Hitler in 1923It is an iron law of history that those who will be caught upin the great movements determining the course of their owntimes always fail to recognize them in their early stages. So I cannot remember when I first heard the name of Adolf Hitler, onethat for years now we have been bound to speak or call to mind insome connection every day, almost every second. It is the nameof the man who has brought more misfortune on the world thananyone else in our time. However, I must have heard it quiteearly, because Salzburg could be described as a near neighbourof Munich, only two-and-a-half hours' journey away by rail, sothat we soon became familiar with its purely local affairs. All Iknow is that one day --- I can't now recollect the exact date --- anacquaintance from Munich who was visiting us complained thatthere was trouble there again. In particular, he said, a violentagitator by the name of Hitler was holding meetings that becamewild brawls, and was abusing the Republic and stirring up anti-Jewish feeling in very vulgar language.
The name meant nothing in particular to me, and I thoughtno more about it. In the insecure German state of the time, thenames of many agitators calling for a putsch kept emerging, onlyto disappear quickly from public attention, and they are nowlong forgotten. There was Captain Ehrhardt with his BalticBrigade, there was Wolfgang Kapp, there were the Vehmicmurderers, the Bavarian Communists, the Rhineland separatists,the leaders of the various bands known as Freikorps. Hundredsof these little bubbles of discontent were bobbing about in the general fermentation of the time, leaving nothing behind whenthey burst but a bad smell which clearly showed how Germany'sstill open wounds were festering and rotting. At some point thenewsletter of the new National Socialist movement was amongthose that came into my hands. It was the Miesbacher Anzeiger, later to become the Völkischer Beobachter. But Miesbach was only a little village, and the newsletter was very badly written. Who would bother with that kind of thing?
Then, however, bands of young men suddenly turnedup in the neighbouring border towns of Reichenhall andBerchtesgaden, places that I visited almost every week. Thesegangs were small at first, and then grew larger and larger. Theyoung men wore jackboots and brown shirts, and each sported agarishly coloured armband with a swastika on it. They marchedand held meetings, they paraded through the streets, singingsongs and chanting in chorus, they stuck up huge posters anddefaced the walls with swastikas. For the first time, I realised that there must be financial and other influential forces behind the sudden appearance of these gangs. Hitler was still deliveringhis speeches exclusively in Bavarian beer cellars at the time, and he alone could not have fitted out these thousands of youngmen with such expensive equipment. Stronger hands must behelping to propel the new movement forwards. For the uniformswere sparkling neat and clean, and in a time of poverty whengenuine army veterans were still going around in their shabbyold uniforms, the 'storm troops' sent from town to town andcity to city could draw on a remarkably large pool of brand newcars, motorbikes and trucks for transport. It was also obviousthat these young men were getting tactical training from militaryleaders --- were being drilled, in fact, as paramilitaries --- and also that the regular German army itself, the Reichswehr, for whose secret service Hitler had acted as a spy, was providing regular technical instruction in the use of equipment readily supplied to it.
It so happened that I had an opportunity of observing one of these combat training exercises. Four trucks suddenly roared into one of the border villages where a perfectlypeaceful meeting of Social Democrats was being held. All thetrucks were full of young National Socialists armed with rubbertruncheons, and they overwhelmed the meeting, which was notexpecting them, by dint of sheer speed. I had seen just the samething in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. It was a method theyhad learnt from the Fascists, but they executed it with muchgreater military precision, systematically carrying it out downto the last detail, as you might expect of the Germans.
A whistlegave the signal, and the SA men jumped swiftly out of theirtrucks, bringing rubber truncheons down on anyone who got intheir way. Before the police could intervene, or the workers atthe meeting could group together, they had jumped back intothe trucks and were racing away. What surprised me was thepractised way in which they jumped out of the vehicles andback in again, both times following a single sharp whistle signalfrom their leader. You could see that the muscles and nerves ofevery one of these young men had been trained in advance, sothat he knew how to move and over which wheel of the vehiclehe must jump out to avoid getting in the way of the man behindhim and thus endangering the whole manoeuvre. It was not amatter of personal skills. Each of those movements had hadto be practised in advance, dozens or even hundreds of times,in barracks and on parade grounds. From the first, as anyonecould see at a glance, this gang had been trained in methods ofattack, violence and terrorism.
Soon we heard more about these underground manoeuvresin Bavaria. When everyone else was asleep, the young men stoleout of their houses and assembled for nocturnal 'field exercises.' Army officers either still serving or demobilised from the Reichswehr, paid by the state or by the mysterious figures who financed the Nazi Party, drilled the troops. The authorities paid little attention to these strange nocturnal manoeuvres. Were they really asleep or turning a blind eye? Were they indifferent to the movement, or actually encouraging it in secret? In any case, even those who surreptitiously supported National Socialism were first surprised, then shocked by the brutality and speed with which it suddenly asserted itself. One morning the authorities woke up to find Munich in Hitler's hands, all the government offices closed, the newspapers forced at gunpoint to hail, in triumphant tones, the revolution that had taken place. Like a deus ex machina coming down from the clouds to which the unsuspecting Republic was vaguely looking up, General Ludendorff appeared, the first of many who thought they could outwit Hitler and whom he outwitted instead. The famous putsch that was supposed to conquer Germany began in the morning and, as we all know, had been put down by midday... Hitler fled, and was quickly arrested. That seemed to be the end of his movement. In that year, 1923, the swastikas, storm troops, and the name of Adolf Hitler almost lapsed into oblivion. No one thought of him as a potential political force any more.---From The World of Yesterday
Translated by Anthea Bell
©2010, Pushkin Press
12 Chester Terrace
London NW1 4ND