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The Trial of Adolf Hitler

by David King, published by W.W. Norton, 2017

David King tells us that the justice system in Germany's Weimar Republic (1918-33) was, according to German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, "the wellspring of [Hitler's] Third Reich."

King's book describes the court in Munich that tried Hitler and his co-conspirators on the charge of treason. In Munich, on 8 November 1923 in the evening, Hitler and his armed followers took over a major banquet hall (the so-called beer hall) filled with people waiting to hear the speeches of local Munich authorities, but Hitler and his armed followers barged in, Hitler firing a shot from his pistol into the ceiling for attention, and he spoke of his intention to produce a revolution, his intention to march on Berlin — similar the march on Rome a few months before by his fellow fascists in Italy, Benito Mussolini and his supporters.


The trial of Adolf Hitler is not the story of his rise to power, but rather an episode that helped make that rise possible. It was this trial that catapulted this relatively minor local leader onto the national stage.

Hitler's coup (putsch in German) was part fantasy and part sloppy planning. Hitler ordered the seizure of the Munich city council as hostages. His armed followers numbered around two thousand, and during the milled about in confusion until one of the conspirators, the war hero, now a civilian, General Ludendorff, shouted for the group to march. They moved toward a line of 130 policemen blocking their way. Shots were fired. Four policemen and 16 marchers were killed. Hitler was pulled down by comrade who had been shot, and he dislocated his shoulder. He fled, and his marchers, including Ludendorff, scattered.

After two sleepless nights and much physical pain, sheltered in an attic at the Hanfstaengl villa belonging to a wealthy supporter, the police tracked him down. He proclaimed that "all was lost... no use going on." He lunged for his pistol, which the wife of his follower took from him "with a Ju-jitsu trick." Then Hitler spoke of fighting to the end.

Hitler was arrested and charged with treason. Ludendorff was also arrested but he was released. Hitler and some co-conspirators were put into Munich's Landsberg prison, the section of the prison for other than common criminals. There were bars on the windows and lockups but also a garden to stroll in, meals on white tablecloths, areas for socializing with fellow privileged prisoners, exercise equipment, mail and package deliveries, card games, tea or coffee in the afternoon. Hitler and his co-conspirators were considered worthy of special treatment. They were seen as men who were motivated by patriotism.

The trial with his co-conspirators would last 24 days. And on the stand, Hitler was given ample opportunity to speak beyond answering questions. The opinions he expressed were what many of us would judge as right-wing in nature. Hitler described the federal government (centered in Berlin) as evil, similar to right-wingers in the US in 2016 labelling the "Establishment" as an enemy. Berlin, he said, had failed its people with a lack of nationalism and fighting spirit, and another enemy he pointed to was the Marxists.

Hitler was asked by the prosecutor whether he imagined that he had the support of the majority of the population. Opposite of the Marxists and the left (who thought of power rising from the people) Hitler answered: "No, of course not; history was not made by majorities but by an individual or hero."

Germany's war hero, Ludendorff, still a free man, took the stand. He was an old anti-Semite and pompously super-patriotic. He too spoke against the Marxists. He described the Catholic Church as a negative influence, and he claimed that Jews had spoiled the German race. He reminded the court that he was respected for "grand battles and brilliant campaigns. (One of Hitler's wealthy leading followers, Dr. Friedrich Weber, had gathered from wartime mythical storytelling that Ludendorff was the greatest German commander of all time.) Mustering his precision in thought, Ludendorff called Hitler a distinguished colleague. He called on "every patriotic German" to support the nationalist far right because it alone could save Germany from distress. He said that "We want ... a Germany that only belongs to the Germans" and a Germany that is "strong and powerful." In other words, he wanted to see Germany made great again.

Hitler and his co-defendants were getting an unfriendly press in Berlin, Paris, New York and elsewhere, but they remained popular in Munich, where the right-wing press was giving them favorable reviews. Supporters gathered every day and cheered their arrival and departure. The defendants arrive chatting happily and waving to applauding spectators.

(Included in the friendly press were articles by two Nobel prize winners in physics, Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark. Like the United States, Germany had its learned people in technical or scientific matters, but not so wise politically.)

The trial ended with an acquittal for Ludendorff. He became a member parliament (the Reichstag) from 1924 to 1928 and would run for President in March 1925 but receive only 1.1 percent of the vote. But his supporters through a big bash for his 60th birthday later that year, with marching brass bands and a large torchlight parade. He was to die in Munich in 1937 when Hitler was in power.

The trial ended in 1924 with Hitler found guilty of treason and sentenced to five years in Landsberg Prison. He would not be deported to his native Austria and he and his fellow conspirators would be eligible for parole in six months. The leniency was described as extenuating circumstances rising from the defendants having acted in a "purely patriotic spirit... [and] unselfish motives."

Hitler used his time in prison to write his book Mein Kampf. On 20 December 1924, having served only nine months, Hitler was a free man again. Here King's book ends except to describe Hitler as "seeing himself much as his most fanatical supporters did — that is not as the orchestrator of the failed putsch but as a leader, a Führer, destined to rule the nation".

The year 1925 was good for Germany economically. But by 1930 there would be the Great Depression, most intense for Germany. Some struggling Germans would be blaming capitalism and siding with the Marxists. Hitler thought Jews and Jewish capitalism was the problem, that German capitalism was okay. He saw his path to power in electoral politics and propaganda as the anti-communist alternative, with promises to wealthy contributors to squash the socialists.

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.