Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon describes his brushes with Adolf Hitler, the Munich national-revolutionary scene, and the ‘November Putsch’ of 1923
This month’s excerpt from Ernst von Salomon’s bestselling memoir Der Fragebogen covers the intersection of the author’s life with that of Adolf Hitler. The actual meeting between Hitler and von Salomon, which took place shortly after the murder of Foreign Minister Rathenau in mid-1922, was very brief. Following Rathenau’s assassination, which von Salomon had been involved in organizing, the young author (then only 19) fled to Bavaria, at that time an “order cell” of nationalist politics within the body of the German Republic. von Salomon was seeking safety from the police forces hunting him, and he found it in Munich amidst the ferment of squabbling, competing nationalist groups, aided in his flight by Captain Hermann Ehrhardt (“the Kapitän”). Ehrhardt had been the leader of the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt Freikorps to which von Salomon had belonged, and was now the guiding light behind the ‘Organisation Consul’ (OC) terror group in which von Salomon and his comrades had plotted the deaths of high officials. “The Kapitän” figures prominently within the subsequent account; Ehrhardt’s presence provided von Salomon with his brief introduction to Hitler, and the man was undoubtedly also the source of much of the ‘insider information’ which the author here conveys to the reader. Ehrhardt at the time was in the thick of things, a prominent player among the many nationalist parties and paramilitaries in Bavaria, seeking to use his influence and large retinue of loyal followers to guide developments in his preferred direction. As a result his path inevitably crossed with Hitler’s; Ehrhardt hoped to use Hitler’s propagandistic skills for his own purposes, which meant providing troop training for the SA in return, as well as cooperation with the NSDAP-dominated ‘Working Group of Patriotic Combat Associations’ (rendered in this translation as the ‘Workers’ Union of the Fatherland Block’). Ehrhardt came to regret these actions. von Salomon depicts his attitude towards Hitler as scathing, with Ehrhardt describing the future Führer as fundamentally dishonest, an “idiot”, a megalomaniac whose desperate play for power (the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’) threw a massive wrench into the army’s intricate, developing plans to seize power legally. Whether accurate or not, Ehrhardt’s claims and von Salomon’s description of the Munich nationalist scene are useful – they provide a firsthand account of the chaotic web of intersecting loyalties, animosities, plots, schemes, and rivalries which were the defining feature of nationalist and military politics within the Munich of the early ’20s.
After the assassination of Rathenau I hurried to Munich to see the Kapitän. It was not an easy matter to establish personal contact with him, and the only address we had was that of his adjutant. When I told the latter why I had come, he immediately informed me that the Kapitän was in a towering rage on our account.
We had no idea what the Kapitän was actually doing in Munich. He lived there, under a false name, and posed as a clerk in an optical goods firm. His adjutant informed me that it was the Kapitän’s intention to unite everything that was on the side of bourgeois society: all the ‘Patriotic Formations’ and associations and groups, which sprang up like mushrooms after the defeat and which together constituted the ‘National Movement,’ from the Bavarian Monarchist League, through the Freikorps successor organisations and the para-military formations, the war veterans’ leagues and the local defence force run by Forestry Commissioner Escherich, to the Oberland League which had sprung from the youth movement, all these groups and splinter groups were to be welded together into one great organisation, the so-called ‘Fatherland Block.’ And this block was in agreement with the Bavarian Minister-President of the time, Count Lerchenfeld, who came originally from the Bavarian People’s Party, and with his ministry. Together they planned to create a Bavarian ‘cell of order,’ a neat and socially united state to act as a counter-weight to the other unstable provinces of a Germany torn asunder by party strife. And this was the moment we chose to commit our act of madness! The Kapitän would have to disown us, said the adjutant, if he were to avoid “sabotaging his own policy.”
A meeting place had been arranged in the Marien Platz, at the corner of the Wein Strasse. I almost failed to recognise the Kapitän, for I had only seen pictures of him in uniform. Now he was wearing civilian clothes, with a straw hat, and he had shaved off his nautical beard. I endured a few frightful minutes.
He ‘blew me up,’ he really gave me a piece of his mind – and I could only keep stammering, “Yes, Herr Kapitän!” and suggesting that he shoot me. Finally, standing there at the corner of the Marien Platz and the Wein Strasse, he roared at me in his rage:
“And don’t keep calling me ‘Herr Kapitän!’ Call me ‘Herr Konsul,’ or ‘Herr Professor’!”
I clicked my heels and said:
“Right, Herr Kapitän!”
He said, angrily:
“Oh, come along,” and almost collided with a cyclist.
“Quick, come on,” he cried and strode rapidly away, for the cyclist had dismounted and a policeman was approaching.
“That was all I needed,” growled the Kapitän, as he gave me a sidelong look and added: “To get picked up just when I’m with you, of all people!”
He laughed briefly and led me through a door marked “The Bavarian Wood Company.”
“How did it happen?” he asked.
I told him. He shook his head. He said:
“First they shoot Gareis – thank God it wasn’t one of my people who did it!” Gareis was an independent Munich socialist who was found shot dead near his home one day in 1921. “And then Erzberger,” he went on, “a man who was in any case finished as a politician! Catholic too! And then I’m supposed to play politics in this Catholic country!”
“The man who shot him,” I said stubbornly, “was also a Catholic.”
“Exactly,” said the Kapitän. “It’s all beyond me. Are you a Catholic as well?”
“Yes, Herr Kapitän!”
He looked at me and shook his head.
“I’m only a Protestant,” he said. He used the word ‘only.’ “My father was a pastor in Basle.” The Kapitän was Swiss by origin; none the less he was later frequently described as a ‘filthy Prussian’ in Bavaria. “But damn it all, before I took a pot shot at someone I’d think three times, and then I wouldn’t do it.” He added: “At least not usually.”
Suddenly he glanced at me sharply. He asked:
“What part did Helfferich play in all this?”
Hellferich was a German-Nationalist deputy. In a celebrated political libel action he had virulently attacked Erzberger; a little later Erzberger was shot. Then he had made a long and violent speech in the Reichstag against Minister Rathenau, and Rathenau was murdered. In a tumultuous Reichstag session Hellferich was accused of complicity in both assassinations. I said:
“Hellferich had absolutely nothing whatever to do with it, Herr Kapitän.”
“Are you telling me the truth?”
“Certainly, Herr Kapitän. I saw what was said in the papers, about his having financed the deed, but it’s simply a lie. None of us knew him.”
“Good. I could hardly imagine it was true.” Then, suddenly: “Where did you get the money from?”
I blushed and said:
“I stole it.”
He was clearly dumbfounded.
“I had a job with a bureau de change in Frankfurt-am-Main.” He said:
“And you speculated with your employer’s money?”
I replied stubbornly:
“No, I stole it. It was like this. The bureau de change was in the station, immediately between the platforms and the booking hall. There was an international football match at Frankfurt, Germany against Switzerland. The Swiss players and their supporters came by special train, and they all wanted to change francs into marks. There was a long queue of them at the bureau de change. I glanced at the exchange-rate and I must have confused the value of French and Swiss francs. But none of them complained. Naturally while I was changing their money I didn’t have the time to enter each transaction in the books, because they were all in such a hurry to get their money and go. Afterwards, when I came to add it up, I had a great deal of money over, because of my giving them the wrong exchange. My boss had told me that when changing a large sum I should not put it down in the books as a single entry, but should break it up: this was because these transactions were only liable to taxation at a certain level. So I wrote in a number of small entries and again there was a lot of money over, because of course I’d automatically added on the tax-rate for the larger sums. And… and that was it… I thought,” I hastened to add, “I thought the bank that owned the bureau de change was already so rich… and made so much money anyhow…”
“Swindling and embezzlement,” said the Kapitän. I said, beseechingly:
“Herr Kapitän, they were themselves trying to swindle the tax-collector. They were cheats…”
The Kapitän said thoughtfully:
“So it was my dear compatriots who quite unconsciously financed the murder of Rathenau…! If that should ever come out,” he added, “you’ll never again be able to visit beautiful Switzerland!”
I swallowed and said miserably:
“I wish I was there now.”
The Kapitän looked at me:
“Now, now, this is no time for weakness. You really have got yourself into a fine mess!” He added, grimly: “Have you been watching the dollar rate, you bank clerk, you? The dollar is going up at a crazy rate. If I lose my little nest-egg now, I’ll have you to thank for it!”
(“The Kapitän,” I later remarked to his adjutant, “is middle-class. He’s worried about his nest-egg!”)
The Kapitän said:
“What are we going to do with you now?”
I didn’t know either. The Kapitän asked:
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen,” I said.
The Kapitän banged the table with the flat of his hand and roared:
“In the Imperial Navy I’d have had you keel-hauled three times!”
He relapsed into thought and I said to myself, with relief: ‘Now he’s imagining how he’d have had me climbing the rigging fifty times in a stiff nor’wester.’ He looked up and said:
“Of course I’ll look after you, you silly boy, although… well, I’ll have to go and kowtow to Lerchenfeld. The adjutant will find somewhere for you to stay till you can set off to find Kern and Fischer. If you get caught doing it, that’s your concern.” He looked at me again, shook his head, and asked: “Have you anything to do now? I mean, between now and noon?” I quickly said I hadn’t. He said: “I’ve got to work. Go and sit in the ante-room and let me know if anyone should come to see me. But first ask the caller for his name, his full name, and if he should look like a Prussian or a policeman, say I’m not here.”
“Right, Herr Kapitän!” And I went into the ante-room, which was as bleak and bare as the Kapitän’s own office.
The Kapitän sat alone in his office and I alone in the ante-room. After some time I heard steps mounting the stairs. I seated myself behind a table. A man entered, wearing a raincoat despite the fact that it was a blazing hot day outside, with a greenish-grey velours hat and a comically truncated moustache. He asked, throatily:
“Is the Kapitän in?”
He didn’t look like a Prussian but he did look like a minor police official. I said:
The man said:
“I must see him at once. Don’t you know me? I’m Adolf Hitler.”
Of course I’d heard of him, though I had never seen him before. Kern used to think a great deal of him; he had said that apart from the Kapitän he was the only one with enough guts to strike a blow. I stood up and said:
I walked across the little ante-room, knocked on the door, and entered the office as the Kapitän was crying:
I straightened to attention, as I always did when talking to the Kapitän, and said:
“Herr Kapitän, Adolf Hitler is outside and wishes to speak to the Herr Kapitän.”
The Kapitän banged the table with the flat of his hand and said:
“God in heaven, what does the idiot want this time?” Then he nodded. “All right, tell him to come in.”
I went back to the ante-room, nodded, and said:
“You can go in.”
Adolf Hitler went in, and I sat down behind my table. After a short time he reappeared, and the Kapitän with him. The Kapitän was wearing his straw hat, and he said to me:
“All right, you can go now.”
I went, and they both followed me down the stairs. That was the first and only time I ever saw Adolf Hitler in person.
The adjutant warned me against taking a hotel room, since he said the police checked the new arrivals every night. I could make nothing of this Munich atmosphere, half legal and half illegal. I found the town utterly confusing and its politics completely obscure; there were so many different groups, alliances, enmities, all in an apparent state of flux.
But after being in Munich for a few weeks I started to understand what I had begun by dismissing contemptuously as ‘Munich nonsense.’ Whether the Kapitän felt a sort of inner responsibility for the jam in which I had landed myself, or whether he was simply moved by my awkward, puppy-like attempts to find my way about among the confusing secrets of this evil world, I do not know. He scarcely ever deigned to answer the snuffling questions I asked him. In an attempt to justify to him – to him above all others – the Rathenau assassination, I tried to express as best I could the ideas which had led us to carry it out.
“Got ideas, eh?” he asked me in his clipped, sarcastic, sea-dog manner. “Want to save Germany, too, eh? Neither more nor less, eh? Why not take out a patent for the idea?”
But he did show me, fairly enough, how far astray we had gone and did, briefly, unveil for me the true nature of the mythical OC.
The secret of the OC was astonishingly simple. By the terms of the Versailles Treaty the German army was limited to a hundred thousand men. It was simultaneously strictly forbidden to possess a general staff. This left the army with two alternatives: it could either accept the terms of the treaty and thus abandon those activities without which even the smallest army becomes simply a futile and pointless organisation: or it could attempt to get round them. The duties of the General Staff’s Operations Departments could, in case of need, be carried out by a new office within the Army Supreme Command; organisation and supply could be usefully transferred to the Defence Ministry, which had replaced the old War Ministry. There remained the intelligence services and military security, for which there was no home, no niche into which they could be fitted. So the navy took over these jobs. The navy was surprisingly well qualified to do just this. The officer corps of the old Imperial Navy had been unusually homogeneous; it had been primarily recruited from men who had travelled and who were now once again scattered all over the globe. These men were, so to speak, on call, and ready to answer any patriotic summons. It went without saying that they were prepared to work without remuneration. The more active elements of the former Imperial Navy remaining in Germany had already, on their own free choice, come together to form the Marine Brigades. They were ready to take on this new task. The OC was nothing more nor less than a part of the newly reformed intelligence service.
It was clear that the army’s only duty was to serve the state. But it now had to had to do this within a system which, by its spirit, will and origin, if not actually hostile to the state concept was at least estranged from it. Apart from that, even the army’s possibilities of rendering true service to the state were hemmed in by the enemy alliance and by those conditions of the peace treaty which severely limited its sovereignty. The difference between the state concept of the system and that which prevailed within the army could never be reconciled; at best it could only be bridged. The creator of the new Reichswehr forbad the army all political activity. He thus ensured an undisturbed reconstruction of the army and made it fully capable of undertaking the duties that were allotted it. In fact the army did remain aloof from all political struggle, with the exception of the army’s own leaders. General von Seeckt undoubtedly played politics; he did this not so much from choice, but rather because in carrying out his task and preparing against the possibility of military operations, whether they should take the form of external or of civil war, he was bound to be involved in many fields other than his strictly professional one. The General’s chances of realising his own policy depended on two things: first, his close contacts with those leaders at the head of the Government who were prepared in case of necessity to act in the interests of the state, and also with a portion of the ministerial bureaucracy: and secondly, his ability to use the apparatus of the intelligence service, which included the OC.
It was typical of the Kapitän’s realistic and sensible way of thinking and acting that immediately the Kapp Putsch had failed he grasped where the mistake had been made and resolved at once to do all in his power to ensure that it was not repeated. On the occasion of this putsch General von Seeckt had immediately opposed the Kapitän with all the energy that he would use against any mutineer. And it was typical of the General’s realism and good sense that, as soon as he saw that the Kapitän had grasped what the reality was, he was once again ready to make use of the man’s services. The problem was simply how to fill constructively the power vacuum on the edges of which the Kapitän had been operating. The tasks which the Kapitän undertook in Bavaria served this purpose.
When the true situation was explained to me a bubble edifice of my own construction collapsed. I had naturally envisaged the Kapitän as a sort of saviour of his country, a heroic rebel; now it transpired that he was a man serving his country, and was nothing more than a participant in the struggle between the great powers. But by learning this I was simply exchanging one concept for another, and the new one was no less romantic than the old, though the force of circumstances made it inevitable that it be carried out in secret. This new concept, too, was one that immediately fired me with its constructive possibilities; the only misfortune, so far as I was concerned, was that I had already quite plainly acted against it and that by so doing I had forever sacrificed all my chances of taking part in its realisation. The General and the Kapitän could cover up a great deal that was done in the performance of necessary tasks, but what I had done – never.
In Munich the Kapitän kept well out of the limelight. The man all Munich was talking about was Adolf Hitler. I asked the Kapitän why he regarded this man as an idiot.
“The fellow’s mad,” he said. “He believes he’s a politician!”
It seemed to me that the Kapitän also believed this about himself. I did not think that Adolf Hitler was in any way an idiot. In fact already at that time he had established the concept’s only true contraposition.
This man had originally represented far and away the smallest group within that ‘Workers’ Union’ which the Kapitän had encouraged. It was only on the recommendation of his former military commander, Captain Röhm, that he was accepted even for this post of limited authority; Röhm had remarked that at least the man could speak. He could indeed. The Captain’s attention had been drawn to Corporal Hitler when he had made a few remarks at an old soldiers’ reunion in the barracks of Infantry Regiment 2. The tenor of these was exactly calculated to have the greatest effect on those soldiers who had grown uncertain of the world about them. Captain Röhm employed this fellow to make speeches to soldiers, because he felt, quite correctly, that they would more readily pay attention to the words of one of their own people than to the words of a man who could never truly master their own particular rough and hearty jargon. “The man can speak…” He also possessed the ability of convincing ‘simple people,’ workers and soldiers, by his oratory.
The Kapitän could not speak. His longest speech, he used to say not without a certain pride, had lasted six minutes. But he had respect for knowledge and ability of every sort. Hitler had come to interest him because he could speak, not because he represented a minute political party, a collection of worthy and intense people who had come together to form the National-Socialist German Workers’ Party. The ‘Workers’ Union’ financed a few meetings for the ‘leader’ of that party, but very soon his meetings were paying for themselves. And before long the moment came when the Kapitän was no longer able to free himself of the genie that he had conjured up.
At that time – it was high summer of 1922 and the Oberammergau Passion Play was being acted – Munich was filled with foreigners. Even the natives had not the time to attend big political rallies. Thus I did not have a chance to hear Hitler – and now I shall go to my grave without ever having once attended a meeting where I could hear this most remarkable figure of the first half of the twentieth century speak in person.
“What does he actually say?” I asked the Kapitän’s adjutant.
“He says more or less this,” the adjutant began, and it was significant that he could not help mimicking the throaty voice with the vengeful undertones, “he says, quite calmly: ‘My enemies have sneered at me, saying you can’t attack a tank with a walking stick…’ Then his voice gets louder and he says: ‘But I tell you…’ And then he shouts with the utmost intensity: ‘…that a man who hasn’t the guts to attack a tank with a walking stick will achieve nothing!’ And then there’s tremendous, senseless applause.”
The Kapitän said:
“Tanks I know nothing about. But I do know that a man who tries to ram an iron-clad with a fishing smack isn’t a hero. He’s an idiot.”
I know not whether the Kapitän, lacking in powers of oratory as he was, found Hitler’s methods of influencing the masses as repugnant as I did, but I assumed this to be the case. I also obscurely felt that for the Kapitän, deeply involved in his political concept, to be carried forward on the tide of a mass movement must seem unclean. Policy could only be laid down from ‘above,’ not from ‘below.’ The state must always think for the people, never through the people. Again I obscurely felt that there could be no compromise here, that all compromise would mean falsification.
But it was precisely his effect on the masses that led to Hitler’s success in Munich. He employed new methods of propaganda, hitherto unthought of. The banners of his party were everywhere to be seen, as was the gesture of recognition, the raised right arm, used by his supporters; the deliberate effort involved in this gesture was in itself indicative of faith. And everywhere was to be heard the greeting, the slogan Heil Hitler! Never before had a man dared to include his essentially private name in an essentially public phrase. It implied among his followers a degree of self-alienation that was perhaps significant; no longer could the individual establish direct contact with his neighbour – this third party was needed as intermediary.
This frame of mind seemed to constitute the actual basis of the man’s success. His means of propaganda banished, with the utmost simplicity, all individual restraint. They were consciously used with the deliberate purpose of conquering the very existence of individuality with its web of tradition, custom, respect, decency and taste. The recognition of external reality, which was the sign beneath which the Party was prepared to conquer, implied the surrender of the most personal reality. And therein precisely may have lain its enormous appeal – the appeal of offering oneself as a ‘sacrifice.’ That has invariably been the alternative to accepting responsibility and doing one’s duty.
All this might still have been acceptable to my uncertain sensibilities, to my somewhat uncritical youthful nature and my flexible standards, if the means and methods had at least served an acceptable end. But so far the ends were not recognisable. What Hitler demanded or promised was by no means new, it was just formulated in more radical terms. He directed his attacks against everything that the bourgeoisie had attacked before him, against ‘Marxism’ and the ‘Versailles Dictate’ and the ‘War Guilt Lie’ and the ‘Stab in the Back’ – and simultaneously against everything which the Social-Democrats had hitherto fought, ‘Capitalism’ and ‘Social Injustice,’ the ‘Betrayal by the Monarchy’ and the ‘Abuse of Religion.’ The only surprising element was the vehemence with which Hitler plunged into the ‘Racial Problem’ and its corollary, the fight against the Jews, which he made the centre point of all his speeches and all his views.
The Kapitän was no anti-Semite. I realised this from a number of remarks which he made expressing his immediate and instinctive opposition to the unfair handling of the admittedly extant Jewish question. He was irritated by the countless little ‘people’s groups’ within the nationalist parties; he described them as the “lunatic fringe of the national movement, rune maniacs and race wrestlers,” and he attempted, with success, to keep their influence within the Workers’ Union to a minimum. Their behaviour was distasteful to his soldierly nature, as it was to mine. But obviously this, too, prevented the Kapitän from grasping at once the significance of the Hitlerian manner…
…When I asked the Kapitän why he did not simply expel Hitler from the Workers’ Union of the Fatherland Block, he growled angrily:
“And loose what little control I still have over him?” And he added, with macabre humour: “I’m only glad he doesn’t kick me out of it!”
For a long time now Hitler had had the biggest say in the Workers’ Union too. Over and over again he acted independently. Despite explicit agreements to the contrary he dealt directly with the authorities and with important representatives of the state. He surprised the other organisations by his arbitrary deals, proclamations and decisions. He began to intrigue among the other parties’ para-military organisations in the interests of his own party. This led to continual heated quarrels between himself and the leaders of those parties, but his power could no longer be left out of consideration, for it was growing from day to day. The Kapitän said:
“The road of the national movement is paved with Herr Hitler’s broken promises.”
This was what was going on back-stage in Munich. It was disgusting and disappointing. It was better not to sniff about too much. But even at that time it was impossible to say what would have become of the Workers’ Union had it not been for this remarkable, strong-willed, unhesitating man. He was successful. His name re-echoed through the city. It seemed that within the breast of every citizen there was at least one foothold to which his voice could cling. At a time when his party counted a maximum of ten thousand members Munich was a city already marked by the phenomenon of this man’s existence.
I left Munich on the day that ‘national’ Munich, arming in protest against the announcement by the government of the Reich of the Law for the Defence of the Republic, was in fact protesting against that law itself. This new law was issued in consequence of the assassination of Rathenau. Hitler addressed sixty thousand people; he praised the murderers as martyrs for Germany’s future.
The Kapitän had sent me to visit various OC groups scattered throughout Germany with orders that they refrain from carrying out any actions that had been planned. He said, laconically:
“And mind you don’t get picked up, you martyr, you. Because if you do, devil if there’ll be anyone to raise a finger for you.”
I was picked up.
In prison Munich seemed to me just a crazy dream. The echoes of our deed which resounded throughout Germany were in no case pleasant music to our ears, but it was in Munich that their dissonance was harshest. Down there something from which I recoiled was methodically filling the vacuum. The empty husk of our deed seemed suddenly to have swollen like an inflated air-cushion; bang it where you would, it immediately filled out again. And I was horrified by the thought that I must needs spend the rest of my life seated on this cushion.
No prison is so solidly built that it can really seal off its inmates hermetically from what is going on outside. It was difficult to form any true picture of what was happening from the rumours and fragments of news which seeped through the prison walls, difficult but not impossible. What I heard led me to believe that I would be forced to serve my full sentence. Indeed the Kapitän had been himself arrested, and actually sent to prison in accordance with the sentence pronounced on him in connection with the Kapp Putsch; the Weimar System had lost none of its fatuous insensitivity, and this, at least, was comforting news. However, I knew that the OC would react quite differently to the Kapitän’s case than to mine. Nothing, in fact, happened for over six months, but then he was rescued from Leipzig prison by a brilliant coup which appeared to reflect great credit on the intelligence and ability of the OC. Meanwhile the French army had marched into the Ruhr, and a newly formed government there, no longer a Social-Democrat one, had called for ‘passive resistance.’ This was soon activated by men whom I took to be tools of the OC. Schlageter was shot, the battle with the separatists had been joined, a Red Army had come into existence in Saxony, the mounting inflation was causing the whole nation to lose trust in its Government’s ability, all Bavaria seemed to be arming for a ‘march on Berlin’ – it may be understandable that I was more or less indifferent to the political flag of the men who might unlock my prison door, provided they only came and did so.
On November 9th, 1923, the office clerk opened my door and slipped me a newspaper. He didn’t, as usual, demand chewing tobacco in exchange, but simply whispered that I’d soon be ‘out,’ and that I shouldn’t forget him, he too was only inside because of the Jews – he had been sentenced for perjury committed during a case against his business partner. With trembling hands I opened the paper as soon as I had read the headlines. I was looking for the Kapitän’s name, but could not find it. Kahr, Hitler, Ludendorff… no mention of Ehrhardt… Lossow, Seisser, so the army and the police were in it too… I searched and searched, and at last I found a short reference, buried in the text: “Kapitän Ehrhardt was in Coburg and called out his brigade to act as auxiliary police.” So everything was in order.
The news had spread throughout the building. Scarcely a prisoner passed my cell who did not tap on my door. Even my next-door neighbour, a communist sea-cook who was inside because of an attempt to blow-up a train carrying military supplies, offered me his congratulations by hammering wildly on the connecting wall. The official who doled out the food gave me a friendly grin and said: “Well?” With my tailor’s scissors I scratched a swastika and the date on the wall of my cell.
That evening the chief warder came to visit me. He saw the sign on the wall but did not comment. He smiled and remarked that I had only had on a summer suit when I was arrested; wouldn’t I like to write for some warm clothes? I asked him to let me send a letter, though I was not entitled to do so. He agreed. The governor would turn a blind eye.
Two days later the governor came to see me. He was wearing, as always, his hard round hat and his black coat with the silk collar which was too tight for him. He was, as always, accompanied by the chief warder, who today did not smile at me. The governor said:
“Give me that newspaper.”
The newspaper lay open on my table, for I had thought that there was no longer any need for me to hide it. I handed it to him and he put it in his coat pocket. He looked at me from his little pig-like eyes behind the steel-rimmed spectacles and said:
“If the office clerk loses his job he’ll have you to thank! I punish you with three months’ deprivation of tobacco. I’ll make it my business to see you don’t get any more newspapers.” He nodded towards the sign scratched on the wall and said to the chief warder: “That thing will be painted over.” Then he left.
‘That thing’ was painted over. No prisoner tapped on my door as he went past. No official said: “Well?” The chief warder had completely forgotten about my letter.
Curiously enough this loss of hope brought with it a loss of unrest. Everything subsided of its own accord. Resistance ceased in the Ruhr, the separatist movement in the Rhineland disappeared. The currency was stabilised, the operations in Saxony were successfully carried out, and in Bavaria the people who remembered Hitler at all thought of him as a spook of which they were well rid. Of the Kapitän I only heard that he had had the SA battalions, marching to Munich, disarmed. Seeckt remained.
I saw my sentence through to the end without ‘getting ideas’ again – my whole sentence and then a bit, so that my old sins were now atoned for. But from the day I was freed I set about trying to discover what had actually happened. The Kapitän was now living on his estate, Klessen near Friesack, one hour by train from Berlin. He still had an office in Berlin where my old friend and fellow-assassin, Hartmut Plaas, now sat as his ‘business controller,’ though he would certainly have preferred to be called his adjutant. Plaas had the troublesome job of carefully loosening the many threads that the Kapitän had spun during his political entanglements (and doubtless, I imagined, spinning new ones meanwhile). He was also responsible for maintaining the organisation of the old Marine Brigade. The Kapitän had never had a following of more than four thousand, but also never less, for such was the strength of the Marine Brigade which was now scattered throughout all Germany. Most of these men had achieved positions of importance in civil life or in politics, positions that entitled them to a more weighty role than that of imitation soldiers, but the Kapitän kept them together, and perhaps it was thus that he maintained considerably more influence than one would have expected from a simple landed gentleman with a questionable political past. Also he had the reputation, in those official circles with which he continued to maintain close touch, of being a man who could be relied on to keep his promises. These circles were of course those that had been called into existence to master situations created by the peace treaty and other political arrangements, and which functioned in the shadow of official national policy.
“The Kapitän,” Plaas remarked sarcastically, “is still one of the state’s fourteen emergency assistants.”
So he still had his fingers in numerous pies of the sort without which even the most progressive state cannot apparently get on; it was current gossip that the abandonment of a policy of secrecy on the part of the cabinet was only a joke, a smoke-screen, which made the work that was carried on behind it considerably more fruitful. All this was typical of the Kapitän; typical, too, was his refusal to let me stick my nose into any of his doings. I often visited him on his estate. I even let him persuade me to accompany him when he went shooting. But never would he give me a chance to overcome his reticence.
I had meanwhile read Mein Kampf, the book that Hitler wrote during his imprisonment in Landsberg fortress. What I remarked about it were the references, very indirect and never going into detail, which were only comprehensible to those people who had really understood the sequence of events leading up to the 1923 putsch. Almost all his obscure polemics, against reproaches made him because of his attitude towards the para-military organisation and the ‘secret societies’ as well as his policy in connection with the Ruhr resistance, were directed exclusively to the Kapitän. When I asked the Kapitän about this he said:
“I’ll never shake hands with the fellow again!”
And when I remarked that this seemed a punishment that would no doubt break Hitler’s heart, the Kapitän said, good-naturedly:
“You’re being impertinent!”
Now the respect I felt for the Kapitän was no longer unreserved, far from it. I pointed out to the Kapitän that in the part of Hitler’s book dealing with the events of November 8th, 1923, the author had elegantly side-stepped the question with the remark that he could see no future profit in discussing these events now. The Kapitän said, grimly, that he could well believe that: either Hitler would have had to lie, and there had been too many people in the know at the time who could expose him: or he would have had to tell the truth and be completely discredited in consequence. I now said that this second alternative was something which it was clearly very much in the Kapitän’s interest to see carried out. He looked at me and said:
“You don’t understand. Why should I plough other men’s furrows?”
And I knew that by ‘other men’ he meant the powers of the Weimar Republic. The Kapitän thought for a minute and then went on:
“And why the devil should I wash the army’s dirty linen for it?”
And with that he proceeded to discuss, with great intensity, the stag that he intended to lay low that afternoon.
This was a point that seemed to me worth following up. Hitler’s greatest opponent had been eliminated, but the army’s politics continued. I had immediately begun to collect relevant documents, and was finally amassing quite a slice of history. As always, the newspaper reports were of least value. General von Seeckt refused to receive me, even though he was now retired. Herr von Kahr referred me to the report of the Hitler-Ludendorff trial. The documents connected with this case created the definite impression that all the men involved, prosecutors, judges, accused and witnesses, had been united in one common cause – to avoid touching on the ‘reality’ behind the events in question. But there was my old friend, Dr. Luetgebrune, who had defended Ludendorff at the trial: there were the reports of Captain Rickmer, who, fatally wounded before the Feldherrnhalle, had yet managed to dictate a few words in hospital: there were Schlageter’s reports and letters – enough clues, in fact, to reconstruct the whole picture in its broader outlines. Having done this all that was needed was to persuade the Kapitän to say whether this picture was a true or a false one.
It had all happened quite logically. Conditions in Germany had reached the point where the only power that still retained real authority, the army, was bound to risk taking a hand. General von Seeckt would have behaved quite irresponsibly if he had not told the commander of Army Area Munich, General von Lossow, to establish contact with the representative of the one civil power in Germany which, despite the general collapse, still retained a certain degree of stability, that is to say with the General State Commissioner of Bavaria. This man was Herr von Kahr, who incidentally was simply a product of the policy that the Kapitän had long been pursuing in Bavaria. The Kapitän said:
“Well, in any event my brigade in Coburg was not prepared to march on Berlin. I’d had enough of that sort of nonsense the first time.”
The brigade’s appearance as ‘auxiliary police’ was part of a carefully thought-out plan. In the event of an uprising the brigade could seal off Saxony by closing the neck of the sack. The more radical nationalist formations were eager to carry out a coup d’état, but Seeckt was set against this. Seeckt refused in all circumstances to act without the agreement of the constitutional authorities; but he might expect their agreement should matters continue to develop as they were doing and the collapse of the Reich appear imminent – he had every reason to believe that the country’s leaders would not refuse to agree to the sole remaining course of action that could still save Germany.
Three years before, Seeckt, with great singleness of purpose, had discarded the cloak of the Freikorps, which had covered the Reichswehr but which the Reichswehr had now outgrown, in order to ensure that the Entente Powers had no excuse for further limiting the strength of the army allowed by the Versailles Treaty. Now, with equal singleness of purpose and despite the distrust of the Government, he was prepared to sacrifice the ‘Black Reichswehr,’ those illegal formations created for the defence of the eastern frontier; this ‘Black Reichswehr,’ militarily still significant, was of course a standing threat to the security of the state. For a quite legal higher objective, namely the conforming of the aims of army and Government, in order to be able in certain circumstances to save the Reich by authoritative action, Seeckt sacrificed the units that had taken part in the ‘Küstrin Putsch’ of October, 1923. These latter, believing the time to be ripe, had thought to present the general with a fait accompli. In Bavaria the true significance of these events was not immediately understood. The General State Commissioner thought that he must guard against similar surprises, and tried to have the Bavarian contingent of the Reichswehr, the Lossow Division, placed under the command of the Bavarian state. Up to this point all the players had been holding their cards very close to their chests.
How far Hitler suspected what the game was all about is, of course, impossible to say. In any event no matter what it looked like to him, he saw one fact emerge plainly – he had been done out of his part. There was no place for him in this game and he held no trumps. Any semi-legal coup d’état of this sort must necessarily mean the end of him. The ‘tub-thumper’ had himself described frequently enough the moment at which he would become superfluous. If he had any ambitions other than those of a propagandist it was essential that he play a part, or rather that he seize the leadership in this new situation.
“I can well imagine his triumph,” said the Kapitän, “when in the Bürgerbräu Cellar he thought he had overwhelmed Kahr and Lossow by interposing Ludendorff’s authority…” The Kapitän, suddenly carried away, shouted: “Why the devil did we fall in with his plans! Better to chance everything on the most forlorn hope than to make that experiment with him!”
“It all hung,” I said, “on a single thread, which Hitler cut.”
“Exactly,” said the Kapitän, and banged the table with the flat of his hand, “after he’d sworn an oath to each one of us that he would act honestly!”
Suddenly the Kapitän broke off.
“I’ve heard,” he said, “that you’ve set yourself up as a writer.”
I blushed, which annoyed me, and replied gruffly:
“Right, Herr Kapitän!”
The Kapitän said:
“In that case I must strongly advise you to make a neat bundle of anything you may have written about those events and to hide it in a really safe place.”
The Kapitän’s wife laughed and said:
“Do what my husband has done. He’s hidden his diaries so carefully that even he can’t find them now.”
So that was it. The first major, serious attempt on the part of the national movement to alter Germany’s condition through the initiative of the state had failed owing to the existence of one man, Hitler. It had not failed because of resistance from the official powers of the Weimar system; there was no evidence for, or reason to believe in, the likelihood of any such resistance. It had failed because General von Seeckt, representing a genuine attitude towards the state, had preferred that the Reich continue to be entrusted to the weak hands of a shadow state, the ersatz state of the political parties and the bureaucracy, rather than that it be surrendered to those sinister forces which the distracted masses had produced and which were now aiming at power.
“And what now?” I asked him. “What now?”
“We’ll always be on the side of the soldiers,” said the Kapitän.