughly understands his material and is fascinated by it, drawing his reader into a shared experience Putsch1 is historical journalism at its best The central character is a strange man, the rebellious child of a sad family, molded by his own wild urges and the social decay of the declining empire mto which he was born The irrepressible need to talk, the burlesque sense of destiny, the oscillation between despair and euphoria, bourgeois compulsions and bohemian inclinations, the power of persuasion—these and other characteristics that marked Hitler's life to the end were apparent in the boy and the young man His obsession with Wagner, his pretensions as an artist, his contemptuous aloofness in the flophouses of Vienna, the virus of racism warming this loveless human being with the fever of hate, might all have remained the insignificant quirks of another nonentity had the times not turned them into history Hitler was a loner who found his first security and fulfillment in the German Army His World War I comrades thought him an odd fish, when they thought of him at all His superiors acknowledged his courage by awarding him the Iron Cross First Class, but in four years at or neai the front line they saw no talent in him worthy of a rank higher than Private First Class If conditions after the War had been less unstable, he would probably have been a drifter, even less able to cope than the many who never adjusted But postwar Germany was a political, moral and intellectual shambles Fifty years later the question of national guilt becomes academic, and a search for the original sin in an epic calamity is bound to go leapfrogging back to the beginning of time The collapse of the Hohen-zollern empire may have been richly deserved and self-instigated, in any event, it was an utter catastrophe Germany—for all its discipline, order and rich cultural antecedents—had not had time to develop the cohesion of political values necessary to hold it together Like the demise of the Habsburgs and unlike that of the Romanovs and the Ottomans (which bore vital seeds of transformation), the end of the Kaiserreich left chaos Unfortunately the victors at Versailles, in their own ignorant greed, did not see in it the storm that would seize them too The Weimar Republic was doomed at birth when the military sloughed off its responsibility for defeat and secured the democrats' endorsement of the myth that the Army, undefeated on the field of battle, had been stabbed in the back by the spineless and treacherous workers, Jews, Freemasons or whatever The generals saddled their unhappy receivers in bankruptcy with the humiliation of signing the Versailles treaty and carrying out its punitive provisions The new republicans were handed the burden of government, while the men who had caused the disaster remained sneer-mgly aloof, amusing themselves with dreams of vengeance and infantile fantasies of past glory Bound by the civilized precepts of a most liberal constitution, dependent for survival on an army that had encapsulated itself as an anachronistic state within a state, the government m Berlin presided over a madhouse Germany was a bedlam of political uprisings, street battles and local wars, compounded by the French occupation of the Ruhr and a demoralizing inflation Against this backdrop, the men of Weimar fought both the extremists of the Left, who branded them traitors to the idea of proletarian revolution, and the superpatriots of the Right, who accused them of betraying the "real Germany" as it existed in their recollection of the old regime's law and order A good deal has been written of the struggle that consumed Germany for five years Observers have, quite properly, concentrated on the center ring of this dismal circus—the national scene, where the power lay And the time came when one sinister set of local clowns moved in to usurp it Hanser looks closely at the sideshow in an earlier phase to demonstrate how much and how little of an accident their later victory was He does so economically and with the professional's eye for illuminating detail, while keeping the larger picture in his focus The Spartacus uprising and the murdei of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg started the sequence of political assassination, the Feme murders, which put its evil stamp on the politics of the early Republic The executioners, literally and figuratively, were the Free Corps, the secret societies and the "patriotically-minded" individuals who moved back and forth across the line between active protest and systematic slaughter The Kapp Putsch was part of the bizarre drama, so was the middle class' slide down the slope of financial rum to the desperate and degrading perversities that marked the period Yet, in all the black comedy of German politics after World War I, there was little to equal the crack-brained farce acted out in Bavaria There, an increase in the price ot beer crystallized public anger over privation and deteat In a wave of aimless popular demonstrations, the thousand-year-old monarchy simply vanished—to be replaced by what might today be labeled an East Village hippie nonsystem Kurt Eisner, a well-meaning drama critic, and his bohemian friends took over with the slogan "Truth, Freedom and Peace" They proclaimed a Bavarian Free State, hung red flags from the steeples of the Frauen-kirche and milled around for 100 days m total confusion When Eisner was assassinated, there was even less to fill the void Anarchy prevailed for weeks, until it was succeeded by a Soviet Republic whose Foreign Minister—a man with a record of mental illness —corresponded with Lenin and declared war on Wurttemberg and Switzerland It lasted a week, to be followed by a second government with a tougher, more Bolshevik cast and a Red Army This survived a fortnight—time enough for military action against counterrevolutionary forces and terror, both Red and White In this complete pandemonium Private Hitler, still in the Army, found his calling An undercover man for the local staff, assigned to report on some of the tiny political parties seeking refuge in super-nationalist slogans, he took one ovei With no other interest m life to divert his energy, he applied his gift of demagoguery to building up his party and gaming a mass base He was a consummate propagandist without a shred of scruple Later, one of the Nazis' better known propaganda paintings was entitled, "In the Beginning was the Word " It showed an idealized Hitler holding an audience spellbound In essence it was true Hanser writes, "He thought of an audience as a woman who was to be first emotionally aroused and then seduced and made to yield 'The last eight to ten minutes of a speech, said Ernst Hanfstaengl, 'resembled an orgasm of words ' " A woman, to be sure, in a state of nervous breakdown and especially vulnerable—although in subsequent years and more "normal" times, the note of triumph he struck was seductive enough Hitler attracted or bamboozled the discontented the flotsam of the postwar turmoil, unemployed or unemployable heroes like Goermg, soldiers like Roehm, greater or lesser monuments like Ludendorff The embittered bourgeoisie flirted with him and respectable folk saw him as the enemy of their enemy—be it Communism, Jews, disorder, immorality, Berlin, or simply the Republic Shades of Joe McCarthy Bewddered workers thought, "Why not9" The Party Program was a fraud, Hitler's rhetoric the reality When the time came for Hitler to risk his Putsch, he walked into his adversaries' demonstration, fired a bullet into the ceiling of the beer cellar and mesmerized the gathering with a speech His mistake lay in letting the leaders get out of earshot Then, while he dithered, Ludendorff ordered the march through the streets that brought the Nazi movement to the world's attention and provided its first martyrs Hitler recovered from the fiasco to turn his subsequent trial for high treason into another rhetorical triumph In commending this book, Ambassador Robert Murphy, a young consul in Munich at the time, points to some disturbing contemporary American parallels assassinations, violence and unrest m the streets, a gap between generations, widespread sexual permissiveness, and a silen majority letting political extremists fight it out One need not agree with such an equation of radically different circumstances and societies to wish Richard Hanser a wide and thoughtful audience...

Vol. 53 • December 1970 • No. 24

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