Hitler in 1923It is an iron law of history that those who will be caught up in the great movements determining the course of their own times always fail to recognize them in their early stages. So I can not remember when I first heard the name of Adolf Hitler, one that for years now we have been bound to speak or call to mind in some connection every day, almost every second. It is the name of the man who has brought more misfortune on the world than anyone else in our time. However, I must have heard it quite early, because Salzburg could be described as a near neighbour of Munich, only two-and-a-half hours' journey away by rail, so that we soon became familiar with its purely local affairs. All I know is that one day --- I can't now recollect the exact date --- an acquaintance from Munich who was visiting us complained that there was trouble there again. In particular, he said, a violent agitator by the name of Hitler was holding meetings that became wild 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 thought no more about it. In the insecure German state of the time, the names of many agitators calling for a putsch kept emerging, only to disappear quickly from public attention, and they are now long forgotten. There was Captain Ehrhardt with his Baltic Brigade, there was Wolfgang Kapp, there were the Vehmic murderers, the Bavarian Communists, the Rhineland separatists, the leaders of the various bands known as Freikorps. Hundreds of these little bubbles of discontent were bobbing about in the general fermentation of the time, leaving nothing behind when they burst but a bad smell which clearly showed how Germany's still open wounds were festering and rotting. At some point the newsletter of the new National Socialist movement was among those 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 turned up in the neighbouring border towns of Reichenhall and Berchtesgaden, places that I visited almost every week. These gangs were small at first, and then grew larger and larger. The young men wore jackboots and brown shirts, and each sported a garishly coloured armband with a swastika on it. They marched and held meetings, they paraded through the streets, singing songs and chanting in chorus, they stuck up huge posters and defaced 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 delivering his speeches exclusively in Bavarian beer cellars at the time, and he alone could not have fitted out these thousands of young men with such expensive equipment. Stronger hands must be helping to propel the new movement forwards. For the uniforms were sparkling neat and clean, and in a time of poverty when genuine army veterans were still going around in their shabby old uniforms, the 'storm troops' sent from town to town and city to city could draw on a remarkably large pool of brand new cars, motorbikes and trucks for transport. It was also obvious that these young men were getting tactical training from military leaders --- 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 perfectly peaceful meeting of Social Democrats was being held. All the trucks were full of young National Socialists armed with rubber truncheons, and they overwhelmed the meeting, which was not expecting them, by dint of sheer speed. I had seen just the same thing in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. It was a method they had learnt from the Fascists, but they executed it with much greater military precision, systematically carrying it out down to the last detail, as you might expect of the Germans.
A whistle gave the signal, and the SA men jumped swiftly out of their trucks, bringing rubber truncheons down on anyone who got in their way. Before the police could intervene, or the workers at the meeting could group together, they had jumped back into the trucks and were racing away. What surprised me was the practised way in which they jumped out of the vehicles and back in again, both times following a single sharp whistle signal from their leader. You could see that the muscles and nerves of every one of these young men had been trained in advance, so that he knew how to move and over which wheel of the vehicle he must jump out to avoid getting in the way of the man behind him and thus endangering the whole manoeuvre. It was not a matter of personal skills. Each of those movements had had to be practised in advance, dozens or even hundreds of times, in barracks and on parade grounds. From the first, as anyone could see at a glance, this gang had been trained in methods of attack, violence and terrorism.
Soon we heard more about these underground manoeuvres in Bavaria. When everyone else was asleep, the young men stole out 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
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