The Trial of Adolf Hitler
by David King, Macmillan, £25
The casual student of history might think that we already know all we usefully can about Adolf Hitler, his rise and fall, but the book industry must know better, for here is another contribution to Führer studies. The Trial of Adolf Hitler is a detailed account of Hitler’s trial, in 1924, for high treason against the Weimar Republic.
The trial arose from the failed beer hall putsch of the previous year, when Hitler and his accomplices – in an episode combining the sinister with the farcical – had launched an attempt to overthrow the federal government from a drinking den in Munich. The trial that followed handed Hitler a wonderful platform for his views, allowing him to reach an audience much wider than the small band of disgruntled nationalists that comprised the infant Nazi party’s core support.
The trial itself was a travesty. The presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, was sympathetic to Hitler’s worldview, which cast Germany in the role of wronged victim of the vengeful French-inspired Treaty of Versailles. Hitler believed that the German government of the day had, by acquiescing to the terms of the Treaty, betrayed the nation. It was a view that found eager support in a country humiliated by military defeat and ravaged by hyperinflation.
Judge Neithardt allowed the defendants, who included Erich Ludendorff, the quartermaster-general of the German army during the First World War, free rein to declaim their political philosophy. This was faithfully reported by the world’s press gathered in Munich for the sensational trial. But the judge, and indeed the whole Bavarian state administration, was fatefully compromised because leading ministers had been in close communication with Hitler and his associates in the months leading up to the putsch. Those connections meant that, from the outset, proving “treason” against Hitler was far from straightforward. The putsch was only prevented when those same ministers had had a panicky change of heart, which ended in the police shooting dead some of Hitler’s gang.
What is more, the public mood in Bavaria was, to a large extent, pro-Hitler. In 1923, when the putsch attempt was made, the economic plight of Germany was desperate indeed. The currency had been devalued to a grotesque extent; billions of marks were needed to purchase an egg. The real consequence of that was that the middle classes had lost all their savings and the working class were absolutely impoverished. It is under such circumstances that political pathologies, like National Socialism, get the oxygen they need.
The book contains some nuggets. I had always assumed that the mocking ditty we used to sing as schoolboys – “Hitler had only got one ball, Rommel had two, but very small … etc” – was just a playground jibe. Not so, it appears. The doctor who examined Hitler after he was injured in the putsch, diagnosed him as suffering from cryptorchidism, a condition in which a testicle fails properly to descend.
Another revelation was the extent and depth of Ludendorff’s anti-Catholicism. At the trial Ludendorff, whose stellar military career made him a hero to the nationalists, identified three domestic enemies: communism, Jews and Catholicism. Catholics can take it as a compliment, then, that the Nazis saw the Church as an opponent worth attacking.
The trial ended with Ludendorff acquitted but Hitler and the others convicted and then handed the lightest possible sentences. Hitler was incarcerated, in some comfort, in the fortress of Landsberg, along with the rest of the gang. It was there he found the time and space to write Mein Kampf – his personal manifesto that became the founding text of Nazism. He served just 34 weeks out of his five-year sentence. When he emerged from prison, Weimar had started to recover somewhat – a new currency had stabilised the country and for the following few years a brighter prospect beckoned.
And then came the great crash of 1929 and from that economic wreckage the nightmare spectre of the Third Reich emerged. Hitler’s stars had aligned. For any avid student of the period, David King has written a clear and readable account of this pivotal episode in Hitler’s career. But for the general reader, this account might prove a little indigestible.
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