This is one of those rare consistently interesting books that captivates the reader throughout. In his study on Hitler’s formative years as a politician in Munich between November 1919 and the publication of Mein Kampf in the mid-1920s, Thomas Weber authoritatively revises standard interpretations of Hitler’s early years that have maintained their place in the literature. Weber’s arguments are based not only on private papers, interviews and a careful reading of the secondary literature, but also on meticulous archival research in well over a dozen archives in Germany, the United States, Israel, South Africa, Ireland and the UK. Becoming Hitler succeeds in bringing to life Hitler’s Munich years while capturing the broader Zeitgeist that informed his actions. The author displays a detailed familiarity with those who exerted an influence on Hitler in the years between Kurt Eisner’s revolution and the Beer Hall Putsch, including lesser known but important figures such as Karl Mayr, the head of the Intelligence Department at Munich army headquarters under whose supervision Hitler received his first formal political education and for whom he subsequently worked as an army informant, Dietrich Eckart, Hitler’s friend and mentor who died of a heart attack in December 1923, and Max-Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, who later helped to shape Hitler’s views on Russia and Bolshevism, and who was killed during the Beer Hall Putsch. Contrary to Hitler’s own depiction in Mein Kampf, Weber shows that during the revolution in Munich, Hitler continued to serve as a conscientious soldier in the eyes of his superiors in a unit that remained loyal to Eisner’s revolutionary regime. In opposition to Hitler’s own version of events, he did not stay in the small town of Traunstein in February 1919, where he had supervised Russian POWs, but returned to revolutionary Munich. In Mein Kampf, Hitler remained silent about his army service in Munich around the time of Eisner’s assassination. Most significantly, Hitler decided to stand for and was duly elected to the position of his unit’s Vertrauensmann (the soldiers’ representative), whose purpose it was to support the revolutionary regime. Weber clearly establishes that the soldiers who elected him had left-wing convictions and voted overwhelmingly for the SPD. There was thus nothing anti-revolutionary about Hitler’s behaviour at the time. Weber contends that the political dividing line in military units based in Munich in 1919 lay between the radical and the moderate left, with Hitler in the moderate camp. His actions at the time reveal a man who initially sympathized with the revolution but did not support the Munich Soviet Republic of April 1919. It is conventional wisdom, usually unsubstantiated, that in the winter and spring of 1919 parts of the German population had misplaced illusions about the peace treaty in the making. Weber now anchors this argument by offering compelling evidence that in upper Bavaria the bulk of the population, including Hitler, convinced themselves that the Versailles Treaty would be clement and ‘just,’ thus failing to perceive the reality of defeat until the publication of the Treaty’s terms in May and especially until its final ratification on 9 July 1919: ‘This was Hitler’s Damascene experience, his dramatic political conversion. It had not occurred during his time in Vienna, nor during the war, nor during the revolutionary period, nor through the cumulative experiences of war and the revolution’ (p. 81). It was thus only through Hitler’s delayed realization of defeat in the summer of 1919 that his political transformation and radicalization began. Weber illustrates that here as elsewhere Hitler’s own testimony in Mein Kampf is unreliable and crafted to put forward an image of how he wanted the public to perceive him. As Weber puts it: ‘Hitler invented a fictional account of his genesis that was codified in Mein Kampf’ (p. 96). This interpretation will profoundly impact the historiography of Hitler’s early political career and more generally the context in which Mein Kampf will be read. Despite Hitler’s domineering and unchallenged position in the NSDAP after he took over its leadership in the summer of 1921, scholars frequently argue that in this early period before the Beer Hall Putsch he did not yet see himself as a charismatic leader but merely as a drummer for a greater personage to come. Weber shows that while others, including Ludendorff, did see him only as a gifted propagandist who could be employed in the service of someone greater than him, Hitler himself was convinced of his own importance. He thought himself a genius in his own right who was capable of great things, a belief reinforced by some in Hitler’s entourage, such as the aforementioned Dietrich Eckart. During the summer and early fall of 1923, Hitler wrote a short nine-page autobiographical sketch, which together with some of his speeches was published under another man’s name, Adolf-Viktor von Koerber, a young aristocrat whom Hitler had met through Ludendorff. In this book, Adolf Hitler. Sein Leben. Seine Reden, the putative author maintained that Hitler had fully developed his political ideas by the time he was twenty and that his experiences had convinced him to try to bring workers and the bourgeoisie together under the umbrella of German nationalism. The self-congratulatory tone made it clear that Hitler meant to boost his profile in expectation of a national revolution. As Weber writes, this autobiographical sketch belies the idea that Hitler saw himself as a mere ‘drummer,’ since in it he describes himself as the ‘architect’ who ‘is building the mighty German cathedral’ (p. 286). Based on compelling documentation, Weber depicts Hitler’s emerging Weltanschauung as very much in flux and ongoing formation during his Munich years, countering Hitler’s assertion in Mein Kampf that his ideas were set in stone by 1919. Prompted by disgust for the Allied powers responsible for the Versailles Treaty, Hitler’s anti-Semitism was originally anti-capitalist in character. As Weber argues, Russia’s allegedly Bolshevik Jews were a concern to him, because they stood in the way of an alliance between Germany and a monarchist Russia. In the hierarchy of Hitler’s anti-Semitic prejudices, anti-Bolshevism was of secondary importance to anti-capitalism. This gradually changed under the influence of two Baltic Germans—the adventurous, swashbuckling Max-Erwin von Scheubner-Richter and Alfred Rosenberg, the later Nazi ideologue, who at the time still sported a heavy Russian accent and was lampooned as an ‘undernourished gaslight’ (p. 220) on account of his pallor and lifeless personality. To sum up, Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi is an extremely well-researched, revealing and captivating book, far and away the best study we have of Hitler’s early years in Munich. Weber fills it with absorbing detail, exercises consistently balanced judgement and vividly brings to life Munich between the end of the First World War and the Beer Hall Putsch. Once begun, readers will want to read Weber’s colourful and fascinating book from cover to cover. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 13, 2018
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