Trial of the Century

Trial of the Century

In a non-Kafkaesque world, what would a person get for committing high treason, having led a “beer hall putsch” that resulted in the deaths of 20 people, including four policemen? Capital punishment? Life? Fifteen years?

In Germany, in 1924, a man who wasn’t even a citizen got off with serving less than nine months in a “prison” that resembled an adult summer camp.

Adolf Hitler may have lost the battle — his inept coup was crushed within 24 hours and he fled the scene — but despite his conviction, the future Fuhrer clearly won the trial and its aftermath.

During the widely covered courtroom drama, Hitler was able to speak freely, often, according to press reports, “at the top of his lungs.” He berated witnesses and engaged in shouting matches with his accusers. His opening statement lasted more than three hours. After 24 days of such ranting and raving, a hitherto obscure political figure had garnered national and even international attention.

The increasingly accomplished demagogue insisted that it was the leaders of the Weimar Republic, not himself and his accomplices, who were the real traitors by overseeing the nation’s decline. Some believed that his courtroom rants were among the most effective political speeches of his career.

Compounding the light sentence, the trial judges opted not to deport Hitler – and by the time the verdict came in, his native Austria, sensibly enough, wouldn’t have him.

Clearly these were not normal times, as David King documents in his engrossing and well-researched new book, "The Trial of Adolf Hitler: The Beer Hall Putsch and the Rise of Nazi Germany." The author vividly sets the scene and provides the context that enabled a high-functioning madman with odd facial hair (“that ridiculous little smudge,” as one colleague dubbed it) to wreak so much havoc on the world.

Consider this telling detail: During the boozy putsch, a conspirator bought a round of beers “that cost billions of marks.” Germany was reeling and there were some who thought that one man, an unconventional outsider, could make it all better — and others who calculated that he might come in handy politically down the road. After all, Hitler’s inflated rhetoric captivated the downtrodden Germans in the street — and there were lots of them in the not-so-roaring Twenties.

At one point during the trial, a political leader testified as to why many of his colleagues had tolerated Hitler and his Nazi Party’s antics before the putsch, even though they knew he had designs on seizing power. King writes, “[The leader’s] testimony offers insights into how prominent figures, even those free from anti-Semitism, could become enamored by a reckless and hate-filled figure like Hitler – and then prove willing to shield and coddle him. What they hoped to receive in return was his influence on the street. It was a dangerous game….”

Throughout the trial the audience was largely with Hitler and the other defendants, even when their testimony was shaky. King writes, for example, “Hitler had just contradicted himself, but the audience did not care.” The author points out another telling facet of the trial: Hitler was on probation for attacking a politician the previous year, but this was never raised by the prosecution or the lead judge, who had presided over that case as well (for which Hitler received a light sentence).

The absurdist highlight of this surreal jurisprudence was when General Erich Ludendorff rose to protest his acquittal for high treason. Disloyalty apparently was the new patriotism — or as one journalist put it, it was a good year for traitors.

Hitler conceded later that the trial and doing soft time were a boon to his career. He was broke and worn out from rabble-rousing (it took him a decade to pay his legal fees), and his time off the streets allowed him to recoup his energies and plan for the future. In jail, where beer and wine were served, he began writing “Mein Kampf” and hosted reams of visitors, including his German shepherd.

Adolf Hitler’s early career had all the making of a farce. For example, newspaper reporters and government officials were invited to the beer hall for the putsch and saw it backfire firsthand. When the revolt lagged and the assembled rebels grew restless, Hitler decided to march his supporters around Munich and see who would join the throng. They actually had local government forces outnumbered and outgunned, but by marching into a narrow street, a self-induced trap, they brought their rebellion to an inglorious end.

King covers in detail the myriad “what if” moments that would have relegated Hitler to the dustbin of history. Police bullets whizzed past him, hitting his bodyguard multiple times. Had the trial judges performed their duty or if the trial had not been held in Munich, a hotbed of anti-government sentiment, Hitler could have received the punishment he deserved. At times, he despaired about the failed coup and threatened suicide, a vow he would not make good on until 1945.

This first book-length account in English of Hitler’s trial makes an important contribution to the understanding of modern totalitarianism. In 1924, Germans had the opportunity to end Hitler’s career or enable it. They chose the latter, apparently reasoning, “What have we got to lose?”