How Adolf Be­came Hitler

A con­tro­ver­sial book by Tom Weber sug­gests that an apo­lit­i­cal slacker’s trans­for­ma­tion into a fa­nat­i­cal dic­ta­tor was far from in­evitable.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Gavriel D. Rosen­feld By Tom Weber

To­day, his­to­ri­ans are in the un­for­tu­nate po­si­tion of hav­ing to de­scribe new books on the Nazi era as “timely.” This de­scrip­tion is es­pe­cially apt for Tom Weber’s new book, “Be­com­ing Hitler.” Had it ap­peared prior to Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion in 2016, it would have been de­servedly praised as a well­re­searched and in­sight­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of Adolf Hitler’s po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing in the early 1920s. But the book has spe­cial res­o­nance com­ing out dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of a pres­i­dent who can be de­scribed as “soft” on the Nazis.

For many read­ers, Weber’s per­spec­tive will be jar­ring, for he em­pha­sizes the con­tin­gency of Hitler’s evo­lu­tion from an apo­lit­i­cal slacker to a po­lit­i­cal fa­natic. We are ac­cus­tomed to think­ing of Nazism as an un­com­pro­mis­ing ide­ol­ogy and Hitler as its most ar­dent ex­po­nent. Yet Weber re­minds us that Hitler did not ar­rive with his ideas fully formed. He re­quired sev­eral years’ worth of new ac­quain­tances and ex­pe­ri­ences to make him who he ul­ti­mately be­came. The na­ture of those cir­cum­stances are of pro­found sig­nif­i­cance for any­one seek­ing to un­der­stand how cer­tain present-day lead­ers ar­rived at their ideas and found masses of peo­ple will­ing to sup­port them.

“Be­com­ing Hitler” builds on the nar­ra­tive ad­vanced in Weber’s 2010 book, “Hitler’s First War,” on Hitler’s ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing World War I, and moves on to ex­am­ine his de­vel­op­ment from 1919 to 1926 af­ter he re­turned to Mu­nich. Weber de­votes con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion to the long-stand­ing de­bate among schol­ars about the ex­tent to which the Bavar­ian cap­i­tal’s volatile po­lit­i­cal cli­mate im­pacted Hitler and whether or not it bears a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of the blame for his en­su­ing rad­i­cal­iza­tion.

Weber makes clear that when Hitler first re­turned to Mu­nich he was hardly a right-wing zealot. If any­thing, he leaned to the po­lit­i­cal left. Af­ter the war’s end, Hitler did not fol­low other right-wing ex­trem­ists and join the Freiko­rps, the

ra­bidly anti-Bol­she­vik para­mil­i­tary bands that fought in ir­reg­u­lar com­bat af­ter the war’s con­clu­sion. He con­tin­ued to serve in his army reg­i­ment, de­spite the fact that by Novem­ber 1918 it was part of a new rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment led by the in­de­pen­dent so­cial­ist Jewish jour­nal­ist and politi­cian Kurt Eis­ner. Hitler’s tacit sup­port for Bavaria’s left­wing po­lit­i­cal or­der lasted through the weeks of the even more rad­i­cal com­mu­nist Soviet Repub­lic of April 1919, when he was elected to be his de­mo­bi­liza­tion com­pany’s po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Hitler, later a sworn anti-Bol­she­vik, thus tech­ni­cally served in the Red Army!

Ac­cord­ing to Weber, the pe­riod of May-July 1919 was piv­otal. Af­ter the Freiko­rps sup­pressed the Mu­nich Soviet Repub­lic in early May, Hitler found him­self in dan­ger of be­ing branded a for­mer left­ist col­lab­o­ra­tor. As a re­sult, he op­por­tunis­ti­cally shifted right and vol­un­teered to serve the army once more by in­form­ing on his peers. Equally im­por­tant for Hitler’s right­ward shift were the procla­ma­tion and sub­se­quent Ger­man so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment’s rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Treaty of Ver­sailles. Most de­ci­sive per­haps was Hitler’s ex­pe­ri­ence in tak­ing an army-spon­sored train­ing course at the Univer­sity of Mu­nich for de­tect­ing and re­fut­ing left-wing pro­pa­ganda. For an ex-sol­dier with lit­tle ed­u­ca­tion, fewer job prospects and no fam­ily, the course gave him a sense of di­rec­tion and en­abled him to dis­cover his or­a­tor­i­cal pow­ers of per­sua­sion.

Th­ese events brought Hitler into con­tact with a tiny po­lit­i­cal party that he was in­structed to re­port on for the army, the Ger­man Work­ers Party, known un­der the acro­nym DAP. Af­ter at­tend­ing a meet­ing of the party, and im­pres­sively shout­ing down a Bavar­ian sep­a­ratist, Hitler was brought into the party’s in­ner cir­cle by its leader, An­ton Drexler, and be­came ex­posed to its rad­i­cal ideas.

From this point in time, ac­cord­ing to Weber, Hitler’s anti-Semitism be­gan to take more shape, and Hitler came to em­brace the view of the DAP’s in­house econ­o­mist, Got­tfried Feder, that a “Golden In­ter­na­tional” rep­re­sent­ing An­glo-Amer­i­can Jewish fi­nance cap­i­tal was work­ing with the World Com­mu­nist Move­ment to de­stroy and take over the states of the Western World.

Weber em­pha­sizes, how­ever, that Hitler at this time was still “an in­com­plete Nazi” and that he was still quite open to other out­side in­flu­ences. Be­sides the eco­nomic ideas of Feder, he ab­sorbed the “metaphor­i­cal” anti-Semitism of Di­et­rich Eckart and Hous­ton Ste­wart Cham­ber­lain, both of whom saw the Jewish “spirit” (as op­posed to the Jewish peo­ple or “race”) as an ex­is­ten­tial threat to Ger­man civ­i­liza­tion.

Here, Weber asks read­ers to con­sider whether Hitler’s anti-Semitic in­vec­tive was metaphor­i­cal or was meant to be lit­eral, sug­gest­ing that his Jew ha­tred was orig­i­nally a tac­tic to gain at­ten­tion in a crowded Mu­nich po­lit­i­cal scene. It may seem hereti­cal to sug­gest that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was cal­cu­lated, but Weber ar­gues that even if it orig­i­nated in semi-op­por­tunis­tic fash­ion, it ac­quired its own deadly re­al­ity in his mind.

Weber adds a sec­ond con­tro­ver­sial claim to his sur­vey of Hitler’s po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment by ar­gu­ing that his em­brace of Ger­man mil­i­tary ex­pan­sion to the east came rel­a­tively late. Thanks to the in­flu­ence of re­ac­tionary, anti-Bol­she­vik Baltic Ger­man ex­iles in Mu­nich, Hitler ini­tially be­lieved that Ger­many could forge an al­liance with Rus­sia af­ter the Bol­she­vik regime was top­pled. The fact that the regime failed to col­lapse af­ter Vladimir Lenin’s death in early 1924, how­ever, con­vinced Hitler that such an al­liance was im­pos­si­ble. Only at this point, Weber notes, did Hitler ex­plic­itly add racist com­po­nents to his po­lit­i­cal plat­form. What we typ­i­cally view as the cause of Hitler’s ag­gres­sion — namely, racism — is here turned into an ex post facto jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

“Be­com­ing Hitler” is ex­tremely thought pro­vok­ing, though it oc­ca­sion­ally over­reaches. Weber makes too much of the fact that Hitler’s tol­er­a­tion of his one­time aide and chauf­feur, Emil Mau­rice (who was one-eighth Jewish), some­how shows that Hitler’s early an­tiSemitism was rooted in non­ra­cial con­sid­er­a­tions. He also ex­ag­ger­ates when he de­scribes a se­ries of 1923 ar­ti­cles writ­ten by a right-wing army of­fi­cer, Hans Tröbst, rec­om­mend­ing that Ger­man poli­cies to­ward the Jews should fol­low the ex­am­ple of the Turks’ geno­ci­dal per­se­cu­tion of the Ar­me­ni­ans as hav­ing the “ut­most im­por­tance” in form­ing the “gen­e­sis of the Holo­caust.”

Still, th­ese and other mi­nor mis­steps do not de­tract from the per­sua­sive­ness of the book’s larger ar­gu­ment. In fact, “Be­com­ing Hitler” of­fers timely lessons, the first and most ob­vi­ous is to un­der­score the strik­ing par­al­lels in po­lit­i­cal psy­chol­ogy be­tween Hitler and Don­ald Trump. Weber’s de­scrip­tion of how Hitler evolved into a nar­cis­sis­tic, self-pro­claimed “ge­nius” who ex­ploited his “out­sider” sta­tus bears more than a ca­sual re­sem­blance to the self-per­cep­tion of our cur­rent pres­i­dent.

It re­mains un­clear whether the lat­ter is as se­ri­ous about ideas as the for­mer. But there are lessons to be had here as well. For by show­ing us that Nazism re­quired a pe­riod of ges­ta­tion be­fore it could emerge in full, “Be­com­ing Hitler” forces us to con­sider whether an anal­o­gous ide­ol­ogy – call it Trump­ism – is in the process of ges­ta­tion as well. Just as mul­ti­ple com­pet­ing ideas vied with one another to emerge as Nazism, the ideas of Trump’s rad­i­cal “alt-right” base are equally in flux.

Weber’s em­pha­sis on the con­tin­gency of Nazism’s rise, in the end, re­minds us that ev­ery­thing might have turned out dif­fer­ently. Weber en­ter­tains coun­ter­fac­tual sce­nar­ios in which Hitler’s rise might have been halted early on, whether in the un­re­al­ized plan of So­cial Demo­cratic Party lead­ers in 1923 to ex­pel Hitler from Bavaria or the ac­ci­den­tal fact that car trou­ble pre­vented Hitler from es­cap­ing back to Aus­tria af­ter the fail­ure of the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 — an es­cape that, had it been suc­cess­ful, would have kept him from be­ing tried for trea­son, gain­ing a pub­lic stage for spread­ing his po­lit­i­cal views and re­viv­ing his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

Th­ese facts should re­mind us that Hitler was not in­evitable. It should also re­mind us that no amount of vig­i­lance is su­per­flu­ous in the ef­fort to safe­guard lib­eral demo­cratic norms from ex­ter­nal as­sault.

Gavriel Rosen­feld is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Fair­field Univer­sity. He is the ed­i­tor of the re­cently pub­lished vol­ume, “What Ifs of Jewish His­tory: From Abra­ham to Zion­ism” (Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press, 2016).

When Hitler re­turned to Mu­nich, he was hardly a right- wing zealot.


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