On the night of November 8, 1923, Adolf Hitler and a band of supporters dramatically burst into a Munich beer hall. Hitler ordered one of his men to fire a shot at the ceiling, and then he declared that German President Friedrich Ebert and the national government had been ousted. (This was not true.) The local police quickly restored order and, two days later, arrested Hitler. Indicted for plotting to overthrow the government, he believed the trial would bring his message to a national audience.
Throughout the court proceedings, Hitler and his followers openly showed their contempt for the Weimar Republic by calling it a “Jew government.” When the prosecution objected, the judge ruled that the Nazis could continue to use the term because they were “guided in their actions by a purely patriotic spirit and the noblest of selfless intentions.”
That view also guided the verdict. Although Hitler and his supporters were found guilty, the judge refused to deprive them of their privileges as citizens. Instead, he gave them the minimum sentence possible under the law—five years in prison.
In 1923, Hitler was still an Austrian citizen. As a foreigner convicted of a serious crime, he should have been deported. Indeed, the law required deportation, but the judge chose not to follow the law. He explained: “In the case of a man whose thoughts and feelings are as German as Hitler’s, the court is of the opinion that the intent and purpose of the law have no application.”
Hitler and his comrades served just nine months of their prison term. The rest of their term was suspended.
During his time in prison, Hitler and an ally, Rudolf Hess, worked on a book about Hitler’s life, his beliefs, and his plans for the future. Most of his ideas were based on antisemitic literature he had read before the war, lessons he had learned in the trenches, and observations made in the years that followed.
In Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), published in 1925, he maintained that conflict between the races is the catalyst of history. A catalyst makes things happen. In Hitler’s view, different races have different roles to play in society. Because he believed that the “Aryan” race was superior to all others (see reading, Creating the German Nation in Chapter 2), he insisted that “Aryan” Germany had the right to incorporate all of eastern Europe into a new empire that would provide much-needed Lebensraum, or living space, for it. That new empire would also represent a victory over the Communists who controlled much of the territory Hitler sought. Hitler regarded them as enemies of the German people. He repeatedly connected the Communists to Jews, whom he also saw as an enemy, by claiming that the Jews were behind the teachings of the Communist Party. “Jewish Bolshevism” became the phrase he and his fellow Nazis used to link the two groups. (The Bolsheviks were the communist political group that gained power in Russia in the 1917 revolution and established the Soviet Union.)
The Jews, according to Hitler, were everywhere, controlled everything, and acted so secretly that few could detect their influence. In Mein Kampf, Hitler declared that there was a hierarchy of groups. At the bottom were not only Jews but also “Gypsies” (Roma and Sinti) and Africans. Hitler was not interested in facts. Instead, he would repeat a false statement again and again; the constant repetition had an impact even on those who knew it was a lie. Hitler’s speeches often referred to a mythical time in the past when a community of “Aryans” lived peacefully together. He called upon the German Volk to restore that community by removing inferior races and eliminating the class hatred preached by the Communists. British historian A. J. P. Taylor once called Hitler’s ideas “a distorting mirror” of European thought. He saw Hitler as someone who took ideas that were widely held and carried them to an extreme.
Hitler’s trial and imprisonment made him a national figure in Germany. One war veteran who subsequently joined the Nazi Party recalled his impressions:
Then came a light in the darkness. A movement for freedom was founded in Munich. In 1923 we heard the name of Adolf Hitler for the first time. Who was the man? He was a simple front soldier, an Austrian who had fought and bled under the German flag. What did he want? The thoughts raced through my brain. Truth, honor, faith, discipline! What marvelous words! Unity of all people of German blood! . . . Here was a man of action! . . . Then treason did its work and the undertaking [the first Nazi uprising] collapsed. Trials followed in the courts. How that man Hitler spoke! Those days of his trial became the first days of my faith in Hitler. From that time on I had no thought of anyone but Hitler! His behavior moved me to give him my whole faith, without reserve. There was not much to weigh or study. All a man had to do was to think about the courage and heroism of his beginnings. The ideas of the leader cannot be got from books, be they ever so learned. The philosophy of National Socialism must take roots in one’s very heart! Ever since those days I have fought and striven for my Führer, Adolf Hitler. I shall readily give my all for him at any time he may demand it.
By 1925, Hitler was out of prison and once again in control of the Nazi Party. The attempted coup had taught him an important lesson. Never again would he attempt an armed uprising. Instead, the Nazis would use the rights guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution—freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and freedom of speech—to win control of Germany.
- In what ways was the justice system biased toward Hitler and his allies after their attempt to overthrow the government? Why was this the case?
- How did Hitler use earlier ideas about “us” and “them” in his autobiography, Mein Kampf? What policies did he advocate based on those ideas? How did the clarity or simplicity of Hitler’s ideas contribute to their acceptance?
- Why was the war veteran quoted in this reading attracted to Hitler?
- How did Hitler’s arrest, trial, and prison sentence change his beliefs about how to win control of Germany?