When Eva Braun met Hitler in Munich, in the fall of 1929, the Bavarian capital was already fast in the grip of the Nazi Party. Since the NSDAP’s reestablishment in 1925, the number of Party members had more than tripled and it was no longer merely one of many Populist-nationalist movements: it had won the field from all rivals in only four years. It put forward candidates in Landtag elections throughout Germany and had achieved its first successes. But even though Hitler, the Party’s leader and most successful hatemonger, had already received nationwide attention, appearing before a crowd of sixteen thousand people for the first time in Berlin, on November 16, 1928, his base of power remained Munich. There, in his favorite city, he had been an attraction for years. Every week he filled beer halls such as the Hofbr?uhaus with thousands of listeners. In addition, the fourth convention of the NSDAP, in Nuremberg on August 1–4, 1929, was his first successful propaganda spectacle, one that would soon be followed by many more.1

A City of Extremes

Why were the National Socialists so successful in Bavaria? After Germany’s defeat in World War I, what was it there that provided such a fertile breeding ground for nationalism and antidemocratic and anti-Semitic ideologies? One explanation is the way that radical political transformations were set in motion and carried out in the Kingdom of Bavaria during the final phase of the war. As is well known, the German Revolution of 1918–1919, or November Revolution, started in the Bavarian capital, Munich. It lasted longer and was more radical there than anywhere else in Germany. Even before the end of hostilities—on November 7, 1918, four days before the armistice was officially signed in a railroad car near the northern French city of Compi?gne—exhaustion with the war, destitution, and the accompanying political radicalization had resulted in a speedy end to the centuries-old Bavarian Wittelsbach monarchy. King Ludwig III fled Munich after a mass rally led by Kurt Eisner, a Jewish journalist and radical socialist, two days before the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin and the abolition of the monarchy in the whole German Empire. For members of the radical right in Munich, this sequence of events gave rise to the so-called Dolchstoss Legend, the fabrication according to which Jews and Communists had “betrayed” their own country with a “stab in the back” and caused Germany to lose the war. Nazi propaganda would make successful use of this legend against “Jewish Bolshevism” a few years later.2

A provisional revolutionary government, under Eisner, took power and declared itself the “Free Republic of Bavaria” and the “Democratic Social Republic of Bavaria,” with the motto “Long live peace! Down with the royal family!” Eisner took over the leadership of the hastily formed Council of Workers, Soldiers, and Farmers. However, after having, in Eisner’s words, “swept away the old junk of the Wittelsbach kings,” the new government proved to be completely incompetent.3 Agrarian reform plans on the Soviet model were not in fact a suitable way to solve the economic and social problems affecting Bavaria. In addition, Eisner himself, who imagined a “society of spirits” and saw himself as representing a new, pacifist Germany, was utterly unsuited to be a politician. His revolutionary comrades—described by the German historian Hagen Schulze as “literati, chansonneurs, con artists, and psychopaths, without exception”—hardly presented a better picture.4 Eisner’s radical-left government was therefore diametrically opposed to the mostly conservative population, especially in rural areas. Yet the representatives of the upper middle class, too, generally disliked Eisner’s regime. Thomas Mann, for instance, as early as November 8, 1918, came to the conclusion that Munich—and Bavaria as a whole—was now “governed by Jewish scribblers,” “racketeer[s],” “profiteer[s]” and “Jew-boy[s].” He wondered, “how long will the city put up with that?”5

Eisner was not a native of Bavaria and from the beginning he was subject to relentless, unscrupulous anti-Semitic attacks. He received threatening letters and there were even calls for his assassination. The campaign against him ended with his being shot dead on a public street by Anton Graf von Arco-Valley, a student and former officer, on February 21, 1919, after the Bavarian National Assembly elections and shortly before he was to step down. Since there was no civil order worthy of the name, anarchy threatened after the murder. “They never understood Eisner,” the writer Ricarda Huch wrote about her fellow Bavarians after the bloody deed,

just as little as he understood them. How could they? There wasn’t the slightest trace of Bavarian royalism, coziness, roughness, and sloppy good nature in him—he was an abstract moralist, who wrote perfectly good drama criticism and no doubt terrible poems. Criticism and theory, though, do not make a ruler any more than they make an artist: one needs to be able to actually do it.6

What followed were two Soviet-style republics that plunged Munich into political chaos once and for all. The first, under Ernst Niekisch, leader of the “Munich Central Council of the Bavarian Republic,” dissolved the parliament and removed Eisner’s legal successor, the social-democratic prime minister. In accordance with the Soviet ideal, the government broke off all “diplomatic relations” with the German government. It lasted only one week. The government that followed, run by the Munich Communist Party and supported by the Soviet Union, lasted all of two weeks. Nevertheless, the concomitant violence, with bloody battles between the communist revolutionaries and their opponents, were to shape the political atmosphere for years. For example, street fighting in Munich on May 3, 1919, in which the German army and specially formed Bavarian Freikorps[4] units defeated the so-called dictatorship of the Red Army, cost the lives of more than six hundred people. The leaders of the Soviet-style republic were either killed by the Freikorps or received heavy sentences for high treason, as did the writers Ernst Toller and Erich M?hsam. Thousands of supporters of the “Spartacists” ended up in jail. The Bavarian capital thereby became the main stronghold of an extraordinarily pronounced anticommunism and radical anti-Semitism.7

Everyday Life and the Political Environment

Daily life in Munich suffered greatly during the early days of the revolution and the “reign of terror” after Eisner was assassinated. Many stores were closed, either because they could no longer obtain any food or because they were looted. Public transportation didn’t run, postal service was limited, there were curfews at times, private conversations on the telephone were prohibited, the mail was censored. During the battles between German troops and the second Munich republic, Munich was completely cut off from deliveries of food from anywhere else. Payments collapsed.

People saw these events, however, in very different ways, depending on the observer’s political views, age, career, gender, and social class.8 Thomas Mann, for example, recorded in his diary on May 17, 1919: “We’re only lacking groceries now. Will have to eat lunch in the hotel. The house is cold, so afraid of catching cold, namely feeling in my teeth. But my two little rooms are cozy, total peace and quiet.”9 For large numbers of the population, in contrast, hunger, lawlessness, armed street fighting, and murder, always in the context of the lost world war, constituted traumatic experiences that turned Munich into a breeding ground for an above-average number of Populist-nationalist groups. The gradual stabilization of the economic situation throughout Germany after 1924 did little to change that.

Even so, the later rise to power of the National Socialists cannot be seen as an inevitable development. The NSDAP’s political breakthrough did not take place until the start of the global economic crisis of 1929–1930, after all.10 There is no disputing, though, that anti-Semitism had become a “firm foundation” in the Bavarian city since the turmoil of the Munich republics, whose leaders often came from Jewish families.11 Even renowned newspapers such as the M?nchner Neueste Nachrichten spread these ideas. Klaus Mann, whose upper-class daily life was “affected… very little, and only indirectly,” by the revolution and civil war, recalled that as a young man he saw postrevolutionary Munich as “a bore and altogether barbarous,” in addition to its having “a poor reputation among liberals.” He wrote:

It was considered the most reactionary place in Germany—a center of the counter-revolutionary tendencies smoldering all over Europe. Flippant editors in Berlin used to run the dispatches from Munich under the caustic heading: “From the Hostile Countries Abroad!” The people of Munich, in their turn, stubbornly believed that Berlin was ruled by a conspiracy of Jewish bankers and Bolshevist agitators.12

The truth is that the right-wing Bavarian state government under Minister President Gustav Ritter von Kahr, which came to power in 1920 and followed a path opposed to the Weimar Republic, made it possible for far-right enemies of democracy to become increasingly effective. Even Hitler was seen by Kahr—a former royal official and monarchist, and now a member of the Bavarian People’s Party (Bayerische Volkspartei, or BVP)—not as a political opponent but as an ally in the fight against communism. The so-called Bavarian Defense Forces, too, which grew out of the Bavarian Freikorps bands from the battle against the communist republics, were oriented in a Populist-conservative direction and laid the foundation for the rise of an authoritarian, fiercely antidemocratic power structure in Bavaria. Without this unique political environment, along with the encouragement and financial support from influential Populist-nationalist circles in Munich society, Hitler’s rise would not have been possible.

The National Socialist Movement

Finally, the significance of the traditional Munich beer halls must not be underestimated as a factor in recruiting the majority of National Socialist supporters. The party life of the NSDAP played out in large part in the bars of the city. That was nothing new; pubs and inns had a long history in Germany as political gathering places. Nothing had changed in that regard since the Peasants’ War in the early sixteenth century, and especially since the civil revolution of 1848, with its “saloon republicans.” In Munich, too, the pubs formed a central part of the political culture. Thus it is no accident that the NSDAP was born from the “political regulars” in one of Munich’s many beer halls. Its predecessor, the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or DAP), had been founded in the F?rstenfelder Hof hotel on January 5, 1919. Hitler joined this little group of right-wing extremists less than a year later, on September 12, 1919; the following month, they opened their first place of business in a back room of the Sterneckerbr?u beer hall, which also served as a weekly meeting place. Hitler announced the first Party program of the NSDAP in the famous Hofbr?uhaus, with its thirty-five hundred seats—the same place where the communists had proclaimed the second Munich republic on April 13, 1919.

This institution, in the middle of the old city and originally established to supply the royal court with specially brewed beer, was already, since the turn of the century, a sightseeing destination for visitors to Munich from all over the world. The French journalist and travel writer Jules Huret wrote that you had to go to the Hofbr?uhaus to “come into contact with the true beer drinkers….?A horrid smell of beer and tobacco fills the hall. Hundreds of drinkers are sitting side by side at heavy oak tables on rough benches, smoking cigars or long pipes. The crowd is from the People—laborers, handymen, coachmen, next to officials young and old, office workers, shopkeepers, the petty bourgeois….” The mood was “as free as could be, sometimes even boisterous”: the “lack of embarrassment and the naturalness” left “nothing to be desired.”13

With this sketch of the people who filled the Hofbr?uhaus, Huret described, ten years before the NSDAP was founded, its social structure, drawn from every class of the population. Among the proclaimed goals of the Party’s “25 Point Program,” announced by Hitler to around two thousand people in the Hofbr?uhaus on February 24, 1920, were the unification of all Germans into a “Greater Germany,” the abolition of the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the demand for “land and soil” for the German People, and the declaration that no Jew is a legal citizen and that every “non-German” who had immigrated since the day of the German army’s mobilization (August 2, 1914) would be forced to leave the “Reich.”14 With this program, proclaimed in mass rallies, the NSDAP attempted to set itself apart from other German Populist factions. The “German Nationalist Protection and Defiance Federation” (Deutschv?lkischer Schutz und Trutzbund), founded in Bamberg in 1919, still constituted the strongest organization of this type by far in Germany. It had 25,000 members by the end of 1919, while the NSDAP had only around 2,350 members a year later, at the end of 1920. Proof of “Aryan ancestry” was a prerequisite for membership in the Federation just as for membership in the NSDAP, and both far-right groups used the same symbol as an emblem: the swastika.15

But as early as 1920, Hitler was already proving himself to be a successful propagandist for his hitherto insignificant party. He made several public appearances a month, more than any other Party member—most often in Munich beer cellars or in Zirkus Krone, but also in Rosenheim, Stuttgart, and Austria—and he filled even the largest venues, flanked by his aggressive, paramilitary SA men. The truth was that his events offered the greatest “entertainment value.” Still, the NSDAP’s breakthrough needed more than Hitler’s “hypnotic rhetoric” and his power over “the soul of the mob” in a haze of tobacco smoke. A serious “atmosphere of crisis” and supporters and patrons from the highest circles of society were necessary as well.16

The Populist writer Dietrich Eckart, for example, a bohemian and favorite of the salons who had lived in Berlin before World War I, put Hitler in contact with the Berlin piano manufacturer Edwin Bechstein and his wife, Helene, in the early 1920s, and this was both financially and socially valuable for Hitler. The Bechsteins lived in both the German capital and Munich, and not only were among the most important early financial backers of the NSDAP, but also arranged for Hitler to make further influential connections, such as with the family of the composer Richard Wagner in Bayreuth.17 Ernst Hanfstaengl likewise made an effort “to work on Hitler’s behalf” starting in 1922; fascinated by Hitler’s “aura of someone out of the ordinary” and his “unique appearance,” Hanfstaengl became a close companion with international connections. The publishers and spouses Hugo and Elsa Bruckmann also counted themselves among Hitler’s numerous admirers in Munich. Rich and politically influential, they contributed in many ways and in no small degree to Hitler’s social recognition.18

In 1923, at the peak of hyperinflation in Germany, the NSDAP was as popular as it had ever been up to that point. The number of Party members rose to over fifty thousand.19 But after the failed Beer Hall Putsch (or Hitler Putsch) of November 8–9, 1923, in Munich—the violent, so-called national revolution against the “Berlin Jew-government,” in which fourteen members of the uprising and four policemen lost their lives—the Party’s rise came to a halt. The NSDAP was outlawed; Hitler and many of his comrades-in-arms ended up in prison or were forced to flee. The National Socialist movement seemed to be over, and the refounding of the Party in the B?rgerbr?ukeller on February 27, 1925, did not at first seem to make much of a difference. Financial problems, intraparty squabbles, and sluggish recruitment of new members gave the impression throughout Germany that the National Socialists were in decline. The situation changed abruptly in 1929. The worldwide economic depression, poverty, and rising unemployment put the German parliamentary democracy in an increasingly embattled position and helped the NSDAP achieve a renewed upswing nationwide, although the center of the Party remained in Munich. Hitler, a “howling dervish,” in Carl Zuckmayer’s words, was on the threshold of his political breakthrough in the autumn of 1929 when, in the photography store of his friend Heinrich Hoffmann, he met Eva Braun—the woman he was to die with sixteen years later in Berlin.20


[4]Translator’s note: German paramilitary organizations, made up largely of defeated German soldiers returning from World War I and often deployed semiofficially to fight communists. Many Freikorps members later joined the SA and SS.